The United States was last night confronted with a landmark report into the CIA interrogation of detainees in the wake of the September 11 attacks at “black site” prisons around the world so replete with details of barbarism and inhumane treatment as to call into question the values at the core of the nation’s identity.
The 528-page document, released by the Senate Intelligence Committee and itself a summary of a 6,000-page report that remains classified, accused the agency of going far beyond even those “enhanced techniques” authorised by the Justice Department and lying at every turn about what was happening.
“The CIA’s actions are a stain on our values and on our history,” the committee’s chair, Senator Dianne Feinstein, proclaimed on the floor of the Senate. But she posited also: “The release of this 500-page summary cannot remove that stain, but it can and does say to our people and the world that America is big enough to admit when it’s wrong and confident enough to learn from its mistakes.”
While most of the American public – and the world – has long been aware of the broad outlines of the programme, to many the report will shame the country.
It includes confirmation of the death of one inmate from hypothermia after being shackled to a wall and forced to rest on bare concrete in a sweatshirt in a site in Afghanistan.
Detainees – even the numbers involved were understated by the CIA, the report asserts – were not only subjected to simulated drownings, or waterboarding, as had been previously disclosed, but on some occasions were kept alive by “rectal feedings”, with ground-up food inserted through the anus. The report found there was no medical reason for performing such painful and humiliating procedures.
The black sites were closed by the then President George W Bush in 2006 – detainees at the sites were transferred to Guantanamo Bay – and the programme itself was terminated by President Barack Obama when he took office.
CIA 'torture' report: Timeline from 9/11 to Dianne Feinstein's findings
CIA 'torture' report: Timeline from 9/11 to Dianne Feinstein's findings
1/12 September 2001
Following the 9/11 hijackings by Al-Qaida, US President George Bush signs a Memorandum of Notification that authorises the CIA to capture, detain, and interrogate figures associated with terrorist organisations.
2/12 October 2001
The Office of Legal Counsel authorises the use of military force to combat terrorist activities within the United States.
3/12 January 2002
Military guards take first 20 detainees to the Guantanamo Bay detention camp, located in south-eastern Cuba. The prisoners are classed as “enemy combatants” and therefore not subject to the same legal rights as prisoners held under the Geneva Convention.
4/12 2002 and 2003
Al-Qaida suspects Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Abu Zubayda and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri are all waterboarded.
5/12 June 2004
The Supreme Court makes a ruling that reverses a decision saying that Guantanamo Bay lies outside the jurisdiction of the US courts. Detainees now have the right to legally challenge their imprisonment.
6/12 May 2005
Amnesty International brands Guantanamo Bay the “gulag of our times” in its international report.
7/12 December 2005
The Detainee Treatment Act of 2005 is passed.
8/12 February 2006
The United Nations calls unsuccessfully for Guantanamo Bay to be closed. It claims some aspects of the detainees’ treatment amount to torture.
9/12 December 2007
The CIA admits that it destroyed videotapes made in 2002 that evidenced treatment of Guantanamo Bay detainees.
10/12 January 2009
Newly-elected US president Barack Obama pledges to close Guantanamo Bay within 12 months. He later renegades on the bid.
11/12 December 2013
The Report of the Detainee Inquiry is published. Chairman Sir Peter Gibson concludes that British intelligence officers were aware of detainees’ mistreatment.
12/12 December 2014
The Justice Department asks the US appeals court to overturn a decision to allow the release 32 videos that depict Guantanamo guards forcibly removing a Syrian detainee from his cell and subjecting him to forced feedings. The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, chaired by Dianne Feinstein, releases its report.
But while it lasted, the CIA told members of Congress that the total number of detainees held was 98. The report says it was 119. It also asserts that “at least 26 were wrongfully held”. In her presentation, Ms Feinstein, who had been under intense pressure from the agency and Republicans to withhold publication, made clear her view that the CIA had been guilty of torture.
“This document examines the CIA’s secret detention of at least 119 individuals and the use of coercive interrogation techniques – in some cases amounting to torture,” she said. “Under any common meaning of the term, CIA detainees were tortured.”
Regular beatings, slamming detainees against walls, soaking them in cold water, ice baths, extended periods of sleep deprivation – lasting for one month in one case – confining them to small spaces and even threatening them repeatedly with death while in custody, were among the methods used to try to make detainees talk. At least three detainees were told their families would be killed if they didn’t co-operate.
Among the most chilling passages are those detailing the treatment of the first prisoner, Abu Zubaydah, a Pakistani who was severely injured in his capture and transferred to a black site in Thailand. (Other countries that hosted the secret prisons are known to have included Poland, Lithuania and Romania).
After being left in isolation for 47 days, Abu Zubaydah faced an unrelenting assault from the US inquisitors. He was squeezed into tiny boxes for 300 hours and waterboarded no fewer than 80 times. Emails seen by investigators showed some of those involved asked to be transferred, so disturbed were they by what they witnessed. The waterboarding left Abu Zubaydah “completely unresponsive, with bubbles rising through his open, full mouth”. He was reduced to a state of “involuntary spasms”.
Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the 11 September mastermind, received the waterboarding treatment 183 times. When officers noted he wasn’t becoming more compliant, they waterboarded him for 10 more days.
Threaded through the report is the conclusion that none of what the CIA perpetrated actually procured information that stopped any plots against the US or its allies, directly contradicting what the agency and its supporters still today insist is the case. It painstakingly deconstructs 20 cases where the CIA claimed useful information was elicited from detainees, each time concluding that it was simply untrue.
Describing how officials, including former directors of the CIA such as George Tenet, inflated the usefulness of the programme and downplayed its cruelty, the report also reveals how details of the work were withheld from members of Mr Bush’s cabinet, notably from the Secretary of State Colin Powell. An internal CIA memo says Mr Powell would “blow his stack if he were to be briefed on what’s going on”.
In a statement last night, President Obama said that the CIA’s actions at the time were “contrary to our values”. He went on: “I will continue to use my authority as President to make sure we never resort to those methods again.”
The CIA, now led by John Brennan, struck back, admitting that some errors had been made but insisting that techniques “did produce intelligence that helped thwart attack plans, capture terrorists and save lives”.
In a statement, Mr Brennan said the report “tells part of the story” but “there are too many flaws for it to stand as the official record of the programme”.
Republicans on the Senate panel, which remains under Democrat control until the year’s end, issued their own report defending the programme. “The rendition, detention, and interrogation programme [the CIA] created, of which enhanced interrogation was only a small part, enabled a stream of collection and intelligence validation that was unprecedented,” the minority report concluded.
But Senator John McCain, who was himself tortured in Vietnam, was notable in taking the floor last night and welcoming the report. “We gave up much in the expectation that torture would make us safer,” he said. “Too much.”
The report took five years to compile and was the subject of repeated wrangling between the CIA and the Intelligence Committee. Even as she was preparing to unveil it this week, Senator Feinstein faced warnings that to do so would again inflame public opinion against the US around the world and possibly trigger violence. US overseas posts were on high alert for trouble last night.
Mr Bush as well as many of those responsible for overseeing the programme have spoken out in recent days to defend the CIA and reject the notion that the agency misled the White House or Congress about what it was doing.
Profile: The champion of truth
Dianne Feinstein is the first woman to chair the Senate Intelligence Committee. The committee oversees 16 intelligence agencies and has led the damning investigation into the US’s interrogation methods.
Ms Feinstein took on the role of mayor of San Francisco in 1978 after the assassination of Mayor George Moscone and city supervisor Harvey Milk. Before that, she was the first female president of the San Francisco County Board of Governors.
Since joining the Senate in 1992, she has been re-elected four times. The 2012 election saw her receive 7.75 million votes, a US Senate election record.
She is a staunch critic of US intelligence methods and criticised the National Security Agency’s surveillance of leaders of US allies. Her main achievement in the Senate has been banning the manufacture, sale and possession of military-style assault weapons.