A still-secret US Senate Intelligence Committee report calls into question the legal foundation of the CIA's use of waterboarding and other harsh interrogation techniques on suspected terrorists.
The finding challenges the key defence on which the agency and the administration of US president George W.Bush relied in arguing that the methods did not constitute torture.
The report also found that the spy agency failed to keep an accurate account of the number of people it held, and that it issued erroneous claims about how many it subjected to the controversial interrogation methods. The CIA has said that about 30 detainees underwent "enhanced interrogation techniques".
The CIA's claim "is BS", said a former US official familiar with evidence underpinning the report, who asked not to be identified because it is still classified. "They are trying to minimise the damage. They are trying to say it was a very targeted programme, but that's not the case."
The findings are among the report's 20 main conclusions. Taken together, they paint a picture of an agency that seemed intent on evading or misleading nearly all who oversaw it throughout the programme, which was launched under the Bush administration after the September 11, 2001 attacks and ran until 2006.
Some of the report's other conclusions, which were obtained by McClatchy-Tribune, include:
- The CIA used interrogation methods that were not approved by the Justice Department or CIA headquarters;
- The agency impeded effective White House oversight and decision-making regarding the programme;
- The CIA actively evaded or impeded congressional oversight of the programme; and
- The agency hindered oversight of the programme by its own Inspector General's Office.
The investigation determined that the programme produced very little intelligence of value and that the CIA misled the Bush White House, Congress and the public about the effectiveness of the interrogation techniques, committee members have said.
The 6,300-page report is the culmination of a four-year, US$40 million investigation into the detention and interrogation programme by the Democrat-led committee. A final draft was approved in December 2012, but it has undergone revisions. The panel voted 11-3 on April 3 to send the report's 480-page executive summary, the findings and conclusions to the executive branch for declassification before public release.
Asked to comment on the findings, CIA spokesman Dean Boyd said: "Given the report remains classified, we are unable to comment. As we have stated previously, the CIA, in consultation with other agencies, will carry out an expeditious classification review of those portions of the final [Senate committee] report submitted to the executive branch for review."
Senate Intelligence Committee chairwoman Dianne Feinstein also declined to comment, except to say: "If someone distributed any part of this classified report, they broke the law and should be prosecuted."
Interrogation techniques included waterboarding, which produces a sensation of drowning, stress positions, sleep deprivation for up to 11 days at a time, confinement in a cramped box, slaps and slamming detainees into walls. The CIA held detainees in secret "black site" prisons overseas and abducted others who it turned over to foreign governments to be tortured.
The CIA, which contends that it gained intelligence from the programme that helped identify al-Qaeda terrorists and averted plots against the US, agreed with some of the report's findings but disputed other conclusions in an official response last year.
The report has been embroiled in a public furore since Democrat Feinstein took to the Senate floor last month to accuse the CIA of possibly violating the law and the constitution by monitoring computers used by her staff to assemble the report, and by removing and blocking access to documents.
The Justice Department, meanwhile, launched a criminal investigation at the CIA's request into the alleged unauthorised removal of classified documents by Democratic committee staff from the top-secret facility where they were required to review more than six million pages of documents related to the interrogation programme.
Some current and former US officials and military commanders, numerous experts and foreign governments have condemned the harsh interrogation methods as violations of international and US laws against torture, a charge denied by the CIA and the Bush administration, which have based their defence on a series of top-secret legal opinions issued by the Justice Department beginning in August 2002. At that time, the agency sought advice on whether using the harsh techniques on Zayn al Abidin Muhammad Husayn, a close aide to Osama bin Laden who went by the nom de guerre Abu Zubaydah, would violate US laws against torture. The Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel found that the methods would not breach the law because those applying them did not have the specific intent of inflicting severe pain or suffering.
The Senate report, however, concluded that the Justice Department's legal analyses were based on flawed information provided by the CIA. "The CIA repeatedly provided inaccurate information to the Department of Justice, impeding a proper legal analysis of the CIA's Detention and Interrogation Programme," the report found.
Rights analysts said the conclusion called into question the programme's legal foundations.
"If the CIA fundamentally misrepresented what it was doing and that was what led [Justice Department] lawyers to conclude that the conduct was legal, then the legal conclusions themselves were inaccurate," said Andrea Prasow, a lawyer for Human Rights Watch.
"This just reinforces the view that everyone who has said the torture programme was legal has been selling a bill of goods and it's time to revisit the entire conventional wisdom being pushed by those who support enhanced interrogation that this programme was safe, humane and lawful," said Raha Wala, a lawyer with Human Rights First.
The report also said that CIA personnel used interrogation methods that were not approved by the Justice Department or CIA headquarters.
The conclusion that the CIA provided inaccurate information to the Justice Department also reflects the findings of a top-secret investigation of the programme by the CIA Inspector General's Office, which was triggered by allegations of abuse.
The inspector general's May 7, 2004 report, which was declassified, found that in waterboarding Zubaydah and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, deemed the chief architect of the September 11 attacks, the CIA went beyond the parameters it outlined to the Office of Legal Counsel, which wrote the legal opinions.
Zubaydah was waterboarded 82 times, and Mohammad 183 times.
Those cases clashed with the CIA's assertion - outlined in the now-declassified top-secret August 2002 Office of Legal Counsel opinion - that repetition of the methods "will not be substantial because the techniques generally lose their effectiveness after several repetitions".
The Office of Legal Counsel opinion stated that its finding that the harsh interrogation techniques did not constitute torture was based on facts provided by the CIA, and that "if these facts were to change, this advice would not necessarily apply".
The CIA inspector general's report found that the "continued applicability of the DOJ opinion" was in question because the CIA told the Justice Department that it would use waterboarding in the same way that it was used in training US military personnel to evade capture and resist the enemy. In fact, the inspector general's report continued, the CIA used waterboarding in a "manner different" from US training.
The CIA also failed to keep track of the number of individuals it captured under the programme, the Senate report concluded. Moreover, it said, the agency held people who did not meet the legal standard for detention. The report puts that number at 26, McClatchy has learned.
"The CIA did not conduct a comprehensive or accurate accounting of the number of individuals it detained and held individuals who did not meet the legal standard for detention," the report said. "The CIA's claims about the number of detainees held and subjected to its enhanced interrogation techniques were inaccurate."
"The CIA's records were hazy, inconsistent and at times inaccurate," said the former US official.