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Secret CIA Document Describes Abu Zubaydah’s Waterboarding As ‘Amateurish Experiment’

A 2007 report from the CIA’s Office Of Medical Services (OMS) was released after a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). It reveals news details on the CIA’s rendition, detention, and interrogation program, which included torture techniques used against detainees.

The top secret document [PDF] was drafted by the CIA’s top medical official to combat press coverage that OMS viewed as “caricature.” Coverage was seen as a “distorted picture” that warranted a “more informed internal account of how OMS understood and experienced this program.”

In the “secret history” written to defend the reputation of doctors involved in the torture program, the author melodramatically refers to “crippling leaks” as inevitable and suggests “human rights activists” will continue to target “approved techniques.” The author argues publicity will allow terrorists to develop “resistance measures.” Weapons of mass destruction will be used, and then, this report will be valuable as a “re-evaluation of what interrogation measures are acceptable” unfolds.

First, any official writing about media attention in 2007 would have known the CIA had its own propaganda campaign to selectively leak information to the press to promote the so-called effectiveness of torture techniques on high-value detainees.

A summary of the Senate intelligence committee’s report highlighted the use of agency-backed leaks, even as the CIA defended secrecy in federal court when faced with Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuits.

Deputy Chief of the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center (CTC), Philip Mudd, who is now a regular CNN contributor, declared, “We either get out and sell, or we get hammered, which has implications beyond the media. [C]ongress reads it, cuts our authorities,” and “messes up our budget.”

“We either put out our story or we get eaten. There is no middle ground,” Mudd added.

Therefore, what the 2007 account reflects is how the CIA was increasingly losing the information war and resisted prevalent criticism.

The ACLU called attention to a section of the document, which describes how the CIA considered using a “truth serum” to help them interrogate detainees. They considered “midazalam,” a benzodiazepine, which is a type of tranquilizer.

Nonetheless, the agency never seriously pursued use of the drug because of “legal obstacles”—such as “a prohibition against medical experimentation on prisoners” and a “ban on interrogational use of ‘mind altering drugs.'” (This was instituted after Project MKULTRA, where the CIA experimented on people with hallucinogens, like LSD.)

Much more crucial to history is the absolving descriptions of detainee interrogations versus details that were corroborated by the Senate intelligence committee’s report. OMS personnel are treated as adept custodians, who were there at every stage to make sure techniques never reached the level of torture. It belies the reality of what happened, and that is most evident when comparing the OMS version of Abu Zubaydah’s interrogations and the description of his interrogations in the summary of the Senate report.

Zubaydah is known as the first detainee to be subjected to what the agency euphemistically referred to as “enhanced interrogation techniques.” He endured some of the worst torture, as he was subject to an “aggressive phase” that lasted 20 days.

“During the upcoming period of intense interrogation, AZ [Zubaydah] was to be given the impression that he could not escape into an alleged need for medical care,” the OMS report states. “Medical attendants would no longer dress his wound [which he sustained during his capture]; rather, a guard occasionally left dressings and antiseptics with. which he was to take care of himself. In actual fact, the ‘guard’ was a PA or physician (with face covered, as were all the guards), who carefully monitored the wound and made any necessary cuts of the tape as AZ took care of the dressing.”

On August 4, 2002, the brutality started after he was in isolation for 47 days. The Senate report describes how “security personnel” put Zubaydah in a hood and shackles. They rolled a towel around his neck “as a collar.” It was used to slam Zubaydah against a concrete wall. They used an “attention grab” and then had Zubaydah watch as a coffin-size confinement box was carried into the interrogation room. It was placed on the floor “so as to appear as a coffin.”

“The interrogators then demanded detailed and verifiable information on terrorist operations,” according to the Senate intelligence committee. He denied having anymore information, and each time interrogators responded with a “facial slap” or “face grab.” He was waterboarded at 6:20 pm for the first time.

“Over a two-and-a-half-hour period, Abu Zubaydah coughed, vomited, and had ‘involuntary spasms of the torso and extremities’ during the waterboarding, the Senate report adds.

A medical officer emailed OMS leadership, “He did vomit a couple times during the waterboard with some beans and rice. It’s been 10 hours since he ate so this is surprising and disturbing. We plan to only feed Ensure for a while now.”

The OMS report says Zubaydah was confined in a coffin-size box for five hours and then a smaller box (21 inches wide) for two hours. He was subject to two waterboarding sessions that lasted two hours. Then, he was put in the small box again for a final half-hour before he was left in the coffin-size box overnight. It does not mention the use of a “collar” to slam him against a wall, that interrogators initially made Zubaydah fear he might be put in a coffin to die, nor does it mention vomiting.

“Medical—which remained continuously on-site throughout the intense phase of interrogation—monitored AZ’s condition throughout the night via a grainy video feed from inside the box,” the OMS report adds.

A regional medical officer (RMO) wrote Zubdayah “seems amazingly resistant to the waterboard” and was “becoming habituated to the boxes.”

The OMS report mentions an “aggressive session” on August 8 that left Zubaydah “highly distraught.” It “profoundly affected” medical staff. They did not think the “intense phase” should continue much further.

That matches the Senate report. It notes emails from CIA personnel from the day: “Today’s first session…had a profound effect on all staff members present…it seems the collective opinion that we should not go much further,” and, “Several on the team profoundly affected…some to the point of tears and choking up.”

Cables from a CIA black site indicated Zubaydah frequently “cried,” “begged,” “pleaded,” and “whimpered.”

An email from one officer on August 9, the sixth day of interrogation, said two-to-three personnel would likely request a transfer away from the detention site if the torture continued. The same day the interrogation team informed CIA headquarters it was unlikely Zubaydah “had actionable new information about current threats to the United States.” They insisted again the following day that it was “highly unlikely” he had information they wanted.

But CIA headquarters still believed he was withholding information. They ordered interrogators to keep torturing him.

“Enhanced measures continued for the next ten days, albeit at a much lower intensity,” the OMS report states. “The waterboard was applied on only two of those days (August 15 and 19) and for the final three days the small confinement box was not used. Even this limited waterboard use was meant only as a brief reminder when AZ appeared to be backsliding.”

OMS takes credit for AZ’s “remarkable resilience throughout the process, in part due to a manifest concern for his own physical well-being.”

The Senate report does not mention that OMS conducted a review of “truth serums” at this point, and the intensity of Zubaydah’s interrogation led OMS to study the potentially more “benign alternative” of “drug-based interviews.” They briefly thought a medical “disinhibitor,” such as sodium amytal, might be useful as an “excuse” that would “allow [a] subject to be more forthcoming while still saving face.” However, Zubaydah apparently cooperated with a new line of questions, which made this “informal” proposal “unnecessary.”

Zubaydah insisted throughout the waterboarding that he had disclosed what little information he knew on alleged imminent terrorist threats.

Months prior, FBI agents questioned him while in an intensive care unit. He said Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was the “mastermind” of the September 11 attacks. He said Mohammed had an alias, “Mukhtar.” He said Mohammed trained the hijackers and was responsible for al Qaida operations outside of Afghanistan. (Apparently, this information was already in CIA databases, and Zubaydah was only corroborating it, not providing new intelligence.)

The “enhanced interrogations” of Zubaydah were viewed as a success by the CIA that produced “meaningful results” namely because officials were able to determine that Zubaydah had no additional intelligence to share.

In other words, personnel accepted a certain level of torture was necessary not for obtaining information to stop terrorist attacks but for making sure a detainee did not have information that could be useful.

CIA contractors James Mitchell (who personally interrogated Zubaydah) and Bruce Jessen claimed they relied on the military’s Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE) training as a model for the torture techniques they developed. OMS personnel learned that was not exactly true after Zubaydah was tortured.

In fact, several sections of the OMS report show how little research or studying went into developing the techniques before they were used on detainees:

…[It] was not apparent to OMS that the AZ applications departed appreciably from the SERE technique. There were questions about the typical number of applications used in SERE, and whether AZ’s brief “spell” was unusual, which seemed worth investigating. That winter OMS sought information directly from medical personnel in the Army and Navy SERE programs, ostensibly researching options for an Agency-run training program. Although limited by what could be discussed on the phone and slowed by travel schedules, OMS eventually learned that Agency waterboard technique differed substantially from that of the Navy program (the only one in which the waterboard was still used).

The waterboard experience was mandatory for all Navy SERE teaching and monitoring staff, but fewer than half their trainees were put on the board. Most of those who were received only a single application of 20-30 seconds, and no one had more than two applications. Water was applied primarily to the upper lip where it saturated a cloth being lowered over the nose and mouth; little if any water passed through the cloth into the mouth…

The OMS report additionally claims that it was not until 2003 that they realized how Mitchell and Jessen were frauds. They said they had “extensive” experience with waterboarding, but neither had ever used a waterboard. “Only one had even seen it in use.”

“This was consistent with their having worked in the Air Force SERE program, which had not used the waterboard for years and seemed to explain the wide disparity between their methodology (number of repetitions, length of applications, volume of water, and technique) and that described to us by the Navy. In essence, the experience with AZ and KSM had been little more than an amateurish experiment, with no reason at the outset to believe it would either be safe or effective.”

Zubaydah was waterboarded at least 83 times, and each time OMS personnel could collect data on how he responded physically. The “amateurish experiment” helped the CIA plan for the next detainees.

Mitchell and Jessen were sued by former detainees for their role in developing torture techniques and settled for an undisclosed amount in 2017.

As the Washington Post reported, Mitchell and Jessen made $1,800 a day and later formed a company that was paid $81 million before the CIA cut ties with them. Under an indemnification contract, the CIA is obligated to pay the company’s legal expenses until 2021.”

Despite the fact that the CIA experimented on detainees, the OMS report never rejects the use of waterboarding. It maintains throughout that waterboarding could be needed as terrorism threats persist.

Finally, the “secret history” of OMS’ role in Zubaydah’s torture never acknowledges how the CIA was prepared for Zubaydah to die in detention. They planned to cremate him if he did not survie, according to the Senate report.

The interrogation team put down in a cable, “Regardless [of] which [disposition] option we follow however, and especially in light of the planned psychological pressure techniques to be implemented, we need to get reasonable assurances that [Abu Zubaydah] will remain in isolation and incommunicado for the remainder of his life.”

Because Zubaydah was the CIA’s first detainee, the CIA did not want him to ever talk to other detainees about what he experienced so those individuals could learn how to resist these “psychological pressure techniques”—or torture.

On July 24, 2014, the Polish government was ordered by the European Court of Human Rights to pay Zubaydah €100,000 in damages because they violated the United Nations Convention Against Torture. Zubaydah’s lawyer said the money would be donated to torture victims.

The Senate report makes it clear. Zubaydah was never a member of al Qaida. He was never a planner of the 9/11 attacks. He was not well-versed in “interrogation resistance training.” He never withheld any information on pending terrorist attacks. Yet, he has never been charged and prosecuted with any crimes since he was captured, detained, and tortured, with doctors present as witnesses.

Zubaydah has been imprisoned for more than 16 years in solitary confinement.

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."