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Profile: John Sifton
John Sifton was a participant or observer in the following events:
The CIA comes up with a list of 10 “Enhanced Interrogation Techniques” that it will allow to be used on captured high-ranking al-Qaeda detainees. In 2005, ABC News will reveal six of the techniques on the list and describe them as follows:
The Attention Grab: The interrogator forcefully grabs the shirt front of the prisoner and shakes him.
The Attention Slap: An open-handed slap aimed at causing pain and triggering fear.
The Belly Slap: A hard open-handed slap to the stomach. The aim is to cause pain, but not internal injury. Doctors consulted advised against using a punch, which could cause lasting internal damage.
Long Time Standing: This technique is described as among the most effective. Prisoners are forced to stand, handcuffed and with their feet shackled to an eye bolt in the floor for more than 40 hours. Exhaustion and sleep deprivation are effective in yielding confessions.
The Cold Cell: The prisoner is left to stand naked in a cell kept near 50 degrees. Throughout the time in the cell the prisoner is doused with cold water.
Waterboarding: The prisoner is bound to an inclined board, feet raised, and head slightly below the feet. Cellophane is wrapped over the prisoner’s face and water is poured over him. Unavoidably, the gag reflex kicks in and a terrifying fear of drowning leads to almost instant pleas to bring the treatment to a halt. [ABC News, 11/18/2005]
The New York Times will later reveal that there are actually four more techniques on the list, but will not detail what they are. [New York Times, 11/9/2005]
Waterboarding Most Controversial Technique - Waterboarding will be the most controversial technique used. In centuries past, it was considered by some to be the most extreme form of torture, more so than thumbscrews or use of the rack. [Harper's, 12/15/2007] “The person believes they are being killed, and as such, it really amounts to a mock execution, which is illegal under international law,” says John Sifton of Human Rights Watch. CIA officials who allowed themselves to be waterboarded lasted, on average, 14 seconds before caving in. In addition, such confessions are dubious at best. “This is the problem with using the waterboard. They get so desperate that they begin telling you what they think you want to hear,” says one of the CIA sources. [ABC News, 11/18/2005]
List Compiled with Help from Egypt, Saudi Arabia - The list is secretly drawn up by a team including senior CIA officials, and officials from the Justice Department and the National Security Council. The CIA got help in making the list from governments like Egypt and Saudi Arabia that are notorious for their widespread use of torture (see Late 2001-Mid-March 2002). [New York Times, 11/9/2005] Apparently, “only a handful” of CIA interrogators are trained and authorized to use these techniques. Later this month, al-Qaeda leader Abu Zubaida will be captured and the CIA will begin using all of these techniques on him (see March 28, 2002). However, the White House will not give the CIA clear legal authority to do so until months after the CIA starts using these techniques on Zubaida (see March 28-August 1, 2002).
Techniques 'Cruel, Inhuman, and Degrading' under Treaty - In 2004, CIA Inspector General John Helgerson will determine in a classified report that these techniques appear to constitute cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment under the Convention Against Torture, an international treaty signed by the US (see October 21, 1994 and May 7, 2004). Former CIA officer Robert Baer calls the use of such techniques “bad interrogation,” and notes, “[Y]ou can get anyone to confess to anything if the torture’s bad enough.” [ABC News, 11/18/2005]
After being transferred from Afghanistan to Poland (see March 7 - Mid-April, 2003), alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed (KSM) is repeatedly waterboarded by the CIA, a technique simulating drowning that international law classifies as torture. He is only one of about four high-ranking detainees waterboarded, according to media reports (see May 2002-2003). [New Yorker, 8/6/2007; MSNBC, 9/13/2007; New York Review of Books, 3/15/2009] He will recall: “I would be strapped to a special bed, which could be rotated into a vertical position. A cloth would be placed over my face. Cold water from a bottle that had been kept in a fridge was then poured onto the cloth by one of the guards so that I could not breathe.… The cloth was then removed and the bed was put into a vertical position. The whole process was then repeated during about one hour. Injuries to my ankles and wrists also occurred during the waterboarding as I struggled in the panic of not being able to breathe. Female interrogators were also present… and a doctor was always present, standing out of sight behind the head of [the] bed, but I saw him when he came to fix a clip to my finger which was connected to a machine. I think it was to measure my pulse and oxygen content in my blood. So they could take me to [the] breaking point.” [New York Review of Books, 3/15/2009] Accounts about the use of waterboarding on KSM differ. He says he is waterboarded five times. [New York Review of Books, 3/15/2009] However, contradictory reports will later appear:
NBC News will claim that, according to multiple unnamed officials, KSM underwent at least two sessions of waterboarding and other extreme measures before talking. One former senior intelligence official will say, “KSM required, shall we say, re-dipping.” [MSNBC, 9/13/2007]
In 2005, former and current intelligence officers and supervisors will tell ABC News that KSM “won the admiration of interrogators when he was able to last between two and two-and-a-half minutes before begging to confess.” [ABC News, 11/18/2005] In 2007, a former CIA official familiar with KSM’s case will tell ABC News a sligntly different version of events: “KSM lasted the longest under waterboarding, about a minute and a half, but once he broke, it never had to be used again.” A senior CIA official will claim that KSM later admitted he only confessed because of the waterboarding. [ABC News, 9/14/2007] In November 2005, John Sifton of Human Rights Watch will say of waterboarding, “The person believes they are being killed, and as such, it really amounts to a mock execution, which is illegal under international law.” [ABC News, 11/18/2005]
The New York Times will claim that “KSM was subjected to intense and repeated torture techniques that, at the time, were specifically designated as illegal under US law.” Some claim that KSM gives useful information. “However, many of the officials interviewed say KSM provided a raft of false and exaggerated statements that did not bear close scrutiny—the usual result, experts say, of torture.” CIA officials stopped the “extreme interrogation” sessions after about two weeks, worrying that they might have exceeded their legal bounds. Apparently pressure to stop comes from Jack Goldsmith, head of the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, who is troubled about updates from KSM’s interrogations and raises legal questions. He is angrily opposed by the White House, particularly David Addington, a top aide to Vice President Dick Cheney. [New York Times, 10/4/2007]
The New Yorker will report that officials who have seen a classified Red Cross report say that KSM claims he was waterboarded five times. Further, he says he was waterboarded even after he started cooperating. But two former CIA officers will insist that he was waterboarded only once. One of them says that KSM “didn’t resist. He sang right away. He cracked real quick. A lot of them want to talk. Their egos are unimaginable. KSM was just a little doughboy.” [New Yorker, 8/6/2007]
A different ABC News account will claim that KSM was al-Qaeda’s toughest prisoner. CIA officers who subject themselves to waterboarding last only about 14 seconds, but KSM was able to last over two minutes. [ABC News, 11/18/2005]
In 2009, evidence will surface that indicates KSM was waterboarded up to 183 times (see April 16, 2009 and April 18, 2009).
In response to what the five Britons released from Guantanamo (see March 9, 2004) have claimed about the abuses they suffered during their stay at the US detention camp, John Sifton from Human Rights Watch says, “It is now clear that there is a systemic problem of abuse throughout the US military’s detention facilities—not merely misbehavior by a few bad apples.”
A simulation of waterboarding arranged by ABC News. [Source: ABC News]According to an ABC News report in September 2007, CIA Director Michael Hayden bans the use of waterboarding some time in 2006, with the approval of the White House. It is not known when exactly the technique is banned that year, but presumably it takes place after Hayden becomes CIA director (see May 5, 2006) and in response to the Supreme Court decision mandating that terror suspects must be given treatment consistent with the Geneva Conventions (see July 12, 2006). Waterboarding is a harsh interrogation technique that simulates drowning and is usually referred to as torture. Allegedly, the CIA last used waterboarding in 2003 on Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and “It is believed that waterboarding was used on fewer than five ‘high-value’ terrorist subjects” (see May 2002-2003). John Sifton of Human Rights Watch later says the ban “a good thing, but the fact remains that the entire [CIA interrogation] program is illegal.” [ABC News, 9/14/2007] Over a year before Hayden’s decision, Justice Department official Daniel Levin had himself subjected to simulated waterboarding to help him determine if waterboarding was indeed torture (see Late 2004-Early 2005). Levin intended to issue a memo condemning the practice as beyond the bounds of the law, but was forced out of the Justice Department before he could make that ruling.
Entity Tags: Daniel Levin, US Supreme Court, US Department of Justice, White House, Central Intelligence Agency, John Sifton, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, Michael Hayden, Geneva Conventions
Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives, Complete 911 Timeline, Civil Liberties
Irbil’s Iranian Liaison Office. [Source: Yahya Ahmed / Associated Press]US forces carry out two raids inside Iraq, capturing five Iranians as well as a large amount of documentary and computer data. Both raids are inside the Kurdish city of Irbil. One raid is at the Iranian Liaison Office, which is used as a local headquarters by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards; according to Iranian sources, five US helicopters land on the roof of the office building around 4 a.m. local time, and US soldiers break down doors, snatch up the five Iranians, and take away boxes of documents and computer equipment. The second raid, at the Irbil airport, ends differently, with US troops finding themselves confronting unfriendly Kurdish troops. Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari says, “A massacre was avoided at the last minute.” No Iranians are detained as part of the airport raid. The two raids are part of a new US intelligence and military operation launched in December 2006 against Iranians allegedly providing assistance to Iraqi Shi’ite insurgents. Iran’s al-Quds Brigade, which provides funding and military training to other Shi’ite revolutionary groups such as Lebanon’s Hezbollah, is the primary target of the US offensive. “Throughout Iraq, operations are currently ongoing against individuals suspected of being closely tied to activities targeting Iraqi and Coalition forces,” the headquarters of the US-led Multi-National Force-Iraq says in a prepared statement. The month before, two senior Iranians of al-Quds, Brigadier General Mohsen Chirazi and Colonel Abu Amad Davari, were captured in similar raids (see December 21-29, 2006), and freed shortly thereafter. [Alalam News, 1/11/2007; Washington Post, 1/12/2007; Newswire, 1/12/2007] US officials dismiss the raids as “routine.” [Reuters, 1/11/2007] Months later, a Kurdish government official says that the real target of the raids was not the Iranian liaison officials, but commanders of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, who were openly visiting Kurdish government officials. The commanders were not captured (see Early April, 2007). [Associated Press, 4/6/2007]
Rhetorical Escalation - Bush says that he has ordered US forces to “seek out and destroy the networks” arming and training US enemies, an indirect reference to Iran (see January 10, 2007). Joining Bush in the rhetorical escalation is General Peter Pace, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who charges that Iran is “complicit” in providing weapons designed to kill American troops: “We will do all we need to do to defend our troops in Iraq by going after the entire network regardless of where those people come from.” The Iranian Liaison Office was opened with the approval of the Iraqi Kurds, who maintain a near-autonomous region in northern Iraq with the support of the US. Iran wants to upgrade the office to a formal consulate. US forces did not inform their Iraqi allies of the raids on the office beforehand; the raids may well disrupt Kurdish and Iraqi government attempts to deepen ties with the Iranian government. “This is a very, very dangerous thing,” says Zebari. The Iranian government has protested the raids, and the capture of their five officials, through Iraqi and Swiss diplomats to the United Nations (Switzerland represents US interests in Iran). Tehran insists that all five captured Iranians are diplomats, a claim rejected by US and Iraqi officials. [Washington Post, 1/12/2007] The State Department will assert, without presenting proof, that the Iranians are part of a much larger effort by Iran to support the Iraqi Shi’ite militias and insurgents. Apparently the United States’ charges that the Iranians are not diplomats rest on a bureaucratic foible: the five Iranians had applied for diplomatic accreditation, but their paperwork had not been fully processed. The Kurdish government were treating them as if they were accredited. Iran insists that the five are legitimate diplomats regardless of paperwork, and that by capturing them, the US is violating the Vienna Conventions and other international diplomatic regulations. But the US routinely ignores such laws in both Iraq and Afghanistan, causing criticism from human rights organizations and legal experts around the globe. Human Rights Watch researcher John Sifton says, “The US hasn’t articulated the legal grounds under which it detains ‘combatants’. They regularly conflate criminal terrorism, innocent civilians, and real combatants on the ground, and throw them all into the same pot. The vagueness of the war on terror has supplied the soil under which all this has flourished.” [Agence France-Presse, 1/25/2007; Asia Times, 3/31/2007]
Eventual Release of Some Captives - Months later, the US will release some of the captured Iranians (see November 6-9, 2007).
Entity Tags: al-Quds Brigade, US Department of Defense, Peter Pace, US Department of State, Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, Mohsen Chirazi, Human Rights Watch, Iranian Revolutionary Guards, Abu Amad Davari, Coalition for the International Criminal Court (CICC), Condoleezza Rice, George W. Bush, Hezbollah, John Sifton, Iranian Liaison Office, Hoshyar Zebari, United Nations
Timeline Tags: US confrontation with Iran
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