Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Inside the CIA's secret prisons

Jane Mayer has a story in the August 13, 2007 issue of The New Yorker which describes practices in the CIA's secret prisons, whose existence was recently admitted by the president. Some excerpts:
[Khalid Sheikh] Mohammed’s interrogation was part of a secret C.I.A. program, initiated after September 11th, in which terrorist suspects such as Mohammed were detained in “black sites”—secret prisons outside the United States—and subjected to unusually harsh treatment. The program was effectively suspended last fall, when President Bush announced that he was emptying the C.I.A.’s prisons and transferring the detainees to military custody in Guantánamo. This move followed a Supreme Court ruling, Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, which found that all detainees—including those held by the C.I.A.—had to be treated in a manner consistent with the Geneva Conventions. These treaties, adopted in 1949, bar cruel treatment, degradation, and torture. In late July, the White House issued an executive order promising that the C.I.A. would adjust its methods in order to meet the Geneva standards. At the same time, Bush’s order pointedly did not disavow the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” that would likely be found illegal if used by officials inside the United States. The executive order means that the agency can once again hold foreign terror suspects indefinitely, and without charges, in black sites, without notifying their families or local authorities, or offering access to legal counsel.
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The Bush Administration has gone to great lengths to keep secret the treatment of the hundred or so “high-value detainees” whom the C.I.A. has confined, at one point or another, since September 11th. The program has been extraordinarily “compartmentalized,” in the nomenclature of the intelligence world. By design, there has been virtually no access for outsiders to the C.I.A.’s prisoners. The utter isolation of these detainees has been described as essential to America’s national security. The Justice Department argued this point explicitly last November, in the case of a Baltimore-area resident named Majid Khan, who was held for more than three years by the C.I.A. Khan, the government said, had to be prohibited from access to a lawyer specifically because he might describe the “alternative interrogation methods” that the agency had used when questioning him. These methods amounted to a state secret, the government argued, and disclosure of them could “reasonably be expected to cause extremely grave damage.” (The case has not yet been decided.)
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Finally, last year, Red Cross officials were allowed to interview fifteen detainees, after they had been transferred to Guantánamo. One of the prisoners was Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. What the Red Cross learned has been kept from the public. The committee believes that its continued access to prisoners worldwide is contingent upon confidentiality, and therefore it addresses violations privately with the authorities directly responsible for prisoner treatment and detention. For this reason, Simon Schorno, a Red Cross spokesman in Washington, said, “The I.C.R.C. does not comment on its findings publicly. Its work is confidential.”

The public-affairs office at the C.I.A. and officials at the congressional intelligence-oversight committees would not even acknowledge the existence of the report. Among the few people who are believed to have seen it are Condoleezza Rice, now the Secretary of State; Stephen Hadley, the national-security adviser; John Bellinger III, the Secretary of State’s legal adviser; Hayden; and John Rizzo, the agency’s acting general counsel. Some members of the Senate and House intelligence-oversight committees are also believed to have had limited access to the report.

Confidentiality may be particularly stringent in this case. Congressional and other Washington sources familiar with the report said that it harshly criticized the C.I.A.’s practices. One of the sources said that the Red Cross described the agency’s detention and interrogation methods as tantamount to torture, and declared that American officials responsible for the abusive treatment could have committed serious crimes. The source said the report warned that these officials may have committed “grave breaches” of the Geneva Conventions, and may have violated the U.S. Torture Act, which Congress passed in 1994. The conclusions of the Red Cross, which is known for its credibility and caution, could have potentially devastating legal ramifications.

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A former C.I.A. officer, who supports the agency’s detention and interrogation policies, said he worried that, if the full story of the C.I.A. program ever surfaced, agency personnel could face criminal prosecution. Within the agency, he said, there is a “high level of anxiety about political retribution” for the interrogation program. If congressional hearings begin, he said, “several guys expect to be thrown under the bus.” He noted that a number of C.I.A. officers have taken out professional liability insurance, to help with potential legal fees.

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The experts were retired military psychologists, and their backgrounds were in training Special Forces soldiers how to survive torture, should they ever be captured by enemy states. The program, known as SERE—an acronym for Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape—was created at the end of the Korean War. It subjected trainees to simulated torture, including waterboarding (simulated drowning), sleep deprivation, isolation, exposure to temperature extremes, enclosure in tiny spaces, bombardment with agonizing sounds, and religious and sexual humiliation. The SERE program was designed strictly for defense against torture regimes, but the C.I.A.’s new team used its expertise to help interrogators inflict abuse. “They were very arrogant, and pro-torture,” a European official knowledgeable about the program said. “They sought to render the detainees vulnerable—to break down all of their senses. It takes a psychologist trained in this to understand these rupturing experiences.”

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According to an eyewitness, one psychologist advising on the treatment of Zubaydah, James Mitchell, argued that he needed to be reduced to a state of “learned helplessness.” (Mitchell disputes this characterization.)

Steve Kleinman, a reserve Air Force colonel and an experienced interrogator who has known Mitchell professionally for years, said that “learned helplessness was his whole paradigm.” Mitchell, he said, “draws a diagram showing what he says is the whole cycle. It starts with isolation. Then they eliminate the prisoners’ ability to forecast the future—when their next meal is, when they can go to the bathroom. It creates dread and dependency. It was the K.G.B. model. But the K.G.B. used it to get people who had turned against the state to confess falsely. The K.G.B. wasn’t after intelligence.”

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A former member of a C.I.A. transport team has described the “takeout” of prisoners as a carefully choreographed twenty-minute routine, during which a suspect was hog-tied, stripped naked, photographed, hooded, sedated with anal suppositories, placed in diapers, and transported by plane to a secret location.

A person involved in the Council of Europe inquiry, referring to cavity searches and the frequent use of suppositories during the takeout of detainees, likened the treatment to “sodomy.” He said, “It was used to absolutely strip the detainee of any dignity. It breaks down someone’s sense of impenetrability. The interrogation became a process not just of getting information but of utterly subordinating the detainee through humiliation.” The former C.I.A. officer confirmed that the agency frequently photographed the prisoners naked, “because it’s demoralizing.” The person involved in the Council of Europe inquiry said that photos were also part of the C.I.A.’s quality-control process. They were passed back to case officers for review.

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Ramzi Kassem, who teaches at Yale Law School, said that a Yemeni client of his, Sanad al-Kazimi, who is now in Guantánamo, alleged that he had received similar treatment in the Dark Prison, the facility near Kabul. Kazimi claimed to have been suspended by his arms for long periods, causing his legs to swell painfully. “It’s so traumatic, he can barely speak of it,” Kassem said. “He breaks down in tears.” Kazimi also claimed that, while hanging, he was beaten with electric cables.

According to sources familiar with interrogation techniques, the hanging position is designed, in part, to prevent detainees from being able to sleep. The former C.I.A. officer, who is knowledgeable about the interrogation program, explained that “sleep deprivation works. Your electrolyte balance changes. You lose all balance and ability to think rationally. Stuff comes out.” Sleep deprivation has been recognized as an effective form of coercion since the Middle Ages, when it was called tormentum insomniae. It was also recognized for decades in the United States as an illegal form of torture. An American Bar Association report, published in 1930, which was cited in a later U.S. Supreme Court decision, said, “It has been known since 1500 at least that deprivation of sleep is the most effective torture and certain to produce any confession desired.”

Under President Bush’s new executive order, C.I.A. detainees must receive the “basic necessities of life, including adequate food and water, shelter from the elements, necessary clothing, protection from extremes of heat and cold, and essential medical care.” Sleep, according to the order, is not among the basic necessities.

In addition to keeping a prisoner awake, the simple act of remaining upright can over time cause significant pain. McCoy, the historian, noted that “longtime standing” was a common K.G.B. interrogation technique. In his 2006 book, “A Question of Torture,” he writes that the Soviets found that making a victim stand for eighteen to twenty-four hours can produce “excruciating pain, as ankles double in size, skin becomes tense and intensely painful, blisters erupt oozing watery serum, heart rates soar, kidneys shut down, and delusions deepen.”

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Some detainees held by the C.I.A. claimed that their cells were bombarded with deafening sound twenty-fours hours a day for weeks, and even months. One detainee, Binyam Mohamed, who is now in Guantánamo, told his lawyer, Clive Stafford Smith, that speakers blared music into his cell while he was handcuffed. Detainees recalled the sound as ranging from ghoulish laughter, “like the soundtrack from a horror film,” to ear-splitting rap anthems. Stafford Smith said that his client found the psychological torture more intolerable than the physical abuse that he said he had been previously subjected to in Morocco, where, he said, local intelligence agents had sliced him with a razor blade. “The C.I.A. worked people day and night for months,” Stafford Smith quoted Binyam Mohamed as saying. “Plenty lost their minds. I could hear people knocking their heads against the walls and doors, screaming their heads off.”

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The inquiry source said that most of the Poland detainees were waterboarded, including Mohammed. According to the sources familiar with the Red Cross report, Mohammed claimed to have been waterboarded five times. Two former C.I.A. officers who are friends with one of Mohammed’s interrogators called this bravado, insisting that he was waterboarded only once. According to one of the officers, Mohammed needed only to be shown the drowning equipment again before he “broke.”

“Waterboarding works,” the former officer said. “Drowning is a baseline fear. So is falling. People dream about it. It’s human nature. Suffocation is a very scary thing. When you’re waterboarded, you’re inverted, so it exacerbates the fear. It’s not painful, but it scares the shit out of you.” (The former officer was waterboarded himself in a training course.) Mohammed, he claimed, “didn’t resist. He sang right away. He cracked real quick.” He said, “A lot of them want to talk. Their egos are unimaginable. K.S.M. was just a little doughboy. He couldn’t stand toe to toe and fight it out.”

The former officer said that the C.I.A. kept a doctor standing by during interrogations. He insisted that the method was safe and effective, but said that it could cause lasting psychic damage to the interrogators. During interrogations, the former agency official said, officers worked in teams, watching each other behind two-way mirrors. Even with this group support, the friend said, Mohammed’s interrogator “has horrible nightmares.” He went on, “When you cross over that line of darkness, it’s hard to come back. You lose your soul. You can do your best to justify it, but it’s well outside the norm. You can’t go to that dark a place without it changing you.” He said of his friend, “He’s a good guy. It really haunts him. You are inflicting something really evil and horrible on somebody.”

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Waterboarding, in particular, troubled many officials, from both a moral and a legal perspective. Until 2002, when Bush Administration lawyers asserted that waterboarding was a permissible interrogation technique for “enemy combatants,” it was classified as a form of torture, and treated as a serious criminal offense. American soldiers were court-martialled for waterboarding captives as recently as the Vietnam War.

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Ultimately, however, Mohammed claimed responsibility for so many crimes that his testimony became to seem inherently dubious. In addition to confessing to the Pearl murder, he said that he had hatched plans to assassinate President Clinton, President Carter, and Pope John Paul II. Bruce Riedel, who was a C.I.A. analyst for twenty-nine years, and who now works at the Brookings Institution, said, “It’s difficult to give credence to any particular area of this large a charge sheet that he confessed to, considering the situation he found himself in. K.S.M. has no prospect of ever seeing freedom again, so his only gratification in life is to portray himself as the James Bond of jihadism.”

I recommend reading the whole article.

10 comments:

Penguin said...

The CIA has reasons not to treat terrorists at their prisons like guests at a Hilton hotel. And as for hiding it from the public, it can't be hidden if some liberal civilian bumpkin like you can find out about. The government isn't going to give those radical Islams milk and cookies for killing Soldiers, Marines, Airmen and Sailors of the United States of America. Next time you post a stupid article you copy and pasted off of some stupid democratic website, think again, because you'll always receive heavy opposition from Penguin.

Einzige said...

Penguin, did it ever occur to you that perhaps the reason we have a problem with this is because tomorrow they might decide that the "terrorist" is you or me? Or the little old lady down the street with one too many AK-47s in her gun safe?

In addition, your presumption that the CIA is only mistreating the guilty is staggeringly naive, given the level of incompetence constantly on display in every branch, level, and office of our government.

Jim Lippard said...

Penguin: You don't display any sign of having actually read what was posted. You also don't display much sign of understanding logic--your argument is an example of the false dilemma fallacy. There are not just two options--torture or Hilton Hotel guest conditions.

Likewise, your argument that this information hasn't been hidden is equally fallacious. The CIA "black sites" have been operating for years, but the article I posted excerpts from was just published this month. Your argument amounts to a claim that anything public now was never hidden in the past, which is absurd.

You're welcome to post reasoned criticism here, but if your "heavy opposition" is going to continue to be this feeble, don't bother wasting your time and ours.

Jim Lippard said...

BTW, Penguin, here's an example of what would be reasoned criticism of the article--making a case that the methods described actually produce accurate intelligence information (as opposed to fabricated confessions that tell the inquisitors whatever they seem to want to hear), and that they are also necessary in order to gain information needed to prevent major catastrophes. I'd also expect to see some argument that there are appropriate controls to prevent misuse (such as the documented cases of detention and torture of innocent people). But you attempt none of this--you give no argument for the necessity or sufficiency of these practices.

Jim Lippard said...

One more addition, Penguin: An example of a "black site" which became public in 2005 was the "Salt Pit" in Afghanistan, as the result of a lawsuit from Khalid El-Masri, a German citizen who was kidnapped from Macedonia and taken there by the CIA because he happened to have the same name as someone on the terrorist watch list.

Do you endorse the kidnapping and torture of innocent people because they happen to have the same name as terrorists? Is that acceptable collateral damage in your book?

Penguin said...

The CIA doesn't just randomly decide to arrest people they see on the street. They find those who have a bad record in the area of terrorism and those who they have good reason to believe are a threat to this nation's security. If you have a problem with the government keeping this country safe than you might have a few problems. You shouldn't give a damn about how the government treats terrorists, they don't deserve a kiss on the cheek and a pat on the back for killing innocent civilians and American service members.

Einzige said...

Exactly what percentage of Guantanamo prisoners have "killed innocent civilians [or] American service members"?

And what about the hundreds of thousands of innocent Iraqi civilians who have been wounded and killed? Do their killers and torturers deserve a kiss on the cheek? Should we give a damn about how Iraqis treat them? Should it not concern us that it is turning the tide of the world against the US?

Jim Lippard said...

Penguin: You didn't answer my question. Do you endorse the kidnapping and torture of innocent people because they happen to have the same name as terrorists? Is that acceptable collateral damage in your book?

You fail to distinguish between accused terrorists and actual terrorist. But I disagree with you even about treatment of actual terrorists--if the United States has a policy of engaging in torture, that is morally wrong and likely to produce bad consequences in response. Even more so if it's applied without any safeguards like judicial oversight.

You seem to be advocating an anything goes approach for the CIA with respect to anyone who is suspected of being a terrorist or supporter of terrorists, without any safeguards or evidential standards whatsoever. That is what leads to innocent people getting tortured, innocent people being held in prison for life without charge, and provides justification for attacks in response. Your view is morally reprehensible, and likely inconsistent--I suspect you would be outraged if any other country were to engage in similar practices against U.S. citizens, even if it followed exactly the pattern you propose as morally acceptable. Or do you support what Russia does to rebels in Chechnya?

To further complicate the picture, what do you think of the fact that the CIA has given monetary and military support to terrorist groups that have attacked other governments? Is that permissible? Or does that make it acceptable for those other governments to kidnap CIA agents, imprison them without charge, and torture them in response?

Einzige said...

Game, set, match, Jim.

I predict we'll either see no response at all--or the other favorite tactic of all cornered idiots: the retreat to non sequitur.

Jim Lippard said...

BTW, apparently Khalid El-Masri was kidnapped and tortured because his name is close to that of suspected al Qaeda operative Khalid al-Masri.

I've just posted more about El-Masri's case.