Jim Comey’s Learned Helplessness about the Torture Report

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Dianne Feinstein used the Federal Law Enforcement Appropriations hearing as an opportunity to implore Jim Comey to read the Torture Report.

I’m surprised neither by her request nor by her plaintive manner, given how most Federal Agencies have simply blown off the Report. But I am interested in the content of the exchange (my transcription).

Feinstein: One of my disappointments was to learn that the six year report of the Senate Intelligence Committee on Detention and Interrogation Program sat in a locker and no one looked at it. And let me tell you why I’m disappointed. The report — the 6,000 pages and the 38,000 footnotes — which has been compiled contains numerous examples of a learning experience, of cases, of interrogation, of where the Department could learn — perhaps — some new things from past mistakes. And the fact that it hasn’t been opened — at least that’s what’s been reported to me — is really a great disservice. It’s classified. It’s meant for the appropriate Department. You’re certainly one of them. I’d like to ask if you open that report and designate certain people to read it and maybe even have a discussion, how things might be improved by suggestions in the report.

Comey: And I will do that Senator. As you know, I have read the [makes a finger gesture showing how thick it was] Executive Summary. You asked me to do it during my confirmation hearing, I kept that promise and read it. There’s a small number of people at the FBI — as I understand it — who have read the entire thing. But what we have not done — and I think it’s a very good question, is have we thought about whether there are lessons learned for us? There’s a tendency for me to think “we don’t engage in interrogation like that, so what’s there to learn?”

Feinstein: You did. And Bob Mueller pulled your people out, which is a great tribute to him.

Comey: Yeah. So the answer is yes, I will think about it better and I will think about where we are in terms of looking at the entire thing. I don’t know enough about where the document sits at this point in time and you mentioned a lock box, I don’t know that well enough to comment on it at this point.

Feinstein and Comey appear to have differing understandings of whether anyone at FBI has actually read the report, with Comey believing someone has read it — and professing ignorance about a “lockbox” — and Feinstein referring to a report that no one has read it, a belief that may come in part from the responses the government is making to FOIA requests. Is FBI lying about whether anyone has opened this in its FOIA responses?

But I’m also interested both that Comey hasn’t read further and that he hasn’t considered whether FBI might have anything to learn from it.

Tellingly, Comey suggests FBI would have nothing to learn because “we don’t engage in interrogation like that, so what’s there to learn.” But as Feinstein corrects, FBI did engage in “interrogation like that,” but then Bob Mueller withdrew his interrogators. Remember that Ali Soufan was present at the Thai black site for Abu Zubaydah’s first extreme sleep deprivation and long enough to see the torturers bring out a coffin-like box. His partner, Steve Gaudin, stayed even longer. That stuff doesn’t appear in the summary (the report’s silence on this earlier phase of Abu Zubaydah’s torture is one of CIA’s legitimate complaints). Moreover, there are moments later in the torture program when one or another FBI Agent (including Soufan) were present for other detainees’ interrogation, particularly for isolation. Comey wanted to suggest FBI was never involved in torture, but Feinstein reminded him they were.

Still, Feinstein seems to believe that Mueller withdrew Agents out of some kind of squeamishness. I think the record (especially from FBI Agents in Iraq who declined to write certain things down) suggests, instead, that Mueller withdrew his Agents to ensure that the FBI would never be witness to crimes committed against detainees which might force them to investigate those crimes. Indeed, it seems that in summer 2002 — at a time when US Attorney Jim Comey was relying on Abu Zubaydah’s statements to detain Jose Padilla — DOJ found a way to bracket the treatment that had already occurred and remain mostly ignorant of that which would occur over the next several years. Feinstein should know that but seems not to; Comey almost certainly does.

Which makes Comey’s explanation all the more nonsensical. There’s stuff like the anal rape, even in the Executive Summary, that probably wasn’t investigated (though the statute of limitations probably has expired on it). There’s probably far, far more evidence of crimes that have never been investigated in the full report. And yet … the premier law enforcement agency may or may not have taken the report out of storage in a lock box?

Consider me unconvinced.

Besides, Comey’s claim that “we don’t engage in interrogation like that” ignores that FBI is supposed to be the lead agency in the High Value Interrogation Group, about which there have been numerous hints that things like food and sleep deprivation have been used. His explanation that “we don’t engage in interrogation like that,” is all the more curious given FBI’s announcement earlier this week that the guy in charge of one HIG section just got assigned to lead the Dallas Division.

Director James B. Comey has named Thomas M. Class, Sr. special agent in charge of the FBI’s Dallas Division. Mr. Class most recently served as section chief of the High Value Detainee Interrogation Group in the National Security Branch (NSB) at FBI Headquarters (FBIHQ). In this position, he led an FBI-lead interagency group that deploys worldwide the nation’s best interrogation resources against significant counterterrorism targets in custody.

Who’s in charge of HIG, then? And is it engaging in isolation?

Finally, I am specifically intrigued by Comey’s apparent lack of curiosity about the full report because of his actions in 2005.

As these posts lay out (one, two), Comey was involved in the drafting of 2 new OLC memos in May 2005 (though he may have been ignorant about the third). The lies CIA told OLC in 2004 and then told OLC again in 2005 covering the same torture were among the worst, according to Mark Udall. Comey even tried to hold up the memo long enough to do fact gathering that would allow them to tie the Combined memo more closely to the detainee whose treatment the memo was apparently supposed to retroactively reauthorize. But Alberto Gonzales’ Chief of Staff Ted Ullyot told him that would not be possible.

Pat [Philbin] explained to me (as he had to [Steven Bradbury and Ted Ullyot]) that we couldn’t make the change I thought necessary by Friday [April 29]. I told him to go back to them and reiterate that fact and the fact that I would oppose any opinion that was not significantly reshaped (which would involve fact gathering that we could not complete by Friday).

[snip]

[Ullyot] mentioned at one point that OLC didn’t feel like it would accede to my request to make the opinion focused on one person because they don’t give retrospective advice. I said I understood that, but that the treatment of that person had been the subject of oral advice, which OLC would simply be confirming in writing, something they do quite often.

At the end, he said that he just wanted me to know that it appeared the second opinion would go [Friday] and that he wanted to make sure I knew that and wanted to confirm that I felt I had been heard.

Presuming that memo really was meant to codify the oral authorization DOJ had given CIA (which might pertain to Hassan Ghul or another detainee tortured in 2004), then further details of the detainee’s torture would be available in the full report. Wouldn’t Comey be interested in those details now?

But then, so would details of Janat Gul’s torture, whose torture was retroactively authorized in an OLC memo Comey himself bought off on. Maybe Comey has good reason not to want to know what else is in the report.

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

11 replies
  1. Don Bacon says:

    I guess it’s possible that there could be, under certain circumstances, some justice in the Justice Department but I assume that all instructions along that line are in a locker somewhere. I don’t know that well enough to comment on it further at this point.

  2. observer says:

    The author seems surprised that a top US cabinet level would have major skeletons. Isn’t that why they are nominated.

    Google “Comey house of death” if you want to look up those bones.

  3. Jeff Kaye says:

    Much to chew on here. Feinstein appears to believe her own reformism, and that “good” people in the FBI will somehow rein in the torture crowd among them. But they appear to be quite disinterested.

    The FBI has many instances of being called out for torture. Fairly recently there were the reports out of Uganda, where FBI — and possibly the HIG — were identified as engaging in torture, abuses not dissimilar to those allegedly used by Richard Zuley. See my report previously at Truthout, Report: Serious Allegations of Abuse by FBI and Other Agencies in World Cup Bombing Investigation.

    We don’t know enough about the HIG, and its actions are more shrouded than those of the Bush-Cheney era of CIA-DoD. I believe there is a public HIG, which you can google, and a covert HIG. The latter, too, is likely Balkanized by the various agencies that make it up.

    Finally, a big thank you for keeping the history honest, and noting the FBI abuses in early 2002 at the Thailand black site (which even Soufan publicly testified were “not Geneva-compliant”). And thanks for remembering that FBI agent Steve Gaudin stuck around to help Mitchell and Jessen torture Abu Zubaydah. Further, when the DoJ IG documented that, FBI/DoJ let him off the hook. But you haven’t seen Gaudin make the Congressional or talk show circuits. (Did Comey have any say in decision on Gaudin?)

  4. Jeff Kaye says:

    Oh, and finally, how in the world could the head of the FBI not have any idea where a classified document like the SSCI report is kept at DoJ? He is speaking for others who want to hear what he says, and how he says it. And I’m not talking about the public or even Feinstein. The overturn of the recommendations of the OPC report is a lesson in the fact the real powers at FBI and Justice are not the public figureheads.

    • wallace says:

      quote’The overturn of the recommendations of the OPC report is a lesson in the fact the real powers at FBI and Justice are not the public figureheads.”unquote

      BINGO!! In that case..help us name them. We’ll add them to the 100 Heads Life and Casualty policy should 4th Gen warfare eventually come to this country..and it will. But just for drill..let me guess..

      http://www.businessinsider.com/top-25-us-defense-companies-2012-2

  5. wallace says:

    quote”But then, so would details of Janat Gul’s torture, whose torture was retroactively authorized in an OLC memo Comey himself bought off on. Maybe Comey has good reason not to want to know what else is in the report.”unquote

    emptywheel.., where did you learn to sharpen cold steel at the molecular level?

  6. greengiant says:

    So if it is not the FBI that tortures Matt Dehart, then it is a shell game as in if not CIA then JSOC, if not JSOC, then contractors …. If not the FBI then the SS, if not the SS then BATF or DEA or Marshals or Customs or …

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