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Context of 'December 2001: Possible ‘20th Hijacker’ Al-Khatani Captured, Given to US'

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Customs agent Jose Melendez-Perez.
Customs agent Jose Melendez-Perez. [Source: US Senate]A Saudi named Mohamed al-Khatani is stopped at the Orlando, Florida, airport and denied entry to the US. Jose Melendez-Perez, the customs official who stops him, later says he was suspicious of al-Khatani because he had arrived with no return ticket, no hotel reservations, spoke little English, behaved menacingly, and offered conflicting information on the purpose of his travel. At one point, al-Khatani said that someone was waiting for him elsewhere at the airport. After 9/11, surveillance cameras show that Mohamed Atta was at the Orlando airport that day. 9/11 Commissioner Richard Ben-Veniste says: “It is extremely possible and perhaps probable that [al-Khatani] was to be the 20th hijacker.” Al-Khatani boards a return flight to Saudi Arabia. He is later captured in Afghanistan and sent to a US military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba (see December 2001). Melendez-Perez says that before 9/11, customs officials were discouraged by their superiors from hassling Saudi travelers, who were seen as big spenders. [Los Angeles Times, 1/27/2004; Time, 6/12/2005] Al-Khatani will later confess to being sent to the US by 9/11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed (KSM) (see July 2002), and in June 2001 US intelligence was warned that KSM was sending operatives to the US to meet up with those already there (see June 12, 2001).

Entity Tags: Richard Ben-Veniste, Mohamed Atta, Jose Melendez-Perez, Mohamed al-Khatani, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

Mohamed al-Khatani.Mohamed al-Khatani. [Source: Defense Department]Saudi national Mohamed al-Khatani is captured at the Pakistani-Afghan border and transferred to US authorities. [Washington File, 6/23/2004] He tells his captors that he was in Afghanistan to pursue his love of falconry, an explanation no one takes seriously. [Time, 6/12/2005] His identity and nationality are at this time unknown. However, investigators will later come to believe he was an intended twentieth hijacker for the 9/11 plot (see July 2002).

Entity Tags: Mohamed al-Khatani

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives, Complete 911 Timeline, War in Afghanistan

The FBI takes over interrogations of Saudi Guantanamo detainee Mohamed al-Khatani. He had been captured and taken into US custody months before (see December 2001) but his real identity was only recently discovered. In the months before, military intelligence, using harsh tactics, was unsuccessful in gaining information from him, but the FBI allegedly uses subtle persuasion with an experienced interrogator and succeeds. Khatani discloses:
bullet He is an al-Qaeda member and received terrorist training at two al-Qaeda camps.
bullet He attended an al-Qaeda summit in Malaysia attended by two 9/11 hijackers (see January 5-8, 2000).
bullet He attempted unsuccessfully to be one of the hijackers himself, failing to enter the US in August 2001 (see August 4, 2001).
bullet He had been sent to the US by 9/11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed.
bullet He had met bin Laden on several occasions and had been in contact with many other senior al-Qaeda leaders.
bullet He is related to Ali Saleh Kahlah al-Marri, an apparent al-Qaeda sleeper agent already arrested in the US (see September 10, 2001).
bullet He informs on about thirty other prisoners being held at Guantanamo.
But he is also believed to have little knowledge of other al-Qaeda plots. [New York Times, 6/21/2004; Time, 3/3/2006] He will later recant his confession (see October 26, 2006).

Entity Tags: Ali Saleh Kahlah al-Marri, Mohamed al-Khatani, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives, Complete 911 Timeline

Military interrogators at Guantanamo begin inquiring about the lengths to which they can go to question suspected terrorists. They are particularly interested in Mohamed al-Khatani, a Saudi captured in the Afghan-Pakistan border region in December 2001 (see December 2001). When they learn that al-Khatani was denied entry to the US in 2001 (see August 4, 2001), they decide he may be the so-called “20th hijacker” for the 9/11 attacks, especially after the FBI cajoles him into confessing to being an al-Qaeda operative (see July 2002). But al-Khatani will not, or cannot, divulge information about upcoming terror attacks, and interrogators want to increase the pressure on him (see August 8, 2002-January 15, 2003). They also wonder if, since they have found one apparently high-level al-Qaeda operative among the crowd of low-level prisoners shipped from Afghanistan, there might be others lurking in the group and pretending to be ordinary peasants. [Savage, 2007, pp. 177-178]

Entity Tags: Mohamed al-Khatani

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives

The Department of Justice (DOJ) releases a long-anticipated report on the alleged torture and abuse of terrorist suspects in US custody. The report was spurred by a Congressional request after Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests showed that FBI agents at Guantanamo had raised concerns about CIA- and military-conducted interrogations. The report identifies then-National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice as a recipient of complaints of torture. [American Civil Liberties Union, 5/20/2008] The report, issued by DOJ Inspector General Glenn Fine, shows that CIA officials regularly ignored DOJ warnings that the interrogation tactics they were using amounted to “borderline torture.” The report also concludes that the Defense Department is ultimately responsible for how prisoners in military custody are being treated. As a result, the report finds no reason to bring criminal complaints against CIA officials or interrogators.
'Seven Months of Foot-Dragging' - The report documents what CBS News calls “seven months of foot-dragging” by the Pentagon, which attempted to water down the report. Failing that, the report cites numerous instances where Pentagon officials attempted to redact information in the report from public view. The report is lightly redacted.
FBI Praised for Legal, Non-Coercive Interrogation Techniques - The report generally praises the FBI’s own interrogation efforts, methods, and results. It confirms that when CIA officials became impatient with what they were calling “throwaway results” by FBI interrogators, particularly in the case of Abu Zubaida (see April - June 2002), the CIA took over interrogations of prisoners such as Zubaida and began using harsh, torturous techniques. The FBI pulled its agents from the ongoing interrogations, refusing to participate in what it considered to be illegal actions (see May 13, 2004). (In 2009, a former FBI interrogator will confirm that the FBI gathered far more useful information from its non-coercive techniques than the CIA did with its “borderline torture” methods—see Late March through Early June, 2002 and April 22, 2009.) [CBS News, 5/20/2008; Newsweek, 5/20/2008; American Civil Liberties Union, 5/20/2008]
Witnesses to Torture - However, the report makes clear that FBI agents witnessed harsh interrogations that may have constituted torture at three locations—Baghdad’s Abu Ghraib prison, Afghanistan’s Bagram Air Force Base facility, and Guantanamo Bay. FBI agents are explicitly banned from using brutality, physical violence, intimidation, or other means of causing duress when interviewing suspects. Instead, the FBI generally tries to build a rapport with suspects to get information. “Beyond any doubt, what they are doing (and I don’t know the extent of it) would be unlawful were these enemy prisoners of war,” one FBI employee, senior FBI lawyer Spike Bowman, reported. Bowman worried that the FBI would be “tarred by the same brush,” when asked whether the FBI should refer the matter to the Defense Department Inspector General, and added, “Were I still on active duty, there is no question in my mind that it would be a duty to do so.” The report cites two FBI agents at Guantanamo who “had concerns not only about the proposed techniques but also about the glee with which the would-be [military] participants discussed their respective roles in carrying out these techniques, and the utter lack of sophistication and circus-like atmosphere within this interrogation strategy session.” [CBS News, 5/20/2008; American Civil Liberties Union, 5/20/2008]
Blocking Access to Zubaida - CIA general counsel John Rizzo refused to let DOJ investigators interview Zubaida for the report. The CIA has admitted that Zubaida was waterboarded (see Mid-May, 2002, March 2002 and April - June 2002). The report says that the CIA’s denial of access to Zubaida was “unwarranted,” and “hampered” the investigation, and contrasts the CIA’s actions with those of the Defense Department, which allowed DOJ investigators to interview Guantanamo prisoners. Rizzo told the DOJ that Zubaida “could make false allegations against CIA employees.” [Newsweek, 5/20/2008; American Civil Liberties Union, 5/20/2008]
Split over Al-Khatani - The rift between the CIA and FBI came to a head over the treatment of Mohamed al-Khatani, one of several suspected terrorists accused of being the fabled “20th hijacker” for the 9/11 attacks (see December 2001). According to the report, al-Khatani was abused in a number of ways by military interrogators at Guantanamo; the report cites the use of attack dogs, shackling and stress positions, sexual humiliation, mocking al-Khatani’s religion, and extended sleep deprivation among other tactics. FBI officials complained to the White House after learning that military interrogators forced him to “perform dog tricks,” “be nude in front of a female,” and wear “women’s underwear on his head.” Al-Khatani did eventually “confess” (see July 2002), but FBI officials expressed serious doubts as to the validity of his confession, both in its accuracy and in its admissability in a criminal court. The then-chief of the Guantanamo facility, Major General Geoffrey Miller, ordered a “relentless” and “sustained attack” on al-Khatani. “The plan was to keep him up until he broke,” an FBI agent told superiors, and some of those superiors worried that those techniques would render his confession inadmissible. Al-Khatani was hospitalized for hypothermia during those interrogations. His lawyer, Gitanjali Gutierrez, says her client recently attempted suicide because of his treatment. “The tactics that were used against and the impact, the pain and suffering it caused him and the damage that it caused him does rise to a level of torture,” she says. The government recently dropped all charges against al-Khatani (see October 26, 2006 and January 14, 2009), because if he had been brought to trial, all of the evidence of his treatment would be made public. [CBS News, 5/20/2008; Newsweek, 5/20/2008; American Civil Liberties Union, 5/20/2008]

Entity Tags: US Department of Justice, Glenn Fine, John Rizzo, Marion (“Spike”) Bowman, Gitanjali Gutierrez, Geoffrey D. Miller, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Condoleezza Rice, Abu Zubaida, Mohamed al-Khatani, Central Intelligence Agency, US Department of Defense

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives

Susan Crawford.Susan Crawford. [Source: Susan Crawford / Washington Post]The senior Bush administration official in charge of bringing Guantanamo Bay detainees to trial rules that the US military tortured a detainee, and therefore the US cannot try him. Susan Crawford, the convening authority of military commissions, says that the US tortured Mohamed al-Khatani, a Saudi national accused of planning to participate in the September 11 attacks (see August 4, 2001). Crawford says al-Khatani was interrogated with techniques that included sustained isolation, sleep deprivation, nudity and prolonged exposure to cold, and which cumulatively left him in a “life-threatening condition.” Crawford says: “We tortured [al-]Khatani. His treatment met the legal definition of torture. And that’s why I did not refer the case” for prosecution. Crawford is a retired judge who served as the Army’s general counsel during the Reagan administration and the Pentagon’s inspector general during the first Bush administration. She is the first senior official of the current Bush administration to publicly state that a detainee was tortured while in US custody.
Cumulative Effect Equals Torture - None of the individual techniques used against al-Khatani were torturous in and of themselves, Crawford says, but the cumulative effect—particularly their duration and the deleterious effect on al-Khatani’s health—combined to constitute torture. “The techniques they used were all authorized, but the manner in which they applied them was overly aggressive and too persistent,” she says. “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. It was that medical impact that pushed me over the edge” to call it torture. Al-Khatani has been in US custody since December 2001 (see December 2001), and was interrogated from November 2002 through January 2003 (reports of the exact dates vary—see August 8, 2002-January 15, 2003 and October 11, 2002). He was held in isolation until April 2003. “For 160 days his only contact was with the interrogators,” Crawford says. “Forty-eight of 54 consecutive days of 18-to-20-hour interrogations. Standing naked in front of a female agent. Subject to strip searches. And insults to his mother and sister.” He was threatened with a military dog named Zeus. He “was forced to wear a woman’s bra and had a thong placed on his head during the course of his interrogation,” Crawford says, and “was told that his mother and sister were whores.” With a leash tied to his chains, he was led around the room “and forced to perform a series of dog tricks,” according to reports from his interrogations. He was twice hospitalized with bradycardia, a potentially lethal condition where the heartbeat drops to abnormally low levels.
Ruling Halts Future Prosecution against al-Khatani - Crawford dismissed war crimes charges against al-Khatani in May 2008 (see May 13, 2008). In November, military prosecutors said they would refile charges against al-Khatani, based on subsequent interrogations that did not employ harsh techniques (see November 18, 2008). But Crawford says that she would not let any such prosecutions go forward. However, Crawford is not unaware of the potential danger posed by letting him go free. “There’s no doubt in my mind he would’ve been on one of those planes had he gained access to the country in August 2001,” Crawford says. “He’s a muscle hijacker.… He’s a very dangerous man. What do you do with him now if you don’t charge him and try him? I would be hesitant to say, ‘Let him go.’” Al-Khatani’s civilian lawyer, Gitanjali Gutierrez, says, “There is no doubt he was tortured.” Gutierrez says: “He has loss of concentration and memory loss, and he suffers from paranoia.… He wants just to get back to Saudi Arabia, get married and have a family.” Al-Khatani “adamantly denies he planned to join the 9/11 attack,” she adds. “He has no connections to extremists.” Gutierrez says she thinks Saudi Arabia has an effective rehabilitation program and Khatani ought to be returned there. [Washington Post, 1/14/2009; New York Times, 1/14/2009] His lawyers at the Center for Constitutional Rights describe him as a broken, suicidal man who can never be prosecuted because of his treatment at the hands of his captors. [New York Times, 1/14/2009]
Sympathetic but Unbending - Crawford, a lifelong Republican, says she sympathizes with the situation faced by the Bush administration and the CIA after the 9/11 attacks. “I sympathize with the intelligence gatherers in those days after 9/11, not knowing what was coming next and trying to gain information to keep us safe,” she acknowledges. “But there still has to be a line that we should not cross. And unfortunately what this has done, I think, has tainted everything going forward.” Noting that the 2006 Hamdan v. Rumsfeld case (see June 30, 2006) disallowed torture but allowed for “coercive interrogation techniques,” Crawford says even those techniques should not be allowed: “You don’t allow it in a regular court.” Crawford says she is not yet sure if any of the other five detainees accused of participating in the 9/11 plot, including their leader, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, were tortured, but she believes they may have been. “I assume torture,” she says, and notes that CIA Director Michael Hayden has publicly confirmed that Mohammed was one of three detainees subjected to waterboarding, a technique classified by law as torture. Crawford has not blocked prosecution of the other five detainees. Ultimately, she says, the responsibility for the farrago of illegal detentions and torture rests with President Bush. He was right to create a system to try suspected terrorists, she says, but the implementation was fatally flawed. “I think he hurt his own effort.… I think someone should acknowledge that mistakes were made and that they hurt the effort and take responsibility for it.… We learn as children it’s easier to ask for forgiveness than it is for permission. I think the buck stops in the Oval Office.” [Washington Post, 1/14/2009]
Rules Change - Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell says that the Hamdan case changed the rules, and thus retroactively classified al-Khatani’s treatment as torture. “The [Defense] Department has always taken allegations of abuse seriously,” he says. “We have conducted more than a dozen investigations and reviews of our detention operations, including specifically the interrogation of Mohamed al-Khatani, the alleged 20th hijacker. They concluded the interrogation methods used at [Guantanamo], including the special techniques used on Khatani in 2002, were lawful. However, subsequent to those reviews, the Department adopted new and more restrictive policies and procedures for interrogation and detention operations. Some of the aggressive questioning techniques used on al-Khatani, although permissible at the time, are no longer allowed in the updated Army field manual.” [Washington Post, 1/14/2009]
Prosecutors Unprepared - When Crawford came to Guantanamo as convening authority in 2007, she says “the prosecution was unprepared” to bring cases to trial. Even after four years of working possible cases, “they were lacking in experience and judgment and leadership.” She continues: “A prosecutor has an ethical obligation to review all the evidence before making a charging decision. And they didn’t have access to all the evidence, including medical records, interrogation logs, and they were making charging decisions without looking at everything.” It took over a year, and the intervention of Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England, for prosecutors to turn over possibly exculpatory evidence to defense lawyers, even though the law requires that such evidence be turned over immediately. The entire system at Guantanamo is a blot on the reputation of the US and its military judicial system, she says: “There’s an assumption out there that everybody was tortured. And everybody wasn’t tortured. But unfortunately perception is reality.” The system she oversees cannot function now, she believes. “Certainly in the public’s mind, or politically speaking, and certainly in the international community” it may be forever tainted. “It may be too late.” [Washington Post, 1/14/2009]

Entity Tags: Susan Crawford, Gordon England, Gitanjali Gutierrez, George W. Bush, Geoff Morrell, Central Intelligence Agency, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, Bush administration (43), Center for Constitutional Rights, Mohamed al-Khatani, US Department of Defense, Michael Hayden

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives

WikiLeaks, a non-profit whistleblower group, releases some files on about 750 prisoners held at the US-run prison in Guantanamo, Cuba. This covers all but about 15 of the prisoners who have passed through the prison since it opened in early 2002 (see January 11, 2002). Nearly all of the prisoners were accused of belonging to al-Qaeda or the Taliban, or associated Islamist militant groups. The files were written by US military intelligence officials between the prison’s opening and January 2009. They contain assessments on whether each prisoner should remain in US custody, be imprisoned by another country, or be set free. Most of the prisoners have been released over the years, and no new prisoners have been sent to Guantanamo since 2007, but 172 prisoners remain at Guantanamo in April 2011. Seven news organizations—the New York Times, The Guardian, McClatchy Newspapers, the Washington Post, El Pais, Der Spiegel, and NPR (National Public Radio)—were given early access to the files by WikiLeaks in order to vet and analyze them. Their publication was sped up when the New York Times prepared to publish them after claiming to get copies of them from another unnamed source. The Obama administration immediately condemns the publication of the classified information in the files. [New York Times, 4/24/2011; New Yorker, 4/25/2011]
Files Often Contain Dubious Evidence - Journalists who analyze the files question the accuracy of their prisoner assessments. The New York Times comments that the files “show that the United States has imprisoned hundreds of men for years without trial based on a difficult and strikingly subjective evaluation of who they were, what they had done in the past, and what they might do in the future.” Furthermore, the files “reveal that the analysts sometimes ignored serious flaws in the evidence—for example, that the information came from other detainees whose mental illness made them unreliable. Some assessments quote witnesses who say they saw a detainee at a camp run by al-Qaeda but omit the witnesses’ record of falsehood or misidentification. They include detainees’ admissions without acknowledging other government documents that show the statements were later withdrawn, often attributed to abusive treatment or torture.” [New York Times, 4/24/2011] The Guardian comments that Guantanamo has been “a place that portrayed itself as the ultimate expression of a forensic and rational war run by the most sophisticated power on the planet, with the best intelligence available. The reality was an almost random collection of [prisoners who were] the bad, the accidental, and the irrelevant.” [Guardian, 4/25/2011] McClatchy Newspapers comments: “The world may have thought the US was detaining a band of international terrorists whose questioning would help the hunt for Osama Bin Laden or foil the next 9/11. But [the files] not meant to surface for another 20 years shows that the military’s efforts at Guantanamo often were much less effective than the government has acknowledged. Viewed as a whole, the secret intelligence summaries help explain why in May 2009 President Barack Obama, after ordering his own review of wartime intelligence, called America’s experiment at Guantanamo ‘quite simply a mess.’”
Files Dependant on Dubious Informants - McClatchy further claims that the files were “tremendously dependant on informants—both prison camp snitches repeating what they’d heard from fellow captives and self-described, at times self-aggrandizing, alleged al-Qaeda insiders turned government witnesses who Pentagon records show have since been released.” The information in the files is based on other sources, including intelligence documents and some confessions. [McClatchy Newspapers, 4/24/2011] The New York Times similarly comments that “Guantanamo emerges from the documents as a nest of informants, a closed world where detainees were the main source of allegations against one another and sudden recollections of having spotted a fellow prisoner at an al-Qaeda training camp could curry favor with interrogators.” [New York Times, 4/24/2011]
Files Also Based on Torture and Legally Questionable Methods - The files rarely mention the abuse and torture scandals concerning treatment of US prisoners in Guantanamo, in secret CIA prisons, in other overseas US-run prisons, and in prisons run by some US allies where the use of torture was more widespread. However, there are hints. For instance, one file on an Australian man sent to Guantanamo in 2002 mentions that he confessed while “under extreme duress” and “in the custody of the Egyptian government” to training six of the 9/11 hijackers in martial arts. But despite the apparent seriousness of this accusation, he was released in early 2005. Additionally, important prisoners such as Abu Zubaida held in secret CIA prisons were shown photos of Guantanamo prisoners and asked about them around the time they were subjected to waterboarding and other torture methods. The interrogations of Zubaida, who was waterboarded many times (see May 2003), are cited in over 100 prisoner files. However, his accusations against others have been systematically removed from government filings in court cases in recent years, which would indicate that officials are increasingly doubtful about his reliability and/or the legality of his tortured confessions. Also, many foreign officials were allowed to interrogate some prisoners in Guantanamo, including officials from China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Yemen, Kuwait, Algeria, and Tajikistan. Information in some files comes from these legally questionable interrogation sessions. [McClatchy Newspapers, 4/24/2011; New York Times, 4/24/2011] One well-known case of torture involved Mohamed al-Khatani, the alleged 20th 9/11 hijacker (see December 2001). While being held in Guantanamo, he was interrogated for months with techniques that the senior Bush administration official in charge of bringing Guantanamo prisoners to trial later said legally met the definition of torture (see August 8, 2002-January 15, 2003 and January 14, 2009). His file says, “Although publicly released records allege detainee was subject to harsh interrogation techniques in the early stages of detention,” his confessions “appear to be true and are corroborated in reporting from other sources.” Claims al-Khatani made regarding 16 other Guantanamo prisoners are mentioned in their files without any caveats about the interrogation methods used on him. [New York Times, 4/24/2011]
Some Prisoners Unjustly Held - Some prisoners appear to be clearly innocent, and yet they often were held for years before being released. Some prisoners are still being held even though their files indicate that their interrogators are not even sure of their identities. In some cases, prisoners were held for years not because they were suspected of any crime, but because it was thought they knew useful information. For instance, files show one prisoner was sent to Guantanamo because of what he knew about the secret service of Uzbekistan. [McClatchy Newspapers, 4/24/2011; New York Times, 4/24/2011] In a cruel twist of fate, one man, Jamal al-Harith, appears to have been imprisoned mainly because he had been imprisoned by the Taliban. His file states, “He was expected to have knowledge of Taliban treatment of prisoners and interrogation tactics.” [Guardian, 4/25/2011]
Prisoner Releases Based More on Luck than Evidence - The New York Times claims the determination of which prisoners were released has mostly been a “lottery” that was largely based on which country the prisoner came from. “Most European inmates were sent home, despite grave qualms on the analysts’ part. Saudis went home, even some of the most militant, to enter the rehabilitation program; some would graduate and then join al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Yemenis have generally stayed put, even those cleared for release, because of the chaos in their country. Even in clearly mistaken arrests, release could be slow.” [New York Times, 4/24/2011] In 2009, the new Obama administration put together a task force that re-evaluated the 240 prisoners remaining at Guantanamo. However, these more recent assessments remain secret. [New York Times, 4/24/2011]

Entity Tags: WikiLeaks, Jamal al-Harith, US Military, Guantanamo Bay Naval Base, Mohamed al-Khatani, Barack Obama, Abu Zubaida

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

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