Torture

Declassified DoD Documents Suggest Detainees Were Tortured to Death

By Jason Leopold

Newly declassified Defense Department documents describe a pattern of “abusive” behavior by U.S. military interrogators that appears to have caused the deaths of several suspected terrorists imprisoned at a detention center in Afghanistan in December 2002, just two days after former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld authorized the use of “enhanced interrogation” techniques against prisoners in that country.

The previously secret pages were part of a wide-ranging report into detainee abuse in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay known as the Church Report, named after Vice Admiral Albert T. Church, the former Naval inspector general, who conducted the investigation at the request of Rumsfeld. That 360-page 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 declassified Pentagon documents, coupled with a report issued last December by the Senate Armed Services Committee, tell a different story and lend credence to claims by civil libertarians and critics of former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld that refusal to release a fully classified version of the Church Report several years ago amounted to a cover-up.

The two-pages from the Church Report obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union under its Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against the Bush administration and the Pentagon were released Wednesday. The documents state that the interrogation and deaths of detainees held at Bagram Air base in Afghanistan was “clearly abusive, and clearly not in keeping with any approved interrogation policy or guidance.”

“We suspected that these two pages [from the Church Report] related to the deaths of prisoners who were tortured to death was done only to protect the Bush administration from embarrassment and illegal activity, said Amrit Singh, an ACLU attorney and co-author of the groundbreaking book Administration of Torture, in an interview with The Public Record. Singh said the latest batch of documents demands that former Bush administration officials, and the interrogators, be held accountable for torturing detainees.

“There needs to be an independent investigation,” Singh said.  

According to the declassified Church Report documents, on Dec. 4, 2002, a prisoner died while in U.S. custody in Afghanistan. Six days later, another prisoner died. Two days before the detainees were tortured and died, on Dec. 2, 2002, Rumsfeld authorized “aggressive interrogation techniques,” leading to “interrogation policies and plans approved by senior military and civilian officials [that] conveyed the message that physical pressures and degradation were appropriate treatment for detainees in U.S. military custody,” the Senate Armed Services Committee report said.

Both deaths, the documents say, “share some similarities.”

“In both cases, for example, [the prisoners] were handcuffed to fixed objects above their heads in order to keep them awake,” the documents say. “Additionally, interrogations in both incidents involved the use of physical violence, including kicking, beating, and the use of “compliance blows” which involved striking the [prisoners] legs with the [interrogators] knees. In both cases, blunt force trauma to the legs was implicated in the deaths. In one case, a pulmonary embolism developed as a consequence of the blunt force trauma, and in the other case pre-existing coronary artery disease was complicated by the blunt force trauma.” 

“In both instances, the [detainee] deaths followed interrogation sessions in which unauthorized techniques were allegedly employed, but in both cases, these sessions were followed by further alleged abusive behavior outside of the interrogation booth,” the declassified documents say.

“None of these techniques have ever been approved in Afghanistan,” according to two pages of the declassified Church report. “Of these, three (marked with X) are alleged to have been employed during interrogations. These techniques-sleep deprivation, the use of scenarios designed to convince the detainee that death or severely painful consequences are imminent for him and/or his family, and beating are alleged to have been used in the incidents leading to the two deaths at Bagram in December 2002, which are described at greater length later in this report.”

Moreover, the declassified documents names a private contractor, David Passaro, who conducted at least one interrogation that allegedly led to the death of a prisoner. Under the subhead “Migration of Interrogation Techniques,” the two-pages from the Church Report discusses an investigation undertaken by military officials to determine whether military interrogators or military police were responsible for the brutal interrogations that apparently caused the deaths of the prisoners, which the documents suggest was the case.

Following an investigation one day after a second detainee died, an Army lieutenant “prohibited several interrogation techniques implicated in the detainees’ deaths..”

Specifically, he prohibited the practice of handcuffing as a means of enforcing sleep deprivation, hooding a detainee during questioning, and any form of physical contact used for the purpose of interrogation,” according to the two-pages from the Church Report. “It should be noted that handcuffing as a means of enforcing sleep deprivation was never approved in any interrogation policy; and in any event…constituted the only interrogation guidance in Afghanistan at the time. Although some of the measures were later reversed in the March 2004 interrogation guidance, as described previously, they do not indicate initial action was taken.”

The report goes on to say that a criminal investigation concluded in October 2004 with the recommendation that criminal charges be filed “against 28 soldiers in connection with the deaths.” But the Bush administration officials who authorized and implemented the policies were not held accountable. Indeed, Vice Admiral Church, who conducted the investigation, never bothered to interview then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who, according to published documents was responsible for implementing the brutal interrogations, because he did not believe it to be necessary.

A declassified version of Church’s report released in March 2004 said the Department of Defense “did not promulgate interrogation policies . . . that directed, sanctioned or encouraged the torture or abuse of detainees.”

In a rare display of criticism of the Bush administration, the Washington Post’ said in a March 13, 2004 editorial that the Church Report was “a blatant example of . . . Whitewashing” aimed at protecting the most senior members of the Bush administration who approved of and implemented torture against suspected terrorists.

“[D]ecisions by Mr. Rumsfeld and the Justice Department to permit coercive interrogation techniques previously considered unacceptable for U.S. personnel influenced practices at the prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and later spread to Afghanistan and Iraq. Methods such as hooding, enforced nudity, sensory deprivation and the use of dogs to terrorize-all originally approved by the defense secretary-were widely employed, even though they violate the Geneva Conventions,” the Post editorial said. “But no genuinely independent investigator has been empowered to connect these decisions and events and conclude where accountability truly should lie. Congress could put a stop to this bureaucratic cover-up.”

A separate report issued by Army Maj. Gen. George R. Fay several years ago said other prisoner abuses resulted from Rumsfeld’s verbal and written authorization in December 2002 allowing interrogators to use “stress positions, isolation for up to 30 days, removal of clothing and the use of detainees’ phobias (such as the use of dogs).”

“From December 2002, interrogators in Afghanistan were removing clothing, isolating people for long periods of time, using stress positions, exploiting fear of dogs and implementing sleep and light deprivation,” the Fay report said.

Alberto Mora, the former general counsel of the Navy, criticized Rumsfeld’s approval of certain interrogation methods outlined in a December 2002 action memorandum.

“The interrogation techniques approved by the Secretary [of Defense] should not have been authorized because some (but not all) of them, whether applied singly or in combination, could produce effects reaching the level of torture, a degree of mistreatment not otherwise proscribed by the memo because it did not articulate any bright-line standard for prohibited detainee treatment, a necessary element in any such document,” Mora wrote in a 14-page letter to the Navy’s inspector general.

Additionally, a Dec. 20, 2005, Army Inspector General Report relating to the capture and interrogation of suspected terrorist Mohammad al-Qahtani included a sworn statement by Lt. Gen. Randall M. Schmidt. It said Secretary Rumsfeld was “personally involved” in the interrogation of al-Qahtani and spoke “weekly” with Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller, the commander at Guantanamo, about the status of the interrogations between late 2002 and early 2003.

Gitanjali S. Gutierrez, an attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights who represents al-Qahtani, said in a sworn declaration that his client, imprisoned at Guantanamo, was subjected to months of torture based on verbal and written authorizations from Rumsfeld.

“At Guantánamo, Mr. al-Qahtani was subjected to a regime of aggressive interrogation techniques, known as the ‘First Special Interrogation Plan,’ that were authorized by U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld,” Gutierrez said.

“Those techniques were implemented under the supervision and guidance of Secretary Rumsfeld and the commander of Guantánamo, Major General Geoffrey Miller. These methods included, but were not limited to, 48 days of severe sleep deprivation and 20-hour interrogations, forced nudity, sexual humiliation, religious humiliation, physical force, prolonged stress positions and prolonged sensory over-stimulation, and threats with military dogs.”

Gutierrez’s claims about the type of interrogation al-Qahtani endured have since been borne out with the release of hundreds of pages of internal Pentagon documents describing interrogation methods at Guantanamo and at least two independent reports about prisoner abuse.

According to the Schlesinger report, orders signed by Bush and Rumsfeld in 2002 and 2003 authorizing brutal interrogations “became policy” at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib.

The documents released by the ACLU will likely fuel further calls to investigate whether Bush administration officials committed crimes by authorizing torture.

In a news release, the ACLU said it also obtained reports of five separate investigations into deaths that took place in Afghanistan and Iraq – as well as Abu Ghraib abuses, which, although previously reported, marks the first time the military investigations have been released in full.

Those documents, which span thousands of pages, include:

  • Investigation of two deaths at Bagram. Both detainees were determined to have been killed by pulmonary embolism caused as a result of standing chained in place, sleep depravation and dozens of beatings by guards and possibly interrogators. (Also reveals the use of torture at Gitmo and American-Afghani prisons in Kabul).
  • Investigation into the homicide or involuntary manslaughter of detainee Dilar Dababa by U.S. forces in 2003 in Iraq.
  • Investigation launched after allegations that an Iraqi prisoner was subjected to torture and abuse at “The Disco” (located in the Special Operations Force Compound in Mosul Airfield, Mosul, Iraq). The abuse consisted of filling his jumpsuit with ice, then hosing him down and making him stand for long periods of time, sometimes in front of an air conditioner; forcing him to lay down and drink water until he gagged, vomited or choked, having his head banged against a hot steel plate while hooded and interrogated; being forced to do leg lifts with bags of ice placed on his ankles, and being kicked when he could not do more.
  • Investigation of allegations of torture and abuse that took place in 2003 at Abu Ghraib.
  • Investigation that established probable cause to believe that U.S. forces committed homicide in 2003 when they participated in the binding of detainee Abed Mowhoush in a sleeping bag during an interrogation, causing him to die of asphyxiation.

On Monday, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy joined those advocating a “truth and reconciliation commission” that would seek facts, not jail time about the Bush administration torture and surveillance policies.

“We could develop and authorize a person or group of people universally recognized as fair minded, and without axes to grind,” Leahy said during a speech at Georgetown University’s Law Center on Monday. “Their straightforward mission would be to find the truth” about controversies such as torture of detainees and warrantless wiretaps.

“People would be invited to come forward and share their knowledge and experiences, not for purposes of constructing criminal indictments, but to assemble the facts. If needed, such a process could involve subpoena powers, and even the authority to obtain immunity from prosecutions in order to get to the whole truth,” the Vermont Democrat said.

Later Monday, when asked whether he would support Leahy’s plan, President Barack Obama declined comment, saying he was unfamiliar with it. He then reiterated his ambiguous response from the campaign, that no one is above the law but that he favored looking forward, not backward.

“What I have said is that my administration is going to operate in a way that leaves no doubt that we do not torture that we abide by the Geneva Conventions and that we observe our traditions of rule of law and due process as we are vigorously going after terrorists that can do us harm,” Obama said at his first prime-time news conference as President.

“My view is also that nobody is above the law, and if there are clear instances of wrongdoing than people should be prosecuted just like any ordinary citizen. But generally speaking I am more interested in looking forward than I am in looking backwards.”

Leahy is expected to introduce a bill soon that would create his proposed truth commission. Last month, Leahy’s counterpart in the House, Rep. John Conyers, sponsored similar legislation to create a blue-ribbon panel of outside experts to probe the “broad range” of policies pursued by the Bush administration “under claims of unreviewable war powers.”

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