Covert Action

Thoughts on the SSCI Report, Part II: The Program's Brutality

By Benjamin Wittes
Friday, December 19, 2014, 8:48 AM

I want to begin my review of the SSCI interrogation report and the responses from the CIA and the SSCI minority by addressing the area in which, in my view, the majority report is strongest: the allegation that the treatment of detainees was far more abusive, far less controlled, and far more brutal than the CIA has acknowledged. As I noted in my introduction to this series, the committee majority makes a series of horrific allegations about the actual conduct of the program---as opposed to the more antiseptic accounts of it and the techniques that comprised it as described in previously-released OLC opinions. The account of the program is particularly upsetting both because of its claims about how authorized techniques were used in sustained combination over long periods of time and because of its account of how relatively untrained personnel not up to the job improvised with a series of particularly ugly unapproved techniques.

Indeed, the committee also makes numerous allegations about conduct that exceeded the four corners of the program's legal authorization, conduct that went unpunished criminally and too often undisciplined administratively as well. Moreover, the majority report also lays out just how awful were some of the substandard facilities in which mid-value detainees were held---one of the facilities kept in near-total darkness for months, for example. It also details unacceptably bad and chaotic management of the program from an agency that was unready to take on this sort of major operation in a crisis period and which, as a consequence, had trouble keeping track of information as basic as the number of detainees it was holding. Some detainees were clearly held in error, though the number remains in dispute between the committee and the agency.

A fair bit of this information, at least in broad strokes, is not new. A leaked ICRC report based on detainee interviews, for example, had long ago spelled out vividly the brutality of the program in operation. There's been a lot of journalism as well on the subject---some of it excellent, some of it lurid---that has revealed a great deal as well. And, of course, the CIA's inspector general investigated the program exhaustively starting relatively early in it.

That said, a fair bit of information in the report, and certainly a wealth of the detail and documentary citations and quotations in it, is new in the SSCI's report. And perhaps more importantly, there's something undeniably powerful about seeing it all laid out in a coherent narrative format. Like the interrogation techniques themselves, the record here is more upsetting in its cumulative impact than is each component part examined separately.

Part of what makes so upsetting the double-down response of Dick Cheney, which includes the flat denial that anything contrary to our values took place here, is that a huge amount of this record is actually not in dispute. The SSCI minority seriously contests virtually none of it. The minority, rather, spends nearly all of its energy contesting the majority's insistence that the program was ineffective---a matter which I'll treat in a separate post---not that it involved a lot of nasty business, both authorized and unauthorized. And for its part, the CIA acknowledges, and in some cases endorses, a lot of the picture the SSCI majority paints.

To be precise, the CIA acknowledges the gross management and oversight failures, the unacceptable freelancing in certain interrogations, the frequent lack of accountability for such misconduct, and the dreadful conditions in certain facilities. And while it does contest some aspects of some of the more horrifying specific allegations---related to hallucinations among sleep-deprived detainees (which it describes as rare) and rectal hydration and feeding of others (which it describes as having been medically indicated in certain cases), for example---it doesn't do it with particular verve.

What the CIA does argue with particular verve---and to my mind persuasively---is that what the committee presents as a holistic account of the program was really the chaos of its establishment and early months. Nearly all of the abuses the committee describes took place as the agency was standing the program up, during which the agency concedes it was unprepared to take on this operational mission, and the agency---I think cogently---responds that the majority report does not fairly describe the trajectory of the program or take account of the degree to which the agency cleaned up its act and brought the program under control.

This will not be an argument of particular salience for those who regard the core conduct the program authorized---coercive interrogations in the context of long-term detention without trial at black sites---as inherently unlawful, abusive, and torturous. But there seems to me an important distinction always between a program that can be contained within its authorized parameters and one that cannot---particularly when that program involves the most coercive and liberty-infringing exercises of government power. It thus strikes me as a important clarification to the SSCI majority's portrayal of the agency's program as relentlessly brutal, chaotic, and unconstrained by its supposed legal parameters to say that while initially chaotic and unconstrained, it was brought relatively swiftly within its programmatic bounds. Again, this does not answer the question of whether these programmatic bounds were themselves too brutal to countenance, but the CIA's response offers an important caveat to the committee's otherwise devastating account.

There is one other related caveat worth mentioning: While it is certainly reasonable, in my view, for the SSCI majority to find that the program was more brutal and less controlled than the public had understood, it is important to understand that the components of that broad indictment are quite distinct from one another. One component is the belief that the authorized techniques themselves were more aggressive than portrayed both to legislators and to the public. Another is the contention that interrogators freelanced in brutal fashions outside of the set of techniques authorized by the program. Still another is the concern about management failures to discipline those excesses. Still another is management failures severe enough that, for example, a detention site could spend months in total darkness and nobody at CIA headquarters even had eyes on what was going on there. And yet another is the worry that whatever was going on in the program, people could be held in it who did not meet the terms of the program's authorization from the President. These concerns are, to some degree, interrelated, of course, but they are very different concerns. And they are not all concerns that militate towards not having an RDI program at all. Some of them might merely militate for running it competently and for insisting on rigorous adherence to authorized procedures and strong oversight measures to ensure that.

All that said, I do think the committee's tendency both to present these distinct issues through a single narrative lens that tends to conflate them and to ignore the directional momentum of the program historically may nonetheless break through to a kind of higher truth: It's hard, perhaps impossible, to operate in secret a program predicated on coercion and brutality and not have it---at some point, in some manner, and particularly in situations of extreme stress---run amok. The tools are too powerful, too inherently corrupting, and the invisibility of covert action adds a sufficient additional level of danger that it is perhaps unreasonable to expect that at some point, there will not be regrets and horror at what actually ends up happening. This is, to my mind anyway, one of the most compelling arguments against having a coercive interrogation program at all---and it is certainly an argument against having one with any illusions that the results, however effective, will not also be very ugly.