US Torture: Voices from the Black
International Committee of the
Red Cross report -
on treatment of detainees in CIA custody (February 2007)
by Mark Danner
New York Review of Books, April
We think time and elections will cleanse
our fallen world but they will not. Since November, George W.
Bush and his administration have seemed to be rushing away from
us at accelerating speed, a dark comet hurtling toward the ends
of the universe. The phrase "War on Terror"-the signal
slogan of that administration, so cherished by the man who took
pride in proclaiming that he was "a wartime president"-has
acquired in its pronouncement a permanent pair of quotation marks,
suggesting something questionable, something mildly embarrassing:
something past. And yet the decisions that that president made,
especially the monumental decisions taken after the attacks of
September 11, 2001-decisions about rendition, surveillance, interrogation-lie
strewn about us still, unclaimed and unburied, like corpses freshly
How should we begin to talk about this?
Perhaps with a story. Stories come to us newborn, announcing their
intent: Once upon a time In the beginning From such signs we learn
how to listen to what will come. Consider:
I woke up, naked, strapped to a bed, in
a very white room. The room measured approximately 4m x 4m [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.
A man, unnamed, naked, strapped to a bed,
and for the rest, the elemental facts of space and of time, nothing
The storyteller is very much a man of
our time. Early on in the "War on Terror," in the spring
of 2002, he entered the dark realm of "the disappeared"-and
only four and a half years later, when he and thirteen other "high-value
detainees" arrived at Guantánamo and told their stories
in interviews with representatives of the International Committee
of the Red Cross (reported in the confidential document listed
above) did he emerge partly into the light. Indeed, he is a famous
man, though his fame has followed a certain path, peculiar to
our modern age: jihadist, outlaw, terrorist, "disappeared."
An international celebrity whose name,
one of them anyway, is instantly recognizable. How many people
have their lives described by the president of the United States
in a nationally televised speech?
Within months of September the 11th, 2001,
we captured a man known as Abu Zubaydah. We believe that Zubaydah
was a senior terrorist leader and a trusted associate of Osama
bin Laden. Zubaydah was severely wounded during the firefight
that brought him into custody-and he survived only because of
the medical care arranged by the CIA.
A dramatic story: big news. Wounded in
a firefight in Faisalabad, Pakistan, shot in the stomach, groin,
and thigh after jumping from a roof in a desperate attempt to
escape. Massive bleeding. Rushed to a military hospital in Lahore.
A trauma surgeon at Johns Hopkins awakened by a late-night telephone
call from the director of central intelligence and flown in great
secrecy to the other side of the world.
The wounded man barely escapes death,
slowly stabilizes, is shipped secretly to a military base in Thailand.
Thence to another base in Afghanistan. Or was it Afghanistan?
We don't know, not definitively. For from
the moment of his dramatic capture, on March 28, 2002, the man
known as Abu Zubaydah slipped from one clandestine world, that
of al-Qaeda officials gone to ground in the days after September
11, into another, a "hidden global internment network"
intended for secret detention and interrogation and set up by
the Central Intelligence Agency under authority granted directly
by President George W. Bush in a "memorandum of understanding"
signed on September 17, 2001.
This secret system included prisons on
military bases around the world, from Thailand and Afghanistan
to Morocco, Poland, and Romania-"at various times,"
reportedly, "sites in eight countries"-into which, at
one time or another, more than one hundred prisonersdisappeared.
The secret internment network of "black sites" had its
own air force and its own distinctive "transfer procedures,"
which were, according to the writers of the International Committee
of the Red Cross (ICRC) report, "fairly standardised in most
The detainee would be photographed, both
clothed and naked prior to and again after transfer. A body cavity
check (rectal examination) would be carried out and some detainees
alleged that a suppository (the type and the effect of such suppositories
was unknown by the detainees), was also administered at that moment.
The detainee would be made to wear a diaper
and dressed in a tracksuit. Earphones would be placed over his
ears, through which music would sometimes be played. He would
be blindfolded with at least a cloth tied around the head and
black goggles. In addition, some detainees alleged that cotton
wool was also taped over their eyes prior to the blindfold and
goggles being applied.
The detainee would be shackled by [the]
hands and feet and transported to the airport by road and loaded
onto a plane. He would usually be transported in a reclined sitting
position with his hands shackled in front. The journey timesranged
from one hour to over twenty-four to thirty hours. The detainee
was not allowed to go to the toilet and if necessary was obliged
to urinate and defecate into the diaper.
One works the imagination trying to picture
what it was like in this otherworldly place: blackness in place
of vision. Silence-or "sometimes" loud music-in place
of sounds of life. Shackles, together sometimes with gloves, in
place of the chance to reach, touch, feel. One senses metal on
wrist and ankle, cotton against eyes, cloth across face, shit
and piss against skin. On "some occasions detainees were
transported lying flat on the floor of the planewith their hands
cuffed behind their backs," causing them "severe pain
and discomfort," as they were moved from one unknown location
For his part, Abu Zubaydah-thirty-one
years old, born Zein al-Abedeen Mohammad Hassan, in Riyadh, Saudi
Arabia, though coming of Palestinian stock, from the Gaza Strip-alleged
that during one transfer operation the blindfold was tied very
tightly resulting in wounds to his nose and ears. He does not
know how long the transfer took but, prior to the transfer, he
reported being told by his detaining authorities that he would
be going on a journey that would last twenty-four to thirty hours.
A long trip then: perhaps to Guantánamo?
Or Morocco? Then back, apparently, to Thailand. Or was it Afghanistan?
He thinks the latter but can't be sure.
All classified, compartmentalized, deeply,
deeply secret. And yet what is "secret" exactly? In
our recent politics, "secret" has become an oddly complex
word. From whom was "the secret bombing of Cambodia"
secret? Not from the Cambodians, surely. From whom was the existence
of these "secret overseas facilities" secret? Not from
the terrorists, surely. From Americans, presumably. On the other
hand, as early as 2002, anyone interested could read on the front
page of one of the country's leading newspapers:
US Decries Abuse but Defends Interrogations:
"Stress and Duress" Tactics Used on Terrorism Suspects
Held in Secret Overseas Facilities
Deep inside the forbidden zone at the
US-occupied Bagram air base in Afghanistan, around the corner
from the detention center and beyond the segregated clandestine
military units, sits a cluster of metal shipping containers protected
by a triple layer of concertina wire. The containers hold the
most valuable prizes in the war on terrorism-captured al Qaeda
operatives and Taliban commanders.
"If you don't violate someone's human
rights some of the time, you probably aren't doing your job,"
said one official who has supervised the capture and transfer
of accused terrorists. "I don't think we want to be promoting
a view of zero tolerance on this. That was the whole problem for
a long time with the CIA."
This lengthy article, by Dana Priest and
Barton Gellman, appeared in The Washington Post on December 26,
2002, only months after the capture of Abu Zubaydah. A similarly
lengthy report followed a few months later on the front page of
The New York Times ("Interrogations: Questioning Terror Suspects
in a Dark and Surreal World"). The blithe, aggressive tone
of the officials quoted-"We don't kick the [expletive] out
of them. We send them to other countries so they can kick the
[expletive] out of them"-bespeaks a very different political
temper, one in which a prominent writer in a national newsmagazine
could headline his weekly column "Time to Think About Torture,"
noting in his subtitle that in this "new worldsurvival might
well require old techniques that seemed out of the question."
So there are secrets and secrets. And
when, on a bright sunny day two years ago, just before the fifth
anniversary of the September 11 attacks, the President of the
United States strode into the East Room of the White House and
informed the high officials, dignitaries, and specially invited
September 11 survivor families gathered in rows before him that
the United States government had created a dark and secret universe
to hold and interrogate captured terrorists-or, in the President's
words, "an environment where they can be held secretly [and]
questioned by experts"-he was not telling a secret but instead
converting a known and well-reported fact into an officially confirmed
In addition to the terrorists held at
Guantánamo, a small number of suspected terrorist leaders
and operatives captured during the war have been held and questioned
outside the United States, in a separate program operated by the
Central Intelligence Agency. Many specifics of this program, including
where these detainees have been held and the details of their
confinement, cannot be divulged.
We knew that Abu Zubaydah had more information
that could save innocent lives, but he stopped talking. And so
the CIA used an alternative set of procedures. These procedures
were designed to be safe, to comply with our laws, our Constitution,
and our treaty obligations. The Department of Justice reviewed
the authorized methods extensively and determined them to be lawful.
I cannot describe the specific methods used-I think you understand
I was watching the live broadcast that
day and I remember the uncanny feeling that came over me as, having
heard the President explain the virtues of this "alternative
set of procedures," I watched him stare straight into the
camera and with fierce concentration and exaggerated emphasis
intone once more: "The United States does not torture. It's
against our laws, and it's against our values. I have not authorized
it-and I will not authorize it." He had convinced himself,
I thought, of the truth of what he said.
This speech, though not much noticed at
the time, will stand, I believe, as George W. Bush's most important:
perhaps the only "historic" speech he ever gave. In
telling his version of Abu Zubaydah's story, and versions of the
stories of Khaled Shaik Mohammed and others, the President took
hold of many things that were already known but not acknowledged
and, by means of the alchemical power of the leader's voice, transformed
them into acknowledged facts. He also, in his fervent defense
of his government's "alternative set of procedures"
and his equally fervent denials that they constituted "torture,"
set out before the country and the world the dark moral epic of
the Bush administration, in the coils of whose contradictions
we find ourselves entangled still. Later that month, Congress,
facing the midterm elections, duly passed the President's Military
Commissions Act of 2006, which, among other things, sought to
shelter from prosecution those who had applied the "alternative
set of procedures" and had done so, said the President, "in
a thorough and professional way."
At the same time, perhaps unwittingly,
President Bush made it possible that day for those on whom the
"alternative set of procedures" were performed eventually
to speak. Even as the President set out before the country his
version of what had happened to Abu Zubaydah and the others and
argued for its necessity, he announced that he would bring him
and thirteen of his fellow "high-value detainees" out
of the dark world of the disappeared and into the light. Or, rather,
into the twilight: the fourteen would be transferred to Guantánamo,
the main acknowledged offshore prison, where-"as soon as
Congress acts to authorize the military commissions I have proposed"-they
"can face justice." In the meantime, though, the fourteen
would be "held in a high-security facility at Guantánamo"
and the International Committee of the Red Cross would be "advised
of their detention, and will have the opportunity to meet with
A few weeks later, from October 6 to 11
and then from December 4 to 14, 2006, officials of the International
Committee of the Red Cross-among whose official and legally recognized
duties is to monitor compliance with the Geneva Conventions and
to supervise treatment of prisoners of war-traveled to Guantánamo
and began interviewing "each of these persons in private"
in order to produce a report that would "provide a description
of the treatment and material conditions of detention of the fourteen
during the period they were held in the CIA detention program,"
periods ranging "from 16 months to almost four and a half
As the ICRC interviewers informed the
detainees, their report was not intended to be released to the
public but, "to the extent that each detainee agreed for
it to be transmitted to the authorities," to be given in
strictest secrecy to officials of the government agency that had
been in charge of holding them-in this case the Central Intelligence
Agency, to whose acting general counsel, John Rizzo, the report
was sent on February 14, 2007. Indeed, though almost all of the
information in the report has names attached, and though annexes
contain extended narratives drawn from interviews with three of
the detainees, whose names are used, we do find a number of times
in the document variations of this formula: "One of the detainees
who did not wish his name to be transmitted to the authorities
alleged"-suggesting that at least one and perhaps more than
one of the fourteen, who are, after all, still "held in a
high-security facility at Guantánamo," worried about
repercussions that might come from what he had said.
In virtually all such cases, the allegations
made are echoed by other, named detainees; indeed, since the detainees
were kept "in continuous solitary confinement and incommunicado
detention" throughout their time in "the black sites,"
and were kept strictly separated as well when they reached Guantánamo,
the striking similarity in their stories, even down to small details,
would seem to make fabrication extremely unlikely, if not impossible.
"The ICRC wishes to underscore," as the writers tell
us in the introduction, "that the consistency of the detailed
allegations provided separately by each of the fourteen adds particular
weight to the information provided below."
The result is a document-labeled "confidential"
and clearly intended only for the eyes of those senior American
officials to whom the CIA's Mr. Rizzo would show it-that tells
a certain kind of story, a narrative of what happened at "the
black sites" and a detailed description, by those on whom
they were practiced, of what the President of the United States
described to Americans as an "alternative set of procedures."
It is a document for its time, literally "impossible to put
down," from its opening page-
Contents_Introduction_1. Main Elements
of the CIA Detention Program_1.1 Arrest and Transfer_1.2 Continuous
Solitary Confinement and Incommunicado Detention_1.3 Other Methods
of Ill-treatment_1.3.1 Suffocation by water_1.3.2 Prolonged Stress
Standing_1.3.3 Beatings by use of a collar
1.3.4 Beating and kicking_1.3.5 Confinement
in a box_1.3.6 Prolonged nudity_1.3.7 Sleep deprivation and use
of loud music_1.3.8 Exposure to cold temperature/cold water_1.3.9
Prolonged use of handcuffs and shackles_1.3.10 Threats_1.3.11
Forced shaving_1.3.12 Deprivation/restricted provision of solid
1.4 Further elements of the detention
regime -to its stark and unmistakable conclusion:
The allegations of ill-treatment of the
detainees indicate that, in many cases, the ill-treatment to which
they were subjected while held in the CIA program, either singly
or in combination, constituted torture. In addition, many other
elements of the ill-treatment, either singly or in combination,
constituted cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.
Such unflinching clarity, from the body
legally charged with overseeing compliance with the Geneva Conventions-in
which the terms "torture" and "cruel, inhuman,
and degrading treatment" are accorded a strictly defined
legal meaning-couldn't be more significant, or indeed more welcome
after years in which the President of the United States relied
on the power of his office either to redefine or to obfuscate
what are relatively simple words. "This debate is occurring,"
as President Bush told reporters in the Rose Garden the week after
he delivered his East Room speech,
because of the Supreme Court's ruling
that said that we must conduct ourselves under the Common Article
III of the Geneva Convention. And that Common Article III says
that, you know, there will be no outrages upon human dignity.
It's like-it's very vague. What does that mean, "outrages
upon human dignity"?
In allowing Abu Zubaydah and the other
thirteen "high-value detainees" to tell their own stories,
this report manages to answer, with great power and authority,
the President's question.
We return to a man, Abu Zubaydah, a Palestinian
who, in his thirty-one years, has lived a life shaped by conflicts
on the edge of the American consciousness: the Gaza Strip, where
his parents were born; Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, where he apparently
first saw the light of day; Soviet-occupied Afghanistan, where
he took part in the jihad against the Russians, perhaps with the
help, directly or indirectly, of American dollars; then, post-Soviet
Afghanistan, where he ran al-Qaeda logistics and recruitment,
directing aspiring jihadists to the various training camps, placing
them in cells after they'd been trained. The man has been captured
now: traced to a safe house in Faisalabad, gravely wounded by
three shots from an AK-47. He is rushed to the Faisalabad hospital,
then to the military hospital at Lahore. When he opens his eyes
he finds at his bedside an American, John Kiriakou of the CIA:
I asked him in Arabic what his name was.
And he shook his head. And I asked him again in Arabic. And then
he answered me in English. And he said that he would not speak
to me in God's language. And then I said, "That's okay. We
know who you are."
And then he asked me to smother him with
a pillow. And I said, "No, no. We have plans for you."
Kiriakou and the "small group of
CIA and FBI people who just kept 24/7 eyes on him" knew that
in Abu Zubaydah they had "the biggest fish that we had caught.
We knew he was full of informationand we wanted to get it."
According to Kiriakou, on a table in the house where they found
him "Abu Zubaydah and two other men were building a bomb.
The soldering [iron] was still hot.
And they had plans for a school on the
table." The plans, Kiriakou told ABC News correspondent Brian
Ross, were for the British school in Lahore. Their prisoner, they
knew, was "very current. On top of the current threat information."
With the help of the American trauma surgeon,
Abu Zubaydah's captors nursed him back to health. He was moved
at least twice, first, reportedly, to Thailand; then, he believes,
to Afghanistan, probably Bagram. In a safe house in Thailand the
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 2 to 3 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 fifteen minutes twenty-four
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.
A naked man chained in a small, very cold,
very white room is for several days strapped to a bed, then for
several weeks shackled to a chair, bathed unceasingly in white
light, bombarded constantly with loud sound, deprived of food;
and whenever, despite cold, light, noise, hunger, the hours and
days force his eyelids down, cold water is sprayed in his face
to force them up.
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
Here, however, we find a different standard:
the Working Group says, for example, that "Sleep Deprivation"
is "not to exceed 4 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.
But what place? Abu Zubaydah was not only
the "biggest fish that we had caught" but the first
big fish. According to Kiriakou, Zubaydah, as he recovered, had
"wanted to talk about current events. He told us a couple
of times that he had nothing personal against the United States.
He said that 9/11 was necessary. That although he didn't think
that there would be such a massive loss of life, his view was
that 9/11 was supposed to be a wake-up call to the United States."
In those initial weeks of healing, before
the white room and the chair and the light, Zubaydah seems to
have talked freely with his captors, and during this time, according
to news reports, FBI agents began to question him using "standard
interview techniques," ensuring that he was bathed and his
bandages changed, urging improved medical care, and trying to
"convince him they knew details of his activities."
(They showed him, for example, a "box of blank audiotapes
which they said contained recordings of his phone conversations,
but were actually empty.") According to this account, Abu
Zubaydah, in the initial days before the white room, "began
to provide intelligence insights into Al Qaeda."
Or did he? "How Good Is Abu Zubaydah's
Information?" asked a Newsweek "Web exclusive"
on April 27, 2002, less than a month after his capture. The extreme
secrecy and isolation in which Abu Zubaydah was being held, at
a location unknown to him and to all but a tiny handful of government
officials, did not prevent his "information" being leaked
from that unknown place directly into the American press-in the
cause, apparently, of a bureaucratic struggle between the FBI
and the CIA.
Even Americans who were not following
closely the battling leaks from Zubaydah's interrogation would
have found their lives affected, whether they knew it or not,
by what was happening in that faraway white room; for about the
same time the Bush administration saw fit to issue two "domestic
terrorism warnings," derived from Abu Zubaydah's "tips"-about
"possible attacks on banks or financial institutions in the
Northeastern United States" and possible "attacks on
US supermarkets and shopping malls." As Newsweek learned
from a "senior US official," presumably from the FBI-whose
"standard interview techniques" had produced that information
and the "domestic terrorism warnings" based on it-the
prisoner was "providing detailed information for the 'fight
against terrorism.'" At the same time, however, "US
intelligence sources"-presumably CIA-"wonder whether
he's trying to mislead investigators or frighten the American
For his part, John Kiriakou, the CIA man,
told ABC News that in those early weeks Zubaydah was "willing
to talk about philosophy, [but] he was unwilling to give us any
actionable intelligence." The CIA officers had the "sweeping
classified directive signed by Mr. Bush," giving them authority
to "capture, detain and interrogate terrorism suspects,"
and Zubaydah was "a test case for an evolving new role,...in
which the agency was to act as jailer and interrogator of terrorism
suspects." Eventually a team from the CIA's Counterterrorism
Center was "sent in from Langley" and the FBI interrogators
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.
They began, apparently, by shackling him
to the chair, and applying light, noise, and water to keep him
awake. After two or three weeks of this Abu Zubaydah, still naked
and shackled, was allowed to lie on the bare floor and to "sleep
a little." He was also given solid food-rice-for the first
time. Eventually a doctor, a woman, came and examined him, and
"asked why I was still naked." The next day he was "provided
with orange clothes to wear." The following day, however,
"guards came into my cell. 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."
What follows is a confusing period, in
which harsh treatment alternated with more lenient. Zubaydah was
mostly naked and cold, "sometimes with the air conditioning
adjusted so that, one official said, Mr. Zubayah seemed to turn
blue." Sometimes clothing would be brought, then removed
the next day. "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." At one point he was supplied with
a mattress, at another he was "allowed some tissue paper
to use when going to toilet on the bucket." A month passed
with no questioning. "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 twenty-four 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
It is difficult to know whether these
alterations in attitude and procedure were intended, meant to
keep the detainee off-guard, or 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. The forerunners of some of the theories being applied
in these interrogations, involving sensory deprivation, disorientation,
guilt and shame, so-called "learned helplessness," and
the need to induce "the debility-dependence-dread state,"
can be found in CIA documents dating back nearly a half-century,
such as this from a notorious "counterintelligence interrogation"
manual of the early 1960s:
The circumstances of detention are arranged
to enhance within the subject his feelings of being cut off from
the known and the reassuring, and of being plunged into the strange.
Control of the source's environment permits the interrogator to
determine his diet, sleep pattern and other fundamentals. Manipulating
these into irregularities, so that the subject becomes disorientated,
is very likely to create feelings of fear and helplessness.
A later version of the same manual emphasizes
the importance of guilt: "If the 'questioner' can intensify
these guilt feelings, it will increase the subject's anxiety and
his urge to cooperate as a means of escape." Isolation and
sensory deprivation will "induce regression" and the
"loss of those defenses most recently acquired by civilized
man," while the imposition of "stress positions"
that in effect force the subject "to harm himself" will
produce a guilt leading to an irresistible desire to cooperate
with his interrogators.
Two and a half months after Abu Zubaydah
woke up strapped to a bed in the white room, the interrogation
resumed "with more intensity than before" :
Two black wooden boxes were brought into
the room outside my cell. One was tall, slightly higher than me
and narrow. Measuring perhaps in area [3 1/2 by 2 1/2 feet by
6 1/2 feet high]. The other was shorter, perhaps only [3 1/2 feet]
in height. I was taken out of my cell and one of the interrogators
wrapped a towel around my neck, they then used it to swing me
around and smash me repeatedly against the hard walls of the room.
I was also repeatedly slapped in the face.
I was then put into the tall black box
for what I think was about one and a half to two hours. The box
was totally black on the inside as well as the outside. They put
a cloth or cover over the outside of the box to cut out the light
and restrict my air supply. It was difficult to breathe. When
I was let out of the box I saw that one of the walls of the room
had been covered with plywood sheeting. From now on it was against
this wall that I was then smashed with the towel around my neck.
I think that the plywood was put there to provide some absorption
of the impact of my body. The interrogators realized that smashing
me against the hard wall would probably quickly result in physical
One is reminded here that Abu Zubaydah
was not alone with his interrogators, that everyone in that white
room-guards, interrogators, doctor-was in fact linked directly,
and almost constantly, to senior intelligence officials on the
other side of the world. "It wasn't up to individual interrogators
to decide, 'Well, I'm gonna slap him. Or I'm going to shake him.
Or I'm gonna make him stay up for 48 hours," said John Kiriakou.
Each one of these stepshad to have the
approval of the Deputy Director for Operations. So before you
laid a hand on him, you had to send in the cable saying, "He's
uncooperative. Request permission to do X." And that permission
would come. The cable traffic back and forth was extremely specific.
And the bottom line was these were very unusual authorities that
the agency got after 9/11. No one wanted to mess them up. No one
wanted to get in trouble by going overboard.
No one wanted to be the guy who accidentally
did lasting damage to a prisoner.
Smashing against hard walls before Zubaydah
enters the tall black coffin-like box; sudden appearance of plywood
sheeting affixed to the wall for him to be smashed against when
he emerges. Perhaps the deputy director of operations, pondering
the matter in his Langley, Virginia, office, suggested the plywood?
Or perhaps it was someone higher up? Shortly
after Abu Zubaydah was captured, according to ABC News, CIA officers
"briefed high-level officials in the National Security Council's
Principals Committee," including Vice President Dick Cheney,
National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, and Attorney General
John Ashcroft, who "then signed off on the [interrogation]
plan." At the time, the spring and summer of 2002, the administration
was devising what some referred to as a "golden shield"
from the Justice Department-the legal rationale that was embodied
in the infamous "torture memorandum," written by John
Yoo and signed by Jay Bybee in August 2002, which claimed that
for an "alternative procedure" to be considered torture,
and thus illegal, it would have to cause pain of the sort "that
would be associated with serious physical injury so severe that
death, organ failure, or permanent damage resulting in a loss
of significant body function will likely result." The "golden
shield" presumably would protect CIA officers from prosecution.
Still, Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet regularly
brought directly to the attention of the highest officials of
the government specific procedures to be used on specific detainees-"whether
they would be slapped, pushed, deprived of sleep or subject to
simulated drowning"-in order to seek reassurance that they
were legal. According to the ABC report, the briefings of principals
were so detailed and frequent that "some of the interrogation
sessions were almost choreographed." At one such meeting,
John Ashcroft, then attorney general, reportedly demanded of his
colleagues, "Why are we talking about this in the White House?
History will not judge this kindly."
We do not know if the plywood appeared
in Zubaydah's white room thanks to orders from his interrogators,
from their bosses at Langley, or perhaps from their superiors
in the White House. We don't know the precise parts played by
those responsible for "choreographing" the "alternative
set of procedures." We do know from several reports that
at a White House meeting in July 2002 top administration lawyers
gave the CIA "the green light" to move to the "more
aggressive techniques" that were applied to him, separately
and in combination, during the following days:
After the beating I was then placed in
the small box. They placed a cloth or cover over the box to cut
out all light and restrict my air supply. As it was not high enough
even to sit upright, I had to crouch down. It was very difficult
because of my wounds. The stress on my legs held in this position
meant my wounds both in the leg and stomach became very painful.
I think this occurred about 3 months after my last operation.
It was always cold in the room, but when the cover was placed
over the box it made it hot and sweaty inside. The wound on my
leg began to open and started to bleed. I don't know how long
I remained in the small box, I think I may have slept or maybe
I was then dragged from the small box,
unable to walk properly and put on what looked like a hospital
bed, and strapped down very tightly with belts. A black cloth
was then placed over my face and the interrogators used a mineral
water bottle to pour water on the cloth so that I could not breathe.
After a few minutes the cloth was removed and the bed was rotated
into an upright position. The pressure of the straps on my wounds
was very painful. I vomited. The bed was then again lowered to
horizontal position and the same torture carried out again with
the black cloth over my face and water poured on from a bottle.
On this occasion my head was in a more backward, downwards position
and the water was poured on for a longer time. I struggled against
the straps, trying to breathe, but it was hopeless. I thought
I was going to die. I lost control of my urine. Since then I still
lose control of my urine when under stress.
I was then placed again in the tall box.
While I was inside the box loud music was played again and somebody
kept banging repeatedly on the box from the outside. I tried to
sit down on the floor, but because of the small space the bucket
with urine tipped over and spilt over me. I was then taken out
and again a towel was wrapped around my neck and I was smashed
into the wall with the plywood covering and repeatedly slapped
in the face by the same two interrogators as before.
I was then made to sit on the floor with
a black hood over my head until the next session of torture began.
The room was always kept very cold.
This went on for approximately one week.
During this time the whole procedure was repeated five times.
On each occasion, apart from one, I was suffocated once or twice
and was put in the vertical position on the bed in between. On
one occasion the suffocation was repeated three times. I vomited
each time I was put in the vertical position between the suffocation.
During that week I was not given any solid
food. I was only given Ensure to drink. My head and beard were
I collapsed and lost consciousness on
several occasions. Eventually the torture was stopped by the intervention
of the doctor.
I was told during this period that I was
one of the first to receive these interrogation techniques, so
no rules applied. It felt like they were experimenting and trying
out techniques to be used later on other people.
All evidence from the ICRC report suggests
that Abu Zubaydah's informant was telling him the truth: he was
the first, and, as such, a guinea pig. Some techniques are discarded.
The coffin-like black boxes, for example, barely large enough
to contain a man, one six feet tall and the other scarcely more
than three feet, which seem to recall the sensory-deprivation
tanks used in early CIA-sponsored experiments, do not reappear.
Neither does the "long-time sitting"-the weeks shackled
to a chair-that Abu Zubaydah endured in his first few months.
Nudity, on the other hand, is a constant
in the ICRC report, as are permanent shackling, the "cold
cell," and the unceasing loud music or noise. Sometimes there
is twenty-four-hour light, sometimes constant darkness. Beatings,
also, and smashing against the walls seem to be favored procedures;
often, the interrogators wear gloves.
In later interrogations new techniques
emerge, of which "long-time standing" and the use of
cold water are notable. Walid Bin Attash, a Yemeni national involved
with planning the attacks on the US embassies in Africa in 1998
and on the USS Cole in 2000, was captured in Karachi on April
On arrival at the place of detention in
Afghanistan I was stripped naked. I remained naked for the next
two weeks. I was put in a cell measuring approximately [3 1/2
by 6 1/2 feet]. I was kept in a standing position, feet flat on
the floor, but with my arms above my head and fixed with handcuffs
and a chain to a metal bar running across the width of the cell.
The cell was dark with no light, artificial or natural.
During the first two weeks I did not receive
any food. I was only given Ensure and water to drink. A guard
would come and hold the bottle for me while I drank. The toilet
consisted of a bucket in the cell. I was not allowed to clean
myself after using the bucket. Loud music was playing twenty-four
hours each day throughout the three weeks I was there.
This "forced standing," with
arms shackled above the head, a favorite Soviet technique ( stoika
) that seems to have become standard procedure after Abu Zubaydah,
proved especially painful for Bin Attash, who had lost a leg fighting
After some time being held in this position
my stump began to hurt so I removed my artificial leg to relieve
the pain. Of course my good leg then began to ache and soon started
to give way so that I was left hanging with all my weight on my
wrists. I shouted for help but at first nobody came. Finally,
after about one hour a guard came and my artificial leg was given
back to me and I was again placed in the standing position with
my hands above my head. After that the interrogators sometimes
deliberately removed my artificial leg in order to add extra stress
to the position.
By his account, Bin Attash was kept in
this position for two weeks-"apart [from] two or three times
when I was allowed to lie down." Though "the methods
used were specifically designed not to leave marks," the
cuffs eventually "cut into my wrists and made wounds. When
this happened the doctor would be called." At a second location,
where Bin Attash was again stripped naked and placed "in
a standing position with my arms above my head and fixed with
handcuffs and a chain to a metal ring in the ceiling," a
doctor examined his lower leg every day-"using a tape measure
for signs of swelling."
I do not remember for exactly how many
days I was kept standing, but I think it was about ten days. During
the standing I was made to wear a diaper. However, on some occasions
the diaper was not replaced and so I had to urinate and defecate
over myself. I was washed down with cold water everyday.
Cold water was used on Bin Attash in combination
with beatings and the use of a plastic collar, which seems to
have been a refinement of the towel that had been looped around
Abu Zubaydah's neck:
Every day for the first two weeks I was
subjected to slaps to my face and punches to my body during interrogation.
This was done by one interrogator wearing gloves.
Also on a daily basis during the first
two weeks a collar was looped around my neck and then used to
slam me against the walls of the interrogation room. It was also
placed around my neck when being taken out of my cell for interrogation
and was used to lead me along the corridor. It was also used to
slam me against the walls of the corridor during such movements.
Also on a daily basis during the first
two weeks I was made to lie on a plastic sheet placed on the floor
which would then be lifted at the edges. Cold water was then poured
onto my body with buckets. I would be kept wrapped inside the
sheet with the cold water for several minutes. I would then be
taken for interrogation.
Bin Attash notes that in the "second
place of detention"-where he was put in the diaper-"they
were rather more sophisticated than in Afghanistan because they
had a hose-pipe with which to pour the water over me."
A clear method emerges from these accounts,
based on forced nudity, isolation, bombardment with noise and
light, deprivation of sleep and food, and repeated beatings and
"smashings"-though from this basic model one can see
the method evolve, from forced sitting to forced standing, for
example, and acquire new elements, like immersion in cold water.
Khaled Shaik Mohammed, the key planner
of the September 11 attacks who was captured in Rawalpindi on
March 1, 2003-nine of the fourteen "high-value detainees"
were apprehended in Pakistan-and, after a two-day detention in
Pakistan during which he alleges that a "CIA agentpunched
him several times in the stomach, chest and face [and]...threw
him on the floor and trod on his face," was sent to Afghanistan
using the standard "transfer procedures." ("My
eyes were covered with a cloth tied around my head and with a
cloth bag pulled over it. A suppository was inserted into my rectum.
I was not told what the suppository was for.") In Afghanistan,
he was stripped and placed in a small cell, where he "was
kept in a standing position with my hands cuffed and chained to
a bar above my head. My feet were flat on the floor." After
about an hour,
I was taken to another room where I was
made to stand on tiptoes for about two hours during questioning.
Approximately thirteen persons were in the room. These included
the head interrogator (a man) and two female interrogators, plus
about ten muscle guys wearing masks. I think they were all Americans.
From time to time one of the muscle guys would punch me in the
chest and stomach.
These "full-dress" interrogations-where
the detainee stands naked, on tiptoe, amid a crowd of thirteen
people, including "ten muscle guys wearing masks"-were
periodically interrupted by the detainee's removal to a separate
room for additional procedures:
Here cold water from buckets was thrown
onto me for about forty minutes. Not constantly as it took time
to refill the buckets. After which I would be taken back to the
On one occasion during the interrogation
I was offered water to drink, when I refused I was again taken
to another room where I was made to lie [on] the floor with three
persons holding me down. A tube was inserted into my anus and
water poured inside. Afterwards I wanted to go to the toilet as
I had a feeling as if I had diarrhoea. No toilet access was provided
until four hours later when I was given a bucket to use.
Whenever I was returned to my cell I was
always kept in the standing position with my hands cuffed and
chained to a bar above my head.
After three days in what he believes was
Afghanistan, Mohammed was again dressed in a tracksuit, blindfold,
hood, and headphones, and shackled and placed aboard a plane "sitting,
leaning back, with my hands and ankles shackled in a high chair."
He quickly fell asleep-"the first proper sleep in over five
days"-and remains unsure of how long the journey took. On
arrival, however, he realized he had come a long way:
I could see at one point there was snow
on the ground. Everybody was wearing black, with masks and army
boots, like Planet-X people. I think the country was Poland. I
think this because on one occasion a water bottle was brought
to me without the label removed. It had [an] e-mail address ending
He was stripped and put in a small cell
"with cameras where I was later informed by an interrogator
that I was monitored 24 hours a day by a doctor, psychologist
and interrogator." He believes the cell was underground because
one had to descend steps to reach it. Its walls were of wood and
it measured about ten by thirteen feet.
It was in this place, according to Mohammed,
that "the most intense interrogation occurred, led by three
experienced CIA interrogators, all over 65 years old and all strong
and well trained." They informed him that they had received
the "green light from Washington" to give him "
a hard time." "They never used the word 'torture' and
never referred to 'physical pressure,' only to ' a hard time.
' I was never threatened with death, in fact I was told that they
would not allow me to die, but that I would be brought to the
' verge of death and back again.'"
I was kept for one month in the cell in
a standing position with my hands cuffed and shackled above my
head and my feet cuffed and shackled to a point in the floor.
Of course during this month I fell asleep on some occasions while
still being held in this position. This resulted in all my weight
being applied to the handcuffs around my wrist resulting in open
and bleeding wounds. [Scars consistent with this allegation were
visible on both wrists as well as on both ankles.] Both my feet
became very swollen after one month of almost continual standing.
For interrogation, Mohammed was taken
to a different room. The sessions last for as long as eight hours
and as short as four.
The number of people present varied greatly
from one day to another. Other interrogators, including women,
were also sometimes present. A doctor was usually also present.
If I was perceived not to be cooperating I would be put against
a wall and punched and slapped in the body, head and face. A thick
flexible plastic collar would also be placed around my neck so
that it could then be held at the two ends by a guard who would
use it to slam me repeatedly against the wall. The beatings were
combined with the use of cold water, which was poured over me
using a hose-pipe. The beatings and use of cold water occurred
on a daily basis during the first month.
Like Abu Zubaydah; like Abdelrahim Hussein
Abdul Nashiri, a Saudi who was captured in Dubai in October 2002,
Mohammed was also subjected to waterboarding, by his account on
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 water-boarding as I struggled
in the panic of not being able to breath. Female interrogators
were also presentand 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.
As with Zubaydah, the harshest sessions
of interrogation involved the "alternative set of procedures"
used in sequence and in combination, one technique intensifying
the effects of the others:
The beatings became worse and I had cold
water directed at me from a hose-pipe by guards while I was still
in my cell. The worst day was when I was beaten for about half
an hour by one of the interrogators. My head was banged against
the wall so hard that it started to bleed. Cold water was poured
over my head. This was then repeated with other interrogators.
Finally I was taken for a session of water boarding. The torture
on that day was finally stopped by the intervention of the doctor.
I was allowed to sleep for about one hour and then put back in
my cell standing with my hands shackled above my head.
Reading the ICRC report, one becomes eventually
somewhat inured to the "alternative set of procedures"
as they are described: the cold and repeated violence grows numbing.
Against this background, the descriptions of daily life of the
detainees in the black sites, in which interrogation seems merely
a periodic heightening of consistently imposed brutality, become
more striking. Here again is Mohammed:
After each session of torture I was put
into a cell where I was allowed to lie on the floor and could
sleep for a few minutes. However, due to shackles on my ankles
and wrists I was never able to sleep very well.The toilet consisted
of a bucket in the cell, which I could use on request [he was
shackled standing, his hands affixed to the ceiling], but I was
not allowed to clean myself after toilet during the first month.
During the first month I was not provided with any food apart
from on two occasions as a reward for perceived cooperation. I
was given Ensure to drink every 4 hours. If I refused to drink
then my mouth was forced open by the guard and it was poured down
my throat by force. At the time of my arrest I weighed 78kg. After
one month in detention I weighed 60kg.
I wasn't given any clothes for the first
month. Artificial light was on 24 hours a day, but I never saw
Q : Mr. President,...this is a moral question:
Is torture ever justified?
President George W. Bush : Look, I'm going
to say it one more time. Maybe I can be more clear. The instructions
went out to our people to adhere to law. That ought to comfort
you. We're a nation of law. We adhere to laws. We have laws on
the books. You might look at these laws, and that might provide
comfort for you.
-Sea Island, Georgia, June 10, 2004
Abu Zubaydah, Walid Bin Attash, Khaled
Shaik Mohammed-these men almost certainly have blood on their
hands, a great deal of blood. There is strong reason to believe
that they had critical parts in planning and organizing terrorist
operations that caused the deaths of thousands of people. So in
all likelihood did the other twelve "high-value detainees"
whose treatment while secretly confined by agents of the US government
is described with such gruesome particularity in the report of
the International Committee of the Red Cross. From everything
we know, many or all of these men deserve to be tried and punished-to
be "brought to justice," as President Bush, in his speech
to the American people on September 6, 2006, vowed they would
It seems unlikely that they will be brought
to justice anytime soon. In mid-January, Susan J. Crawford, who
had been appointed by the Bush administration to decide which
Guantánamo detainees should be tried before military commissions,
declined to refer to trial Mohammed al-Qahtani, who was to have
been among the September 11 hijackers but who had been turned
back by immigration officials at Orlando International Airport.
After he was captured in Afghanistan in late 2002, Qahtani was
imprisoned in Guantánamo and interrogated by Department
of Defense intelligence officers. Crawford, a retired judge and
former general counsel of the army, told TheWashington Post that
she had concluded that Qahtani's "treatment met the legal
definition of torture."
The techniques they used were all authorized,
but the manner in which they applied them was overly aggressive
and too persistent.
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.
Qahtani's interrogation at Guantánamo,
accounts of which have appeared in Time and The Washington Post,
was intense and prolonged, stretching for fifty consecutive days
beginning in the late fall of 2002, and led to his hospitalization
on at least two occasions. Some of the techniques used, including
longtime sitting in restraints, prolonged exposure to cold, loud
music, and noise, and sleep deprivation, recall those described
in the ICRC report. If the "coercive" and "abusive"
interrogation of Qahtani makes trying him impossible, one may
doubt that any of the fourteen "high-value detainees"
whose accounts are given in this report will ever be tried and
sentenced in an internationally recognized and sanctioned legal
In the case of men who have committed
great crimes, this seems to mark perhaps the most important and
consequential sense in which "torture doesn't work."
The use of torture deprives the society whose laws have been so
egregiously violated of the possibility of rendering justice.
Torture destroys justice. Torture in effect relinquishes this
sacred right in exchange for speculative benefits whose value
is, at the least, much disputed. John Kiriakou, the CIA officer
who witnessed part of Zubaydah's interrogation, described to Brian
Ross of ABC News what happened after Zubaydah was waterboarded:
He resisted. He was able to withstand
the water boarding for quite some time. And by that I mean probably
30, 35 seconds. And a short time afterwards, in the next day or
so, he told his interrogator that Allah had visited him in his
cell during the night and told him to cooperate because his cooperation
would make it easier on the other brothers who had been captured.
And from that day on he answered every question just like I'm
sitting here speaking to you. The threat information that he provided
disrupted a number of attacks, maybe dozens of attacks.
This claim, echoed by President Bush in
his speech, is a matter of fierce dispute. Bush's public version,
indeed, was much more carefully circumscribed: among other things,
that Zubaydah's information confirmed the alias ("Muktar")
of Khaled Shaik Mohammed, and thus helped lead to his capture;
that it helped lead, indirectly, to the capture of Ramzi bin al-Shibh,
a Yemeni who was another key figure in planning the September
11 attacks; and that it "helped us stop another planned attack
within the United States."
At least some of this information, apparently,
came during the early, noncoercive interrogation led by FBI agents.
Later, according to the reporter Ron Suskind, Zubaydah named countless
targets inside the US to stop the pain, all of them immaterial.
Indeed, think back to the sudden slew of alerts in the spring
and summer of 2002 about attacks on apartment buildings, banks,
shopping malls and, of course, nuclear plants.
Suskind is only the most prominent of
a number of reporters with strong sources in the intelligence
community who argue that the importance of the intelligence Zubaydah
supplied, and indeed his importance within al-Qaeda, have been
grossly and systematically exaggerated by government officials,
from President Bush on down.
Though it seems highly unlikely that Zubaydah's
information stopped "maybe dozens of attacks," as Kiriakou
said, the plain fact is that it is impossible, until a thorough
investigation can be undertaken of the interrogations, to evaluate
fully and fairly what intelligence the United States actually
received in return for all the severe costs, practical, political,
legal, and moral, the country incurred by instituting a policy
of torture. There is a sense in which the entire debate over what
Zubaydah did or did not provide, and the attacks the information
might or might not have prevented-a debate driven largely by leaks
by fiercely self-interested parties-itself reflects an unvoiced
acceptance, on both sides, of the centrality of the mythical "ticking-bomb
scenario" so beloved of those who argue that torture is necessary,
and so prized by the writers of television dramas like 24. That
is, the argument centers on whether Zubaydah's interrogation directly
"disrupted a number of attacks."
Perhaps unwittingly, Kiriakou is most
revealing about the intelligence value of interrogation of "high-value
detainees" when he discusses what the CIA actually got from
What he was able to provide was information
on the al-Qaeda leadership. For example, if bin Laden were to
do X, who would be the person to undertake such and such an operation?
"Oh, logically that would be Mr. Y." And we were able
to use that information to kind of get an idea of how al-Qaeda
operated, how it came about conceptualizing its operations, and
how it went about tasking different cells with carrying out operations.
His value was, it allowed us to have somebody who we could pass
ideas onto for his comments or analysis.
This has the ring of truth, for this is
how intelligence works-by the patient accruing of individual pieces
of information, by building a picture that will help officers
make sense of the other intelligence they receive. Could such
"comments or analysis" from a high al-Qaeda operative
eventually help lead to the disruption of "a number of attacks,
maybe dozens of attacks"? It seems possible-but if it did,
the chain of cause and effect might not be direct, certainly not
nearly so direct as the dramatic scenarios in newspapers and television
dramas-and presidential speeches-suggest. The ticking bomb, about
to explode and kill thousands or millions; the evil captured terrorist
who alone has the information to find and disarm it; the desperate
intelligence operative, forced to do whatever is necessary to
gain that information-all these elements are well known and emotionally
powerful, but where they appear most frequently is in popular
entertainment, not in white rooms in Afghanistan.
There is a reverse side, of course, to
the "ticking bomb" and torture: pain and ill-treatment,
by creating an unbearable pressure on the detainee to say something,
anything, to make the pain stop, increase the likelihood that
he will fabricate stories, and waste time, or worse. At least
some of the intelligence that came of the "alternative set
of procedures," like Zubaydah's supposed "information"
about attacks on shopping malls and banks, seems to have led the
US government to issue what turned out to be baseless warnings
to Americans. Khaled Shaik Mohammed asserted this directly in
his interviews with the ICRC. "During the harshest period
of my interrogation," he said,
I gave a lot of false information in order
to satisfy what I believed the interrogators wished to hear in
order to make the ill-treatment stop. I'm sure that the false
information I was forced to inventwasted a lot of their time and
led to several false red-alerts being placed in the US.
For all the talk of ticking bombs, very
rarely, if ever, have officials been able to point to information
gained by interrogating prisoners with "enhanced techniques"
that enabled them to prevent an attack that had reached its "operational
stage" (that is, had gone beyond reconnoitering and planning).
Still, widespread perception that such techniques have prevented
attacks, actively encouraged by the President and other officials,
has been politically essential in letting the administration carry
on with these policies after they had largely become public. Polls
tend to show that a majority of Americans are willing to support
torture only when they are assured that it will "thwart a
terrorist attack." Because of the political persuasiveness
of such scenarios it is vital that a future inquiry truly investigate
claims that attacks have been prevented.
As I write, it is impossible to know what
benefits-in intelligence, in national security, in disrupting
al-Qaeda-the President's approval of use of an "alternative
set of procedures" might have brought to the United States.
What we can say definitively is that the decision has harmed American
interests in quite demonstrable ways. Some are practical and specific:
for example, FBI agents, many of them professionals with great
experience and skill in interrogation, were withdrawn, apparently
after objections by the bureau's leaders, when it was decided
to use the "alternative set of procedures" on Abu Zubaydah.
Extensive leaks to the press, from both officials supportive of
and critical of the "alternative set of procedures,"
undermined what was supposed to be a highly secret program; those
leaks, in large part a product of the great controversy the program
provoked within the national security bureaucracy, eventually
helped make it unsustainable.
Finally, this bureaucratic weakness led
officials of the CIA to destroy, apparently out of fear of eventual
exposure and possible prosecution, a trove of as many as ninety-two
video recordings that had been made of the interrogations, all
but two of them of Abu Zubaydah. Whether or not the prosecutor
investigating those actions determines that they were illegal,
it is hard to believe that the recordings did not include valuable
intelligence, which was sacrificed, in effect, for political reasons.
These recordings doubtless could have
played a critical part as well in the effort to determine what
benefits, if any, the program brought to the security of the United
Far and away the greatest damage, though,
was legal, moral, and political. In the wake of the ICRC report
one can make several definitive statements:
1. Beginning in the spring of 2002 the
United States government began to torture prisoners. This torture,
approved by the President of the United States and monitored in
its daily unfolding by senior officials, including the nation's
highest law enforcement officer, clearly violated major treaty
obligations of the United States, including the Geneva Conventions
and the Convention Against Torture, as well as US law.
2. The most senior officers of the US
government, President George W. Bush first among them, repeatedly
and explicitly lied about this, both in reports to international
institutions and directly to the public. The President lied about
it in news conferences, interviews, and, most explicitly, in speeches
expressly intended to set out the administration's policy on interrogation
before the people who had elected him.
3. The US Congress, already in possession
of a great deal of information about the torture conducted by
the administration-which had been covered widely in the press,
and had been briefed, at least in part, from the outset to a select
few of its members-passed the Military Commissions Act of 2006
and in so doing attempted to protect those responsible from criminal
penalty under the War Crimes Act.
4. Democrats, who could have filibustered
the bill, declined to do so-a decision that had much to do with
the proximity of the midterm elections, in the run-up to which,
they feared, the President and his Republican allies might gain
advantage by accusing them of "coddling terrorists."
One senator summarized the politics of the Military Commissions
Act with admirable forthrightness:
Soon, we will adjourn for the fall, and
the campaigning will begin in earnest. And there will be 30-second
attack ads and negative mail pieces, and we will be criticized
as caring more about the rights of terrorists than the protection
of Americans. And I know that the vote before us was specifically
designed and timed to add more fuel to that fire.
Senator Barack Obama was only saying aloud
what every other legislator knew: that for all the horrified and
gruesome exposés, for all the leaked photographs and documents
and horrific testimony, when it came to torture in the September
11 era, the raw politics cut in the other direction. Most politicians
remain convinced that still fearful Americans-given the choice
between the image of 24 's Jack Bauer, a latter-day Dirty Harry,
fantasy symbol of untrammeled power doing "everything it
takes" to protect them from that ticking bomb, and the image
of weak liberals "reading Miranda rights to terrorists"-will
choose Bauer every time. As Senator Obama said, after the bill
he voted against had passed, "politics won today."
5. The political damage to the United
States' reputation, and to the "soft power" of its constitutional
and democratic ideals, has been, though difficult to quantify,
vast and enduring. In a war that is essentially an insurgency
fought on a worldwide scale-which is to say, a political war,
in which the attitudes and allegiances of young Muslims are the
critical target of opportunity-the United States' decision to
use torture has resulted in an enormous self-administered defeat,
undermining liberal sympathizers of the United States and convincing
others that the country is exactly as its enemies paint it: a
ruthless imperial power determined to suppress and abuse Muslims.
By choosing to torture, we freely chose to become the caricature
they made of us.
In the wake of the attacks of September
11, 2001, Cofer Black, the former head of the CIA's Counterterrorism
Center and a famously colorful hard-liner, appeared before the
Senate Intelligence Committee and made the most telling pronouncement
of the era: "All I want to say is that there was 'before'
9/11 and 'after' 9/11. After 9/11 the gloves come off." In
the days after the attacks this phrase was everywhere. Columnists
quoted it, television commentators flaunted it, interrogators
at Abu Ghraib used it in their cables. ("The gloves are coming
off gentlemen regarding these detainees, Col Boltz has made it
clear that we want these individuals broken." )
The gloves came off: four simple words.
And yet they express a complicated thought. For if the gloves
must come off, that means that before the attacks the gloves were
on. There is something implicitly exculpatory in the image, something
that made it particularly appealing to officials of an administration
that endured, on its watch, the most lethal terrorist attack in
the country's history. If the attack succeeded, it must have had
to do not with the fact that intelligence was not passed on or
that warnings were not heeded or that senior officials did not
focus on terrorism as a leading threat. It must have been, at
least in part, because the gloves were on-because the post-Watergate
reforms of the 1970s, in which Congress sought to put limits on
the CIA, on its freedom to mount covert actions with "deniability"
and to conduct surveillance at home and abroad, had illegitimately
circumscribed the President's power and thereby put the country
dangerously at risk. It is no accident that two of the administration's
most powerful officials, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, served
as young men in very senior positions in the Nixon and Ford administrations.
They had witnessed firsthand the gloves going on and, in the weeks
after the September 11 attacks, they argued powerfully that it
was those limitations-and, it was implied, not a failure to heed
warnings-that had helped lead, however indirectly, to the country's
vulnerability to attack.
And so, after a devastating and unprecedented
attack, the gloves came off. Guided by the President and his closest
advisers, the United States transformed itself from a country
that, officially at least, condemned torture to a country that
practiced it. And this fateful decision, however much we may want
it to, will not go away, any more than the fourteen "high-value
detainees," tortured and thus unprosecutable, will go away.
Like the grotesque stories in the ICRC report, the decision sits
before us, a toxic fact, polluting our political and moral life.
Since the inauguration of President Obama,
the previous administration's "alternative procedures"
have acquired a prominence in the press, particularly on cable
television, that they rarely achieved when they were actually
being practiced on detainees. This is especially the case with
waterboarding, which according to the former director of the CIA
has not been used since 2003. On his first day in office, President
Obama issued executive orders that stopped the use of these techniques
and provided for task forces to study US government policies on
rendition, detention, and interrogation, among others.
Meantime, Democratic leaders in Congress,
who have been in control since 2006, have at last embarked on
serious investigations. Senators Dianne Feinstein and Christopher
Bond, the chair and ranking member of the Intelligence Committee,
have announced a "review of the CIA's detention and interrogation
program," which would study, among other questions, "how
the CIA created, operated, and maintained its detention and interrogation
program," make "an evaluation of intelligence information
gained through the use of enhanced and standard interrogation
techniques," and investigate "whether the CIA accurately
described the detention and interrogation program to other parts
of the US government"-including, notably, "the Senate
Intelligence Committee." The hearings, according to reports,
are unlikely to be public.
In February, Senator Patrick Leahy, chairman
of the Judiciary Committee, called for the establishment of what
he calls a "nonpartisan commission of inquiry," better
known as a "Truth and Reconciliation Committee," to
investigate "how our detention policies and practices, from
Guantanamo to Abu Ghraib, have seriously eroded fundamental American
principles of the rule of law." Since Senator Leahy's commission
is intended above all to investigate and make public what was
done-"in order to restore our moral leadership," as
he said, "we must acknowledge what was done in our name"-he
would offer grants of immunity to public officials in exchange
for their truthful testimony. He seeks not prosecution and justice
but knowledge and exposure: "We cannot turn the page until
we have read the page."
Many officials of human rights organizations,
who have fought long and valiantly to bring attention and law
to bear on these issues, strongly reject any proposal that includes
widespread grants of immunity. They urge investigations and prosecutions
of Bush administration officials. The choices are complicated
and painful. From what we know, officials acted with the legal
sanction of the US government and under orders from the highest
political authority, the elected president of the United States.
Political decisions, made by elected officials, led to these crimes.
But political opinion, within the government and increasingly,
as time passed, without, to some extent allowed those crimes to
persist. If there is a need for prosecution there is also a vital
need for education. Only a credible investigation into what was
done and what information was gained can begin to alter the political
calculus around torture by replacing the public's attachment to
the ticking bomb with an understanding of what torture is and
what is gained, and lost, when the United States reverts to it.
President Obama, while declaring that
"nobody's above the law, and if there are clear instances
of wrongdoingpeople should be prosecuted," has also expressed
his strong preference for "looking forward" rather than
"looking backwards." One can understand the sentiment
but even some of the decisions his administration has already
made-concerning state secrecy, for example-show the extent to
which he and his Department of Justice will be haunted by what
his predecessor did.
Consider the uncompromising words of Eric
Holder, the attorney general, who in reply to a direct question
at his confirmation hearings had declared, "waterboarding
is torture." There is nothing ambiguous about this statement-nor
about the equally blunt statements of several high Bush administration
officials, including the former vice-president and the director
of the CIA, confirming unequivocally that the administration had
ordered and directed that prisoners under its control be waterboarded.
We are all living, then, with a terrible contradiction, an enduring
one, and it is not subtle, any more than the accounts in the ICRC
report are subtle. "It was," as Mr. Cheney said of waterboarding,
"a no-brainer for me." Now Abu Zubaydah and his fellow
detainees have stepped forward out of the darkness to link hands
with the former vice-president and testify to his truthfulness.
March 12, 2009
See "Restoring Trust in the Justice
System: The Senate Judiciary Committee's Agenda in the 111th Congress,"
2009 Marver Bernstein Lecture, Georgetown University, February
See "President Discusses Creation
of Military Commissions to Try Suspected Terrorists," September
6, 2006, East Room, White House, available at cfr.org.
See, for the authoritative account,
Dana Priest, "CIA Holds Terror Suspects in Secret Prisons,"
The Washington Post, November 2, 2005.
See Jonathan Alter, "Time to Think
About Torture: It's a New World, and Survival May Well Require
Old Techniques That Seemed Out of the Question," Newsweek,
November 5, 2001. See also Raymond Bonner, Don Van Natta Jr.,
and Amy Waldman, "Interrogations: Questioning Terror Suspects
in a Dark and Surreal World," The New York Times, March 9,
"President Bush's News Conference,"
The New York Times, September 15, 2006.
From "CIA-Abu Zubaydah. Interview
with John Kiriakou." This is the rough and undated transcript
of a video interview conducted by Brian Ross of ABC News, apparently
in December 2007, available at abcnews.go.com. Quotations from
this document have been edited very slightly for clarity. See
also Richard Esposito and Brian Ross, "Coming in from the
Cold: CIA Spy Calls Waterboarding Necessary But Torture,"
ABC News, December 10, 2007.
See "Working Group Report on Detainee
Interrogations in the Global War on Terrorism: Assessment of Legal,
Historical, Policy, and Operational Considerations," April
4, 2003, in Mark Danner, Torture and Truth: America, Abu Ghraib,
and the War on Terror (New York Review Books, 2004), pp. 190-192.
A great many of these documents, collected in this book and elsewhere,
were leaked in the wake of the publication of the Abu Ghraib photographs,
and have been public since late spring or early summer of 2004.
See David Johnston, "At a Secret
Interrogation, Dispute Flared Over Tactics," The New York
Times, September 10, 2006.
See Mark Hosenball, "How Good
Is Abu Zubaydah's Information?," Newsweek Web Exclusive,
April 27, 2002.
See Johnston, "At a Secret Interrogation,
Dispute Flared Over Tactics."
See KUBARK Counterintelligence Interrogation-July
1963 and Human Resource Exploitation Training Manual-1983, both
archived at "Prisoner Abuse: Patterns from the Past,"
National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 122. For
the historical roots of the "alternative set of procedures"
see Alfred W. McCoy, A Question of Torture: CIA Interrogation,
from the Cold War to the War on Terror (Metropolitan, 2006); and
Jane Mayer, The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on
Terror Turned into a War on American Ideals (Doubleday, 2008),
especially pp. 167-174. See also my "The Logic of Torture,"
The New York Review, June 24, 2004, and Torture and Truth.
See Jan Crawford Greenburg, Howard
L. Rosenberg, and Ariane de Vogue, "Sources: Top Bush Advisors
Approved 'Enhanced Interrogation,'" ABC News, April 9, 2008.
The bracketed comment appears in the
See Bob Woodward, "Detainee Tortured,
Says US Official: Trial Overseer Cites 'Abusive' Methods Against
9/11 Suspect," The Washington Post, January 14, 2009.
See Ron Suskind, "The Unofficial
Story of the al-Qaeda 14," Time, September 10, 2006. See
also Suskind's The One Percent Doctrine: Deep Inside America's
Pursuit of Its Enemies Since 9/11 (Simon and Schuster, 2006),
pp. 99-101, and Mayer, The Dark Side, pp. 175-177.
See "Statement on Military Commission
Legislation: Remarks by Senator Barack Obama," September
See my Torture and Truth, p. 33.
International War Crmes