Inconvenient News,
       by smintheus

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

  Purpose redacted

Among the documents that the ACLU forced the government to release is this CIA guide to its use of abusive rendition and interrogation techniques from late 2004 (PDF). It acknowledges that the goal of these processes is systematically to condition the prisoners into a state of "learned helplessness and dependence". And this in a document faxed to the Justice Department. By summarizing these abusive techniques in clinical fashion, the CIA has fashioned a deeply horrifying record of what it became under George W. Bush, one that in the past we might have associated with the Stasi's files.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about this repulsive document is one of the many redactions. In the second (?) paragraph, the CIA describes the purposes of its interrogations of terrorist suspects at "Black Sites" (its term). At least one of those purposes is redacted. In other words, the purpose remains classified! This is one with the evolving series of justifications that the CIA has offered over the years for the interrogation program. It cannot decide quite what it wants the rest of us to believe was the ultimate rationale for treating prisoners in ways that plainly are unAmerican.

Here is what remains unredacted of the CIA's rationale for the abusive interrogation program:

The purpose of interrogation is to persuade High-Value Detainees (HVD) to provide threat information and terrorist intelligence in a timely manner, to allow the US Government to identify and disrupt terrorist plots [... redacted line]
[...] and to collect critical intelligence on al-Qa'ida [... 4 lines redacted]

[...] In support of information previously sent to the Department of Justice, this paper provides additional background on how interrogation techniques are used ...

Thus at least one of the stated purposes has been redacted here. That is a silent demonstration of what many have suspected all along, that under George Bush and Dick Cheney abusive interrogations were a policy in search of a rationale. Were they about obtaining intelligence from captives while it was still most current? Disrupting as many plots around the world as possible? Learning about Al Qaeda? Or some of the other reasons that have been proffered in the past? Identifying and arresting further terrorists? Building cases for prosecuting terrorist suspects? Fear of an imminent attack upon the US? Or just showing that the US was determined to 'take the gloves off', in Cheney's phrase? Even at this late date, the CIA can't bring itself to say.

As the ACLU's Alexander Abdo said to Greg Sargent, "This is the most detailed description provided by the CIA of its rendition program to date... It confirms accounts provided by victims of rendition.”

Those prisoner accounts of their experiences during extraordinary rendition flights and flights to Guantanamo prison, as I've remarked here repeatedly, go back to the beginning of 2002. Hence the earliest accounts predate by several months the attempts by the Bush administration lawyers to generate torture memos to justify retrospectively all manner of mistreatment of terrorist suspects, from "conditioning" to "coercion", that were already in common use around the globe. As the prisoner accounts show, the mistreatment had been systematized from the outset – very much in the manner described in this CIA memo (which has a section describing methods to be used in the capture and transfer of prisoners on rendition flights).

This fact leaves a great many Bush administration officials, including the authors of those egregious memos, exposed to prosecution for ordering or abetting torture and abuse of prisoners. They had relied upon legal memos to function as 'get out of jail free' cards, under the pretense that everybody from the White House down to the actual interrogator were just following the advice of the administration's lawyers. But much evidence has accumulated that that advice was cooked, with administration officials soliciting exactly the opinions they wanted and playing footsie with lawyers until the desired advice was forthcoming.

The Bush Administration claimed that Justice gave legal advice to the CIA and that the CIA followed and applied it. But the IG report reveals a strikingly different relationship. As the OLC memos were written, there was a sort of waltz between CIA and Justice lawyers in which different hypotheticals were offered up in solicitation of opinions—something on the order of “If we told you we did x, what would you say about it?” This suggests the OLC memos were effectively negotiated. It also appears that CIA requested a number of after-the-fact variations to protect practices that clearly exceeded guidance. Why does this matter? It undermines the ability of CIA employees and contractors to “rely in good faith” on the OLC memos, because it shows that OLC wasn’t really giving legal advice. Instead it was issuing “get out of jail free” cards. A good example comes with waterboarding: “With respect to two detainees at those sites, the use and frequency of one EIT, the waterboard, went beyond the projected use of the technique as originally described to DoJ. The Agency, on 29 July 2003, secured oral DoJ concurrence that certain deviations are not significant for the purposes of DoJ’s legal opinions.”

Now it is even clearer that the advice was several months too late to justify practices that had already been worked out, systematized, and put into practice. That reinforces the interpretation that the legal opinions were cooked, and thus that those implicated in the prisoner abuse cannot now claim that they were relying upon legal advice that they assumed in good faith to be reliable.

In fact, the 2004 CIA Inspector General's report on terrorist interrogations shows conclusively that many within the CIA did not believe that the official policies were legal. It reports that CIA officers feared and indeed assumed that they would be subject to investigation and prosecution for engaging in torture and abuse. Some CIA officials took a strong stance against the program on the grounds of its illegality.

The Inspector General’s review was launched by complaints coming from valued senior employees who felt that the Bush Program (as John Yoo has dubbed it) was wrong. One of them actually expresses his worry that those involved will be hauled before the World Court at some point because of [and that’s redacted!] This makes clear that good employees of the agency opposed the Bush Program, were vocal in their opposition, and focused concern on the program’s illegality. The OLC memos were intended to silence these complaints, but they only accentuated the agency’s morale problems by enmeshing it in obviously illegal and immoral conduct. By contrast, the number of CIA personnel involved in pushing it through and supporting it is tiny—probably not many more than two dozen—though their voices are heard very loudly.

crossposted at

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