In the past few years, the evidence suggesting that the Bush administration approved torture to question al Qaeda suspects has been overwhelming to say the least. But there have still been few historical accounts to confirm that torture was used, so every new addition to the record of abuse in the War of Terror is important. The latest and most authoritative addition comes from the International Committee for the Red Cross in an article in the New York Review of Books by Mark Danner, a journalism professor and New Yorker contributor.
Danner obtained a 2007 confidential ICRC report from an unnamed source indicating the use of torture to question al Qaeda suspects at secret CIA prisons, and focusing on three suspects who were treated especially harshly: Abu Zubaydah, Khaled Shaik Mohammed, and Walid Bin Attash.
The ICRC report stresses that in each case, suspects were stripped naked, deprived of food, and forced into painful positions for prolonged periods of time.
Abu Zubaydah, a suspected associate of Osama bin Laden, experienced perhaps the most gruesome questioning. He was refused solid food, water boarded, and subjected to long questioning sessions in his cell. Remembering his questioning, Zubaydah said:
Two black wooden boxes were brought into the room outside my cell. One was tall, slightly higher than me and narrow. Measuring perhaps in area [3 1/2 by 2 1/2 feet by 6 1/2 feet high]. The other was shorter, perhaps only [3 1/2 feet] in height. I was taken out of my cell and one of the interrogators wrapped a towel around my neck, they then used it to swing me around and smash me repeatedly against the hard walls of the room. I was also repeatedly slapped in the face….
I was then put into the tall black box for what I think was about one and a half to two hours. The box was totally black on the inside as well as the outside…. They put a cloth or cover over the outside of the box to cut out the light and restrict my air supply. It was difficult to breathe. When I was let out of the box I saw that one of the walls of the room had been covered with plywood sheeting. From now on it was against this wall that I was then smashed with the towel around my neck. I think that the plywood was put there to provide some absorption of the impact of my body. The interrogators realized that smashing me against the hard wall would probably quickly result in physical injury.”
Zubaydah was later forced into this box and water boarded, repeatedly led to believe that he would suffocate. During the week he endured this harsh questioning, Zubaydah ate little more than Ensure diet drinks. He said that the torture only stopped because a doctor intervened.
Zubaydah was told that he was the first to be tortured in this way, “so no rules applied. It felt like they were experimenting and trying out techniques to be used later on other people.”
Khaled Shaik Mohammed, the key mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, was also subjected to harsh questioning tactics. But he specifies that he was never threatened with death. In fact, interrogators said they would not let him die, but that they would bring him to the “verge of death and back again.”
I was kept for one month in the cell in a standing position with my hands cuffed and shackled above my head and my feet cuffed and shackled to a point in the floor. Of course during this month I fell asleep on some occasions while still being held in this position. This resulted in all my weight being applied to the handcuffs around my wrist resulting in open and bleeding wounds. [Scars consistent with this allegation were visible on both wrists as well as on both ankles.] Both my feet became very swollen after one month of almost continual standing. …
The beatings became worse and I had cold water directed at me from a hose-pipe by guards while I was still in my cell. The worst day was when I was beaten for about half an hour by one of the interrogators. My head was banged against the wall so hard that it started to bleed. Cold water was poured over my head. This was then repeated with other interrogators. Finally I was taken for a session of water boarding.
Walid Bin Attash, who was involved in attacking U.S. targets in 1998 and 2000, was also refused solid food and deprived of sleep.
I do not remember for exactly how many days I was kept standing, but I think it was about ten days…. During the standing I was made to wear a diaper. However, on some occasions the diaper was not replaced and so I had to urinate and defecate over myself. I was washed down with cold water everyday.
Danner came to a few key conclusions after reading the ICRC report: most importantly, the Bush administration approved torture in its questioning of al Qaeda suspects as early as 2002. And everyone in the administration, including President Bush, knew it was happening.
Danner says that it is unclear exactly how successful these tactics were in gathering key information about potential terrorists. But one key comment from Khaled Shaik Mohammed indicates that the information is worthless. In the worst moments of torture, Mohammed says he “gave a lot of false information in order to satisfy what I believed the interrogators wished to hear in order to make the ill-treatment stop.” This information undoubtedly “wasted a lot of their time and led to several false red-alerts.”