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Torture: You're Doin' it Wrong

Ignorance, incompetence, and lack of training encompassed the Bush administration's torture program.
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August 28, 2009

With the release of the OLC memos in May and Monday’s re-release of the CIA Inspector General’s (IG) torture report, it’s easy to get buried in the minutia of torture. But it’s through our Freedom of Information Act lawsuit for details about the government’s torture and interrogation program that we’ve learned the nitty-gritty of the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation techniques”: bugs in boxes; waterboarding, and now, prolonged diapering.

But two recent news items crystallized another reason the Bush administration’s torture program went so terribly wrong: ignorance, incompetence, and lack of training.

First, Tuesday night’s Rachel Maddow Show featured former CIA agent Bob Baer. Baer talked about how ill-equipped the CIA was to handle interrogations in the first place:

[T]he problem is the CIA is not equipped to do hostile interrogations. Let me put the word torture nicely, hostile interrogations. It’s filled with liberal arts majors who go out and collect intelligence without coercion.

So 9/11 comes along. The White House is desperate to do something. It turns to the CIA…So, guys, like you and me, will go out and then all we know about torture is we watch “24,” and suddenly, these guys are put on the line and they improvise and they use mock executions. They threaten mothers and children and the rest of it. And it looks like the amateur hour because it is the amateur hour. (emphasis ours)

Thursday morning, a segment on NPR echoed the same sentiment. Tim Weiner, author of Legacy of Ashes: A History of the CIA said:

[The CIA] didn’t have a playbook. They had never done anything like this. They didn’t have the people, they didn’t have the translators, they didn’t have interrogators, they were being asked to do something they’d never done before, and they improvised. And the result of that improvisation was a series of legally dubious memos saying essentially: “There is no law in this matter.” (emphasis ours)

Weiner contrasts the CIA’s lack of experience in interrogations with the FBI, which has been interrogating terrorism suspects since World War I. He also points out that when the approximately 1,000 FBI agents went to Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo after 9/11 and saw what the CIA was doing, they immediately reported the torture to then-FBI Director Robert Muller. (Muller later testified that he pulled his agents out of the interrogations “to protect them from legal consequences.”)

Weiner also points to the now-well-known torture of Abu Zubaydah, who was waterboarded 83 times by CIA contractors. As former FBI agent Ali Soufan famously testified in May before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Zubaydah was cooperative and forthcoming when the FBI was questioning him, but after the CIA started waterboarding him, Zubaydah clammed up. The FBI’s interrogation of Zubaydah proves that when a detainee is properly interrogated, valuable intelligence is gained, which enhances national security.

Coinciding with Monday’s release of the IG report, President Obama announced the formation of a new interagency task force on interrogations that will be based at the FBI. This might be encouraging in light of Baer and Weiner’s comments, and the FBI’s long experience in interrogations. But regardless of which agency is interrogating detainees, be it the FBI, CIA or Defense Department, it must comply with the Constitution and domestic and international laws governing torture and interrogation.

Orders that clearly came from the highest levels in government essentially told the CIA it was okay to torture and abuse detainees, and the CIA followed orders. Which is why it’s crucial that accountability for torture must include an investigation of all the players involved, not just the interrogators. Clearly, CIA interrogators didn’t wake up one morning and decide to start waterboarding a compliant detainee.

We will never achieve true accountability by limiting the scope of the investigation and overlooking those who commissioned and authorized these illegal acts. Urge Attorney General Holder to conduct a thorough examination of the Bush torture program.

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