Top Five Things you should know about the CIA Inspector General’s Interrogation Report

It’s the rules, not the exceptions, that alarm the IG.

Having read reports of the the report yesterday, I decided to read the whole enchilada myself. I encourage RBC readers to do the same — no matter what you think of detentions and interrogations, it’s an eye-opener. My top five findings are below:

1. The CIA was not a rogue elephant.

The Inspector General found that “there were few instances of deviations from approved [detention and interrogation] procedures.” (p.5) There are about a dozen instances of violations of policy listed in the 100+ page report. The most significant, according to the IG: the now-infamous handgun/power drill death threat against a detainee. Violations cover a broad range: from excessive waterboarding (yes, it sounds redundant, but remember, the Justice Department authorized waterboarding; at issue was how frequently this technique could be used), to blowing cigar smoke in a detainee’s face. The report also gives a picture of the agency repeatedly asking for– and getting — both authorization and reassurance from several NSC principals as well as the Department of Justice.

2. It’s the rules, not the exceptions, that alarm the IG.

The IG was deeply concerned about the legal basis and political fallout of the detention and interrogation policies themselves. Sadly, CIA officials predicted they would be left in the cold. The IG report notes:

“A number of Agency officers of various grade levels who are involved with detention and interrogation activities are concerned that they may at some future date be vulnerable to legal action in the United States or abroad and that the U.S. Government will not stand behind them. Although the current detention and interrogation Program has been subject to DoJ legal review and Administration political approval, it diverges sharply from previous Agency policy and practice, rules that govern interrogations by U.S. military and law enforcement officers, statements of U.S. policy by the Department of State, and public statements by very senior U.S. officials, including the President….” (pp.101-102)

3. We don’t know what interrogation methods work best.

Cheney and his opponents each have new grist here. The report notes in some detail valuable information gleaned from detainees. But it also makes clear that it is impossible to determine whether specific interrogation practices produced the information, how many wild goose chases resulted from deceptive or erroneous information, or the counterfactual: could we have gotten better intelligence without waterboarding, walling, dousing, or any of the other harsh techniques?

4. All ten of the IG’s recommendations to improve detention and interrogation practices were redacted.

This makes you wonder: are they blacked out because the CIA implemented them (making them current practice) or because the Agency didn’t?

5. Whither Congress?

It seems that Congress has known about these practices AND about the violations that went beyond what DOJ authorized for at least three years, probably longer. The IG report notes that CIA officials briefed congressional leaders in the fall of 2002 and again in Feb./March 2003 (though Speaker Pelosi has hotly debated precisely what was in those briefings). Yesterday CIA Director Leon Panetta noted that the IG report was made available to the leaders of the House and Senate intelligence committees in 2004, and the full committees in 2006. The Senate Intelligence Committee also notes that, “information about the CIA’s detention program which had previously been restricted to the Chairman and Vice Chairman, was briefed to the entire membership of the Committee” in 2006 (Senate Intelligence Committee Activity Report 2007-2009, S. Report 111-6, March 9, 2009, p.1).

Author: Amy Zegart

Amy Zegart is a senior fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution. She is also a faculty affiliate at the Center for International Security and Cooperation and a professor of political economy at the Stanford Graduate School of Business (by courtesy). Her research examines national security agencies, American foreign policy, and anything scary. Academic publications include two award-winning books: Spying Blind, which examines intelligence adaptation failures before 9/11, and Flawed by Design, which chronicles the evolution of America’s national security architecture. She is currently working on a book about intelligence in the post-9/11 world. Zegart writes an intelligence column at, and her pieces have also appeared in the Washington Post, New York Times, and Los Angeles Times. Previously, she taught at UCLA and worked at McKinsey & Company. A former Fulbright Scholar, she received an A.B. in East Asian Studies from Harvard and an M.A. and Ph.D. in Political Science from Stanford. A native Kentuckian, she loves to watch good college football and bad reality TV.