Abu Zubaydah and the Silencing of Guantánamo’s “High-Value Detainees,” as the CIA Censors His Drawings

9.10.11

Over the last few years, my colleague Jason Leopold at Truthout has been doggedly pursuing a number of important stories about the Bush administration’s torture program, and the lack of accountability for those who authorized or implemented aspects of the program. Working sometimes with the psychologist and blogger Jeff Kaye, Leopold has investigated human experimentation at Guantánamo, and has also worked tirelessly to shine a light on the story of the alleged “high-value detainee” Abu Zubaydah.

As Jason and I have spoken about repeatedly, the story of Abu Zubaydah is one of the most crucial in the “War on Terror.” Zubaydah was seized in Pakistan in March 2002, and flown to a secret prison in Thailand, where he was the first victim of the Bush administration’s “high-value detainee” torture program. Subsequently held in other locations, including Poland, he was finally sent to Guantánamo in September 2006, along with 13 other “high-value detainees,” including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of the 9/11 attacks.

In the five years since the transfer of the “high-value detainees,” almost every attempt to officially pierce the veil of secrecy surrounding these 14 men — and two others transferred to Guantánamo in 2007 and 2008 — has been resisted, first by the Bush administration, and, since January 2009, by President Obama.

With all the Guantánamo prisoners, every discussion between the prisoners and their lawyers is presumptively classified, but many have been at least partly unclassified after undergoing a review process. With the “high-value detainees,” however, everything remains presumptively classified, and the only reason we know anything specific about what happened to them is because representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross were allowed to interview them after their arrival at Guantánamo, and a highly critical report (PDF) that they then submitted to the Bush administration, containing excerpts from the interviews and detailed analysis of the prisoners’ statements, was leaked to the New York Review of Books in 2009.

In his latest article about Abu Zubaydah for Truthout, Jason Leopold has focused on the self-serving absurdity of the government’s classification system when it comes to the “high-value detainees,” explaining how ten drawings that Abu Zubaydah made, showing his torture, are also subjected to this system of over-classification. I’m cross-posting it below, in the hope that it will attract additional readers, as it explains clearly how the purpose is to shield the Bush administration’s torturers from scrutiny, which, of course, is shameful and illegal.

For the article, Leopold spoke to Alex Abdo, a staff attorney with the ACLU, who pointed out that it was “deeply troubling that the government continues to censor the best evidence of detainee abuse,” and also provided the following succinct analysis of why the censorship of the “high-value detainees” is so unjust:

[The government] has destroyed 92 videotapes of CIA interrogations, suppressed 2,000 photographs of abuse throughout Afghanistan and Iraq, and even classified the detainees’ own accounts of their mistreatment at proceedings in Guantánamo. This selective suppression of evidence has allowed the government to perpetuate the myth that the abuse of detainees was aberrational, when it was, in fact, the result of policy decisions made at the highest levels of our government.  And it allows advocates of torture and mistreatment to obscure the truly horrific nature of the mistreatment authorized by the Bush administration.

However, the most important part of the article, to my mind, is what Brent Mickum, Abu Zubaydah’s attorney, had to say about the gagging of his client, which is so sweeping that it includes any reference to publicly available information, such as his statements to the International Committee of the Red Cross. Leopold writes:

Mickum said Roberts’ order and the secrecy surrounding Zubaydah’s drawings deprives his client of a “voice” and allows former Bush officials, including former Vice President Dick Cheney, to control the narrative about Zubaydah’s treatment and the efficacy of his torture.

“One of the great frustrations that we as Zubaydah’s defense counsel have faced is the inability to tell his story,” Mickum said in an interview. “That inability is brought about by two things: one, the government’s misuse and improper use of the classification system to essentially muzzle our client and his attorneys to prevent  telling his side of the story. And the other is the unwillingness of the district court to make decisions on motions that have been fully briefed, in some cases, for almost three years. These include motions to declassify his diaries. In the final analysis, nothing that my client says, draws, or writes is classified. The government is using this as a ruse because they are embarrassed and don’t want this information to be revealed.”

Jason’s article is below. I hope you have time to read it, and will share it if it reveals to you — or confirms to you — how muzzling torture victims is being used by the government to protect the Bush administration from accountability for its actions.

CIA: Zubaydah’s Torture Drawings, Writings, “Should They Exist,” to Remain Top Secret
By Jason Leopold, Truthout, October 5, 2011

In 2002, not long after he was subjected to so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques” by Bruce Jessen and James Mitchell, psychologists under contract to the CIA, high-value detainee Abu Zubaydah made about ten drawings depicting the torture he endured while in custody of the agency.

One of the drawings Zubaydah had sketched captured in incredible detail the waterboarding sessions he underwent. Another drawing showed him being chained by his wrists to the ceiling of a CIA black site prison where he was held and another showed him strapped to a chair and being doused with water as part of a sleep deprivation program, according to two counterterrorism officials who have seen Zubaydah’s drawings.

Zubaydah drew the pictures of the torture techniques he was subjected to on a sheet of paper measuring about 8 x 11 inches and on pieces of paper about the size of an index card. In some instances, Zubaydah drew several of the torture techniques on a single piece of paper.

Zubaydah’s “artwork is very detailed right down to the straps that were used when he was on the waterboard and almost looks like a photograph,” said one of the counterterrorism officials, who requested anonymity in order to discuss classified material.

Brent Mickum, Zubaydah’s attorney, previously told Truthout that in the absence of the 92 interrogation videotapes, which the agency destroyed, the drawings Zubaydah made contain the best description of the torture techniques used against him while he was being held at the agency’s black site prison facilities.

“These are a good group of drawings and he is a pretty good artist,” Mickum told Truthout last year. Mickum said he is prohibited from discussing the contents of Zubaydah’s drawings because it remains classified. However, he said,  “the depictions would be of interest” and agreed that Zubaydah “can draw and with great detail.”

Additionally, Zubaydah wrote poetry, short stories, and articles while in CIA custody. The content of his writing, however, is not known.

But the CIA, which maintains the “enhanced interrogation techniques” interrogators used on Zubaydah were “safe” and “legal,” refuses to release any of his drawings or writings and won’t even acknowledge that those materials  actually exist. If Zubaydah’s drawings and writings do exist, the CIA said, it would be part of the agency’s “operational files,” which means “records and files detailing the actual conduct of [CIA’s] intelligence activities.”

The CIA made that disclosure in two separate responses to requests Truthout filed with the agency seeking a Mandatory Declassification Review (MDR) of Zubaydah’s drawings and writings. An MDR is a procedure under a section of an executive order signed by President Obama (which replaced a similar executive order signed by former President Bush) that allows the public to seek the declassification review of specific classified material.

“We have conducted a thorough review of your request and have determined that responsive records, should they exist, would be contained in operational files,” states a September 21 letter Susan Viscuso, the CIA’s information and privacy coordinator, sent to Truthout in response to an MDR request related to Zubaydah’s drawings.

In response to Truthout’s MDR request related to Zubaydah’s writings, Viscuso said in a letter dated September 28 that those materials, “should they exist,” would be “contained in properly designated CIA operational files” and are also exempt from FOIA searches, reviews, and “disclosure requirements.”

A section of “the CIA Information Act, as amended,” Viscuso said, “exempts operational files from the search, review, publication, and disclosure requirements of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).”

The revised regulations still says “declassification review requests will not be accepted … for any document or material containing information contained within an operational file …”

Alex Abdo, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union’s (ACLU) National Security Project, said, “it is deeply troubling that the government continues to censor the best evidence of detainee abuse.”

The government “has destroyed 92 videotapes of CIA interrogations, suppressed 2,000 photographs of abuse throughout Afghanistan and Iraq, and even classified the detainees’ own accounts of their mistreatment at proceedings in Guantánamo,” Abdo said. “This selective suppression of evidence has allowed the government to perpetuate the myth that the abuse of detainees was aberrational, when it was, in fact, the result of policy decisions made at the highest levels of our government.  And it allows advocates of torture and mistreatment to obscure the truly horrific nature of the mistreatment authorized by the Bush administration.”

The ACLU’s FOIA lawsuits against the Bush and Obama administrations related to the treatment of detainees at Guantánamo Bay and in Iraq and Afghanistan prisons has resulted in the release more than 100,000 pages of secret government documents.

Last month, the CIA revised its MDR regulations “to more clearly reflect the current CIA organizational structure and policies and  practices, and to eliminate ambiguous, redundant and obsolete regulatory provisions.”

Judge Silences Zubaydah

However, it’s not just Zubaydah’s drawings that the government wants to keep secret. In a four-page order issued earlier this year, US District Court Judge Richard Roberts, who presides over Zubaydah’s habeas corpus case, issued an order that said that any statements Zubaydah has made to his attorneys describing the torture he endured must remain classified and cannot be revealed publicly in court filings. Zubaydah has given his attorneys a signed declaration totaling about 15 pages detailing the torture he was subjected to during his imprisonment at CIA-run prisons.

Roberts’ order was issued in March, in response to a motion Zubaydah’s legal team filed nearly two years earlier that accused the government of “improper classification” of documents that included statements Zubaydah made describing “the interrogation techniques inflicted upon him while in CIA custody … other personal knowledge of his experience within the CIA Torture and Rendition Program and … statements made by [Zubaydah’s] counsel based upon information that is found within the public domain.”

Roberts said Zubaydah’s legal team, in seeking to have Zubaydah’s statements related to his treatment declassified, was essentially trying to bring “a FOIA challenge in the midst of a habeas petition.”

“The government must provide petitioner’s counsel, not the public at large, with classified information unless the government moves for an exception to disclosure,” Roberts wrote.

In 2007, during an interview with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), Zubaydah described in detail how CIA interrogators tortured him, which included placing him in a “confinement box” and repeatedly slamming his head against a wall. The interview with the ICRC was part of a confidential report on the treatment of 14 high-value detainees in custody of the agency. Journalist Mark Danner obtained the ICRC report and published a lengthy story in the New York Review of Books detailing the detainees’ statements about their torture.

Still, Roberts’ order means that anything Zubaydah says or writes or has said or written that has not been officially approved for disclosure by the government is classified and that applies to his interview with the ICRC.

Mickum said Roberts’ order and the secrecy surrounding Zubaydah’s drawings deprives his client of a “voice” and allows former Bush officials, including former Vice President Dick Cheney, to control the narrative about Zubaydah’s treatment and the efficacy of his torture.

“One of the great frustrations that we as Zubaydah’s defense counsel have faced is the inability to tell his story,” Mickum said in an interview. “That inability is brought about by two things: one, the government’s misuse and improper use of the classification system to essentially muzzle our client and his attorneys to prevent  telling his side of the story. And the other is the unwillingness of the district court to make decisions on motions that have been fully briefed, in some cases, for almost three years. These include motions to declassify his diaries. In the final analysis, nothing that my client says, draws, or writes is classified. The government is using this as a ruse because they are embarrassed and don’t want this information to be revealed.”

Meanwhile, former CIA general counsel John Rizzo confirmed long held suspicions that some of the interrogation videotapes the agency destroyed in 2005 showed Zubaydah being subjected to waterboarding, an admission that fuels speculation the tapes were destroyed to cover up illegal acts, not because the tapes were no longer of any intelligence value, as current and former agency officials have claimed.

“We had a representative in my office early on to review all of the tapes, and he came back, did a report,” Rizzo said during an interview with the PBS news program Frontline. “I also spoke to him in some depth about it, and he made it clear that there were portions of the tapes that clearly showed Zubaydah being waterboarded.”

John Durham, a federal prosecutor from Connecticut who was appointed special counsel by former Attorney General Michael Mukasey to investigate the tape purge, concluded his probe last year without bringing any charges against former CIA officials involved in the destruction. Durham had obtained Zubaydah’s drawings from the government during the course of his investigation, but it’s unclear if Durham used [them] to assist his probe.

Last year, as Truthout first reported, the government, in a federal court filing in Zubaydah’s habeas case, backed off of every major claim the Bush administration had made about him after he was captured in Pakistan in March 2002, stating that their “understanding of [Zubaydah’s] role in terrorist activities has … evolved with further investigation.”

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) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed (and I can also be found on Facebook, Twitter, Digg and YouTube). Also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, updated in June 2011, “The Complete Guantánamo Files,” a 70-part, million-word series drawing on files released by WikiLeaks in April 2011, and details about the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, and available on DVD here — or here for the US). Also see my definitive Guantánamo habeas list and the chronological list of all my articles, and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.

8 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    On Facebook, Jason Leopold wrote:

    Thank you so much, as always, Andy for your insightful and important commentary and for getting this story in front of more eyes. Incredibly grateful.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    It was the least I could do, Jason, when it touches on one of those important, but generally unknown or forgotten “legacy” issues of Guantanamo, which is rarely if ever discussed — the total censorship of every word uttered by the “high-value detainees.” That’s deeply cynical — and it should be unacceptable to anyone who cares about a just resolution to the horrors of Guantanamo and the Bush administration’s torture program.

  3. Jeffrey Kaye says...

    Thanks to Jason and Andy for their indefatigable work. I’m glad to lend a hand when I can. What boggles my mind is how complacent the so-called left blogging world has become on this issue, following, whether they mean to or not, the Obama Administration’s “don’t look back” policy. Of course, human rights groups like ACLU, Amnesty, Reprieve, Human Rights Watch and others continue to pursue accountability.

    Meanwhile, I thought you’d be interested in this bit of new Zubaydah news (http://www.ovimagazine.com/art/7760):

    Julia Hall, an analyst with Amnesty International, said that a Boeing 727 allegedly carrying an al-Qaida suspect, Abu Zubaydah, landed in the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius on Feb. 17, 2005, after taking off from Morocco and refueling in Jordan.

    “This is a previously undiscovered flight,” said Hall. “It is crucial to note that this is a flight that does not appear in the parliamentary report, and we have never heard any explanation from the prosecutor general about this flight,” she said. Two Lithuanian probes – one by a parliamentary committee and another by the country’s prosecutors – concluded that there was no evidence that people were held in sites controlled by the CIA in the country.

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Hi Jeff,
    Well. modesty is a worthy trrait, but I know that you do more than “lend a hand when I can.”
    Anyway, thank you very much for the supportive words and the criticism of liberal and progressive bloggers — and for the Lithuania story. I had seen it in passing, and made a mental note to revisit it, but then it got swept away in the general tsunami of work. Crucially, however, I had missed the fact that Julia Hall had mentioned Abu Zubaydah by name.
    I’ll look into it.

  5. JAN (Cosmic Surfer) says...

    Andy, thanks for bringing this story back into the awareness of so many. It should not be buried in the psyche of those who have a moral obligation to confront the US government acting in their name. Much too important.
    Jason did some fine work in bringing it to light the first time. You do another great service by keeping the light on.
    Namaste

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Jan. Good to hear from you, and yes, the more time goes on the more these unaddressed crimes are being overlooked, which is as wrong as it’s possible for hidden crimes to be.

  7. The Guantánamo Files: An Archive of Articles — Part Eleven, October to December 2011 | Friction Facts says...

    […] Accuse Government of Planning “Irreparable Harm,” and Lords Prepare Opposition 9. Abu Zubaydah: Abu Zubaydah and the Silencing of Guantánamo’s “High-Value Detainees,” as the CIA Censors His… 10. WikiLeaks: The Complete Guantánamo Files: WikiLeaks and the Prisoners Released in 2006 (Part […]

  8. Guantanamo Files | Friction Facts says...

    […] Accuse Government of Planning “Irreparable Harm,” and Lords Prepare Opposition 9. Abu Zubaydah: Abu Zubaydah and the Silencing of Guantánamo’s “High-Value Detainees,” as the CIA Censors His… 10. WikiLeaks: The Complete Guantánamo Files: WikiLeaks and the Prisoners Released in 2006 (Part […]

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Andy Worthington

Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo, co-director, We Stand With Shaker. Also, singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers) and photographer (The State of London).
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