The CIA Interrogation Program Was A Foreign Policy Nightmare


cia advises ukraineThe White House, Congress, and the CIA Inspector General's office are just a few of the entities that were kept in the dark about the CIA's detainee and enhanced interrogation program, according to a Senate report released on Nov. 9. But considering the extensive and potentially explosive international component of the program, which began in the aftermath of the September 11th attacks and was fully discontinued after President Barack Obama took office in 2009, it's notable the State Department also was pretty much kept in the dark.


The purpose of the CIA's detainee program was to transfer terror suspects to places where they could be interrogated in absolute secrecy and outside of American legal jurisdiction. This allowed CIA officers to employ the enhanced interrogations techniques that critics call torture and are not permitted by US law.

As the report explains, "The CIA did not inform two secretaries of state of locations of CIA detention facilities, despite the significant foreign policy implications related to the hosting of clandestine CIA detention sites and the fact that the political leaders of host countries were generally informed of their existence."

CIA officials instructed US ambassadors not to even discuss the program with their colleagues at State. The report said in two countries, ambassadors weren't even "informed of plans to establish a CIA detention site ... where they were serving." In two other countries, the report found the CIA told government officals to keep the local US ambassador out of the loop.

The secretaries of State and Defense weren't briefed on the program until September of 2003, partly out of White House concerns Colin Powell, then the Secretary of State, would "blow his stack if he were to be briefed on what's been going on," the report states.


The CIA was operating in a way that may have impeded the smooth functioning of American diplomacy, concealing highly sensitive information about American activities abroad from the US foreign policy apparatus. Elsewhere, the report hints at the costs of this policy, suggesting the CIA was running its own back-channel in an attempt to keep the detainee program up and running - with very mixed results.

One section explains how, in 2003, the US was looking for a country in which to detain and interrogate Ramzi bin al-Shibh, a Yemeni who was part of 9/11 hijacker Mohammad Attah's Al Qaeda cell in Hamburg, Germany and who is currently detained at Guantanamo Bay.

"That spring, as the CIA was offering millions of dollars in subsidies to [redacted] in countries [redacted] and [redacted], CIA Headquarters directed the CIA Station in Country [redacted] to 'think big' about how CIA Headquarters could support Country [redacted]'s [redacted]," the report states in reference to classified efforts to convince countries to hold al-Shibh and his interrogators.

Even in a sentence so clouded with black streaked redactions, it's apparent the CIA was trying to present a menu of enticements to a specific foreign government with the aim of finding a place to stash a high-value detainee. Less clear is whether the State Department had any involvement overseeing an agreement with such possibly profound foreign policy dimensions - or if they even knew about it.

An adjacent footnote in the report gives an idea of just how high a priority foreign detention facilities were for the CIA. It describes one instance in which the CIA couldn't come up with enough incentives to convince an unnamed government to continue participating with the program. CIA Headquarters told the local station to keep negotiating, adding, "we cannot have enough blacksite hosts, and we are loathe to let one we have slip away."

The report also mentions an instance in which the detainee program may have even damaged an existing US security relationships. It recalls an incident in which "tensions arose between the CIA and [redacted] Country [redacted] [redacted]" after detainees were moved to the country for the second time. The report implies this falling out occurred after CIA detainees heard screams of pain from elsewhere in the facility. However, due to the many redactions in the report, it's unclear whether it was the US or the other government that was uncomfortable about the screams being overheard. Though the country involved is unnamed in the Senate report, it identifies Ibn Shaykh al-Libi as one of the detainees involved in the incident. Al-Libi is an Al Qaeda suspect who was at one point renditioned to Egypt, according to a book New York Times reporter James Risen.

After the situation with the screams, an official from a partner government expressed "'bitter dismay' their bilateral relationship with the US was being 'tested'" by the blacksite program. In 2004, the CIA was asked to remove all of its detainees from that country.

In yet another, also unnamed country, tensions over the detainee program led to accusations the CIA was a "querulous and unappreciative recipient of their [redacted] cooperation." By the end of 2004, relations between the agency and the government "deteriorated, particularly with regard to intelligence cooperation."

The CIA was running a program that required it to formulate policy on the fly, offering inducements to cooperative countries while potentially harming relations with uncooperative ones. In the process, the CIA was enlisting foreign governments in a project so sensitive that the names of these countries cannot be publicly divulged, even over a decade after the CIA's alleged abuses took place. In spite of all of this, it seems America's top diplomats were almost entirely ignorant of the program.

It's a reminder of what happens when the roles of different federal departments aren't clearly defined and enforced from above - and of the consequences of lax oversight as well. For years, CIA treaded through a foreign policy minefield, without the input or perhaps even the knowledge of the cabinet office actually responsible for foreign policy.