Jane Mayer on the CIA’s “black sites,” condemnation by the Red Cross, and Guantánamo’s “high-value” detainees (including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed)


An article by New Yorker reporter Jane Mayer is always a cause for celebration, and her latest, The Black Sites, is no exception. Beginning with Khalid Sheikh Mohammed’s “confession” four months ago, during his tribunal in Guantánamo, that “I decapitated with my blessed right hand the head of the American Jew Daniel Pearl in the city of Karachi, Pakistan,” Mayer reveals that Mariane Pearl, the widow of the murdered Wall Street Journal reporter, received a call from Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, before the US released the transcript of the tribunal, in which Gonzales told her that the Justice Department was “about to announce some good news” –- that KSM (Mohammed) had “confessed to killing her husband.” Mayer reports that, unlike four years before, shortly after KSM’s capture, when Condoleezza Rice had rung her to tell her the same news, but in secret, “Gonzales’s announcement seemed like a publicity stunt.” Pearl asked him if he had proof; he said that he did, but was unable to share it. “It’s not enough for officials to call me and say they believe it,” she told Mayer. “You need evidence.”

Daniel PearlPearl’s doubts were shared by many others. In the first instance, another man, Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, had been convicted of the murder in 2002 –- and had then been subjected to so many delays in his proposed execution that experts on Pakistan had concluded that he was being protected by the government because of his ties with the ISI, Pakistan’s intelligence service. In addition, those who knew the case well doubted the truth of KSM’s confession. Asra Nomani, a former colleague of Daniel Pearl, said, “I don’t think this confession resolves the case. You can’t have justice from one person’s confession, especially under such unusual circumstances. To me, it’s not convincing.” She added, “I called all the investigators. They weren’t just skeptical –- they didn’t believe it.” Special Agent Randall Bennett, the head of security for the US consulate in Karachi when Pearl was killed, said that “KSM’s name never came up” when he was interviewing Ahmed Sheikh’s convicted accomplices, Robert Baer, a former CIA officer, said, “My old colleagues say with one-hundred-per-cent certainty that it was not KSM who killed Pearl,” another government official said, “The fear is that KSM is covering up for others, and that these people will be released,” and Judea Pearl, Daniel’s father, said, “Something is fishy. There are a lot of unanswered questions. KSM can say he killed Jesus –- he has nothing to lose.”

From here –- having sown compelling doubts about the validity of KSM’s testimony (as I also highlighted in a recent article) –- Mayer proceeds to investigate why KSM’s testimony was so suspect, delving into the “enhanced interrogation techniques” used by the CIA in its many “black sites” around the world. Despite a robust defense of the techniques by, amongst others, CIA director General Michael Hayden, who has called them an “irreplaceable” tool for combating terrorism, and President Bush, who has claimed that they have led to the foiling of at least ten plots since 9/11, Mayer points out that the number of plots in which KSM claimed involvement –- 31 in total –- is “an improbable number, even for a high-level terrorist,” and adds that Colonel Dwight Sullivan, “the top defense lawyer at the Pentagon’s Office of Military Commissions, which is expected eventually to try Mohammed for war crimes,” told her that his “serial confessions” were “a textbook example of why we shouldn’t allow coercive methods.”

Although Sullivan’s criticisms undoubtedly carry weight, the administration’s “black sites” program is so secretive that –- with the exception of the testimonies of prisoners who were held by mistake, and have subsequently been released, and a few held in Guantánamo who have managed to relate stories to their lawyers (discussed in detail in The Guantánamo Files) –- very little is known about it. Alcee Hastings, a Democrat in the House of Representatives, and a member of the House Select Committee on Intelligence, told Mayer, “We talk to the authorities about these detainees, but, of course, they’re not going to come out and tell us that they beat the living daylights out of someone.” He recalled his attempts to find out more about KSM, after learning of his capture in 2003. For more than three years, he said, “I could never pinpoint anything.” After finally receiving some classified briefings on his interrogations, he said that he “[couldn’t] go into details” about what he found out about KSM’s treatment, but explained that “even if it wasn’t torture, as the Administration claims, ‘it ain’t right, either. Something went wrong.’”

In seeking out new information about the “black sites,” however, Mayer manages to get close to an extraordinary classified document: a report on the 14 “high-value” detainees –- including KSM, Abu Zubaydah and Ramzi bin al-Shibh –- who were transferred from the “black sites” to Guantánamo in September 2006. The report was compiled by the International Committee of the Red Cross, the only non-military and non-governmental personnel to have met the 14 men since they were captured, between two and five years ago. She notes that “The public affairs office at the CIA and officials at the congressional intelligence oversight committees would not even acknowledge the existence of the report,” and –- after pointing out that some of the few people to have seen it include Condoleezza Rice, national security adviser Stephen Hadley, the Secretary of State’s legal adviser John Bellinger III, CIA director Michael Hayden, CIA general counsel John Rizzo, and some members of the Senate and House intelligence oversight committees –- comments, acutely:

Confidentiality may be particularly stringent in this case. Congressional and other Washington sources familiar with the report said that it harshly criticized the CIA’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 US 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.

Such are the concerns about the legality of the CIA’s program that a former CIA officer, who “supports the agency’s detention and interrogation policies,” told Mayer that he was worried that, if the full story ever surfaced, “agency personnel could face criminal prosecution.” He added that, within the agency, there was a “high level of anxiety about political retribution” for the interrogation program, and explained that, if congressional hearings were to take place, “several guys expect to be thrown under the bus.” He also said that a number of officers had “taken out professional liability insurance, to help with potential legal fees.”

Moving on to the mechanics of the program, Mayer returns to September 17, 2001, when the President authorized the CIA to create paramilitary teams to hunt, capture, detain, or kill designated terrorists almost anywhere in the world. Noting that the agency had “virtually no trained interrogators,” she cites a former officer who confirmed that, at first, the agency was “crippled by its lack of expertise.” “It began right away, in Afghanistan, on the fly,” he said. “They invented the program of interrogation with people who had no understanding of al-Qaeda or the Arab world.” Under pressure from the White House, and in particular from Vice President Dick Cheney, the officer scoured the archives, and was “particularly impressed” with the Phoenix Program, from the Vietnam War, which, despite his enthusiasm, has been described as “a program of state-sanctioned torture and murder.” A. B. Krongard, the CIA’s executive director from 2001 to 2004, also explained that “the agency turned to ‘everyone we could, including our friends in Arab cultures,’ for interrogation advice, among them those in Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia,” all of which, as Mayer notes, are regularly criticized by the State Department for human rights abuses.

After explaining that the CIA knew even less about running prisons than it did about hostile interrogations, and quoting Tyler Drumheller, a former chief of European operations, who blamed former director George Tenet, saying that the entire program was “the legacy of a director who never said no to anybody,” Mayer reports that, according to the former officer, many CIA officials had misgivings. “A lot of us knew this would be a can of worms,” he said. “We warned them, ‘It’s going to become an atrocious mess.’” No one, he pointed out, had thought through what he called “the disposal plan”: “What are you going to do with these people? The utility of someone like KSM is, at most, six months to a year. You exhaust them. Then what? It would have been better if we had executed them.”

Execution, however, was not what the CIA had in mind. Instead, lacking any in-house expertise, the agency turned to retired military psychologists, trained in the Special Forces’ secret SERE program (“Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape”), which taught soldiers how to survive torture, should they ever be captured by their enemies, by simulating 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.” Despite some opposition from within the CIA, others were impressed that professors were on board who could, in theory at least, justify what the agency was doing.

Brought in to work on Abu Zubaydah, one of the first supposedly significant al-Qaeda figures in US custody (he was captured in March 2002), Mayer writes that a European official who was familiar with the program noted that the “professors” were “very arrogant, and pro-torture. 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.” She also reports that “Zubaydah told the Red Cross that he was not only waterboarded, as has been previously reported; he was also kept for a prolonged period in a cage, known as a ‘dog box,’ which was so small that he could not stand.” Describing the tactics used by James Mitchell, one of the psychologists (although Mitchell himself disputed the account), army interrogator Steve Kleinman said that reducing a detainee to a state of “learned helplessness” was “his whole paradigm.” Under Mitchell’s guidance, he said, the program “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.” He added, crucially, “It was the KGB model. But the KGB used it to get people who had turned against the state to confess falsely. The KGB wasn’t after intelligence.”

Mayer establishes that the revived torture program not only revived long-established (and generally reviled) techniques –- especially extreme sensory deprivation –- which elicited “confessions” regardless of their value, but also that it was “perfected,” and run with a “mechanistic aura” that was “remarkable.” One expert familiar with the techniques explained, disturbingly:

It’s one of the most sophisticated, refined programs of torture ever. At every stage, there was a rigid attention to detail. Procedure was adhered to almost to the letter. There was top-down quality control, and such a set routine that you get to the point where you know what each detainee is going to say, because you’ve heard it before. It was almost automated. People were utterly dehumanized. People fell apart. It was the intentional and systematic infliction of great suffering masquerading as a legal process. It is just chilling.

By the time of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed’s capture, in March 2003, the program was already well-established. Mayer runs through his back story, and then, while acknowledging that a “complete picture of [his] time in secret detention remains elusive,” pieces together the most complete story yet. After telling him, “We’re not going to kill you. But we’re going to take you to the very brink of your death and back,” Mayer reports that the CIA took him either to its notorious “Dark Prison” in Kabul –- where dozens of Guantánamo detainees were also held –- or to the “Salt Pit,” another CIA-run facility near Kabul. In these prisons, where, in addition to the humiliations of rectal intrusions and forced nudity, prisoners were subjected to loud music 24 hours a day, and to random beatings, painful “stress positions,” persistent sleep deprivation and extremes of heat and cold (techniques which, as Mayer notes, were staples of the KGB and –- in the case of sleep deprivation –- a technique whose efficacy as torture has been noted since the 1500s), Mohammed “was placed in his own cell, where he remained naked for several days. He was questioned by an unusual number of female handlers, perhaps as an additional humiliation. He has alleged that he was attached to a dog leash, and yanked in such a way that he was propelled into the walls of his cell. Sources say that he also claimed to have been suspended from the ceiling by his arms, his toes barely touching the ground. The pressure on his wrists evidently became exceedingly painful.” He is also “said to have described being chained naked to a metal ring in his cell wall for prolonged periods in a painful crouch,” and “also claimed that he was kept alternately in suffocating heat and in a painfully cold room, where he was doused with ice water.”

The Salt Pit

The Salt Pit. Photo by Trevor Paglen, co-author, with A. C. Thompson, of Torture Taxi: On the Trail of the CIA’s Rendition Flights.

Subsequently transferred to a secret prison in Poland –- where he surmised his location because he “glimpsed Polish writing on a water bottle” –- Mohammed encountered a more sophisticated form of detention, in a prison which was, apparently, “a far more high-tech facility than the prisons in Afghanistan. The cells had hydraulic doors and air-conditioning. Multiple cameras in each cell provided video surveillance of the detainees. In some ways, the circumstances were better: the detainees were given bottled water.” Robert Grenier, the CIA’s former counterterrorism chief, tellingly told Mayer (“without confirming the existence of any black sites”), “The agency’s techniques became less aggressive as they learned the art of interrogation,” which, he added, “is an art.” Nevertheless, the torture –- whether refined or not –- continued.

A Council on Europe report described isolation for four months as “typical.” The prisoners also had “no exposure to natural light, making it impossible for them to tell if it was night or day,” and “interacted only with masked, silent guards.” According to one former detainee of an Eastern European black site, Mohammed al-Asad, “white noise was piped in constantly, although during electrical outages he could hear people crying.” According to “a source familiar with the Red Cross report,” KSM spent his time in Poland shackled and naked, except for a pair of goggles and earmuffs. In addition, the food, which was “largely tasteless, and barely enough to live on,” was “delivered sporadically, to insure that the prisoners remained temporally disoriented.” “It was all part of the conditioning,” a Council of Europe representative said. “It’s all calibrated to develop dependency.”

The CIA’s secret “black site” in Poland

The CIA’s secret “black site” in Poland.

According to a source familiar with the Red Cross report, the majority of the detainees held in Poland –- most of the 14 who were transferred to Guantánamo in September 2006 –- were waterboarded, and KSM, whose waterboarding was first revealed by ABC News in November 2005, claimed to have been waterboarded five times. Mayer reports that “two former CIA officers who are friends with one of Mohammed’s interrogators called this bravado, insisting that he was waterboarded only once,” and claimed that he “needed only to be shown the drowning equipment again before he ‘broke,’” and adds that another officer insisted that he “didn’t resist. He sang right away. He cracked real quick.” He added, “KSM was just a little doughboy. He couldn’t stand toe to toe and fight it out.” Nevertheless, despite the officer’s insistence that the CIA “kept a doctor standing by during interrogations,” and that the method was “safe and effective,” he also “admitted that it could cause lasting psychic damage to the interrogators.”

And it’s at this point, as with all Mayer’s previous articles, that her talent shines through, as she elicits comments that reveal not only that “old-fashioned” techniques of “rapport-building” are the only effective way to gain useful intelligence, but also that embracing what Dick Cheney has described as the “Dark Side” –- embracing torture –- is not only morally repugnant and shockingly unreliable, but also that it implacably corrupts and damages those who take part in it:

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.”

Although a former CIA officer defended the program by explaining that “there was absolutely nothing done to KSM that wasn’t done to the interrogators themselves,” Mayer also notes that “the Red Cross report emphasizes that it was the simultaneous use of several techniques for extended periods that made the treatment ‘especially abusive,’” and quotes Senator Carl Levin, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and an outspoken critic of the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques,” who told her that, particularly with sensory deprivation, “there’s a point where it’s torture. You can put someone in a refrigerator and it’s torture. Everything is a matter of degree.” Mayer also quotes former CIA director George Tenet, who, writing of KSM’s apparent insistence that “he wouldn’t talk until he was given a lawyer in New York, where he assumed he would be taken,” explained, in his recent memoir At the Center of the Storm, “Had that happened, I am confident that we would have obtained none of the information he had in his head about imminent threats against the American people.” She adds, however, that opponents of the CIA’s program, recalling that Ramzi Yousef –- KSM’s nephew, and the terrorist behind the first attempt to blow up the World Trade Center in 1993 –- “gave a voluminous confession after being read his Miranda rights,” following his capture and rendition to the US courts (rather than an offshore gulag). “These guys are egomaniacs,” a former federal prosecutor told Mayer. “They love to talk!” This is a claim that one of the pro-torture officers also made –- “A lot of them want to talk. Their egos are unimaginable” –- but in the waterboarding scenario, as Mayer has demonstrated, the talk led only to such exaggerated claims that one of the jokes that followed KSM’s “confession” in March was that he was on the grassy knoll in 1963 and had killed John F. Kennedy.

Towards the end of the article, Mayer cites Philip Zelikow, the executive director of the 9/11 Commission and later the State Department’s top counsellor, under Condoleezza Rice, who told her that he is “not convinced that eliciting information from detainees justifies ‘physical torment.’” Last year, after leaving the government, he said, “The question would not be, ‘Did you get information that proved useful?’ Instead it would be, ‘Did you get information that could have been usefully gained only from these methods?’ My own view is that the cool, carefully considered, methodical, prolonged, and repeated subjection of captives to physical torment, and the accompanying psychological terror, is immoral.”

Noting that, under pressure, “a former top agency official” conceded that 90 per cent of the information produced by the “enhanced interrogation techniques” was “unreliable,” and that KSM, “like virtually all the top al-Qaeda prisoners held by the CIA, has claimed that, while under coercion, he lied to please his captors,” Mayer leaves the final words to the following: former CIA analyst Bruce Riedel, who asked, “What are you going to do with KSM in the long run? It’s a very good question. I don’t think anyone has an answer. If you took him to any real American court, I think any judge would say there is no admissible evidence. It would be thrown out”; a federal official involved in KSM’s case, who said, “He has no history of killing with his own hands, although he’s proved happy to commit mass murder from afar,” and who, noting that “al-Qaeda’s leadership had increasingly focused on symbolic political targets,” added, “For him, it’s not personal. It’s business”; to Carl Levin, who said, “A guy as dangerous as KSM is, and half the world wonders if they can believe him –- is that what we want? Statements that can’t be believed, because people think they rely on torture?”; and to Daniel Pearl’s friend Asra Nomani: “I’m not interested in unfair justice, even for bad people. Danny was such a person of conscience. I don’t think he would have wanted all of this dirty business. I don’t think he would have wanted someone being tortured. He would have been repulsed. This is the kind of story that Danny would have investigated. He really believed in American principles.”

Note: Also published this week, and worth reading in its entirety is Leave No Marks: Enhanced Interrogation Techniques and the Risk of Criminality, a report by Physicians for Human Rights and Human Rights First.

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.

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), 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, 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 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.

4 Responses

  1. Sybrand Hekking Amnesty International says...

    Hello Andy,

    Could you send us the picture of the CIA’s Black Site in Poland which you have published on this site: imgurl=http://www.andyworthington.co.uk/images/poland.jpg which we would to use it for one of the famous Amnesty writer actions in which we demand a thorough research on these detention centres.

    Could you reply a.s.a.p

    Greetings Sybrand Hekking audiovis Amnesty Holland

  2. How bad does it have to get before we "get it?" | Turn Left @ hypocrisy.com says...

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

    […] 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 “h… (August 2007), Waterboarding: two questions for Michael Hayden about three “high-value” […]

  4. Is Khalid Sheikh Mohammed Running the 9/11 Trials? says...

    […] resist all types of traditional interrogation. But as the New Yorker’s Jane Mayer explained in an article last summer, a former CIA officer with knowledge of the techniques used on the al-Qaeda suspects […]

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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 and We Stand With Shaker. Also, photo-journalist (The State of London), and singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers).
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