By Jason Leopold
A combination of “enhanced interrogation” techniques approved by high-level Bush administration officials coupled with a series of brutal beatings administered by military interrogators were directly responsible for the December 2002 deaths of two detainees at Bagram airbase in Afghanistan, according to a report released last week by the Senate Armed Services Committee.
The report classified their deaths as homicides. In other words, the two prisoners were tortured to death.
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 Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld authorized the use of “enhanced interrogation” techniques against prisoners in Afghanistan. Dilawar was murdered six days after Habibullah. The report labeled their deaths homicides.
The details of their murders at the hands of military interrogators have been previously reported. But the Senate report includes 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.
Previous reports, including one from the Army’s criminal investigative unit, have pinned Dilawar and Habibullah’s deaths 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 completed in 2004 by Vice Admiral Albert T. Church, the former Naval inspector general, who conducted an investigation into detainee abuse in Iraq and Afghanistan at the request of then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, specifically cleared Pentagon officials stating they “did not promulgate interrogation policies . . . that directed, sanctioned or encouraged the torture or abuse of detainees.”
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 contained in the Church report and flatly states that policy directives authorized by Rumsfeld were a contributing factor to the deaths of Dilawar and Habibullah.
The Armed Services Committee 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.”
in February, the American Civil Liberties Union obtained under a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit two-pages from the Church report that had been classified. 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 Armed Services 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 believed to have been linked to al-Qaeda and the Taliban. The Armed Services Committee report says 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 interrogation techniques for Bagram were gleaned from Guantanamo during a two-day visit there in October 2002 by SMU TF members. 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.”
Daliwar 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, 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).”
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 Daliwar 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.”
The report noted that on Nov. 1, 2002, “a month before the two detainee deaths at Bagram, the [Special Forces Task Force] Staff Judge Advocate (SJA) analyzed legal authorities and constraints relevant to [Special Mission Unit Task Force] personnel’s participation in interrogations.”
The staff judge advocate’s analysis “is reflected in a memo which was provided to the Committee in redacted form,” the report says. “Although the particular interrogation techniques in use [at Bagram] were redacted from the version of the memo shared with the Committee, unredacted portions of that memo discuss the [Special Mission Unit Task Force] concerns about those techniques.
“Although the memo stated that while, in the author’s opinion, “none of the interrogation techniques used or observed by [redacted] personnel constitutes ‘torture,'” it also stated that “another observer might disagree.'”
In addition, the memo stated that one of the [redacted] techniques “could rise to the level of torture if applied in such a way and for such a period of time that it rises to the level of severe physical pain or suffering.. It also said, “Although the interrogation techniques may not constitute ‘torture’ they may rise to the level of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment proscribed by international law.”
On Nov. 28, 2002 Habibullah, an Islamic Mullah, was taken to Bagram by CIA operatives. “
“The communication between Mr. Habibullah and his jailers appears to have been almost exclusively physical,” according to the 2005 New York Times report.
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.
The Armed Services Committee report does not describe the brutal beatings he endured for the six days he was interrogated and detained at the prison facility.
But an autopsy attributed his death on Dec. 4, 2002 to a pulmonary embolism, “a blood clot dislodged by the beatings he’d received,” McClatchy Newspapers reported last year.
The New York Times added: “Habibullah’s autopsy, completed on Dec. 8, showed bruises or abrasions on his chest, arms and head. There were deep contusions on his calves, knees and thighs. His left calf was marked by what appeared to have been the sole of a boot.”
Two days before he 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. 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.
However, as the Armed Services Committee 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.
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.”
According to the secret pages of the Church report released in February, “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.
The Church report claimed that “none of these techniques have ever been approved in Afghanistan.”
“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.”
However, the Church report, which said Dilawar and Habibullah’s deaths were isolated incidents at the hands of a few rogue soldiers, 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.
The Church 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 Rumsfeld because he did not believe it to be necessary.
“In the wake of the deaths of Habibullah and Dilawar, [Combined Joint Task Force-180] and the [Special Forces Task Force] began developing written standard operating procedures (SOPs) for interrogations,” the Armed Services Committee report says.
According to the Church report, following an investigation one day after Dilawar was killed, 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.
“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,” according to the two-pages from the Church report. “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 U.S. Military never produced any evidence to prove that either Habibullah or Dilawar had connections to the Taliban or al-Qaeda.
In fact, as the New York Times reported, when Dilawar had died, “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.”