The Report, a VICE-produced film, is out Friday
For a brief moment, the vicious attacks of September 11, 2001 brought the country together in an unprecedented moment of unity. But it wouldn’t be long before the government’s illegal response to those attacks—ranging from the creation of a vast new domestic surveillance apparatus to the embrace of torture—would quickly undermine any unifying goodwill.
The CIA’s embrace of extrajudicial rendition and torture would ultimately come to be one of the biggest scandals in American history. And were it not for a man named Daniel J. Jones and a 2014 report detailing the secret program, you may have never even learned about it.
The report, a 525 page synopsis of a still-classified 6,700 page review, found that between 2002 and 2008, the CIA operated a massive covert torture program largely untethered from meaningful oversight—justified by bunk data and lies.
The report found that of the 119 detainees held at covert CIA sites around the world, 39 were subject to extended sleep deprivation, waterboarding, prolonged standing, “simulated burials,” and extended exposure to cold. 26 of those detainees were found to be held “wrongfully,” with some accused of crimes they never committed. One died in captivity.
Despite CIA claims to the contrary, the report found the torture techniques used didn’t provide useful intelligence, something 400 years of scientific data had already proven.
“The use of the CIA’s enhanced interrogation techniques was not an effective means of obtaining accurate information or gaining detainee cooperation,” the report concluded.
The government’s flirtation with torture and rendition began as malicious bureaucracy usually does: with men convinced of their own moral infallibility—and plenty of paperwork.
Six days after the terrorist attacks on 9/11, President George W. Bush signed a secret memo giving the CIA wide latitude to detain suspected terrorists. In early 2002, Bush signed an executive order classifying accused terrorists as “unlawful enemy combatants who are not entitled to the protections that the Geneva Convention provides to prisoners of war.”
That same year, the Bush administration published a memo declaring that interrogation tactics such as waterboarding did not violate the law provided there is “no intent to cause severe pain.” Two years later, photos highlighting the US mistreatment of prisoners at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq showed the world the US had stumbled off the legal and ethical rails.
In 2005, a Washington Post story highlighted the CIA’s use of covert “black sites” in 8 foreign countries and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba used to retain and torture US government captives free from judicial oversight. Two years later, evidence emerged indicating that not only was the CIA torturing captives, it was deleting evidence of its brutal interrogation practices, something the vehemently CIA denied.
By 2009, these scandals resulted in inquiries by the United States Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI). Three years later the committee approved an extensive investigation into the government’s torture program. By 2014 a synopsis of the investigation had finally been released to the public, more than a decade after the torture program began.
Jones, a former FBI counter-terrorism analyst whose experience in bringing the scandal to light formed the backbone of the upcoming Vice-produced movie “The Report”—spent six years digging through evidence of the CIA’s wrongdoing. A seventh year was spent defending the report from CIA officials and others attempting to undermine its findings.
The CIA’s interest in covering up the scandal was such a concern, Jones in 2013 found it necessary to abscond with classified documents proving the CIA had lied repeatedly about the program. His worries turned out to be justified; later evidence would emerge that the CIA had “accidentally” and systematically deleted troves of data proving it had lied repeatedly.
Jones has long noted that the CIA and Bush and Obama era officials worked tirelessly to not only undermine his investigation, but to have him fired from his post. The CIA was so worried that years of lies related to the covert torture program would soon be exposed, it actively spied on Congressional staffers and investigators, including Jones.
The government’s ultimate response to the report has been a mixed bag.
The program, at least in its original form, was ended via executive order by President Bush in 2009. Bipartisan legislation co-authored by Senators McCain and Dianne Feinstein was passed in 2015 attempting to ban agencies from using many of the torture techniques described in the report, though human rights organizations would note the proposal contained ample loopholes.
Genuine justice would prove hard to come by. A 2012 investigation into the death of two detainees—one at Abu Ghraib and one at a CIA black site in Afghanistan—would end with no prosecutions. By 2014, the Obama administration had made it clear there would be no prosecution of any officials involved in the covert program or the destruction of evidence.
“I don’t think Congress as a whole has learned much from the episode,” Patrick Eddington, a former CIA analyst and ex-House senior staffer, told Motherboard.
Eddington pointed to recent Congressional and CIA efforts to update the 1982 Intelligence Identities Protection Act at the CIA’s request, with an eye on imposing harsher penalties on journalists and whistleblowers looking to expose future ethical lapses at the CIA. That said, Eddington noted Jones’ contributions to government transparency were invaluable.
“The Torture Report would not have been possible without him,” he said. “One of the best staffers ever to work on the Hill, in my view.”
If there’s any lesson to be learned from the scandal, it’s that the government routinely lacks comprehensive insight into what the CIA is doing despite years of scandal proving that exact point. From the 1970s discovery of covert CIA assasination programs to the agency’s illegal and immoral infatuation with torture, keeping the CIA accountable to the public remains an uphill climb.
“Pressure, fear, and expectation of further terrorist plots do not justify, temper, or excuse improper actions taken by individuals or organizations in the name of national security,” the report proclaimed. “The major lesson of this report is that regardless of the pressures and the need to act, the [government’s] actions must always reflect who we are as a nation, and adhere to our laws and standards.”
That lesson, as certain modern scandals make painfully clear, remains very much a work in progress.