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Amid redactions and monotony, reckless CIA cruelty

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This column originally ran in the Providence Journal on December 18, 2014.

Somewhere in the first hundred pages of the Senate Intelligence Committee report on Central Intelligence Agency torture, I started to feel a little panicky. Would I ever escape the monotonous violence, described in excruciating detail, that took place at Detention Site Cobalt, a black site north of Kabul? Would I ever be able to breathe easily after the suffocating smugness that saturates the CIA’s internal narrative of events?

I mean my response to be a compliment. The report has many faults; the most annoying is the granting of political cover to George W. Bush by emphasizing the CIA’s alleged non-disclosure to the White House about specific torture techniques. But the massive prose work of Senator Dianne Feinstein (D, Calif.), chairwoman of the committee, does possess a certain irony and subtlety, as well as a sickening urgency, which make it worth reading as a book, rather than as an accumulation of outrageous facts.

I don’t know whom to cite as the report’s stylist, since the 6,700 pages (only 499 of which have been declassified) must have been a collective effort. However, in her foreword, Feinstein credits Daniel Jones, a former Federal Bureau of Investigation analyst, as the report’s principal author. This would explain the underlying tone of sarcasm that runs throughout, since only a loyal FBI man could fully appreciate the villainy and stupidity of the CIA sadists who went right on waterboarding, shackling, sleep depriving, and dressing suspects in diapers, against all evidence that such tactics were ineffective in extracting information. The subplot of FBI contempt for CIA practices is one of the many things that make for compelling reading.

Early on, we learn that the future waterboarding record holder, Abu Zubaydah, cooperated with Arabic-speaking, nonviolent FBI agents who questioned him at “Detention Site Green.” According to the report, Zubaydah “revealed to the FBI officers that an individual named ‘Mukhtar’ was the al-Qa’ida ‘mastermind’ of the 9/11 attacks”—he subsequently identified “Mukhtar” from a picture of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.

Although this information corroborated what the CIA already knew, the CIA would have none of the FBI’s mushy, good-cop procedures. After freezing out its rival, Team Langley proceeded blithely down the road that cost the unfortunate Saudi one of his eyes and, presumably, most of his sanity. Until, that is, the CIA “interrogators” realized they weren’t getting anything useful out of Zubaydah and he was dispatched to indefinite internment at Guantánamo.

I don’t believe that the constant interruptions of the report’s text by blacked-out names and phrases are necessary to protect national security. Surely, the names of the most brutal CIA agents would be valuable to know, if only to shame them. But “redaction” can be a useful literary device in itself. With the rhythm of the story constantly broken by black rectangles, the reader is delighted to happen upon unexpurgated, candid observations by CIA personnel.

For example, the Senate report describes a debriefing at CIA headquarters, in December 2002, of Federal Bureau of Prisons employees who had visited Detention Site Cobalt and been, according to a CIA officer, “WOW’ed” by the CIA’s prowess in the art of incarceration. Apparently, the prison bureaucrats were impressed “that there was ‘absolutely no talking inside the facility’ and ‘[e]verything is done in silence and [in] the dark.’”

A nameless CIA officer was himself wowed by the prison personnel’s reaction to the point of self-congratulation: “They have never been in a facility where individuals are so sensory deprived, i.e., constant white noise, no talking, everyone in the dark, with the guards wearing a light on their head when they collected and escorted a detainee to an interrogation cell, detainees constantly being shackled to the wall or floor, and the starkness of each cell (concrete and bars). There is nothing like this in the Federal Bureau of Prisons. They then explained that they understood the mission and it was their collective assessment that in spite of all this sensory deprivation, the detainees were not being treated in humanely [sic] … the facility was sanitary, there was medical care and the guard force and our staff did not mistreat the detainee[s].”

Why can’t we know this officer’s name? Passages as eloquent as this can almost make one forget the CIA’s reckless cruelty.

Another literary passage is the account of confining Abu Zubaydah to “coffins” for hours at a time, a senseless act that reminds me of the new movie The Imitation Game, in which we see the Enigma code breaker Alan Turing being tortured as a boy by vicious schoolmates who imprison him under tightly nailed classroom floorboards. Which suggests that the Senate torture report is a case of art reflecting life.

Melville House is rushing to publish Feinstein’s investigation as a book by December 30.

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