New Details Emerge About CIA Interrogation

The article "The Black Sites" in this week's issue of The New Yorker provides new details about the CIA's secret interrogation program. New Yorker writer Jane Mayer talks with Michele Norris.

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MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

The conduct of American interrogators in Afghanistan, Eastern Europe and other locations is the subject of Jane Mayer's piece in this week's issue of the New Yorker magazine. It's called the "The Black Sites." And it presents one of the most detailed accounts, so far, of CIA interrogation practices.

Before 9/11, CIA was not conducting interrogations or holding prisoners. That changed as the government scrambled to respond to the 9/11 attacks. And Jane Mayer says the new methods were approved at the highest levels.

NORRIS: This was a top-down controlled mechanistic, regimented program of abuse that was signed off on - at the White House, really, and then implemented at the CIA from the top levels all the way down.

NORRIS: When the CIA began interrogating again, there was this almost like a playbook, as I read this - memo that was written in December of 2002.

NORRIS: This is this program we're talking about in the military, actually, that had various ways that you could break down prisoners. It talks about, for instance, the advantages of nakedness, because if you strip someone, they feel humiliated. And it even explains how to strip someone.

NORRIS: Yes, you tear something in a particular direction.

NORRIS: You tear down the - they said, down the lines of the buttons and seams, you know? And - but what was even more regimented in some ways was the program of psychological torment to make people feel completely isolated and deprived of all sorts of sensory stimuli. So what they would do is kind of - they would put people, naked, for up to 40 days in cells where they were deprived of any kind of light. They would cut them off from any sense of what time it was or any sort of normal routine having to do with meals, anything that would give them a signpost of where they were.

NORRIS: Now, much of your information in writing this piece comes from the Red Cross.

NORRIS: The Red Cross is the only outside group that's ever had access to the CIA's prisoners. They asked for access for five years, and when the CIA finally transferred them to Guantanamo, the Red Cross was given access to them. And they then told their stories to the Red Cross, and the Red Cross put these stories in a form of a report, which is confidential, which I've not been able to see. But what I was able to do was interview people who had been able to see this report. And what they described were the allegations made by these prisoners.

NORRIS: And is there any concern that the prisoners might have embellished what happened?

NORRIS: Oh, I think you have to assume that the prisoners have very poor credibility records - I mean, these are - many of them, sworn terrorists or enemies of the United States, but at the same time, the Red Cross has a terrific credibility record. And it's a very cautious and conservative organization. And they put together in this report what they think is true.

NORRIS: Now, I'd like to take the cases of a couple of the detainees and the treatment that they received. First, Abu Zubaydah, who was one of the first detainees questioned by the CIA shortly after 9/11.

NORRIS: His case has been written about quite a bit. But what was new to me from the Red Cross report was that in addition to being waterboarded, which is kind of a simulated drowning process, he was also kept in a, he said, a small cage, about one meter by one meter in which he couldn't stand up and for prolonged period of time. So, they called it the dog box.

NORRIS: Mm-hmm. Jane, I want to ask you about another case, the case of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who in the eyes of the CIA would be seen as a big fish.

NORRIS: Right. He was probably the biggest of all the fish that the CIA have had. I mean, he was the mastermind of 9/11, and a tremendous coup that they were able to capture him. He had the kind of information that might be able to save American lives and stop another attack. And of course, through much of the early period after 9/11, there was a great fear that there would be a second wave of attacks. So there's tremendous pressure that the CIA was under to get everything out of these people and get it as fast as you possibly can. And I think, you know, even critics of this program have to at least understand that there were reasons these things happened that were understandable.

NORRIS: Does the CIA - has the CIA determined that in the end that it's worth it? Does eliciting this kind of information from detainees justify this kind of physical torment?

NORRIS: Well, the CIA does feel it's justified. I mean, and there are a number of people inside the agency who are strong proponents of these techniques, because they think they get good information out of people and that it's necessary. There are also people, that said, inside the CIA, who are horrified by the fact that the agency they love has gone into this kind of business.

NORRIS: And did they get what they're looking for? Did they yield any information?

NORRIS: Well, they certainly yielded information. The problem is they yielded both good and bad information. And one of the things to me that was astounding was a top agency official said to me that 90 percent of what they got was unreliable, 10 percent of what they got was really good. But it's of - a tough ratio there. And I think the question to ask - and some of the smartest people I know are asking - is not did they get information, it's is this the only way to get information. And certainly, the military and law enforcement officers feel there are many other ways you can get information that don't require violating human rights.

NORRIS: You use the term human rights violations. The administration would take umbrage with that.

NORRIS: Well, they have argued in the past that the Geneva Conventions did not cover these kinds of prisoners. The problem is the Supreme Court ruled otherwise last summer.

NORRIS: Jane Mayer, thanks so much for coming in to talk to us.

NORRIS: Great to be with you.

NORRIS: Jane Mayer was speaking to us about her article in this week's issue of the New Yorker, an article called "The Black Sites."

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