Where the SSCI and CIA Agree We Have a Problem—And How Senator Feinstein’s Proposed Reforms Can Fix It, Part 1

The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI) report has shed much needed light on the CIA’s post-9/11 interrogation program, which featured torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment of people in U.S. custody.

The CIA’s official response to the report, while contesting some of the study’s claims, also acknowledges failures within the Agency and suggests steps that might prevent the use of torture and improve the inner workings of the Agency. Here are five points on which the SSCI majority report, SSCI minority report, and CIA agree.

1. CIA officers used unauthorized interrogation techniques. The CIA acknowledges that, particularly in the early stages of the program, it “erred in applying individual techniques” and that some conditions “were unacceptable and fell below those established at later detention sites.” For example, some individuals were waterboarded with more frequency than what was authorized, and in seven cases “enhanced interrogation techniques” were used before they were authorized.

2. The CIA did not fully hold its officers, on all levels, accountable for failures. The CIA acknowledges that it needs to improve its accountability procedures, and says that it erred in not holding anyone accountable for the death of Gul Rahman, a falsely accused detainee killed during an interrogation. The SSCI minority report does not dispute these conclusions, and agrees with the CIA’s recommendation that it broaden the scope of accountability reviews.

3. Some procedures related to the use of independent contractors were problematic and caused conflicts of interest that could affect accurate reporting. The CIA’s use of independent contractors in the interrogation program has been especially controversial: the CIA paid more than $80 million to independent contractors who played a significant role in the program’s design and implementation, and many reports suggest that the contractors had no experience in interrogations. While the CIA disputes details, it acknowledges that contractors were in a position of assessing their own work—thus creating a conflict of interest—and that contractors were not held accountable for failures.

4. The CIA made inaccurate statements to government officials. The SSCI report outlines many instances where the CIA misled other branches of the government—including the White House, the Department of Justice, and Congress—on the success of its interrogation program. While the CIA maintains that overall it intended to provide accurate information, it acknowledges that it sometimes failed to do so. Specifically, the CIA acknowledges errors in reporting on the Karachi plots, the identification of operatives such as Iyman Farish and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, and the role that specific interrogations played in producing information that led the capture of suspects like Majid Khan and Salih al-Marri. The minority report agrees that Congress should have been briefed “much earlier” on the CIA’s programs.

5. The CIA failed to comprehensively analyze the effectiveness of its techniques. One important problem with the CIA’s program was officials often falsely argued that “enhanced interrogation techniques” were successful in gathering intelligence and produced information that could not have been gained by any other means. The CIA report, though, says that the Agency never conducted a comprehensive analysis of the effectiveness of the techniques, despite recommendations from the Inspector General and requests by the NSA and SSCI.

The CIA instead relied on two reviewers, one whom lacked sufficient experience and one who lacked the information needed to assess it. Internal, informal assessments were given by personnel who directly participated in the program or by contractors who had a financial interest in the program.

An internal CIA review in 2009 suggested that the value of intelligence gained by the use of cruel treatment was inflated, and that the CIA attributed some crucial intelligence that had not been gained during harsh interrogations to these techniques. Importantly, Director Brennan, in responding to the SSCI report, said “[The CIA has] not concluded that it was the EITs within that program that allowed us to obtain useful information.”

Despite differences of opinion about aspects of the CIA program, these areas of agreement demonstrate that there is a solid foundation for reforms to ensure that torture is never again authorized by U.S. officials. However, recognizing that there is a problem is only the first step: the proposed reforms need to be implemented and enforced to ensure that the CIA can never again adopt a policy of official cruelty.

Tomorrow: what we can do about it, and why the CIA should support reforms proposed by Senator Diane Feinstein.

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Published on January 29, 2015

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