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The CIA's history with "black sites" and enhanced interrogation

President George W. Bush speaks on the Global War On Terrorism in 2006.
President George W. Bush speaks on the Global War On Terrorism in 2006. Photo: Jim Watson / AFP / Getty Images

The nomination of Gina Haspel to be the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency has brought the CIA's history with enhanced interrogation back into the spotlight due to her history of running a CIA "black site" prison in Thailand.

Why it matters: While the Senate Select Intelligence Committee came to the conclusion in 2014 that the CIA's techniques weren't effective in obtaining information, the public remains divided on the issue with some considering the CIA’s techniques torture, while others saying they were necessary to extract vital information.

Why "black sites" started

  • After 9/11, the CIA wanted independent sites outside the United States where they could "detain and interrogate high-level al-Qaeda suspects," per the Washington Post.
  • In 2003, CIA officials told national security officers and Vice President Dick Cheney that the enhanced interrogation techniques at these sites were producing "significant results," per CNN.
  • A 2006 Supreme Court ruling put interrogators "at risk of prosecution for war crimes, leading to a temporary halt" of their interrogation methods, the NYT reports.
  • President Bush signed an executive order in 2007 that said the CIA was barred from using "cruel or inhuman treatment" while interrogating detainees.
  • A 2012 Senate intelligence committee report cited "a detailed case that subjecting prisoners to ­'enhanced' interrogation techniques did not help the CIA find Osama bin Laden," officials told WaPo.

About "enhanced interrogation"

  • Techniques included things ranging from slapping the detainee, stress positions, sleep deprivation, and waterboarding.
  • Former CIA Director Gen. Michael Hayden told Axios: "The number of people we ever detained is...a little more than 100. Of those, about one third had any kind of techniques used agains them, and of those...the number who were waterboarded was three, and the last waterboarding was in March of 2003."
    • Per Hayden, the goal of the interrogation was to "accelerate a detainees opposition to us and to get him into a relative zone of cooperation."
  • Retired General William Boykin, United States Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence under President Bush, told Axios that it's "pure speculation as to whether we could have gotten the intelligence we got in some other way."

The big question

Did the CIA get results, and information, that it wouldn't have gotten otherwise by using these techniques?

  • Former CIA Director John Brennan, appointed by President Obama, said in an official response to the SSIC's report: "[T]he Agency disagrees with the Study's unqualified assertions that the overall detention and interrogation program did not produce unique intelligence that led terrorist plots to be disrupted, terrorists to be captured, or lives to be saved. The Study's claims on this score are inconsistent with the factual record."
  • President Bush's FBI Director Robert Mueller, when asked by Vanity Fair if he was aware of attacks on America that had been thwarted thanks to the CIA's tactics, said: “I don’t believe that has been the case."
  • The New York Times reported eight cases in which the CIA said their interrogation led to "thwarted plots and...the capture of terrorists," which were disputed by the SSCI's landmark report.

What comes next

  • Boykin said criticism of Haspel's role in enhanced interrogation and "black sites" is "totally misplaced" because "at the time, it had been approved through the whole legal process."
  • Expect "black sites" and enhanced interrogation to be focal points during the confirmation hearings for Haspel.
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