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Convicted former CIA contractor speaks out about prisoner interrogation

April 20, 2015 at 6:15 PM EDT
Only once has a CIA-connected interrogator been brought to trial in a torture-related case. David Passaro was convicted of abusing a prisoner who died after three days of interrogation at a remote base in Afghanistan. Passaro, now out of prison, talks to Retro Report, a nonprofit news organization partnered with The New York Times.

GWEN IFILL: The Senate investigated the CIA’s secret interrogations of terrorism suspects for five years. The resulting report released last December detailed brutality, dishonesty and at times arbitrary violence conducted by the agency.

In spite of those findings, only one CIA contractor, an interrogator serving in Afghanistan, has been convicted. Now out of jail, he spoke for the first time in a short film produced by Retro Report , a nonprofit news organization partnered with The New York Times.

NARRATOR: David Passaro is a free man today, and holds the distinction of being the only person working for the CIA ever to be convicted of abusing a prisoner in the war on terror.

DAVID A. PASSARO, Former CIA Contractor: Man, I wasn’t hired to be nice to these terrorists. I was there to get a job done. I was there to elicit the truth and keep moving.

NARRATOR: Passaro’s case started in 2003, when he was working as a contractor for the CIA at a remote base in Asadabad, Afghanistan, and was tasked with interrogating Abdul Wali, a farmer who was suspected of being behind rocket fire at the base.

DAVID A. PASSARO: I didn’t want him sleeping any more than two to three hours a night.

One of the stress positions was something called the air chair. And that’s just hold his arms out until he decided he would change his demeanor. Every time he would sit there, he would do this, and he would drop his arms to his elbows. Well, that’s not the air chair.

And then I would tap his arms to tell him to get his arms back up underneath. At one point, he lurched out after me, and I slapped him. It was just a quick response. My hands were right here, and it was just to get him off of me. Is that assault? It could be construed as assault, but in the war on terror, and in Afghanistan, in Asadabad, that’s not assault.

NARRATOR: After three days of interrogation, Wali collapsed. Despite efforts to revive him, he died. No autopsy was performed.

Witnesses would later say that Passaro hit Wali repeatedly with a flashlight and kicked him in the groin.

Hyder Akbar, an Afghan-American, had initially accompanied Wali to the base.

HYDER AKBAR: This was a man who had turned himself in voluntarily. It wasn’t the traditional way that people kind of justify torture, the ticking time bomb situation. This was not a situation like that.

DAVID A. PASSARO: Anything that I did to Abdul Wali, none of that constitutes torture. In hindsight, I wouldn’t have done anything different.

NARRATOR: The CIA opened an investigation, but Passaro returned to a civilian position at the Fort Bragg Army Base in North Carolina.

MAN: It was American soldiers serving as military police at Abu Ghraib who took these pictures.

NARRATOR: A year later, after the Abu Ghraib prison scandal broke, the Justice Department indicted Passaro for assault.

JOHN ASHCROFT: This morning, a grand jury in Raleigh, North Carolina, has indicted a contractor working on behalf of the Central Intelligence Agency for brutally assaulting an Afghan detainee.

NARRATOR: Passaro maintained that he and others on the front line of the war on terror were given the implied authority to use force when necessary.

DAVID A. PASSARO: After 9/11, President Bush got on national television, and said, not only are we going to go after the terrorists, but we’re going to go after those that harbor the terrorists, and we will do so under any or with any means necessary. In other words, all the rules and regulations no longer applied.

NARRATOR: But witnesses testified that Passaro was explosive, and acting far outside of CIA rules in his zeal to break Wali down. And there was no conclusive evidence presented that Wali was a terrorist at trial.

HYDER AKBAR: There’s some blame to be placed on the U.S. military for allowing an individual like Dave Passaro to be in such a sensitive situation, and then I think that, of course, Dave Passaro for actually, you know, beating this man.

MARGARET WARNER: A former CIA contractor charged with abusing an Afghan detainee was found guilty today of assault.

NARRATOR: After his conviction, the CIA released a statement that read: “Passaro’s actions were unlawful, reprehensible, and neither authorized nor condoned by the agency.”

He served six years in prison. For some, the problem goes beyond a case like Passaro’s. Former Pentagon official Alberto Mora, one of the leading critics of torture, says that even authorized front-line interrogators were given mixed messages.

ALBERTO J. MORA, Former General Counsel of the Navy: One of the former CIA directors, Mike Hayden, was quoted as saying famously that he wanted his people to have chalk on their cleats as they were proceeding in the war on terror. Well, the problem with that analogy is that, if you have chalk on your cleats, you have stepped out of bounds.

NARRATOR: Former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, who helped draft the legal justifications for enhanced interrogation, says the practice was meant to be done only in specific circumstances, by authorized interrogators.

ALBERTO GONZALES, Former White House Counsel: We looked at the statute, which is you cannot intentionally inflict severe physical or mental pain or suffering. That’s all the statute says. All I can say is that the lawyers tried very hard to define for the operators what would be consistent with the statute passed by Congress.

GWEN IFILL: The CIA told the NewsHour today that the agency stopped using contractors to do interrogations when President Obama ended the CIA’s program in January 2009. At least two other cases of detainee deaths in CIA custody have been dropped, and the White House has promised not to prosecute anyone for interrogations conducted the Bush years if they adhered to the existing guidelines.

As a result, Passaro’s case may go down in history books as the first, and only, case in which a CIA interrogator has been prosecuted for abusing a prisoner.

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