[Ppnews] US Torture: Voices from the Black Sites

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Volume 56, Number 6 · <http://www.nybooks.com/contents/20090409>April 9, 2009


US Torture: Voices from the Black Sites

http://www.nybooks.com/articles/22530?email


By <http://www.nybooks.com/authors/285>Mark Danner



ICRC Report on the Treatment of Fourteen "High Value Detainees" in CIA Custody
by the International Committee of the Red Cross

43 pp., February 2007

<http://www.nybooks.com/danner-blacksites.pdf>Press 
release and contact information
We need to get to the bottom of what happened­and 
why­so we make sure it never happens 
again.<http://www.nybooks.com/articles/22530?email#fn1>[1]
­Senator Patrick Leahy, Chairman, Senate Judiciary Committee



1.

We think time and elections will cleanse our 
fallen world but they will not. Since November, 
George W. Bush and his administration have seemed 
to be rushing away from us at accelerating speed, 
a dark comet hurtling toward the ends of the 
universe. The phrase "War on Terror"­the signal 
slogan of that administration, so cherished by 
the man who took pride in proclaiming that he was 
"a wartime president"­has acquired in its 
pronouncement a permanent pair of quotation 
marks, suggesting something questionable, 
something mildly embarrassing: something past. 
And yet the decisions that that president made, 
especially the monumental decisions taken after 
the attacks of September 11, 2001­decisions about 
rendition, surveillance, interrogation­lie strewn 
about us still, unclaimed and unburied, like corpses freshly dead.

How should we begin to talk about this? Perhaps 
with a story. Stories come to us newborn, 
announcing their intent: Once upon a time... In 
the beginning... From such signs we learn how to 
listen to what will come. Consider:

I woke up, naked, strapped to a bed, in a very 
white room. The room measured approximately 4m x 
4m [13 feet by 13 feet]. The room had three solid 
walls, with the fourth wall consisting of metal 
bars separating it from a larger room. I am not 
sure how long I remained in the bed....

A man, unnamed, naked, strapped to a bed, and for 
the rest, the elemental facts of space and of time, nothing but whiteness.

----------
The storyteller is very much a man of our time. 
Early on in the "War on Terror," in the spring of 
2002, he entered the dark realm of "the 
disappeared"­and only four and a half years 
later, when he and thirteen other "high-value 
detainees" arrived at Guantánamo and told their 
stories in interviews with representatives of the 
International Committee of the Red Cross 
(reported in the confidential document listed 
above) did he emerge partly into the light. 
Indeed, he is a famous man, though his fame has 
followed a certain path, peculiar to our modern 
age: jihadist, outlaw, terrorist, "disappeared." 
An international celebrity whose name, one of 
them anyway, is instantly recognizable. How many 
people have their lives described by the 
president of the United States in a nationally televised speech?

Within months of September the 11th, 2001, we 
captured a man known as Abu Zubaydah. We believe 
that Zubaydah was a senior terrorist leader and a 
trusted associate of Osama bin Laden.... Zubaydah 
was severely wounded during the firefight that 
brought him into custody­and he survived only 
because of the medical care arranged by the 
CIA.<http://www.nybooks.com/articles/22530?email#fn2>[2]

A dramatic story: big news. Wounded in a 
firefight in Faisalabad, Pakistan, shot in the 
stomach, groin, and thigh after jumping from a 
roof in a desperate attempt to escape. Massive 
bleeding. Rushed to a military hospital in 
Lahore. A trauma surgeon at Johns Hopkins 
awakened by a late-night telephone call from the 
director of central intelligence and flown in 
great secrecy to the other side of the world. The 
wounded man barely escapes death, slowly 
stabilizes, is shipped secretly to a military 
base in Thailand. Thence to another base in Afghanistan. Or was it Afghanistan?

We don't know, not definitively. For from the 
moment of his dramatic capture, on March 28, 
2002, the man known as Abu Zubaydah slipped from 
one clandestine world, that of al-Qaeda officials 
gone to ground in the days after September 11, 
into another, a "hidden global internment 
network" intended for secret detention and 
interrogation and set up by the Central 
Intelligence Agency under authority granted 
directly by President George W. Bush in a 
"memorandum of understanding" signed on September 17, 2001.

This secret system included prisons on military 
bases around the world, from Thailand and 
Afghanistan to Morocco, Poland, and Romania­"at 
various times," reportedly, "sites in eight 
countries"­into which, at one time or another, 
more than one hundred 
prisoners...disappeared.<http://www.nybooks.com/articles/22530?email#fn3>[3] 
The secret internment network of "black sites" 
had its own air force and its own distinctive 
"transfer procedures," which were, according to 
the writers of the International Committee of the 
Red Cross (ICRC) report, "fairly standardised in most cases":

The detainee would be photographed, both clothed 
and naked prior to and again after transfer. A 
body cavity check (rectal examination) would be 
carried out and some detainees alleged that a 
suppository (the type and the effect of such 
suppositories was unknown by the detainees), was 
also administered at that moment.

The detainee would be made to wear a diaper and 
dressed in a tracksuit. Earphones would be placed 
over his ears, through which music would 
sometimes be played. He would be blindfolded with 
at least a cloth tied around the head and black 
goggles. In addition, some detainees alleged that 
cotton wool was also taped over their eyes prior 
to the blindfold and goggles being applied....

The detainee would be shackled by [the] hands and 
feet and transported to the airport by road and 
loaded onto a plane. He would usually be 
transported in a reclined sitting position with 
his hands shackled in front. The journey 
times...ranged from one hour to over twenty-four 
to thirty hours. The detainee was not allowed to 
go to the toilet and if necessary was obliged to 
urinate and defecate into the diaper.

One works the imagination trying to picture what 
it was like in this otherworldly place: blackness 
in place of vision. Silence­or "sometimes" loud 
music­in place of sounds of life. Shackles, 
together sometimes with gloves, in place of the 
chance to reach, touch, feel. One senses metal on 
wrist and ankle, cotton against eyes, cloth 
across face, shit and piss against skin. On "some 
occasions detainees were transported lying flat 
on the floor of the plane...with their hands 
cuffed behind their backs," causing them "severe 
pain and discomfort," as they were moved from one unknown location to another.

For his part, Abu Zubaydah­thirty-one years old, 
born Zein al-Abedeen Mohammad Hassan, in Riyadh, 
Saudi Arabia, though coming of Palestinian stock, from the Gaza Strip­

alleged that during one transfer operation the 
blindfold was tied very tightly resulting in 
wounds to his nose and ears. He does not know how 
long the transfer took but, prior to the 
transfer, he reported being told by his detaining 
authorities that he would be going on a journey 
that would last twenty-four to thirty hours.

A long trip then: perhaps to Guantánamo? Or 
Morocco? Then back, apparently, to Thailand. Or 
was it Afghanistan? He thinks the latter but can't be sure....


2.

All classified, compartmentalized, deeply, deeply 
secret. And yet what is "secret" exactly? In our 
recent politics, "secret" has become an oddly 
complex word. From whom was "the secret bombing 
of Cambodia" secret? Not from the Cambodians, 
surely. From whom was the existence of these 
"secret overseas facilities" secret? Not from the 
terrorists, surely. From Americans, presumably. 
On the other hand, as early as 2002, anyone 
interested could read on the front page of one of 
the country's leading newspapers:

US Decries Abuse but Defends Interrogations: 
"Stress and Duress" Tactics Used on Terrorism 
Suspects Held in Secret Overseas Facilities

Deep inside the forbidden zone at the US-occupied 
Bagram air base in Afghanistan, around the corner 
from the detention center and beyond the 
segregated clandestine military units, sits a 
cluster of metal shipping containers protected by 
a triple layer of concertina wire. The containers 
hold the most valuable prizes in the war on 
terrorism­captured al Qaeda operatives and Taliban commanders....

"If you don't violate someone's human rights some 
of the time, you probably aren't doing your job," 
said one official who has supervised the capture 
and transfer of accused terrorists. "I don't 
think we want to be promoting a view of zero 
tolerance on this. That was the whole problem for a long time with the CIA...."

This lengthy article, by Dana Priest and Barton 
Gellman, appeared in The Washington Post on 
December 26, 2002, only months after the capture 
of Abu Zubaydah. A similarly lengthy report 
followed a few months later on the front page of 
The New York Times ("Interrogations: Questioning 
Terror Suspects in a Dark and Surreal World"). 
The blithe, aggressive tone of the officials 
quoted­"We don't kick the [expletive] out of 
them. We send them to other countries so they can 
kick the [expletive] out of them"­bespeaks a very 
different political temper, one in which a 
prominent writer in a national newsmagazine could 
headline his weekly column "Time to Think About 
Torture," noting in his subtitle that in this 
"new world...survival might well require old 
techniques that seemed out of the 
question."<http://www.nybooks.com/articles/22530?email#fn4>[4]

So there are secrets and secrets. And when, on a 
bright sunny day two years ago, just before the 
fifth anniversary of the September 11 attacks, 
the President of the United States strode into 
the East Room of the White House and informed the 
high officials, dignitaries, and specially 
invited September 11 survivor families gathered 
in rows before him that the United States 
government had created a dark and secret universe 
to hold and interrogate captured terrorists­or, 
in the President's words, "an environment where 
they can be held secretly [and] questioned by 
experts"­he was not telling a secret but instead 
converting a known and well-reported fact into an officially confirmed truth:

In addition to the terrorists held at Guantánamo, 
a small number of suspected terrorist leaders and 
operatives captured during the war have been held 
and questioned outside the United States, in a 
separate program operated by the Central 
Intelligence Agency.... Many specifics of this 
program, including where these detainees have 
been held and the details of their confinement, cannot be divulged....

We knew that Abu Zubaydah had more information 
that could save innocent lives, but he stopped 
talking.... And so the CIA used an alternative 
set of procedures. These procedures were designed 
to be safe, to comply with our laws, our 
Constitution, and our treaty obligations. The 
Department of Justice reviewed the authorized 
methods extensively and determined them to be 
lawful. I cannot describe the specific methods 
used­I think you understand why....

I was watching the live broadcast that day and I 
remember the uncanny feeling that came over me 
as, having heard the President explain the 
virtues of this "alternative set of procedures," 
I watched him stare straight into the camera and 
with fierce concentration and exaggerated 
emphasis intone once more: "The United States 
does not torture. It's against our laws, and it's 
against our values. I have not authorized it­and 
I will not authorize it." He had convinced 
himself, I thought, of the truth of what he said.

This speech, though not much noticed at the time, 
will stand, I believe, as George W. Bush's most 
important: perhaps the only "historic" speech he 
ever gave. In telling his version of Abu 
Zubaydah's story, and versions of the stories of 
Khaled Shaik Mohammed and others, the President 
took hold of many things that were already known 
but not acknowledged and, by means of the 
alchemical power of the leader's voice, 
transformed them into acknowledged facts. He 
also, in his fervent defense of his government's 
"alternative set of procedures" and his equally 
fervent denials that they constituted "torture," 
set out before the country and the world the dark 
moral epic of the Bush administration, in the 
coils of whose contradictions we find ourselves 
entangled still. Later that month, Congress, 
facing the midterm elections, duly passed the 
President's Military Commissions Act of 2006, 
which, among other things, sought to shelter from 
prosecution those who had applied the 
"alternative set of procedures" and had done so, 
said the President, "in a thorough and professional way."

At the same time, perhaps unwittingly, President 
Bush made it possible that day for those on whom 
the "alternative set of procedures" were 
performed eventually to speak. Even as the 
President set out before the country his version 
of what had happened to Abu Zubaydah and the 
others and argued for its necessity, he announced 
that he would bring him and thirteen of his 
fellow "high-value detainees" out of the dark 
world of the disappeared and into the light. Or, 
rather, into the twilight: the fourteen would be 
transferred to Guantánamo, the main acknowledged 
offshore prison, where­"as soon as Congress acts 
to authorize the military commissions I have 
proposed"­they "can face justice." In the 
meantime, though, the fourteen would be "held in 
a high-security facility at Guantánamo" and the 
International Committee of the Red Cross would be 
"advised of their detention, and will have the opportunity to meet with them."

A few weeks later, from October 6 to 11 and then 
from December 4 to 14, 2006, officials of the 
International Committee of the Red Cross­among 
whose official and legally recognized duties is 
to monitor compliance with the Geneva Conventions 
and to supervise treatment of prisoners of 
war­traveled to Guantánamo and began interviewing 
"each of these persons in private" in order to 
produce a report that would "provide a 
description of the treatment and material 
conditions of detention of the fourteen during 
the period they were held in the CIA detention 
program," periods ranging "from 16 months to almost four and a half years."

As the ICRC interviewers informed the detainees, 
their report was not intended to be released to 
the public but, "to the extent that each detainee 
agreed for it to be transmitted to the 
authorities," to be given in strictest secrecy to 
officials of the government agency that had been 
in charge of holding them­in this case the 
Central Intelligence Agency, to whose acting 
general counsel, John Rizzo, the report was sent 
on February 14, 2007. Indeed, though almost all 
of the information in the report has names 
attached, and though annexes contain extended 
narratives drawn from interviews with three of 
the detainees, whose names are used, we do find a 
number of times in the document variations of 
this formula: "One of the detainees who did not 
wish his name to be transmitted to the 
authorities alleged..."­suggesting that at least 
one and perhaps more than one of the fourteen, 
who are, after all, still "held in a 
high-security facility at Guantánamo," worried 
about repercussions that might come from what he had said.

In virtually all such cases, the allegations made 
are echoed by other, named detainees; indeed, 
since the detainees were kept "in continuous 
solitary confinement and incommunicado detention" 
throughout their time in "the black sites," and 
were kept strictly separated as well when they 
reached Guantánamo, the striking similarity in 
their stories, even down to small details, would 
seem to make fabrication extremely unlikely, if 
not impossible. "The ICRC wishes to underscore," 
as the writers tell us in the introduction, "that 
the consistency of the detailed allegations 
provided separately by each of the fourteen adds 
particular weight to the information provided below."

The result is a document­labeled "confidential" 
and clearly intended only for the eyes of those 
senior American officials to whom the CIA's Mr. 
Rizzo would show it­that tells a certain kind of 
story, a narrative of what happened at "the black 
sites" and a detailed description, by those on 
whom they were practiced, of what the President 
of the United States described to Americans as an 
"alternative set of procedures." It is a document 
for its time, literally "impossible to put down," from its opening page­

Contents
Introduction
1. Main Elements of the CIA Detention Program
1.1 Arrest and Transfer
1.2 Continuous Solitary Confinement and Incommunicado Detention
1.3 Other Methods of Ill-treatment
1.3.1 Suffocation by water
1.3.2 Prolonged Stress Standing
1.3.3 Beatings by use of a collar
1.3.4 Beating and kicking
1.3.5 Confinement in a box
1.3.6 Prolonged nudity
1.3.7 Sleep deprivation and use of loud music
1.3.8 Exposure to cold temperature/cold water
1.3.9 Prolonged use of handcuffs and shackles
1.3.10 Threats
1.3.11 Forced shaving
1.3.12 Deprivation/restricted provision of solid food
1.4 Further elements of the detention regime....

­to its stark and unmistakable conclusion:
The allegations of ill-treatment of the detainees 
indicate that, in many cases, the ill-treatment 
to which they were subjected while held in the 
CIA program, either singly or in combination, 
constituted torture. In addition, many other 
elements of the ill-treatment, either singly or 
in combination, constituted cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.

Such unflinching clarity, from the body legally 
charged with overseeing compliance with the 
Geneva Conventions­in which the terms "torture" 
and "cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment" are 
accorded a strictly defined legal 
meaning­couldn't be more significant, or indeed 
more welcome after years in which the President 
of the United States relied on the power of his 
office either to redefine or to obfuscate what 
are relatively simple words. "This debate is 
occurring," as President Bush told reporters in 
the Rose Garden the week after he delivered his East Room speech,

because of the Supreme Court's ruling that said 
that we must conduct ourselves under the Common 
Article III of the Geneva Convention. And that 
Common Article III says that, you know, there 
will be no outrages upon human dignity. It's 
like­it's very vague. What does that mean, 
"outrages upon human 
dignity"?<http://www.nybooks.com/articles/22530?email#fn5>[5]

In allowing Abu Zubaydah and the other thirteen 
"high-value detainees" to tell their own stories, 
this report manages to answer, with great power 
and authority, the President's question.


3.

We return to a man, Abu Zubaydah, a Palestinian 
who, in his thirty-one years, has lived a life 
shaped by conflicts on the edge of the American 
consciousness: the Gaza Strip, where his parents 
were born; Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, where he 
apparently first saw the light of day; 
Soviet-occupied Afghanistan, where he took part 
in the jihad against the Russians, perhaps with 
the help, directly or indirectly, of American 
dollars; then, post-Soviet Afghanistan, where he 
ran al-Qaeda logistics and recruitment, directing 
aspiring jihadists to the various training camps, 
placing them in cells after they'd been trained. 
The man has been captured now: traced to a safe 
house in Faisalabad, gravely wounded by three 
shots from an AK-47. He is rushed to the 
Faisalabad hospital, then to the military 
hospital at Lahore. When he opens his eyes he 
finds at his bedside an American, John Kiriakou of the CIA:

I asked him in Arabic what his name was. And he 
shook his head. And I asked him again in Arabic. 
And then he answered me in English. And he said 
that he would not speak to me in God's language. 
And then I said, "That's okay. We know who you are."

And then he asked me to smother him with a 
pillow. And I said, "No, no. We have plans for 
you."<http://www.nybooks.com/articles/22530?email#fn6>[6]

Kiriakou and the "small group of CIA and FBI 
people who just kept 24/7 eyes on him" knew that 
in Abu Zubaydah they had "the biggest fish that 
we had caught. We knew he was full of 
information...and we wanted to get it." According 
to Kiriakou, on a table in the house where they 
found him "Abu Zubaydah and two other men were 
building a bomb. The soldering [iron] was still 
hot. And they had plans for a school on the 
table...." The plans, Kiriakou told ABC News 
correspondent Brian Ross, were for the British 
school in Lahore. Their prisoner, they knew, was 
"very current. On top of the current threat information."

With the help of the American trauma surgeon, Abu 
Zubaydah's captors nursed him back to health. He 
was moved at least twice, first, reportedly, to 
Thailand; then, he believes, to Afghanistan, 
probably Bagram. In a safe house in Thailand the interrogation began:

I woke up, naked, strapped to a bed, in a very 
white room. The room measured approximately [13 
feet by 13 feet]. The room had three solid walls, 
with the fourth wall consisting of metal bars 
separating it from a larger room. I am not sure 
how long I remained in the bed. After some time, 
I think it was several days, but can't remember 
exactly, I was transferred to a chair where I was 
kept, shackled by [the] hands and feet for what I 
think was the next 2 to 3 weeks. During this time 
I developed blisters on the underside of my legs 
due to the constant sitting. I was only allowed 
to get up from the chair to go [to] the toilet, 
which consisted of a bucket. Water for cleaning 
myself was provided in a plastic bottle.

I was given no solid food during the first two or 
three weeks, while sitting on the chair. I was 
only given Ensure [a nutrient supplement] 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 about 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.

A naked man chained in a small, very cold, very 
white room is for several days strapped to a bed, 
then for several weeks shackled to a chair, 
bathed unceasingly in white light, bombarded 
constantly with loud sound, deprived of food; and 
whenever, despite cold, light, noise, hunger, the 
hours and days force his eyelids down, cold water 
is sprayed in his face to force them up.

One can translate these procedures into terms of 
art: "Change of Scenery Down." "Removal of 
Clothing." "Use of Stress Positions." "Dietary 
Manipulation." "Environmental Manipulation." 
"Sleep Adjustment." "Isolation." "Sleep 
Deprivation." "Use of Noise to Induce Stress." 
All these terms and many others can be found, for 
example, in documents associated with the debate 
about interrogation and "counter-resistance" 
carried on by Pentagon and Justice Department 
officials beginning in 2002. Here, however, we 
find a different standard: the Working Group 
says, for example, that "Sleep Deprivation" is 
"not to exceed 4 days in succession," that 
"Dietary Manipulation" should include "no 
intended deprivation of food or water," that 
"removal of clothing," while "creating a feeling 
of helplessness and dependence," must be 
"monitored to ensure the environmental conditions 
are such that this technique does not injure the 
detainee."<http://www.nybooks.com/articles/22530?email#fn7>[7] 
Here we are in a different place.

But what place? Abu Zubaydah was not only the 
"biggest fish that we had caught" but the first 
big fish. According to Kiriakou, Zubaydah, as he 
recovered, had "wanted to talk about current 
events. He told us a couple of times that he had 
nothing personal against the United States.... He 
said that 9/11 was necessary. That although he 
didn't think that there would be such a massive 
loss of life, his view was that 9/11 was supposed 
to be a wake-up call to the United States."

In those initial weeks of healing, before the 
white room and the chair and the light, Zubaydah 
seems to have talked freely with his captors, and 
during this time, according to news reports, FBI 
agents began to question him using "standard 
interview techniques," ensuring that he was 
bathed and his bandages changed, urging improved 
medical care, and trying to "convince him they 
knew details of his activities." (They showed 
him, for example, a "box of blank audiotapes 
which they said contained recordings of his phone 
conversations, but were actually empty.") 
According to this account, Abu Zubaydah, in the 
initial days before the white room, "began to 
provide intelligence insights into Al 
Qaeda."<http://www.nybooks.com/articles/22530?email#fn8>[8]

Or did he? "How Good Is Abu Zubaydah's 
Information?" asked a Newsweek "Web exclusive" on 
April 27, 2002, less than a month after his 
capture. The extreme secrecy and isolation in 
which Abu Zubaydah was being held, at a location 
unknown to him and to all but a tiny handful of 
government officials, did not prevent his 
"information" being leaked from that unknown 
place directly into the American press­in the 
cause, apparently, of a bureaucratic struggle 
between the FBI and the CIA. Even Americans who 
were not following closely the battling leaks 
from Zubaydah's interrogation would have found 
their lives affected, whether they knew it or 
not, by what was happening in that faraway white 
room; for about the same time the Bush 
administration saw fit to issue two "domestic 
terrorism warnings," derived from Abu Zubaydah's 
"tips"­about "possible attacks on banks or 
financial institutions in the Northeastern United 
States" and possible "attacks on US supermarkets 
and shopping malls." As Newsweek learned from a 
"senior US official," presumably from the 
FBI­whose "standard interview techniques" had 
produced that information and the "domestic 
terrorism warnings" based on it­the prisoner was 
"providing detailed information for the 'fight 
against terrorism.'" At the same time, however, 
"US intelligence sources"­presumably CIA­"wonder 
whether he's trying to mislead investigators or 
frighten the American 
public."<http://www.nybooks.com/articles/22530?email#fn9>[9]

For his part, John Kiriakou, the CIA man, told 
ABC News that in those early weeks Zubaydah was 
"willing to talk about philosophy, [but] he was 
unwilling to give us any actionable 
intelligence." The CIA officers had the "sweeping 
classified directive signed by Mr. Bush," giving 
them authority to "capture, detain and 
interrogate terrorism suspects," and Zubaydah was 
"a test case for an evolving new role,...in which 
the agency was to act as jailer and interrogator 
of terrorism suspects." Eventually a team from 
the CIA's Counterterrorism Center was "sent in 
from Langley" and the FBI interrogators were withdrawn.

We had these trained interrogators who were sent 
to his location to use the enhanced techniques as 
necessary to get him to open up, and to report 
some threat information.... These enhanced 
techniques included everything from what was 
called an attention shake, where you grab the 
person by their lapels and shake them, all the 
way up to the other end, which is waterboarding.

They began, apparently, by shackling him to the 
chair, and applying light, noise, and water to 
keep him awake. After two or three weeks of this 
Abu Zubaydah, still naked and shackled, was 
allowed to lie on the bare floor and to "sleep a 
little." He was also given solid food­rice­for 
the first time. Eventually a doctor, a woman, 
came and examined him, and "asked why I was still 
naked." The next day he was "provided with orange 
clothes to wear." The following day, however, 
"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."

What follows is a confusing period, in which 
harsh treatment alternated with more lenient. 
Zubaydah was mostly naked and cold, "sometimes 
with the air conditioning adjusted so that, one 
official said, Mr. Zubayah seemed to turn 
blue."<http://www.nybooks.com/articles/22530?email#fn10>[10] 
Sometimes clothing would be brought, then removed 
the next day. "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." At one point he 
was supplied with a mattress, at another he was 
"allowed some tissue paper to use when going to 
toilet on the bucket." A month passed with no 
questioning. "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." 
Then, "about two and half or three months after I 
arrived in this place, the interrogation began 
again, but with more intensity than before."

It is difficult to know whether these alterations 
in attitude and procedure were intended, meant to 
keep the detainee off-guard, or resulted from 
disputes about strategy among the interrogators, 
who were relying on a hastily assembled 
"alternative set of procedures" that had been 
improvised from various sources, including 
scientists and psychiatrists within the 
intelligence community, experts from other, 
"friendly" governments, and consultants who had 
worked with the US military and now 
"reverse-engineered" the resistance training 
taught to American elite forces to help them 
withstand interrogation after capture. The 
forerunners of some of the theories being applied 
in these interrogations, involving sensory 
deprivation, disorientation, guilt and shame, 
so-called "learned helplessness," and the need to 
induce "the debility-dependence-dread state," can 
be found in CIA documents dating back nearly a 
half-century, such as this from a notorious 
"counterintelligence interrogation" manual of the early 1960s:

The circumstances of detention are arranged to 
enhance within the subject his feelings of being 
cut off from the known and the reassuring, and of 
being plunged into the strange.... Control of the 
source's environment permits the interrogator to 
determine his diet, sleep pattern and other 
fundamentals. Manipulating these into 
irregularities, so that the subject becomes 
disorientated, is very likely to create feelings 
of fear and helplessness.<http://www.nybooks.com/articles/22530?email#fn11>[11]

A later version of the same manual emphasizes the 
importance of guilt: "If the 'questioner' can 
intensify these guilt feelings, it will increase 
the subject's anxiety and his urge to cooperate 
as a means of escape." Isolation and sensory 
deprivation will "induce regression" and the 
"loss of those defenses most recently acquired by 
civilized man," while the imposition of "stress 
positions" that in effect force the subject "to 
harm himself" will produce a guilt leading to an 
irresistible desire to cooperate with his interrogators.


4.

Two and a half months after Abu Zubaydah woke up 
strapped to a bed in the white room, the 
interrogation resumed "with more intensity than before":

Two black wooden boxes were brought into the room 
outside my cell. One was tall, slightly higher 
than me and narrow. Measuring perhaps in area [3 
1/2 by 2 1/2 feet by 6 1/2 feet high]. The other 
was shorter, perhaps only [3 1/2 feet] 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....

I was then put into the tall black 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.... They put a cloth or 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 put 
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.

One is reminded here that Abu Zubaydah was not 
alone with his interrogators, that everyone in 
that white room­guards, interrogators, doctor­was 
in fact linked directly, and almost constantly, 
to senior intelligence officials on the other 
side of the world. "It wasn't up to individual 
interrogators to decide, 'Well, I'm gonna slap 
him. Or I'm going to shake him. Or I'm gonna make 
him stay up for 48 hours," said John Kiriakou.

Each one of these steps...had to have the 
approval of the Deputy Director for Operations. 
So before you laid a hand on him, you had to send 
in the cable saying, "He's uncooperative. Request 
permission to do X." And that permission would 
come.... The cable traffic back and forth was 
extremely specific. And the bottom line was these 
were very unusual authorities that the agency got 
after 9/11. No one wanted to mess them up. No one 
wanted to get in trouble by going overboard.
 No 
one wanted to be the guy who accidentally did lasting damage to a prisoner.

Smashing against hard walls before Zubaydah 
enters the tall black coffin-like box; sudden 
appearance of plywood sheeting affixed to the 
wall for him to be smashed against when he 
emerges. Perhaps the deputy director of 
operations, pondering the matter in his Langley, 
Virginia, office, suggested the plywood?

Or perhaps it was someone higher up? Shortly 
after Abu Zubaydah was captured, according to ABC 
News, CIA officers "briefed high-level officials 
in the National Security Council's Principals 
Committee," including Vice President Dick Cheney, 
National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, and 
Attorney General John Ashcroft, who "then signed 
off on the [interrogation] plan." At the time, 
the spring and summer of 2002, the administration 
was devising what some referred to as a "golden 
shield" from the Justice Department­the legal 
rationale that was embodied in the infamous 
"torture memorandum," written by John Yoo and 
signed by Jay Bybee in August 2002, which claimed 
that for an "alternative procedure" to be 
considered torture, and thus illegal, it would 
have to cause pain of the sort "that would be 
associated with serious physical injury so severe 
that death, organ failure, or permanent damage 
resulting in a loss of significant body function 
will likely result." The "golden shield" 
presumably would protect CIA officers from 
prosecution. Still, Director of Central 
Intelligence George Tenet regularly brought 
directly to the attention of the highest 
officials of the government specific procedures 
to be used on specific detainees­"whether they 
would be slapped, pushed, deprived of sleep or 
subject to simulated drowning"­in order to seek 
reassurance that they were legal. According to 
the ABC report, the briefings of principals were 
so detailed and frequent that "some of the 
interrogation sessions were almost 
choreographed." At one such meeting, John 
Ashcroft, then attorney general, reportedly 
demanded of his colleagues, "Why are we talking 
about this in the White House? History will not 
judge this kindly."<http://www.nybooks.com/articles/22530?email#fn12>[12]

We do not know if the plywood appeared in 
Zubaydah's white room thanks to orders from his 
interrogators, from their bosses at Langley, or 
perhaps from their superiors in the White House. 
We don't know the precise parts played by those 
responsible for "choreographing" the "alternative 
set of procedures." We do know from several 
reports that at a White House meeting in July 
2002 top administration lawyers gave the CIA "the 
green light" to move to the "more aggressive 
techniques" that were applied to him, separately 
and in combination, during the following days:

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 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 
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.



5.

All evidence from the ICRC report suggests that 
Abu Zubaydah's informant was telling him the 
truth: he was the first, and, as such, a guinea 
pig. Some techniques are discarded. The 
coffin-like black boxes, for example, barely 
large enough to contain a man, one six feet tall 
and the other scarcely more than three feet, 
which seem to recall the sensory-deprivation 
tanks used in early CIA-sponsored experiments, do 
not reappear. Neither does the "long-time 
sitting"­the weeks shackled to a chair­that Abu 
Zubaydah endured in his first few months.

Nudity, on the other hand, is a constant in the 
ICRC report, as are permanent shackling, the 
"cold cell," and the unceasing loud music or 
noise. Sometimes there is twenty-four-hour light, 
sometimes constant darkness. Beatings, also, and 
smashing against the walls seem to be favored 
procedures; often, the interrogators wear gloves.

In later interrogations new techniques emerge, of 
which "long-time standing" and the use of cold 
water are notable. Walid Bin Attash, a Yemeni 
national involved with planning the attacks on 
the US embassies in Africa in 1998 and on the USS 
Cole in 2000, was captured in Karachi on April 29, 2003:

On arrival at the place of detention in 
Afghanistan I was stripped naked. I remained 
naked for the next two weeks. I was put in a cell 
measuring approximately [3 1/2 by 6 1/2 feet]. I 
was kept in a standing position, feet flat on the 
floor, but with my arms above my head and fixed 
with handcuffs and a chain to a metal bar running 
across the width of the cell. The cell was dark 
with no light, artificial or natural.

During the first two weeks I did not receive any 
food. I was only given Ensure and water to drink. 
A guard would come and hold the bottle for me 
while I drank.... The toilet consisted of a 
bucket in the cell.... I was not allowed to clean 
myself after using the bucket. Loud music was 
playing twenty-four hours each day throughout the three weeks I was there.

This "forced standing," with arms shackled above 
the head, a favorite Soviet technique ( stoika ) 
that seems to have become standard procedure 
after Abu Zubaydah, proved especially painful for 
Bin Attash, who had lost a leg fighting in Afghanistan:

After some time being held in this position my 
stump began to hurt so I removed my artificial 
leg to relieve the pain. Of course my good leg 
then began to ache and soon started to give way 
so that I was left hanging with all my weight on 
my wrists. I shouted for help but at first nobody 
came. Finally, after about one hour a guard came 
and my artificial leg was given back to me and I 
was again placed in the standing position with my 
hands above my head. After that the interrogators 
sometimes deliberately removed my artificial leg 
in order to add extra stress to the position....

By his account, Bin Attash was kept in this 
position for two weeks­"apart [from] two or three 
times when I was allowed to lie down." Though 
"the methods used were specifically designed not 
to leave marks," the cuffs eventually "cut into 
my wrists and made wounds. When this happened the 
doctor would be called." At a second location, 
where Bin Attash was again stripped naked and 
placed "in a standing position with my arms above 
my head and fixed with handcuffs and a chain to a 
metal ring in the ceiling," a doctor examined his 
lower leg every day­"using a tape measure for signs of swelling."

I do not remember for exactly how many days I was 
kept standing, but I think it was about ten 
days.... During the standing I was made to wear a 
diaper. However, on some occasions the diaper was 
not replaced and so I had to urinate and defecate 
over myself. I was washed down with cold water everyday.

Cold water was used on Bin Attash in combination 
with beatings and the use of a plastic collar, 
which seems to have been a refinement of the 
towel that had been looped around Abu Zubaydah's neck:

Every day for the first two weeks I was subjected 
to slaps to my face and punches to my body during 
interrogation. This was done by one interrogator wearing gloves....

Also on a daily basis during the first two weeks 
a collar was looped around my neck and then used 
to slam me against the walls of the interrogation 
room. It was also placed around my neck when 
being taken out of my cell for interrogation and 
was used to lead me along the corridor. It was 
also used to slam me against the walls of the corridor during such movements.

Also on a daily basis during the first two weeks 
I was made to lie on a plastic sheet placed on 
the floor which would then be lifted at the 
edges. Cold water was then poured onto my body 
with buckets.... I would be kept wrapped inside 
the sheet with the cold water for several 
minutes. I would then be taken for interrogation....

Bin Attash notes that in the "second place of 
detention"­where he was put in the diaper­"they 
were rather more sophisticated than in 
Afghanistan because they had a hose-pipe with which to pour the water over me."


6.

A clear method emerges from these accounts, based 
on forced nudity, isolation, bombardment with 
noise and light, deprivation of sleep and food, 
and repeated beatings and "smashings"­though from 
this basic model one can see the method evolve, 
from forced sitting to forced standing, for 
example, and acquire new elements, like immersion in cold water.

Khaled Shaik Mohammed, the key planner of the 
September 11 attacks who was captured in 
Rawalpindi on March 1, 2003­nine of the fourteen 
"high-value detainees" were apprehended in 
Pakistan­and, after a two-day detention in 
Pakistan during which he alleges that a "CIA 
agent...punched him several times in the stomach, 
chest and face [and]...threw him on the floor and 
trod on his face," was sent to Afghanistan using 
the standard "transfer procedures." ("My eyes 
were covered with a cloth tied around my head and 
with a cloth bag pulled over it. A suppository 
was inserted into my rectum. I was not told what 
the suppository was for.") In Afghanistan, he was 
stripped and placed in a small cell, where he 
"was kept in a standing position with my hands 
cuffed and chained to a bar above my head. My 
feet were flat on the floor." After about an hour,

I was taken to another room where I was made to 
stand on tiptoes for about two hours during 
questioning. Approximately thirteen persons were 
in the room. These included the head interrogator 
(a man) and two female interrogators, plus about 
ten muscle guys wearing masks. I think they were 
all Americans. From time to time one of the 
muscle guys would punch me in the chest and stomach.

These "full-dress" interrogations­where the 
detainee stands naked, on tiptoe, amid a crowd of 
thirteen people, including "ten muscle guys 
wearing masks"­were periodically interrupted by 
the detainee's removal to a separate room for additional procedures:

Here cold water from buckets was thrown onto me 
for about forty minutes. Not constantly as it 
took time to refill the buckets. After which I 
would be taken back to the interrogation room.

On one occasion during the interrogation I was 
offered water to drink, when I refused I was 
again taken to another room where I was made to 
lie [on] the floor with three persons holding me 
down. A tube was inserted into my anus and water 
poured inside. Afterwards I wanted to go to the 
toilet as I had a feeling as if I had diarrhoea. 
No toilet access was provided until four hours 
later when I was given a bucket to use.

Whenever I was returned to my cell I was always 
kept in the standing position with my hands 
cuffed and chained to a bar above my head.

After three days in what he believes was 
Afghanistan, Mohammed was again dressed in a 
tracksuit, blindfold, hood, and headphones, and 
shackled and placed aboard a plane "sitting, 
leaning back, with my hands and ankles shackled 
in a high chair." He quickly fell asleep­"the 
first proper sleep in over five days"­and remains 
unsure of how long the journey took. On arrival, 
however, he realized he had come a long way:

I could see at one point there was snow on the 
ground. Everybody was wearing black, with masks 
and army boots, like Planet-X people. I think the 
country was Poland. I think this because on one 
occasion a water bottle was brought to me without 
the label removed. It had [an] e-mail address ending in ".pl."

He was stripped and put in a small cell "with 
cameras where I was later informed by an 
interrogator that I was monitored 24 hours a day 
by a doctor, psychologist and interrogator." He 
believes the cell was underground because one had 
to descend steps to reach it. Its walls were of 
wood and it measured about ten by thirteen feet.

It was in this place, according to Mohammed, that 
"the most intense interrogation occurred, led by 
three experienced CIA interrogators, all over 65 
years old and all strong and well trained." They 
informed him that they had received the "green 
light from Washington" to give him " a hard 
time." "They never used the word 'torture' and 
never referred to 'physical pressure,' only to ' 
a hard time. ' I was never threatened with death, 
in fact I was told that they would not allow me 
to die, but that I would be brought to the ' verge of death and back again.'"

I was kept for one month in the cell in a 
standing position with my hands cuffed and 
shackled above my head and my feet cuffed and 
shackled to a point in the floor. Of course 
during this month I fell asleep on some occasions 
while still being held in this position. This 
resulted in all my weight being applied to the 
handcuffs around my wrist resulting in open and 
bleeding wounds. [Scars consistent with this 
allegation were visible on both wrists as well as 
on both ankles.] Both my feet became very swollen 
after one month of almost continual 
standing.<http://www.nybooks.com/articles/22530?email#fn13>[13]

For interrogation, Mohammed was taken to a 
different room. The sessions last for as long as 
eight hours and as short as four.

The number of people present varied greatly from 
one day to another. Other interrogators, 
including women, were also sometimes present.... 
A doctor was usually also present. If I was 
perceived not to be cooperating I would be put 
against a wall and punched and slapped in the 
body, head and face. A thick flexible plastic 
collar would also be placed around my neck so 
that it could then be held at the two ends by a 
guard who would use it to slam me repeatedly 
against the wall. The beatings were combined with 
the use of cold water, which was poured over me 
using a hose-pipe. The beatings and use of cold 
water occurred on a daily basis during the first month.

Like Abu Zubaydah; like Abdelrahim Hussein Abdul 
Nashiri, a Saudi who was captured in Dubai in 
October 2002, Mohammed was also subjected to 
waterboarding, by his account on five occasions:

I would be strapped to a special bed, which could 
be rotated into a vertical position. A cloth 
would be placed over my face. Cold water from a 
bottle that had been kept in a fridge was then 
poured onto the cloth by one of the guards so 
that I could not breathe.... The cloth was then 
removed and the bed was put into a vertical 
position. The whole process was then repeated 
during about one hour. Injuries to my ankles and 
wrists also occurred during the water-boarding as 
I struggled in the panic of not being able to 
breath. Female interrogators were also 
present...and a doctor was always present, 
standing out of sight behind the head of [the] 
bed, but I saw him when he came to fix a clip to 
my finger which was connected to a machine. I 
think it was to measure my pulse and oxygen 
content in my blood. So they could take me to [the] breaking point.

As with Zubaydah, the harshest sessions of 
interrogation involved the "alternative set of 
procedures" used in sequence and in combination, 
one technique intensifying the effects of the others:

The beatings became worse and I had cold water 
directed at me from a hose-pipe by guards while I 
was still in my cell. The worst day was when I 
was beaten for about half an hour by one of the 
interrogators. My head was banged against the 
wall so hard that it started to bleed. Cold water 
was poured over my head. This was then repeated 
with other interrogators. Finally I was taken for 
a session of water boarding. The torture on that 
day was finally stopped by the intervention of 
the doctor. I was allowed to sleep for about one 
hour and then put back in my cell standing with 
my hands shackled above my head.

Reading the ICRC report, one becomes eventually 
somewhat inured to the "alternative set of 
procedures" as they are described: the cold and 
repeated violence grows numbing. Against this 
background, the descriptions of daily life of the 
detainees in the black sites, in which 
interrogation seems merely a periodic heightening 
of consistently imposed brutality, become more 
striking. Here again is Mohammed:

After each session of torture I was put into a 
cell where I was allowed to lie on the floor and 
could sleep for a few minutes. However, due to 
shackles on my ankles and wrists I was never able 
to sleep very well....The toilet consisted of a 
bucket in the cell, which I could use on request 
[he was shackled standing, his hands affixed to 
the ceiling], but I was not allowed to clean 
myself after toilet during the first month.... 
During the first month I was not provided with 
any food apart from on two occasions as a reward 
for perceived cooperation. I was given Ensure to 
drink every 4 hours. If I refused to drink then 
my mouth was forced open by the guard and it was 
poured down my throat by force.... At the time of 
my arrest I weighed 78kg. After one month in detention I weighed 60kg.

I wasn't given any clothes for the first month. 
Artificial light was on 24 hours a day, but I never saw sunlight.



7.

Q : Mr. President,...this is a moral question: Is torture ever justified?

President George W. Bush : Look, I'm going to say 
it one more time.... Maybe I can be more clear. 
The instructions went out to our people to adhere 
to law. That ought to comfort you. We're a nation 
of law. We adhere to laws. We have laws on the 
books. You might look at these laws, and that might provide comfort for you.

­Sea Island, Georgia, June 10, 2004

Abu Zubaydah, Walid Bin Attash, Khaled Shaik 
Mohammed­these men almost certainly have blood on 
their hands, a great deal of blood. There is 
strong reason to believe that they had critical 
parts in planning and organizing terrorist 
operations that caused the deaths of thousands of 
people. So in all likelihood did the other twelve 
"high-value detainees" whose treatment while 
secretly confined by agents of the US government 
is described with such gruesome particularity in 
the report of the International Committee of the 
Red Cross. From everything we know, many or all 
of these men deserve to be tried and punished­to 
be "brought to justice," as President Bush, in 
his speech to the American people on September 6, 2006, vowed they would be.

It seems unlikely that they will be brought to 
justice anytime soon. In mid-January, Susan J. 
Crawford, who had been appointed by the Bush 
administration to decide which Guantánamo 
detainees should be tried before military 
commissions, declined to refer to trial Mohammed 
al-Qahtani, who was to have been among the 
September 11 hijackers but who had been turned 
back by immigration officials at Orlando 
International Airport. After he was captured in 
Afghanistan in late 2002, Qahtani was imprisoned 
in Guantánamo and interrogated by Department of 
Defense intelligence officers. Crawford, a 
retired judge and former general counsel of the 
army, told TheWashington Post that she had 
concluded that Qahtani's "treatment met the legal definition of torture."

The techniques they used were all authorized, but 
the manner in which they applied them was overly 
aggressive and too persistent....

You think of torture, you think of some 
horrendous physical act done to an individual. 
This was not any one particular act; this was 
just a combination of things that had a medical 
impact on him, that hurt his health. It was 
abusive and uncalled for. And coercive. Clearly 
coercive.<http://www.nybooks.com/articles/22530?email#fn14>[14]

Qahtani's interrogation at Guantánamo, accounts 
of which have appeared in Time and The Washington 
Post, was intense and prolonged, stretching for 
fifty consecutive days beginning in the late fall 
of 2002, and led to his hospitalization on at 
least two occasions. Some of the techniques used, 
including longtime sitting in restraints, 
prolonged exposure to cold, loud music, and 
noise, and sleep deprivation, recall those 
described in the ICRC report. If the "coercive" 
and "abusive" interrogation of Qahtani makes 
trying him impossible, one may doubt that any of 
the fourteen "high-value detainees" whose 
accounts are given in this report will ever be 
tried and sentenced in an internationally 
recognized and sanctioned legal proceeding.

In the case of men who have committed great 
crimes, this seems to mark perhaps the most 
important and consequential sense in which 
"torture doesn't work." The use of torture 
deprives the society whose laws have been so 
egregiously violated of the possibility of 
rendering justice. Torture destroys justice. 
Torture in effect relinquishes this sacred right 
in exchange for speculative benefits whose value 
is, at the least, much disputed. John Kiriakou, 
the CIA officer who witnessed part of Zubaydah's 
interrogation, described to Brian Ross of ABC 
News what happened after Zubaydah was waterboarded:

He resisted. He was able to withstand the water 
boarding for quite some time. And by that I mean 
probably 30, 35 seconds.... And a short time 
afterwards, in the next day or so, he told his 
interrogator that Allah had visited him in his 
cell during the night and told him to cooperate 
because his cooperation would make it easier on 
the other brothers who had been captured. And 
from that day on he answered every question just 
like I'm sitting here speaking to you.... The 
threat information that he provided disrupted a 
number of attacks, maybe dozens of attacks.

This claim, echoed by President Bush in his 
speech, is a matter of fierce dispute. Bush's 
public version, indeed, was much more carefully 
circumscribed: among other things, that 
Zubaydah's information confirmed the alias 
("Muktar") of Khaled Shaik Mohammed, and thus 
helped lead to his capture; that it helped lead, 
indirectly, to the capture of Ramzi bin al-Shibh, 
a Yemeni who was another key figure in planning 
the September 11 attacks; and that it "helped us 
stop another planned attack within the United States."

At least some of this information, apparently, 
came during the early, noncoercive interrogation 
led by FBI agents. Later, according to the reporter Ron Suskind, Zubaydah

named countless targets inside the US to stop the 
pain, all of them immaterial. Indeed, think back 
to the sudden slew of alerts in the spring and 
summer of 2002 about attacks on apartment 
buildings, banks, shopping malls and, of course, nuclear plants.

Suskind is only the most prominent of a number of 
reporters with strong sources in the intelligence 
community who argue that the importance of the 
intelligence Zubaydah supplied, and indeed his 
importance within al-Qaeda, have been grossly and 
systematically exaggerated by government 
officials, from President Bush on 
down.<http://www.nybooks.com/articles/22530?email#fn15>[15]

Though it seems highly unlikely that Zubaydah's 
information stopped "maybe dozens of attacks," as 
Kiriakou said, the plain fact is that it is 
impossible, until a thorough investigation can be 
undertaken of the interrogations, to evaluate 
fully and fairly what intelligence the United 
States actually received in return for all the 
severe costs, practical, political, legal, and 
moral, the country incurred by instituting a 
policy of torture. There is a sense in which the 
entire debate over what Zubaydah did or did not 
provide, and the attacks the information might or 
might not have prevented­a debate driven largely 
by leaks by fiercely self-interested 
parties­itself reflects an unvoiced acceptance, 
on both sides, of the centrality of the mythical 
"ticking-bomb scenario" so beloved of those who 
argue that torture is necessary, and so prized by 
the writers of television dramas like 24. That 
is, the argument centers on whether Zubaydah's 
interrogation directly "disrupted a number of attacks."

Perhaps unwittingly, Kiriakou is most revealing 
about the intelligence value of interrogation of 
"high-value detainees" when he discusses what the 
CIA actually got from Zubaydah:

What he was able to provide was information on 
the al-Qaeda leadership. For example, if bin 
Laden were to do X, who would be the person to 
undertake such and such an operation? "Oh, 
logically that would be Mr. Y." And we were able 
to use that information to kind of get an idea of 
how al-Qaeda operated, how it came about 
conceptualizing its operations, and how it went 
about tasking different cells with carrying out 
operations.... His value was, it allowed us to 
have somebody who we could pass ideas onto for his comments or analysis.

This has the ring of truth, for this is how 
intelligence works­by the patient accruing of 
individual pieces of information, by building a 
picture that will help officers make sense of the 
other intelligence they receive. Could such 
"comments or analysis" from a high al-Qaeda 
operative eventually help lead to the disruption 
of "a number of attacks, maybe dozens of 
attacks"? It seems possible­but if it did, the 
chain of cause and effect might not be direct, 
certainly not nearly so direct as the dramatic 
scenarios in newspapers and television dramas­and 
presidential speeches­suggest. The ticking bomb, 
about to explode and kill thousands or millions; 
the evil captured terrorist who alone has the 
information to find and disarm it; the desperate 
intelligence operative, forced to do whatever is 
necessary to gain that information­all these 
elements are well known and emotionally powerful, 
but where they appear most frequently is in 
popular entertainment, not in white rooms in Afghanistan.

There is a reverse side, of course, to the 
"ticking bomb" and torture: pain and 
ill-treatment, by creating an unbearable pressure 
on the detainee to say something, anything, to 
make the pain stop, increase the likelihood that 
he will fabricate stories, and waste time, or 
worse. At least some of the intelligence that 
came of the "alternative set of procedures," like 
Zubaydah's supposed "information" about attacks 
on shopping malls and banks, seems to have led 
the US government to issue what turned out to be 
baseless warnings to Americans. Khaled Shaik 
Mohammed asserted this directly in his interviews 
with the ICRC. "During the harshest period of my interrogation," he said,

I gave a lot of false information in order to 
satisfy what I believed the interrogators wished 
to hear in order to make the ill-treatment 
stop.... I'm sure that the false information I 
was forced to invent...wasted a lot of their time 
and led to several false red-alerts being placed in the US.

For all the talk of ticking bombs, very rarely, 
if ever, have officials been able to point to 
information gained by interrogating prisoners 
with "enhanced techniques" that enabled them to 
prevent an attack that had reached its 
"operational stage" (that is, had gone beyond 
reconnoitering and planning). Still, widespread 
perception that such techniques have prevented 
attacks, actively encouraged by the President and 
other officials, has been politically essential 
in letting the administration carry on with these 
policies after they had largely become public. 
Polls tend to show that a majority of Americans 
are willing to support torture only when they are 
assured that it will "thwart a terrorist attack." 
Because of the political persuasiveness of such 
scenarios it is vital that a future inquiry truly 
investigate claims that attacks have been prevented.

As I write, it is impossible to know what 
benefits­in intelligence, in national security, 
in disrupting al-Qaeda­the President's approval 
of use of an "alternative set of procedures" 
might have brought to the United States. What we 
can say definitively is that the decision has 
harmed American interests in quite demonstrable 
ways. Some are practical and specific: for 
example, FBI agents, many of them professionals 
with great experience and skill in interrogation, 
were withdrawn, apparently after objections by 
the bureau's leaders, when it was decided to use 
the "alternative set of procedures" on Abu 
Zubaydah. Extensive leaks to the press, from both 
officials supportive of and critical of the 
"alternative set of procedures," undermined what 
was supposed to be a highly secret program; those 
leaks, in large part a product of the great 
controversy the program provoked within the 
national security bureaucracy, eventually helped make it unsustainable.

Finally, this bureaucratic weakness led officials 
of the CIA to destroy, apparently out of fear of 
eventual exposure and possible prosecution, a 
trove of as many as ninety-two video recordings 
that had been made of the interrogations, all but 
two of them of Abu Zubaydah. Whether or not the 
prosecutor investigating those actions determines 
that they were illegal, it is hard to believe 
that the recordings did not include valuable 
intelligence, which was sacrificed, in effect, 
for political reasons. These recordings doubtless 
could have played a critical part as well in the 
effort to determine what benefits, if any, the 
program brought to the security of the United States.

Far and away the greatest damage, though, was 
legal, moral, and political. In the wake of the 
ICRC report one can make several definitive statements:

1. Beginning in the spring of 2002 the United 
States government began to torture prisoners. 
This torture, approved by the President of the 
United States and monitored in its daily 
unfolding by senior officials, including the 
nation's highest law enforcement officer, clearly 
violated major treaty obligations of the United 
States, including the Geneva Conventions and the 
Convention Against Torture, as well as US law.

2. The most senior officers of the US government, 
President George W. Bush first among them, 
repeatedly and explicitly lied about this, both 
in reports to international institutions and 
directly to the public. The President lied about 
it in news conferences, interviews, and, most 
explicitly, in speeches expressly intended to set 
out the administration's policy on interrogation 
before the people who had elected him.

3. The US Congress, already in possession of a 
great deal of information about the torture 
conducted by the administration­which had been 
covered widely in the press, and had been 
briefed, at least in part, from the outset to a 
select few of its members­passed the Military 
Commissions Act of 2006 and in so doing attempted 
to protect those responsible from criminal penalty under the War Crimes Act.

4. Democrats, who could have filibustered the 
bill, declined to do so­a decision that had much 
to do with the proximity of the midterm 
elections, in the run-up to which, they feared, 
the President and his Republican allies might 
gain advantage by accusing them of "coddling 
terrorists." One senator summarized the politics 
of the Military Commissions Act with admirable forthrightness:
Soon, we will adjourn for the fall, and the 
campaigning will begin in earnest. And there will 
be 30-second attack ads and negative mail pieces, 
and we will be criticized as caring more about 
the rights of terrorists than the protection of 
Americans. And I know that the vote before us was 
specifically designed and timed to add more fuel 
to that fire.<http://www.nybooks.com/articles/22530?email#fn16>[16]

Senator Barack Obama was only saying aloud what 
every other legislator knew: that for all the 
horrified and gruesome exposés, for all the 
leaked photographs and documents and horrific 
testimony, when it came to torture in the 
September 11 era, the raw politics cut in the 
other direction. Most politicians remain 
convinced that still fearful Americans­given the 
choice between the image of 24 's Jack Bauer, a 
latter-day Dirty Harry, fantasy symbol of 
untrammeled power doing "everything it takes" to 
protect them from that ticking bomb, and the 
image of weak liberals "reading Miranda rights to 
terrorists"­will choose Bauer every time. As 
Senator Obama said, after the bill he voted 
against had passed, "politics won today."

5. The political damage to the United States' 
reputation, and to the "soft power" of its 
constitutional and democratic ideals, has been, 
though difficult to quantify, vast and enduring. 
In a war that is essentially an insurgency fought 
on a worldwide scale­which is to say, a political 
war, in which the attitudes and allegiances of 
young Muslims are the critical target of 
opportunity­the United States' decision to use 
torture has resulted in an enormous 
self-administered defeat, undermining liberal 
sympathizers of the United States and convincing 
others that the country is exactly as its enemies 
paint it: a ruthless imperial power determined to 
suppress and abuse Muslims. By choosing to 
torture, we freely chose to become the caricature they made of us.


8.

In the wake of the attacks of September 11, 2001, 
Cofer Black, the former head of the CIA's 
Counterterrorism Center and a famously colorful 
hard-liner, appeared before the Senate 
Intelligence Committee and made the most telling 
pronouncement of the era: "All I want to say is 
that there was 'before' 9/11 and 'after' 9/11. 
After 9/11 the gloves come off." In the days 
after the attacks this phrase was everywhere. 
Columnists quoted it, television commentators 
flaunted it, interrogators at Abu Ghraib used it 
in their cables. ("The gloves are coming off 
gentlemen regarding these detainees, Col Boltz 
has made it clear that we want these individuals 
broken."<http://www.nybooks.com/articles/22530?email#fn17>[17] )

The gloves came off: four simple words. And yet 
they express a complicated thought. For if the 
gloves must come off, that means that before the 
attacks the gloves were on. There is something 
implicitly exculpatory in the image, something 
that made it particularly appealing to officials 
of an administration that endured, on its watch, 
the most lethal terrorist attack in the country's 
history. If the attack succeeded, it must have 
had to do not with the fact that intelligence was 
not passed on or that warnings were not heeded or 
that senior officials did not focus on terrorism 
as a leading threat. It must have been, at least 
in part, because the gloves were on­because the 
post-Watergate reforms of the 1970s, in which 
Congress sought to put limits on the CIA, on its 
freedom to mount covert actions with 
"deniability" and to conduct surveillance at home 
and abroad, had illegitimately circumscribed the 
President's power and thereby put the country 
dangerously at risk. It is no accident that two 
of the administration's most powerful officials, 
Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, served as young 
men in very senior positions in the Nixon and 
Ford administrations. They had witnessed 
firsthand the gloves going on and, in the weeks 
after the September 11 attacks, they argued 
powerfully that it was those limitations­and, it 
was implied, not a failure to heed warnings­that 
had helped lead, however indirectly, to the country's vulnerability to attack.

And so, after a devastating and unprecedented 
attack, the gloves came off. Guided by the 
President and his closest advisers, the United 
States transformed itself from a country that, 
officially at least, condemned torture to a 
country that practiced it. And this fateful 
decision, however much we may want it to, will 
not go away, any more than the fourteen 
"high-value detainees," tortured and thus 
unprosecutable, will go away. Like the grotesque 
stories in the ICRC report, the decision sits 
before us, a toxic fact, polluting our political and moral life.

Since the inauguration of President Obama, the 
previous administration's "alternative 
procedures" have acquired a prominence in the 
press, particularly on cable television, that 
they rarely achieved when they were actually 
being practiced on detainees. This is especially 
the case with waterboarding, which according to 
the former director of the CIA has not been used 
since 2003. On his first day in office, President 
Obama issued executive orders that stopped the 
use of these techniques and provided for task 
forces to study US government policies on 
rendition, detention, and interrogation, among others.

Meantime, Democratic leaders in Congress, who 
have been in control since 2006, have at last 
embarked on serious investigations. Senators 
Dianne Feinstein and Christopher Bond, the chair 
and ranking member of the Intelligence Committee, 
have announced a "review of the CIA's detention 
and interrogation program," which would study, 
among other questions, "how the CIA created, 
operated, and maintained its detention and 
interrogation program," make "an evaluation of 
intelligence information gained through the use 
of enhanced and standard interrogation 
techniques," and investigate "whether the CIA 
accurately described the detention and 
interrogation program to other parts of the US 
government"­including, notably, "the Senate 
Intelligence Committee." The hearings, according 
to reports, are unlikely to be public.

In February, Senator Patrick Leahy, chairman of 
the Judiciary Committee, called for the 
establishment of what he calls a "nonpartisan 
commission of inquiry," better known as a "Truth 
and Reconciliation Committee," to investigate 
"how our detention policies and practices, from 
Guantanamo to Abu Ghraib, have seriously eroded 
fundamental American principles of the rule of 
law." Since Senator Leahy's commission is 
intended above all to investigate and make public 
what was done­"in order to restore our moral 
leadership," as he said, "we must acknowledge 
what was done in our name"­he would offer grants 
of immunity to public officials in exchange for 
their truthful testimony. He seeks not 
prosecution and justice but knowledge and 
exposure: "We cannot turn the page until we have read the page."

Many officials of human rights organizations, who 
have fought long and valiantly to bring attention 
and law to bear on these issues, strongly reject 
any proposal that includes widespread grants of 
immunity. They urge investigations and 
prosecutions of Bush administration officials. 
The choices are complicated and painful. From 
what we know, officials acted with the legal 
sanction of the US government and under orders 
from the highest political authority, the elected 
president of the United States. Political 
decisions, made by elected officials, led to 
these crimes. But political opinion, within the 
government and increasingly, as time passed, 
without, to some extent allowed those crimes to 
persist. If there is a need for prosecution there 
is also a vital need for education. Only a 
credible investigation into what was done and 
what information was gained can begin to alter 
the political calculus around torture by 
replacing the public's attachment to the ticking 
bomb with an understanding of what torture is and 
what is gained, and lost, when the United States reverts to it.

President Obama, while declaring that "nobody's 
above the law, and if there are clear instances 
of wrongdoing...people should be prosecuted," has 
also expressed his strong preference for "looking 
forward" rather than "looking backwards." One can 
understand the sentiment but even some of the 
decisions his administration has already 
made­concerning state secrecy, for example­show 
the extent to which he and his Department of 
Justice will be haunted by what his predecessor 
did. Consider the uncompromising words of Eric 
Holder, the attorney general, who in reply to a 
direct question at his confirmation hearings had 
declared, "waterboarding is torture." There is 
nothing ambiguous about this statement­nor about 
the equally blunt statements of several high Bush 
administration officials, including the former 
vice-president and the director of the CIA, 
confirming unequivocally that the administration 
had ordered and directed that prisoners under its 
control be waterboarded. We are all living, then, 
with a terrible contradiction, an enduring one, 
and it is not subtle, any more than the accounts 
in the ICRC report are subtle. "It was," as Mr. 
Cheney said of waterboarding, "a no-brainer for 
me." Now Abu Zubaydah and his fellow detainees 
have stepped forward out of the darkness to link 
hands with the former vice-president and testify to his truthfulness.

­March 12, 2009


Notes

<http://www.nybooks.com/articles/22530?email#fnr1>[1]See 
"<http://leahy.senate.gov/press/200902/020909a.html>Restoring 
Trust in the Justice System: The Senate Judiciary 
Committee's Agenda in the 111th Congress," 2009 
Marver Bernstein Lecture, Georgetown University, February 9, 2009.

<http://www.nybooks.com/articles/22530?email#fnr2>[2]See 
"<http://www.cfr.org/publication/11395/president_bush_discusses_creation_of_military_commissions_to_try_suspected_terrorists.html>President 
Discusses Creation of Military Commissions to Try 
Suspected Terrorists," September 6, 2006, East 
Room, White House, available at cfr.org.

<http://www.nybooks.com/articles/22530?email#fnr3>[3]See, 
for the authoritative account, Dana Priest, 
"<http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2005/11/01/AR2005110101644.html>CIA 
Holds Terror Suspects in Secret Prisons," The 
Washington Post, November 2, 2005.

<http://www.nybooks.com/articles/22530?email#fnr4>[4]See 
Jonathan Alter, 
"<http://www.newsweek.com/id/76304>Time to Think 
About Torture: It's a New World, and Survival May 
Well Require Old Techniques That Seemed Out of 
the Question," Newsweek, November 5, 2001. See 
also Raymond Bonner, Don Van Natta Jr., and Amy 
Waldman, 
"<http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9C01E4DC1F3FF93AA35750C0A9659C8B63>Interrogations: 
Questioning Terror Suspects in a Dark and Surreal 
World," The New York Times, March 9, 2003.

<http://www.nybooks.com/articles/22530?email#fnr5>[5]"<http://www.nytimes.com/2006/09/15/washington/15bush_transcript.html>President 
Bush's News Conference," The New York Times, September 15, 2006.

<http://www.nybooks.com/articles/22530?email#fnr6>[6]From 
"CIA­Abu Zubaydah. Interview with John Kiriakou." 
This is the rough and undated transcript of a 
video interview conducted by Brian Ross of ABC 
News, apparently in December 2007, available at 
<http://www.abcnews.go.com>abcnews.go.com. 
Quotations from this document have been edited 
very slightly for clarity. See also Richard 
Esposito and Brian Ross, 
"<http://abcnews.go.com/Blotter/Story?id=3978231>Coming 
in from the Cold: CIA Spy Calls Waterboarding 
Necessary But Torture," ABC News, December 10, 2007.

<http://www.nybooks.com/articles/22530?email#fnr7>[7]See 
"Working Group Report on Detainee Interrogations 
in the Global War on Terrorism: Assessment of 
Legal, Historical, Policy, and Operational 
Considerations," April 4, 2003, in Mark Danner, 
<http://www.nybooks.com/shop/product?product_id=4211>Torture 
and Truth: America, Abu Ghraib, and the War on 
Terror (New York Review Books, 2004), pp. 
190–192. A great many of these documents, 
collected in this book and elsewhere, were leaked 
in the wake of the publication of the Abu Ghraib 
photographs, and have been public since late spring or early summer of 2004.

<http://www.nybooks.com/articles/22530?email#fnr8>[8]See 
David Johnston, 
"<http://www.nytimes.com/2006/09/10/washington/10detain.html>At 
a Secret Interrogation, Dispute Flared Over 
Tactics," The New York Times, September 10, 2006.

<http://www.nybooks.com/articles/22530?email#fnr9>[9]See 
Mark Hosenball, 
"<http://www.newsweek.com/id/63975>How Good Is 
Abu Zubaydah's Information?," Newsweek Web Exclusive, April 27, 2002.

<http://www.nybooks.com/articles/22530?email#fnr10>[10]See 
Johnston, "At a Secret Interrogation, Dispute Flared Over Tactics."

<http://www.nybooks.com/articles/22530?email#fnr11>[11]See 
KUBARK Counterintelligence Interrogation­July 
1963 and Human Resource Exploitation Training 
Manual­1983, both archived at "Prisoner Abuse: 
Patterns from the Past," National Security 
Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 122. For the 
historical roots of the "alternative set of 
procedures" see Alfred W. McCoy, A Question of 
Torture: CIA Interrogation, from the Cold War to 
the War on Terror (Metropolitan, 2006); and Jane 
Mayer, The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the 
War on Terror Turned into a War on American 
Ideals (Doubleday, 2008), especially pp. 167–174. 
See also my 
<http://www.nybooks.com/articles/17190>"The Logic 
of Torture," The New York 
Review<http://www.nybooks.com/articles/17190>, 
June 24, 2004, and 
<http://www.nybooks.com/shop/product?product_id=4211>Torture and Truth.

<http://www.nybooks.com/articles/22530?email#fnr12>[12]See 
Jan Crawford Greenburg, Howard L. Rosenberg, and 
Ariane de Vogue, 
"<http://abcnews.go.com/TheLaw/LawPolitics/story?id=4583256>Sources: 
Top Bush Advisors Approved 'Enhanced Interrogation,'" ABC News, April 9, 2008.

<http://www.nybooks.com/articles/22530?email#fnr13>[13]The 
bracketed comment appears in the ICRC report.

<http://www.nybooks.com/articles/22530?email#fnr14>[14]See 
Bob Woodward, 
"<http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/01/13/AR2009011303372.html>Detainee 
Tortured, Says US Official: Trial Overseer Cites 
'Abusive' Methods Against 9/11 Suspect," The Washington Post, January 14, 2009.

<http://www.nybooks.com/articles/22530?email#fnr15>[15]See 
Ron Suskind, 
"<http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1533436,00.html>The 
Unofficial Story of the al-Qaeda 14," Time, 
September 10, 2006. See also Suskind's The One 
Percent Doctrine: Deep Inside America's Pursuit 
of Its Enemies Since 9/11 (Simon and Schuster, 
2006), pp. 99–101, and Mayer, The Dark Side, pp. 175–177.

<http://www.nybooks.com/articles/22530?email#fnr16>[16]See 
"Statement on Military Commission Legislation: 
Remarks by Senator Barack Obama," September 28, 2006.

<http://www.nybooks.com/articles/22530?email#fnr17>[17]See 
my 
<http://www.nybooks.com/shop/product?product_id=4211>Torture and Truth, p. 33.




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