The Zubaydah Torture “Experiment”: Connections to the al-Libi Case?

The death of former CIA "ghost prisoner" Ali Mohamed al-Fakheri, aka Ibn al-Sheikh al-Libi, is beginning to make some serious waves in the press. The story was initially broken in the U.S. on May 10 by Andy Worthington. Now Newsweek is reporting (H/T, again, the redoubtable Mr. Worthington) that al-Libi was "healthy and had no apparent physical ailments" when Human Rights Watch (HRW) visitors met him on April 27, only days before he was found dead in Tripoli’s Abu Salim prison.

But Michael Isikoff and Mark Hosenball have even stranger circumstances to report (emphases added):

Human-rights workers and Libyan dissidents tell NEWSWEEK they have independently confirmed the report [of Libi’s death] from sources inside Libya and demanded an immediate independent investigation into the circumstances of his death. Libi, who once served as emir of the Khalden training camp in Afghanistan, had recently been identified by defense lawyers in the U.S. as a prime potential witness in any upcoming trials of top terror suspects, either in revamped military commissions or in U.S. federal courts. Brent Mickum, a U.S. lawyer who represents Abu Zubaydah, another high-value CIA detainee who is alleged to have worked closely with Libi, says he had recently begun efforts through intermediaries to arrange to talk to Libi. "The timing of this is weird," Mickum says.

Mickum’s characterization of the timing of al-Libi’s death is apt. It certainly raises serious questions when a potential witness in either U.S. federal courts or military trials is healthy one day and suddenly turns up dead a week later. The questions take on an added piquancy when one considers that this witness was also a primary victim of U.S. rendition and torture, and recanted a confession, the substance of which was used to justify going to war with Iraq.

What makes the timing especially odd is that after a number of years of silence and obscurity, whereabouts supposedly unknown, “intermediaries” were being assembled to talk with al-Libi. What were they going to talk about? Did Abu Zubaydah’s attorney hope for exculpatory testimony from al-Libi? One wonders if Human Rights Watch appeared at Abu Salim prison and only coincidentally found al-Libi there.

The British human rights group Reprieve, which is heavily involved in the case of Binyam Mohamed in England, admits trying to make contact with al-Libi, as I reported on Tuesday, picking up the original report from the UK Telegraph. According to the Telegraph, Clive Stafford Smith, who heads up the British charity group, said, “Reprieve has been exploring tentative contacts with al Libi, and his death may have been a result of the pressure to allow him to speak openly about his torture.”

What could al-Libi have testified about? It was al-Libi who, tortured by mock burial, among other things, by the CIA or their proxies in Egypt in late 2001 or early 2002, coughed up Abu Zubaydah’s name as a top Al Qaeda leader. (Al-Libi ran the Khalden training camp and Zubaydah assisted him by running a guest house for it — H/T Mary). But the Defense Intelligence Agency and some CIA agents reportedly suspected al-Libi’s information was dubious as early as February 2002. Al-Libi’s torture consisted, among other atrocities, of being buried in a box in Egypt, just as later Zubaydah would also be threatened by mock burial. By the time the interrogation of Ali Zubaydah had begun in March 2002, the CIA and possibly other agencies knew or should have suspected that Zubaydah was not as important as was claimed.

The interrogation of Zubaydah was explored as part of testimony at the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday (see live blog by Marcy Wheeler here and here.) Of the many fascinating details coming out of that hearing — currently the topic of a number of interesting articles — the references to the application of an experiment by the ex-SERE CIA contractor, most likely James Mitchell, seemed especially important.

The quotes below are from the prepared statement of Ali Soufan, the FBI agent in charge of Zubaydah’s interrogation, until the CIA/CTC arrived with their ex-SERE contractor, most likely James Mitchell (H/T Marcy Wheeler, who deservedly has been named a winner of the Hillman Award for her investigative work):

After a few days, the contractor attempted to once again try his untested theory and he started to re-implementing the harsh techniques. He moved this time further along the force continuum, introducing loud noise and then temperature manipulation.

Once again the contractor insisted on stepping up the notches of his experiment

In summary, the Informed Interrogation Approach outlined in the Army Field Manual is the most effective, reliable, and speedy approach we have for interrogating terrorists. It is legal and has worked time and again.

It was a mistake to abandon it in favor of harsh interrogation methods that are harmful, shameful, slower, unreliable, ineffective, and play directly into the enemy’s handbook. It was a mistake to abandon an approach that was working and naively replace it with an untested method. It was a mistake to abandon an approach that is based on the cumulative wisdom and successful tradition of our military, intelligence, and law enforcement community, in favor of techniques advocated by contractors with no relevant experience.

The mistake was so costly precisely because the situation was, and remains, too risky to allow someone to experiment with amateurish, Hollywood style interrogation methods — that in reality — taints sources, risks outcomes, ignores the end game, and diminishes our moral high ground in a battle that is impossible to win without first capturing the hearts and minds around the world. It was one of the worst and most harmful decisions made in our efforts against al Qaeda.

Zubaydah told the Red Cross that he heard or he suspected the CIA was trying things out on him. Today’s statement by Soufan at the Senate Judiciary hearing is powerful corroborating evidence that there was experimentation going on (for more evidence, see just below). It seems likely that Abu Zubaydah was a primary subject of JPRA/SERE’s reverse-engineering of torture techniques, using the paradigm of psychologist and former American Psychological Association president Martin Seligman’s theory of "learned helplessness."

But it wasn’t the end of the experimentation. In the report of the Senate Armed Services Committee on prisoner treatment released last month, it is reported that Colonel John P. Custer, then-assistant commandant of the U.S. Army Intelligence Center and School at Ft. Huachuca, Arizona was fond of calling Guantanamo’s prison "America’s Battle Lab" in the war on terror, and in a review of interrogations at Guantanamo recommended combining FBI and military techniques to extract "information by exploiting the detainee’s vulnerabilities." This was in the summer of 2002, roughly the same time that the more aggressive interrogation and waterboarding of Zubaydah was in full swing. This "Battle Lab" approach brought some partial objections from Colonel Britt Mallow of the Criminal Investigative Task Force:

[Guantanamo commanders, Major General] Dunlavey and later MG Miller referred to GTMO as a "Battle Lab" meaning that interrogations and other procedures there were to some degree experimental, and their lessons would benefit DOD in other places. While this was logical in terms of learning lessons, I personally objected to the implied philosophy that interrogators should experiment with untested methods, particularly those in which they were not trained.

Much earlier, in April 2002, FBI interrogator Ali Soufan (who is no unsullied hero in my book, just not as cruel or sadistic as the other interrogators) had no known objections to subjecting Zubaydah to shackling and sleep deprivation and isolation — typical old-fashioned CIA coercive interrogation treatment, consistent with the type of treatment delineated in the CIA’s KUBARK interrogation manual of the 1960s. Indeed, Soufan admitted during the hearing that his interrogation was not compliant with Common Article Three of Geneva. But the bizarre techniques of the “learned helplessness” paradigm, derived from reverse-engineering the stress inoculation torture simulation of the military’s Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape (SERE) program was too much for him, other FBI agents, and even other CIA interrogators . Then Chief Operational Psychologist from the CIA’s Counter-Terrorism Center, Scott Shumate, reportedly left Zubaydah’s interrogation in disgust. Soufan characterized the new experimental techniques as "borderline torture."

Yet, no one tried to stop the experiment, though Soufan and others “protested” or walked out. Moreover, it’s likely everyone involved in the Zubayah interrogation knew it was an experiment; in fact, Soufan speaks of it as such. Moreover, they knew or must have suspected it had the blessings of top layers of the Defense Department and the White House, if not support from some at the Department of Justice. How could it have been otherwise that a contract interrogator was able to overrule strategy of FBI interrogators on the scene? Could this be why when, according to the FBI Inspector General’s report on FBI involvement in detainee interrogations," Assistant Director Pasquale D’Amuro pulled the FBI interrogators (or at least Soufan) from the Zubaydah interrogation, neither he nor anyone else at FBI or DoJ made any other effort to intervene.

No known protest was made to other agencies until D’Amuro, who had briefed FBI Director Robert Mueller, met with various administration officials, including Michael Chertoff and Alice Fisher of DoJ’s Criminal Division, in July or August 2002. By then, it was said CIA had gotten DoJ approval for use of the "enhanced" techniques, and D’Amuro was reduced to selling the FBI’s ability to "add value" to the interrogation of "high value detainees." No one remembers talking specifically about Zubaydah at that meeting. Only later, in August, did the FBI definitively pull out of these interrogations, including that of Zubaydah, in part, perhaps because, as an agency Section Chief for International Terrorism paraphrased D’Amuro’s position, the "FBI would have to testify before Congress some day and that the FBI should be able to say that it did not participate" in the "enhanced" interrogations (i.e., torture).

It’s important to note that I’m not the only one, and certainly not the first, who has discerned a torture experiment underway beneath the surface of the Bush-era torture program. Spiegel Online came to the same conclusion in a May 12 article on SERE psychologists Mitchell and Jessen. In her 2008 book, The Dark Side, Jane Mayer quoted James Mitchell as saying that 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" (H/T Jason Leopold). In an appendix to the second edition of his book, Oath Betrayed: America’s Torture Doctors, published earlier this year, bioethicist Steven Miles describes the Guantanamo interrogation of Mohammed al-Qahtani as an experiment. Looking at the interrogation log of Al-Qahtani, published online by Time, Miles notes (emphasis added):

What is the point of meticulously recording the prisoner’s tears and bathroom privileges, digressions on dinosaurs, and reactions to the interrogators’ playing checkers if the primary interest is intelligence acquisition? The peculiar content and structure of this document makes sense if it is the log of research on coercive interrogation…. From the nature of prior CIA interrogation research and the log, it is possible to infer a design of the research project. (p. 176)

What was the interrogation experiment by CIA and its contract ex-SERE psychologists really about? One wonders if they were even about getting intelligence at all, or not primarily, but about experimenting with new ways to break down individuals psychologically, which could come in quite handy if what you were looking for were ways to find malleable individuals to inflate the Al Qaeda threat (the better to cover up the tremendous intelligence failure around 9/11) and manufacture links between bin Laden and Saddam Hussein (the better to get the longed-for invasion of Iraq).

Now al-Libi, an early victim of the Bush administration’s expanded program of extraordinary rendition, is dead, and can’t testify as to his torture. Was he also a very early subject of the SERE-"enhanced interrogation" torture experiment? We likely will never know. But Zubaydah, who was such a subject, is said to be brain damaged and "nearly insane," according to a report in the L.A. Times last month (emphasis added):

Partly as a result of injuries he suffered while he was fighting the communists in Afghanistan, partly as a result of how those injuries were exacerbated by the CIA and partly as a result of his extended isolation, Abu Zubaydah’s mental grasp is slipping away.

Today, he suffers blinding headaches and has permanent brain damage. He has an excruciating sensitivity to sounds, hearing what others do not. The slightest noise drives him nearly insane. In the last two years alone, he has experienced about 200 seizures.

But physical pain is a passing thing. The enduring torment is the taunting reminder that darkness encroaches. Already, he cannot picture his mother’s face or recall his father’s name Gradually, his past, like his future, eludes him.

Human Rights Watch and others are calling for an independent investigation immediately into the death of Ibn al-Sheikh al-Libi.

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