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Chapter 2 - Experimenting With Torture
When the International Committee of the Red Cross finally got to see Abu Zubaydah late in 2006, four and a half years after he disappeared into a secret CIA prison, this is what he said:
I was given no solid food during the first two or three weeks, while sitting on the chair. I was only given Ensure and water to drink. At first the Ensure made me vomit, but this became less with time.
The cell and room were air-conditioned and were very cold. Very loud, shouting type music was constantly playing. It kept repeating every fifteen minutes twenty-four hours a day. Sometimes the music stopped and was replaced by a loud hissing or crackling noise.
The guards were American, but wore masks to conceal their faces. My interrogators did not wear masks.
During this first two to three week period I was questioned for about one to two hours each day. American interrogators would come to the room and speak to me through the bars of the cell. During the questioning the music was switched off, but was then put back on again afterwards. I could not sleep at all for the first two to three weeks. If I started to fall asleep one of the guards would come and spray water in my face.
After about two or three weeks I began to receive food, rice, to eat on a daily basis. They gave it once a day. I could eat with my hand, but I was not allowed to wash. It was also around this time that I was allowed to lie on the floor. I remained naked and in shackles, but I could sleep a little. It went on like this for about another one and a half months.
During the first few days a doctor came and gave me an injection. I was told it was an anti-biotic. After about one and a half to two months I was examined by a female doctor who asked why I was still naked. My measurements were taken and the next day, I was provided with orange clothes to wear. This was followed however, by more threats that worse was to follow.
Indeed, the next day guards came into my cell. They told me to stand up and raise my arms above my head. They then cut the clothes off of me so that I was again naked and put me back on the chair for several days. I tried to sleep on the chair, but was again kept awake by the guards spraying water in my face.
When my interrogators had the impression that I was cooperating and providing the information they required, the clothes were given back to me. When they felt I was being less cooperative the clothes were again removed and I was again put back on the chair. This was repeated several times.
Eventually (I don't remember after how long), I was allowed to have a mattress and was given a towel to use as a sheet to cover myself with while sleeping. I was allowed some tissue paper to use when going to toilet on the bucket.
There then followed a period of about one month with no questioning. During this period I was given food, rice and beans, on a daily basis, varying between once and twice a day. They also continued to give me Ensure to drink. My cell was still very cold and the loud music no longer played, but there was a constant loud hissing or crackling noise, which played twenty-four hours a day. I tried to block out the noise by putting tissue in my ears.
There then followed a period of about one month with no questioning. Then, about two and a half or three months after I arrived in this place, the interrogation began again, but with more intensity than before. Then the real torturing started.
Two black wooden boxes were brought into the room outside my cell. One was tall, slightly higher than me and narrow, measuring perhaps 1m x 0.75m and 2m in height. The other was shorter, perhaps only 1 meter in height. I was taken out of my cell and one of the interrogators wrapped a towel around my neck, they then used it to swing me around and smash me repeatedly against the hard walls of the room. I was also repeatedly slapped in the face. As I was still shackled, the pushing and pulling around meant that the shackles pulled painfully on my ankles.
I was then put into the tall box for what I think was about one and a half to two hours. The box was totally black on the inside as well as the outside. It had a bucket inside to use as a toilet and had water to drink provided in a bottle. They put a cloth of cover over the outside of the box to cut out the light and restrict my air supply. It was difficult to breathe. When I was let out of the box I saw that one of the walls of the room had been covered with plywood sheeting. From now on it was against this wall that I was then smashed with the towel around my neck. I think that the plywood was there to provide some absorption of the impact of my body. The interrogators realized that smashing me against the hard wall would probably quickly result in physical injury.
During these torture sessions many guards were present, plus two interrogators who did the actual beating, still asking questions, while the main interrogator left to return when the beating was over. After the beating I was then placed in the small box. They placed a cloth or cover over the box to cut out all light and restrict my air supply. As it was not high enough even to sit upright, I had to crouch down. It was very difficult because of my wounds. The stress on my legs held in this position meant my wounds both in the leg and stomach became very painful. I think this occurred about 3 months after my last operation. It was always cold in the room, but when the cover was placed over the box it made it hot and sweaty inside. The wound on my leg began to open and started to bleed. I don't know how long I remained in the small box, I think I may have slept or maybe fainted.
I was then dragged from the small box, unable to walk properly and put on what looked like a hospital bed, and strapped down very tightly with belts. A black cloth was then placed over my face and the interrogators used a mineral water bottle to pour water on the cloth so that I could not breathe. After a few minutes the cloth was removed and the bed was rotated into an upright position. The pressure of the straps on my wounds was very painful. I vomited. The bed was then again lowered to a horizontal position and the same torture carried out again with the black cloth over my face and water poured on from a bottle. On this occasion my head was in a more backward, downwards position and the water was poured on for a longer time. I struggled against the straps, trying to breathe, but it was hopeless. I thought I was going to die. I lost control of my urine. Since then I still lose control of my urine when under stress.
I was then placed again in the tall box. While I was inside the box loud music was played again and somebody kept banging repeatedly on the box from the outside. I tried to sit down on the floor, but because of the small space the bucket with urine tipped over and spilt over me. I remained in the box for several hours, maybe overnight. I was then taken out and again a towel was wrapped around my neck and I was smashed into the wall with the plywood covering and repeatedly slapped in the face by the same two interrogators as before. I was then made to sit on the floor with a black hood over my head until the next session of torture began. The room was always kept very cold.
This went on for approximately one week. During this time the whole procedure was repeated five times. On each occasion, apart from one, I was suffocated once or twice and was put in the vertical position on the bed in between. On one occasion the suffocation was repeated three times. I vomited each time I was put in the vertical position between the suffocation.
During that week I was not given any solid food. I was only given Ensure to drink. My head and beard were shaved everyday.
I collapsed and lost consciousness on several occasions. Eventually the torture was stopped by the intervention of the doctor.
I was told during this period that I was one of the first to receive these interrogation techniques, so no rules applied. It felt like they were experimenting and trying out techniques to be used later on other people.
At the end of this period two women and a man came to interrogate me. I was still naked and, because of this, I refused to answer any questions. So they again repeatedly slapped me in the face and smashed me against the wall using the towel around my neck. The following day I was given a towel to wear around my waist, but I was still very cold.
Then, little by little, things started to get better. I was again given rice to eat. Then my mattress was returned. I was allowed to clean my cell. The tall box was removed, but the short one remained in the room outside my cell, I think as a deliberate reminder as to what my interrogators were capable of. One week after the end of torture I was given a pair of green shorts and a top to wear. The food also improved with the addition of beans and fruit.
In his September 2006 speech announcing the transfer of the fourteen “high value detainees” from CIA black sites to Guantánamo, President Bush described the group as “dangerous men with unparalleled knowledge about terrorist networks and their plans for new attacks.” He reported that one of these men, Abu Zubaydah, a “senior terrorist leader and trusted associate of Osama bin Laden,” had run a terrorist training camp in Afghanistan where some of the 9/11 hijackers trained and had helped smuggle al-Qaeda leaders out of Afghanistan. Zubaydah was severely wounded during his capture and survived thanks to medical care arranged by the CIA, the president said, and though he initially disclosed some “nominal” information during questioning, he ultimately proved “defiant and evasive.”
The ICRC had no trouble ascertaining what these specific methods were from its interviews with the fourteen. Although they had been held in complete isolation in black sites scattered around the globe and interviewed separately in Guantánamo after their transfer, their accounts were so consistent that the ICRC assembled a list of abusive techniques. It included suffocation by water; prolonged stress standing positions, naked, with arms extended and chained above the head; beatings by use of a collar; beating and kicking; confinement in a box; prolonged nudity; sleep deprivation; exposure to cold temperature or cold water; prolonged shackling of the hands and feet; threats of ill-treatment to the detainee or his family; forced shaving; and deprivation or restricted provision of solid food.
In her statement, she notes that she reported the abuse and that the “chain of command took action to ensure that nothing of that sort could happen again.” Nevertheless, she wrote,
As she was writing these words, two military psychologists were finalizing a paper titled “Recognizing and Developing Countermeasures to al-Qaeda Resistance to Interrogation Techniques,” the first in a series of proposals that would turn this country's relationship to the Geneva Conventions upside-down.
While this may include some accurate information, the subjects will also fabricate voluminous information in their desperation to provide something to stem the torture, and they will readily agree to whatever is suggested to them by their interrogators. This is why such techniques, in addition to being immoral and illegal, are largely worthless as intelligence-gathering tools.
Gonzales pushed back. In a January 25, 2002 memorandum to the President, in which he famously suggested that the war on terrorism is a new kind of war that “renders obsolete Geneva's strict limitations on questioning of enemy prisoners” and “renders quaint some of its provisions,” Gonzales dismissed Powell's arguments as “unpersuasive.” In their place, he offered two in favor of denying Geneva Convention protections: first, that doing so “preserves flexibility” precisely because it eliminates the need for case-by-case determinations; and second, that it “substantially reduces the threat of domestic criminal prosecution under the War Crimes Act (18 U.S.C. 2441).” As Gonzales noted,
“Your determination [that GPW does not apply] would create a reasonable basis in law that Section 2441 does not apply, which would provide a solid defense to any future prosecution,” Gonzales concluded.
Shortly after that training, Jessen retired from the Air Force and joined Mitchell as a contract employee of the CIA. By then, Mitchell was in a secret CIA prison in Thailand overseeing the use of “enhanced interrogations techniques” in the questioning of Abu Zubaydah, personally delivering the news, as Zubaydah would tell the ICRC five years later, that he “was one of the first to receive these interrogation techniques, so no rules applied.”
There are two photographs from the night of Abu Zubaydah's capture, March 28, 2002. One is of two parallel, curving trails of blood leading into or out of a doorway. The other is an ABC news photograph of Zubaydah in the bed of a pickup truck, head on the tailgate, clean-shaven and wild-haired, obviously gravely wounded.
During the raid, Zubaydah was shot in the stomach, testicle, and thigh. He was driven to a local hospital, and then quickly transferred to a better hospital in Lahore , where a team of doctors rushed from the United States performed surgery. Immediately afterwards – on March 31, 2002 – he was strapped to a gurney and flown to a prison cell the CIA had set up in Thailand for his interrogation.
Over the next two months, Soufan clashed repeatedly with the CIA team, led by Dr. Mitchell, over Mitchell's proposed methods – methods Soufan insists were both abusive and ineffective:
The new techniques did not produce results as Abu Zubaydah shut down and stopped talking. At the time nudity and low-level sleep deprivation (between 24 and 48 hours) was being used. After a few days of getting no information, and after repeated inquiries from DC asking why all of a sudden no information was being transmitted (when before there had been a steady stream), we again were given control of the interrogation.
We then returned to using the Informed Interrogation Approach. Within a few hours, Abu Zubaydah again started talking and gave us important actionable intelligence.18
But Mitchell again interrupted the process:
Throughout this time, my fellow FBI agent and I, along with a top CIA interrogator who was working with us, protested, but we were overruled. I should also note that another colleague, an operational psychologist for the CIA, had left the location because he objected to what was being done.
Again, however, the technique wasn't working and Abu Zubaydah wasn't revealing any information, so we were once again brought back in to interrogate him. We found it harder to reengage him this time, because of how the techniques had affected him, but eventually, we succeeded, and he re-engaged again.
Once again, the contractor insisted on stepping up the notches of his experiment, and this time he requested the authorization to place Abu Zubaydah in a confinement box, as the next stage in the force continuum. While everything I saw to this point were nowhere near the severity later listed in the [OLC] memos, the evolution of the contractor's theory, along with what I had seen till then, struck me as “borderline torture.”
As the Department of Justice IG report released last year states, I protested to my superiors in the FBI and refused to be a part of what was happening. The Director of the FBI, a man I deeply respect, agreed, passing the message that “we don't do that,” and I was pulled out….” 19
The departure of the FBI team did not give Mitchell a free hand, however. Every step of the interrogation process was coordinated with Washington, and every session was painstakingly documented. Cables began flowing from the Thai black site to CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, on April 13, 2002; at least 500 and likely many more would be sent from the site to headquarters during the interrogation of Abu Zubaydah. These cables were more than mere summary reports. John Kiriakou, one of the agents on Mitchell's team, told Brian Ross in a 2007 ABC news interview that the contents of the cable traffic was “extremely specific.”
It wasn't just Kirakou's superiors at CIA headquarters at the other end of those cables. Though it was taking place in an underground cell in a secret CIA prison in Thailand , Mitchell and Jessen's experiment was unfolding in full view of the President and his closest circle of advisors. Starting in the spring of 2002, then-National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice chaired a series of meetings in the White House situation room where CIA Director George Tenet repeatedly briefed the “Principals Committee,” which included Defense Secretary Rumsfeld, Secretary of State Powell, and Attorney General John Ashcroft, on the agency's plans for Abu Zubaydah. President Bush's September 17, 2001 order had authorized the CIA to capture terrorism suspects and hold and interrogate them in clandestine prisons, but Tenet sought specific approval for its interrogations program for “high value detainees.”
As Mitchell progressed up the “force continuum,” however, the CIA wanted more than oral approval. In his account to the ICRC, Abu Zubaydah described a month-long lull in his questioning “about two and a half or three months” after he had arrived at the black site. That would have been late June or early July, 2002. So far, he had been subjected to prolonged shackling, dietary manipulation, incessant loud noise, and had spent weeks naked in a bare, frigid cell, but at that point had only faced one of the 11 proposed EITs, sleep deprivation. Before Mitchell could move further into physical abuse and waterboarding, CIA attorneys ordered a pause to give Yoo and the OLC time to prepare formal legal opinions declaring that methods that had been perfected by regimes that scorned the Geneva Conventions do not constitute torture. According to the CIA's Inspector General,
It then proceeds one-by-one down the list, affecting a naïve, disinterested tone: “You would like to place Zubaydah in a cramped confinement box with an insect. You have informed us that he appears to have a fear of insects,” it says at one point, and later, “Finally, you would like to use a technique called the ‘waterboard.'” It breezily dismisses concerns about the impact of each, based on the terms outlined in the “Standards for Conduct” memo:
Only waterboarding poses a challenge. “We find that the use of the waterboard constitutes a threat of imminent death,” the memo concedes.
As an interrogator and criminal investigator, I was trained to know that what is not said is often more important than what is said. The fact that flagrantly obvious, relevant legal precedents were omitted from the DOJ analysis and recommendations is evidence that the whole process was a rubber stamp for methods of torture and abuse that were already in use and that were to be continued.
The incident makes its way into a footnote of a May 30, 2005 memo rearguing the legality of EITs:
Abu Zubaydah's entire five-month interrogation, including this final session of waterboarding, was videotaped. Interrogators started recording their sessions as soon as he arrived at the black site “to ensure a record of Abu Zubaydah's medical condition and treatment should he succumb to his wounds and questions arise about the medical care provided him by CIA,” the Inspector General reported. But as Mitchell's team took over, the “intense interest” at CIA Headquarters in “keeping abreast of all aspects of Abu Zubaydah's interrogation” now meant the videotapes served to document “compliance with the guidance provided to the site relative to the use of EITs.
"The GWS, GPS, GC, and US Policy expressly prohibit acts of violence or intimidation, including physical or mental torture, threats, insults, or exposure to inhuman treatment as a means of or aid to interrogation."
Hence, although arguments about the legality of CIA personnel using enhanced interrogation techniques may be argued under the DOJ legal memos, military personnel conducting interrogations were always subject to the Army Field Manual prohibitions. Therefore, within the military, any use of enhanced interrogation methods would have been a direct violation of the Army's own regulations, at a minimum.
It is interesting to note as well that the Army Field Manual also specifically listed several of the counterproductive effects of using torture and abuse. Would those who authorized and used these methods contradict our own military's conclusions regarding these negative consequences?
The American people should realize that torture and abuse was not only harmful to the prisoners who were its victims. It also cost us the lives of Americans. Al Qaida used our policy as their most effective recruiting tool and those recruits killed American soldiers in Iraq.
- 1. International Committee of The Red Cross, “ICRC Report on the Treatment of Fourteen “High Value Detainees” in CIA Custody,” February 2007, 28-31. The ICRC was allowed to interview the 14 in Guantánamo in early October and early December 2006
- 2. President George W. Bush Speech on Terrorism and High Value Detainees, September 6, 2006, available at http://www.nytimes.com/2006/09/06/washington/06bush_transcript.html?pagewanted=all
- 3. ICRC Report, 24
- 4. Sworn Statement, Kandahar Detention Facility, February 13, 2002 (http://www.aclu.org/accountability/searchdetail_report.php?r=1819&q=+%2B...)
- 5. United States Senate Armed Services Committee Report, “Inquiry into the Treatment of Detainees in U.S. Custody, November 20, 2008, 4. The report notes that “'Exploitation is a term the JPRA uses to describe the means by which captors use prisoners for their own tactical or strategic needs. Interrogation is only one part of the exploitation process.”
- 6. Senate Armed Services Committee Report, xiii
- 7. Senate Armed Services Committee Report, 5
- 8. The memorandum is available at http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB127/02.01.09.pdf
- 9. Senate Armed Services Committee Report, 1-2
- 10. Alberto Gonzales, Memorandum for the President, Memorandum re Applicability of the Geneva Convention on Prisoners of War to the Conflict With al Qaeda and the Taliban, January 25, 2002, available at http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB127/02.01.25.pdf and http://www.hereinreality.com/alberto_gonzales_torture_memo.html
- 11. Senate Armed Services Committee Report, 7
- 12. Senate Armed Services Committee Report, 9-11
- 13. Senate Armed Services Committee Report, 14
- 14. Senate Armed Services Committee Report, 21
- 15. Jane Mayer, in The Dark Side, 140-141. Mayer quotes a CIA source who disclosed that the CIA paid $10 million to Pakistan 's intelligence services for Zubayday's capture
- 16. Michael Isikoff, “We Could Have Done This the Right Way,” Newsweek , April 25, 2009
- 17. Testimony of Ali Soufan before the United States Senate Committee on the Judiciary, May 13, 2009
- 18. Soufan Judiciary Committee testimony
- 19. According to several published accounts, Soufan repeatedly confronted Mitchell, at one point shouting “We're the United States, and we don't do that kind of thing.” Mitchell countered that his aggressive techniques were approved by the “highest levels” in Washington, and reportedly showed Soufan a document and said the approvals were coming from Alberto Gonzales. See Michael Isikoff, “We Could Have Done This The Right Way ,” Newsweek , May 4, 2009, and Jane Mayer, The Dark Side.
- 20. Brian Ross interview with John Kiriakou, ABC News, December 10, 2007, available at http://abcnews.go.com/images/Blotter/brianross_kiriakou_transcript1_blotter071210.pdf
- 21. Senate Armed Services Committee Report, 17
- 22. John Yoo, War By Other Means
- 23. Memorandum for William J. Haynes, II, Re: The President's power as Commander in Chief to transfer captured terrorists to the control and custody of foreign nations
- 24. see Jane Mayer, The Dark Side , 143, and Jan Crawford Greenburg, ABC News, April 9, 2008, available at http://abcnews.go.com/print?id=4583256
- 25. OIG Report, “Counterterrorism Detention and Interrogation Activities, September 2001 – October 2003 (CIA Office of the Inspector General Special Review, May 7, 2004), 14
- 26. Michael Isikoff, “We Could Have Done This the Right Way ,” Newsweek , April 25, 2009
- 27. Memorandum for Alberto R. Gonzales, Re: Standards of Conduct for Interrogation under 18 U.S.C. §§ 2340-2340A , August 1, 2002, 6
- 28. Memorandum for Alberto R. Gonzales, August 1, 2002, 7
- 29. An index of Bush-Era OLC Memoranda Relating to Interrogation, Detention, Rendition and/or Surveillance, released and still secret, is available at http://www.aclu.org/pdfs/safefree/olcmemos_2009_0305.pdf
- 30. Memorandum for John Rizzo, Acting General Counsel of the Center Intelligence Agency, “Interrogation of al Qaeda Operative,” August 1, 2002, 1-2
- 31. Memorandum for John Rizzo, August 1, 2002, 10
- 32. Memorandum for John Rizzo, August 1, 2002, 10
- 33. Memorandum for John Rizzo, August 1, 2002, 13
- 34. Memorandum for John Rizzo, August 1, 2002, 14
- 35. Memorandum for John Rizzo, August 1, 2002, 15
- 36. Memorandum for John Rizzo, August 1, 2002, 15
- 37. CIA OIG Report, May 7, 2004, 85
- 38. May 30, 2005 Bradbury Memorandum For John A. Rizzo Re: Application of United States Obligations Under Article 16 of the Convention Against Torture to Certain Techniques that May Be Used in the Interrogation of High Value al Qaeda Detainees,31
- 39. CIA OIG Report, 36
- 40. CIA OIG Report, 37