Guantánamo captive accused in USS Cole bombing suffers from PTSD, depression

Abd al Rahim al Nashiri is seen here during his military commissions arraignment Nov. 9, 2011 in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Nashiri is charged with the attack on the USS Cole, resulting in the death of 17 sailors. If convicted, Nashri could face the death penalty.
Abd al Rahim al Nashiri is seen here during his military commissions arraignment Nov. 9, 2011 in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Nashiri is charged with the attack on the USS Cole, resulting in the death of 17 sailors. If convicted, Nashri could face the death penalty. MCT

A Guantánamo prisoner who was waterboarded by the CIA suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and depression but is sane enough to face a capital terror trial on charges of orchestrating al-Qaida’s 2000 suicide bombing of the USS Cole, according to a report filed at the war court.

A board of U.S. military mental health experts found Abd al Rahim al Nashiri, 48, competent to stand trial in March. The judge in the case, Army Col. James L. Pohl, ordered the one-page report unsealed May 8th, but it has yet to be released to the general public.

The Miami Herald learned of the findings from two people who had read it.

Significantly, the so-called short form does not specify whether Nashiri’s mental health disorders can be attributed to the nearly four years that the CIA held him at secret overseas prisons where, according to declassified accounts, he was waterboarded and interrogated at the point of a revving power drill and racked pistol.

His defense lawyer predicted he would use the diagnosis to underpin court filings protesting Nashiri’s treatment at Guantánamo at his next hearing, scheduled for June 11.

“We have alleged literally since the beginning of the case that Mr. al Nashiri suffers from severe chronic functionally untreated PTSD,” Nashiri’s civilian, Pentagon-paid attorney Richard Kammen said Friday. “And in our view the short form confirms all of that.”

The military mental health board met the Saudi captive for “two or three days” to conduct the mental health exam, Kammen said. They compiled a longer, more detailed mental health assessment. But it’s classified and only defense attorneys can read it.

The short form, provided to prosecutors as well as defense lawyers, said Nashiri suffers from both “Post Traumatic Stress Disorder” and a “Major Depressive Disorder.”

Additionally, the mental health board said he has “recurrent moderate chronic narcissistic antisocial and histrionic personality features” — findings that The Miami Herald presented to Dr. Elspeth Ritchie, a retired colonel who served as the Army’s chief psychiatrist.

The diagnosis could become significant in the punishment phase of the capital case — if the secret portion of the psychiatric assessment says the CIA interrogations caused the Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. “Especially if we caused the PTSD through the torture of him,” Ritchie said. “If I were the defense, I would use the PTSD as a mitigating circumstance” to spare him the death penalty.

Prosecutors allege that Nashiri was the architect of the Oct. 12, 2000, bombing in the port of Aden, Yemen, by two men who pulled a bomb laden skiff alongside the Cole and blew it up. Seventeen U.S. sailors died, dozens more were wounded and the warship was crippled.

In the short term, the diagnosis might also help defense lawyers argue that shackling and hooding Nashiri for his trip to court re-traumatizes him to the point of harming his ability to work with his attorneys.

Shackles and hoods, used as security measures for the trip from the prison camp to the war court, could be “triggers for PTSD,” Ritchie said. “Certainly it could be causing anxiety. How substantially that interferes with the relationship is going to be what the judge needs to decide.”

The diagnosis of “recurrent moderate chronic narcissistic antisocial and histrionic personality features,” Ritchie said, means in more common terms that the psychiatrist and two clinical psychologists who wrote the report found him “flamboyant,” and “self involved” and concluded he had “done bad things.” Soon after he got to Guantánamo, Nashiri boasted to a panel of U.S. officers that he had been a merchant in the holy city of Mecca in his native Saudi Arabia and achieved great wealth by age 19. “I was the youngest millionaire in the world,” he said.

Dr. Stephen Xenakis, a retired brigadier general who specialized in psychiatry, said the PTSD diagnosis “could be seen as a basis for in fact not giving him a death sentence.” If he’s convicted, the doctor said, the broader diagnosis of a “major depressive disorder” could also give defense lawyers grounds to argue against execution.

It provides a clinical explanation for behavior in court that appears to lack remorse or regret for the attack, and could counter prison camp testimony that he has a bad record of defying his guards.

It’s not known whether the prison is medicating Nashiri. But Xenakis, who has interviewed Guantánamo detainees but not treated them, said the diagnosis would allow military mental health professionals to prescribe antidepressants.

“It’s public information that he was waterboarded. And therefore it is very likely that his PTSD was either triggered by that initial trauma or was serious aggravated by it,” said Xenakis, who spoke by phone this week from Israel, where he was working as a consultant. “We don’t know what happened before he was apprehended and detained,” he added. But interrogation at gun and drill point would certainly “qualify as traumatic stressors. It’s very reasonable to attribute his PTSD to those stressors.”

Nashiri arrived at Guantánamo in 2006 and has been confined to a secret prison complex run by an elite guard force called Task Force Platinum.

The U.S. forces there “have no expertise in running jails filled with traumatized people,” Nashiri’s lawyer said, noting that the prison has not been able to negotiate a resolution to a long-term, widespread hunger strike that by Friday had Navy medical workers force-feeding 35 captives, none of them charged or convicted of crimes.

So far, the judge has refused to intervene in Nashiri’s prison conditions. But Kammen said the diagnosis reinforced his legal motion that argues moving the captive to and from his cell in belly chains was re-traumatizing him, and complicating his relationship with his Pentagon defense lawyers.

Prosecutors argue that the judge, Pohl, should not intrude in the decisions of how the prison is run.

More details

About Abd al Rahim al Nashiri

Born: Jan. 5, 1965 Mecca, Saudi Arabia

Captured: October 2002 United Arab Emirates

Profession: Told a 2007 military review that he was a merchant in Mecca who by 19 was a millionaire. CIA profile released by the White House in 2006 as al Qaeda Operations Chief in Arabian Peninsula at time of his capture

Paramilitary background: CIA profile said he fought in Chechnya and Tajikistan and trained at the Khaldan camp in Afghanistan in 1992.

Audio of U.S. military’s 2007 status hearing for Abd al Rahim al Nashiri, with white noise replacing description of torture at

About the USS Cole

The 8,300-ton warship is based, or homeported, as the Navy calls it, in Norfolk, Va. It was commissioned, a formal ceremony, at Port Everglades in 1996.

The ship is named for Marine Sgt. Darrell S. Cole, a bugler turned machine-gunner, who was killed in the Battle of Iwo Jima in World War II and posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor.

It was on a refueling stop in October 2000 when two al Qaida suicide bombers drove a bomb-laden ship into the side, killing themselves and ultimately claiming the lives of 17 Americans. They were:

Hull Maintenance Technician Second Class Kenneth Eugene Clodfelter, 21, of Mechanicsville, Va.

Electronics Technician Chief Petty Officer Richard Costelow, 35, of Morrisville, Pa.

Mess Management Specialist Seaman Lakeina Monique Francis, 19, of Woodleaf, N.C.

Information Systems Technician Timothy Lee Gauna, 21, of Rice, Texas

Signalman Seaman Cherone Louis Gunn, 22, of Rex, Ga.

Seaman James Rodrick McDaniels, 19, of Norfolk, Va.

Engineman Second Class Marc Ian Nieto, 24, of Fond du Lac, Wis.

Electronics Warfare Technician Second Class Ronald Scott Owens, 24, of Vero Beach, Fla.

Seaman Lakiba Nicole Palmer, 22, of San Diego, Calif.

Engineman Fireman Joshua Langdon Parlett, 19, of Churchville, Md.

Fireman Patrick Howard Roy, 19, of Keedysville, Md.

Electronics Warfare Technician First Class Kevin Shawn Rux, 30, of Portland, N.D.

Mess Management Specialist Third Class Ronchester Manangan Santiago, 22, Kingsville, Texas

Operations Specialist Second Class Timothy Lamont Saunders, 32, of Ringgold, Va.

Fireman Gary Graham Swenchonis Jr., 26, Rockport, Texas

Ensign Andrew Triplett, 31, of Macon, Miss.

Seaman Craig Bryan Wibberley, 19, of Williamsport, Md.

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