WASHINGTON — Former senior CIA officials instrumental in extracting information from al-Qaida prisoners through what most Americans consider to have been torture have published a book defending their conduct.
The book, titled “Rebuttal,” takes aim at the Senate intelligence committee report released last year that revealed gruesome details of the once-secret CIA program while portraying it as ineffective, incompetently run, and rife with misrepresentations.
Published by the U.S. Naval Institute, the volume features essays from three former CIA directors and other retired senior officials. They argue that the Senate report, written by Democratic staff and opposed by Republicans, significantly distorted reality.
The staff of Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the ranking Democrat on the intelligence committee, says the book has numerous inaccuracies. The result is a thick stew of charges and counter charges that have been characteristic of the torture debate.
The dispute has current implications, however.
Congress is considering legislation that would ban coercive interrogations. President Barack Obama imposed a ban by executive order, but that could be undone by his successor. The measure has been attached to a defense bill, and has the support of Democrats and Sen. John McCain, the Republican chairman of the Armed Services Committee and once a prisoner of war in Vietnam.
At least one Republican presidential candidate, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, has vowed to bring back the CIA’s enhanced interrogation techniques, while another, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, has declined to rule out doing so.
Polls, meanwhile, show that majorities of Americans believe the CIA engaged in torture — and was justified in doing so.
Porter Goss, who inherited the interrogation program as CIA director in the George W. Bush administration, wrote in the book that the Senate report was “polarizing and corrupted,” and said it “drove the issue from the highway of discourse to the gutter of sniping.”
Michael Morell, a former CIA director, devoted his essay to castigating major news organizations for failing, as he sees it, to fully cover the criticisms of the Senate report by the CIA and by Senate Republican staff.
Feinstein said in a statement that the book “doesn’t lay a glove on the factual accuracy of the committee’s report,” adding, “These interrogation techniques were brutal and did not produce information that was not already obtained in more traditional and acceptable ways.”
Released in December, the public Senate report was a roughly 500-page summary of a still-secret, 6,700-page version, the result of a five-year investigation that examined 6.3 million pages of CIA records. It accused the CIA of inflicting pain and suffering on al-Qaida prisoners far beyond its legal boundaries and then deceiving the nation with narratives of useful interrogations unsubstantiated by its own records.
The CIA acknowledged mistakes but argued that the tactics produced valuable intelligence. The agency — and the former officials — did not dispute the report’s descriptions of the interrogations from its own records.
Besides the now-well-known practice of waterboarding, tactics included weeks of sleep deprivation, slapping and slamming of detainees against walls, confining them to small boxes, keeping them isolated for prolonged periods and threatening them with death.
Three detainees faced waterboarding, the simulated drowning technique. Some were left broken by the treatment, pleading and whimpering, one described as eventually assuming a “compliant” position on the waterboarding table at the snap of an interrogator’s fingers.
Jose Rodriguez, who helped set the harsh tactics in motion as head of the CIA’s Counter Terrorism Center after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, described waterboarding in clinical terms in his memoir, a description utterly refuted by CIA records.
In “Rebuttal,” he continues to argue that waterboarding by the CIA was just like that used in training on American special operations troops.
“I am convinced that when years later President Obama and his attorney general said that waterboarding is torture they were referring to the waterboarding method used by the Spanish Inquisition, or by the Japanese during World War II, or the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia — not the waterboarding technique used” in training, he wrote.
But the CIA’s own records show that the way the agency carried out waterboarding on Abu Zubaydah and two other detainees was far different from anything the U.S. military does in training and more brutal than the careful procedures laid out in Justice Department memos authorizing the tactic.
During one session, Zubaydah became “completely unresponsive with bubbles rising through his open full mouth,” according to internal CIA records.
Zubaydah was waterboarded 83 times, and his treatment reduced some on the CIA interrogation team to tears, CIA records show.