By Jason Leopold
CIA interrogators provided top agency officials in Langley with daily “torture” updates of Abu Zubaydah, the alleged “high-level” terrorist detainee who was held at a secret “black site” prison and waterboarded 83 times in August 2002, according to newly released court documents obtained by The Public Record.
The extensive back-and-forth between CIA field operatives and agency officials in Langley likely included updates provided to senior Bush administration officials.
The government documents filed May 1, with U.S. District Court Judge Alvin Hellerstein include two sets of indexes totaling 52 pages and contain general descriptions of cables sent back to CIA headquarters describing the August 2002 videotaped interrogation sessions of Zubaydah. Those cable transmissions included a description of the techniques interrogators had used and the intelligence, if any, culled from those sessions.
An Aug. 1, 2002 Justice Department legal opinion released last month signed by Jay Bybee, the former head of the Office of Legal Counsel, described a “ticking time-bomb” scenario and “chatter” about a looming terrorist attack in justifying a list of 10 different brutal interrogation techniques the CIA requested to use against Zubaydah. Those interrogation methods included waterboarding, slamming his head repeatedly against a wall and forcing him to remain awake for as long as 11 consecutive days.
On the same day Bybee, now a federal appeals court judge, signed the memorandum CIA field operatives at the “black site” prison where Zubaydah was detained sent a two-page cable to agency headquarters that included detailed information “concerning the use of interrogation techniques; atmospherics and behavioral comments; a threat update; a medical update; and administrative and security notes.”
“The cable [marked top secret] also includes CIA organizational information, CIA filing information, locations of CIA facilities, and the names and/or identifying information of personnel engaged in counterterrorism operations,” according to a description of the cable.
Another document, describing a four-page cable sent back to CIA headquarters on Aug. 4, 2002, “includes information concerning the strategies for interrogation sessions… reactions to the interrogation techniques, raw intelligence, and a status of threat information.”
One the same day, according to the same set of indexes, CIA field operatives prepared a 59-page notebook that contained notes of the interrogations, which contained “handwritten notes concerning treatment and conduct of interrogations; reactions to the interrogation techniques; specific intelligence topics concerning terrorist threats to the U.S.; raw intelligence; and medical information.”
There are several instances in which multiple cables were sent to CIA headquarters on a single day, which suggests Zubaydah was subjected to a combination of brutal interrogation methods at various points throughout the day.
For example, on Aug. 5, 2002, a four-page cable was sent to CIA headquarters describing the use of and reaction to interrogation techniques and another two-page cable was sent the same day that contained similar descriptions as well as a “medical update.” All of the other descriptions of the cables sent to CIA headquarters, some of which are as long as seven pages, during the month August 2002 contain similar descriptions.
The first set of indexes contains information about cables sent on Aug. 1, 2002 and ends on Aug. 7, 2002. The second set of indexes begins on Aug. 8, 2002 and ends on Aug. 18, 2002 but does not contain an entry for correspondence sent back to the CIA on Aug. 13, 2002 describing the status of interrogations.
The indexes were turned over as part of a contempt lawsuit filed by the ACLU against the Department of Defense related to 92 interrogation videotapes that were destroyed by the agency in 2005 as public attention began focusing on allegations that the Bush administration had subjected “war on terror” detainees to brutal interrogations that crossed the line into torture.
The CIA and the Justice Department declined to turn over a more detailed description of the cables it’s field agents sent back to headquarters citing several exemptions under the Freedom of Information Act.
“This document contains information relating to intelligence activities (including special activities), intelligence sources, intelligence methods, and foreign relations to foreign activities of the United States including confidential sources that is properly classified,” the CIA states in a document description of the Aug. 1, 2002 cable.
Additionally, the agency said it withheld a detailed description of the cables in this and every other August 2002 cable because it “contains information relating to intelligence sources and intelligence methods that is specifically exempted from disclosure” in accordance with the National Security Act. The documents also contain “information relating to the organization, functions, and names of person employed by the CIA that is specifically exempted from disclosure.”
The documents contain information relating to intra-agency predecisional deliberations, including preliminary evaluations, opinions, and recommendations of CIA personnel” and contains “information relating to the identities of personnel engaged in counterterrorism operation” and disclosing those details “would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.”
In a two-page letter accompanying the indexes, CIA Associate General Counsel John McPherson wrote that a “senior government official” would submit a declaration on May 22, “that more fully explains the justifications for withholding a more detailed description of the cables.
“We wish to note that the records at issue, which are actual operational cables between CIA station(s) and CIA headquarters are different in kind from the general legal memoranda addressing CIA interrogation methods that were disclosed on April 16, 2009,” says McPherson’s May 1, letter to Hellerstein. “Unlike the memoranda, which address the legality of interrogation methods that are no longer used, the cables disclose extremely sensitive operational information that would threaten the efficacy of present and future interrogations.
“For example disclosure of the cables could reveal how the CIA approaches interrogations as a general matter, including its strategic decisions about when particular interrogation methods were used, in what order, and, most importantly, why particular methods were used in certain situations. The cables also contain sensitive information about what types of questions are asked and at what point in the interrogation, and how interrogators calibrate particular interrogation approaches to the detainees responses.
“Even though some of those methods are no longer employed by the CIA, the cables reveal the strategy and tactics of the CIA interrogations and provide insight into how the CIA elicits information from those whom they interrogate, as well as actual intelligence obtained during interrogations. If this kind of information is disclosed, our enemies will be better prepared to resist and subvert interrogations now and in the future.”
Amrit Singh, an ACLU staff attorney, said, “it’s disappointing that the Obama administration is continuing to withhold the text of these cables despite the promise of transparency.”
She added that withholding the information may have more to do with protecting senior CIA and Bush administration officials as opposed to revealing national security secrets.
“I think the frequency of the cables showed that CIA headquarters and senior officials had sanctioned interrogation methods that were illegal,” she said. “We see no basis for continuing to withhold this information.”
The CIA stated in previous court filings that it had 3,000 documents related to the destruction of the 92 interrogation videotapes. The Justice Department said the documents include “cables, memoranda, notes and e-mails” related to the destroyed CIA videotapes, which were made between April and December 2002.
Twelve of those videotapes depict CIA interrogators subjecting Zubaydah and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, the alleged mastermind of the attack on the USS Cole in 2000, to brutal interrogation methods, including waterboarding. The 80 other videotapes purportedly show Zubaydah and al-Nashiri in their prison cells. But it’s unknown whether the interrogation tapes that predate the Aug. 1, 2002 “torture” memo depict “enhanced interrogation” techniques not yet approved by the Justice Department.
The Justice Department had refused to turn over indexes for interrogations that predated the Aug. 1, 2002 memo. But last month, Hellerstein, in a two-page order dated April 20, said “the government shall produce records relating to the content of the tapes not merely from August 2002, but from the entire period the tapes were destroyed.”
“The Government represents this period to be April through December 2002,” Hellerstein’s order said. “In addition to the current plan for production from a sample month, the Government shall propose a schedule for production of documents from the entire period. The Government shall produce documents relating to the destruction of the tapes, which describe the persons and reasons behind their destruction, from a period reasonably longer than April through December 2002.”
Zubaydah, who is believed to have arranged travel for al-Qaeda operatives, was captured after a gunfight in Pakistan in March 2002 and was whisked away to a CIA “black site” prison on March 28, 2002.
Documents released last week by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence that high-level Bush administration officials, including then National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and Vice President Dick Cheney, began discussing using “enhanced interrogation” methods against Zubaydah in May 2002, suggesting that he may have been subjected to some techniques not yet authorized.
Ali Soufan, a former FBI agent who first interrogated Zubaydah shortly after he was captured, complained to officials at FBI headquarters that early interrogations of Zubaydah by the CIA amounted to “borderline torture,” according to a report released last year by Justice Department Inspector General Glenn Fine related to the FBI’s role in harsh interrogations.
Whether Zubaydah was tortured before the Aug. 1, 2002 memo was issued has been a matter of debate for some time.
In the book, The Dark Side by New Yorker reporter Jane Mayer, she suggested there was a turf war between CIA and FBI related to interrogations of “war on terror” detainees. She wrote that when CIA Director George Tenet learned that it was the FBI agents whose “rapport-building” approach resulted in valuable intelligence from Zubaydah Tenet sent in a CIA team in April 2002, led by Dr. James Mitchell, a psychologist under contract to the agency, to take over the interrogations, which became more aggressive.
Mayer wrote that when Mitchell arrived he told Soufan and the other FBI agent that Zubaydah needed to be treated “like a dog in a cage.”
Mitchell said Zubaydah was “like an experiment, when you apply electric shocks to a caged dog, after a while he’s so diminished, he can’t resist.”
Soufan and the other FBI agent argued that Zubaydah was “not a dog, he was a human being” to which Mitchell responded: “Science is science.”
The likelihood that President George W. Bush was briefed on Zubaydah’s torture was reported by journalist Ron Suskind, who wrote in his book The One Percent Doctrine that Bush had become “obsessed” with Zubaydah and the information he might have about pending terrorist plots against the United States.
“Bush was fixated on how to get Zubaydah to tell us the truth,” Suskind wrote. Bush questioned one CIA briefer, “Do some of these harsh methods really work?”