They were essentially without any relevant experience

Mark Danner talks to Hugh Eaken at the New York Review blog about the CIA torture program.

Danner notes that the Senate’s report on the program contains a lot that was already known, but tells it “in appalling detail that we hadn’t seen before.”

The relentlessness, day in day out, of these techniques; the totality of their effect when taken together—walling, close-confinement, water-dousing, waterboarding, the newly revealed “rectal rehydration,” and various other disgusting and depraved things—is recounted in numbing, revolting detail. The effect can only be conveyed by a full reading, through page after awful page of this five-hundred-page document, which is after all less than 10 percent of the report itself.

What is new, he says, is how amateurish the program was.

It was really amateur hour, beginning with the techniques themselves, which were devised and run by a couple of retired Air Force psychologists who were hired by the CIA and put in charge though they had never conducted an interrogation before. They had no expertise in terrorism or counterterrorism, had never interrogated al-Qaeda members or anyone else for that matter. When it came to actually working with detained terrorists and suspected terrorists they were essentially without any relevant experience. Eventually, the CIA paid them more than $80 million.

So…that’s bizarre. Why would they do that? The people in charge, I mean – the administration, the CIA, whoever it was who was running the show. It’s not as if there’s no such thing as expertise in interrogation, because there very much is – so why didn’t they seek it out? Why be slapdash about something so crucial? They wanted results, surely, so why not do their best to find people who know how to get results?

The second great revelation is the degree to which the CIA claimed great results, and did so mendaciously. Sometimes the attacks they said they had prevented were not serious in the first place. Sometimes the information that actually might have led to averting attacks came not from the enhanced interrogation techniques but from other traditional forms of interrogation or other information entirely. But what the report methodically demonstrates is that the claims about having obtained essential, life-saving intelligence thanks to these techniques that had been repeated for years and years and years are simply not true. And the case is devastating.

And the thing is – they were making those claims before they even started interrogating. The claims weren’t even Save Our Asses after the torture, they were Cover Our Asses in advance.

Those claims have been made by many people and it is another revelation of the report that we see CIA people, notably the lawyers, raising these claims before the program even existed. The lawyers seemed to be thinking, “This is the only way we’re going to get away with this.” There is a quote in the report that people would look more kindly on torture—that is the word used—if it was used to stop imminent attacks. This was the so-called “necessity defense,” which, as the CIA lawyers put it, could be invoked to protect from prosecution “US officials who tortured to obtain information that saved many lives.” This idea was there right from the inception of the program.

So that’s pretty damning. It’s kind of Milosevician, in fact.

But apparently they never really properly discussed all this.

You expect that government officials who make the momentous decision to introduce an officially sanctioned torture program in the United States would have a series of serious meetings in which they would analyze the history of interrogation as it has been used by different government agencies, they would consult with allies who have a history of using these and other techniques, about what works and what doesn’t. They would make a general study of what is necessary and what is not. They would consult with legal experts. They would do a number of things.

In this case, as far as we can tell, most of these things were not done. We find a bare minimum of policy discussion. We know the CIA did very little if any research about what would work and wouldn’t. We see no decision tree springing from the felt actual need to do torture in specific cases, beginning with prisoners in hand who are unwilling to talk. Talk of torture itself—the wisps of the discussion, the ghostly mentions of the word—start very early after September 11, when “high value” detainees are generally not available, let alone refusing to talk.

So that’s all pretty disturbing. It sounds rather as if they were telling each other “well obviously we’re going to have to torture these people” right away, and that sounds as if the ideas about torture sprang straight from rage and vindictiveness rather than any kind of pragmatic need.

But unfortunately there’s no report on the decision-making process in the executive branch.

We have an essential report from the Office of Professional Responsibility in the Department of Justice about how torture was approved. We have a big and immensely valuable Armed Services Committee report from 2008 about the military’s use of torture. And now we have this report, or rather this executive summary of a report, about the CIA. There are a dozen or so reports about different aspects of Abu Ghraib. But we still have no report on how decisions were made in the executive branch, which is obviously critical.

The White House, including the offices of the president and the vice-president, and the National Security Council—these three vital areas of decision-making—still have not been examined. And there’s a reason for that. The Republicans refused to sign on to the Senate investigation unless these areas were put beyond the committee’s ken.

Democratic government is supposed to be accountable. That’s supposed to be one of its great advantages.

I’m just saying.


  1. Broga says

    So what does this tell us about democracy, the rule of law, due process? How secure can any of us feel? Hasn’t George Bush senior described, after the tortures, those who performed them as patriots. Here in the UK we cannot feel any sense of complacency, never mind righteousness. Despite the efforts to hide the facts the UK seems to have been complicit. And we have our current scandal of various Children’s Homes being visited by politicians, lawyers, clergy, senior military. There have been some high profile arrests (a few) but of the senior politicians alleged to have been involved none have faced a court. Th

    Perhaps we need a reality check. Is our supposed democracy, along with its democratic values, a sham?

  2. A Masked Avenger says

    So…that’s bizarre. Why would they do that? The people in charge, I mean – the administration, the CIA, whoever it was who was running the show. It’s not as if there’s no such thing as expertise in interrogation, because there very much is – so why didn’t they seek it out? Why be slapdash about something so crucial? They wanted results, surely, so why not do their best to find people who know how to get results?

    Some real question begging there! If you start with the hypothesis that the CIA et al were not idiots, then it follows that the results they paid $80M for were the results they were actually after. I.e., they wanted to use torture, period. They wanted a legal justification (a la John Yoo), and they wanted a utilitarian justification, which these yutzes furnished. They didn’t need skilled interrogators; they needed psychologists untainted by any sort of ethics. And they got exactly what they were looking for.

  3. says

    Broga – in the US? Yes, sadly, I think much of our democracy is a sham. The whole political process is so thoroughly bought and sold here that it can’t help but be at least partly a sham.

    And that’s before we even get to the security state aspect.

    Happy new year.

  4. Blanche Quizno says

    Wanted: Sadistic angry men and women who want nothing more than to torture and humiliate powerless captives. Apply at the CIA or your nearest Army recruiting station.

    I have run into such individuals online, and it’s always unsettling, at the very least. The young man who claimed that all the pretty girls he’d asked out had sneered at him, so he’d located an abandoned cabin in the middle of nowhere, and he was going to kidnap a woman and torture her to death. The good Christians who stand ready with the death threats and actual vandalism and physical attacks – read all about it in “To the Far Right Christian Hater…You Can Be a Good Speller or a Hater, But You Can’t Be Both: Official Hate Mail, Threats, and Criticism from the (ideological opponents) of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation” at

    The Christian who went by the name of vetnamvet who assured me that he and his entire church were going to pray for me, for as long as it took, until God murdered my family, destroyed all my possessions, and ruined my health, just so that I could praise their jesus.

    The guy who said he was going to imprison and torture someone (I can’t remember the justification/rationale for this or what the “someone” supposedly did or was going to do), and, when he needed to rest, his wife would take over the torture. And they’d try to keep their victim alive as long as possible. Perhaps it was if they discovered someone had molested their child or something…?

    These people are out there, and they sound like they’d jump at a job listing like the one I suggested. Vicarious revenge on the human race, concentrated in the persons of a handful of helpless victims. It brings to mind the Inquisition – complete lack of sympathy, empathy, pity, or remorse there, too, and THEY were all profiting off the victims’ victimization, too.

  5. Broga says

    @Blanche Quizno: Good people do good things. Bad people do bad things. It takes religious belief to make good people do bad things. However, I also think that there are immature people, often poorly educated under achievers, who envy the more successful and blame society for their own lack of success. They want revenge for imagined hurts.

    I have also been surprised at how readily a true believing Christian will seem to enthuse about an atheist – who has done no more than use his (supposedly) God given brains – being cast into hell for eternity. The obvious objection that the punishment would so grotesquely outweigh the sin doesn’t occur to them. As well as, of course, their insistence that they believe in a loving God.

  6. Lady Mondegreen (aka Stacy) says

    This is another reason to hold the Sam Harris defense of torture in contempt. He claims torture should be used in extreme, rare cases. And the cliched “ticking time-(nuclear)-bomb” scenario he used would be a rare occurrence indeed.

    So, how do the torturers assigned to the time bomb terrorist know what they’re doing? Where and how do they acquire the skills to torture effectively?

    How exactly do they practice those skills?

  7. says

    It takes religious belief to make good people do bad things

    That’s utter bullshit, you realize? “good people” don’t do “bad things” by definition. What makes people who otherwise pretend to be good do bad things is the usual mix of: greed, peer pressure, tribalism, religion, revenge-hatred, politics, sexual repression, etc.

  8. Golgafrinchan Captain says

    @Broga #5
    One problem with your comment is that lack of education and success is often as much the result of the societies we live in than that the individuals are under achievers. Beware the Republican/Libertaian “poor people are just lazy” meme. Based on my experience, it is rarely true. Of course, this doesn’t justify hurting other people, which does nothing to help their lives or anybody else’s.

    @Marcus Ranum #8 re: @Broga #5
    I disagree that it’s utter bullshit, but it’s an oversimplification. But there’s also an oversimplification in your comment. There aren’t really “good” or “bad” people; just people. I’d replace “people who otherwise pretend to be good” with “people who think they are universally good”. Nobody is the bad guy in their own story. That said, I think your list of expanded reasons covers it pretty well.

    Related to the OP and the comments:
    When I was growing up, my parents had a friend who had been a Nazi is WW2. It wasn’t something he really talked about but, through the years, I gathered some details from him and some more from his children. They thought they were the good guys, doing what needed to be done to protect themselves and the world from an imminent threat. It scares the crap out of me that our brains can make that kind of rationalization, but they can.

    He was captured quite early and kept in a Canadian POW camp. The moment he realized how horribly wrong he had been is when he got to the POW camp and was actually treated well. The enemy he thought he was fighting would never show compassion to captives. That’s what’s so horrible about things like the US torture program; it confirms the beliefs of “the enemy”.

    When Bush Jr.’s Iraq war started, it really messed with my head. Many of the things I heard coming out of the States reminded me of the things that had convinced my parents’ friend that they were on the side of good in WW2. Note: this is not to say that the US’s current actions are anywhere near as horrible as some of the things done by the Nazi’s, but it’s walking the same path. Also, plenty of comments by US citizens were/are just as horrible (“nuke all the sand-n***ers”, “savages who don’t deserve to live”, etc.). To be fair, Canada also has it’s share of such assholes but I think they are tolerated much less.

  9. says

    The phrase “good people” is pretty absurd, especially when used by people who are including themselves in the category, like for instance in tweets bemoaning the way “call-out culture” accuses “good people” of doing bad things. There are vanishingly few people who are so uniformly “good” that they never do bad things.

    We all err on the side of thinking we ourselves are good people, which is why we’re prey to cognitive dissonance. I’m good people, so this thing I did can’t be bad, because I’m good people. So the story gets distorted.

    That’s just one reason it’s not a good idea to assume one is good people.

  10. John Morales says



    We all err on the side of thinking we ourselves are good people […]

    I prefer to think I’m reasonable, because thinking of myself as good is too far a stretch.

    (I also don’t think I’m particularly exceptional in that regard)

  11. says

    Well…as I understand it it’s not about literally thinking, “I am good” – it’s not as explicit as that. It’s a built-in assumption.

    But, yeah, on an explicit level, I wouldn’t dream of calling myself “good people”…for a bunch of reasons. But some people do, apparently without diffidence or embarrassment.

  12. John Morales says

    I also cannot see how anyone who condones or facilitates or partakes of torture can imagine themselves to be a good person, but I can’t deny that some people have. 😐

  13. Golgafrinchan Captain says

    Just for full disclosure, I have said and thought the “for a good person to do bad things requires religion” statement before. It’s a nice pithy statement with an element of truth but I now try to avoid it. I even seem to recall saying it somewhere on FTB some time. {googles…} Here, although I at least padded it with qualifiers.

  14. Dunc says

    So, how do the torturers assigned to the time bomb terrorist know what they’re doing? Where and how do they acquire the skills to torture effectively?

    How exactly do they practice those skills?

    When the CIA were training the junta in El Salvador, they would abduct people off the streets. People no-one would look for – homeless people, prostitutes, street children… And they would use them to practice on. Some of them survived for years. One or two of them even survived the fall of the junta, and were able to tell what had been done to them. I can’t remember enough of the details to dig up references, but I’ve read terrible, terrible things. Things far, far worse than anything that’s so far been discussed in relation to the current “debate” around torture in the US. Imaging giving the worst mediaeval torturer access to power tools, electricity, surgical instruments, a detailed knowledge of human anatomy and physiology, and effective medical care…


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