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September 09, 2015

Twelve Errors (and Counting) in “Rebuttal”

Hitting bookstores today: Rebuttal, in which several former CIA officials defend their authorization of torture after 9/11 and criticize the findings of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence’s (SSCI) report. The book fails to acknowledge any of the mistakes the CIA itself admits it made after 9/11, attempts to justify behavior that can never be justified, and insists on looking backward instead of preventing abuse in the future.

Senator Feinstein has pointed out that the book makes no new arguments and does not actually contradict the SSCI report’s fact-based conclusions: that the interrogation program was more brutal and widespread that the CIA had claimed, and that it didn’t produce intelligence not already obtained in humane ways.

Also, a lot of it is just wrong. Claims about the SSCI report are overblown, and many statements are completely at odds with the CIA’s official response to the report.  

Here are 12 of the more glaring factual and logical errors and generally nonsensical statements in “Rebuttal”:

  1. Congress didn’t object to the interrogation program. George Tenet argues that the SSCI report failed to “[evaluate] what congressional leadership had been told”, and says that Congress fully supported the program, as evidenced by the fact that no one in Congress complained to the President or CIA about it. Not true. The SSCI report actually spends quite a lot of time on what Congress was told, and pages 435-436 specifically discuss Congressional objections. For example, Senators John McCain, Dianne Feinstein, Russ Feingold, Chuck Hagel, and Ron Wyden all expressed discomfort with the program, either in briefings or in letters to the CIA Director.
  1. The CIA was transparent about things that went wrong in the program, and did not deceive anyone. Not according to the CIA. From its official response:
  • “We cannot vouch for every individual statement that was made over the years of the program, and we acknowledge that some of those statements were wrong.” (15-16 of the introduction)
  •  “We acknowledge that the Agency's use of the waterboard—particularly as it was applied to KSM, who was adept at resisting the technique—deviated from representations originally made by CIA to OLC in 2002.” (55)
  • “In some of the Agency's representations, however, CIA failed to meet its own standards for precision of language and we acknowledge that this was unacceptable.” (2, in examples of plots section)
  • “We acknowledge that in one instance—a supporting document for a set of DCIA talking points for a meeting with the President—we mischaracterized the information as having been obtained after the application of enhanced interrogation techniques.” (20, in examples of plots section)
  • “We acknowledge there were cases in which we either made a factual error or used imprecise language” (33 of plots section)
  • “We mistakenly claimed the information was acquired after Abu Zubaydah had undergone enhanced interrogation techniques.” (22 of plots section)
  1. The U.S. has no clear standards for dealing with terrorists, who do not follow the Geneva Conventions. This comes from former CIA head Porter Goss, who one would think would have been aware of clear U.S. standards prohibiting torture, in both state and federal law. Furthermore, the United States has faced terrorist threats arguably since the beginning of its existence. While the attacks of September 11 were terrible and unprecedented, the idea that the country had no standards in place to deal with an attack is simply wrong. The statement about the Geneva Conventions is a red herring: just because terrorists ignore them doesn’t mean we’re not bound by them.
  1. Interrogation techniques were not worse than what was authorized. Former CIA Director Michael Hayden contradicts himself on this point almost immediately when he acknowledges that there was some abuse in the early stages of the program. And the CIA itself admits that there were abuses: “We agree that there were instances in which CIA used inappropriate and unapproved interrogation techniques, particularly at the program’s outset.” (57)
  1. Furthermore, Hayden’s own statements were truthful… more or less. A large part of the SSCI report focuses on Hayden’s misleading statements to the SSCI. He criticizes this section by arguing that he was “briefing the norm, and they were countering with the exceptions”—that the program generally worked well, and a few examples of mistakes do not contradict his testimony.  It’s hard to see how Hayden’s 37-pages worth of misstatements could be considered only omissions of ‘exceptions,’ though. Either way, when testifying before a congressional committee, government officials are required to give the whole truth.
  1. Detainees needed to be tortured because other interrogation techniques failed. Former CIA Acting and Deputy Director John McLaughlin says that, with regards to rapport-building techniques that most interrogators prefer, “Agency officers tried, and sometimes it worked. But with the most of these criminals it did not.” Well, no. There is no evidence that the CIA attempted rapport-building techniques on all detainees, or that any detainees were initially uncooperative and then talked when subjected to torture. Furthermore, some high value detainees, like KSM, were never given the opportunity to respond to rapport-building techniques. The CIA started designing the interrogation program for Abu Zubaydah the day he was captured, even as he cooperated with rapport-building techniques.
  1. The “Second Wave” plot was disrupted only due to torture. McLaughlin also goes into detail about some of the specific plots disrupted and information gained to counter the SSCI report’s claims that CIA successes weren’t due to torture. The problem is that the CIA response also does this, and often completely contradicts what McLaughlin says. For example, he says that necessary details about the “Second Wave” plot came from the torture of KSM. The CIA, on the other hand: “We agree with the Study that some of our representations incorrectly claimed that we first learned of the overall [Second Wave] plot and a related cell of students through CIA interrogations.” (plots section page 8.)
  1. The Karachi Plot was disrupted due to the torture of Abu Zubaydah. Another swing-and-a-miss for McLaughlin. He says that Zubaydah provided information about al Qaeda safe houses, which, when raided, contained a coded letter about this plot. The CIA response, on the other hand, doesn’t mention Zubaydah in conjunction with any information about the coded letter. It says that the claim that a plot was disrupted at all is misleading: “[W]e mischaracterized the impact of the reporting we acquired from detainees on the Karachi plots. We said the information ‘helped stop a planned attack on the US Consulate in Karachi,’ when we should have said it ‘revealed ongoing attack plotting against the US official presence in Karachi that prompted the Consulate to take further steps to protect its officers.’” (plots section 6-7).
  1. The CIA’s program allowed agents to interrogate detainees face to face, which is crucial for gaining valuable intelligence. Okay, this one, from Phil Mudd, isn’t an error. But Mudd’s essay basically comes down to an argument that interrogation in general is important, and that without capturing and detaining terrorists, we wouldn’t have had the ability to gain intelligence that we needed. However, this is not at all in dispute. The SSCI report in no way suggests that individuals should not be captured or interrogated—it instead suggests that the best way to do this is with rapport-building techniques, not torture. Mudd’s interpretation of the report is worrying because it conflates torture with any other interrogation techniques, and suggests that in discrediting torture, the SSCI report condemns any interrogation. This simply isn’t true.
  1. The CIA was completely honest with the Department of Justice, and believed that the ‘techniques’ used were legal. Not to let DOJ lawyers like Steven Bradbury or John Yoo off the hook for their appalling legal analyses that helped authorize the torture program, but former Acting General Counsel of the CIA John Rizzo is wrong here: the DOJ wasn’t given all the information. As Rizzo himself acknowledges in his essay, he can’t “guarantee that every statement we made to DOJ all that time ago remains empirically unchallengeable today.” Yoo has even said that, according to what he understood about the program, the SSCI report contains descriptions of things that “weren’t supposed to be done” and which, in his opinion, constitute torture.
  1. After Abu Zubaydah was captured, he needed to be tortured because he “stopped cooperating.” This is courtesy of Former CIA National Clandestine Service Director Jose Rodriguez. But there is absolutely no evidence in the SSCI report or the CIA response that Zubaydah stooped cooperating at any point. In fact, the SSCI report says that “On the day that Abu Zubaydah was captured, CIA attorneys discussed interpretations of the criminal prohibition on torture that might permit CIA officers to engage in certain interrogation activities.”(emphasis added) (22) Furthermore, with reference to some crucial information gained from Zubaydah, the CIA admits that “we mistakenly claimed the information was acquired after Abu Zubaydah had undergone enhanced interrogation techniques.” (plots page 22).
  1. Torture was effective. All the authors center on one main argument: torture worked. This again is at odds with statements from CIA officials, who acknowledge that there is no way to know if torture was necessary, and professional interrogators, who say that torture is ineffective and information gained from it is unreliable. CIA Director Brennan stated, in response to the CIA report, that “We have not concluded that it was the use of EITs within that program that allowed us to obtain useful information from detainees subjected to them.”  In fact, statements by some people who were tortured, like KSM, led agents on wild goose chases, such as searching for an al Qaeda cell in Montana.

Ultimately, though, the “torture was effective” argument is, like so much of “Rebuttal,” irrelevant: torture is illegal and contrary to American ideals. There is no excuse for the CIA’s use of torture.  Instead of trying to justify torture, it’s time to put into place measures—like the McCain-Feinstein anti-torture amendment—to ensure that it never happens again.