Who Ordered the Torture of Abu Zubaydah?
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In his statement to the ICRC, Zubaydah explained how, even before the waterboarding began, he was strapped naked to a chair for several weeks in a cell that was “air-conditioned and very cold,” deprived of food, subjected to extreme sleep deprivation for two to three weeks -- partly by means of loud music or incessant noise, and partly because, “If I started to fall asleep one of the guards would come and spray water in my face” -- and, for the rest of the time, until the waterboarding began, was subjected to further sleep deprivation, and kept in a state of perpetual fear.
This array of techniques undoubtedly appears less dramatic than the “real torturing” that followed (in which the waterboarding was accompanied by physical brutality, hooding, the daily shaving of his hair and beard, and confinement in small boxes), but, again, it is critical to try to imagine what two to three weeks of chronic sleep deprivation actually means, and to recall that, by the time Steven G. Bradbury, the Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General, revised the approval for torture techniques in May 2005, it was noted that it was only considered acceptable to subject a prisoner to 180 hours (seven and a half days) of sleep deprivation.
To understand how torture came to be used before it was officially approved, we need to return to the New York Times article of September 2006, which explained how, according to accounts by three former intelligence officials, the CIA “understood that the legal foundation for its role had been spelled out in a sweeping classified directive” signed by President Bush on September 17, 2001, which authorized the agency “to capture, detain and interrogate terrorism suspects.”
Significantly, this “memorandum of notification” did not spell out specific guidelines for interrogations, but as later research, and the latest reports have confirmed, the directive led to focused efforts by the CIA, and by William J. Haynes II, the Pentagon’s General Counsel (and a protégé of Dick Cheney), to contact foreign governments for advice on harsh interrogation techniques, and to begin a relationship with a number of individuals involved in the Joint Personnel Recovery Program (JPRA), the body responsible for administering the SERE program (Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape), which is taught at U.S. military schools.
Designed to teach military personnel how to resist interrogation if captured by a hostile enemy, the SERE program uses outlawed techniques derived from techniques used on captured U.S. soldiers during the Korean War to elicit deliberately false confessions, and includes, as the Senate Committee report explained, “stripping detainees of their clothing, placing them in stress positions, putting hoods over their heads, disrupting their sleep, treating them like animals, subjecting them to loud music and flashing lights, and exposing them to extreme temperatures.” In some circumstances, the techniques also include waterboarding, and, as numerous sources -- including the recently released reports and memos -- have revealed over the last few years, the reverse-engineering of the SERE techniques constituted the bedrock of the administration’s interrogation program, from Afghanistan, Iraq and Guantánamo to the secret dungeons of the CIA.
As we also know, from the pioneering research conducted by Jane Mayer, by the time that the CIA took over Zubaydah’s interrogation from the FBI, in April 2002, the team included Dr. David Mitchell, a retired Air Force SERE psychologist. Thanks to the detailed timeline provided by the Senate Committee, we now know that it was Haynes who first inquired about the applicability of the SERE program to the interrogation of prisoners in December 2001, and we also know that, in April 2002, while “experienced intelligence officers were making recommendations to improve intelligence collection” -- which, noticeably, included an assessment by Col. Stuart A. Herrington, a retired Army intelligence officer, that a regime based solely on punishment “detracts from the flexibility that debriefers require to accomplish their mission” -- “JPRA officials with no training or experience were working on their own exploitation plan,” and a colleague of Mitchell’s, Bruce Jessen, a senior SERE psychologist, was providing recommendations for JPRA involvement in the “exploitation of select al-Qaeda detainees” in an “exploitation facility” to be established especially for the purpose -- which, presumably, turned out to be the secret dungeon provided by the Thai government.