Wrongfully detained: the CIA Torture Report reveals and confounds


A much anticipated U.S. Senate report was made public early December, revealing over 500 pages of unclassified details of the CIA’s use of torture following the 9/11 attacks. To be precise, the document (quickly dubbed the CIA Torture Report) contained the cleaned-up findings and executive summary of a 6,700 page-long study by the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. The summary neatly presents its 20 findings in bulleted paragraphs. That does not mean the report is unambiguous or easy to understand.

The document is redacted 1,571 times, mostly in the 2,771 footnotes that are supposed to clarify things. And then there are the blacked-out pieces of text, decorating literally every single page. Black markers were even used to cover the last digit of the numbers listing the “Days in CIA Custody”. This obscures the exact imprisonment period of each detainee — but not really.

One of the footnotes containing more redactions than information

What’s more, the report is ambiguous in the identification of some detainees. For instance, there are two Muhammad Khan’s listed as CIA detainees in the appendix on page 459. But while the report differentiates between them in the appendix, it doesn’t do so in the footnote listing “Muhammad Khan” as one of the wrongfully detained. This leaves you wondering, “Which Muhammad Khan!?”

It apparently got even more confusing in the case of Gul Rahman. Or more accurately: the case of the 3 Gul Rahman’s. Reports by the New Yorker, the Washington Post and the Intercept accidentally conflated references in the report to two distinct Gul Rahman’s and attributed those references to one and the same individual. When Chuck Todd tried to solicit empathy from Dick Cheney for the innocently tortured on “Meet the Press”, he unfortunately made the same erroneous reference. This misidentification in the media is no small error: it implies that the CIA detainee that was chained naked to a concrete floor and died from hypothermia, had been wrongfully detained in the first place — which is not the case, or at least is not a conclusion of the Committee. (Update: The New Yorker changed the article and noted the change after we contacted them; the Intercept wrote a detailed correction; the graphic on the Washington Post website still lists both Gul Rahman’s as being among the 26 wrongfully detained.)

Footnote 791 distinguishes between 3 Gul Rahman’s, 2 of which were among the 119 CIA detainees, 1 of which the report says was wrongfully detained

The paragraph telling the story of the death of Gul Rahman is four pages long and nowhere does it note that this detainee had actually been wrongfully detained. Earlier on, the report lists the names of 19 of the 26 wrongfully detained and it includes “Gul Rahman, another case of mistaken identity”. Some diligent comparing of paragraphs and footnotes shows that the Committee identifies: 1) Gul Rahman, “a suspected Islamic extremist” captured in 2002, who died in CIA custody in the facility codenamed COBALT; and 2) Gul Rahman, “an Afghan national” who was taken in CIA custody in March 2004, “because he had the same name as” yet another Gul Rahman, believed to be targeting U.S. military forces.

This last fact is also quite troubling, conjuring up an image of haphazard dragnets sweeping up the Afghan equivalents of “John Smith”. Yet it is hardly among the most shocking facts the Senate report revealed. Cutting through the thicket, these are some of the conclusions I confidently can draw from the Senate report:

  • A 119 individuals were identified by name and year of capture as CIA detainees in the period 2002-2008. They were detained in at least 11 secret CIA detention facilities and they have spent a combined minimum of 128 years in custody.
  • Thirty-nine (39) of the 119 detainees underwent CIA’s enhanced interrogation techniques, or what in a non-Orwellian narrative would simply be called torture. This included waterboarding, described by one CIA officer as “basically … a series of near-drownings”; sleep deprivation for up to 180 hours, usually combined with standing in stress positions; rectal forced feeding, sometimes in response to a hunger strike but more often as a means to get “total control over the detainee” or to “clear a person’s head”; ice water baths; confinement in boxes smaller than coffins; and the more euphemistically named practices of ‘walling’, ‘attention grasping’ and ‘insult slapping’.
  • Twenty (20) of the 119 detainees have never before been acknowledged by the CIA to the Senate Committee, or I suppose to anyone else, for that matter.
  • Twenty-six (26) of the 119 detainees, the Committee concludes, have been wrongfully detained. This is actually a conservative calculation and only includes detainees whom the CIA itself determined did not meet the standard for detention. Of these 26, 19 could be identified by name, while the remaining 7 are only referred to as “seven individuals thought to be travelling to Iraq to join al-Qa’ida”. The 19 identified have spent a combined 11 years in CIA custody. At least 3 of the 26 were submitted to enhanced interrogation before they were released. The circumstances surrounding the capturing of these innocent people included false witness statements (some acquired during enhanced interrogation, which makes it sadly ironic), mistaken identities, someone being “in the wrong place at the wrong time”, and CIA officers using detainees as leverage against family members.
  • By the CIA’s own admission, it “frequently moved too slowly to release … the 26 cases cited by the Study”, which meant that the release for all but 3 of the wrongfully detained took several months — and up to 19 months for one detainee.
  • At least 6 other detainees seem to have been captured for dubious reasons, but the Committee explicitly does not group them with the 26 wrongfully detained because there remained some “internal disagreement within the CIA over whether the detainee met the standard or not”.

Revealing as this is, it also screams for more answers, in particular to one glaring question. Why name only 19 of 26 wrongfully detained — who were the remaining seven? Why were their names not disclosed? With legal actions already being prepared by some, such a disclosure would not be inconsequential.

As a data-journalist I feel facts and figures don’t belong in pdf-tables or even bullet points. I believe visualising data can often tell a story faster and more thoroughly which is why I used the Senate report’s facts to build a database with interactive visualisations. This way, I hope to add to the revelations and reduce the confusion. Even better, I want readers to be able to do their own research with my data and build their own visualisations.

Below is a simple column chart showing the time in detention for the known “wrongfully detained”. Behind each of these bars — literally and figuratively — is an individual who lost a significant chunk of their life to detention without justification. It is a sobering reminder that justice is not always served and when its not, data is what will tell the story.

Days in CIA custody by detainees identified as “wrongfully detained”