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Washington Post Rehabilitates Abu Zubaydah Torturer

I haven’t been blogging much of late, as I’m working on a few big investigative pieces. The first, due out later this week at Truthout, will take up the issue of the involuntary drugging of detainees, previously the subject of a big Washington Post exposé in April 2008. Another article, on the build-up to the torture and experimentation program inside the Department of Defense in 2001-2002 (co-written with Jason Leopold) also will be out soon. Meanwhile, the news scans by, and while I can count on Marcy, Spencer, Leopold, Jim White, Jeff Stein and others to catch and comment on the most egregious stories, others simply scroll onwards without comment.

One such story concerns an article by Walter Pincus in the Washington Post at the end of last month. Entitled "Guide tells how terrorism suspect became informant," Pincus related the tale of a pre-9/11 interrogation described in "a newly disclosed 2009 teaching guide for government interrogators by the director of national intelligence’s Intelligence Science Board [ISB]." The guide recounts, among other examples, the interrogation of Mohamed Rashed Daoud al-Owhali, a suspect in the 1998 bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Kenya that killed 218 people. Al-Owhali was later convicted for his part in the terrorist action, and sentenced to life without parole in May 2001.

The ISB study (PDF) was initially linked at Secrecy News, where Steven Aftergood calls the ISB "an official advisory group to the Director of National Intelligence." (A note at the Intelligence & Security Academy website describes the ISB as serving under the Director of Central Intelligence.) The purpose of the teaching study was to ostensibly examine "important recent examples of effective, non-coercive intelligence interviewing with high value detainees."

And non-coercive it certainly appears to be, as Pincus reports it. The FBI interrogator hands out butterscotch candy to suspects to build rapport. He shows a "’demonstrated appreciation’ for the Muslim beliefs of the suspect and the interpreter." He shares meals with Al-Owhali, and even when the interrogation falls into a "good cop, bad cop" pattern, the occurrence is supposedly unplanned. In the end, the hardened Al Qaeda terrorist gives in, telling his captors, "If you promise I’ll be tried in the United States, I’ll tell you everything. America is my enemy, not Kenya. I will tell you all about involvement with the bombings, bin Laden and al-Qaeda."

There are two things about the Pincus story that I thought important. For one thing, Pincus selectively chose the Al-Owhali case and ignored the other major "teaching" example, which involved initial physical torture, and three subsequent years of isolation and sensory deprivation of a prisoner. And then, as a second fact of some note, Pincus chose the story of Al-Owhali interrogator FBI Special Agent Stephen Gaudin without once mentioning the latter’s dubious role in the interrogation of Abu Zubaydah.

A Tale of Two (FBI) Interrogators

The story of the interrogation of Abu Zubaydah in Thailand has been told now many times, in more than one version, and even still all the facts are not known. The Zubaydah interrogation was made famous as the purported experimental test case for the new "enhanced interrogation techniques" (EIT) of the CIA. The famous "second" Yoo/Bybee memo of August 1, 2002 was meant to authorize torture techniques on Zubaydah. The EITs, which included waterboarding, wall slamming, sleep deprivation, stress positions, insects in a confinement box, and more, were derived via reverse-engineering the torture techniques taught in the the "Resistance to Interrogation" classes of the military’s Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape, or SERE survival schools.

One version of the story comes from the testimony of Ali Soufan, one of the FBI agents present at the Zubaydah interrogation. According to his testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee in May 2009, he and his FBI compatriot (who turned out to be Stephen Gaudin), who had supposed great success eliciting information from Zubaydah using standard interrogation techniques, were appalled when James Mitchell and the Counter-Terrorism Center team arrived, and began to implement their harsh form of interrogation. Gaudin, Soufan and "a top CIA interrogator who was working with [them]" protested to their superiors, and the FBI pulled Soufan out. Gaudin stayed for a month or so longer, though Soufan never mentioned that. (Soufan’s testimony also touts as "successful" the elicitation of the supposed "dirty bomb" plot of Binyam Mohamed and Jose Padilla, intelligence that was later discredited, and Mohamed, at least, was released from Guantanamo last year.)

The 2008 Senate Armed Services Committee report (PDF) on detainee abuse was the product of the biggest and longest investigation of U.S. torture outside the Pentagon or the Executive Branch. In their report, Senator Carl Levin’s investigators gave a very different view of what went down in Thailand:

The FBI Special Agent [Soufan] told the DoJ Inspector General that he also "raised objections to these techniques to the CIA and told the CIA it was ‘borderline torture." According to the unclassified DoJ Inspector General’s report, a second FBI agent present [Gaudin] did not have a "’moral objection’" to the techniques and noted that he had "undergone comparable harsh interrogation techniques as part of the U.S. Army Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE) training."

[One short paragraph redacted]

(U) According to the DoJ Inspector General’s report, FBI Counterterrorism Assistant Director Pat D’Amuro gave the instruction to both FBI agents to "come home and not participate in the CIA interrogation." The first FBI Special Agent left immediately, but the other FBI agent remained until early June 2002.

In Jane Mayer’s version of events, recounted in her book, The Dark Side, she gives what is essentially Soufan’s version, and even states that both FBI agents, being appalled, left the interrogation, unable to stop the "experiment" that was the EITs. Even so, the SASC’s version is more authoritative, drawing as it does on the May 2008 Department of Justice Inspector General’s report (PDF) on "the FBI’s Involvement in and Observations of Detainee Interrogations in Guantanamo Bay, Afghanistan, and Iraq."

The DoJ IG Report is revealing about the actions of Soufan and Gaudin, called Thomas and Gibson in the report, respectively. Not only were these FBI agents present when the CIA arrived, but they participated in interrogations of Zubaydah when he had already been subjected to sleep deprivation, shackling, and stress positions. Indeed, the FBI had been instructed by their superiors when they arrived not to give Zubaydah any Miranda warnings. Even more, Gibson/Gaudin was singled out in the report for participating in the CIA’s use of the EITs, having been assured by the CIA that the techniques were "approved ‘at the highest levels’ and that [he] would not get in any trouble."

Yet, in the end, the IG report absolved Gibson/Gaudin of his participation in CIA torture, noting that at the time of the interrogation of Abu Zubaydah Gibson/Gaudin had received "no guidance" regarding participation in the CIA’s "non-FBI techniques". Instead he had been told that regular FBI procedure was not to be followed (no Miranda warning, no FD-302 interview summaries). As a result, the IG concluded that "under these circumstances, there was insufficient basis to conclude that Gibson’s cooperation with the CIA while the CIA was using non-FBI techniques on Zubaydah violated clear FBI policy." (See pp. 321-324 of the DoJ IG report.)

None of all this, of course, is mentioned in Pincus’s bright and glowing review of the al-Owhali interrogation. But even more, there’s nothing about this in the ISB’s own document, which presents the al-Owhali interrogation as a teaching exercise. That the ISB is disingenous about really reforming U.S. interrogation is made manifest by the other major interrogation case study presented in the report.

The ISB presents the story of Nguyen Tai, "the most senior North Vietnamese officer ever captured during the Vietnam War." After months of brutal torture by the South Vietnamese government — without the production of useful intelligence — Tai is turned over to U.S. interrogators, who keep Tai imprisoned in total isolation for three years, his room "painted all in white, lit by bright lights 24 hours a day, and cooled by a powerful air-conditioner." When some useful intel is finally "educed" out of Mr. Tai, the ISB commentary chalks this up to "the skillful questions and psychological ploys" of the American interrogators, never mentioning the deleterious effects that three years of psychological torture may have produced in the prisoner. Instead, the ISB intones there was no "physical infliction of pain," and leaves the student interrogator to ponder the wonders of "non-coercive" interrogation.

The ISB has been linked to the High-Value Detainee Interrogation Group, or HIG, that the Obama administration implemented as a supposed reform of Bush-era interrogation abuses. While the worst elements of the EITs may have ended — I’ve heard no further reports of waterboarding, for instance — terrible abuses and torture, with roots in the sensory deprivation research of the CIA and military in the 1950s-1970s, and fully implemented in the KUBARK CIA interrogation manual of the 1960s, continue to this day. In fact, we can see that such techniques as isolation, sleep deprivation and sensory deprivation are still a staple of U.S. interrogation, as evidenced by the special techniques reserved for non-POWs in Appendix M of the current Army Field Manual.

One wonders what impulse directed Walter Pincus and the Washington Post to consider rehabilitating the image of an FBI agent heavily criticized in two government investigations of detainee abuse. I suppose one wishes to take care of one’s own, and following the non-accountability orders of the Obama administration, who asks us not to look back at the crimes of the past, that is just what the Post is doing. Or is it? The account of the al-Owhali interrogation is precisely a look back at a sanitized past, which is exactly the kind of past the current administration appears willing to allow. The relative disinterest of many progressive commentators, the press, and Democratic politicians in pursuing an investigation of not just past crimes, but undertaking an examination of the forces at work today in constructing interrogation policy, only ensures that abuses will continue.

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Jeff Kaye

Jeff Kaye

Jeffrey Kaye is a retired psychologist who has worked professionally with torture victims and asylum applicants. Active in the anti-torture movement since 2006, he has his own blog, Invictus, previously wrote regularly for Firedoglake’s The Dissenter, as well as at The Guardian, Truthout, Alternet, and The Public Record. He is the author of Cover-Up at Guantanamo, a new book examining declassified files on treatment of prisoners at the Guantanamo detention camp.