Tim Reid in Washington
The author of a scathing report on CIA interrogations during the Bush era has claimed that certain operatives lost control once they had been authorised to use “enhanced” interrogation techniques such as waterboarding.
John Helgerson, the former inspector-general of the CIA, also told The Times that the Obama Administration had cut key passages of his report out of the released version, a decision he found “puzzling”.
Mr Helgerson told The Times that the CIA had given assurances to the Justice Department that although the techniques would be used more than once, repetition would “not be substantial”.
In fact, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the self-proclaimed mastermind of the September 11, 2001, attacks, was waterboarded 183 times in March 2003 — the month he was captured — while Abu Zubaydah, another top al-Qaeda official, was waterboarded 83 times.
“The very large number of applications to which some detainees were subjected [to the waterboard] led to the inescapable conclusion that the agency was abusing this technique,” Mr Helgerson said.
In the report, which was suppressed for five years until it was released under a judge’s order on Monday, Mr Helgerson says that in 2002 the Justice Department authorised a dozen harsh interrogation techniques for terror suspects and advised the CIA that they did not constitute torture.
Yet, he said, the Justice Department did not consider in 2002 whether such methods —
now banned — were in contravention of Article 16 of the UN Torture Convention, which prohibits cruel or degrading treatment and to which the US is a signatory.
“In fact,” Mr Helgerson said, “it appeared that certain of the techniques were designed solely because they were degrading.”
His report detailed a litany of excesses in secret CIA “black site” prisons between 2002 and 2004, described as “unauthorised, improvised, inhumane and undocumented”. Interrogators staged mock executions, repeatedly choked a detainee, lifted another off the floor by his arms while they were bound behind his back with a belt, threatened sexually to assault a prisoner’s mother and kill another’s children, scrubbed one inmate with a stiff brush until his legs were raw and beat one man with a heavy torch.
The revelations in the report convinced Mr Obama’s Attorney-General, Eric Holder, to announce on Monday a criminal investigation of detainee abuse by the CIA.
Mr Helgerson was particularly critical of the Justice Department for poor oversight. He said that even the CIA operatives who exceeded its guidelines were acting in good faith, because they believed that they would gain valuable intelligence.
To Mr Helgerson’s dismay, his final recommendations — which centred on the training and oversight of CIA interrogators, and the legal boundaries in which they should operate — were blacked out by the Obama Administration when it released his report on Monday.
His report has only fuelled the emotive debate over whether torture works. Mr Helgerson concedes that the interrogation sessions elicited an enormous amount of valuable intelligence — an observation pounced upon by Dick Cheney, the former Vice-President. Yet Mr Helgerson cannot say if it was the harshness of the tactics that produced the information or other factors.
“It was not self-evident that the information that was most useful followed a session where somebody was waterboarded. Perhaps it was only because he had been in detention for a long time or had been questioned by someone using traditional techniques,” Mr Helgerson said.