A new report documenting the torture of more than two-dozen former prisoners held at Bagram Airbase in Afghanistan between 2002 and 2008 comes several months after a bipartisan congressional committee linked the murder of two detainees held at the same prison facility to policies enacted by George W. Bush and ex-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.
The April report released by the Senate Armed Services Committee report on the treatment of prisoners held in U.S. Custody in Iraq and Afghanistan concluded that a combination of various torture techniques coupled with a series of brutal beatings administered by military interrogators caused the deaths of the two prisoners in December 2002.
One of the detainees, identified in the report as Dilawar, was the subject of the Academy Award winning documentary Taxi to the Dark Side.
According to the Armed Services Committee report, another detainee identified as Habibulllah was killed two days after Rumsfeld authorized the use of “enhanced interrogation” techniques against prisoners in Afghanistan. Dilawar was murdered six days after Habibullah was killed. The report labeled their deaths homicides.
According to a detailed account in 2005 in the New York Times, Dilawar, a taxi-driver, was apprehended Dec. 5 by U.S. Forces and taken to Bagram and interrogated about a rocket attack on American base.
Dilawar was chained by his wrists to the ceiling of his cell for four days and brutally beaten by Army interrogators on his legs for hours on end to the point where he could no longer bend them. He died on Dec. 10, 2002.
Lt. Col. Elizabeth Rouse, an Air Force medical examiner who performed an autopsy on Dilawar, said Dilawar’s leg was pummeled so badly that the” tissue was falling apart and had basically been pulpified.”
“Had Dilawar lived,” Rouse told Army investigators in sworn testimony, “I believe the injury to the legs are so extensive that it would have required amputation. I’ve seen similar injuries in an individual run over by a bus.”
In fact, as the New York Times reported in May 2005, when Dilawar was murdered, “most of the interrogators had believed Mr. Dilawar was an innocent man who simply drove his taxi past the American base at the wrong time.”
The U.S. Military never produced any evidence to prove that either Habibullah or Dilawar had connections to the Taliban or al-Qaeda. The detainees interviewed by the BBC during a two-month investigation said they were also apprehended and indefinitely imprisoned at Bagram on suspicion of being members of the Taliban or al-Qaeda.
The details of the murders of Dilawar and Habibullah at the hands of military interrogators have been previously reported. But the Senate report included new information about the behind-the-scenes meetings that took place between high-level Pentagon officials in the months before their deaths where “enhanced interrogation” policies implemented at Bagram were discussed.
Those policies were also directly responsible for the torture of some of the prisoners who were interviewed by the BBC.
Previous reports, including one from the Army’s criminal investigative unit, pinned Dilawar and Habibullah’s murder on rogue soldiers and on-the-ground military officials but have never linked the murders directly to the interrogation policies enacted by the Bush administration.
Indeed, a report into detainee abuse commissioned by Rumsfeld and completed by his handpicked investigator in 2004, former Naval inspector general Vice Admiral Albert T. Church, cleared Pentagon officials stating they “did not promulgate interrogation policies . . . that directed, sanctioned or encouraged the torture or abuse of detainees.”
The Church report said Dilawar and Habibullah’s deaths were isolated incidents that a few rogue soldiers were responsible for. But the Church report failed to take into account Rumsfeld’s directive to military officials at Bagram to get tougher with detainees and obtain “actionable intelligence” through “detainee exploitation” which, according to the Armed Services report, resulted in widespread abuse at Bagram, Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib.
In February, the American Civil Liberties Union obtained under a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit two-pages from the Church report that had been classified for the past five years. Those documents included details of two detainee deaths at Bagram in December 2002 believed to be Dilawar and Habibullah, but those pages did not identify the detainees who were killed by name. The ACLU said they believed the two-pages were withheld by the Bush administraton to cover-up evidence of war crimes.
A declassified version of the 360-page Church report, delivered to Congress in March 2004, said there was “no policy that condoned or authorized either abuse or torture,” which critics of the Bush administration believed was a cover-up.
But the Armed Services Committee report undercuts those specific conclusions and flatly states that policy directives authorized by Rumsfeld were a contributing factor to the deaths of Dilawar and Habibullah.
The report says, “The use of stress positions and sleep deprivation combined with other mistreatment at the hands of Bagram personnel, caused or were direct contributing factors in the two homicides.”
The report makes clear it was Rumsfeld’s interrogation directives and a Feb. 7, 2002 action memorandum signed by Bush suspending the Geneva Conventions for al-Qaeda and Taliban prisoners that “opened the door” to the systematic abuse of prisoners in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The committee traced the murder of Dilawar and Habibullah’s to interrogation policies at Bagram that were first proposed by Pentagon officials in October 2001, just days after the U.S. launched an attack against the Taliban government.
At that time, a Special Mission Unit Task Force (SMU TF) was charged with interrogating prisoners they believed were linked to al-Qaeda and the Taliban. The Armed Services Committee report said in October 2001 the SMU TF was sent to Afghanistan “with a mission” and the rest of the description contained in the report from that point was redacted.
“While SMU TF operators conducted a limited amount of direct questioning, or, ’screening’ of detainees while on the battlefield, it appears that they did not conduct interrogations until at least October 2002,” the report says. “Prior to that point, SMU personnel had observed interrogations conducted by Combined Joint Task Force (CJTF-180), which had assumed control of U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan at the end of May 2002.”
A footnote contained in the Armed Services Committee report notes that Vice Admiral Church “examined interrogation techniques used by SMU in the USCENTCOM area of responsibility.”
But Church’s report “did not discuss the SMUs” work interrogating prisoners.
The Armed Services Committee report goes on to say that SMU TF members gleaned interrogation techniques for Bagram from Guantanamo during a two-day visit there in October 2002.
The visit took place “just as the [Joint Task Force-170 stationed at Guantanamo] were finalizing a request submitted to SOUTHCOM…to use interrogation techniques including stress positions, removal of clothing, deprivation of light and auditory stimuli, hooding, use of detainee phobias such as dogs, exposure to cold weather or water, and non-injurious contact such as grabbing, poking and pushing.”
Dilawar and Habibullah were subjected to a combination of those techniques, such as stress positions and hooding, and that played a major role in their deaths, the Armed Services Committee report concluded.
In late October 2001, the SMU TF returned to Afghanistan and a proposal was made to the SMU Commander there. SMU TF “outlined a rationale” for conducting its own interrogations at Bagram.
They recommended the “imaginative but legal use of non-lethal psychological techniques (i.e., battlefield noises/chaos, barking dogs, etc.)” as well as stress techniques such as “sensory deprivation (hoods, silence, flex cuffs), sensory overload (shouting, gun shots, white noise, machinery noise) and manipulation of the environment (hot, cold, wet. windy, hard surfaces).”
Those methods are identical to the torturous techniques the two-dozen detainees interviewed by the BBC said they endured while imprisoned at Bagram. SMU TF also proposed to Lt. General Dan McNeil, the commander of the Joint Task Force-180, building an interrogation facility for “high-value” detainees co-located at the Bagram Collection Point, where Dilawar and Habibullah were held and interrogated.
When the New York Times revealed in 2005 that Dilawar and Habibullah’s were tortured to death, McNeil was quote denying reports that the detainees were chained by their wrists to the ceilings in their prison cells.
“The briefing stated that CJTF-180 was focused on the detention mission rather than the interrogation mission, that ‘no advanced interrogation techniques’ including ’sensory deprivation/overload, sleep deprivation, psychological manipulation’ were employed by CJTF-180, and that current procedures were having only ‘limited success[es],” the report says.
“While the SMU briefing noted that ‘advanced interrogation techniques’” were not in use at Bagram prior to November 2002, Army investigations into the deaths of two detainees at Bagram in early December revealed that, by early December 2002, at least one of the techniques, sleep deprivation, was apparently in wide use there.”
Again, a torture technique the prisoners interviewed by the BBC said they had endured.
A day before Habibullah was taken to Bagram, Pentagon General Counsel William Haynes sent Rumsfeld an action memo advising the Defense Secretary to approve a list of “enhanced interrogation” techniques, including standing for up to four hours and the use of military dogs, to use against prisoners at Guantanamo. But as the Armed Services Committee report state, the interrogation policy “became known to interrogators in Afghanistan.
Two days before Habibullah was killed, Rumsfeld signed the action memo presented to him by Haynes.
The Armed Services Committee report said those “aggressive interrogation techniques conveyed the message that physical pressures and degradation were appropriate treatment for detainees in U.S. military custody.”
“Shortly after Secretary Rumsfeld’s December 2, 2002 approval of his General Counsel’s [William Haynes] recommendation to authorize aggressive interrogation techniques, the techniques¬-and the fact the Secretary had authorized them–became known to interrogators in Afghanistan. A copy of the Secretary’s memo was sent from GTMO to Afghanistan.”
The Armed Services Committee report further added, “Captain Carolyn Wood, the Officer in Charge of the Intelligence Section at Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan, said that in January 2003 she saw a power point presentation listing the aggressive techniques that had been authorized by the Secretary” a month earlier.
Wood was singled out in an Army criminal investigative report as having lied to investigators by saying that the shackling of prisoners in prolonged standing positions was done to protect interrogators from being harmed. The Army’s internal report said the technique-authorized by Rumsfeld–was used to inflict pain and sleep deprivation.
Wood went on to establish the interrogation and debriefing center at Abu Ghraib where the systematic torture of prisoners has been well documented. Defense Department reports into the abuse at the prison said she was responsible for interrogation procedures there that went above and beyond those approved by Army commanders.
On Wednesday, Jonathan Hafetz, a staff attorney with the ACLU’s Nation; Security Project, said, “Torture and abuse at Bagram is further evidence that prisoner abuse in U.S. custody was systemic, not aberrational, and originated at the highest levels of government.”
In April, the ACLU filed a FOIA request for documents related to the detention and treatment of prisoners held at Bagram, including the number of people currently detained, their names, citizenship, place of capture and length of detention.