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Context of 'June 7, 2004: Questionable Interrogations Practices Still Practiced at Guantanamo'

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Captured al-Qaeda operative Abu Zubaida (see March 28, 2002), after recovering somewhat from three gunshot wounds inflicted during his capture, is transferred to a secret CIA prison in Thailand, presumably the revamped Vietnam War-era base in Udorn. [Weiner, 2007, pp. 297; Washington Post, 4/22/2009] In late 2006, after being transferred to Guantanamo, Zubaida will tell representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross the story of his interrogation in Thailand (see October 6 - December 14, 2006). Zubaida becomes what CIA interrogator John Kiriakou will later call “a test case for an evolving new role… in which the agency was to act as jailer and interrogator of terrorism suspects” (see September 17, 2001).
New Tactics To Be Used - Officials from the military’s Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape (SERE) program are involved in Zubaida’s interrogations. SERE officials have prepared a program of so-called “harsh interrogation methods,” many of which are classified as torture under the Geneva Conventions and the Convention Against Torture (see December 2001 and July 2002). A 2009 Senate report (see April 21, 2009) will find: “At some point in the first six months of 2002, JPRA [the Joint Personnel Recovery Agency] assisted with the preparation of a [redacted name], sent to interrogate a high-level al-Qaeda operative.” Further investigation will prove that the person whose name will be redacted is, indeed, Zubaida. According to a June 20, 2002 memo, the SERE officials’ participation in the Zubaida interrogation is “training.” JPRA psychologist Bruce Jessen, one of the authors of the JPRA torture methodology (see January 2002 and After), suggests that “exploitation strategies” be used against Zubaida. Jessen’s collaborator on the torture proposal, James Mitchell, is present for Zubaida’s torture; Mitchell plays a central role in the decision to use what the CIA calls an “increased pressure phase” against Zubaida. [Washington Post, 4/22/2009]
First Weeks Shackled and Sleep-Deprived - Zubaida will begin his narrative after his initial, and successful, interrogation by FBI agents (see Late March through Early June, 2002). He spends the first weeks of his captivity shackled to a chair, denied solid food, and kept awake. In Zubaida’s words: “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 two to three 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 15 minutes, 24 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.” In 2009, author Mark Danner will write: “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 [proposed regulations say], for example, that ‘Sleep Deprivation’ is ‘not to exceed four 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.’ Here we are in a different place.”
CIA Team Moves In - The first weeks of Zubaida’s captivity are maintained by a small team of FBI agents and interrogators, but soon a team from the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center takes over. As Kiriakou will later recall: “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.” After the initial period of captivity, Zubaida is allowed to sleep with less interruption, stretched out naked and shackled on the bare floor. He is also given solid food for the first time in weeks—rice. A female doctor examines him and asks why he is still naked; he is, he will recall, “provided with orange clothes to wear.” The clothes only last a day, though: “[G]uards came into my cell,” Zubaida will recall. “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.”
Alternating Harsh and Lenient Treatments - For the next few weeks, Zubaida’s treatment veers from abusive to almost lenient. Mostly he is kept naked and confined to his cell, often suffering from intense cold in the frigid air-conditioned environment. One official later tells the ICRC that often he “seemed to turn blue.” Clothing is provided, then taken away. Zubaida will tell ICRC officials: “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.” For a time he is given a mattress to sleep on; sometimes he is “allowed some tissue paper to use when going to toilet on the bucket.” A month goes by with no interrogations. He will recall: “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 24 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.” Danner will write that he isn’t sure if the wild swings in procedures are intentional, meant to keep Zubaida off-guard, or, as he will write, “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.” Danner notes that some CIA documents going back to the 1960s advocate subjecting the captive to sensory deprivation and disorientation, and instilling feelings of guilt, shame, and helplessness. The old CIA documents say that captives should be kept in a state of “debility-dependence-dread.” [New York Review of Books, 3/15/2009]
Justice Department's 'Ticking Bomb' Scenario - The August 2002 “golden shield” memo from the Justice Department (see August 1, 2002) will use what is often called the “ticking bomg scenario”—the supposition that a terror attack is imminent and only torture can extract time-critical information from a terrorist detainee to give US officials a chance to stop the attack—to justify Zubaida’s torture. According to CIA reports, Zubaida has information regarding “terrorist networks in the United States” and “plans to conduct attacks within the United States or against our interests overseas.” But Brent Mickum, who later becomes one of Zubaida’s attorneys, will say that he believes the Justice Department memo retroactively approved coercive tactics that had already been used. “If torture occurred before the memo was written, it’s not worth the paper it’s written on, and the writing of the memo is potentially criminal,” Mickum will note. [Washington Post, 4/22/2009]
Interrogations Continue in June - Sometime in June, Zubaida will once again be interrogated (see June 2002).

Entity Tags: Mark Danner, John Kiriakou, James Elmer Mitchell, Bruce Jessen, Al-Qaeda, Abu Zubaida, Bush administration (43), Central Intelligence Agency, Convention Against Torture, George Brent Mickum, Geneva Conventions, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Joint Personnel Recovery Agency, International Committee of the Red Cross

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives, Complete 911 Timeline

The Wall Street Journal reports that according to an unnamed military official, “Methods now used at Guantanamo include limiting prisoners’ food, denying them clothing, subjecting them to body-cavity searches, depriving them of sleep for as much as 96 hours and shackling them in so-called stress positions.” [Wall Street Journal, 6/7/2004]

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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