Senate, CIA agree interrogation program mismanaged

Stephen Braun
Associated Press

Washington — While the Senate report on the CIA’s interrogation program and the spy agency’s official response clash on almost every aspect of the long-secret operation, both reports largely agree the agency mismanaged the now-shuttered program.

The reports differ sharply on various aspects of the program, from the brutality and effectiveness of its methods to the agency’s secret dealings with the Bush White House, Congress and the media.

The 525-page summary from the Senate Intelligence Committee paints a chaotic landscape of bureaucratic dysfunction, showing an agency unprepared to take control of terrorist prisoners, unqualified field interrogators who overstepped their legal authority and CIA bosses ignorant of exactly how many detainees were warehoused in their overseas prisons. CIA oversight, the Senate committee found, “was deeply flawed throughout the program’s duration.”

The CIA agrees in its official response that “the agency made serious missteps in the management and operation of the program.”

But it said the breakdowns came in the program’s early days and that internal changes corrected much of the disarray before President George W. Bush ordered the “black site” prisons emptied in 2006.

The divide over the depth of the CIA’s management failures reflects a long-standing history of conflict between the agency and its critics over how mistakes should be corrected — and whether reforms should come from within or be forced from outside.

The committee’s chairwoman, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-California, said the panel aimed to “ensure coercive interrogation practices are not used by our government again.”

The agency has proposed a series of changes that would more tightly monitor its covert action programs, but CIA Director John Brennan has been less clear about whether the agency would ever again use interrogation techniques that President Barack Obama calls torture.

“We are not contemplating at all getting back into the detention program,” Brennan said at a recent news conference. But he added that the agency would “defer to the policymakers.”

The most glaring human evidence of mismanagement cited by the committee is its description of the agency’s wrongful detention of at least 26 prisoners and CIA officials’ inability to account for 44 detainees held in one overseas prison facility.

The report cites the prison only as “Detention Site Cobalt,” but former U.S. officials who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive material identified it as the agency’s now-abandoned dungeon in Afghanistan known as the “Salt Pit.”

The Senate report cites the high-profile case of Khalid al-Masri, a Lebanese man living in Germany who was grabbed in 2003 by Macedonian authorities and handed over to U.S. officials on erroneous suspicions of terrorist ties.

Al-Masri was flown to the Salt Pit, where he was subjected to abusive interrogation tactics and held for months until his captors turned him loose on an Albanian road in April 2004. He sued the U.S. government unsuccessfully in American courts but won compensation from Macedonia in a 2012 judgment by the European Court of Human Rights.

The Senate report said the al-Masri case was only the most well-known of nearly a dozen instances where “officers at CIA headquarters continued to fail to properly monitor justifications for the capture and detention of detainees.”

The agency agreed that mistaken detentions “remain a blemish on CIA’s record of interpreting and working within its terrorism authorities.” But the CIA questioned the Senate’s numbers and said that internal reforms tightened oversight.

“CIA acknowledges that it detained at least six individuals who failed to meet the proper standard for detention,” the agency wrote. It said some detainees counted by the Senate were not part of the CIA’s program.

The Senate report said CIA cables and memos showed that agency headquarters officials were stunned in 2003 to learn that they had 44 previously unreported detainees in one prison — also identified by the former officials as the Salt Pit.

All of the detainees had been held in solitary confinement for months and many had no known intelligence value. The report says most were later released, with some given CIA compensation.

Both reports blame poor record-keeping, particularly the lack of documents justifying each suspect’s detention. The CIA agreed that “many of the appropriate records are either absent or inadequate, especially during the 2002-2003 period.”

But the agency said that standards tightened, adding that the Senate report “tars CIA’s entire (detention and interrogation) effort with the mistakes of the first months.”