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US Torture: Voices from the Black Sites

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.”8

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 public.”9

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 were withdrawn.

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.”10 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 than before.”

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.11

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.

4.

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 injury.

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 steps…had 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.”12

  1. 8

    See David Johnston, “At a Secret Interrogation, Dispute Flared Over Tactics,” The New York Times, September 10, 2006.

  2. 9

    See Mark Hosenball, “How Good Is Abu Zubaydah’s Information?,” Newsweek Web Exclusive, April 27, 2002.

  3. 10

    See Johnston, “At a Secret Interrogation, Dispute Flared Over Tactics.”

  4. 11

    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.

  5. 12

    See Jan Crawford Greenburg, Howard L. Rosenberg, and Ariane de Vogue, “Sources: Top Bush Advisors Approved ‘Enhanced Interrogation,’” ABC News, April 9, 2008.

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