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US Torture: Voices from the Black Sites

Donald Rumsfeld; drawing by Pancho

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 them.”

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 years.”

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—

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 food
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”?5

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.”6

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 information…and 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 interrogation began:

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 in 2002. 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.”7 Here we are in a different place.

  1. 5

    President Bush’s News Conference,” The New York Times, September 15, 2006.

  2. 6

    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.

  3. 7

    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.

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