The CIA’s Bureaucracy of Torture

Bureaucratic inertia the CIA’s desire for bigger budgets and then its fear of negative consequences helped drive the torture program from its frantic start to its belated finish, as Gareth Porter explains.

By Gareth Porter

The Senate Intelligence Committee’s 500-page “executive summary” of the 6,700-page full report on the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation” program has completely shattered the official myth that the torture of al-Qaeda detainees – which the CIA calls “enhanced interrogation techniques” – somehow helped to thwart further terrorist attacks.

After examining six million pages of official CIA documents, the committee staff refuted every one of the CIA’s claims that its torture program generated the crucial intelligence that led to the disruption of plots and the apprehension of terrorist suspects.

CIA seal in lobby of the spy agency's headquarters. (U.S. government photo)

CIA seal in lobby of the spy agency’s headquarters. (U.S. government photo)

The committee’s case is documented in such mind-numbing detail, based on the CIA’s own internal documents, that the CIA was compelled to acknowledge in its responses in June 2013 to each specific case analyzed that it had repeatedly “mischaracterized” the relationship between its detention and interrogation program and the disruption or failure of various proposed terrorist actions.

But the committee report leaves little doubt that the CIA was not simply mistaken about the issues involved; it had for years been systematically lying about virtually every aspect of the torture program.

The report revealed that senior CIA officials decided in 2005 to destroy the videotapes of interrogations carried out under the program when the idea of an independent investigation of the program was first broached. The destruction was clearly carried out in order to ensure that the evidence could not be used to prosecute those responsible.

The report’s complete demolition of the rationale for the torture program raises an obvious question: if the CIA knew that it was not really getting information that would help prevent terrorist attacks, why did the program continue until 2008? Why not cut the agency’s losses years earlier?

The answer to that question lies not in the normal human reasoning but in the fundamental logic of all bureaucratic organizations. By their nature, bureaucracies seek to expand and defend their power, prominence and resources, and the CIA is no exception. The agency’s detention and torture program is a perfect example of how national security institutions pursue their organizational interests at the expense of even the most obvious interests of the nation they are supposed to serve.

What created the opportunity for the program, as CIA Director George Tenet recalled later, was the fact that Pakistani counter-terrorism officials rounded up more than two dozen al-Qaeda operatives simultaneously in March 2002. This quickly led to the capture of Abu Zubaydah, the highest-ranking al-Qaeda operative at that time – although his actual status in the hierarchy was apparently not very high.

The prospect of extracting crucial intelligence from Zubaydah and other “high-value detainees” prompted Tenet and his associates to begin developing the idea for a whole new program that would go well beyond existing legal and ethical boundaries for interrogation. The CIA detention and interrogation program, based on hitherto forbidden abuses of detainees, was born.

The powerful appeal of such a program to the CIA’s counter-terrorism officials lay in the huge enlargement of the CIA role in U.S. national security policy. The currency by which senior CIA officials measure the agency’s bureaucratic power is what they referred to as their “authorities”  –  their freedom to undertake various activities.

By taking on a new role in detention and interrogation of terrorist suspects, the CIA clearly stood to make unprecedented gains in this kind of power. Tenet hints in his memoirs that: “We were asking for and we would be given as many authorities as the CIA ever had.” The most important such “authority,” of course, was the legal assurance that what had previously been considered illegal and “torture” would now be redefined as something else.

What was arguably equally or even more important to senior CIA officials working on terrorism was the opportunity to occupy center stage in what appeared to be the most compelling drama of the post 9/11 era. CIA officials certainly imagined themselves as extracting “actionable intelligence” from high-level detainees with their tough new approach to interrogation and being given credit for preventing the new attacks that they were certain were being hatched.

It was such dreams of basking in the glory of being responsible for saving the country from future terrorist attacks that gave the CIA torture project such bureaucratic momentum.

What animates national security bureaucracies to push for major new programs is the desperate need to be important – to be a major “player” in big issue of the era. James Risen recounts in his new book, Pay Any Price, how the CIA’s Directorate of Science swallowed a fraudulent claim by a shady contractor in 2003 that they had a digital technology that could decode al-Qaeda terrorism instructions embedded in Al-Jazeera broadcasts – all because the directorate was afraid it had lost its importance in the previous several years.

The same need prompted the CIA to sign a deal up two contract psychologists who pushed an equally fraudulent theory of interrogation they called “learned helplessness,” which held that the way to get prisoners to spill all their secrets is to break their will.

Just as the Directorate of Science was taken in because of its dreams of a new status, the CIA bought into the false interrogation theory because it played into the heroic fantasy of breaking the will of the evil-doers and stopping the terrorists from striking again. It may not be accidental that the notion that torture would work on the bad guys surfaced in the wake of the enormously popular TV series “24” in which Jack Bauer showed millions of Americans how it could be done  – albeit without the elaborate machinery of abuse that the CIA would create.

But the CIA’s efforts to extract actionable intelligence by breaking the will of the detainees turned out to be an unrealistic fantasy, as the Senate committee report documents. The detainees, who had often been cooperative prior to the application of torture tactics, simply told the torturers what they wanted to hear, as the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) had warned before refusing to be associated with the CIA tactics.

Senior CIA officials had pushed false information about how successful the program had been from the very beginning, claiming credit for disruptions and captures that had nothing to do with the torture program. Yet by 2005, it was evident to many in the CIA that the experiment had been a failure. CIA officials involved in the program recognized that negative messages about the program were beginning to seep out – so they had to become even more aggressive in lying about the program.

The Senate report quotes the deputy director of the CIA’s Counter-terrorism Center in a message to a colleague in 2005 as saying: “We either get out and sell it or we get hammered.” If Congress sees negative media coverage of the program, he warned, “it cuts our authorities, messes up our budget. [T]here is no middle ground.”

So the program didn’t end when it became clear that it didn’t work the way it was supposed to for the simple reason that the officials involved had too much to lose.

Gareth Porter is an independent investigative journalist and historian writing on US national security policy.  His latest book, Manufactured Crisis: The Untold Story of the Iran Nuclear Scare, was published in February 2014. [The story was originally published by Middle East Eye with a disclaimer that the views expressed were those of the author and did not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

5 comments for “The CIA’s Bureaucracy of Torture

  1. Terry Washington
    December 15, 2014 at 04:50

    Fortunately it seems that several other European counrties(and possibly the Hague based International Criminal Court) may be willing to step up to the plate where the US chickens out- several CIA and military officials involved in the torture program are reportedly fearful of travel abroad lest they be “Pinochet’d”( that is arrested on human rights violations charges as was the late Chilean strongman was in October 1998)!


  2. Generalfeldmarschall von Hindenburg
    December 14, 2014 at 21:52

    It’s hard to escape the conclusion that this whole programme was executed by people with some serious psycho sexual issues they need help with.

  3. Zachary Smith
    December 14, 2014 at 14:44

    More on my remark about why BHO isn’t likely to prosecute:

    Yet Obama did not ban torture in 2009, and has not rescinded it now. He instead rehabilitated torture with a carefully crafted Executive Order that has received little scrutiny.

    From an internal link in the above story:

    Jeff Kaye is really the “go-to” guy about the Obama torture. IMO he’d be a great author to invite to this site from time to time.

    In my opinion, the Bush/Cheney torturers were vicious clowns. The Obama torturers are cold professionals, and if you ever get into their clutches, you WILL break! And there probably won’t be any marks on your body, either.


    Another thought about my previous post – there is at least one more layer of protection for the All-American Torturers. A Presidential Pardon.

    We are SO screwed…..

    • F. G. Sanford
      December 14, 2014 at 21:35

      Yes, but he can’t pardon himself. That’s got to be keeping him up at night.

  4. Zachary Smith
    December 14, 2014 at 11:43

    “We were asking for and we would be given as many authorities as the CIA ever had.”

    In the modern United States that’s all it took: he asked for “authorities” and Cheney lined up some creepy lawyers like John Yoo who obligingly said that US Law and International Treaties now meant nothing.


    At the same time, Obama said that he understood the pressure that the CIA was under after the Sept. 11 attacks, and that “it is important for us not to feel too sanctimonious in retrospect about the tough job that those folks had.”

    A poster at the Sic Semper Tyrannis site had this remark: “If he truly said {bolded above}, then he is as depraved as the rest.”

    Well, BHO truly said it, and he really is as depraved as the rest. From the SST site again:


    – Brennan has made himself an accomplice in what amounts to a criminal conspiracy to violate federal law. He should be fired and should be prosecuted for that crime.

    – The Obama Justice Department should reverse its stated position and re-open investigations that may lead to the indictment of Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rodriguez, and all those who participated in this criminal violation of US and international law. For the president and Holder to fail to do this would make them be in violation of their oaths of office. They swore to see that the law of the US would be upheld and enforced.

    – All interested readers of SST should press their governments abroad to have their courts indict all those guilty of crimes against the Torture Convention in international law.

    – The full senate report on this matter is over 6,000 pages long and is at present classified as was the 500 page summary. The full report should be de-classified and released to the public. The material to be released is mainly CIA cables and internal documents that support the summary judgments aleady released. IMO the full report should be released in an unredacted form so that those guilty of these crimes against US and international law can be identified and prosecuted for their crimes.

    – The large sums of money paid to the torture psychologists should be “clawed back” in the process of prosecuting these consultants.

    – To prevent future “adventures” of this sort, covert action should be removed from CIA’s menu of missions and placed under DoD where effective oversight by Congress and a bias against adventurism is predominent. This was the case in WW2 when OSS (a JCS subordinated organization) ran covert operations. CIA should be an organization that does clandestine HUMINT (espionage) and nothing else.

    I’d give long odds none of this is going to happen, and here is one reason.

    Sometimes you really don’t need to write much to do an article on something. Writing about the inanity of Justice Antonin Scalia, the ethics-challenged, lard-bottomed, right-wing anchor of the Supreme Court, is one of those times.

    This was about Scalia recently defending torture.

    Obama isn’t going to press charges. If he was somehow forced to do so, the charges would be the weakest/mildest possible. And if a jury – by some unthinkable miracle – convicted the torturers, the Supreme Court would overthrow that conviction.

    Our fate is to be seen as a pariah nation, and the contempt for our lawless hypocrisy will only grow.

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