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February 7, 2008

Waterboarding: Two Questions for Michael Hayden


by Andy Worthington

The media is buzzing with the news that Michael Hayden, the director of the CIA, admitted in an open session of Congress on Tuesday that waterboarding – a long-reviled torture technique, which produces the perception of drowning – was used on three "high-value" al-Qaeda suspects in CIA custody in 2002 and 2003. The three men – Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Abu Zubaydah and Abdul Rahim al-Nashiri – are discussed in my book The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America's Illegal Prison.

My questions for Mr. Hayden are simple. Firstly, if it's true that only three detainees were subjected to waterboarding, then why did a number of "former and current intelligence officers and supervisors" tell ABC News in November 2005 that "a dozen top al-Qaeda targets incarcerated in isolation at secret locations on military bases in regions from Asia to Eastern Europe" were subjected to six "Enhanced Interrogation Techniques," instituted in mid-March 2002?

According to the ABC News account, the six techniques used by the CIA on the "dozen top al-Qaeda targets" were "The Attention Grab," "Attention Slap," "The Belly Slap" and three other techniques that are particularly worrying: "Long Time Standing," "The Cold Cell," and, of course, "Waterboarding."

"Long Time Standing" was described as "among the most effective [techniques]," in which prisoners "are forced to stand, handcuffed and with their feet shackled to an eye bolt in the floor for more than 40 hours." The ABC News report added, "Exhaustion and sleep deprivation are effective in yielding confessions." In "The Cold Cell," the prisoner "is left to stand naked in a cell kept near 50 degrees. Throughout the time in the cell the prisoner is doused with cold water."

The description of "Waterboarding" was as follows: "The prisoner is bound to an inclined board, feet raised and head slightly below the feet. Cellophane is wrapped over the prisoner's face and water is poured over him. Unavoidably, the gag reflex kicks in and a terrifying fear of drowning leads to almost instant pleas to bring the treatment to a halt."

The article proceeded with recollections of the waterboarding of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who apparently "won the admiration of interrogators when he was able to last between two and two-and-a-half minutes before begging to confess" (the interrogators tried it on themselves, but "only lasted an average of 14 seconds before caving in").

According to the ABC News report, one other detainee who was waterboarded was Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, the director of the Khaldan training camp in Afghanistan, who was captured in November 2001. His current whereabouts are unknown, although there are suspicions that he was finally delivered to the Libyan government. Having slipped off the radar, the government clearly does not want his case revived, not only because it may have to explain what has happened to him, but also because, as a result of the application of "Enhanced Interrogation Techniques," al-Libi claimed that Saddam Hussein had offered to train two al-Qaeda operatives in the use of chemical and biological weapons.

Al-Libi's "confession" led to President Bush declaring, in October 2002, "Iraq has trained al-Qaeda members in bomb making and poisons and gases," and his claims were, notoriously, included in Colin Powell's speech to the UN Security Council on February 5, 2003. The claims were of course, groundless, and were recanted by al-Libi in January 2004, but it took Dan Cloonan, a veteran FBI interrogator, who was resolutely opposed to the use of torture, to explain why they should never have been believed in the first place. Cloonan told Jane Mayer, "It was ridiculous for interrogators to think Libi would have known anything about Iraq ... The reason they got bad information is that they beat it out of him. You never get good information from someone that way."

My second question for Mr. Hayden concerns an allegation made by Murat Kurnaz, the German detainee who was released from Guantánamo in August 2006. In an article in the Washington Spectator last July, focusing on Kurnaz's story, as described in his book Fünf Jahre Meines Lebens: Ein Bericht Aus Guantánamo (Five Years Of My Life: A Report From Guantánamo), the following passage came after Kurnaz's recollections of being hung by his wrists for "hours and days," interrupted only by a doctor who came to "check his vital signs to determine if he could withstand more enhanced interrogation," and his recollections of seeing, in the neighboring cell, another detainee who had died as a result of this ordeal:

"Kurnaz said he was also subjected to waterboarding and electric shock. And that beatings were routine and constant. He theorizes that much of the torture was a result of the failure of the American soldiers and agents to capture any real terrorists in the initial sweeps. (He was told that he was sold to the Americans for $3,000 by Pakistani police, who identified him as a terrorist.) ‘They didn't have any big fish. And they thought that by torture they could get one of us to say something. "I know Osama" or something like that. Then they could say they had a big fish.'"

In light of the comments made by CIA sources in November 2005, and by Murat Kurnaz in his book, I can only wonder how it's feasible for Mr. Hayden to assert that the use of waterboarding was restricted to three of the 14 "high-value" detainees who were transferred to Guantánamo in September 2006, and, by extension, to claim that waterboarding was not used elsewhere in the "War on Terror" prisons; specifically, as Murat Kurnaz alleged, in one of the US prisons in Afghanistan, which, with Guantánamo, provided the template for the well-chronicled riot of torture and abuse that later migrated to Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.

 

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  • Andy Worthington is a historian based in London. He is the author of The Guantánamo Files, the first book to tell the stories of all the detainees in Guantanámo. He writes regularly on issues related to Guantánamo and the "War on Terror" on his Web site.

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