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CIA Torture Report: Bush Was Kept in the Dark for Years

Josh Rogin is a former Bloomberg View columnist.
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President George W. Bush was never briefed by the Central Intelligence Agency on the details of harsh interrogation techniques and secret detention of terror suspects for the first four years of its controversial program, and when he did find out the details, he was “uncomfortable” with some of the practices, according to a long-awaited report by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.

The 500-page declassified executive summary of the majority staff’s 6,700-page investigation into CIA rendition, detention and interrogation practices after Sept. 11 states that despite agency efforts to keep the Bush administration informed about the program, top White House officials repeatedly resisted having the CIA brief cabinet-level figures about the details, and CIA officials were not permitted to brief Bush directly until mid-2006, more than four years after the president signed a broad executive order authorizing the program, according to Senate Democratic aides who briefed reporters ahead of today’s release.

When Bush finally heard the details of the harsh interrogation techniques that were used against CIA detainees, he was “uncomfortable” with some of them and expressed dismay that some detainees were required to remain in stress positions for long amounts of time, to the point that they had no choice but to soil themselves, the aides said.

Based on CIA’s internal correspondence, the committee’s investigation will also state that CIA Directors George Tenet and Porter Goss admitted they had never briefed Bush directly on the techniques, despite that in 2004, the CIA Inspector General recommended they do so:

According to CIA records, no CIA officer, up to and including CIA Directors George Tenet and Porter Goss, briefed the president on the specific CIA enhanced interrogation techniques before April 2006. By that time, 38 of the 39 detainees identified as having been subjected to the CIA's enhanced interrogation techniques had already been subjected to the techniques.The CIA did not inform the president or vice president of the location of CIA detention facilities other than Country.

The White House also resisted CIA efforts to brief other cabinet officials in the beginning stages of the program, Senate Democratic aides said. The CIA acting general counsel at the time, John Rizzo, wrote in an internal agency e-mail that the White House had told the CIA not to brief cabinet officials in 2002 because they feared press leaks, but Rizzo said the White House’s clear implication was that if Secretary of State Colin Powell were aware of the details, “he would blow his stack.” 

While Powell and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld were briefed on the interrogation techniques in 2003, the committee report states, and other top officials, including Vice President Dick Cheney and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, also eventually received briefings about the details of the program, the president himself did not. The committee report states the briefings that did occur were often misleading or incomplete.

In one instance, Cheney was not made aware of a specific country’s hosting of a CIA "black site," which complicated his direct relations with that country, aides said. The names of countries that participated in the CIA program are not revealed in the declassified executive summary of the report.

“The CIA provided incomplete and inaccurate information to the White House regarding the operation and effectiveness of the detention and interrogation program,” a committee document on the report states. “In addition to inaccurate statements provided to other policymakers, there were instances in which specific questions from White House officials were not answered truthfully or completely.”

In an interview with CNN on Sunday, Bush defended the CIA practices but didn’t mention he was kept out of the loop.

“Here’s what I’m going to say, that we’re fortunate to have men and women who work hard at the CIA serving on our behalf. These are patriots,” he said. “And whatever the report says, if it diminishes their contributions to our country, it is way off base.”

Cheney told the New York Times this week that he was properly informed and the CIA program operated within the authority given by the Bush administration, a claim vigorously disputed by the committee’s report.

“What I keep hearing out there is they portray this as a rogue operation, and the agency was way out of bounds and then they lied about it,” Cheney said. “I think that’s all a bunch of hooey. The program was authorized. The agency did not want to proceed without authorization, and it was also reviewed legally by the Justice Department before they undertook the program.”

In its response to the committee’s report, the CIA states that it is unknowable whether Bush was briefed on the details of the program prior to 2006 because CIA records are incomplete on the point.  John Rizzo, in his memoir “Company Man,” states that Bush probably wasn’t fully briefed on the details. The CIA points out that Bush claimed in his own memoir he was briefed on some details.

"The study asserts that the President was not briefed in a timely way on program details,” the CIA response states. “While the Agency records on the subject are admittedly incomplete, former President Bush has stated in his autobiography that he discussed the program, including its use of enhanced techniques, with then-DCIA Tenet in 2002, prior to the application of the techniques on Abu Zubaydah, and personally approved the techniques." (Zubaydah is a Saudi citizen still held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.)

Regardless, according to the report, which outgoing committee Chairman Dianne Feinstein will speak about this morning on the Senate floor, the CIA not only went well beyond the techniques and practices authorized by the Bush White House and the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, but the agency also misrepresented the program to top officials and used false information to gain approval from the White House and Justice Department.

“The CIA provided inaccurate information to the White House, Congress, the Justice Department, the CIA inspector general, the media, and the American public,” a document provided to reporters by the committee states.

The committee report, which is the result of a five-year investigation during which Democratic staffers reviewed more than 6 million documents, also states that for the first four years of the program, the CIA gave only superficial briefings to the top lawmakers involved in intelligence oversight, known as the “Gang of 8,” and that the full intelligence committee wasn’t briefed until Sept. 6, 2006, just hours before President Bush publicly disclosed the program.

“Briefings to the full committee contained numerous inaccuracies, including inaccurate descriptions of how interrogation techniques were applied and what information was produced from the program,” the committee’s briefing document stated. “After they were briefed, several senators objected to the program.”

Among the examples of how the CIA allegedly misled the Bush administration and Congress, the committee report will reveal that the CIA held at least 116 detainees covertly, 26 of whom were later determined not to meet the standards for detention. Due to poor record keeping, the total number of CIA detainees can never been confirmed, the report states.

The committee report contains 20 distinct findings meant to show that in addition to the assertion that the CIA misled the administration and Congress, the CIA’s enhanced interrogation techniques were not effective, the CIA’s management of the program was inadequate and deeply flawed, and the techniques used against detainees were far more brutal than what the CIA has previously represented to the public.

The report will not make the determination that the CIA’s program was “illegal” or amounted to the legal definition of “torture,” but Feinstein will use the word “torture” to describe the practices in her floor speech, echoing President Barack Obama’s use of the word in July.

In making the case that the CIA practices were not effective, the report points to 20 case studies where the information conveyed to Congress and the public did not reflect the actual intelligence, thereby contradicting CIA claims of “successes” via the program. The CIA, however, acknowledges that in 18 of those 20 examples, it stands by the information it presented to Congress and would change the wording in only two instances.

The committee report will also point to examples of where CIA officers called into question the effectiveness of the techniques, complained about the use of unqualified and underskilled contractors during interrogations, noted that the interrogations produced intelligence later proven to be false, and admitted that poor conditions at secret detention sites harmed the health of detainees, even leading one to die of hypothermia after being chained to a concrete floor.

The most powerful case the Democrats make involves Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the Pakistani widely considered to be the top planner of the Sept. 11 attacks and the man who personally beheaded Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl. KSM, as he is known inside the intelligence community, was forced to go through simulated drowning or waterboarding 183 times. And while the CIA claimed he was more cooperative after going through this ordeal, he nonetheless was not broken. As it turned out, he still tried to deceive interrogators about the identity of one of Osama bin Laden’s couriers even after being waterboarded.

Michael Hayden, who served as director of both the National Security Agency and the CIA during the Bush administration, said just because KSM tried to deceive interrogators about bin Laden’s courier doesn’t mean there was no useful information gleaned from him and others who went through the CIA’s program.

“After they went through the program, none of these people turned into loyal Americans, but they were more or less cooperative depending on the topic,” Hayden said. “And because they were more or less forthcoming as a group, we had a lot more data with which to compare answers.”

Hayden is one of a handful of former senior CIA officials -- along with Tenet, Rizzo and former deputy director John McLaughlin -- who are leading a campaign to refute the central claims of the Senate report. Today the group will launch a new website to refute the report called CIASavedLives.com.

The argument against the report will focus not only on its conclusions but also the process for reaching them. For example, critics say the Democratic staff never interviewed current or former CIA officials and relied instead on the prodigious trove of classified documents made available.

"Why were they afraid to talk to me, George, Jose, John and others?” Hayden asked, referring to Jose Rodriguez, who ran the program, in addition to Tenet and Rizzo. “What were they afraid of?” At the end of the day, Hayden said, he understood why there was a difference of opinion on some issues, but he refuted the idea that he or other CIA officials deliberately lied about the efficacy of the CIA interrogation program.

"All of us told the truth as we knew it. If they want to quibble on fact A, fact B, frankly I would argue with those points, but I would understand it,” Hayden said. “But the idea that three directors and three deputy directors and hundreds of CIA officers conspired to mislead the president, the Congress and the American people beggars the imagination."

The position of the former CIA officers differs from the response from today's CIA, which is more nuanced. The agency said its position "on the value of information derived from detainees is not an endorsement of the policy decision to use EITs or an ends justifies means case for them, but merely a reflection of the historical record.”

The agency also acknowledges that it’s possible other, less harsh techniques could have elicited the same information from detainees. “To be clear the CIA takes no positions on whether intelligence gleaned from detainees subject to these techniques could have been collected through other means or from other persons,” its response said. “The answer to that question is and will forever remain unknowable.” 

Other experts on interrogation, however, say that answer is quite knowable. Ali Soufan, an FBI interrogator and an expert on al-Qaeda, has come out publicly in recent years and said as much. In 2012, Soufan said the waterboarding and other harsh treatment of detainees that he called torture ended up generating false leads and was a propaganda victory for terrorist groups, helping them recruit new operatives.

So where does all this leave us? Since 2009, Democrats on the Senate Intelligence Committee have pored over millions of classified documents related to the CIA’s secret prisons. Now the declassified summary of that report is finally out, yet there is no chance Washington will reach consensus on whether the techniques Obama has called “torture” actually produced any useful intelligence. Or on the very troubling idea that the president himself was kept in the dark.

(Updates to include details from CIA internal documents in fourth paragraph and information on when the State Department was notified of interrogations in the fifth paragraph.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the authors on this story:
Josh Rogin at joshrogin@bloomberg.net
Eli Lake at elake1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net