8 Books to Help You Understand the CIA Torture Report

MCLEAN, VA - FEBRUARY 19: A man walks across the seal of the Central Intelligence Agency at the lobby of the Original Headquarters Building at the CIA headquarters February 19, 2009 in McLean, Virginia. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
Source: Alex Wong/Getty Images News/Getty Images

While the press is scrambling to read through and distill the most important CIA Torture Report findings from the 6,700-page doorstopper released Tuesday — from which we're all still kind of jaw-dropped — news broke on Friday morning that Melville House will publish the 500-page Senate Intelligence Committee summary on December 30.

As the report is an official, classified government publication — which means we're never going to lay eyes on it — you can download the torture report summary right now and read at your leisure (or, more likely, to your horror). Melville House is rushing out a printed version, reportedly having paid no advance for the material. The press is receiving no printing or publishing support from the government, footing the bill solely out of their own expenses, and hopes to sell through most of its initial 50,000 copy print run to offset the costs of production.

Many details from the report have surfaced online as a result of ongoing congressional hearings; the worst of which include simulated drowning, rectal feeding and rehydration, physical and sexual torture, and other forms of human degradation for captives suspected of involvement with the Al-Qaeda, the Taliban, or other groups affiliated with terrorist activity in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. As we've seen in movies like Zero Dark Thirty and photo leaks from Abu Ghraib prison, the use of torture in CIA-led interrogations is not necessarily new — though the extent of these programs was until now unknown until completion of the report (the highlights of which, suspiciously, keep getting edited on Wikipedia, as well. Hmmm.). 

We've seen publication of reports as books before, so this news isn't exactly shocking — remember the landmark 9/11 Commission Report? It was a book that came out in November of 2002 and detailed Congress' official record of the events of September 11, including the George W. Bush administration's reaction to the attacks. The 9/11 Commission Report went on to become the best-selling government report of all time, and was a National Book Award finalist for Nonfiction, too.

Given the swift and harsh condemnations of CIA interrogation tactics, the Torture Report is sure to top nonfiction charts for months to come — mark my words. But my guess is that it's also going to be a lot to untangle. So, if you're curious to learn more about the government's interrogation tactics ahead of the report, here are 8 books to bring you up to speed on the issues at the heart of the report: the use of "enhanced interrogation techniques" by the CIA; "black sites" used for secret interrogations; and America's intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan as a part of the Global War on Terror.

It's not exactly a reading list that screams FUN, no — but it's impactful stuff, and if this news is important to you, then these books are a great place to start:

The Black Banners: The Inside Story of 9/11 and the War Against al-Qaeda by Ali Soufan

Ali Soufan's The Black Banners recounts the former FBI agent's tenure as a primary investigator for the agency's search for information on the how and why behind 9/11. Soufan provides a first-person, as-it-happened narrative about how he first convinced his colleagues to pay attention to Osama bin Laden, a would-be terrorist mastermind as he planned attacks against the USS Cole in October 2000, bombing the American warship as it refueled in Yemen. From there, Soufan retells his role in the fight against al-Qaeda, working to win over suspected terrorists with kindness instead of torture. That is, until the CIA takes over control of investigations into the terror group: Abu Zubaida, a prominent figure in al-Qaeda, was once complicit with Soufan, until being waterboarded by the CIA 83 times.

The book is raw, authentic, and was censored by the CIA just prior to release — leading to blacked-out pages that look similar to the Terror Report itself. The Black Banners gives readers a definitive insider's account of how the FBI came close to preventing 9/11 through their years of successful interrogation techniques, and how the CIA thwarted these efforts through bungling, torture-backed interrogations that forced false information out of operatives and stalled progress in the War on Terror.

The Least Worst Place: Guantanamo's First 100 Days by Karen Greenberg

Karen Greenberg's The Least Worst Place chronicles the inception of the Guantanamo Bay detention facility in a book listed as one of the Washington Post's best reads of 2009. It details the fight waged by military officers who tried to prevent the Bush administration from instituting harsh interrogation procedures at the center, subverting Geneva Convention protections against torture.

This book dissects the internal power struggle between hawkish administration officials, senior military members determined to follow international protocol, and the policies of torture that ultimately won out and made the detention center the black eye for American foreign policy that it remains today. You'll want to read Greenberg: She's a pre-eminent scholar of Bush-era counterterrorism law, as well as an excellent storyteller capable of making even the most difficult subjects a majorly compelling read.

Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001 by Steve Coll

Steve Coll's Ghost Wars is a super-important account of America's history in Afghanistan, beginning with the 1979 Soviet invasion and the CIA funding of bin Laden's Mujahideen fighters – a ragtag army that poured into the nation from bordering Muslim countries to fight off Russian forces that received generous arms and weaponry supplies by the United States to fight a proxy battle during the heat of the Cold War. Coll provides a definitive account of the Agency's clandestine work in Afghanistan to fight off a strong Soviet occupying force, continuing on to bin Laden's rise to power throughout the region as a wealthy benefactor of battles against invading nations.

This compelling, Pulitzer prize-winning narrative explains the history of bin Laden and the United States, showing the history and rationale behind the 9/11 attacks. To understand why and how the CIA became involved in Afghanistan and Iraq is crucial when looking at the Agency's interrogation program — showing that the war against terror began well before 2001.

Fixing Hell: An Army Psychologist Confronts Abu Ghraib by Col. Larry C. James

Larry C. James is a retired Army Colonel who served as the chief psychologist at the Guantanamo Bay detention facility in 2003, and at Abu Ghraib in 2004. Here's the deal: James was the Army's clean-up crew — he was sent to Abu Ghraib as the prisoner scandal emerged to fix the abhorrent conditions of the prison, a charge he was given after doing a similar clean-up job at Guantanamo the year prior. Retelling experiences he had at Abu Ghraib, James provides one particularly striking anecdote which eerily corresponds to the official findings of the torture report: 

One day I decided to pay an unannounced visit that night to observe interrogations […] I went into an office to talk with an interrogator by the name of Luther [not necessarily his real name]. As I turned and left his office, I noticed a pair of women's pink panties and a pink nightgown hanging on the back of his office door […] I wanted to observe Luther's next interrogation, and as luck would have it, he was scheduled for that night. Interrogations were regularly scheduled at night as a way to screw with the prisoner's head, to keep him off balance when he was tired […] The interrogation buildings were prefab trailers with several small rooms about ten feet by ten feet in size. Each had a table, usually three or four chairs, and a metal hook welded to the floor. The hook served as the anchor to fasten a detainee's leg irons during interrogation. As I walked toward the observation room with its one-way mirror that would allow me to peek into the interrogation booths, I heard lots of yelling, screaming, and furniture being thrown around. I saw Luther and three MPs wrestling with a detainee on the floor. It was an awful sight […] The detainee was naked except for the pink panties I had seen hanging on the door earlier. He also had lipstick and a wig on. The four men were holding the prisoner down and trying to outfit him with the matching pink nightgown, but he was fighting hard […] this was a terrible scene (Fixing Hell, pp. 49-51).

Throughout his narrative, James creates a strong argument for the challenges military personnel experience while simultaneously fighting and trying to help enemy combatants. Readers realize just how difficult it is to be on either side of this odd parallel, the stress of war, and how conditions deteriorated so rapidly — and gravely — without oversight, and most importantly, support for troops and military staffers at Abu Ghraib.

The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 by Lawrence Wright

Lawrence Wright's critically acclaimed account of the men behind the 9/11 attacks provides an exhaustive account of how — and why — the attacks happened. The New Yorker contributor provides a history of terrorism to begin the book, discussing how terror and assassination crafted the post-World War II political landscape throughout the Middle East, leading to highly unstable countries drawn along arbitrary borders by European superpowers. All of these factors, Wright argues, created power vacuums that allowed terrorist organizations to form by the late '90s. With the Gulf War and US bases in Saudi Arabia as a catalyst, Osama bin Laden and others were able to mobilize regional networks capable of large-scale attacks on the United States itself — a first for terror organizations that normally focused on local targets, like the 1998 American embassy bombing in Kenya. Understanding why and how the CIA conducted investigations on key operatives can't be complete without this gripping backstory on how al Qaeda came into existence.

The Way of the Knife: The CIA, a Secret Army, and a War at the Ends of the Earth by Mark Mazzetti

Mark Mazzetti's latest book is one of freshest publications on the CIA's involvement in counterterrorism, and has received incredible buzz this past year as a definitive account of the clandestine operations carried out by the agency throughout far-flung areas of the world. Throughout the book, Mazzetti creates a terrifying, hard-to-fathom story on how the CIA transformed itself from an intelligence agency into a military force in the wake of 9/11. The thing is, this story might sound like a military thriller, but it's all too true: Leon Panetta, former CIA director led the mission to capture or kill Osama bin Laden directly--working in tandem with Navy SEAL Team 6, as the US military is forbidden from ordering clandestine operations directly. This is one but many stories outlined in Way of the Knife that details how the CIA has stepped into the role of special ops, rather than remaining an intelligence bureau. Mazzetti argues that this creates a frightening prospect of a new, informal military branch beholden to no chain of command outside the Agency, free to capture or kill at the request of the CIA.

Blackwater: The Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army by Jeremy Scahill

Jeremy Scahill's Blackwater reminds us of one very scary truth from the War on Terror: we've outsourced our army to private contractors, and those contractors are beholden to their company's shareholders first and foremost — with respect for laws and ethics being afterthoughts. Among the most notorious private contractors during the Iraq war was Blackwater (now known as Academi), a "private military contractor" responsible for providing policing and, more commonly, most of the chaos and strained Iraqi-American relations that came to define the Iraq war. 

Throughout Blackwater, Scahill provides an excoriating account of how Blackwater aided the CIA during extraordinary renditions — the secret transfer of interrogation targets to third-party nations for torturous questioning sessions.

Generation Kill by Evan Wright

Evan Wright's Generation Kill stands alone as our generation's story of war. Iraq and Afghanistan gave Millenials their first experience seeing warfare first-hand, as the Call of Duty generation went off to war. Birthed from a compelling Rolling Stone article and turned into a fully-fledged book (let alone an immensely popular HBO series), Wright's book looks at a young, inexperienced Marine squad as it went off to war — the first time a battalion would end up in an open-ended war since the United States fought in Vietnam.

The First Recon Battalion is unique in the brash attitudes held by its regiment: a group of young, cocky soldiers who find themselves at the front lines of the Iraq invasion. What follows is a devastatingly honest account of what warfare looks like through the eyes of twentysomethings sent off to fight an uncertain war under uncertain circumstances. The daily stress and mental wear demonstrated through the narratives within Generation Kill demonstrate just how torture and degradation happen during war — how good people can be capable of horrific crimes when under extreme duress.

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