CIA Torture Began In Afghanistan 8 Months Before DoJ Approval

27.4.09

Last December, in a typically bullish defense of the Bush administration’s conduct in the “War on Terror,” Vice President Dick Cheney stated, “On the question of so-called ‘torture,’ we don’t do torture, we never have. It’s not something that this administration subscribes to. [W]e proceeded very cautiously; we checked, we had the Justice Department issue the requisite opinions in order to know where the bright lines were that you could not cross. The professionals involved in that program were very, very cautious, very careful, wouldn’t do anything without making certain it was authorized and that it was legal. And any suggestion to the contrary is just wrong.”

The “requisite opinions” referred to by Cheney consisted primarily of two memos issued in August 2002 by the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel (OLC), whose lawyers interpret the law as it relates to the powers of the executive branch, which were issued in connection with the administration’s “high-value detainee” program.

The first of these memos (PDF), which has become known, simply, as the “torture memo,” was leaked in June 2004, in the wake of the Abu Ghraib scandal. Notorious for the attempts by its primary author, OLC lawyer John Yoo, to redefine torture as the infliction of physical pain “equivalent in intensity to the pain accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death,” or the infliction of mental pain which “result[s] in significant psychological harm of significant duration,” it had been vilified by lawyers and human rights activists for nearly four and a half years by the time that Cheney made his pronouncement.

However, it was not until two weeks ago, when the Obama administration released the other memo — authorizing specific techniques, including waterboarding, an ancient torture technique that involves controlled drowning, to be used on a specific “high-value detainee,” Abu Zubaydah — that the “bright lines” so carefully delineated by Cheney began to blur uncontrollably.

The main problem with the memos, of course, is that they involve attempts to justify the use of torture that are, simply, unjustifiable. The US anti-torture statute defines torture as any act committed by an individual that is “specifically intended to inflict severe physical or mental pain or suffering … upon another person within his custody of physical control,” and further defines “severe mental pain or suffering” as “the prolonged mental harm caused by or resulting from” a variety of factors including “the intentional infliction or threatened infliction of severe physical pain or suffering.” Moreover, as the UN Convention Against Torture makes clear, “No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification for torture.”

It is, therefore, abundantly clear that no amount of creative advice by canny lawyers, arguing that waterboarding, prolonged sleep deprivation and a host of other grotesque and outlawed techniques are somehow acceptable can sidestep this definition or overcome the absolute prohibition on the use of torture, however much the lawyers protested, as they did repeatedly, that “many of the key terms in the [anti-torture] statute (for example, ‘severe,’ ‘prolonged,’ ‘suffering’) are imprecise.”

However, even if we accept, for now, that the OLC memos provided the administration with the “golden shield” that it so desperately sought (and I fervently hope that a long-awaited internal DoJ report will confirm that no “golden shield” exists for those who creatively attempted to sanction the use of torture), the problem for Cheney and his fellow torturers right now is the existence of evidence that confirms that the torture of Abu Zubaydah actually began long before the OLC’s advice was issued, as I reported in an article last Friday, “Who Authorized The Torture of Abu Zubaydah?

“Extraordinary rendition” before August 2002

Moreover, although the OLC memos dealt specifically with a “high-value detainee” program that began with the capture of Abu Zubaydah on March 28, 2002, it’s also clear that the administration began working out how to deal with prisoners outside of existing legal frameworks within days of the 9/11 attacks. Most of this centered, at the time, on expanding the program of “extraordinary rendition” developed by the CIA under Bill Clinton in order to deliver “terror suspects” to third countries, where they could be interrogated by proxy torturers or even “disappeared.”

This in itself was enormously worrying, of course. The Clinton-era program occupied a horribly gray area, in which “terror suspects” — mostly Egyptians — were seized by the CIA and rendered to the custody of the Egyptian government, which was then free to kill them, torture them or imprison them after show trials, but it was at least a carefully controlled program, involving 13 prisoners between 1995 and 2000, according to research undertaken last year by Peter Bergen for Mother Jones, and a detailed paper trail that required the existence of a sentence by a court, even one handed down in absentia by a government with a disturbing human rights record.

After 9/11, however, all these restraints were abandoned. Within 12 days of the attacks on New York and Washington, a Yemeni named Jamal Mar’i, who worked for a Saudi charity in Pakistan, was kidnapped from his house in Karachi and rendered to Jordan, one of several countries with whom the Bush administration had swiftly established arrangements involving “extraordinary rendition” and torture. In the ten months that followed, before the OLC issued its indefensible opinions, at least 25 more prisoners were rendered to torture in Egypt, Jordan, Morocco and Syria, and we now know, from one of three more OLC memos released two weeks ago — written in May 2005 by Steven G. Bradbury, the Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General, and revisiting the OLC’s August 2002 torture opinions — that, after the CIA brought torture in-house in August 2002, 94 prisoners in total were held in secret CIA custody.

CIA torture in Afghanistan from December 2001

However, while this entire half-submerged story needs to be exposed to the light, and with some urgency, it appears that, at least for now, the CIA can plausibly claim that it did not participate in the torture of any of the men rendered to prisons in third countries before August 2002. Last Thursday, however, lawyers for Rafiq Alhami, a Tunisian prisoner in Guantánamo, introduced another disturbing element to the narrative, which confirms without a shadow of a doubt that the CIA was torturing prisoners in Afghanistan from December 2001.

In his lawsuit, Alhami stated, as the Associated Press described it, that, from December 2001, he was held in three CIA “dark sites,” where “his presence and his existence were unknown to everyone except his United States detainers,” and where, at various times, he was “stripped naked, threatened with dogs, shackled in painful stress positions for hours, punched, kicked and exposed to extremes of heat and cold.” He also stated that his interrogators “sprayed pepper spray on his hemorroids, causing extreme pain.”

It’s likely that all of Alhami’s claims are true. In my book The Guantánamo Files, I wrote about him (identifying him, as the Pentagon had, as Rafiq al-Hami), noting, from the transcript of his tribunal at Guantánamo, that he stated that had been working in restaurants in Germany, and had traveled to Pakistan in 1999 to study with the vast missionary organization Jamaat-al-Tablighi.

Speaking of his experiences before his transfer to Guantánamo, Alhami explained, “I was in … Afghan prison[s] but the interrogation was done by Americans. I was there for about a one-year period, transferring from one place to another.” He added that one of the prisons was the “Dark Prison” near Kabul, which is known, in particular, from the story of the British resident Binyam Mohamed, released from Guantánamo two months ago, who spent four or five months there after being tortured for 18 months in Morocco. I have previously described the “Dark Prison” as “a medieval torture dungeon with the addition of ear-splittingly loud music and noise, which was pumped into the cells 24 hours a day,” based on accounts by prisoners who were held there, including Binyam Mohamed, who described his time there as “the worst days of his captivity” — worse than the 18 months in Morocco, where the CIA’s proxy torturers regularly sliced his genitals with a razorblade.

Alhami, who was 33 years old when he was seized, told his tribunal that he was tortured for three months in the “Dark Prison,” where, he said, “I was threatened. I was left out all night in the cold … I spent two months with no water, no shoes, in darkness and in the cold. There was darkness and loud music for two months. I was not allowed to pray … These things are documented. You have them.”

Rendered to torture from Iran

Shockingly, Alhami’s lawsuit reveals that he was actually seized in Iran, and transferred to CIA custody through an arrangement between the US and Iranian governments that has never been explained. He was, moreover, not the only one. Although I was unable to identify his country of capture while researching The Guantánamo Files, I was able to establish that at least four other prisoners seized in Iran had also been held in the “Dark Prison”, and described the stories of two of these men as follows:

Wisam Ahmed, a 25-year old Jordanian (released from Guantánamo in April 2004), ran a clothes shop in Jordan and traveled to Pakistan every year with a religious group. After getting married in 2000, he decided to take his wife and their newborn child to Pakistan for his visit in August 2001. In December, they were on a bus, traveling home, when they were stopped at a checkpoint in Iran, and Ahmed — under suspicion “because they associated [my] headdress with al-Qaeda and must have overlooked the fact that it was also my national dress” — was taken into custody. Rendered to Afghanistan on 1 March 2002, he was held in the “Dark Prison,” in [what he described as] “unimaginable conditions that cannot be tolerated in a civilized society,” and spent 77 days in a room that “was so dark that we couldn’t distinguish nights and days. There was no window, and we didn’t see the sun once during the whole time.” He was then moved to another secret prison — “Prison Number Three” — where the food was so bad that he lost a significant amount of weight, and was then moved to Bagram, where, in the 40 days before his transfer to Guantánamo, he was threatened by dogs, made to watch torture videos, and intimidated in other ways: “they used to start up an electric saw and while they were sawing we would hear cries of agony. I thought they would cut me into pieces sooner or later.”

Walid al-Qadasi, a 22-year old Yemeni (transferred to Yemeni custody from Guantánamo in April 2004) was also captured in Iran, and was rendered to Afghanistan in January 2002. Describing his time in [a prison that he identified as] the “Dark Prison” [but which was probably another secret prison instead], he said, “The Americans interrogated us on our first night which we coined as ‘the black night.’ They cut our clothes with scissors, left us naked and took photos of us before they gave us Afghan clothes to wear. They then handcuffed our hands behind our backs, blindfolded us and started interrogating us … They threatened me with death, accusing me of belonging to al-Qaeda.” After this initial interrogation, he said, “They put us in an underground cell measuring approximately two meters by three meters. There were 10 of us in the cell. We spent three months in the cell. There was no room for us to sleep so we had to alternate … It was too hot in the cell, despite the fact that outside the temperature was freezing (there was snow), because the cell was overcrowded.” He added that they were only fed once a day, that loud music was used as “torture,” and that one of his fellow detainees “went insane,” and pointed out that, when Red Cross representatives were allowed to visit, the most severely disturbed prisoners were secretly moved to another cell that was off-limits.

As is clear from these accounts, both men were clearly subjected to torture in facilities operated by the CIA between January and May 2002 (three months before the OLC memos were issued), and, in addition, many more prisoners who also ended up in Guantánamo were also held and tortured in the “Dark Prison” during the same timeframe. Many of these men were seized after the Tora Bora campaign, when US forces allowed Osama bin Laden and other senior figures in al-Qaeda and the Taliban to escape into Pakistan, and one of them, Mohammed Khusruf, a 60-year old Yemeni, told his tribunal that, after he was captured, he — and an unspecified number of wounded prisoners — were moved from a jail in Jalalabad to “an underground prison” in Kabul, where “they would interrogate and beat us.”

No excuses to avoid prosecution

I don’t know about you, but from my reading of this story, a number of the highest-ranking officials in the Bush administration need hauling up before the courts as soon as possible, and confronted with the evidence that, up to eight months before they secured a legal fig leaf for their abominable journey to the “Dark Side,” they had already authorized torture in a number of secret prisons in Afghanistan.

They will claim, no doubt, that everything that took place was supposedly covered by the “memorandum of notification” issued to the CIA by President Bush on September 17, 2001, which authorized the agency, in the broadest terms possible, to “to capture, detain and interrogate terrorism suspects.” If this is the case, then there was clearly no need to persuade lawyers at the OLC to come up with all their subsequent legal contortions to justify the use of torture. However, as is clear from the words of Dick Cheney, quoted at the start of this article, the Justice Department’s August 2002 opinions were essential for the administration “to know where the bright lines were that you could not cross,” and without them Cheney and his colleagues were nothing less than rogue torturers, operating outside the law.

Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK). To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed, and see here for my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, published in March 2009.

As published exclusively on the website of the Future of Freedom Foundation.

For a sequence of articles dealing with the use of torture by the CIA, on “high-value detainees,” and in the secret prisons, see: Guantánamo’s tangled web: Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Majid Khan, dubious US convictions, and a dying man (July 2007), Jane Mayer on the CIA’s “black sites,” condemnation by the Red Cross, and Guantánamo’s “high-value” detainees (including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed) (August 2007), Waterboarding: two questions for Michael Hayden about three “high-value” detainees now in Guantánamo (February 2008), Six in Guantánamo Charged with 9/11 Murders: Why Now? And What About the Torture? (February 2008), The Insignificance and Insanity of Abu Zubaydah: Ex-Guantánamo Prisoner Confirms FBI’s Doubts (April 2008), Guantánamo Trials: Another Torture Victim Charged (Abdul Rahim al-Nashiri, July 2008), Secret Prison on Diego Garcia Confirmed: Six “High-Value” Guantánamo Prisoners Held, Plus “Ghost Prisoner” Mustafa Setmariam Nasar (August 2008), Will the Bush administration be held accountable for war crimes? (December 2008), The Ten Lies of Dick Cheney (Part One) and The Ten Lies of Dick Cheney (Part Two) (December 2008), Prosecuting the Bush Administration’s Torturers (March 2009), Abu Zubaydah: The Futility Of Torture and A Trail of Broken Lives (March 2009), Ten Terrible Truths About The CIA Torture Memos (Part One), Ten Terrible Truths About The CIA Torture Memos (Part Two), 9/11 Commission Director Philip Zelikow Condemns Bush Torture Program, Even In Cheney’s Bleak World, The Al-Qaeda-Iraq Torture Story Is A New Low (all April 2009), Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi Has Died In A Libyan Prison, Dick Cheney And The Death Of Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, The “Suicide” Of Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi: Why The Media Silence?, Two Experts Cast Doubt On Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi’s “Suicide”, Lawrence Wilkerson Nails Cheney On Use Of Torture To Invade Iraq, In the Guardian: Death in Libya, betrayal by the West (in the Guardian here) (all May 2009), Lawrence Wilkerson Nails Cheney’s Iraq Lies Again (And Rumsfeld And The CIA), and WORLD EXCLUSIVE: New Revelations About The Torture Of Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi (June 2009). Also see the extensive archive of articles about the Military Commissions.

For other stories discussing the use of torture in secret prisons, see: An unreported story from Guantánamo: the tale of Sanad al-Kazimi (August 2007), Rendered to Egypt for torture, Mohammed Saad Iqbal Madni is released from Guantánamo (September 2008), A History of Music Torture in the “War on Terror” (December 2008), Seven Years of Torture: Binyam Mohamed Tells His Story (March 2009), and also see the extensive Binyam Mohamed archive. And for other stories discussing torture at Guantánamo and/or in “conventional” US prisons in Afghanistan, see: The testimony of Guantánamo detainee Omar Deghayes: includes allegations of previously unreported murders in the US prison at Bagram airbase (August 2007), Guantánamo Transcripts: “Ghost” Prisoners Speak After Five And A Half Years, And “9/11 hijacker” Recants His Tortured Confession (September 2007), The Trials of Omar Khadr, Guantánamo’s “child soldier” (November 2007), Former US interrogator Damien Corsetti recalls the torture of prisoners in Bagram and Abu Ghraib (December 2007), Guantánamo’s shambolic trials (February 2008), Torture allegations dog Guantánamo trials (March 2008), Sami al-Haj: the banned torture pictures of a journalist in Guantánamo (April 2008), Former Guantánamo Prosecutor Condemns “Chaotic” Trials in Case of Teenage Torture Victim (Lt. Col. Darrel Vandeveld on Mohamed Jawad, January 2009), Judge Orders Release of Guantánamo’s Forgotten Child (Mohammed El-Gharani, January 2009), Bush Era Ends With Guantánamo Trial Chief’s Torture Confession (Susan Crawford on Mohammed al-Qahtani, January 2009), Forgotten in Guantánamo: British Resident Shaker Aamer (March 2009), and the extensive archive of articles about the Military Commissions.

7 Responses

  1. Frances Madeson says...

    The only other time I heard of torturing clothes was in the Leonard Cohen song, One of Us Cannot Be Wrong. And as for the soundtrack to Texas Chainsaw Massacre, I am aghast. Though it’s meagre consolation we can, however, be “proud” of one thing–our torturers are creative types who think outside the box.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    A reader called Brian wrote to say,

    thank you for quoting from article 2 of the UN Convention Against Torture;
    I’ve yet to read a reference to it even on sites that ought to know better;

    please keep citing it and maybe – tho I hae me doots – some people might pay attention.

    I’ve submitted a letter to the editor at NYT that consists just of article 2; we both know it`ll never be published!

    the only point I`d make about your article is that a line or two – even that – about the v long history of torture by the CIA and US gov in general would provide some historical context.
    true, this history has been a matter of public record but quote Pinter: it didn’t happen even when it was happening

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    In my reply to Brian, I wrote:

    You’re probably right about including a bit of the back story, but I’m already aware that most of my articles are considered lengthy enough in this era of attention deficit disorder!

    Thoughts welcome on this: I try to write what needs to be said, which often comes out at around 2,500 words, even though, on the infinite web, many sites want their opinion pieces to be between 600 and 1,000 words.

    I think that’s OK for a pithy round-up, but totally inadequate for establishing a proper, detailed story.

    As I say, however: thoughts welcome!

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    For more discussion of some of the points raised in this article, see Comments 5, 6, 14 and 15 here:
    http://www.andyworthington.co.uk/2009/05/07/obamas-first-100-days-mixed-messages-on-torture/

  5. UK Judges Compare Binyam Mohamed’s Torture To That Of Abu Zubaydah by Andy Worthington « Dandelion Salad says...

    [...] they have reminded us that torture was, in fact, taking place long before it was supposedly authorized, with disturbing ramifications for those who ordered its [...]

  6. Abu Zubaydah’s Torture Diary « freedetainees.org says...

    [...] Director Philip Zelikow Condemns Bush Torture Program, Who Authorized The Torture of Abu Zubaydah?, CIA Torture Began In Afghanistan 8 Months before DoJ Approval, Even In Cheney’s Bleak World, The Al-Qaeda-Iraq Torture Story Is A New Low (all April 2009), Ibn [...]

  7. The Bush Administration and Human Experimentation at Guantánamo Bay « Craig Considine says...

    [...] to Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, Colin Powell’s Chief of Staff), it was actually being used to extract false confessions about connections between al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein that could be used in an attempt to justify [...]

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