Why Americans Should Care More About the CIA’s Torture Program

Few Americans read the recent Senate report on controversial CIA interrogation practices under the administration of George W. Bush. In fact, so few knew the details of the report that The Daily Dot summarized its highlights in an easily digestible collection of “11 fun memes”: short quotes about torture practices superimposed on images of Bush in a cowboy hat, holding a dog and posing with his wife. However, there is a phenomenon more unsettling than these memes. Despite mainstream press coverage, the general public seemed apathetic about the report’s revelations. Why? Perhaps the controversy of torture practices is not obvious. Yes, the CIA tortured terrorists. But many people think: “so what?”

One of The Daily Dot’s memes illustrating highlights from the Senate report on CIA interrogation practices.

The American public should be outraged, and not just about the inhumanity of CIA practices; this report reveals the extent to which the CIA fell victim to post-9/11 hysteria, the lack of accountability within the organization and the dearth of transparency in US government institutions. As a leader with great moral power in the international community, the US should promote international standards of human rights and good governance, not undercut these global aims in its domestic affairs.

Prior to the 9/11 attacks, the CIA self-reported that coercive interrogations “do not produce intelligence” and “will probably produce false answers.” How could a government organization disregard its own policy, even in the face of a national tragedy? Shocking as the 9/11 attacks were, they did not change the basic fact that torture has not been shown to help extract useful and reliable information, not to mention the ethical controversy that torture raises. But 9/11 irreversibly altered the psyche of American intelligence, turning a practice that once seemed out of the question into a feasible strategy.

As a result, and despite the previous conviction of the inefficacy of “coercive interrogations,” between late 2001 and early 2009 the CIA subjected detainees to waterboarding (that resulted in “a series of near drownings”), “rectal feeding,” “sleep deprivation for up to a week” and other techniques that caused psychological traumas such as “hallucinations, paranoia, insomnia, and attempts at self-harm and self-mutilation,” not to mention the death of at least one detainee. Perhaps, then, the torture program launched in the wake of 9/11 was more of a calculated response to make up for past failures than a desperate, fear-driven reaction of intelligence officers at a loss for how to proceed after a national tragedy.

The terrorist attacks on 9/11 left the US in shock and provided the impetus for the CIA’s new program of enhanced interrogation, or torture.

Once set in motion, the program gained momentum from the CIA’s twisted internal psychology. Officers became invested in the torture they ordered and carried out; perhaps this helps explain how easily the organization came to reverse its previous anti-torture philosophy. In fact, the senior officer responsible for shaping the post-9/11 interrogation program, the same one who oversaw the “underling” who failed to report that Al-Qaeda operatives had entered our borders, “gleefully” and personally participated in interrogations. Before waterboarding African-American Muslim Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in 2003, she sent a “bubbly” cable to the CIA offices: “i love the Black American Muslim at AQ camps in Afghanuistan [sic.]. … Mukie (K.S.M.) is going to be hatin’ life on this one.” This is not the voice of a staunch patriot performing her unpleasant duty for the benefit of her country; she appears to relish the pain she is about to inflict on Mohammed. The tone of the cable brings to mind the chilling results of the Stanford prison experiment, in which ordinary members of the public were quick to willingly inflict pain on volunteers posing as inmates simply because they were placed in a prison environment and given a specific role to play. The experiment demonstrated humans’ extraordinary ability to internalize cruelty under the right conditions, perhaps explaining the events that transpired within the CIA.

In implementing the enhanced interrogation program, senior CIA officers created a culture of internal unaccountability and unsafe practices, another byproduct of warped psychology within the institution. The report details an interrogation conducted by an officer with no previous experience and reveals that officers were “rarely held accountable” for “death, injury and wrongful detention.” When CIA interrogators reported feeling “visually and psychologically uncomfortable … some to the point of tears and choking up” after witnessing a waterboarding that left the detainee “unresponsive until medical intervention,” senior officers commanded that they proceed even though “it seem[ed]the collective opinion that [they]should not go much further.” On another occasion, a senior official dismissed concerns that his interrogations exceeded legal limits of torture by claiming that “the guidelines of this activity” had been “vetted at the most senior levels of the agency [the CIA].” It appears that the highest echelons of the agency held full control over the development and execution of “enhanced interrogation,” answering to no one for the program’s efficacy.

The CIA’s internal functioning brings to mind the psychological phenomena “groupthink,” in which irrational decisions result from collective pressure. Several of the symptoms eerily echo the specific situations discussed in the report (and on a larger scale, the country’s entire post-9/11 mindset): collective rationalization, the illusion of invulnerability, belief in inherent morality and a stereotyped view of “the enemy.” It is a widely known fact of psychology that decisions made under the influence of groupthink have a very low chance of being successful. Combined with the lack of internal and external accountability, it is hardly surprising that CIA practices spiraled outside accepted realms of reason and ethics.

At this point, the question becomes: was the government outside of the CIA aware of what was happening? The answer is “usually not”. In fact, the CIA went out of its way to cover up past failures, misrepresent the efficacy of extreme interrogation techniques and generally obscure their practices. Throughout the nine years that the CIA employed extreme interrogation, senior CIA officers systematically misled the US government, reporting to “officials at the White House, Department of Justice, and the Congress,” as well as other executive branch bodies, that “enhanced interrogation techniques were uniquely effective and necessary to produce otherwise unavailable intelligence” that allegedly even “saved lives.” As previously mentioned, torture does not help glean truthful information. For instance, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, under “physical duress,” falsely confirmed terrorist presence in the US in 2003, leading CIA officers “on a wild goose chase for black Muslim Al-Qaeda operatives in Montana.” If harsh interrogation did in fact produce otherwise inaccessible intelligence, then the exhaustive Senate report must have forgotten to mention any concrete examples. Meanwhile, CIA officials also underreported the number of detainees and the harshness of interrogation strategies, and resisted Congressional oversight by “providing false information” and refusing to answer questions about the interrogation program.

Protesters led by the Campaign Against Military Bases demonstrate waterboarding on occasion of Condoleezza Rice’s visit to Iceland. Waterboarding was among the strategies the CIA used to interrogate its detainees, as revealed in the Senate committee report.

In the famous words of Thomas Paine, “a body of men holding themselves accountable to nobody ought not to be trusted by anybody.” And yet, perhaps the most disturbing implication of the CIA report is the lackluster response of the American public. According to a recent study conducted by the Pew Research Center, the general response has been far from outrage and demand for increased transparency and accountability in our government. 51% of respondents saw the CIA’s interrogation techniques as “justified,” with a hefty 20% responding with an apathetic “don’t know.” A full 56% believed that intelligence gathered from torture prevented terror attacks, and more people (43%) thought that the release of the report to the public was the “wrong decision” rather than the right one (42%). Though everything from court records to Congress sessions are available to the public by law, the American zeal for transparency does not apply here; perhaps the people place blind trust in the government where safety is concerned, valuing the promise of security over the public right to information. Or, perhaps the public still has a false conception that torture is an effective intelligence practice.

The American people should be more concerned about the implications of this report since the findings reflect poorly not only on the CIA officers directly involved in interrogation, but also on the US as a whole to the international community. The US remains a country with great moral power in today’s world; it must set and uphold global standards in areas like human rights. Otherwise, its leaders are hypocritical as they attempt to promote humane treatment of all people around the world, losing face and credibility in the international community and giving anti-US governments easy ammunition for criticism. For instance, after the release of the Senate report, the Russian Foreign Ministry denounced the “gross, systemic human rights violations by the American authorities,” a criticism that ironically reverses the US’s history of targeting Russia for its own human rights violations. Meanwhile, Iran capitalized on this opportunity to “claim the moral and ethical authority in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and Lebanon,” with the Iranian Foreign Ministry stating, “the content of this shocking report shows violence, extremism, and secrecy institutionalized in the U.S. security system.”

If the US aims to maintain its ideational power, then its leaders must present a cohesive image representing values of good governance and human rights protection. The Senate report on CIA torture clearly derailed this goal. It is now vital that the country as a whole takes responsibility for these transgressions. The best response to preserve its international reputation would entail a visible overhaul of the internal structures that gave rise to and perpetuated this dishonesty. Beyond foreign policy concerns, the US should amend CIA practices to uphold the established ethical code. The majority of the international community – including the US – has condemned the use of torture, as codified in the Geneva Conventions. Torture is fundamentally wrong, even in the wake of national tragedy.

The views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect those of the Glimpse from the Globe staff, editors, or governors.


Katya Lopatko

Katya is a senior studying International Relations and French. Her primary research and writing interests include politics and society of Europe and Latin America, the political culture, society and history of Russia, sustainability and sociocultural trends as they relate to politics. She has written for Glimpse since her freshman year, but her campus involvement includes a broad range of organizations—Trojan Marketing Group, Annenberg Digital Media, the Joint Education Program and Bloom Boutique, a secondhand boutique she founded to promote sustainability on campus. Katya has interned at the European Institute for Asian Studies in Brussels and conducted research on the political economy of Ecuador under Professor Carol Wise.