Repeatedly waterboarded and confined in a small box, Zubaydah failed to provide any information of value.
It is early on in Abu Zubaydah’s time at a CIA black site. He insists to his interrogators that he has no additional information on jihadist operations planned against the US, but his captor won’t stop slapping him. Eventually a hood is placed over Zubaydah’s head and he is placed into a confinement box by unseen security officers. He is told this is his new home until he’s prepared to provide information on operations against the US.
Several physically stressful hours in the confinement box fail to elicit any intelligence, so Zubaydah’s captors place him in an even smaller box. He makes painful groans and is forced to scoot out of the box on his hindquarters when he’s finally allowed out. He is immediately made to stand and backed up against a wall. Two interrogators begin to double-team him with rapid-fire questions. Zubaydah is told that if he does not cooperate, he will only bring more misery on himself. Again he denies having any additional knowledge, but this time, he isn’t slapped. Instead, Zubaydah is hooded and a water board is brought into the cell.
Zubaydah is the first post-9/11 detainee to be waterboarded, and this is his first session. He coughs and vomits. The waterboarding lasts for over two hours, but he still insists he does not have any additional information beyond that which he already provided to the FBI. He is then put into the larger confinement box, where he spends the rest of the evening. The interrogation process resumes in the morning: more slapping, zero new information, and more time in the smaller box.
This was a summary of CIA documents obtained by AlterNet’s Grayzone Project. The records were originally obtained by Zubaydah’s defense team through the discovery process and were provided to me by a source familiar with the case who considered their publication critical to the public’s understanding of Zubaydah’s treatment. The vast majority of the documents have not been available to the public prior to this story.
As clinically detailed as they are gut-wrenching, the documents comprise hundreds of pages on the interrogation of Zubaydah, perhaps Guantanamo Bay’s most famous detainee. The files revealed here have renewed significance as Zubaydah has decided to testify about conditions at Guantanamo Bay despite the likelihood that it will imperil his legal situation.
The records also highlight the methods of psychologist James Mitchell, a top architect of the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation program.” Though Mitchell had previously worked as an Air Force psychologist, the Senate “Torture Report” noted that he had no prior experience as an interrogator. Mitchell’s private contracting company had received over $80 million from the CIA by the time their contract was terminated in 2009. The contract was terminated because, as the CIA Inspector General put it, there was no reason to believe Mitchell’s interrogation techniques were effective or even safe.
Mitchell and the US government originally believed Zubaydah to be a top leader of Al Qaeda who had knowledge of imminent plots against the US; however, the government would later concede that Zubaydah was never an Al Qaeda leader but still contend that he poses a threat. According to the US government, Zubaydah “possibly” knew in advance about the bombing of the USS Cole in 2000 and attacks on American embassies in Africa in 1998.
After his capture in Pakistan in 2002, Zubaydah was held in CIA black sites for four years where he was subjected to extended torture so intense he lost his left eye. Following his first waterboarding, he was subjected to the same form of torture 82 times. It is unclear the brutal methods applied to Zubaydah’s body elicited any valuable intelligence.
Sadistic torture without government authorization
The CIA documents depict a cooperative Zubaydah who maintains throughout that he has no more information beyond what he shared initially with the FBI. The documents make frequent reference to his captors’ desire to induce a sense of hopelessness that would force him to talk. Mitchell tries to instill despair not just through overt methods like waterboarding and constricting Zubaydah’s movement within small boxes, but also through subtle tactics focused on disorientation and isolation from human contact.
In one instance, Mitchell’s attempts to enhance Zubaydah’s sense of isolation went well beyond the weeks he spent in solitary confinement. The documents describe Mitchell’s plans to minimize even the human contact afforded by visits from medical staff, who were required to wear uniforms of solid color, conceal their facial features and skin and wear tinted goggles. The medical staff were required to use hand signals to deprive Zubaydah of hearing human speech. The security team followed the same procedures but instead wore solid black uniforms.
The disorientation process was no less thorough: the documents describe Mitchell’s plans to put Zubaydah in a state of “pharmaceutical unconsciousness” whenever he was transported, even on a visit to the hospital. Mitchell required natural light be strictly prohibited in favor of bright lights, along with an all-white, colorless environment. The documents frequently describe a constant white noise intentionally produced, even during harsher methods like waterboarding. Finally, Mitchell scrupulously ensured that everything Zubaydah experienced—interrogations, medical care, etc.—was completely unpredictable, forming no predictable schedule.
Among the most shocking revelations in the files is the fact that the CIA engaged in torture even before it received legal authorization from the Bush administration’s infamous “Torture Memos,” which were signed on Aug. 1, 2002. For example, one document dated April 24, 2002—over three months before the CIA would receive authorization to employ “enhanced interrogation” techniques—describes Zubaydah’s being subjected to 76-hour periods of deprivation and a stereo playing “loud rock music to enhance his sense of hopelessness.” The document also notes the authorization for the use of a “confinement box” on Zubaydah.
Another document dated May 2002 notes, “AZ [Abu Zubaydah] has shown an exploitable vulnerability when it comes to the issue of his family. He became visibly disturbed when told we would show a picture of him to his mother…as he has indicated a concern for his family and all family related matters, this angle may prove effective in gaining the required leverage.”
Another document predating the Torture Memos, dated July 2002, notes that the CIA had already had Zubaydah in solitary confinement for 30 consecutive days.
Although the CIA didn’t receive authorization to engage in torture until August, the Bush administration had already been discussing it months prior; the Agency may have sensed which way the political winds were blowing and behaved in anticipation of formal authorization.
Torture trials for the CIA?
AlterNet contacted interrogation expert Mark Fallon, an international security consultant who spent over 30 years as a special agent with the Naval Criminal Investigative Service and author of a new book detailing how the intelligence community enacted the torture program under the Bush administration. Fallon said prolonged sleep deprivation constitutes torture under the United Nations Convention Against Torture. Regarding its efficacy, Fallen stated that sleep deprivation “is counterproductive, if the aim is obtaining accurate and reliable information. The effects on a person’s cognitive capabilities is diminished and memory is corrupted.”
Fallon also said confinement boxes “absolutely” constitute torture, even under controlled and calculated conditions. He noted that from the perspective of an unknowing victim, confinement boxes could be mistaken for an execution. Regarding prolonged isolation, Fallon said, “From an interrogation professional perspective, tactics [like isolation] that produce dread are not considered effective methods in eliciting cooperation and could harden resistance.”
Asked if the fact that these torture practices predated legal authorization could open the CIA up to prosecution, Fallon said, “Depending on where it occurred, it could already expose them to potential international trials, who don’t recognize the dubious legal cover they received.”
One document dated May 2002 addresses this question of legality, conceding that their interrogation techniques “do not always comport with traditional interrogation methods.” Furthermore, the document expresses a belief that Zubaydah “is not entitled to the legal protections of the Geneva conventions.”
CIA torture has newfound relevance in light of Donald Trump’s flippant pro-torture rhetoric. In January, Trump said he believed waterboarding “does work” and that it is “foolish and so naïve” not to be allowed to waterboard. In February, Trump’s language appeared to solidify into action when he picked for CIA deputy director a CIA officer who ran a black site in Thailand where terror suspects were tortured.
The documents of Zubaydah’s torture expose in clear detail the savage reality of what torture means. Whatever one thinks of Zubaydah and his activities prior to being captured, it is hard not to pity him as Mitchell describes in cold, clinical terms the sadistic methods he inflicts on his subject’s body and mind.
Consider this excerpt from a transcript of interrogation sessions on Aug. 12, 2002:
Today is day nine of the “aggressive interrogation” phase. Zubaydah is moved from his confinement box. A wound he had sustained is cleaned and he is given Ensure, a liquid meal replacement. He is returned to the confinement box.
Over nine hours later, Zubaydah is again moved from his confinement box, is seated on the floor and hooded. After his wound is inspected, he is sent back to the confinement box.
Three hours later, Zubaydah is once again moved from his confinement box. This time, security wheels in the water board. Zubaydah sways and loses his balance, then rights himself. The interrogators strap him into the water board. [Large segments of text are classified.]
After at least one session of waterboarding, Zubaydah still denies knowing anything beyond what he’d revealed initially; but the interrogators insist he knows more than he’s letting on. Zubaydah is waterboarded again. Afterwards he is released and put back into his confinement box.
27 minutes later, Zubaydah is taken out of the confinement box and seated on the floor, hooded. Two hours later, he is made to stand against the wall. After an hour, Zubaydah is again seated on the floor and shortly thereafter a water board is brought in. Once Zubaydah’s hood is removed, he sees the water board and looks at his interrogators. He slowly walks toward the waterboard of his own accord, lays down and begins shaking. [Large segments of text are redacted.]
About 30 minutes later, interrogators depart the room. Seconds later, Zubaydah begins vomiting. The interrogators rush back into the room, unstrap Zubaydah and place him in an upright position so he doesn’t choke to death on his own vomit. Afterward he is hooded and led back into the confinement box.
The CIA documents obtained by AlterNet’s Grayzone Project are embedded below: