Voices of Detainees and Dissent in New CIA “Enhanced Interrogation” Documents
Newly declassified documents shed fresh light on the CIA’s controversial, so-called “enhanced interrogation” program — which has been widely criticized as torture — when they were released by the agency earlier this week.
The documents fill in some gaps in public knowledge about the CIA’s post-9/11 detention and interrogation program that was investigated by the Senate’s Select Committee on Intelligence from 2009 to 2014. They describe “black site” prisons where terrorism suspects were held in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, and include testimony from those suspects on how they were treated in CIA custody. The documents were released in response to Freedom of Information Act lawsuits originally filed by the ACLU and Vice News. Some portions of the documents had previously been cited in the 2014 Senate report.
The documents include transcripts of testimonies from CIA detainees like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Majid Khan and Abu Zubaydah, who was the CIA’s first detainee. “Abu Zubaydah was a committed, remorseless, psychopathic personality,” John Rizzo, a CIA attorney from 1976 to 2009, told FRONTLINE in 2015’s Secrets, Politics and Torture. “He was widely thought to be— universally thought to be — a key, key figure in the Al Qaeda hierarchy.”
Before the CIA used its “enhanced” techniques on Zubaydah, FBI Special Agent Ali Soufan was brought in to interrogate him. Soufan told FRONTLINE in 2011 that he and his partner worked to build a rapport with Zubaydah, and the suspect revealed that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, now known as the mastermind of 9/11, was a member of Al Qaeda — something that wasn’t known at the time.
However, the CIA, believing Zubaydah still had additional information, brought in a special contractor. “Our people were convinced that the kinds of FBI examination techniques, their traditional techniques, were not going to work with a pathological, remorseless, canny operative like Zubaydah, so that we had to try something else, something more aggressive,” Rizzo told FRONTLINE in 2015.
The documents released this week included excerpts of Zubaydah’s March 2007 testimony at the military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Zubaydah described — in English — his treatment in CIA custody [via The New York Times]:
First thing, during I’m still — I was in — still in the hospital. They would ask me and I would answer. From the hospital, after, I don’t know how many months, how many times. They take me to their secret place. From that time I was naked. And I think you know how much it is the bad for us as the Muslims, and I think it problem for you as Christian or Jew. I don’t know but at least for us, it was very bad thing. I was too weak; they make me sleep in a metal bed… So it take days and days, too cold place, naked and position sleeping. After this, they put me in the chair – same circumstances – naked, too much cold, no food, only Ensure. [A note in the transcript says “force feeding Ensure.”]
Zubaydah was held by the CIA for approximately 1,590 days and experienced an array of the agency’s “enhanced interrogation” methods including sleep deprivation, stress positions, being held in coffin-sized boxes for up to 266 hours, and being administered fluids through his rectum. Zubaydah was also waterboarded 83 times, according to the Senate’s report.
“They shackle me completely, even my head; I can’t do anything. Like this and they put one cloth on my mouth and they put water, water, water,” Zubaydah said in the newly released testimony. “Last point before I die they stand… they make like this [making breathing noises] again and again they make it with me and I tell him ‘if you want to kill me, kill me.”
Soufan, the FBI’s interrogator, saw some of the treatment of Zubaydah in person. “And I was really frustrated,” he later told FRONTLINE, “because I think that, you know, this — this is not going to lead us anywhere.”
The 2014 Senate report included a note that Zubaydah cooperated before being waterboarded, and the treatment hadn’t produced “information which otherwise would have been unavailable.” A newly released portion from the same document — reflections from the chief of medical services — said, “A psychologist/interrogator later said that waterboard use had established that [Zubaydah] had no further information on imminent threats – a creative but circular justification.” [page 41]
The new cache of documents also reveals more about the conditions surrounding the death of Gul Rahman, who froze to death at a CIA black site in Afghanistan after being chained to a wall half-naked. As Vice News reported:
The CIA black site prison had 20 cells. Described as “stand-alone concrete boxes,” the cell block was outfitted with stereo speakers that played music 24 hours a day to prevent captives from communicating with each other. Captives, who first arrived there in September 2002, were often held in total darkness. Some were subjected to mock executions.
Four of the cells at the black site — it was located in Afghanistan and code-named COBALT, but it was also referred to as the Salt Pit — had “high bars… to which prisoners can be secured.” These four cells were designed specifically for sleep deprivation.
A memo on the death of Gul Rahman sent to the deputy director of operations in January 2003 describes the routine use of diapers, sleep deprivation and cold showers to make detainees more susceptible to questioning. Rahman is described as “resolutely defiant,” which led to a decision to use “enhanced interrogation” on him. The night he was last seen alive, his hands and feet were shackled, and he was naked from the waist down after threatening the guards. When the guards went to check on Rahman in the hours before his death, he was observed “alive and shaking,” with his eyes open and blinking. Two hours later, they found him lying on his side, immobile, with a small amount of blood coming from his nose and mouth.
Some of the documents in the recently released cache include misgivings by officials. A memo sent on Jan. 22, 2003 noted field officers concerns over the treatment of another prisoner, Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri. According to the Senate report, a CIA officer not trained in interrogation techniques used both an unloaded gun and a power drill to frighten Nashiri — actions that were not part of the Justice Department-approved “enhanced” techniques. The author of the memo has “serious reservations with the continued use of enhanced techniques with Nashiri (subject) and its long term impact on him. Subject has been held for three months in very difficult conditions, both physically and mentally.” The memo notes that previous interrogators thought Nashiri was truthful and hadn’t withheld information, saying the use of enhanced techniques might “cause him to cease cooperation on any level.”
However, another memo from 2005 maintains that the “EITs [enhanced interrogation techniques], as part of the overall program, are credited with enabling the US to disrupt terrorist plots, capture additional terrorists, and collect a high volume of useful intelligence on [Al Qaeda].” [page 8]
The 2014 Senate report concluded that the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation techniques” were ineffective and far worse than they were presented to policymakers. The report also accused the CIA of making inaccurate claims about the methods’ effectiveness and running a deeply flawed program. The CIA maintains that the “enhanced interrogation techniques” obtained useful intelligence that “helped thwart attack plans, capture terrorists and save lives.”
The CIA’s program ended in 2009 following an executive order from President Barack Obama.