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US Torture: Voices from the Black Sites

ICRC Report on the Treatment of Fourteen “High Value Detainees” in CIA Custody

by the International Committee of the Red Cross
43 pp., February 2007

We need to get to the bottom of what happened—and why—so we make sure it never happens again.1
—Senator Patrick Leahy, Chairman, Senate Judiciary Committee


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 dead.

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 but whiteness.

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.2

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 prisoners…disappeared.3 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 cases”:

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 times…ranged 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 plane…with their hands cuffed behind their backs,” causing them “severe pain and discomfort,” as they were moved from one unknown location to another.

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 world…survival might well require old techniques that seemed out of the question.”4

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 truth:

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 why….

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.”

  1. 1

    See “Restoring Trust in the Justice System: The Senate Judiciary Committee’s Agenda in the 111th Congress,” 2009 Marver Bernstein Lecture, Georgetown University, February 9, 2009.

  2. 2

    See “President Discusses Creation of Military Commissions to Try Suspected Terrorists,” September 6, 2006, East Room, White House, available at cfr.org.

  3. 3

    See, for the authoritative account, Dana Priest, “CIA Holds Terror Suspects in Secret Prisons,” The Washington Post, November 2, 2005.

  4. 4

    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, 2003.

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