A top CIA official in charge of the agency’s interrogation program claimed he was unaware of some of the most gruesome techniques revealed by the Senate’s torture report.
Working from CIA documents, the report said detainees were made to stand on broken limbs, or forced to take in food or water rectally. But Jose Rodriguez, head of the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center at the time, said the newly revealed abuses caught him off-guard, too.
“I have no knowledge of people forced to stand with broken bones,” Rodriguez said in an interview the day after the Senate Intelligence Committee Democrats, led by Chairman Dianne Feinstein, released its report after five years of delays.
Nor was he aware of detainees being given water or food via their rectum. “Rectal hydration thing sounds like a medical procedure, but it was not part of the approved and sanctioned techniques that were given to us by our guys and approved” by the Justice Department, he said. (Former CIA Director Michael Hayden made similar remarks Wednesday on CNN, saying that he hadn’t heard of the practice, but that it sounded like a medical procedure.)
Rodriguez’s narrative of those early years of the war on terror appears to be contradicted in part by the Senate report. So is his assertion, repeated Wednesday, that harsh interrogation practices produced intelligence that helped track down al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, killed in a Special Operations raid in 2011.
A Senate aide told reporters, for example, that “enhanced interrogation measures” were applied to detainees with broken limbs, though the CIA had given the committee assurances it wouldn’t do that.
Rodriguez concedes some CIA abuses that were outlined by the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report—including a detainee freezing to death—did occur. But he said such abuses were reported and stopped.
“Interrogation… was not our core skill,” he said. “Mistakes were made,” especially before the official rendition, detention and interrogation program started in August 2002, he said.
“In the months prior to that, when we started taking prisoners [in Afghanistan], we were improvising,” he said.
“The problem we had with Salt Pit,” a detention site in Afghanistan, which the Senate Intelligence report refers to by the code name Cobalt, “is we were too busy chasing al Qaeda and [the] Taliban,” Rodriguez said. “The CIA had a very young person in charge of the facility prior to August 2002. The [CIA] station dropped the ball and somebody froze to death there.”
According to the Senate report, however, that person continued as a manager of the detention site until July 2003, and remained involved in the interrogations of other CIA detainees. (He was formally certified as a CIA interrogator only in April 2003.)
The report said the CIA expressed regret for not ultimately punishing him.
The Senate report also suggested waterboarding took place at the Salt Pit when that employee was in charge, before such techniques had been approved by the Justice Department.
“Even though there were all sorts of problems at Salt Pit, I know of no waterboarding,” Rodriguez added, insisting only three people were waterboarded. “It was done after we had received a binding legal opinion from Justice and approval from the White House to proceed.”
So what of the photograph of what the Senate report described as a “well-used waterboard” with buckets around it, at the Salt Pit?
“Nobody reported that to us. I find it hard to believe,” he said. “I know of the waterboarding of the three guys pursuant to the August 2002 program.”
Rodriguez said when he took over the CIA’s CTC in May 2002, he recalled all the interrogators for “retraining” because Saudi al Qaeda suspect Abu Zubaydah had “stopped talking.” The CIA proposed new methods to the Justice Department, which were approved. Zubaydah and two other detainees were subsequently waterboarded, and subjected to other methods including sleep deprivation.
“After August 2002, it was a well-managed program with specific instructions with what to do,” Rodriguez insisted. “Nevertheless, there were people who broke the rules. A drill was used to scare someone, smoke [was] blown in someone’s face,” and he said “some detainees were made to stand or kneel in an uncomfortable way.”
He said all the abuses were reported to the CIA’s inspector general and referred to the Justice Department, which declined to prosecute the employees.
Rodriguez is quoted in the report as cautioning an employee to refrain from using language referring to the “legality” of the interrogation procedures, when he received a cable warning that the Zubaydah interrogation was “approach(ing) the legal limit.”
“Telling employees to stick to authorized legal boundaries is a good thing,” he said Wednesday when asked about the quote. “I probably did it at the request of my lawyers.”
Rodriguez does not equivocate over Feinstein’s charge that interrogation was not critical to finding Osama bin Laden.
“That’s total bullshit. It’s crap,” he said.
He said information gleaned from a black-site interrogation led to the initial focus on the courier who led the U.S. to bin Laden’s compound, outlining in brief the account he wrote in his 2011 book, Hard Measures, about the interrogation program.
He said the messenger, who went by the name Abu Ahmed al Kuwaiti, was first described as a member of bin Laden’s security detail, by a detainee held by the U.S. military.
“Then we heard at a black site that he was bin Laden’s courier,” during an interrogation of detainee Ammar Al Baluchi—an alleged facilitator of the 9/11 attacks who is now being held in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
“And then what turned on the lights for me was when Abu Faraj al Libi, who we captured after, said he was informed that he had been elevated to chief of operations through bin Laden’s courier,” he said.
The clincher for Rodriguez was when CIA officers intercepted a message passed by detainee Khalid Sheikh Mohammed “instructing his fellow detainees not to talk about the courier.” He said that’s when CIA officers knew the courier was the man to watch.
“Not the key piece? OK, perhaps,” Rodriguez concedes. “I think the key piece was getting al-Kuwaiti’s true name, but it was significant.”
He said everyone involved in the program was concerned for their safety because of the report, after years of already undergoing stress for threatened prosecutions.
While he does not believe the Justice Department will revisit prosecuting any employees, he says that there is concern that the report will lead to others’ identifies being exposed.
“Everybody is concerned about having an X on their backs because of it. There are a lot of midlevel people who are scared to death, because they don’t want to be in the public eye,” he said.
And while all he says he has spoken to still believe the interrogations saved lives, he said the report was a punch in the gut. “They didn’t bargain to be exposed and to be berated for what they did and what they had been told was legal,” he said.
— with additional reporting by Tim Mak and Shane Harris