CIA to Obama: Keep interrogations secret
Is the agency urging secrecy to prevent embarrassing disclosures or to protect counterterrorism operations?
WASHINGTON — The CIA is pushing the Obama administration to maintain the secrecy of significant portions of a comprehensive internal account of the agency's interrogation program, according to two intelligence officials.
The officials say the CIA is urging the suppression of passages describing in graphic detail how the agency handled its detainees, arguing that the material could damage ongoing counterterrorism operations by laying bare sensitive intelligence procedures and methods.
The May 2004 report, prepared by the CIA's inspector general, is the most definitive official account to date of the agency's interrogation system. A heavily redacted version, consisting of a dozen or so paragraphs separated by heavy black boxes and lists of missing pages, was released in May 2008 in response to a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union.
After an ACLU appeal, the Obama administration promised in May to review the report, which consists of more than 100 pages of text and six appendixes of unknown length, and to produce by Friday any additional material that could be released.
CIA spokesman George Little said the agency "is reviewing the report to determine how much more of it can be declassified in accordance with the Freedom of Information Act."
A senior intelligence official who has studied the document defended the CIA's redactions. "There is a lot about how the CIA operated the overall program of detention and interrogation - not just about how they used techniques - that would be sensitive and rightly redacted," the official said. "I think the Obama administration has made the correct decision that transparency only goes so far on the national security side."
Some former agency officials said that CIA insiders are fighting a rear-guard action to prevent disclosures that could embarrass the agency and lead to new calls for a so-called "truth commission" investigating the Bush administration's policies.
Two former agency officials who read the 2004 report said most of its contents could be safely released and, if anything, would seem familiar. General information about the agency's interrogation program has already been made public through the Obama administration's release of memos by the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel authorizing the harsh CIA techniques and the earlier leak of a 2005 report on CIA interrogations by the International Committee of the Red Cross. The broad conclusions of the inspector general's report, as well as its specific assertion that some interrogators exceeded limits approved by the Justice Department, have previously been disclosed.
"(CIA Director) Leon Panetta has been captured by the people who were the ideological drivers for the interrogation program in the first place," said a former senior officer who spoke on the condition of anonymity when discussing the still-classified report.
But one intelligence official countered that Panetta "was never a fan of the interrogation program."
"He's reached his own independent decisions on these issues. He's standing up for people who followed lawful guidance" issued to the agency during the Bush administration, the official said.
The report was based on more than a year of investigation, including more than 100 interviews and a review of 92 interrogation videotapes - which the CIA later said it had destroyed - as well as thousands of internal CIA e-mails and other documents. Then-Inspector General John Helgerson and his team of investigators traveled to secret CIA prisons and witnessed interrogations firsthand, making them the only observers allowed into the detention sites who were not participants in the program, officials said.
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.
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.