When CIA interrogators in a Thailand prison sent a cable to agency headquarters recounting that they had been slamming Abu Zubaydah, a captured terrorism suspect, against a wall, they emphasized that they were obeying instructions to take steps to prevent his injury, like putting a rolled-up towel behind his neck, and described the practice in detached terms.
“Subject was walled with the question, ‘What is it that you do not want us to know?’” reported a cable from Aug. 5, 2002, part of a trove of newly disclosed documents about the agency’s now-defunct “enhanced interrogation” program. “Subject continued to deny that he had any information.”
From the perspective of Zubaydah – whom interrogators eventually conceded had no additional information, contrary to their suspicions at the time – the experience felt far different.
“He kept banging me against the wall,” Zubaydah told his lawyer in 2008, in a narrative that has now been declassified. “Given the intensity of the banging that was strongly hitting my head I fell down on the floor with each banging. I felt for few instants that I was unable to see anything, let alone the short chains that prevented me from standing tall. And every time I fell he would drag me with the towel which caused bleeding in my neck.”
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Batches of newly disclosed documents about the Central Intelligence Agency’s defunct torture program are providing new details about its practices of slamming terrorism suspects into walls, confining them in coffinlike boxes and subjecting them to waterboarding – as well as internal disputes over whether two psychologists who designed the program were competent.
The release of the newly available primary documents, which include information not discussed in a 500-page executive summary of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s investigation into the CIA torture program that was released in 2014, comes at the same time as an urgent legal battle is unfolding over the potential fate of the still-classified, 6,700-page full version of that report.
Lawyers for two detainees who were subjected to the CIA’s most extreme “enhanced” interrogation techniques, Zubaydah and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, the suspected mastermind of the deadly October 2000 attack on the U.S. destroyer Cole, are asking federal judges to order the executive branch to deposit a copy of the full report with the judiciary to ensure that the Trump administration and congressional Republicans do not destroy it. But the Obama administration, in its waning hours, is fighting that idea.
Against that backdrop, the two sets of newly available documents present a vivid contrast in perspectives, as the CIA cables recount in bloodless bureaucratese the infliction of techniques Zubaydah recalled experiencing in harrowing terms.
For example, when interrogators at a CIA black site prison in Thailand confined Zubaydah in a cramped box on Aug. 5, 2002, they observed to headquarters that he showed “signs of distress,” according to one of the cables from a group the government declassified as part of a lawsuit against the psychologists who designed the program. The lawsuit is being brought by detainees represented by lawyers including from the American Civil Liberties Union. The ACLU provided the documents to The New York Times.
Zubaydah remembered the box experience in more vivid terms.
“I felt I was going to explode from bending my legs and my back and from being unable to spread them not even for short instants,” he wrote to his lawyers in 2008, noting that the box was so short and tight he could not sit up or change positions. “The very strong pain made me scream unconsciously.”
Other CIA cables also clinically recount applying torture methods like the suffocation technique known as waterboarding. (Previously disclosed documents and the Senate report executive summary had discussed Zubaydah’s waterboarding in extensive detail, including that he was subjected to the treatment 83 times in one month.) The contemporaneous cables describe him crying, but generally use bland descriptions, like: “Water treatment was applied.”
For Zubaydah, it felt as if he was “dying.” “They kept pouring water and concentrating on my nose and my mouth until I really felt I was drowning and my chest was just about to explode from the lack of oxygen.”
Zubaydah also described experiencing what he thought were persistent health consequences of his torture, including severe headaches and seizures. Many other detainees experienced lasting harm after harsh treatment in U.S. custody, including post-traumatic stress disorder, a recent New York Times investigation found.
Another group of documents produced in discovery from that lawsuit, first provided by the ACLU to The Washington Post, showed that in mid-2003, about a year after the agency hired the two contract psychologists, James Mitchell and J. Bruce Jessen, to design a torture regimen for Zubaydah, unidentified CIA employees raised sharp questions about their ethics and competence to judge whether the techniques they had orchestrated were harmful or effective.
While other documents, including the Senate report summary, have shown that there were internal concerns about relying so heavily on the two psychologists, the newly available documents add texture to that history. For example, one official wrote in June 2003, “if some untoward outcome is later to be explained, their sole use in this role will be indefensible.”
A lawyer for the psychologists, Henry F. Schuelke III, declined to comment.
The newly available files supplement the publicly available historical record about the torture program, intensifying questions about whether the public will ever see the full fruits of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s investigation – the result of years of combing and contextualizing millions of pages of government documents by committee staff members.
Democrats raised fears last month that the incoming administration of President-elect Donald Trump, who has voiced support for the outlawed interrogation methods detailed in the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence report, could cause all copies of the document to be “hidden indefinitely, or destroyed.”
In 2015, after Republicans took control of the Senate and the Intelligence Committee, they asked President Barack Obama to return all copies of the full report, which former Democratic senators have said contains “volumes of new information” that were not made public when a 500-page executive summary was disclosed in 2014.
Obama did not comply with that request, and last month he notified the Senate that he was including a copy of the full, still-classified report in his presidential records that would be deposited at the National Archives. But Michel Paradis, a lawyer for al-Nashiri, argued that Obama’s decision about his presidential records was insufficient, because Trump might seek to withdraw the report from the archives and destroy it.
Last week, in response to a request by al-Nashiri’s lawyers to secure a copy of the full report in the hands of the judiciary, Judge Royce C. Lamberth of U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, ordered the Obama administration to provide a copy to the court’s security officer. (Lawyers for Zubaydah are separately making the same request.)
But in court filings, the Obama administration asked Lamberth to reconsider, making two arguments: Preserving it would interfere with congressional-executive branch relations, and giving a copy to the court was unnecessary in part because of Obama’s archived copy. It also suggested that the executive branch would appeal if the judge did not change his mind.
On Thursday afternoon, Lamberth refused, saying in a terse, two-page order that the court was “obliged” to protect al-Nashiri’s possible right to access the report and saying that nothing had changed since he issued the original, “crystal clear” order. He threatened to hold the executive branch in contempt if it did not comply, although he did not set a specific deadline.
The CIA cables revealed other potentially important new details. For example, detainees at CIA prisons have long claimed that they were injected with unknown drugs against their consent, which had powerful effects on them – something medical experts have decried as unethical. While previously released documents from 2004 said that CIA prisoners could be sedated as a last resort, a newly released cable describes a different practice.
In April 2002, CIA personnel at an interrogation site wrote that they planned to transport a detainee – apparently Zubaydah – “in a state of pharmaceutical unconsciousness to decrease potential security concerns as well as to maximize the intended effect of disorienting” him. It is unclear from the documents whether the CIA followed through.
The new information is consistent with the conclusion of the Senate committee’s torture report that the CIA’s use of enhanced interrogation techniques was not effective in acquiring intelligence or gaining cooperation from detainees.
On Aug. 18, 2002, after 15 days during which Zubaydah was repeatedly waterboarded, kept for hours in small boxes, pushed into walls and threatened, the interrogators sent a cable to headquarters stating their conclusions. The prisoner “has not provided significant actionable info beyond previously provided details,” they wrote.