Vaughn Wallace / Al Jazeera America

CIA apologists deceived the nation. Time to put them under oath

Senate torture report reveals we don’t know the full truth

December 9, 2014 4:45PM ET

The torture report released today by the Senate Intelligence Committee is the most comprehensive and definitive condemnation yet of the Central Intelligence Agency’s infamous detention and interrogation program. Though everyone is still studying the details, it appears the CIA and its contractors repeatedly and deliberately misrepresented the facts about the people they tortured, the intelligence they learned and the need for their methods.

It’s unclear as yet what lessons we should draw from the report. I represent Zain Abidin Mohammed Husain Abu Zubaydah, whose interrogation figures prominently; my client is mentioned 1,001 times, and that does not include the redacted portions. My co-counsel and I have not nearly finished studying the document.

Yet three things are already apparent.

First, the program was vastly more brutal than Americans had been led to believe. Now we know what “rectal rehydration” means, and anyone who wants can study the revolting particulars in footnote 584: “While IV infusion is safe and effective,” one officer wrote, explaining the attraction of this technique as a way to prevent a prisoner from dying of dehydration, the Agency was “impressed with the ancillary effectiveness of rectal infusion.”

Abu Zubaydah’s interrogation was so vicious, in fact, that an attending physician was cautioned before entering the room “that this is almost certainly not a place he’s even been before in his medical career … It is visually and psychologically very uncomfortable.” 

Watching the torture “had a profound effect on all staff members present … Everyone seems strong for now but if the group has to continue … we cannot guarantee how much longer.”

Some observers became “profoundly affected … some to the point of tears and choking up,” and “two, perhaps three” officers indicated they were “likely to elect transfer” if the torture continued.

So far as I can tell, no such solicitousness was shown for Abu Zubaydah.

Just as we would never ask whether chemical weapons work, the United States need never wonder whether torture works.

Second, the misrepresentations by the CIA were far more extensive than we thought. 

Abu Zubaydah, for instance, was the poster child for the CIA torture program.  He was the first prisoner held in a black site, the only prisoner subjected to every “enhanced” technique, and the person for whom the infamous torture memo was written.  If there were ever a case the agency wanted to get right, it would be his.

Yet the world now knows what we have been saying for years. In the studied understatement of bureaucracies everywhere, the report concludes the CIA’s representations about Abu Zubaydah were “inaccurate.” 

Indeed, all of the key allegations about Abu Zubaydah appear to have been discredited or withdrawn. For instance, the CIA sought legal clearance for his torture by insisting he was “well-versed” in counter-interrogation and that he “wrote Al-Qaeda’s manual on resistance techniques.” Yet “a review of CIA records found no information to support these claims.”

Likewise, the CIA claimed Abu Zubaydah had been part of “every major terrorist operation carried out by Al-Qaeda.” But this was also a lie: “CIA records,” the report concludes, “do not support these claims.”

Tucked away on page 410 is the CIA’s additional frank admission “that Abu Zubaydah was not a member of Al-Qaeda.” The citation is a CIA intelligence assessment dated Aug. 16, 2006. Yet countless officials, including former Bush, continued to describe Abu Zubaydah as Al-Qaeda long after this memo was written.

Such considerations naturally lead to the question of whether torture worked. In unequivocal terms, the report concludes it did not. In its first sentence, the committee finds “that the use of the CIA’s enhanced interrogation techniques was not an effective means of obtaining accurate information or gaining detainee cooperation.”

Putting that aside, I have always maintained that this is a false question we simply need not ask. Just as we would never ask whether chemical weapons work, the United States need never wonder whether torture works. For those who care, however, the answer is no.

Third, the report poses a challenge to our constitutional democracy. The question is simply whether the United States is afraid of the truth. I cannot believe we have fallen so far that the very prospect of open disclosure about a fully sanctioned program is a cause for fear and trembling. In Tuesday’s New York Times, Anthony Romero, the executive director of the ACLU, came out against prosecutions for anyone connected with the torture program. I have taken this position for years. Punishment is not nearly as important as truth, and I would gladly eschew the former in pursuit of the latter.

Meanwhile, former Vice President Dick Cheney and others involved in the program have complained bitterly that the report, which took years to prepare and was based on the examination of nearly 6 million pages of contemporaneously created material, including the original documents generated by the CIA, was in fact a partisan hatchet job.

Fine. Give them all immunity, put them under oath and start the tape.  

Joseph Margulies is a visiting professor of law and government at Cornell University. He represents Guantánamo Bay detainee Zain Abidin Mohammed Husain Abu Zubaydah and was the counsel of record in Rasul v. Bush (2004), involving detentions at the Guantánamo Bay Naval Station, and in Geren v. Omar and Munaf v. Geren (2008), involving detentions at Camp Cropper in Iraq. 

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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