Religion in the CIA torture report

The Senate Intelligence Committee's "Torture Report," the 500-page report which summarizes a 6,700 page classified report, was released today.

Even for those of us who follow the torture beat closely, this report contains significant new information and corroboration of previous suppositions. Among the most alarming findings is that a minimum of 20% of tortured detainees were wrongly detained, some in blatant cases of mistaken identity.

My own research on torture in U.S. detention facilities has emphasized the religious aspects of abuse ("The Secret Weapon" and "Disgrace"). And though today's report does not contain as much along these lines as did the Senate Armed Services Committee’s report in 2009, it does analyze assertions made by CIA Director Hayden in 2007 about the role of religion in "enhanced interrogation."

Hayden argued that the CIA’s experience with detainees and “their particular psychological profile” necessitated interrogation so burdensome that the detainees would consider themselves released from their religious obligations:

Perceiving themselves true believers in a religious war, detainees believe they are morally bound to resist until Allah has sent them a burden too great for them to withstand. At that point — and that point varies by detainee — their cooperation in their own heart and soul becomes blameless and they enter into this cooperative relationship with our debriefers.

… it varies how long it takes, but I gave you a week or two as the normal window in which we actually helped this religious zealot to get over his own personality and put himself in a spirit of cooperation. (485-86)

In fact, the Senate report found that only one detainee said anything about such a concept, and even his elliptical remarks seem like nothing more than reporting he had prayed for God’s guidance to cooperate. The report concludes, rather, that "there are no records of CIA detainees making these statements," the kind which suggest detainees had been moved to cooperation by having their religious faith broken. Furthermore, the idea of breaking a detainee’s religious faith was first suggested by “a walk-in,” a source [redacted] to advise the CIA about al-Qa’ida:

Allah apparently allows you to talk if you feel threatened. The [CIA] detainees never counted on being detained by us outside the U.S. and being subjected to methods they never dreamed of. (486)

Where did this "expert" advice come from? Like many other techniques described in today’s report, this one had never been tried in a real interrogation. It was reverse-engineered from SERE training for hypothetical situations, and the two psychologists contracted to develop the CIA’s program had never before participated in an actual interrogation.

One CIA officer testified in 2007 that Abu Zubaydah had actually thanked him for it, claiming that he told the officer: "you need to continue to do this [i.e., bringing religious faith to the breaking point] because I need to be able to live with who I am and I will continue to be the religious believing person I am, but you had to get me to the point where I could have absolution from my god to cooperate and deal with your questions. So he thanked us for bringing him to that point, beyond which he knew his religious beliefs absolved him from cooperating with us."

The Senate committee was supposed to believe that a cruelly tortured man had thanked his torturer for breaking his religious faith. It goes without saying that the Senate committee found, after scrutinizing over 6 million pages of documents, "no CIA records to support this testimony" (487 n. 2646).

During the same hearing, Sen. Nelson asked about Hayden's plans, if he suspected al-Qa’ida was training people to resist such techniques. His answer is chilling.

DIRECTOR HAYDEN: "You recall the policy on which this is based, that we're going to give him a burden that Allah says is too great for you to bear, so they can put the burden down." (487)

The new report does not describe the many techniques of religiously-themed abuse that I compiled from ex-detainee memoirs and interviews in 2007-08, nor does it extend our knowledge from the 2009 report, which admitted techniques such as forced prostration before an idol shrine to generate “religious disgrace.”

But what Hayden’s comments do show is that using religion as a weapon in prolonged psychological warfare was an actual “policy” – not a result of agents gone rogue.

The goal was to create a burden so great that a person’s religious faith would be destroyed. Nothing could be further from our country’s founding principle.

 

Michael Peppard is associate professor of theology at Fordham University and on the staff of its Curran Center for American Catholic Studies. He is the author of The World's Oldest Church and The Son of God in the Roman World, and on Twitter @MichaelPeppard. He is a contributing editor to Commonweal.

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