A recently released legal memo describing interrogation techniques showed that Bush Administration lawyers had approved the use of "insects" in interrogations. "You would like to place [Abu] Zubaydeh in a cramped confinement box with an insect," Jay Bybee, then a Justice Department lawyer and now a federal judge, wrote in 2002. He opined that as long as the bug wasn't actually harmful, it would not violate the law to use one to scare a terrorist detainee.
That was the first mention of insects to become public. But the memo's release may make it worth looking back to a brouhaha that occurred in secret at the agency in 2005. A CIA supervisor involved in the "enhanced interrogation" program bragged to other CIA employees about using fire ants while during questioning of a top terror suspect, according to several sources formerly with the Agency. The official claimed to other Agency employees, the sources say, to have put the stinging ants on a detainee's head to help break him.
The CIA insists, however, that no matter what the man said, it never took place. In fact, even though the Bush administration lawyers condoned the use of non-harmful insects, as the memo revealed, the technique wasn't employed, the agency says. "The CIA did not use insects as part of its terrorist interrogation program," said CIA Spokesman Paul Gimigliano. "That didn't happen, period."
The CIA supervisor who purportedly bragged of using insects was, and still is, a high-level official, working at the Senior Executive Service level. Because he is still in the CIA covert side, his name cannot be published. But he was in the field and helped oversee, according to sources, the way "enhanced" interrogation techniques were used.
In fact, he was so close to the program that sources say he was caught on the CIA interrogation tapes made in Thailand inside the secret facility where Zubaydah and other terrorists were questioned. The tapes were later destroyed in circumstances currently under investigation.
"He was on the tapes," a former CIA source said. No one can know if that is true, since they were destroyed. But several sources say that although he may have been on the tapes, he actually had no direct role in interrogating anyone, but that he was present as a high-ranking supervisor. (And there were no reported insects or fire ants on the videotape.)
The official is a storied veteran of covert operations who had just returned from Baghdad. "He's a bullshitter," said one former officer, explaining that the man had a reputation for telling tall tales and embellishing.
So what is one to make of his bizarre claim to have used fire ants to get a terrorist suspect to talk? When he made the boast, according to officials familiar with the events, he was at the CIA's bar at "The Farm," where the CIA trains case officer cadets, down at Camp Peary in Virginia. It's an old U-shaped bar, as officers describe it, topped with cheap linoleum, and a couple of little booths like those found in an old cafeteria. The room opens up to a large lounge with a big open fireplace. Back in the old days, the area was decorated with photographs from Southeast Asia and other regions of CIA derring-do, but now it is a dreary place.
According to those who were told about the incident, the official was putting down drink after drink at the bar. "He was running his mouth," said one ex-officer, "carrying on." Sources say the supervisor bragged loudly that he had used fire ants to torment an al Qaeda suspect to get him to talk. As one version of the evening has it, he bragged of putting the stinging bugs in a helmet and then putting the helmet on the detainee.
Some officials say it should not be taken seriously. First, he was talking while people were drinking in a bar so his account was hardly reliable. Second, he'd just returned from one of the toughest war zones of recent memory: perhaps a bit of bizarre story-telling is to be expected in the privacy of the intelligence service's own bar. But it was all strange enough that complaints started quickly from CIA people who over heard the conversation.
The CIA launched its own review, the intelligence sources say. The agency concluded that there was no such torture and that the supervisor was simply making it up.
Still, that was before the release of the Bybee memo authorizing the use of insects. With new speculation that the U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder might launch an investigation into the "enhanced interrogation," perhaps it is, at least worth recalling the in-house insect buzz at the CIA.
Meanwhile, there is already an open inquiry into the question of the destroyed tapes.