New York // The CIA’s interrogation of suspected Al Qaeda militants in the years after the 9/11 attacks was far more brutal than previously acknowledged and the agency lied to the White House and Congress about whether the use of torture produced any useful intelligence, a devastating senate report has found.
The 500-page declassified and heavily redacted summary of the long-delayed senate intelligence committee report was finally released on Tuesday, and painted a damning picture of a dysfunctional CIA programme that saw 119 known suspects taken to secret “black sites”, where many were subjected to violent interrogations.
At least 26 of the detainees were taken because of bad intelligence or mistaken identities, the report, the first complete cataloguing of such cases, found.
It also detailed dozens of alleged instances when CIA officials lied to their overseers in the White House and Congress about how the “rendition, detention and interrogation” programme was being run, the competence of the personnel, and what kinds of leads it had actually produced.
The CIA claim that such methods led to key intelligence in the hunt for Osama bin Laden were either false or greatly exaggerated, the report said. US intelligence officials involved in the search for the Al Qaeda leader dispute this.
The report illustrates an agency itself deeply divided about the legality and usefulness of the programme. CIA medical staff warned that waterboarding had become nothing more than a “series of near drownings” and that detainees endured “rectal feeding” and other forms of torture that were not approved, unlike waterboarding.
Despite repeated claims by Bush administration officials that the “enhanced interrogations” were professionally administered and highly successful, the report summary said that “CIA officers regularly called into question whether the CIA’s enhanced interrogation techniques were effective, assessing that the use of the techniques failed to elicit detainee cooperation or produce accurate intelligence”.
After Democratic committee staff reviewed more than six million pages of documents over five years, the report found that the use of the CIA’s enhanced interrogation techniques was not an effective means of obtaining accurate information or gaining detainee cooperation.
Seven detainees who were subjected to the “enhanced interrogation” methods were found to have “produced no intelligence while in CIA custody”, while others “provided significant accurate intelligence prior to, or without having been subjected to these techniques.”
The summary also lays bare a pattern of repeated dishonesty about the programme. One internal CIA memo states instructions from the White House to keep the programme secret from the administration’s secretary of state, Colin Powell.
The US president Barack Obama said the report summary “documents a troubling programme” and “reinforces my long-held view that these harsh methods were not only inconsistent with our values as nation, they did not serve our broader counterterrorism efforts or our national security interests”.
He praised the agency’s work in the fight against Al Qaeda, but said the programme “did significant damage to America’s standing in the world and made it harder to pursue our interests with allies and partners”.
The US defence secretary, Chuck Hagel, said he had ordered US military commanders “everywhere in the world” to heighten security measures at diplomatic and military facilities amid fears of a backlash – particularly in Muslim countries – to the release of a senate report.
“I have ordered all our combatant commanders to be on high alert everywhere in the world,” the outgoing Pentagon chief said during an unannounced visit to Baghdad on Tuesday , adding that the precautionary measures were not in response to a specific threat.
Democrats on the senate intelligence committee released the summary on the now outlawed interrogation methods despite warnings from Republicans – including committee members who refused to participate in the report – that the it would trigger retaliations against Americans.
The report covers the detention and interrogation of suspects detained by the CIA between 2001 and 2009. Former president George W Bush, who authorised the programme, reportedly ended the use of torture before he left office. Mr Obama made such techniques illegal after taking office in 2009.
The detainees were subjected to waterboarding, which simulates drowning, stress positions, beatings and other methods at the CIA-run black sites around the world and at the Guantanamo Bay military base.
Among the details were internal CIA documents that showed deep concern among some officials over the inexperienced and unvetted personnel running the programme, voices of dissent that were consistently ignored.
Republicans opposed the release of the summary, with a pair of congressmen calling the move “reckless”.
Bush-era former intelligence and counterterrorism officials are reportedly preparing a media campaign to defend the CIA programme.
Those officials over the past week have already worked to preempt the report’s findings. Former vice president Dick Cheney, one of the main proponents of the programme, said on Monday that the CIA interrogation methods were “absolutely, totally justified” and added that the allegations that the CIA lied about its success or acted without legal authorisation are false.
“As far as I’m concerned, they ought to be decorated, not criticised,” he said.
George Bush told CNN on Sunday that “we’re fortunate to have men and women who work hard at the CIA serving on our behalf”.
“These are patriots. And whatever the report says, if it diminishes their contributions to our country, it is way off base.”
Other critics of the report, particularly among the intelligence community, say it does not go far enough in legally implicating Bush administration officials who pressured CIA officers to produce information from detainees, and also provided legal cover for using techniques that amounted to torture.
The usually hawkish senator John McCain, who himself was tortured while a prisoner of war in North Vietnam, said he supported the release of the report summary.
“The truth is sometimes a hard pill to swallow [and] is sometimes used by our enemies in attempts to hurt us,” Mr McCain said from the senate floor after the summary was released. “But the American people are entitled to it.”