A long-anticipated and highly controversial Senate Intelligence Committee report issued Tuesday documents the CIA’s secret system of imprisonment and torture of terrorism suspects around the world in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.
During the administration of former President George W. Bush, CIA officials and contractors carried out once unimaginable techniques in order to gain confessions and intelligence from terrorism suspects or enemy combatants in the chaos that followed September 11, 2001.
There is no question that some of the methods used were brutal. Detainees were subjected to waterboarding, chained and hung by their arms, deprived of sleep, beaten and tortured and even subjected to “rectal hydration,” a treatment meant to humiliate and subjugate prisoners.
George W. Bush said during his presidency that the detention and interrogation program was humane and legal, and that the intelligence extracted was critical to breaking up terrorism plots and capturing senior al-Qaeda figures. But the committee’s report, prepared by the Democratic majority staff, says the CIA was not forthcoming to the Bush administration or to the public about many details of the program, which President Obama cancelled after taking office.
The report released Tuesday also maintained that little of value was gained by the techniques.
Several former CIA directors, however, broadly challenged that assertion in a Wall Street Journal piece published Tuesday. George J. Tenet, Porter J. Goss and others said the torture program, despite its flaws, led to the capture of senior al-Qaeda operatives, helped disrupt terrorist plots and prevent further mass attacks against America and its allies, and provided critical information about the al-Qaeda organization.
“There is no doubt that information provided by the totality of detainees in CIA custody, those who were subjected to interrogation and those who were not, was essential to bringing bin Laden to justice,” the former CIA executives also noted. “The CIA never would have focused on the individual who turned out to be bin Laden’s personal courier without the detention and interrogation program.”
The “black site” program spanned four years, between 2002 and 2006, when Bush finally ordered all 119 detainees, including 26 who had been wrongfully held, to be sent to one of the most notorious and costly prisons in the world – the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Gitmo, established after 9/11, will cost the U.S. government $443 million this year alone. The military prison within Guantanamo Bay Naval Base began holding and interrogating dangerous people captured as part of the “war on terror” in January 2002. Some interrogations led to prosecutions of those deemed to have committed war crimes.
More than a dozen years after the Bush administration sent the first prisoners to Guantanamo – from Eastern Europe, Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere – there are mounting questions as to whether President Obama will be able to fulfill his promise to close the costly facility.
A 2005 Amnesty International report called the facility the “Gulag of our time.” A recent United Nations report found serious problems still exist at Gitmo, including abuse and force feedings.
The Obama administration has succeeded in releasing roughly a dozen prisoners this year. Last weekend, six detainees were flown to Uruguay for resettlement. Seven other prisoners have been transferred since early November, including three to Georgia, two to Slovakia, one to Saudi Arabia and one to Kuwait, The Washington Post reported.
The prison population now stands at 136, including dozens of low-level prisoners. The administration has repeatedly struck out in trying to convince Congress to remove its ban on transferring the remaining 70 higher-level detainees to a prison in the U.S.
Gen. John F. Kelly, leader of the United States Southern Command, which oversees the prison facility, has said the Gitmo complex is a long way from being closed without a dramatic turnabout in the thinking of lawmakers.
As Congress rushes to complete spending bills for the rest of the fiscal year, the administration has begun stressing another argument: The prison is becoming preposterously expensive to operate in perpetuity.
Cliff Sloan, the State Department’s special envoy on detainee transfers, said the mounting cost is likely to get the attention of budget-conscious lawmakers. “In addition to the other powerful and compelling reasons for closure, one very important point is the wildly exorbitant drain on federal resources,” Sloan said. “Guantanamo just doesn’t make sense as a fiscal matter.”
The disparity in the costs of operating GITMO and most other prisons largely has to do with its isolated location adjoining Cuba. The U.S. and Cuba are longstanding adversaries with no formal diplomatic relations; the U.S. has also long imposed economic and trade sanctions on Cuba.
So the U.S. military cannot use domestic labor, cannot purchase domestic materials and supplies, must generate its own electricity, and must operate two hospitals – one for detainees, one for U.S. military and staff. Supplies, material and personnel must be flown in, pushing up costs substantially.
The facility that holds the most notorious detainees – including Khalid Shaik Mohammed, the self-proclaimed mastermind of the 9/11 attacks – was built on unstable terrain and must be replaced for long-term use. Last year, the Southern Command wanted $200 million to rebuild the structure and upgrade housing for the 2,000 members of the prison taskforce, but the Pentagon rejected it.
If all else fails, Obama may try again to circumvent Congress with an executive order to shutter the facility. The White House was drafting options, The Wall Street Journal reported last month.
Republicans said Obama’s threat of moving suspected terrorists to the U.S. could endanger Americans.
“Even as Islamic jihadists are beheading Americans, the White House is so eager to bring these terrorists from Guantanamo Bay to the U.S. that it is examining ways to thwart Congress,” House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) said in a recent statement. “Not only is this scheme dangerous, it is yet another example of what will be this administration’s legacy of lawlessness.”
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