Five Questions for the CIA IG's Interrogation Report

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Chip Somodevilla / Getty

Former Vice President Dick Cheney and other members of the Bush Administration might have had a tense weekend. After months of delay and controversy, the Obama Administration is expected on Monday to declassify the 2004 CIA inspector general's report into the agency's interrogation program. Cheney, the most prominent of several Bush-era officials who have vociferously defended the program, faces either vindication or more vilification.

Over the past two days news reports have quoted unnamed officials as saying the IG's findings include instances where CIA interrogators used power drills and even a gun to threaten a detainee; on another occasion, as first reported by Newsweek, they allegedly staged a mock execution. If true, these tactics would go well beyond the coercive techniques permitted by the Bush Administration's legal counsel.

A heavily redacted version of IG John Helgerson's findings was released last year. The new version may still contain some redactions, but it is expected to answer some of the pressing questions that remain over the CIA's use of coercive interrogation techniques against high-value terror detainees. That could be a key factor in whether Attorney General Eric Holder decides to order a separate investigation into the interrogations. The President is said to favor dropping the matter. But if the IG report declares or even suggests that interrogators went beyond the bounds of what the Bush Administration's top lawyers deemed legal, that may force Holder's hand. Here are five of those questions:

1. Who was really behind the interrogation regime?

Critics of the Bush Administration have long claimed that the CIA was itself coerced into using harsh methods. Under this scenario, the agency was pressured by its political masters to go into the "dark side" — a phrase made famous by Cheney in the aftermath of 9/11. Bush backers counter that it was the intelligence professionals who said that hardened al-Qaeda operatives could only be broken in this manner. The IG report may help to establish the origins of the program. If it turns out the agency was forced into employing the harsh techniques, expect even louder calls for indictments of high-level Bush Administration officials.

2. Did the interrogations work?

Defenders of the harsh interrogation – notably Cheney – claim it yielded a rich vein of information, possibly including details of imminent attacks on the U.S. homeland. But tantalizing references to the IG's findings contained in the now infamous "torture memos" by the Bush Administration Office of Legal Counsel suggest that interrogators didn't get much actionable information out of the detainees. Former CIA Director Michael Hayden said last week that the truth lies somewhere in between: that the program achieved "modest success" – providing the agency with useful information about al-Qaeda organization and leadership, but not necessarily information about attacks. If the IG report says no specific attacks were prevented because of information gleaned by the use of waterboarding and other harsh methods, that would be a major embarrassment for Cheney.

3. What did the interrogators really do?

The OLC memos from 2002 to 2005 provided the legal underpinning for the harsh techniques, and we already know that many of these were in fact used – waterboarding was used on one detainee 183 times, and on another 83 times. But the IG report should supply more granular detail on the use and frequency of the techniques.

4. Did the program go off the rails?

Supporters of the harsh interrogations say they were conducted in a highly controlled environment: doctors were on hand to monitor the health of detainees, strict limitations were placed on the extent and frequency with which the techniques were applied. But waterboarding a detainee 183 times – not to mention the use of power drills — suggests things got out of hand. The IG report should tell us if the interrogators went rogue.

5. What happened before August 2002?

The first OLC memo to authorize the use of harsh methods was dated Aug. 1, 2002, but there have been some suggestions that interrogators were employing coercive techniques well before then. An FBI interrogator who was involved in interrogations until May that year has testified to Congress that some methods being used then were "borderline torture." (In protest, the FBI withdrew from participating in the interrogations before the first memo was written.) If the IG report confirms that, it may be impossible for Obama to hold off Holder's planned investigation.

The Administration is also expected to release a fourth OLC memo, from 2007, as well as a Justice Department memo from 2006, about conditions at the secret prisons. And, as if to underline the Administration's commitment to transparency, the Pentagon has decided to notify the Red Cross of the identifies of the detainees being held in secret camps in Iraq and Afghanistan.