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In 2003, Khalid al-Sharif was snatched from his home in broad daylight. A high-ranking member of a Libyan group bent on toppling Muammar Gaddafi, he was living in exile in Pakistan when he was taken to a secret prison where he would spend the next two years.
“One of the officers told me, ‘I can pull out my gun now and shoot and kill you, and no one will hold me accountable,’” al-Sharif recalled. “He said, ‘Your life is in my hands. If you don’t speak, I’ll shoot you and throw you outside.’”
It wasn’t one of Gaddafi’s men who made that threat, says al-Sharif. He says it was an American working for the CIA.
As a devout Muslim with ties to an Islamic rebel group, al-Sharif says the Americans thought he might know something about Al-Qaeda. Al-Sharif was imprisoned at a CIA "black site." There, he was shackled for days at a time, subjected to around-the-clock sleep deprivation and forced into painful stress positions, even with a broken foot.
“I was hung from the ceiling and left hanging for three or four days while standing on one foot,” he says. “I was deprived of sleep, until I feel into a hysteria-like state and was almost unconscious. We were also beaten on different parts of the body – the stomach and the back.”
Al-Sharif calls it torture. So does the U.S. Senate. And the U.S. government never even charged him with a crime.
Al-Sharif is one of 119 detainees whose stories are told in the recent Senate report on the CIA’s interrogation program. Calling him “Abu Hazim,” an assumed name he used to hide from the Libyans, the report says much of the harsh treatment al-Sharif and others experienced was never approved, nor did CIA bosses do anything to stop it.
“They also tortured us by plunging us in tubs of freezing water until we felt our bodies become like ice,” he says. “Water torture was also used when they put a cloth over our face and poured water nonstop over it until we couldn’t breathe.”
I was hung from the ceiling and left hanging for three or four days while standing on one foot. I was deprived of sleep, until I feel into a hysteria-like state and was almost unconscious. We were also beaten on different parts of the body – the stomach and the back.
former CIA detainee
According to the Senate report, a CIA linguist who was present at al-Sharif’s so-called "water dousing" was so disturbed that he reported the incident to his superiors. The matter was referred to the Justice Department for possible prosecution. It went nowhere. According to the Senate report, the CIA Inspector General couldn't corroborate al-Sharif's account. But according to human rights groups, government investigators never actually interviewed al-Sharif.
Under federal law, torture is defined as the intentional infliction of “severe physical or mental pain or suffering." The United Nations' Convention Against Torture, which the U.S. ratified in 1994, requires all acts of torture to be prosecuted. But to date, no U.S. official has been prosecuted for the abuse inflicted on al-Sharif and other detainees.
“In this case, torture was clearly unlawful and should never have been authorized,” said Laura Pitter, a senior attorney at Human Rights Watch. “But really, it’s the architects of the program and the lawyers who created the legal memos to authorize the program who are most responsible and should be held accountable.”
John the whistleblower
When America Tonight approached the Justice Department for this report, its press office responded in an email in bold type: “We are not doing interviews.” But in a statement, the agency said that it reviewed the cases of several detainees “alleged to have been mistreated” back in 2009. In the two criminal investigations that resulted, it said it did not find sufficient evidence to “obtain and sustain” convictions.
The statement also said the department would not prosecute any interrogators who “acted in good faith” – a reference to a now-infamous series of memos in which the Justice Department gave many of the harsh techniques its blessing.
“I can understand people saying, ‘This is what the lawyers told me was legal.’ I understand that and they shouldn’t be prosecuted,” said John Kiriakou, a former CIA operative. “But the ones that should be prosecuted are the ones that went over and over – the sickos, the sadists, the people who just did what they did because they were in a position of authority and they knew they could get away with it.”
Kiriakou was part of the team that captured Abu Zubaydah in 2002. At the time, it was considered a big victory. Zubaydah was waterboarded 83 times in a single month and lost an eye while in custody. Kiriakou became one of the first former CIA officials to publicly discuss the agency's use of waterboarding, in a 2007 interview with ABC News. He told the network that he'd come to see waterboarding as wrong.
Ironically, Kiriakou is the only CIA operative who’s been sent to prison. In 2012, he admitted in a plea deal to violating CIA secrecy laws. Kiriakou believes his prosecution was really retaliation for speaking out about the CIA's techniques, and civil liberty advocates have lauded him as a whistleblower.
“There’s so many of these techniques which were designed to inflict pain,” Kiriakou told America Tonight from a federal penitentiary in Western Pennsylvania before his release to home confinement earlier this month. “If the purpose is to inflict pain that the human body can’t withstand, to me that’s torture.”
'We don't do that'
Now retired, Glenn Carle, who spent 23 years in the clandestine service, has also voiced his concerns about the CIA's interrogation program. In 2002, his boss asked him to oversee the interrogation of a man they suspected might be Osama bin Laden's banker. He was given one hour to think about the request.
“This is what he said: ‘You will do whatever it takes to get this man to talk. Do you understand?’ I physically recoiled,” Carle said. “And my response was, ‘We don’t do that.’ And he said, ‘Well, we do now.’”
Despite his reservations, Carle says he took the assignment after it was presented as a duty to his country. He said he was told "to be creative and pressure him." He was also told that harsh interrogation methods had been authorized by the president himself. When he asked their lawyers about their definition of torture, he said he was told it was anything that caused vital organ failure or death.
"I thought, 'That's the most astounding bit of hogwash I’ve heard in my life. That justifies anything. Anything,'" Carle said.
Those brutal methods were never used on his detainee, but Carle says he learned about other detainees who were mistreated.
While Carle is critical of the CIA's interrogation program, he said he doesn't support prosecutions for the people who carried it out.
“I respect almost all of them. I know that they are convinced that they gave everything they could honorably to serve the country," said Carle, author of "The Interrogator: An Education." "These are men and women who I think made a grievously wrong decision, but in almost impossible circumstances.”
President Obama is not pushing to prosecute any of the CIA interrogators or their bosses, saying it’s time “to move on.” But Kiriakou says that without any repercussions, there’s nothing to keep such brutality from happening again.
“There’s been an executive order saying we shouldn’t do this anymore, but do we really trust the intelligence infrastructure?” Kiriakou said. “I don’t think that without a legal foundation a future president can just decide, ‘I think torture is a good idea and maybe we should do it again.’ That’s why we need prosecutions.”
Al-Sharif, who's now back home in Libya with his family, also believes that those responsible for his abuse should be brought to justice. In the meantime, he says that the Senate report about what happened to him and all the others held in captivity by the CIA is the first step to revealing the truth.