SSCI Confirms Staff Visited CIA’s Salt Pit Prison in 2003, No Records of Visit Kept at CIA Request
There are many aspects to the exploding torture scandal that are being spun by interested parties. That’s not necessarily bad, and in fact to be expected. But it’s hard to get to the actual truth.
One problem is that the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Committee (SSCI) has only released the Executive Summary (PDF) of their full, 6,000-plus page report on the CIA’s torture program. On the other hand, the CIA censored a number of items in the document. While the Summary has lots of new and very interesting information in it, it’s clear that we’re not getting the entire story.
One thing that has the SSCI report critics up in arms is the assertion from CIA and GOP critics that the SSCI did not interview actual CIA personnel. CIA claims that it did brief Congressional oversight committees, or at least their leading members, about the torture program.
The SSCI maintains the CIA has not been forthcoming with information, and has even misled investigators and government personnel about their interrogation program. For example, according to the report, “in late 2002, Chairman Graham sought to expand Committee oversight of the CIA’s Detention and Interrogation Program, including by having Committee staff visit CIA interrogation sites and interview CIA interrogators. The CIA rejected this request. An internal CIA email from [redacted] CTC Legal [redacted] indicated that the full Committee would not be told about ‘the nature and scope of the interrogation process,’ and that even the chairman and vice chairman would not be told in which country or ‘region’ the CIA had established its detention facilities.” (emphasis added, p. 438)
But what is most surprising, and no one has mentioned, much less emphasized, is that according to the CIA’s own June 2013 written response (PDF) to an earlier draft of the SSCI’s executive summary, SSCI “staff members” visited the Salt Pit CIA black site in Afghanistan (codenamed COBALT) in late 2003. According to the CIA, the SSCI staff found it compared “favorably” with detainee facilities at Bagram and Guantanamo.
At the time, the SSCI director was Republican Senator Pat Roberts, while Democratic Senator Jay Rockefeller was the ranking minority member on the committee. The CIA does not name who the SSCI staff were. There is no reference to any such Committee visits to CIA black sites in the SSCI Executive Summary. I checked with some experts who have been following closely the CIA torture scandal, and they also believed this was new information.
A SSCI committee aide who would only speak on background told The Dissenter the committee doesn’t dispute CIA records. However, the aide noted, the 2003 visit was years in advance of the SSCI study that resulted in the recent report. Furthermore, at the request of the CIA, the committee retained no records of the 2003 visit. I’m told the committee stands by its description of detention facilities in the report, and the CIA’s refusal to allow the committee to conduct oversight over detention and interrogation activities prior to 2006, when the committee was finally informed of the program.
The entire episode raises many questions, however. For instance, in the SSCI report, the committee states, “At the July 2004 briefing, the minority staff director requested full Committee briefings and expanded Committee oversight, including visits to CIA detention sites and interviews with interrogators — efforts that had been sought by former Chairman Graham years earlier. This request was denied.”
That request was denied, but was an earlier one approved? We know now there was a visit to at least one CIA detention site. Why isn’t that mentioned in the report? If there were no records of the visit, there were still individuals who could be interviewed from that time, not least Sen. Rockefeller, who was ranking minority member on the SSCI at the time of the staff visit, and is still a member of the Senate intelligence committee. Even more, what kind of oversight committee would fail to keep records of an oversight action when requested by the agency upon which it is conducting oversight?
“… a markedly cleaner, healthier, more humane and better administered facility”
The story about the SSCI staff visit in the CIA Response is tied into CIA’s response to SSCI charges that both the interrogation of CIA detainees and the conditions of their confinement at the various CIA black sites were more brutal than CIA had indicated. The Senate report highlighted the death of one CIA detainee, Gul Rahman, who died of hypothermia while being tortured at the CIA’s notorious Salt Pit prison.
The CIA, whose response is self-serving at best, and can generally not be trusted, responded to these charges. They claimed that conditions at the black sites were “unacceptable” in the “early days,” but that conditions improved over time.
“Most importantly,” the CIA wrote, “we found no evidence to support the charge that the facts relating to confinement conditions or the application of enhanced techniques were previously unknown or undisclosed to NSC and DOJ officials or to oversight committees.”
The CIA did agree with Committee charges that the “confinement conditions” at the Salt Pit black site were “harsher than at other facilities and deficient in significant respects for a few months prior to the death of Gul Rahman in late 2002.” The actual identification of the Salt Pit prison does not occur in either the CIA Response or SSCI report, as such sites names are either redacted or given code names. The identification of the Salt Pit is inferred by information in the documents, especially the death of Rahman.
According to an account at the Daily Beast, the Salt Pit prison, called by some former detainees the “Dark Prison,” were abominable. “Nude prisoners were kept in a central area, and walked around as a form of humiliation. Detainees were hosed down while shackled naked, and placed in rooms with temperatures as low as 59 degrees Fahrenheit. Loud music was played constantly…. Detainees there were subject to sleep deprivation, shackled to bars with their hands above their heads.”
The CIA Response to SSCI stated the Agency “took steps to consolidate responsibility” for the facility and “moved quickly to improve conditions.” Then they reminded the SSCI about something:
Although conditions at the facility remained sub-optimal throughout its existence, significant improvements at the site prompted two SSCI staff members who visited the facility in late 2003 to compare it favorably with military facilities at Bagram and Guantanamo Bay. In fact, one remarked that [one word redaction] was “a markedly cleaner, healthier, more humane and better administered facility.” [One word redaction] was decommissioned in 2004 in favor of a newer facility…. [p. 56 (p. 80 of PDF)]
Only months after their visit, a CIA Office of Medical Services medical officer described the rectal rehydration procedure used on detainees in a February 27, 2004 email, as quoted in the SSCI Summary: “[r]egarding the rectal tube, if you place it and open up the IV tubing, the flow will self regulate, sloshing up the large intestines…. [w]hat I infer is that you get a tube up as far as you can, then open the IV wide. No need to squeeze the bag – let gravity do the work.”
The hideous use of such medical torture, amounting to sexual assault on prisoners, has sparked new calls for further investigation. See a full discussion of this aspect of the torture in a new report by Physicians for Human Rights (PDF).
So what’s going on here?
I can’t know exactly. But the cozy relationship between the Congressional intelligence committees and the agencies they oversee is a major problem. I noted back in August that numerous leading staff members for SSCI over the years have had a tight relationship with the CIA. Indeed, the EIT torture program of the CIA was implemented under the leadership of the former Staff Director for the SSCI back in the early 1990s, George Tenet.
From my August article:
After leaving SSCI in January 1993], Tenet went straight to the White House, where he worked as “Special Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs and Senior Director for Intelligence Programs.” In a relatively short time, he was appointed deputy director of the CIA in July 1995. By December 1996, Tenet replaced John Deutch as temporary director of the CIA. Bill Clinton would nominate him as full director the next year….
In four quick years, Tenet went from SSCI Staff Director to head of the CIA.
But Tenet was not the only instance of such incestuous goings on in the oversight world. Other individuals that either went from the intelligence world to SSCI staff, or from the latter to the CIA, included former Minority Staff Director John H. Moseman, who went from being Minortity Staff Director to CIA’s Director of Congressional Affairs in 1996, and then later Tenet’s Chief of Staff; former Charles Battaglia, who went from senior management at CIA to staff director at SSCI in the mid-1990s; and former SSCI Staff Director Bernard F. McMahon in the 1980s, who earlier had served as Executive Director to the Director of the CIA.
Another notable connection between Congressional oversight and the CIA involves the 2002 Joint Congressional investigation into 9/11. The House and Senate intelligence committees appointed former CIA Inspector General L. Britt Snider to head the unified staff for the joint inquiry.
To my knowledge, there is no connection between the CIA or other intelligence agency and the current Congressional intelligence oversight committees.
In general, I’m very pleased to have even the redacted version of the Executive Summary of the SSCI report, which had much more in it that I would have expected.
But the evidence in the Summary points to one overwhelming fact: if we are ever to get the full story on what went on behind the scenes in the torture program, we need the SSCI to release the full 6,000 page report, and all censorship removed to the extent possible.
Secondly, we need a non-partisan, non-government connected committee to investigate fully the entire affair, including the rendition program, the full extent of the military’s own torture program, and recent revelations of illegal human subject medical experimentation as part of the CIA program. Such an independent committee must have no ties to the intelligence community, and include strong presence of human rights and anti-torture organizations. It must also include representatives or the presence of some of the victims of the torture itself, the better to keep such an investigation honest.