CIA abuse report doesn't live up to the hype

A much-anticipated release ends up highly redacted and contains hardly any new information


Alex Koppelman
August 25, 2009 2:01AM (UTC)

On Monday afternoon, the Obama administration released a report by the CIA inspector general on the CIA's interrogation procedures and use of "enhanced interrogation techniques." Because of the continuing political debate over the Bush administration's use of those techniques, which include things, like waterboarding, that are generally recognized as torture, the report was highly anticipated. The administration even surrounded the release with other news relating to the issue, like Attorney General Eric Holder's decision to appoint a prosecutor who will investigate cases of abuse that went beyond government-authorized limits to determine whether prosecution is warranted.

The report itself, though, didn't really live up to the hype. That's not to say it didn't contain disturbing details, like mock executions and an interrogator's threat to rape the mother of one detainee, or some bits of news. But for the most part, the declassified sections of the report were, for the most part, filled with information that was already public knowledge.

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That includes the lead of the Associate Press' story on the release, the one that's gotten the most attention Monday. As the AP reported, the document says that interrogators threatened one al-Qaida detainee, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, by telling him his children would be killed if he did not cooperate. That information wasn't new -- it was in Ron Suskind's 2006 book "The One Percent Doctrine." In that book, Suskind also reports that an unnamed "CIA manager with knowledge of the incident" told him of Mohammed's response: "He basically said, so, fine, they'll join Allah in a better place."

That gets to a larger issue with that technique. Supporters of the CIA's program, like blogger Michelle Malkin, may portray the debate as liberals simply being sympathetic to a brutal terrorist, but it's really a question of efficacy. The use of a threat like that is a gamble, and, as Suskind writes:

The traditional models of debriefing, used by both FBI and CIA, involved the building of a relationship ... It's the need for some human contact, some basic comfort, rather than simply the bottomless human fear, which ultimately triumphs ... This method, which the FBI still recommends, was canceled out by what they did to KSM. Once you do something as horrific as threaten someone's children, and it doesn't work -- there's nowhere else to go.

There may have been more important revelations buried in the document. But the government took a very heavy hand to it when redacting for declassification, so for now, we can't know for sure.

Salon tallied the extent of the redactions to the report itself, not including the recommendations it contained -- which were all blacked out -- or the appendixes. Out of the document's 105 pages, 33 were fully redacted. And a majority of the 266 numbered paragraphs in the report were either completely or substantially redacted. Including the ones contained on the excised pages, 122 of the 266 paragraphs were blacked out entirely; another 55 were partially redacted. This does not count instances where a word or a few words that would have, for example, identified an interrogator, were left classified -- only more substantive redactions were included in the count.

Additional reporting by Tim Bella.

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Alex Koppelman

Alex Koppelman is a staff writer for Salon.

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