As more pieces of a very ugly mosaic fall into place — including new details from a confidential 2007 report by the International Committee of the Red Cross about interrogations at CIA “black sites” — any remaining doubt that the Bush administration engaged in a conscious policy of torture is disappearing.
Former Vice President Dick Cheney may continue to say, as he did on Sunday, that the interrogation of “war on terror” suspects was “done legally; it was done in accordance with our constitutional practices and principles.” But those assurances ring hollow.
The true story is coming into ever-sharper focus: high-ranking U.S. officials turning to what Cheney called “the dark side” after the 9/11 attacks and ordering the CIA to create a network of secret prisons. Determined to extract information from suspected terrorists, the White House then collaborated with Justice Department lawyers to find ways around anti-torture laws and American traditions.
Though the outlines of this story have been sketched out over several years, many chilling details are now getting filled in, including an article by author Mark Danner in the New York Review of Books about an ICRC report concluding that the abuse of 14 “high-value” detainees “constituted torture.”
“In addition, many other elements of the ill treatment, either singly or in combination, constituted cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment,” according to the ICRC report cited by Danner. Since the ICRC’s responsibilities involve ensuring compliance with the Geneva Conventions and supervising the treatment of prisoners of war, the organization’s findings carry legal weight.
The ICRC report also found that there was a consistency in many details from the detainees who were interviewed separately and that the first “high-value” detainee to be captured, Abu Zubaydah, appeared to have been used as something of a test case by his interrogators. According to various accounts, he was transferred to a secret prison in Thailand and possibly elsewhere to be brutally questioned.
According to Zubaydah’s account to the ICRC:
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.
Zubaydah told the ICRC that CIA interrogators told him he was the first prisoner to be tortured in this way, “so no rules applied. It felt like they were experimenting and trying out techniques to be used later on other people.”
Zubaydah also told the ICRC representatives that he was subjected to the drowning sensation of waterboarding, a practice that has been considered torture since the Inquisition. Zubaydah and other detainees added that they were kept naked, placed in frigid rooms and forced to spend long hours in painful “stress” positions.
Danner said the chapter headings of the ICRC report listed some of the torture techniques reported by the detainees to ICRC personnel: “suffocation by water,” “prolonged stress standing,” “beatings by use of a collar,” “confinement in a box.”
Some of these techniques, such as the use of waterboarding on three detainees, have been acknowledged by senior Bush administration officials, including Cheney who has said he approved of specific harsh tactics applied during the interrogations.
The abuse of Zubaydah paralleled an internal debate at senior levels of the Bush administration over how to provide legal justification for the brutal interrogations. Zubaydah was captured in a raid on a safe house in Faisalabad, Pakistan, on March 28, 2002, that left him badly wounded from three gunshots.
In July 2002, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his legal counsel, William Haynes, solicited input from military psychologists about developing harsh methods that interrogators could use against detainees, according to a report released last year by the Senate Armed Services Committee.
“Mr. Haynes was not the only senior official considering new interrogation techniques for use against detainees,” the report said. “Members of the President’s Cabinet and other senior officials attended meetings in the White House where specific interrogation techniques were discussed.”
President George W. Bush became obsessed with Zubaydah and the information he might have about terrorist plots against the United States, according to Ron Suskind’s book, The One Percent Doctrine.
“Bush was fixated on how to get Zubaydah to tell us the truth,” Suskind wrote, adding that Bush questioned one CIA briefer, “Do some of these harsh methods really work?”
Meanwhile, senior Bush aides were meeting with deputy assistant attorney general John Yoo and other Justice Department lawyers from the powerful Office of Legal Counsel to discuss how anti-torture and other laws applied to interrogation of prisoners in the “war on terror.”
Yoo developed novel theories that defined torture narrowly, permitting acts short of pain associated with “death, organ failure, or serious impairment of body functions.” In devising this standard, Yoo relied on an obscure 2000 health benefits statute.
A report prepared by the Justice Department’s Office of Professional Responsibility determined that Yoo blurred the lines between an attorney charged with providing independent legal advice to the White House and a policy advocate who was working to advance the administration’s goals, according to sources who spoke on condition of anonymity because the contents of the report are still classified.
As evidence of Bush’s torture policies began to build — especially after the Abu Ghraib prison scandal in 2004 — Bush and Cheney built a line of defense, insisting that they had not committed war crimes because they were operating under legal guidance from the Justice Department.
However, that argument could collapse if it were determined that the lawyers were colluding with administration officials in setting policy, rather than providing professional legal advice. Already, extensive evidence exists, including Yoo’s own writings, showing that he participated in high-level administration meetings to discuss and set policy.
Other evidence on the public record suggests that the Bush administration’s intent to use brutal interrogations pre-dated the legal discussions with Yoo.
Cheney helped set the administration on a lawless course only days after the 9/11 attacks. On Sept. 16, 2001, he told NBC’s Tim Russert that “We also have to work, though, sort of the dark side, if you will. We’ve got to spend time in the shadows in the intelligence world.
“A lot of what needs to be done here will have to be done quietly, without any discussion, using sources and methods that are available to our intelligence agencies, if we’re going to be successful. That’s the world these folks operate in, and so it’s going to be vital for us to use any means at our disposal, basically, to achieve our objective.”
The next day, Sept. 17. 2001, President Bush signed a “memorandum of understanding” that authorized the CIA to establish a “hidden global internment network” for the secret detention and interrogation of suspected terrorists, Danner reported in his article.
On Monday, CIA Director Leon Panetta enlisted the help of former Republican Sen. Warren Rudman of New Hampshire to assist him with the Senate Intelligence Committee’s probe of the agency’s Bush-era interrogation and detention practices, Panetta’s office said
Rudman will work as Panetta’s “special adviser” assisting the CIA in dealing with inquiries from the Senate Intelligence Committee.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the chair of the Intelligence Committee, announced earlier this month that her committee will conduct a year-long secret investigation into the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation” and detention practices and whether the methods resulted in actionable intelligence.
Panetta said he does not support any inquiry that would lead to the prosecution of CIA personnel who carried out the interrogations, such as those used against Zubaydah.