“The fact is that senior officials in the United States government solicited information on how to use aggressive (interrogation) techniques, redefined the law to create the appearance of their legality, and authorized their use against detainees.” That is one of the raw conclusions of a two-year Senate investigation into torture.
On Thursday, as the incoming Obama administration is mulling whether or not it even should investigate torture under the Bush administration, the Senate Armed Services Committee released the executive summary of its own investigation of the treatment of U.S. detainees. (The full report is still being declassified.)
The report is all about naming names, and the summary is stunningly frank in its conclusions, particularly in comparison to the passive language employed by most government investigations into abuse.
According to the report, the torture ball started rolling with the president and his Feb. 7, 2002, memorandum stating that the Geneva Conventions didn’t apply to al-Qaida or the Taliban. The CIA and the Department of Defense began scurrying to establish their brutal interrogation regimes, while the White House and top Bush administration officials brushed aside legal hurdles and approved specific, horrifying techniques.
In the spring of 2002, for example, former National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice asked then-CIA Director George Tenet to brief members of the National Security Council on the harsh interrogation program under development by the CIA, a program that has utilized waterboarding. Meetings ensued. “Members of the president’s cabinet and other senior officials attended meetings at the White House where specific interrogation techniques were discussed,” the report states. Former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was there.
Rice also asked former Attorney General John Ashcroft to provide his stamp of approval, and he did. On Aug. 1, 2002, Ashcroft’s Office of Legal Counsel issued legal memos after input from former White House counsel Alberto Gonzales and former counsel to the Vice President David Addington. The memos used semantics to make abuse fair game, defining torture as only that pain “equivalent in intensity to the pain accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death.”
By then, the CIA was already off and running with its new authority, spiriting prisoners off the streets of Pakistan and into its network of secret prisons, or “black sites,” for interrogation. On Dec. 2, 2002, Rumsfeld joined the party, issuing a memo authorizing the use of tough techniques for detainees in military custody at Guantánamo, including stress positions, forced nudity, use of dogs and sensory deprivation. Legal memos from all three military branches had previously warned that the tactics might be illegal, but the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Richard Myers, put the kibosh on any further study.
A central irony in the narrative is whom the White House, CIA and Department of Defense did not consult during the establishment of the interrogation programs — professional interrogators trained to pry reliable intelligence from the enemy. Instead, the administration mined expertise in the military’s secretive Survival Evasion Resistance and Escape school, as described in Salon. The program trains elite U.S. troops how to resist torture.
The irony wasn’t lost on the Senate investigators, who noted that the school’s expertise “was in training American personnel to withstand interrogation techniques considered illegal under the Geneva Conventions.” The techniques are based on, among other things, Communist Chinese techniques to force confessions. “Typically, those who play the part of interrogators in SERE school neither are trained interrogators nor are they qualified to be,” the report says. “These role players are not trained to obtain reliable intelligence information from detainees. Their job is to train our personnel to resist providing reliable information to our enemies.”