Don’t Ever Forget — the CIA Tortured Prisoners to Death
Newly-released documents detail America’s brutal treatment of detainees
by SEBASTIEN ROBLIN
On June 13, 2016, in response to a Freedom of Information Act request by the American Civil Liberties Union, the Central Intelligence Agency released 50 documents detailing its application of so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques” — a.k.a. torture — on terror suspects.
These documents offer few new revelations and are far from comprehensive in their scope. Many are heavily redacted.
But they’re still horrifying. In torturing criminal suspects, sometimes to death, the CIA — and by extension the United States — unambiguously joined the ranks of the world’s most brutal regimes.
The documents reveal an incompetent bureaucracy that made detainees wear diapers simply to humiliate them and not only water-boarded captives who were already cooperating, but allowed them to die by accident in the cold.
The documents describe the CIA glibly citing legal loopholes to justify its actions — and doing its best to hide its mistakes, and crimes, from the public.
You can read the documents yourself on the CIA’s website.
The CIA trained in and practiced “aggressive” interrogation techniques during the Vietnam War and in Latin America during the 1980s, where they were known as “human resource exploitation.” But human-rights allegations leveled at two agents led the Agency to discontinue the practice after 1984.
Therefore, when Pres. George W. Bush issued a secret directive reintroducing the techniques, the CIA had to create a new interrogation program from scratch, drawing on the advice of Bush’s legal team as well as psychologists who had taught U.S. Air Force’s survival training courses.
The CIA knew it was actually talking about torture. A legal memo written two weeks after 9/11 liberally uses the word. But there was a problem — the United States is a signatory to the Geneva Convention, which forbids torture. U.S. Title 18, Section 2340 also outlaws the practice.
The Bush administration’s workaround was multi-faceted. The convention didn’t apply to terrorist as they were not members of an army, the White House argued. The U.S. government wasn’t breaking U.S. laws if it tortured in buildings in other countries that weren’t formally owned by the U.S. government, it added. Finally, torture might be excused after the fact if it prevented an “imminent” terrorist attack.
But the main argument the administration seized upon was that torture wasn’t torture if it wasn’t intended “in good faith” to cause “severe physical or mental pain or suffering.”
The torturer’s manual
According to the newly-declassified CIA documents, “standard techniques” permitted for interrogation of prisoners of war included isolation, reduced caloric intake, sleep deprivation, deprivation of reading material, playing of loud music or white noise and the use of diapers for limited periods.
The CIA proposed a set of 10 “enhanced techniques” that it claimed “didn’t cause severe physical or mental pain or suffering.” These techniques are detailed in a torture manual that is among the newly released documents.
The techniques include firmly holding a detainee’s face, a facial slap accompanied by an insult, abdominal slapping, sleep deprivation for more than 48 hours, splashing prisoners with cold water, placing detainees in uncomfortable stress positions for prolonged periods, forcing suspects to lean with their forehead on a wall, walling them in a cramped space, confinement in a box with insects and — most severely — waterboarding.
“Torture memos” rationalize that none of these constitute “severe suffering” or “lasting harm.”
Part of the argument is that the “intention” not to cause physical harm suffices to justify an act, regardless of the action’s actual effect. “All pain is subjective, not objective,” one memo claims. “It is [the Office of Medical Services’] view that based on our limited experience and the extensive experience of the military with these techniques, the program in place has effectively avoided severe physical pain and suffering, and should continue to do so.”
The CIA also suggested “mock burials” and “mock executions”—that is, tricking a detainee into thinking he was about to be executed — but decided to remove them from the list. This did not stop agents from using these methods on their own initiative.
The documents reveal that the CIA was very specific about what techniques were permitted, but that Agency interrogators and support staff frequently exceeded the rules, anyway — as an investigation into the use of intimidating “props” such as a power drill and an unloaded pistol reveals.
On multiple occasions, the CIA reprimanded agents for waterboarding “beyond the projected use of the technique” — too long, too many times and with too much water.
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Other unauthorized torture techniques compelled the Agency to figuratively slap its agents on their proverbial wrists. They include applying force to pressure points until a detainee passed out, forcing a detainee to inhale smoke until he vomited and cold showers.
Threats were part of the treatment. “We’re going to kill your children,” was one popular line. “We could get your family in here,” was another. “If one child dies in America and I find out you knew something about it, I will personally cut your mother’s throat.”
“Legal has advised that threats are permissible so long as they’re ‘conditional,’” one report notes.
Amateurs and hotheads
Detention sites were located in Eastern Europe, Afghanistan — notably at the Salt Pits, a site in an abandoned brick factory near Bagram Air Base — and the Middle East, each housing between eight and 20 inmates. Many of the sites lacked heating or air conditioning. Staff did not “uniformly document” their detainees and their medical care; nor did the CIA itself actually track how many detainees it had.
Many communiques give the impression that agents assigned to the program were either poorly-trained, low-level employees given little choice in the matter, or rogue “veterans” — often contractors — who were ready to push the boundaries beyond regulation to get “results.”
“During the first four months of operation, individuals with no previous relevant experience, no training, no guidance often conducted the interrogations,” one review found.
One site manager was “a first tour officer.” “He had not received interrogations training and ran the facility with scant guidance from headquarters.”
A superior was “unaware … that the first site manager at REDACTED had been a junior officer. [He] stated that a first tour officer should not be running anything.”
When the CIA ordered psychologists and medical officers to torture detainees, the action inspired a number of concerned memos. “Although these guys believe that their way is the only way, there should be an effort to define roles and responsibilities before their arrogance and narcissism evolve into unproductive conflict in the field,” one cable reads.
The Office of Medical Services complained about the conflict of interest — noting that the contractors recommending more sessions of torture were paid $1,800 per day of torture, four times the regular interrogator’s pay.”
Most disturbingly, high-level officials often pushed for more torture, even against the recommendations of the interrogators — and even when the detainees were cooperating.
“Al Nashiri was not actively resisting and was responding to questions directly. Headquarters officers disagreed with REDACTED assessment because headquarters analysts though Al Nashiri was withholding imminent threat information,” one communique notes.
The agency assumed that if a detainee couldn’t answer a question, that he must be concealing something — or that if he answered too many questions, he was probably lying.
Medical officers frequently fretted over the medical care agents provided to detainees. As one complained regarding Abu Zubaydah, a so-called “high-value detainee”:
“We are currently providing absolute minimum wound care (as evidence by the steady deterioration of the wound), subject has no opportunity to practice any form of hygienic self care (he’s filthy), the physical nature of this phase dictates multiple physical stresses (his reaction to today’s activity is I believe the culprit for the superior edge separation) and nutrition is bare bones (six cans of Ensure [a liquid dietary supplement] daily).”
But the Agency dismissed the doctor’s warning. “Interrogation process takes precedence over preventative medical procedures,” one message reads.
Abu Zubaydah lost an eye under mysterious circumstances while in U.S. custody.
Death by hypothermia
In December 2002, detainee Ghul Rahman died while chained to the floor of his unheated cell in a secret facility in Poland. He was naked from the waist down, blood leaking from his nose. A doctor ruled that it was death by hypothermia.
The ensuing investigation by the CIA’s Office of the Inspector General sheds light on the nature of the Agency’s detention facilities.
“Prisoners are dressed in sweatsuits and adult diapers. The diapers are used for sanitary reasons during transportation, and as a means to humiliate the prisoner. […] When the prisoners soil a diaper, they are changed by the guards. Sometimes the guards run out of diapers and the prisoners are placed back in their cells in a handcrafted diaper secured by duct tape. If the guards don’t have any available diapers, the prisoners are rendered to their cell nude.”
Loud music played constantly. Agents rewarded good behavior with ear plugs.
Ghul Rhaman exhibited a “high-resistance posture,” which provoked agents to subject to an unauthorized technique — a “rough take-down,” during which agents shoved, slapped and dragged him along the floor. He was given a cold shower and then dressed in a sweater — but no pants.
A night guard was the last person to see him alive. He lay shivering on the floor.
The official report concludes that the “station’s reporting…contained false statements and material omissions […] obscured or minimized the circumstances of the death, the involvement of REDACTED in the mistreatment of Rahman, and the absence of adequate supervision.”
Another prisoner who had been convinced to surrender in Afghanistan was beaten to death by a CIA contractor who failed to follow the CIA’s protocols.
His punishment? His contract wasn’t renewed.
The wrong man
The most recent document dates back to 2007. It concerns the imprisonment of Khalid Al Masri, a German-Lebanese citizen the CIA snatched while he was on vacation in Macedonia on January 2004.
Because his name was similar to that of a known Al-Qaeda operative, the CIA interrogated Al Masri for months in Afghanistan, refusing to believe his protestations of innocence.
The agency only bothered to verify his German passport in March, after ignoring an interrogator’s report in February claiming Al Masri was probably innocent.
When the CIA realized its mistake, it held on to Al Masri for two more months. The Agency didn’t even bother to tell him he was going to be released until a week before letting him go — at which point he had become depressed and suicidal and had gone on a hunger strike.
Why the delay? The CIA didn’t want to “notify” the German government — but was told it had to. The Agency tried to make Al Masri pledge “not reveal his experiences to media or local authorities,” and claimed that any breach of the pledge “would have consequences.”
The Agency was easier on Al Masri as it transported him home. “In consideration of [the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center] request, Al Masri was not forced to wear a diaper, and he was permitted to use the toilet and drink water.”
Al Masri went on to sue the United States twice. Both times, U.S. courts rejected his claims on the grounds of “national security.”
Agency investigators inquired with the Department of Justice about filing criminal charges against CIA staff, but the Agency “declined to pursue federal prosecution in this matter.”
Al Masri’s detention was ordered “on a hunch” by an agent who went on to rise in the CIA ranks. She inspired the heroine in the film Zero Dark Thirty.
Some CIA employees had misgivings about what was going on.
“I will no longer be associated in any way with the interrogation program due to serious reservation I have about the current state of affairs,” one email reads. “Instead, I will be retiring shortly. This is a train wreck waiting to happen and I intend to get the Hell off the train before it happens.”
“I believe a strong case can be made that the Agency’s authorized interrogation techniques are the kinds of action that Article 16 undertakes to prevent,” a legal review argues. “By any common understanding of the term, for example, use of the waterboard may well be ‘cruel.’ Extended detention with no clothing would be considered ‘degrading’ in most cultures, particularly Muslim.”
An email written early in the program pushes back against critics. “Strongly urge that any speculative language as to the legality of given activities […] be refrained from in written traffic (email or cable traffic). Such language is not helpful.”
Many emails reveal that agents knew they could be prosecuted for what they were doing. One email requests “that you grant a formal declination of prosecution, in advance for any employees of the United States […] who may employ methods in the interrogation of Abu Zubaydah that otherwise might subject those individuals to prosecution under Section 2340A of Title 18 […] as well as any other applicable U.S. law.”
Even the executive branch was worried about how the program might look. “The president was concerned about the image of a detainee, chained to the ceiling, clothed in a diaper and forced to go to the bathroom on themselves.”
Among the most problematic witnesses to the program were the detainees themselves. What was to be done to keep them from talking? “Especially in light of the planned psychological pressure techniques to be implemented, we need to get reasonable assurance that subject will remain in isolation and incommunicado for the remainder of his life,” one cable remarks.
The responder assured that this would be the case.
Torture doesn’t work
Many would argue that the effectiveness of torture is beside the point. “The [enhanced interrogation techniques] used by the Agency under the [counterterrorism] program are inconsistent with the public policy positions that the United States has taken regarding human rights.”
But several CIA evaluations of the program claimed it was “deemed to be a great success” which provided “over half” of all human intelligence and revealing “numerous plots.” One report lists a number of terror plans that torture might have played a role in exposing.
However, some of the CIA’s communiques cast doubt on — or flat-out contradict — these claims. “In practice, however, [Abu Zubaydah’s] cooperation did not correlate that well with his waterboard sessions. […] A psychologist/interrogator later said that waterboard use had established that [Abu Zubaydah] had no “further information on imminent threats — a creative but circular justification.
“In retrospect, [the CIA] thought [Abu Zubaydah] probably reached the point of cooperation even prior to the August institution of ‘enhanced’ measures […] In any event, there was no evidence that the waterboard produced time-perishable information which otherwise would have been unobtainable.”
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As one official pointed out, the torturers were often the ones evaluating the effectiveness of their own techniques. “No professional in the field would credit their later judgements [those of independent contractor psychologists] as psychologists assessing the subjects of their enhanced [interrogation] measures.”
When the program was subject to independent review, the findings were less salutatory. “Review did not uncover any evidence that these plots were imminent” the Office of the Inspector General reported. “Prior to the use of [enhanced interrogation techniques], Nashiri provided information for over 100 intelligence reports.”
The CIA waterboarded Khalid Sheikh Mohamed 183 times over 15 sessions. The OIG’s report notes that the “waterboard was determined to be of limited effectiveness.”