Ex-CIA Inspector General on Interrogation Report 'The Agency Went over Bounds and Outside the Rules'

John Helgerson, 65, was responsible for drawing up the 2004 report into CIA interrogations of terror suspects which has now been released by the Obama administration. The former CIA inspector general talks to SPIEGEL about allegations of abuse and the "disorganization" of the interrogations program after 9/11.

SPIEGEL: Why did you initiate a review of the CIA's interrogations program  at the beginning of 2003?

John Helgerson: At the time, we thought it important to look systematically at such an important program that had been in operation since shortly after 9/11. In addition, we wanted to respond to expressions of concern by some agency employees involved with the program who were uneasy about it. Actually there were a number of individuals who expressed to me their concern about various aspects of this program. They had the feeling that what the agency was doing was fundamentally inconsistent with past US government policy and American values. It was something new and unprecedented for the agency. A critical legal opinion was missing which I believed was needed to protect agency employees and detainees. It was then my own initiative to undertake this review. And in the process we found things that we did not expect to find.


Photo Gallery: Investigating CIA Torture Techniques

Foto: Chris McGrath/ AFP

SPIEGEL: Did you and your team meet with difficulties inside the agency during the investigation?

Helgerson: The agency raised no objection to our undertaking this review. There were many who were anxious about our review because they were operating in uncharted territory. Others were very pleased that we looked into the matter. All employees are aware, however, that the office of the Inspector General, by law, has complete access to all agency personnel and contractors, and to all agency information. It was a complicated program and therefore a complicated review. We interviewed more than 100 persons and reviewed more than 38,000 documents. Overall, I would say that our office received as good cooperation as could have been reasonably expected, given the far reaching and complex nature of the review.

SPIEGEL: Your team, which had 12 members, worked on the investigation for over a year. It took you another six months until the report was ready. That does not exactly sound like a smooth ride.

Helgerson: It was not easy for another reason. Our review was difficult because of the disorganization of the whole interrogation program. So much was being improvised in those early years in so many locations. There were no guidelines, no oversight, no training. How will you review a program handled differently in so many places in the world? The extended time it took to complete the review was also due to a practice to permit all agency individuals and components who are subjects of our work to review our reports in draft, and to comment on them. Owing to the complexity and sensitivity of this matter, that process took a long time.

SPIEGEL: Did you personally travel to secret prisons in Europe and elsewhere?

Helgerson: For reasons of classification I am not allowed to say who may have traveled over there. But what I can say is that members of the office of the Inspector General did visit all the sites. Unfortunately, I cannot go further and discuss what they have done or seen.

SPIEGEL: Can you say anything about the 92 videotapes that the CIA made of interrogations in the secret prison sites -- including the practice known as waterboarding -- and that were later destroyed by the agency?

Helgerson: Members of our staff watched every minute of any existing videotape and we reported about it in the report, as you have seen in the declassified version. Our principal findings related to the manner in which the waterboarding had been carried out, as compared with the understanding that had been reached between the CIA and the Department of Justice. Basically, there was the matter of the frequency of the applications. We also observed that the way waterboarding was conducted was not consistent with what has been described concerning the amount of water.

SPIEGEL: Were you shocked by what you saw on the tapes?

Helgerson: You know CIA agents do not like to speak about their feelings too much. We knew before pretty much what we would see. So it was a rather clinical view of the tapes. I won't try to characterize the emotions of those who saw them, except to say that different individuals react differently to those things. And that we concluded that the agency was clearly abusing this technique.

SPIEGEL: Reading the report, one gets the impression that the first years after 9/11 were especially uncontrolled and wild.

Helgerson: Immediately after 9/11, the agency scrambled to meet the challenge. Expertise on al-Qaida was limited, and we had had no recent experience with interrogations. As a result, there was considerable improvisation. The agency is proud of its can-do attitude to accomplish any new, priority mission. In this case, however, improvisation led to several problems, as the report describes. For example, management controls and training of employees were both unsatisfactory in the early months. The agency went over bounds and outside the rules, that is for sure.

SPIEGEL: Abu Zubaydah, a man the CIA considered to be a key player in al-Qaida, was captured in March 2002 in Pakistan and quickly transferred to a black site prison in Thailand. Apparently, he was the first detainee subjected to "enhanced interrogation techniques," as the practices such as waterboarding were known. That was well before Aug. 1, 2002, the date of the first Justice Department memorandum legalizing these techniques. Did the lawyer who signed the memorandum simply authorize a technique months after this technique had already been applied?

Helgerson: My problem is I cannot go beyond the published report. But you are basically right. There was some legal advice given orally to the CIA that had then been followed up by memorandums months later.

SPIEGEL: No one knows the interrogations better than you. Would you consider today, as former Vice-President Dick Cheney is claiming, that the special interrogation techniques were successful? Is he right or wrong?

Helgerson: We concluded, as the report states, that much valuable information came from the overall program. We did not find it possible to conclude definitively from available information that specific techniques worked or did not, or to clearly establish the value of the overall program of enhanced techniques as compared with traditional interrogation methods. After all I have seen, I can say that up to this day I do not know whether the particular interrogation techniques used were effective and necessary, or whether such information could be acquired using more traditional methods.

SPIEGEL: So the CIA used torture and methods resembling torture for nothing?

Helgerson: For nothing? This is not a matter of black or white -- "yes, they worked" or "no, they did not." Valuable, actionable information was elicited, using a variety of techniques, including long accepted, traditional approaches.

SPIEGEL: You finished your report at the end of 2003. Then there was a long period of redaction of the report before you published it in May 2004. Who at the time was authorized to read it?

Helgerson: Once it was published it was reviewed very carefully at the White House, at the Department of Justice and within the CIA. I personally briefed it to senior members of Congress and even to the vice president. I had the conviction that individuals took it very seriously from the beginning. But I was not surprised that the former administration reacted the way they did.

SPIEGEL: Are you satisfied now that the Obama administration wants to investigate the procedures?

Helgerson: I think under the actual circumstances Attorney General Eric Holder had no choice than to undertake a thorough review. The Department of Justice will conduct a thorough review, and Holder has picked a very capable, experienced officer to do this job. At the end of the day, I think he will find it is not feasible to prosecute anyone who participated in the approved program. I personally would not prosecute. There are a number of complex and mitigating circumstances in all these cases, including the passage of time, the nature of the evidence, and -- importantly -- the clear absence of any criminal intent. I am pleased that I do not have to make the difficult decision of what the Department of Justice should do. My job was to provide the facts. And I can tell you that life is much more relaxing now that I am retired and leaving that important task to others.

Interview conducted by Britta Sandberg.
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