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Revealed: Senate report contains new details on CIA black sites

Sources tell Al Jazeera the Intelligence Committee report accuses spy agency of lying about detention and interrogation

A Senate Intelligence Committee report provides the first official confirmation that the CIA secretly operated a black site prison out of Guantánamo Bay, two U.S. officials who have read portions of the report have told Al Jazeera.

The officials — who spoke on condition of anonymity because the 6,600-page report on the CIA’s detention and interrogation program remains classified — said top-secret agency documents reveal that at least 10 high-value targets were secretly held and interrogated at Guantánamo’s Camp Echo at various times from late 2003 to 2004. They were then flown to Rabat, Morocco, before being officially sent to the U.S. military’s detention facility at Guantánamo in September 2006.

In September 2006, President George W. Bush formally announced that 14 CIA captives had been transferred to Guantánamo and would be prosecuted before military tribunals. He then acknowledged for the first time that the CIA had been operating a secret network of prisons overseas to detain and interrogate high-value targets.

The Senate report, according to Al Jazeera’s sources, says that the CIA detained some high-value suspects on Diego Garcia, an Indian Ocean island controlled by the United Kingdom and leased to the United States. The classified CIA documents say the black site arrangement at Diego Garcia was made with the “full cooperation” of the British government. That would confirm long-standing claims by human rights investigators and journalists, whose allegations — based on flight logs and unnamed government sources — have routinely been denied by the CIA.

The CIA and State Department declined Al Jazeera’s requests for comment.

The Intelligence Committee last week voted 11 to 3 to declassify the report’s 480-page executive summary and 20 conclusions and findings, which incorporate responses from Republican members of the committee and from the CIA. The executive summary will undergo a declassification review, led by the CIA, with input from the State Department and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the U.S. officials said.

The panel’s chairwoman, Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, said in a statement last Thursday that the full 6,600-page report, with 37,000 footnotes, “will be held for declassification at a later time.”

Polish site
The control tower of the airport in Szymany, Poland, near an alleged CIA black site.
AP

Leaked details of the committee’s report have caused waves in countries like Poland, where the CIA is known to have operated a black site prison — which Polish officials continue to deny having known about.

The U.S. officials who spoke to Al Jazeera said that the Senate report reveals 20 prisoners were secretly detained in Poland from 2002 to 2005. They added that Polish officials recently sought assurances from diplomats and visiting U.S. officials that the Senate report would conceal details about Poland’s role in allowing the CIA black site to be operated on Polish soil. Al Jazeera’s sources said U.S. officials reassured their Polish counterparts last year that it was almost certain that the declassified version of the report would not identify the countries that cooperated with the CIA’s detention and interrogation program.

According to the Senate report, Al Jazeera’s sources said, a majority of the more than 100 detainees held in CIA custody were detained in secret prisons in Afghanistan and Morocco, where they were subject to torture methods not sanctioned by the Justice Department. Those methods are recalled by the report in vivid narratives lifted from daily logs of the detention and interrogation of about 34 high-value prisoners. The report allegedly notes that about 85 detainees deemed low-value passed through the black sites and were later dumped at Guantánamo or handed off to foreign intelligence services. More than 10 of those handed over to foreign intelligence agencies “to face terrorism charges” are now “unaccounted for” and presumed dead, the U.S. officials said.

The Senate report says more than two dozen of these men designated low-value had, in fact, been wrongfully detained and rendered to other countries on the basis of intelligence obtained from CIA captives under torture and from information shared with CIA officials by other governments, both of which turned out to be false. The report allegedly singles out a top CIA official for botching a handful of renditions and outlines agency efforts to cover up the mistakes.

The Senate report allegedly accuses “senior CIA officials” of lying during multiple closed-session briefings to members of Congress from 2003 to 2005 about the use of certain “enhanced” interrogation techniques. The report says an agency official lied to Congress in 2005 when he insisted the U.S. was adhering to international treaties barring cruel and degrading treatment of prisoners, the U.S. officials told Al Jazeera.

The report not only accuses certain CIA officials of deliberately misleading Congress; Al Jazeera’s sources say it also suggests that the agency sanctioned leaks to selected journalists about phantom plots supposedly disrupted as a result of information gained through the program in order to craft a narrative of success.

The Senate report, like a 2009 Senate Armed Services Committee report (PDF), says Air Force psychologists under contract to the CIA reverse-engineered a decades-old resistance-training program taught to U.S. airmen known as survival evasion resistance escape (SERE).

According to a SERE training document obtained by Al Jazeera titled “Coercive Exploitation Techniques,” Air Force personnel were taught that communist regimes used “deprivations” of “food, water, sleep and medical care” as well as “the use of threats” in order to weaken a captive’s mental and physical ability to resist interrogation. “Isolation” would be used, according to the SERE program, to deprive the “recipient of all social support” so that he develops a “dependency” on his interrogator. And “physical duress, violence and torture” are used to weaken “mental and physical ability to resist exploitation.”

Ironically, perhaps, the SERE document (displayed below) notes that such techniques were used by the Soviet Union, China and North Korea to obtain false confessions.

Senate investigators allegedly obtained from the CIA a 2003 “business plan,” written by Air Force psychologists James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, that contained erroneous details about the positive aspects of the enhanced interrogation program and the veracity of the intelligence its extracted from detainees. The “business plan” states that Al-Qaeda captives were “resistant” to “standard” interrogation techniques, an argument the Senate report found lacked merit because torture techniques were used before they were even questioned.

Neither Jessen, who lives in Spokane, Wash., nor Mitchell, who resides in Land o’ Lakes, Fla., responded to phone calls or emails for comment. Both men are featured prominently in the Senate’s report, according to U.S. officials.

The ‘experiment’

According to Al Jazeera’s sources, Zain Abidin Mohammed Husain Abu Zubaydah was the only captive subjected to all 10 torture techniques identified in an August 2002 Justice Department memo. But the U.S. officials said the Senate report concludes that the methods applied to Abu Zubaydah went above and beyond the guidelines outlined in that memo and were used before the memo establishing their legality was written.

The Senate report allegedly adopts part of a narrative from former FBI special agent Ali Soufan, who first interrogated Abu Zubaydah at the black site and wrote in his book “The Black Banners” that Mitchell was conducting an “experiment” on Abu Zubaydah.

For example, the August 2002 Justice Department legal memo authorized sleep deprivation for Abu Zubaydah for 11 consecutive days, but Mitchell kept him awake far longer, the U.S. officials said, citing classified CIA cables. Abu Zubaydah was stripped naked, strapped into a chair and doused with cold water to keep him awake. He was then interrogated and asked what he knew, at which point, his attorney told Al Jazeera, Abu Zubaydah was “psychotic” and would have admitted to anything.

Additionally, the report allegedly says that Abu Zubaydah was stuffed into a pet crate (the type used to transport dogs on airplanes) over the course of two weeks and routinely passed out, was shackled by his wrists to the ceiling of his cell and subjected to an endless loop of loud music. One former interrogator briefed about Abu Zubaydah’s interrogations from May to July 2002 told Al Jazeera that the music used to batter the detainee’s senses was by the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

Abu Zubaydah’s attorney, Brent Mickum, hopes the Senate report’s executive summary will vindicate what he has been saying for years. “My client was tortured brutally well before any legal memo was issued,” Mickum said. He expects the report to “show that my client was a nonmember of Al-Qaeda, contrary to all of the earlier reports by the Bush administration. I am also confident that the report will show that, after he was deemed to be compliant while he was held in Thailand, that he continued to be tortured on explicit orders from the Bush administration.”

The Senate report, according to Al Jazeera’s sources, says that CIA interrogators were under an enormous pressure from top agency officials, themselves under pressure from the White House, to use “enhanced” interrogation techniques to obtain information from detainees connecting Iraq and Al-Qaeda.

One interrogator who worked for the CIA and the U.S. military during Bush’s tenure and participated in the interrogations of two high-value CIA prisoners told Al Jazeera — speaking on condition of anonymity because he is still employed by the U.S. government — that the “enhanced” interrogation program was “nothing more than the Stanford Prison Experiment writ large.” (The 1971 Stanford University study shocked the public by demonstrating how easily people placed in authority over more vulnerable others resorted to cruelty.)

“Interrogators were being pressured — You have to get info from these people,’” the interrogator told Al Jazeera. “There was no consideration that the person we were interrogating may not know. That was always seen as a resistance technique. ‘They [the detainees] must be lying!’ There was pressure on us from above to produce what they wanted. Not a single person I worked with knew how to conduct an interrogation or [had] ever conducted an interrogation.”

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