CIA to Obama: Keep interrogations secret
Is the agency urging secrecy to prevent embarrassing disclosures or to protect counterterrorism operations?
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The report's critical comments helped spark a suspension of the interrogations for several months, until the agency received fresh affirmations of its legality from President Bush's appointees at the Justice Department. The CIA's lawyers and its counterterrorism center also prepared detailed written rebuttals, which the CIA is considering releasing alongside the censored report this week.Skip to next paragraph
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According to a summary of the report incorporated in a declassified Justice Department memo, its authors concluded that some useful information was produced by the CIA program but "it is difficult to determine conclusively whether interrogations have provided information critical to interdicting specific imminent attacks" - the principal justification for using harsh techniques.
The report also expressed particular concern that questioners had violated a legal prohibition against "degrading" conduct by stripping detainees, sometimes in the presence of women, according to a source who has read it. The report said that waterboarding, meant to simulate drowning, was used more often than had been proved effective and quoted CIA doctors as saying that interrogators from the military's survival school who took part in the sessions had probably misrepresented their expertise.
The report further questioned the legality of using different combinations of techniques - for example, sleep deprivation combined with forced nudity and painful stress positions, according to sources familiar with the document. While Justice Department lawyers had determined in August 2002 that the individual techniques did not constitute torture, the report warned that using several techniques at once could have a far greater psychological impact, according to officials familiar with the document.
"The argument was that combining the techniques amounted to torture," said a former agency official who read the report. "In essence, (Helgerson) was arguing in 2004 that there were clear violations of international laws and domestic laws."
Another former official who read the report said its full text laid bare "the good, the bad, and the ugly" and added that "I believe that some people would find offensive" what was done, because it was "not in keeping with American values."
At the CIA, the report was welcomed by some lower-ranking officials who were privy to what was happening at the prisons and had complained to Helgerson's office about apparent abuses, according to an official familiar with the study. But it provoked immediate anger and resistance among the agency's top managers, lawyers, and counterterrorism experts, who charged that Helgerson had overstepped his authority and that the report contained factual inaccuracies and a misreading of the law.
A former intelligence official said that at the time, Helgerson seemed to have embarked on a moral crusade: "He was out to prove a theory, and it came across as simply `You're wrong,' " said the official, who cited the report's secrecy in insisting on anonymity. "He was calling in officers willy-nilly and then bringing them in a second time. It was like he was conducting his own interrogations." Most of those involved in the program felt at the time, and still do, that they took great pains to follow the law, the official said.
After the report was issued, then-CIA director George Tenet demanded that the Justice Department and the White House reaffirm their support for the agency's harsh interrogation methods, even when used in combination, telling others at the time that "no papers, no opinions, no program." At a White House meeting in mid-2004, he resisted pressures to reinstate the program immediately, before receiving new legal authorization, according to a source familiar with the episode.
The Justice Department subsequently sent interim supporting opinions to the CIA, allowing its resumption after Tenet's departure, and went on to complete three lengthy reports in 2005 that affirmed in detail the legality of the interrogation techniques with some new safeguards that the CIA had begun to implement in 2003.
Helgerson, who retired from the agency earlier this year, declined comment for this story. A former CIA employee familiar with Helgerson's views said he has advocated for the release of the whole report, with minimal redactions, so that interested parties can see the context. "The report says a number of things positive about the agency as well as raising some serious questions about the legal underpinnings of the program and the way it was carried out," the official said.