Monday marked the five-year anniversary of the release of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s executive summary on the CIA’s torture program. The former top Senate Intelligence Committee investigator, Daniel Jones, and his team combed through 6.3 million pages of CIA records. Jones discusses the yearslong battle with the Bush and Obama administrations to make public the findings of this still-classified 7,000-page report. In this bonus episode, Jones expands on the torture report findings.
Jones is the subject of the new feature film, “The Report,” starring Adam Driver and Annette Bening, and the host of its companion podcast, “The Report Podcast,” with Kelly McEvers, where they unpack the story of the CIA’s torture program, the Senate’s investigation, and the ensuing cover-up.
We aired an excerpt of this interview on Intercepted. What follows is the transcript of the entire conversation.
Jeremy Scahill: I’m Jeremy Scahill, coming to you from the offices of The Intercept in New York City. And this is a special bonus episode of Intercepted.
Donald Trump: What they’re doing is a very bad thing for our country. It’s of no merit and the Republican Party has never been more unified ever. They’ve never been as unified as they are right now. I’ve never seen anything like it.
JS: To say that the presidency of Donald Trump operates from a scandal-filled swamp is a dramatic understatement. There is the impeachment drama unfolding replete with abundant evidence that Trump sought to use the office of the presidency to undermine a political opponent, namely Joe Biden. There are many questions surrounding financial impropriety, the way the Trump businesses have functioned during his time in office and the looming questions about his tax returns and financial dealings. His campaign manager is in prison, his former lawyer is in prison, and his current personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, seems intent on assisting prosecutors in nailing him for all sorts of dirty business.
But, aside from these scandals, Trump is also engaged in the more common form of presidential crimes. These are the actions of presidents throughout history that go completely unpunished and are actually often are celebrated. I’m talking about war crimes and crimes of economic terror. Just listen to how House Speaker Nancy Pelosi recently defended her decision not to impeach George W Bush for the crimes of the Iraq War when she was questioned by a university student at a CNN town hall.
Student: Why did you oppose impeachment in the past and what is your obligation to protect our democracy from the actions of our president now?
Nancy Pelosi: Thank you for bringing up the question about because when I became speaker the first time there was overwhelming call for me to impeach President Bush on the strength of the war in Iraq, which I vehemently opposed. And again I, again, I say again, I’ve said it other places that was my wheelhouse — I was intelligence. I was a ranking member on the Intelligence Committee even before I became part of the leadership — the gang of four. So I knew there were no nuclear weapons in Iraq — just wasn’t there. They had to show us. They had to show the gang of four all of the intelligence they had. The intelligence did not show that that was the case. So I knew it was a misrepresentation to the public. But having said that it was in my view not grounds for impeachment.
JS: Fast forward to today and like all of his predecessors, Donald Trump is regularly authorizing operations that knowingly kill civilians. Just look at the most recent drone strike in Afghanistan.
Amy Goodman: A U.S. drone strike killed five people after it struck a car that was rushing a mother to the hospital after she experienced complications from a home birth. The strike killed the 25-year-old mother Malana, three of her relative’s and the car’s driver in southeastern Afghanistan.
JS: While Barack Obama, who presided over the massive expansion of U.S. drone strikes, would publicly express remorse for the killing of civilians while also continuing to kill civilians, Trump has taken a different approach. He celebrates war criminals. He pardons them or restores their ranks over the objections of senior career military officers. Just look at the recent cases of Navy SEALs who did heinous acts while in U.S. uniform. The whole Trump-Ukraine affair, in its technical and mundane details, has had this unintended impact of unmasking the hypocrisy and overwhelming power of the state and its minions to define what real crimes actually look like. Trump is using the office of the presidency to wage a dirty war against a political opponent. That’s a real crime. Trump using the office of the presidency to kill, maim or starve civilians? Well, that’s just foreign policy.
There is absolutely no story in recent U.S. history that better illustrates this brutal reality of what American exceptionalism really means than the post-9/11 CIA torture program and the ways in which both the Bush and Obama administrations did everything possible to ensure that no one would ever be held accountable and that the full truth of what was done under this program would not see the light of day.
The new feature film from Amazon Studios, The Report, tells this story through the experiences of Daniel Jones. He was the lead investigator for the Senate Intelligence Committee tasked with producing a report that would tell the story of the torture program.
Annette Bening as Diane Feinstein: Morning, Dan.
Adam Driver as Daniel Jones: Morning, Senator.
AB: Have you seen the story today in the New York Times?
AD: No, Senator, I had a —
Linda Powell as Marcy Morris: Evidently, the CIA destroyed tapes of interrogations of Al Qaeda detainees.
AD: Did the Intel Committee know there were tapes?
AB: No, this is the first I’ve heard of it. So, I want to find out what was on the tapes and why they were destroyed.
LP: We want you to lead the investigation, Dan.
AD: But if the tapes were destroyed, how do we —
AB: They’re saying they have written records. Thousands of pages. Let’s see about that. I want you to find out exactly what they have and read every word of it.
JS: This new film tackles the origins of the CIA program, graphically portraying the heinous acts of torture committed by the agency and its contractors.
Douglas Hodge as James Mitchell: Got to humiliate him, right off the bat. Same reason we took away his clothes.
Maura Tierney as Bernadette: Why the loud music?
Douglas Hodge as James Mitchell: Sleep deprivation. We stop the music when he starts talking. Then he can sleep.
Tim Blake Nelson as Raymond Nathan: Tired people tell the truth?
Douglas Hodge as James Mitchell: Learned helplessness.
JS: It highlights some of the most vile characters in this story, such as CIA officials Cofer Black.
Ian Blackman as Cofer Black: As I said to the president: two weeks, we’ll have flies walking across Al Qaeda eyeballs.
JS: Jose Rodriquez.
Carlos Gomez as Jose Rodriguez: What’s the point of moving forward without the waterboard? It’s like trying to play baseball without the bats.
JS: And in a more subtle way the current CIA director Gina Haspel.
Maura Tierney as Bernadette: You have to make this work. It’s only legal if it works.
JS: What is really remarkable, in my view, about this film is how it portrays the Obama administration and its atrocious actions during the course of the Senate investigation. Barack Obama had come into office promising to end the dark days of Bush, and Cheney, and torture.
Barack Obama: We have to be clear and unequivocal. We do not torture. Period. We don’t torture. Our government does not torture. That should be our position. That will be my position as president.
JS: What is so well documented in this film — The Report — is how, at every turn, senior Obama administration officials actively hindered the Senate investigation. It portrays how Obama’s Chief of Staff Denis McDonough served as effectively, a bodyguard for the CIA and actively supported the agency in its campaign to deceive and block efforts to document exactly what happened and who was responsible.
Jon Hamm as Denis McDonough: You told me once you wanted to make a difference. I hope you still get that chance.
AD: What does that mean?
JH: What does that mean? It means, Dan, get out of the senator’s head about the CIA. You’re not doing yourself any favors.
AD: Have you read the report?
JH: It’s 7,000 pages, Dan. The Bible tells the history of mankind in less than that. Look, buddy, we’re gonna get the CIA to sit down with you, tell you their side of the story. It would help if you would listen.
JS: What I believe is the most important aspect of this film is the story of Obama’s second CIA director John Brennan. Brennan was a senior official at the CIA at the height of the torture program. And it was under Brennan’s leadership at the CIA during the Obama administration that the agency broke into the computers of the Senate investigators, accessed their files and communications and then attempted to get Senate investigators criminally charged. This was Barack Obama’s CIA director.
We’re not talking about Dick Cheney. We’re not talking about George Bush. It was the CIA director put in power by the constitutional law scholar Barack Obama. For all of Trump’s constant harping about the deep state, here we have an incredible historical fact: Barack Obama’s CIA director presided over the CIA spying on U.S. citizens, on U.S. soil working for the Senate Intelligence Committee which was established to oversee the CIA which had been spying on U.S. citizens on U.S. soil. John Brennan has paid no price for any of this. In fact, you can find him on cable TV on any given day talking about the lawlessness of the Trump presidency.
Newscaster: For a national security and intelligence perspective on today’s testimony, we turn now to former CIA Director John Brennan. He is a Senior National and Intelligence Analyst for MSNBC. And I want to get your reaction to that phone call in that restaurant, which sounds like a very, very high level security risk.
John Brennan: Well, it’s just a number of things. One is that I think as Neal mentioned, Ambassador Sondland has a fair amount of explaining to do.
JS: We are going to dig deep into the story of the CIA torture program and the investigation that Democratic and Republican administrations wanted to kill. I am joined now by the real-life subject of the new film, The Report. He is played by Adam Driver in that movie. Daniel Jones was a staff member for the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and he led the investigation into the CIA’s destruction of torture tapes as well as its interrogation methods that all culminated in a report called the Committee Study of the Central Intelligence Agency’s Detention and Interrogation Program. His report was more than 6,700 pages long, but only a 500 odd-page report was ever released. It was just an executive summary.
Daniel Jones, thanks you for sticking with us on this extended episode of Intercepted.
Daniel Jones: Thank you.
JS: So, I want to start much further back in history before we get to 9/11. And the start of the Bush-Cheney CIA torture program. Just walk people through how the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and the House Intelligence Committee, how they were formed and why.
DJ: Yeah, well, they were formed in 1976 after the Church Committee hearings, right. And these were a number of intelligence abuses — that were discovered to include Central Intelligence Agency — spying on U.S. citizens, including the Congress. And when these revelations came to light, the Senate and House said they needed to have a body that did this full time that oversaw the intelligence community and that’s when they were created.
JS: And what does that mean that they serve this oversight function of the CIA? What did it require of the CIA to the legislative body of the U.S. government, specifically, these committees?
DJ: As you know, the legislative branch makes laws and does budgets, right. So if the Central Intelligence Agency wants funding for a particular program, they need to go through these authorization committees, the Senate Intelligence Committee and House Intelligence Committee. So, if you want a budget, and the Senate says will give you that budget, but first we want these documents, there’s a push and pull there. So, most cases, the oversight committees get the documents they need and get the witnesses they need to learn about programs that are going on that are clandestine and dark.
JS: Now, before we get to 9/11, and the specific investigation you did, just by way of background, tell us what you can and what you know about the existence of extraordinary rendition or anything resembling enhanced interrogation techniques or torture prior to 9/11.
DJ: Prior to 9/11 you know, my knowledge was limited to what had been written in books or newspaper articles about past abuses of the U.S. government, both the military and the CIA. But you know, I came to the committee from the FBI. So I was steeped in this is how you do interrogations, it’s rapport building. And that that was a historical anomaly, right? If you look back in the United States, it has always been a leader in sort of a treatment of detainees. You have George Washington during the Revolutionary War, of course, saying… “We’re setting up a new country, we’re going to be different.” During the Civil War, you have something called the Lieber code, right where the North says, “We’re not going to treat our countrymen in the South and abuse them.” And then, of course, there’s the Geneva Conventions after World War I, which the U.S. was a leader in.
And then during World War II, of course, when our prisoners were being abused by Japan and Germany, we had POWs in the United States, German and Japanese POWs in the United States. And they lived on farms and they lived on camps and they did plays and they had musical instruments, all according to Geneva. And there was a lot of tension back then about well wait, our people are being abused in Germany, there are concentration camps in Germany. Meanwhile, these 18 and 19-year-old kids are in Iowa working on a farm getting paid and then going home at night and putting on plays.
JS: In fact, when the United States and other countries presided over the Tokyo trials and the prosecution of Japanese officials or military personnel. Some of them were actually prosecuted for waterboarding and other acts of torture that we later would learn the CIA was using.
DJ: Indeed, I believe there were two individuals who were executed by the United States for conducting waterboarding. But back in World War II when this debate was going on about how we’re treating Japanese and German soldiers humanely, you know, there was a debate in Congress, there was a debate in the media and it fell down on the side of, well, we’re not Nazis, and we’re building something different.
JS: You know, part of the reason that I want to get into this before we talk about the substance of the report, and the investigation that you did is so people understand the historical evolution of this and I was specifically asking about rendition or extraordinary rendition… because it’s a historical fact that this program started in the 1990s under President Clinton, the rendition program. But the way that it was handled was that third party, individuals from other governments would respond to a request from the United States to essentially extradite these individuals. And so you would have people who were captured in undeclared battlefields, handed over to the United States, and then flown back to the United States. And occasionally, they would be flown to third countries to be interrogated.
After 9/11, then the sort of small program was put on the forefront and that’s part of what we’re going to get into here. So the 9/11 attacks happen. The Bush administration is really at the beginning stages of being in power in Washington. What was the infrastructure at that moment on 9/11 for the CIA to conduct interrogations or snatch people or arrest people or take detainees around the world?
DJ: Well, there’s limits to what I can say about the rendition program from my time in the government, but it will say, prior to 9/11, rendition was viewed in the lens of law enforcement, right, which is we are going to pick someone up and deliver them into the custody of a law enforcement agency somewhere around the world to be prosecuted. It was not designed as a snap and grab and interrogate and then dump back into the world or keep hidden right in a secret prison for the rest of their lives. There was a law enforcement component. Post 9/11, that’s not what occurred, right. There was something very different.
JS: How did it start? Like what were the earliest records of discussions that you were able to find them that you can talk about for this program?
DJ: Well, I can speak about publicly there’s something called the Blue Sky Memo which happened prior to the Bush administration. And this was a memo, the CIA wrote to say, it was about bin Laden and about Al Qaeda, which is if there were no rules of war, right, if we could do anything we wanted, this is what we’d do, right. And some of that I think has been out in the media. Some of it remains classified. But in that document, and this is public, not breaking any news, is the discussion of a more robust rendition program.
JS: And were there any details that were given to what they mean by more robust?
DJ: As I recall, I mean, this is something I don’t think is public, so I can’t talk about those aspects.
JS: Who were some of the key figures in coming up with the concept for what would become what we all refer to kind of, you know, in shorthand as the torture program?
DJ: Well, right after September 11, people in the CIA looked at this Blue Sky memo. Immediately, they went back to this document. And a lot of people assume well, it was Bush and Cheney, who came up with this torture program, or it was CIA operational officers who thought they had to torture. That’s not the case. Prior to 9/11, the CIA did a pretty admirable job of intelligence collection. But they did that through friendly coercion, right? You’re getting someone to betray their country over a beer, over a coffee, in exchange for money. So you’re cooperatively working with someone to get data on foreign leadership of something like that. Detaining terrorists was not something the CIA did. Interrogating was not something the CIA did, right? They debriefed is what the term is for we sit down around the table, I talk to you about what you know, you tell me. There was no official program whereby the CIA would engage in coercive interrogation techniques.
But getting back to where this began. It wasn’t Bush-Cheney. It wasn’t senior CIA officers. It was lawyers, which is probably one of the more shocking elements of this. CIA lawyers after 9/11, within days, began discussing among themselves torture. In one email with the subject “torture update,” the CIA lawyers discussed if our CIA personnel engage in torture against suspected terrorists, foreign states will be less likely to seek prosecution of them if the torture resulted in lives saved. And that found its way eventually into legal memos at the Department of Justice.
JS: Well, lawyers don’t usually just come up with these. I mean, somebody had to say like, can you look into this for us, no?
DJ: The CIA records that we reviewed and again, this is 6.3 million pages of classified documents which is the equivalent of two urban libraries of documents… And I do think when you do investigations, you need to talk about the limitations of those reviews. We had interview reports done by about 100 senior CIA officers that were done at the time — Tenet, Pavitt, others — and then we have these 6.3 million pages. Those documents indicate that the beginnings of the discussion of torture started with mid-level attorneys and not operators, not analysts, and not Bush and Cheney.
JS: Who were some of those lawyers?
DJ: That’s all classified.
JS: All of it?
DJ: All of it. Yeah, any CIA personnel. That was one of the big battles which we may get to in terms of documenting this in the classified report, and then getting the report out. Even in the classified report, we negotiated with the CIA in order to put this on paper, we came up with our own pseudonyms. So you may have somebody undercover at the CIA. Their real name is John. Their undercover name is Ted. For our Senate report, we had to come up with a third name, so they would be Mark. So even in the classified report, if someone were to leak the classified report tomorrow, you would still have these pseudonyms.
JS: So this discussion is happening with the agency lawyers. At what point does it hit the administration’s lawyers or figures like Cheney or David Addington? You know, his henchmen?
DJ: It wasn’t until February until the decision was made that the United States would not apply the Geneva Conventions.
JS: February of 2002.
DJ: Yes, exactly right. So, you know, September 11, 2001. September 17, is when the memorandum of notification comes up. And that memorandum of notification gives the CIA a special covert authorities. It’s a very sensitive document. It’s saying the president of the United States has authorized the CIA to engage in these activities. And one of those activities in that MON — memorandum of notification — from September 17, 2001, was the ability to detain suspected terrorists who were involved in active plotting against the United States. Of course, that definition CIA expanded themselves, I would say unlawfully, but that was the special authority.
And it’s really important to note, in that memorandum of notification from 2001, there was no mention of interrogation and certainly no mention of torture or coercive interrogation tactics. That’s something, that’s a step the CIA took on their own in 2002 and brought it to the executive branch, brought it to the president, actually they didn’t bring the president, actually brought it to the Department of Justice. And then some of that information was briefed to the White House. And as we document in the actual Senate report, President Bush did not know the details of the CIA program until April of 2006.
JS: Staying in this part of history, at what point do people like, or at what point specifically, does Dick Cheney get a briefing about this and come to understand what exactly the CIA lawyers were talking about?
DJ: Right, so the documents that we have indicate that the CIA first went to Department of Justice, and they also went to Condoleezza Rice.
JS: Who was the National Security Adviser at the time.
DJ: Under Bush, right, exactly. And their argument was, we need these interrogation tactics. We need these torture tactics in order to save American lives. And because of these torture tactics, it leads us to information we could not obtain anywhere else, what they would call otherwise unavailable intelligence which means they can’t get that intelligence from going through emails. They can’t get it from grabbing phones out of the sky, or cooperative sources, right? This is something without torture, we won’t stop this plot or capture these terrorists and that’s the argument.
And there’s a memo, which we talk about from July of 2003, where the CIA is looking for reaffirmation from the White House that this program is OK. And this is because the White House had gone out and said that it treats detainees humanely. When the White House said that people at the CIA were frantic. They were frantic that the White House was saying one thing publicly, but then privately telling them they could run off and do this program and they were worried they would be in trouble for this. And in that memo, I’m sorry, this briefing from July 2003, they had pros and cons. And their pro was, “If you allow us to continue this program, we will save thousands, hundreds of thousands of American lives. That’s the positive. If you want to get rid of this program, you’ll satisfy human rights groups and Congress. But we’re not policymakers. You’re a policymaker. We don’t make the tough calls. Do you want to save hundreds of thousands of American lives? Or do you want to appease human rights groups? Not our call, you decide, White House.” And that’s the kind of thing that we would see again and again. And as we can go into, the CIA’s representations about the application of those techniques, about the effectiveness of those techniques and the impact of those techniques on its detainees was grossly inaccurate, even from the very beginning, starting in 2002, all the way up through President Obama.
JS: You know, in the film, “The Report” you do see lawyers like John Yoo making very explicit cases for scenarios that include the squeezing of a child’s testicles, for instance, as an acceptable practice to extract information that can save lives. Describe the way that the White House lawyers worked on this program and tried to clear the legal path for acceptance by the administration that this was OK and lawful to do.
DJ: The path that is detailed in the records is really one from the CIA to the Department of Justice Office of Legal Counsel, right? So, if you can get the Office of Legal Counsel to say yes, this is legal, it makes it an easy policy sell or an easier policy sell.
JS: For people that don’t know the Office of Legal Counsel — the OLC — these are the lawyers that are responsible for advising the president on whether or not policies that an administration wants to implement are lawful and to raise any potential legal problems and to game out scenarios, if this ever ended up in any kind of a court, what would happen. Just so people understand what the OLC is.
DJ: Absolutely, absolutely. So, the CIA knew that they couldn’t go to the White House and say, “We want to use these interrogation tactics, and the Department of Justice thinks they’re illegal.” That’s just not going to fly. You’re not going to get policy approval. So their way through this was to go to the Department of Justice first and say, these are the tactics we want to use and these are our legal arguments for why that’s OK and they found a sympathetic ear in John Yoo.
JS: So John Yoo was, he was a top person in the Department of Justice, Office of Legal Counsel, this body that is responsible for making sure that what the president does is legal.
DJ: Right, exactly, so some of those memos that John Yoo constructed were released by the Obama administration early in his tenure, but the text of those as we go about and describe in the actual Senate report was first started at the CIA. The CIA lawyers came up with these arguments and then brought them to John Yoo. And John Yoo expanded upon the arguments. But the arguments, again, rested on this fact that yes, these things might be considered illegal but because our intention is not to torture someone, our intention is actually to get this otherwise unavailable intelligence that we can’t get anywhere else that directly disrupts plots and leads to the capture of terrorists actively plotting against the United States. So, that was the legal argument. So, if you take out the effectiveness component, the whole legal framework falls apart.
JS: Did you come across evidence that the CIA already began implementing some of these tactics prior to the OLC being briefed on this and coming up with their own opinion?
DJ: Well, the first detainee to be taken into custody is a man named Abu Zubaydah, and that’s at the end of March of 2002. It’s important to talk about, to go back to that September 17 memorandum of notification. The CIA is given special authorities to detain suspected terrorists around the world indefinitely. And the CIA says, “OK, well, we’re going to do this program. Let’s look into it. Where are we going to hold these detainees? How are we going to question them? What do we do? Should they be on a military base? Should it be on foreign soil?” They eventually decide that this isn’t a good idea, period, that they’re not going to do this because there are other authorities in that memorandum of notification, right? Imagine President Bush saying here’s ten things you can go off and do and one of them happens to be this detention program. And they basically decide that it’s not worth it and they don’t want to do that.
But then Abu Zubaydah gets captured. And there’s a great line in the Senate report quoting again, a CIA document where they say, “You know, we’re going to take him into custody, not because we think we can do a better job than anybody else. But if we fail, we’ll be able to describe up the chain of command, why we failed, versus if he’s in Jordan where there’s criminal charges against him or somewhere else we’ll have to say, I don’t know. We’re not in the room. We don’t know what’s going on.” There was also this misunderstanding of who Abu Zubaydah was within the CIA at the very senior levels.
At the junior levels, there was no misunderstanding. So if you look at the public narrative, it’s Abu Zubaydah was number three or four in Al Qaeda, right, and he was involved in every major Al Qaeda terrorist plot in the past and would have knowledge of operatives in the United States and of the next attack. And after Abu Zubaydah is captured, he is interrogated in a country where they set up a CIA detention site. He is shot. So, he’s been shot on his capture. So, he eventually goes to a hospital. He’s being interrogated by two FBI officers who speak Arabic. He is providing a lot of information to them.
JS: One of whom was Ali Soufan, who’s been a guest on this program.
DJ: Ali Soufan who is a really fantastic and real American hero. Ali Soufan is taking care of Abu Zubaydah, taking him to the bathroom, putting ice on his lips, helping him through this period of time where he may actually die. There’s a point in time when Abu Zubaydah is incubated. He can’t talk. But Ali has a alphabet chart in front of him. And he has Abu Zubaydah point to the letters.
JS: Like a Ouija board.
DJ: Like a Ouija board. So think about this, the framework is that Abu Zubaydah is this massive terrorist who will never cooperate. And here he is in a hospital, unable to speak and providing intelligence to two FBI officers by pointing at letters and going through photo books.
And it’s there that Abu Zubaydah confirms that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed is the person in the videotape of Osama bin Laden discussing the towers falling, right? This is where I think Osama bin Laden says he didn’t think they’d actually fall but they did. And he talks about this person Mukhtar, who’s off-camera. And Mukhtar, the CIA knew at the time — it’s in the CIA’s records — was a pseudonym for Khalid Sheikh Mohammed who had been indicted in the United States for terrorism charges, right?
And anyway, Abu Zubaydah confirms this while he’s in bed. He’s eventually brought back to the detention site. And during this period of time is where these two psychologists come into play, a man named Jim Mitchell and Bruce Jessen.
JS: And before you talk about Mitchell and Jessen, the actual function that Abu Zubaydah played within Al Qaeda, I’ve heard you talk about this before, but I think you draw an interesting comparison to everyday personalities that we all come across, particularly in cities like New York.
DJ: Sure, the CIA told the Department of Justice, they told the White House that Abu Zubaydah again was third or fourth in Al Qaeda, knew of every terrorist plot, knew when the next attack was going to be and who the operators were in the United States. In July of 2002, before they made those representations, they received a note from CIA operators that said, we had one source saying that Abu Zubaydah was three or four in Al Qaeda and that one source has retracted that statement, right? So that’s gone. So, now CIA is making this baseless claim that he knows everything about Al Qaeda.
And the reason why people misconstrued who Abu Zubaydah was is because he was a coordinator at a terrorist training camp. It wasn’t even an Al Qaeda terrorist training camp. But if you were an extremist around the world, and you wanted to get terrorist training, the guy who you eventually would be referred to was Abu Zubaydah. So essentially, he is like the phone operator in this skyscraper, right? You want to talk to somebody in this building, you call downstairs and say I want the 18th floor, I want to talk to somebody in The Intercept. And that person says, OK, I’ll patch you through. Essentially Abu Zubaydah was the operator. So if you look at signals intelligence, if you’re the National Security Agency and you’re covering all these suspected terrorists and they’re all calling one guy. It’s Abu Zubaydah, but it’s a handoff. So they misconstrued. They figured this guy must be the guy pulling all the strings and he must know everybody. Turns out, he — Abu Zubaydah — did know a lot of people. But he was like the office manager more than anything else. And in fact, he was never a member of Al Qaeda. He wanted to join Al Qaeda at one point and Al Qaeda turned him down.
JS: And when the CIA takes over from the FBI and Ali Soufan, that’s basically when the spigot shuts in terms of getting useful information from Abu Zubaydah. Before we talk about the Mitchell and Jessen and the reverse engineering of the SERE program, at this point in these first few months after 9/11, what kind of briefing happened to the Senate, in the Senate? Who was briefed and what were they told at this point about this emerging program?
DJ: This is a real lesson for legislative oversight. So, any information on this program was limited to the chair and vice-chair of the committee. So, just two members.
JS: Of the Senate Intelligence Committee?
DJ: Same for the House. Yeah, House Intelligence and Senate Intelligence Committee, just their two senior members were briefed.
JS: Gang of four, is what people would refer them as.
DJ: Yeah, so, when I say briefed, I want to caveat it right away, because they weren’t allowed to take notes. And there were very few records at the CIA of what was said at these meetings. But what we did find is the records that did exist shows that they were — to say they were briefed is a bit of a joke. I mean, we are engaged in an aggressive campaign against Al Qaeda which allows us to render and detain suspected terrorists for a period of time, right? There’s your briefing. If you go through some of these records, Graham, Senator Graham from Florida was on the committee at the time, and he was being briefed as the chair and he had all these questions, but his term was up.
So, CIA’s internally discussing the fact that all right, we went in, and we talked to Graham about this program, very sanitized, right? It didn’t really go into the details. But Graham nonetheless had this spidey sense, for lack of a better term that something else was going on here and he was asking really difficult questions. And the CIA’s internal discussion wasn’t like, “OK, let’s pull together a more detailed briefing for Graham.” It was, “Let’s figure out a way to wait him out, right? He’s almost out of office. We can do this. Let’s figure this out.” And that’s what we see throughout this entire program.
Senator Rockefeller at one point wanted many more details on this program. He was denied details on it. So the committees were never briefed. And you know, the CIA weaponizes this to say, the committee’s were fully briefed on what was going on. First of all, it wasn’t the full committee. It was chair and vice-chair and even the chair and vice-chair was grossly misled. I hope we get into this a bit in terms of the misinformation, but in the report itself, we have Dick Cheney’s legal adviser David Addington being misled by the CIA on details. So, if David Addington is being misled by the CIA, they’re certainly going to mislead the chair and vice chair of the intelligence committees on both sides. And that’s what we see in the records, right? These really sanitized briefs that don’t accurately represent what was going on.
JS: Why would you need I mean, you know, if you sort of look at the personification of evil that the U.S. political process can produce I mean, David Addington for a lot of people would be sort of Exhibit A.
JS: You know, and not a guy who’d be like, “Oh, let’s not. What will we tell the children if we, you know, start waterboarding people?”
DJ: That’s one of the things I highlighted, right? A lot of people think, Oh, this was a Cheney-Addington program, but when you go into the actual records, and you see David Addington asking questions and not getting answers. I’ll just give you one example, David Addington is on a plane to Guantanamo Bay with the Chief General Counsel of the CIA and he says… We’re getting ahead of ourselves a little bit, but there were tapes of Abu Zubaydah being tortured which were destroyed. Years later, he’s on a plane, David Addington’s on a plane with the Chief General Counsel CIA and he says I hear there are tapes of the Abu Zubaydah interrogations. And the general counsel of the CIA tells David Addington, “We don’t tape interrogations,” which was a true fact during that period, but it wasn’t answering David Addington’s question.
And you might say, “OK, well, maybe he just answered that way.” There’s an email from the general counsel then back to his colleagues at the CIA basically bragging, saying, “Addington asked about the tapes. Don’t worry,” basically, “I told them, we don’t tape interrogations.” In other words, “Look how slick I am. He asked this question. I answered another question. It looks like he’s good. He’s not gonna ask any more questions.” This is David Addington, as you said, right, who is by no means an enemy of the agency, and their aggressive actions post 9/11 and they’re misleading him.
It’s really an incredible story and that’s what I always thought the takeaway of this entire report would be. There’s no doubt that torture is terrible. It’s far more brutal than the CIA had suggested. It’s obviously, it was grossly ineffective and resulted in false answers. But I thought the larger takeaway was here’s the CIA systematically misleading its leadership, its political leadership, over multiple administrations — Bush and Cheney, and then later on with Obama with the operation that led to bin Laden’s death.
JS: You know what, one question that I have for you after listening to the podcast that you did, and also watching the film: On the issue of when did Bush know and you know, when did Cheney know, and now you’re talking about Addington being misled, do you know that it’s not that they’re just smarter than you, that they didn’t put this stuff on paper? That Cheney, I mean… look, these guys were masters at their craft in a lot of ways. Is it possible that Cheney was actually very deeply involved and was like, listen, none of this goes on any paper?
DJ: So, while we were doing this investigation, one of the stories from the agency was, “Hey, we’re just following orders,” right? “This isn’t our program. This is the Bush-Cheney program. This is Obama’s program. This is America’s program.” And we had 6.3 million pages of records and they really wanted to push this narrative that they were just following orders, good soldiers. And it just isn’t in the records. And we asked the agency, if this is the case, find us the record somewhere. Where’s the email? There’s not even an email discussion among people saying we were with Cheney today and he told us we have to do this. It does not exist. We asked for it. It was in the CIA’s interest to produce it because that was part of their narrative which is we’re just following orders. What the records indicate is that this was a CIA program foisted upon the Bush-Cheney White House, not the other way around.
JS: Who was running the program at the time? Name the figures who were running this program.
DJ: Yeah, all of that is largely redacted.
JS: What is the role of Jose Rodriguez for instance?
DJ: Jose Rodriguez was the head of the Counterterrorism Center. He is in the report. He played a major role. His chief of staff was now the current CIA Director Gina Haspel. If we want to go into the destruction of tapes, we can talk about Jose Rodriguez a bit.
In November of 2005, the Senate voted to basically look at all detainee treatment across the U.S. government. There had been rumors of abuse, right? And of the Abu Ghraib photos, of course, and that vote failed. It was led by Senator Carl Levin from Michigan. He thought it was really important to understand what DOD was doing and what the CIA was doing with detainees. The very next day, Jose Rodriguez and his chief of staff send the cable to an offsite location to destroy the interrogation videotapes of Abu Zubaydah… and a man named Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri which were done in 2002.
And what’s really important to know is after 2002, the CIA was actively seeking to destroy those tapes. And they went to the CIA director at the time, this was Tenet, and then it was Porter Goss. And they said, “We want to get rid of these tapes, these are torture tapes.” And both Tenet and Goss says, “No, you can’t do it.” John Rizzo, who was acting General Counsel at the CIA said, “You cannot destroy these tapes. But I’ll go to the White House and I’ll ask them. I’ll go to the Department of Justice and ask them.” And the message always came back: You cannot destroy these tapes. So after that vote in the Senate, Jose Rodriguez asks his chief of staff to write the cable and just screw it, “We’re going to do what we want. Over the direct orders of our CIA director and our general counsel, we’re going to destroy these tapes anyway.” And they send a cable to this offsite for the destruction of those tapes.
And what was unique about this cable is typically, I mean, if you’re in the office environment, and you’re announcing a policy decision, you have a two-line to four or five people. And then your cc line is all the lawyers, all the policy people. There’s 40 people in the email, same thing with CIA cables. In this case, it was just to that detention site. And it wasn’t until a cable came back from this site that said, “The 90 plus videotapes of torture have been destroyed.” Now those people cc’d everyone appropriate — all the lawyers, all the higher-ups — and that’s when the general counsel of the CIA learns that they’re destroyed. And they go crazy because they know the Bush White House and the Department of Justice said you cannot destroy these tapes. So, what do they do? Immediately, they run to Congress, right? They run to the Department of Justice and they say, “Hey, we destroyed these tapes.” Of course, that’s not what happens. They cover it up. They just stay quiet about it until Mark Mazzetti at the New York Times writes a front-page article in December of 2007 which says the CIA destroyed torture tapes.
It launches our investigation at the Senate. It launches a criminal investigation by Michael Mukasey at the Department of Justice. This is the Bush Department of Justice. They launch a criminal probe of the CIA’s destruction of tapes. Eventually, they put a guy named John Durham in charge of that which of course is in the news now. Durham’s investigation goes all the way to August of 2012, right, just months before we submit our largely our final draft of the report, and they don’t bring any criminal charges. They say they looked at 99 detainees, of course, we found there was at least 119. And what we are going to do is we’re going to recommend that the CIA hold two individuals accountable. There’s two people the CIA most culpable for destruction of these tapes and those people are Jose Rodriguez and Gina Haspel.
At the time, there’s a man at the CIA named Mike Morell, who becomes acting CIA director at one point. He was also in charge of the CIA’s response to the Senate. He is tasked by the CIA director to create an accountability board for Gina Haspel and Jose Rodriguez. And you can buy Mike Morell’s book. He talks about this. He brags about it. Mike Morell says, “You know what, I’m not going to set up an accountability board for Gina Haspel and Jose Rodriguez. I’m going to do this myself.” And he takes Jose Rodriguez out for a beer and describes how this is going to go down. Jose Rodriguez gets a letter in his file, continues to work for the agency and Gina Haspel is let off absolutely free.
JS: Yeah, but her life was ruined. I mean, she can’t find a job.
DJ: Can’t find a job anywhere except CIA director.
DJ: Absolutely right.
JS: Now she’s Donald Trump’s CIA director.
DJ: And listen, this isn’t personal. This is, to me, I think we’re in an accountability crisis. You’ve probably heard me talk about this. There has to be accountability for actions. These are two CIA officers who knowingly went against the orders of their General Counsel and CIA director. There has to be some accountability for that. Instead, because their intentions were good and their intentions were, “We’re protecting the agency,” nothing happens to them. Imagine, you know, how can you be CIA director today, and you’re giving an order to some station chief in some far off land and that station chief says, “That’s really nice that you say that Director Haspel but I think it’s better for the agency if we do this or that. So that’s what I’m going to do. And hey, that’s what you did in 2005.”
JS: So only 500 or so pages of your report have made it into the public in the form of this executive summary. And as you pointed out before, there is a lot of very important information in that but we are talking about 7,000 pages. If those 7000 pages were published, would we learn new details about Gina Haspel and the torture program?
DJ: Well, let me be clear, Gina Haspel is not in the report. There are pseudonyms. Everybody has a pseudonym in that report and I can’t and I won’t talk about the actual names of people that are in the pseudonyms in the classified report and in the redacted executive summary, but you will learn a lot more details when that document becomes public about this program. Having said that, I think we did a pretty effective job at taking those, you know, the whole report is over 6,700 pages has 38,000 footnotes to the CIA’s own records. The executive summary’s about 525 pages with 2,725 footnotes to the CIA’s own records. I mean, this is the CIA in their own words about the program. And it’s a hard read, but it’s a really important read. There’s an audiobook coming out where the cast of the film read the actual Senate torture report that comes out on December 9, the five year anniversary the release of the report, and I hope people will listen to that those who haven’t read the report. Something else we haven’t talked about, though, is this internal CIA review, the Panetta Review.
JS: I wanted to back up to talk about these two psychologists that you started to mention who sort of revolutionized for lack of a better term, the torture program. And they get involved initially with the interrogation of Abu Zubaydah when he is taken by the CIA from the custody of the FBI. Before you talk about who they were, just briefly describe for people what the SERE program is.
DJ: Yeah, the SERE program is a U.S. military program to expose our special forces to treatment they might be subjected to by an enemy country, a country that doesn’t adhere to Geneva Conventions, a country that is willing to torture our service members for propaganda purposes, right? We saw this throughout Vietnam and other wars. And that’s what you get when you torture someone, you get them to say whatever you want them to hear in many cases.
JS: And SERE stand for Survive, Evade, Resist, Escape.
DJ: Yeah, exactly and it’s basically meant to, again, give special forces some exposure to what it might be like in this situation, and it’s very clinical. There are psychologists all around to make sure that no one is injured to make sure that everyone is in the proper state of mind while they’re going through this process. It’s highly stressful. Because they want it to be right. They want it to be as real as possible. And they want individuals to know what they could be subjected to.
JS: And the knowledge bank that SERE relies on to prepare U.S. forces for potential torture or being held by enemies that don’t respect the Geneva Conventions or basic tenets of international law was built up going back all the way to the Civil War from the testimonies of American POWs who described what happened to them at the hands of unlawful captors, and that the point of the program was studying the kinds of torture that non-Americans met out against law-abiding Americans participating in warfare or intelligence operations. And so, here come, Mitchell and Jessen, explain how they end up working with the CIA and what their role was.
DJ: Sure. So these are two psychologists, right, who work for the Department of Defense. And their job was to observe these SERE interrogations and the SERE program to make sure that those applying the tactics are not going too far to make sure that those being subjected to it are in a decent psychological state. They were observers, right? It’s as if, you know, a news agency, you have a newspaper somewhere and you have all the reporters and you have the management and then you have the person who cleans the windows, right? And these were the people who cleaned the windows at the SERE program. They had no expertise in what was going on. But then eventually, they ended up writing a paper for the CIA, right after, in 2001, about interrogation tactics, resistance to interrogation tactics that Al Qaeda detainees might promote.
JS: So they’re taking all of this information that has been gleaned from the testimony of American POWs and they’re basically proposing a reverse engineering of it.
DJ: Yeah, Jim Mitchell, who was really the lead of these two psychologists have this theory from Martin Seligman, a psychologist of learned helplessness, that you could treat someone in such a way that they would no longer care what you did to them, and that they would be in a state of helplessness and in that state of helplessness — I mean, it’s even hard to just talk about. It seems so bizarre — like I don’t know why, how there’s nothing to back this up. This theory doesn’t even make sense. But you’d be so helpless that you would just give up any information which is bizarre because the actual experiment with learned helplessness was about dogs. And it was about electrifying a cage and if you had one side of the cage electrified and the other side of the cage not electrified, the dog would jump from the electrified part to the non-electrified part. But then if you electrified both sides, the dog would jump back and forth, but then just stop, and you could open the cage door and the dog would just lay there, they felt helpless.
Somewhere along the way, Mitchell thought this could be used for a theory of interrogation, which doesn’t make sense just talking about it, but somehow was sold to the agency. Now, Mitchell’s argument is that when he came online with the Central Intelligence Agency to talk about interrogations, and this is in 2002 after he had written this paper, that they wanted to do far worse torture than what are detailed in the SERE program, that’s his narrative.
JS: They wanted to be Jack Bauer —
DJ: Right, they wanted to knife people and do all these other tactics, pull people’s teeth out, pull their fingernails off. That’s his narrative and that he saved them from doing that. And he said, “Listen, waterboarding doesn’t cause any lasting damage. You don’t know if someone’s been waterboarded afterwards. You can punch someone a gut. You can slap them in the face. You can put them in a small confinement box for days which is like the size of a keg. You can put them in a coffin for 17 days like Abu Zubaydah. None of these things leave marks.” That’s what Jim Mitchell brought to this program.
JS: And so, you were able to determine the existence of 119 people and it seems like — and I’ve heard you say this, too — that probably is not the extent of it by any stretch but you were able to document 119 cases. Walk people through just a kind of overview of the types of people that were taken, what was done to them in this program and where they were held while they were being interrogated and tortured.
DJ: Sure. Well, the Central Intelligence Agency’s records are not perfect on this and I think everyone who worked on this research will tell you that the number is higher than 119. The CIA themselves have no idea how many people they detained and we can get back to that with something with CIA Director Hayden. But they had no idea how many they detained. We found records of about at least 119. And we were very conservative writing this report. We took a pretty, we needed to have enough records to confirm that they were at a location for a certain amount of time.
You asked what kind of people are detained, anyone from Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (KSM) who was probably the most culpable terrorist the CIA detained all the way to a neighbor of KSM that KSM, who was completely innocent, that while KSM was being tortured, he made up a story about his neighbor who was involved in terrorism and the CIA detained that person. Another one they detained, a mentally challenged brother of a detainee they had and they detained that person simply as leverage. And again, you’re in confinement, you’re in this, one of the detention sites in which they held most of their detainees was called an enhanced interrogation technique itself, right, just that there’s the detention facility was considered an interrogation tactic.
JS: Where was this facility?
DJ: That’s classified, but you know, we can say that that facility is also where one detainee died, and that’s in the report and they died of hypothermia. They had a sweatshirt on, but they were naked from the waist down. They were on a concrete floor and a bucket of water was poured on them and the next morning, they woke up deceased.
JS: What as far as you’ve been able to determine and what you’re able to say, talk about some of the techniques that were employed once this really gets started.
DJ: Right. So there’s a number of interrogation tactics that are on the books which when I say on the books went to the Department of Justice, right? These are things like sleep deprivation — which loud music, typically depriving someone’s sleep involved being chained to the ceiling on your tiptoes. So you just have to like stretch the whole time, loud music, uncomfortable stress positions — and that can go on for days — slapping, walling, which is throwing someone up against a wall, and of course, waterboarding, right, which is subjecting someone to not simulated drowning, but actual drowning. And we see quite a bit of that. Then, of course, there were techniques that we document in the Senate report that were not approved by the Department of Justice. These are things like rectal feeding and rectal rehydration and other tactics that were never in the OLC memos.
JS: And just you know, just to be clear with rectal rehydration, there are numerous cases where this has happened, you know, with U.S. prisoners or there’s the force-feeding of people on a hunger strike. But the purpose of this in the context of your report had nothing to do with addressing the nutritional levels of the prisoner. What was the point of so-called rectal rehydration?
DJ: Yeah, so I’ve done actually quite a bit of work on this because we worked on it in Guantanamo Bay, use of force-feeding. When you really need, when you’re so weak, you haven’t ate and you really need to be fed, you are actually in no position to resist. So, the way that they do this in the U.S. prison system which happens very rarely, I don’t think that that has happened, when I was doing research, it had been years since they’d actually done it. But you’re so weak to resist, you actually get an IV. And you’re, there’s nothing you can do, right? You have no sort of motor skills to push back and resist. In this case, it was rectal rehydration right and rectal feeding. And there are no evidence — there’s zero evidence — that any of this was any medical need for any of these procedures. And in fact, one of the medical doctors who was involved in the application of this technique said that it had the ability to clear a person’s head.
Majid Khan, a detainee who was on a hunger strike was actually cooperating, right, and putting a tube — another way of doing it is to put it down your throat and be fed that way. And he was cooperating with the agency. He was making a political statement and was on a hunger strike and they got tired of that. And they told him that he needed to eat and if he didn’t, they would find other ways and they’d parade his food. And rectally fed him with food and there’s really no medical literature to indicate that you can rectally feed someone. I mean your whole system, it goes through your stomach, right? It is just not a way it works. And for rectal, I’m sorry for rectal rehydration also, there’s so many other ways of doing this, an IV being most useful way. But that actually is a side issue because in all of these cases, there was zero medical need to actually do them. And they were done to humiliate and torture people.
JS: And they also would put people in very small confined spaces and at times, release insects into the containers that they were held in.
DJ: This was related to Abu Zubaydah who early on, he was in his first detention site —
JS: Was Abu Zubaydah the only prisoner that you found evidence of that they used insects against?
DJ: In the executive summary, that is the only detainee that is referenced in regards to but they found that when he was in this detention site which was in a place that had a lot of bugs, that he was afraid of bugs, so they sought to maximize that fear by putting him in, there’s a coffin-shaped box which was essentially the large box. And they told detainees that they would never leave this box with the idea of like, you’re going to die in this box. And then there was like a more of like a large beer keg type box where you would be scrunched on the ground in. And remember Abu Zubaydah had gunshot wounds during this period of time on his leg. And he had to be basically twisted in a way in a small confinement box for days and the coffin-shaped box he was in for 17 days.
JS: When, according to the documents that you’ve… reviewed, when did the program end?
DJ: The last detainee we have records for was a detainee named Muhammad Rahim in 2007. Muhammad Rahim is captured and brought to CIA custody. He went through a series of rounds of these enhanced interrogation techniques used by the agency. This is Mitchell and Jessen using them, the two CIA contractors. His entire custody, his entire time in CIA custody, Muhammad Rahim produced zero intelligence reports, not one. Not only single report. And you have to imagine, producing an intelligence report is not a high goal. You could simply be: Where were you two weeks before you were captured? That’s an intel report, which was, “I was in Tora Bora, Fred was there. Sam was there.” Amazing, intel report out. So in order to get zero intelligence reports, it’s hard to imagine not getting one piece of intelligence and Muhammad Rahim went through multiple rounds of these enhanced interrogation techniques. So, two weeks on, nothing, and then additional two weeks, and they kept trying to theorize on ways they could get Muhammad Rahim to talk using these torture tactics. And eventually, Muhammad Rahim says, “You know, you can kill me. I’m just not going to talk to you,” right, “In fact, I want you to kill me.”
And this point, it’s 2007, the agency says, “You know, we should probably take a look at this program.” This is the first time the CIA conducted a real internal review of the program. And they really focused on Muhammad Rahim, this last detainee, right? And they decide that basically, there’s no evidence that these torture techniques worked, and that there’s a lot of evidence that they produced false answers, and are basically ineffective. And they make a recommendation to the CIA, by the way, these are CIA officers, senior CIA officers, and they say, “We should use rapport-building techniques because that seems like the most effective in our review of records. And we should ask other U.S. government agencies how they interrogate people, and we should go to our allies and friends and ask them what do you find most effective when you detained someone?” This is the end of the program. The very last detainee and this is still under the Bush administration.
They were looking for a more effective way because they’ve concluded that torture does not work. And I should say also that the program at that point is collapsing under its own weight. Other countries no longer want to participate in this no matter how many millions of dollars in cash that you give them, they’re saying, “No.” The Department of Defense, the CIA is trying to get rid of some of these detainees and saying, “DOD, would you take some of them at Guantanamo Bay? Would you take them?” And DOD’s saying, “Your problem, not ours.” Some of these detainees in CIA custody are having real medical issues. And they need to go to a local hospital and the country host is like, “No, you’re not taking them.” They go the Department of Defense. Department of Defense is like, “No. So they’re stuck. And they realize that this program can go on, basically, no more. And it’s, you know, it was just a few months early that Bush had actually acknowledged in September of 2006 acknowledge there was a secret CIA program
JS: On this issue of Bush September 2006. I think a lot of people who followed this find it very implausible that Bush would not have known about this. I mean, I know that you are, you’re sticking to the facts as you can prove them based on the, and it’s substantial, more than any of us, 6.3 million pages of documents that you were able to go through. But just from somebody who’s totally immersed in this, do you actually find it plausible that Bush didn’t know about this until September of 2006?
DJ: Well, it was April of 2006.
JS: I’m sorry, April of 2006.
DJ: And when he got a briefing, he expressed discomfort of a detainee chained to the ceiling, going to the bathroom on themselves. That’s the quote, and it freaks CIA out because they know, “Chained to the ceiling, going to the bathroom on themselves. That’s like the least we do.” And it freaks them out. But what we know is what the CIA knows, right? This is 6.3 million records of the CIA’s own records. Regardless of what Bush knows, the CIA themselves thought Bush did not know.
A couple of data points: We have memos that were written for Bush that was going to talk about waterboarding and techniques. We see all the drafts of the memo. First, waterboarding’s taken out by the lawyers saying, “Let’s not talk about that.” And then we see the other interrogation techniques taken out of the next draft of the memo. And then we see another memo written which is: “We do really tough techniques. We’re harder than law enforcement but they’re legal, don’t worry.” And then the next decision is, there’ll be no briefing of the president. None of those drafts get to the president. Condoleezza Rice is told there will be no briefing. George Tenet is interviewed by his own inspector general, and Tenet says he has never spoken to the president about this program. Porter Goss says I have never spoken to the president about this program.
There is a September 2006 when Bush does come out and talk about the program, there’s a background briefing done for reporters. This often happens in Washington. There’s a senior U.S. official on the phone, they’ll do a background briefing and they come up with questions and answers. And one of the questions is: What did Bush know about the detention program and the special interrogation procedures? And the suggested answer is: “Of course, President Bush doesn’t get into the weeds about tactics the CIA uses. He gives full authority to the CIA director for those things.”
Now, of course, President Bush’s book says that he did know about the interrogation tactics and that he personally approved them. What’s really interesting is John Rizzo, who was the acting CIA director then later wrote a book himself and he calls President Bush a real stand-up guy. And this tells you everything you need to know about the CIA, by the way. And he says President Bush is a real stand-up guy because he didn’t know anything about what we were doing in that program and yet he took responsibility for it and he defended the agency. That makes him a stand-up guy. He’s lying to the American people to protect the CIA. That makes him a stand-up guy.
So, Tenet, director of the CIA, Goss director of the CIA, John Rizzo, the head legal person at the CIA all say Bush was never briefed. All of the physical records, and I will say we locked down on this April 2006 time period of when Bush was briefed. This is because the CIA themselves had conducted an internal investigation to find out what did Bush know. So, CIA officers themselves had to go brief the director and say, “Well, the first time we briefed Bush was April 2006.” Now, what if Cheney mentioned something to him somewhere else who knows? But Tenet was seeing Bush every day during this period. Goss was briefing Bush every day. Condoleezza Rice was seeing Bush and they were told not to mention it to the president. If the president knew why was it such a big deal not to have a conversation with the president?
JS: So, Barack Obama wins the election in 2008 and he names Leon Panetta as his first CIA director. Regarding this subject that we’re talking about, what are the first moves Leon Panetta makes?
DJ: Well, it’s clear at this point that there is going to be an expansive investigation of the CIA’s detention interrogation program. We at the Senate Intelligence Committee had launched an investigation in 2007 into the destruction of tapes. I presented that report to the Senate Intelligence Committee in February of 2009. There was universal bipartisan outrage —
JS: This was a month into Obama’s presidency.
DJ: A month into Obama’s presidency, right. And they are on a bipartisan basis unified and outraged at what we had uncovered during this tapes investigation. There’s also discussion at higher levels and discussions I was never involved in about setting up a 9/11-type commission into U.S. detainee treatment, this thing that Carl Levin wanted to do back in 2005. So there’s a push-pull and the most senior people in Washington are engaged in this debate. Senator Patrick Leahy, he’s one of the ones pushing this 9/11-type commission and the Obama administration takes the position that the appropriate place to do this is at the Senate Intelligence Committee. It’s not to set up a bipartisan commission. Let Dianne Feinstein, who’s now the chair of that committee run this investigation. And then in March, just weeks after I presented the tapes investigation to the Senate, that committee voted 14 to 1 to do a broad and expansive review.
JS: And the one lone vote against it was Republican Saxby Chambliss.
DJ: That’s correct, who would later become vice-chairman of the committee at the time. Now, Leon Panetta is coming into the CIA under Obama with this cloud of a major investigation, what is gearing up to be one of the most significant investigations into the Central Intelligence Agency and indeed into the intelligence community ever.
JS: And questions about whether Obama would do the unthinkable to the CIA which is to actually criminally prosecute people who were involved with torture and there was a lot of pressure on him from you know, large sectors of his base to do that.
DJ: And you can’t underestimate how the CIA viewed this program and details of this program coming to light. George Tenet, we have an interview report that’s detailed in the executive summary that says, “If the world knew what we were doing they think we’re torturers.” Jim Pavitt talks about the biggest threat to the agency itself is this program coming to light. They knew that it was viewed as an existential threat like the CIA could be dismantled because of what it did in this torture program. So, they view it as a massive threat. And Leon Panetta steps into this when he’s confirmed as Obama’s CIA director.
JS: And what does Panetta do in terms of internal investigation at the CIA that he’s just taken over?
DJ: Sure. So, Leon Panetta does what I think any director would do. He’s new to this. He wasn’t at the agency during the interrogation program. President Obama ends the program within days of coming into office. And this Senate Intelligence investigation is gearing up, again, to be one of the largest investigations into the CIA ever. And Leon Panetta doesn’t want to be surprised. He doesn’t want all of a sudden a report to drop on his lap and have no idea what’s going to be in that report.
So, he sets up his own internal study group, right. He does a parallel investigation into the documents that the Senate is receiving — these 6.3 million pages of records. He sets up a parallel group of CIA officers — of highly decorated CIA officers — to go through the same records and to write a report for him on what the Senate might find — which I think is, If I were CIA directory, I would think I’d do the same thing. You’d want to know. You’d want to prepare for something. And I always thought the way the CIA should’ve handled this was to put out their own report first. And what’s important about the Panetta review, which we call this, is it came largely to the same conclusions as the Senate investigation. In some ways, it’s far more harsh. As I mentioned, the Senate was very conservative with what we included in that report. If we couldn’t find multiple documents, and we weren’t 100% sure of the facts, it did not go in that 7,000-page report.
I will say that the Panetta review was not that conservative in what they included. But I always thought, you know, if Panetta and the agency was smart, they would have put out that review ahead of the Senate and said, “This program happened. We’ve learned lessons. This is what we’re going to do to make sure it never happens again, and I don’t know what the Senate’s doing over there, but we’ve got control of our own ship.” Instead, they bury their internal report and they attack ours is being factually inaccurate.
JS: Where can people read the Panetta review?
DJ: The Panetta review has never been released.
JS: When exactly, what was the date when you started working on the Senate investigation? I mean, I know you had done the destruction of tapes, but what the movie deals with and what we’re talking about now, when we talk about the torture report, when exactly did you start on that?
DJ: It’s really, it was a seven-year journey, right? So, I count the tapes investigation, which was about Abu Zubaydah and al Nashiri, I mean, information from that investigation went into the larger report, and that began in December of 2007. And of course, we released the final report became an official Senate report and the executive summary was released in December of 2014. So, it was a long journey.
JS: Now, when Obama wins the election and comes into office, I’m sure you had paid attention to his comments about this issue on the campaign trail. Did you think that this is good that this guy who’s a constitutional law scholar and has at least talked about this and said that we have to have accountability, did you have a sense, OK, this is going to make it easy for us to a professional job of getting to the truth and it seems like someone who’s going to want to put this out so that the public can understand what was done in their names?
DJ: You know, I was just so in the weeds of actually doing the investigation. And I was very removed from politics for this entire seven years, I was very much not tracking what was happening in the outside world, frankly. And I assumed that the right thing would be done regardless of who was in office, perhaps naively.
JS: And when you then started to deal with the Obama administration, I mean, Denis McDonough is a major figure in the film played by Jon Hamm. But describe the way that the Obama administration treated you, viewed your investigation. Did they help it? Did they hinder it?
DJ: You know, I was very surprised with how the Obama administration engaged with us or did not engage with the Senate for that matter. You know, there’s, first of all, let’s talk about the August 2014 speech by President Obama. August 2014 is when a redacted version of our report was provided back to the Senate for release. And the White House believed that the Senate was just going to accept whatever they redacted and release. It was that day, with the anticipation that the Senate would release a ridiculously blacked-out report that Obama said, “We tortured some folks.” And a lot of people remember that speech largely for that statement. But what people don’t remember is the next few lines, which is it’s important not to get too sanctimonious about what these people did because they’re real patriots.
And to me, that was just the biggest gut punch, not only to the Senate who was on a bipartisan basis working to get the truth out of this program. It was a punch in the gut to all the CIA officers who left the CIA, who left this program, who went through appropriate channels who went to the CIA’s own inspector general and said, “The CIA is engaged in war crimes.” What does it say when President Obama comes out and says the torturers, don’t get sanctimonious about what they did because they’re the real patriots? What about the woman or man who saw what was happening and reported it and objected to it, not only because it’s immoral, but because it’s ineffective and it’s not who the United States is? And to this day, I’m just dumbfounded why he would take that approach.
And of course, the White House was always basically standing in front of us on the last two years of trying to complete that report and get it out. They let the agency go out there and make false claims about the report itself. They let the agency go out and make false claims about how the intelligence that led to this man named Abu Ahmed al Kuwaiti which led to the death of bin Laden. They allowed the agency to go out and connect its torture to that operation when the facts just simply didn’t support it. And then they fought the Senate tooth and nail again on a bipartisan basis to fight the release of this report.
JS: What I was pleasantly surprised by in The Report, in the film, was how much time is spent delving into the conduct of John Brennan.
DJ: Well, what’s interesting about the film, and there’s a, you can go on one of the film’s websites, and it has the script on the left-hand side and the facts on the right. Many of the statements that John Brennan says, the character that plays John Brennan in the film are exactly the statements that he has made either publicly or behind closed doors in transcripts that have now been released. There’s very little that’s not a hundred percent factually accurate with what John Brennan, how John Brennan is depicted. It’s a mystery to me why Brennan took the position he did on this. It’s a mystery to me why the Obama administration let him do it, why they were so uninterested in the truth.
JS: So let’s walk through that though, not from how the film portrays it, how you experienced it investigating this. So, before we get into Brennan’s tenure at CIA, which is what much of the film deals with it when it comes to Brennan, what relationship did Brennan have to the torture program and the CIA during that era?
DJ: Sure. John Brennan held some very senior leadership roles during the program. He was executive director of the agency during the program and certainly was aware of it.
JS: That’s the number three guy at the CIA?
DJ: Yeah, and Brennan maintains that he objected to the program, but we had 6.3 million pages of records and we looked for that, right? We looked for some sign. It could be a text message of people saying, hey, John Brennan said today he’s against this program. It could be an email John Brennan sent. We couldn’t find any evidence. And we really wanted to find it, right? We just wanted to confirm that. And we could find no evidence that he ever stood up and took a leadership position against this program but that was his public persona with Obama and others.
JS: And in fact, he was slated to be Obama’s CIA director right off the bat in that first term, but his nomination was effectively killed by Democrats in the Senate, not the Republicans, but by Democrats in the Senate. And the central concern was Brennan and the question of torture and the CIA.
DJ: Absolutely. That time the Senate thought it would be a terrible idea to reward somebody who has knowledge of this torture program and elevate them to be CIA director and for Obama to nominate them. It just seemed crazy. But of course, John Brennan stays in the White House —
JS: In a non-Senate confirmed position where he becomes the drone overlord and is the guy who is shepherding in the new era of expanded drone strikes. So he does his time there in a non-Senate confirmed position. And then things settle down a bit and the next time around Obama puts him up. And he largely just sails through his confirmation and becomes CIA director.
DJ: It’s important to remember how he got through this, how he threaded this needle which is at that point, a draft of the Senate report had been provided to the CIA. And John Brennan was asked very pointedly, “Have you read the report and what do you think?” And he said, “I’ve read it and now I don’t know what the facts are. It’s very disturbing.” You know, it sounds as if he’s echoing “I’m with you. Your report meant something.” “And maybe he’s the guy,” I’m guessing senators were thinking, maybe — Only Nixon couldn’t go to China. Maybe John Brennan’s the guy who can make CIA reckon with the use of torture. Maybe he’s the guy who can show this leadership to the agency. Of course, he wasn’t.
JS: And under John Brennan, as you did this investigation, what kinds of activities did John Brennan oversee or what kinds of activities happened that were undermining of your effort to get to the truth while Brennan was director?
DJ: Sure, so the investigation is ongoing while Brennan is there in terms of we’re responding to the CIA’s comments. We had come out of a period of time which I call the “Summer of Hell” which is the summer of 2013. The report is approved. An early version of the report is approved in December of 2012. The Republicans on the committee basically say, “We’re with you, but we want to give the CIA an opportunity to respond to this report.” Feinstein says “OK, but I don’t want to give them three years to do this. You have until the end of February.” And Feinstein very wisely says, “And I don’t just want to hear from the CIA, I want to hear from the FBI. I want to hear from the Department of Justice. I want to hear from the White House. All these parties are in our report. I want to know what they think of the report as well and we’ll incorporate their comments. And then we’ll produce a final report.” She says February is the deadline, right? So you basically have two and a half months or so to get a response.
February comes and goes. And we don’t get an actual report until the summer of 2013. And we only get a report from the CIA, nothing from the White House, nothing from the Department of Justice, nothing from DOD or FBI, just the CIA. And the CIA produces a document that is farcical. I mean, the sky we all can agree is blue. And they say “Nope, nope, the sky is, you know, bright red.” And we’re like, “We’re all here. We can see it.” And it was a shocking document and they wanted to walk us through that document. And that’s what we did in the summer of 2013, had many meetings about disagreements. And these were not disagreements of a subjective nature. These were timelines, chronologies. They say that the capture of Detainee One led to the capture of Detainee Two after the use of waterboarding, right? So March of 2003, Detainee One is captured, waterboarded all through March. And April of 2003 the next month this other detainee is captured and it’s only because of waterboarding, and we would say well, let’s take aside the ineffectiveness or effectiveness of waterboarding. It doesn’t make any sense because Detainee Two was actually captured in January before the guy you waterboarded.
And this was an actual quote they said to me at one point, this is the CIA: “Well, chronologies don’t really matter much to us.” That’s an actual quote from the CIA. You can imagine my head exploding over that summer. Eventually, we briefed Senator Feinstein. Well, we briefed her on this regularly. Somewhere around September, you know, this was driving me mad. You could not talk to them. They were not logical. And worse they were bringing in young junior analysts who had just arrived at the agency to defend their torture program saying these things right, creating a new generation of people who are misrepresenting the CIA’s actions to Congress. That got to me more than anything else. And walking through this with Senator Feinstein, at one point what was happening, she said, “Stop,” and that’s in the film, “Stop meeting with them.” What’s not in the film, is what she said next. She said, “Make them own their response.” And it was genius.
If you go and you look at the executive summary of the report, a lot of the footnotes are the CIA’s June 2013 response says this, right? We talked about rectal feeding and rectal rehydration. The CIA’s June 2013 response defends rectal rehydration as a well-acknowledged medical technique. It is silent on rectal feeding, right? The CIA maintains that Detainee One after waterboarding led to the capture of Detainee Two. The CIA… when in actuality it happened two months earlier. We make them own it. I actually would never thought about that. And I’m so happy she did it. Because, you know, I tell people, there’s two executive summaries that have been released. One that you just read through, and a far more impactful summary which is reading the footnotes with it. You see the ridiculousness of this program. But then you see the CIA’s response to it and this is under Obama. This is one of the things I found most disturbing when people think this is partisan, it’s not. This response with these ridiculous comments was done under President Obama, and nobody cared at the White House. Nobody cared under the Obama White House that the CIA was perpetrating these lies. We haven’t talked much about Zero Dark Thirty but they just didn’t care.
JS: Also, it’s not just that they’re engaged in that kind of conduct, it is that they were spying on you.
DJ: Of course, yeah, that happened as well.
JS: But I mean, but just briefly, I mean, explain. We’re talking about, you know, impeaching Trump and I think there’s a lot of evidence to suggest that Trump committed all sorts of crimes. But I mean, I think it bears repeating what happened as you were investigating this for the Senate, what the CIA did on domestic soil to the investigator from the very body set up to oversee the CIA.
DJ: Under a Democratic administration, with the Democratic nominee of CIA director. So, Caroline Krass is nominated to be the general counsel of the CIA. During that nomination hearing, a real hero mine, Mark Udall, a senator from Colorado acknowledges for the first time publicly about this internal CIA review called the Panetta Review. And Udall, Senator Udall opened up his statement this way, saying “the CIA’s leaking information in newspapers saying that the Senate report is factually inaccurate. It’s never going to be released because of all the factual errors. And he says, I don’t think that’s true because a, I’ve gone through the records, I’ve gone through the documents, but also I have seen your internal review that your top CIA officers wrote. And it’s even more damning than the Senate report. How do you respond to that?”
And it sent shockwaves to the agency that we had this internal review that the CIA had conducted, and we knew what they had found. The CIA freaks out. And they decide to go through the Senate’s computers to find out how many versions of this document existed. How we had discussed, they went through our emails. There’s evidence that they entered the room. This is spying on Americans. And the CIA’s argument is, well, we had to protect our computer system. Well, this was the Senate’s computer system. Eventually, the Inspector General finds out about this, the CIA’s own internal watchdog finds out about it. And within, I want to say it’s within 24 hours, they make a criminal referral to the Department of Justice saying we believe the CIA has violated the law by searching these computers and going into these computers unlawfully.
The CIA’s response is to make a criminal referral against the Senate staff saying, “Oh, no, it’s not us who broke the law. It’s the Senate staff.” And basically accused us of hacking into the CIA’s computers to obtain this Panetta Review. And they maintain and this is perhaps the most laughable argument — John Brennan maintains — that we were never authorized to have that document. It was a draft document. Let’s just pause there for a second, why were we never authorized to have that document? We requested every document in the CIA’s possession related to the CIA’s detention interrogation program. We got 6.3 million pages of records. What could be more relevant to a Senate investigation than the CIA’s own internal investigation into the same program? So, relevancy, we should have it, 100 percent.
Second argument is that it’s a draft document, so therefore, we shouldn’t have it. You may have remembered, we were talking earlier about the briefings that were scheduled for the president. We have 6.3 million pages, one of the most effective tools for understanding what was going on was to see one document, to see a hundred drafts of that document, how it changed, right? Bush was once going to be told about the waterboard, they eliminated that. I mean, of those 6.3 million pages, maybe half or more, were draft documents. So it’s a complete joke and this idea that well, we had to go in and spy on them because they had a draft document that they weren’t authorized to see and people found that compelling is just incredible to me. And let’s not forget what the Panetta Review is. It’s a damning argument against the CIA’s torture program that identifies it as ineffective, that identifies CIA officers misleading the Bush administration. That’s what they’re trying to suppress.
JS: What’s your response to Brennan’s statement on this at the time, “Let me assure you the CIA was in no way spying on the committee or the Senate?”
DJ: I mean, what would you call going into senate computers, reading the emails of Senate staff, and then running off and bragging to the Senate that you found this document that you didn’t think they were supposed to have? What do you… is there another word for that?
JS: What’s it like for you when you see John Brennan on TV as a commentator about the lawlessness of the Trump administration?
DJ: I don’t want to make this about John Brennan in particular. First of all—
JS: Well, I’m talking about it because he was the acting director at the time when your investigation was spied on on U.S. soil.
DJ: Yeah, I want to make a larger point though. Which is you know, people are both good and bad, and they make good decisions and bad decisions. So that’s one there. But I’m appalled at John Brennan, Mike Morell, Porter Goss, any of these individuals, Phil Mudd are on commentary, on television, right, talking about the intelligence community, and people view them — Michael Hayden, right — people view them as upstanding citizens who we can trust. There’s an entire appendix to the executive summary of the report of Michael Hayden, of his testimony to the committee. On the left-hand side is what he says on the right-hand side is the truth.
When Michael Hayden is told — this is a really important part of the Senate report — when he is told, “We’ve got a problem. We’ve told the Department of Justice, the White House and Congress that we’ve never had more than 100 detainees.” Somebody comes to Michael Hayden says, “Listen, we found more, there’s at least 112, probably a ton more than that. What should we do?” Michael Hayden says, “We’ve always had less than 100 detainees. Pick a date when this program began, we’ve always had less.” Why do we know that? We know that because we have 6.3 million CIA records and one of those records is an email that the individual who briefed Hayden sent to himself only and said, “Today I briefed Hayden on the additional detainees. He told me to pick a date, it’s under 100.”
Michael Hayden’s on television as an anti-Trumper or whatever. He’s a darling of these television stations as if he is a guy with integrity. I do believe integrity is a scarce resource. And when you fail to show integrity, there is some accountability and that accountability is sorry, you can’t be commentator on television anymore as someone who provides truthful answers to the American people unless you explain what was happening back then. And none of them have confronted the lies that they’ve told the American people or the president, the Department of Justice, or Congress.
JS: Finally, Daniel, is it your sense that the best way to prevent this from happening again would have been to hold those who were directing it and carrying it out accountable, including through criminal prosecution under threat of imprisonment?
DJ: That was never my decision to make but I will say this —
JS: I’m asking you as a citizen who is much more knowledgeable than any of us on this because of what you’ve seen.
DJ: I think people should have lost their jobs, at the very least. I’ve said this before, maybe you’re not nominated to be CIA director. But maybe you’re now in charge of the parking garage at the CIA, right? This is, there needs to be some form of accountability. And let me be clear, this is a massive CIA problem, but I think it’s also a massive societal [problem]. The same Senate Intelligence Committee that produced this report that fought tooth and nail to get it released and said this must never happen again. The same Senate Intelligence Committee that did that confirmed Gina Haspel to be CIA director. Who knows better about this program than that committee? And they went ahead and confirmed Gina Haspel.
To me, that’s inexcusable. I’m no longer in the Senate so I can say that, but the fact that you’d have members who voted for that report, who knew the details and then years later, say, “OK, you’ve said you’ll never do it again.” What do you mean you’ll never do it? It was found to be ineffective, unlawful, and that you lied to the White House, Department of Justice, and Congress about it. Of course, you’re never going to do it again. The bar is just so low to be heroes right now. It’s incredible.
JS: I mean, we started this by talking about World War II and the way the U.S. prosecuted people in the Tokyo trials and at Nuremberg. The standard then was not just that these people lose their jobs. It was in some cases that these people get executed.
DJ: That’s right.
JS: And it’s interesting that we never seem willing to apply that standard to our own conduct.
DJ: I agree with you. But keep in mind, people in the agency knew. They knew about those trials. And it’s why they thought this program itself and the uncovering of the details of the program itself was an existential threat to the agency, meaning that they viewed it as possible that the agency would be dismantled because of this torture program. Those are, that’s senior leadership inside the CIA.
JS: Daniel Jones, I want to just as a person in this country, I want to thank you for not giving up and for everything that you did. And I hope one day that we all can read those 7,000 pages that you and your colleagues worked so hard to produce so that the truth would be known. Thank you.
DJ: Thank you.
JS: Daniel Jones was the lead investigator for the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence’s probe into the CIA’s torture program. His work on this still-classified 7,000-page report is the subject of the new feature film The Report, directed by Scott Z. Burns. The film was produced in part by TOPIC Studios, which is part of The Intercept’s parent company First Look Media. It is now airing on Amazon Prime.
And that does it for this special bonus episode. You can follow us on Twitter @intercepted or on Instagram @interceptedpodcast. If you like what we do, support our show by going to TheIntercept.com/join to become a sustaining member. Intercepted is a production of First Look Media and The Intercept. Our lead producer is Jack D’Isidoro, our producer is Laura Flynn. Elise Swain is our associate producer and graphic designer. Betsy Reed is editor in chief of The Intercept. Rick Kwan mixed the show. Transcription for this program is done by Nuria Marquez Martinez. Our music, as always, was composed by DJ Spooky. Until next week, I’m Jeremy Scahill.