WASHINGTON — With just two weeks of training, or about half the time it takes to become a truck driver, the CIA certified its spies as interrogation experts after 9/11 and handed them the keys to the most coercive tactics in the agency’s arsenal.
It was a haphazard process, cobbled together in the months following the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington by an agency that had never been in the interrogation business. The result was a patchwork program in which rules kept shifting and the goals often were unclear.
At times, the interrogators went too far, even beyond the wide latitude they were given under the Bush administration’s flexible guidelines, according to newly unclassified documents released Monday. Interrogators took the simulated drowning technique of waterboarding beyond what was authorized. Mock executions were held. Family members were threatened. There were hints of rape.
If it was a terrifying process for the detainees, it was a bureaucratic nightmare for the interrogators. Until 2003, the agency provided its interrogators with rules on a case-by-case basis, sometimes giving permission by e-mail or even orally from CIA headquarters.
Despite the lack of clarity, interrogators were required to sign documents saying they understood the rules and would comply with them. Yet they were given ample room to improvise and make decisions about how much humanity to show to terror detainees.
While former Vice President Dick Cheney said the interrogation program was run by “highly trained professionals who understand their obligations under the law,” the newly released documents suggest otherwise, at least in the early months.
The interrogators slapped prisoners, held a handgun to one’s head, used power drills to make threats and left men shackled and naked in frigid rooms until they cooperated.
“How cold is cold?” one officer said in the 2004 CIA inspector general’s report released Monday. “How cold is life threatening?”
The CIA’s Counterterrorism Center began training interrogators in November 2002, two months after suspected terrorist Abu Zubaydah already had been repeatedly subjected to waterboarding.
But because the CIA had so little information about al-Qaida, CIA analysts could only speculate about what the detainees “should know,” hobbling the interrogators’ ability to ask meaningful questions and identify misleading or useful answers.
Some in the CIA correctly feared that the existence of the program would leak out someday. Others worried they’d be identified by name in news stories.
“One officer expressed concern that, one day, agency officers will wind up on some ‘wanted list’ to appear before the World Court for war crimes,” the inspector general wrote.
Another added, “Ten years from now we’re going to be sorry we’re doing this … (but) it has to be done.”
Even the Justice Department, which authorized the interrogation program, conceded in a 2004 memo that “at least in some instances and particularly early in the program,” the program appeared to have gone off track.
Attorney General Eric Holder appointed a prosecutor Monday to look into whether such incidents amounted to violation of federal law. He said nobody who operated within the framework of the Justice Department’s legal opinions will be charged.
But the program that the Bush administration’s Justice Department approved in the wake of the Sept. 11 terror attacks began to short-circuit almost immediately.
In August 2002, government lawyers said interrogators were not supposed to use harsh tactics until all other methods had failed. But three months later, when officials captured terrorism suspect Abd al-Nashiri, believed to be behind the bombing of the USS Cole, interrogators immediately launched into enhanced tactics.
And the method of waterboarding used by the CIA did not always resemble the clinical, closely supervised process that the Justice Department approved. One official, explaining why interrogators were pouring excessive amounts of water over a detainee’s cloth-covered mouth and nose, said, “It is for real.”
Another interrogator repeatedly choked off the carotid artery of a prisoner, causing the detainee to pass out, then shaking him awake again. The interrogator had only recently been trained in interrogation tactics and had previous experience only in debriefing, the practice of questioning people already willing to cooperate.
As late as September 2003, the CIA was still sending mixed signals to its interrogators.
“No formal mechanisms were in place to ensure that personnel going to the field were briefed on the existing legal and policy guidance,” the report said.
It was a debriefer, not a trained interrogator, who threatened alleged al-Nashiri with a power drill and an unloaded gun. Such threats violate U.S. anti-torture laws.
It’s not clear from CIA reports whether waterboarding or other aggressive tactics made America safer, as Cheney has long claimed. CIA officials credited the detention and interrogation program with thwarting several terrorist attacks. But investigators said it’s less certain that waterboarding or other coercive tactics directly contributed to that success.
In one case, CIA officials staged a mock execution to terrify a detainee into cooperating. Mock executions are prohibited under U.S. law. But authorities believed the detainee was withholding information, and they felt they needed to get creative. So they pretended to kill another detainee in a nearby room.
It was an elaborate setup, complete with a guard playing a dead detainee.
But the scheme apparently didn’t work. A senior officer later said the effort was so obviously a ruse, it yielded no benefit to interrogators.