Capitol Hill yesterday provided America with a classic set piece of partisan performance art: a pair of sanctimonious legislative events, one for each chamber, the two parties blaming each other for high crimes.
On the House side, Republican Oversight Chief Darrell Issa emceed a Fox News reality show in which Obamacare advisor Jonathan Gruber was metaphorically burned at the stake. Issa had finally captured alive the most reviled demon of the Republican myth: a bespectacled coastal intellectual who not only collected millions ($5.9 million, to be exact) from the government helping institute redistributionist policies, but also snickered in his down time about how ordinary Americans are too dumb to govern themselves. If there's such a thing as conservative snuff porn, this was it.
Meanwhile, on the Senate side, Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Chair Dianne Feinstein released a controversial study about perhaps the worst chapter in the history of the Bush administration: the "Enhanced Interrogation" program, which the Senate in its last days of Democratic control has decided finally to call "torture" (see page 4 of the report).
Because of the way our media works, there will be a lot of hemming and hawing about the political implications of yesterday's events, while less attention will be focused on the fine print. Who can guess at the motive behind the release of the Feinstein report, but one clear objective is to place the end of the American "torture" regime in January of 2009. That was when Barack Obama came to office and signed Executive Order 13491, restricting interrogations to the techniques outlined in the Army Field Manual.
I'm not sure I'm buying that the U.S. government suddenly got religion about mistreatment of terror suspects once Obama took office, particularly since this government massively accelerated a drone-assassination program that years from now, when some Senate Republican releases a Feinstein-like report on that chapter of our history, will probably make the Bush torture regime look like pretty weak beer. (This is despite the hilarious protests from mainstream press commentators like this one claiming that having robots murder people from the sky is somehow more humane, and less of a moral and religious outrage, than torture).
Still, the end result of what may or may not be a deceptively partisan effort to lay America's torture legacy solely at the feet of people like George Bush and Dick Cheney is that we get a rare chunk of actual facts to examine. No matter who is to blame for all of this, no matter when people like Nancy Pelosi and Jay Rockefeller knew about it, and no matter when exactly it all ended, the stuff in this report appears really to have happened. And after a quick read-through overnight, it's pretty clear that we approved behaviors far worse, and far weirder, than was ever admitted to previously.
In no particular order, here are the 10 craziest things I found in the Feinstein report:
1) "Rectal Feeding."
Two phrases leap out at you in the very first pages of the report. Feinstein's authors drop the terms "rectal feeding" and "rectal hydration" on page four, in an early summary of abuses, and then simply move on without explaining:
At least five CIA detainees were subjected to "rectal rehydration" or rectal feeding without documented medical necessity. The CIA placed detainees in ice water "baths…"
As a reader I was really distracted by the use of quotation marks around the term "rectal rehydration" while there was no punctuation at all around rectal feeding. Was I supposed to know what the one was, and not the other?
Reading on, one at first thinks that these are just fancy terms for simple enemas and force-feedings – techniques the interrogators used to try to circumvent the attempts of terror suspects like Khalid-Sheikh Mohammed and Abu Zubaydah to resist the intake of food and water. In some places, the shoving of water and sustenance up the terror-suspect's backside is described as merely more efficient than IV methods, quoting CIA operatives:
[W]hile IV infusion is safe and effective, we were impressed with the ancillary effectiveness of rectal infusion in ending water refusal in another case…
But as you read on, you start to sense a kind of fondness for the rectal procedures that is frankly a little creepy. Sounding like a man describing with satisfaction how well his new remote-control garage-door opener works, one officer reported:
Regarding the rectal tube, if you place it and open up the IV tubing, the flow will self regulate, sloshing up the large intestines… What I infer is that you get a tube up as far as you can, then open the IV wide. No need to squeeze the bag – let gravity do the work.
Then, later, you find out that the "rectal hydration" procedures were not only executed to fill resisting suspects with fluid and sustenance. They were also used to put them in a talking mood. The report talks of how "rectal hydration" of KSM was ordered "without a determination of medical need," which the chief interrogator explained was indicative of the questioner's "total control over the detainee."
In the case of KSM, they used the technique as a means to "clear a person's head," and believed it was helpful in getting him to talk. The report explains that KSM fabricated information during this period, leading to the capture and CIA detention of "two innocent individuals."
Then, in a classic case of "force drift" – the phenomenon in which the use of one permitted interrogation technique inexorably moves toward harsher and weirder behaviors – the CIA interrogators got downright bizarre with a suspect named Majid Khan:
Majid Khan's "lunch tray," consisting of hummus, pasta with sauce, nuts, and raisins, was "pureed" and rectally infused.
So my tax dollars were used to shove raisins, pasta, hummus and nuts up someone's rectum. Awesome! What else did we do?
The interrogators gave pet names to all of their rough interrogation techniques. On the one hand, this was clearly done to provide some legal cover, as only certain things were permitted, so each technique had to have a name – yes, we did do "rectal hydration" and "insult slaps" and "walling," but no, we didn't do "car-battery-to-the-testicling."
The names are disturbing in themselves. It takes a certain kind of personality to sit down with a notebook after you've been brutalizing someone for days and carefully enter in a ledger every insult-slap and pine-nut-up-the-rectum delivered in the session, using some weird taxonomic chart as a guide.
Walling is the practice of slamming someone against a wall. The CIA documented with loving detail the process. Suspect Abu Zubaydah alleged that "a collar was used to slam him against a concrete wall." In response to this allegation, a CIA officer wrote:
While we do not have a record that this occurred, one interrogator at the site at the time confirmed that this did indeed happen. For the record, a plywood 'wall' was immediately constructed at the site after the walling on the concrete wall.
Again, the consumer-friendly decision to replace the concrete wall with plywood for the detainee's comfort is so weirdly American, so oddly corporate, one isn't sure what to think. Your average Marcos or Mobutu torturer, working with whatever electrodes or brass knuckles happened to be handy, would find all of this stuff creepy, which has to be an indictment in itself somehow.
For the record, here is a list of these named permitted techniques, as outlined in the report:
(1) attention grasp, (2) walling, (3) facial hold, (4) facial slap (insult slap), (5) cramped confinement, (6) wall standing, (7) stress positions, (8) sleep deprivation, (9) insects placed in a confinement box, and (10) the waterboard.
Some of these things just leap out at you, but to get into a little detail on a few:
3) Sleep Deprivation.
The report notes:
Beginning the evening of March 18, 2003, KSM began a period of sleep deprivation, most of it in the standing position, which would last for seven and a half days, or approximately 180 hours.
After I tweeted yesterday that I didn't know 180 hours of sleep deprivation was medically possible, a few meth users emailed me expressing similar surprise. "A hundred, for sure, but you start to fall down and drool after that," wrote one.
The report is full of descriptions of sleep deprivation efforts, and carefully noted how much each suspect was subjected to. It seems there was a hierarchy: the higher on the suspected-terrorist totem pole, the longer the subject was deprived of sleep.
A suspected extremist named Gul Rahman (who died, incidentally – more below) got "48 hours of sleep deprivation, auditory overload, total darkness, isolation, a cold shower, and 'rough treatment.'" Meanwhile, a Tunisian named Rafiq Bashir al-Hami, suspected of having ties to some of the "Hamburg Cell" responsible for the 9/11 attacks, got a meth-friendly 72 hours of sleep deprivation. And the "mastermind" KSM got the Guinness-Book 180 hour treatment, most of it standing.
I knew our government was using sleep deprivation, but 180 hours gets into NKVD/Felix Dzerzhinsky territory. This is classic torture-regime stuff, and one of the better examples of why a sanitary term like "enhanced interrogation" just doesn't cut it.
There are 14 mentions of the use of diapers in the report. The diaper technique is a classic example of how the CIA sometimes lied to the Justice Department about what it was doing.
Just as the "rectal hydration" and "rectal feeding" were pitched as medically necessary, but turned out either to be a way of showing "total control," or just providing frustrated interrogators with an outlet for whims ("Let's see what happens if we put pasta with sauce up there"), so it was with diapers. The CIA, the report says, "told the [Office of Legal Counsel at the Justice Department] that the use of diapers was 'for sanitation and hygiene purposes,' whereas CIA records indicate that in some cases, a central 'purpose' of diapers was to 'cause humiliation' and 'induce a sense of helplessness.'"
One learns with relief that the use of diapers was "generally not to exceed 72 hours," but we also learn that when prisoners were transported, they were not allowed to use a lavatory, and placed in diapers during the flight – during which time they also sometimes were "laid horizontally and strapped to the floor of the plane horizontally like cargo."
Think about this detail. Exactly what is forcing someone to wet himself on an airplane supposed to accomplish? A hardcore terrorist would laugh at any country that considered this being tough. At least nobody ever laughed at Stalin or Pinochet. There are two ways to go: the hard way, or the civilized way. This transparently is neither.
5. Mock Executions.
The report was pretty coy about this, but it mentioned that the CIA conducted "mock executions" on two occasions. No details were given about what exactly that meant, but ask Fyodor Dostoyevsky (who went through a pretty elaborate one at the hands of Tsarist torturers), it's an attention-getter.
The CIA also spent time threatening harm to family members (including threats to sexually abuse one detainee's mother), and/or promising detainees that they would never leave captivity alive. This passage, about Abu Zubaydah, who of course is not what one would describe as a good person, stood out:
Over the course of [an] entire 20-day "aggressive phase of interrogation," Abu Zubaydah spent a total of 266 hours (11 days, 2 hours) in the large (coffin size) confinement box and 29 hours in a small confinement box, which had a width of 21 inches, a depth of 2.5 feet, and a height of 2.5 feet. The CIA interrogators told Abu Zubaydah that the only way he would leave the facility was in the coffin-shaped confinement box.
I measured that out in my living room this morning and nearly needed diapers myself at the thought of being in one of those boxes for even ten seconds. Of course, they didn't just put people in these boxes, or promise them they would spend the rest of their lives there. They also put some guests in:
The report only mentions insects twice and doesn't provide any details. There have been reports about many of these techniques before, of course, and some details about the insect idea have leaked out. It may be that they would tell a suspect like Zubaydah that a stinging insect is about to be placed in the box, and then they would put a non-stinging insect like a caterpillar in there. But who knows? We may have to wait for some future reporter to FOIA the unclassified version to find out exactly what species of vermin they dumped in there.
Putting someone in a coffin for 20 days with insects crawling all over him would be considered sadistic by any self-respecting third-world torturer. Then again, it's not clear that your average old-school torturer, lacking an American's inherent sense of industrial planning and organization, would have come up with stuff like:
7) The "Rough Takedown."
From the report:
At times, the detainees at COBALT were walked around naked or were shackled with their hands above their heads for extended periods of time. Other times, the detainees at COBALT were subjected to what was described as a "rough takedown," in which approximately five CIA officers would scream at a detainee, drag him outside of his cell, cut his clothes off, and secure him with Mylar tape. The detainee would then be hooded and dragged up and down a long corridor while being slapped and punched.
That detainee named Gul Rahman was said to have died after one of these choreographed scare-scenes. The report writes: "Rahman, after his death, was found to have surface abrasions on his shoulders, pelvis, arms, legs, and face."
Apparently the officers rushed him, shouted at him to "get down," did the bizarre routine of cutting his clothes off (there is an unmistakable obsession with nudity in these interrogations), ran him through a kind of gauntlet where "although it was obvious they were not trying to hit him as hard as they could, a couple of times the punches were forceful," then dragged him through the dirt outside the cell.
Here again, it's not so much the outrage that American citizens physically abused people, it's just the weirdness of this scripted attack: who thinks of this stuff? And who sat around coming up with ideas like hanging people by their arms for hours on end, or hanging them with just their toes touching the ground, or:
8) The Cordless Drill.
No commentary necessary for this description of the interrogation of suspected Cole bomber Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, who was:
Placed in a 'standing stress position' with 'his hands affixed over his head' for approximately two and a half days… Later, … while he was blindfolded, [a CIA officer] placed a pistol near al- Nashiri's head and operated a cordless drill near al-Nashiri's body.
The report blithely notes that Al-Nashiri did not provide any additional threat information during, or after, these interrogations, which brings up another point:
9) All of this stuff was a huge net minus in terms of actually gathering intelligence.
There are people all over the pundit-o-sphere today talking about how it's not true that "enhanced interrogation" didn't produce results, that among other things, we wouldn't have caught bin Laden without it (this is the conceit of Zero Dark Thirty and other pop culture depictions of this period). Much of this is due to another activity noted by the report, the CIA's proactive efforts to reach out to the media to trumpet its dubious successes. As the Deputy Director of the CIA's counterrorism center wrote in 2005: "We either get out and sell, or we get hammered, which has implications beyond the media. Congress reads it, cuts our authorities, messes up our budget... we either put out our story or we get eaten. There is no middle ground."
But the report is pretty clear that they didn't get much, if anything, of value from these techniques. It's littered throughout with examples of mountains of false leads and vast stretches of time wasted. Moreover, many of the instances of intel that supposedly was gleaned by torture turned out, upon closer examination, to have come from information provided before the interrogators started putting people in boxes or revving cordless drills up near their genitalia. The case of the famous Usama bin Laden courier, who is supposed to have lead to the Evil One's capture, is one such example:
The most accurate information on Abu Ahmad al-Kuwaiti — a facilitator whose identification and tracking led to the identification of UBL's compound and the operation that resulted in UBL's death — obtained from a CIA detainee was provided by a CIA detainee who had not yet been subjected to the CIA's enhanced interrogation techniques; and CIA detainees who were subjected to the CIA's enhanced interrogation techniques withheld and fabricated information about Abu Ahmad al-Kuwaiti.
The report said that 20 of the best gets the CIA claimed came from rough interrogation turned out to be canards in one way or another. But even if they got the occasional hit from this stuff, it's clear that on the whole, it wasted even the interrogators' time more than it helped them. And that's before we even get into the issue of how this behavior damages our credibility worldwide, makes subsequent attacks more likely, and imperils our own soldiers who may be captured by enemies. It's wrong and dumb, classically representative of modern American antiterror policy.
10) It will happen again.
The most damning thing about this whole report is the obvious unspoken observation that this is all we're getting, a report. Even if the Obama administration hasn't continued these policies (and who knows for sure about that), they sure didn't punish them, leaving the likes of Feinstein to simply write up what happened for the sake of posterity. That total lack of real consequence for the policymakers makes it almost certain that we will resort to the same behaviors the next time a 9/11 happens. And since the stuff we got away with (are getting away with?) this time was this weird – insects in coffin-boxes and drills and hangings and pasta-up-the-wazz weird – just imagine what the next round of innovations will bring. God help us.