In 2002, not long after he was subjected to so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques” by Bruce Jessen and James Mitchell, psychologists under contract to the CIA, high-value detainee Abu Zubaydah made about ten drawings depicting the torture he endured while in custody of the agency.
The drawings Zubaydah made were classified as top secret by the CIA. But according to two counterterrorism officials, one of the drawings Zubaydah had sketched captured in incredible detail the waterboarding sessions he underwent. Another drawing showed him being chained by his wrists to the ceiling of a CIA black site prison where he was held and another showed him strapped to a chair and being doused with water as part of his sleep deprivation program.
Zubaydah drew the pictures of the torture techniques he was subjected to on a sheet of paper measuring about 8 x 11 inches and on pieces of paper about the size of an index card. In some instances, Zubaydah drew several of the torture techniques on a single piece of paper.
Zubaydah’s “artwork is very detailed right down to the straps that were used when he was on the waterboard and almost looks like a photograph,” said one of the counterterrorism officials, who requested anonymity in order to discuss classified material.
Brent Mickum, Zubaydah’s attorney, previously told Truthout that in the absence of the 92 interrogation videotapes, which the agency destroyed in 2005, the drawings Zubaydah made contain the best description of the torture techniques used against him while he was being held at the CIA’s black site prison facilities.
“These are a good group of drawings and he is a pretty good artist,” Mickum told Truthout last year. Mickum said he is prohibited from discussing the contents of Zubaydah’s drawings because it remains classified. However, he said, “the depictions would be of interest” and agreed that Zubaydah “can draw and with great detail.”
Additionally, Zubaydah wrote poetry, short stories, and articles while in CIA custody. The content of his writing, however, is not known.
But the CIA refuses to release any of his drawings or writings and won’t even acknowledge that those materials actually exist. If Zubaydah’s drawings and writings do exist, the CIA said, it would be part of the agency’s “operational files,” which means “records and files detailing the actual conduct of [CIA’s] intelligence activities.”
The CIA, which maintains the “enhanced interrogation techniques” interrogators used on Zubaydah were “safe” and “legal,” made that disclosure in two separate responses to requests Truthout filed with the agency seeking a Mandatory Declassification Review (MDR) of Zubaydah’s drawings and writings. An MDR is a procedure under a section of an executive order signed by President Obama (which replaced a similar executive order signed by former President Bush) that allows the public to seek the declassification review of specific classified material.
“We have conducted a thorough review of your request and have determined that responsive records, should they exist, would be contained in operational files,” states a September 21 letter Susan Viscuso, the CIA’s information and privacy coordinator, sent to Truthout in response to an MDR request related to Zubaydah’s drawings.
In response to Truthout’s MDR request related to Zubaydah’s writings, Viscuso said in a letter dated September 28 that those materials, “should they exist,” would be “contained in properly designated CIA operational files” and are also exempt from FOIA searches, reviews, and “disclosure requirements.”
A section of “the CIA Information Act, as amended,” Viscuso said, “exempts operational files from the search, review, publication, and disclosure requirements of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).”
Alex Abdo, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union’s (ACLU) National Security Project, said, “it is deeply troubling that the government continues to censor the best evidence of detainee abuse.”
The government “has destroyed 92 videotapes of CIA interrogations, suppressed 2,000 photographs of abuse throughout Afghanistan and Iraq, and even classified the detainees’ own accounts of their mistreatment at proceedings in Guantanamo,” Abdo said. “This selective suppression of evidence has allowed the government to perpetuate the myth that the abuse of detainees was aberrational, when it was, in fact, the result of policy decisions made at the highest levels of our government. And it allows advocates of torture and mistreatment to obscure the truly horrific nature of the mistreatment authorized by the Bush administration.”
The ACLU’s FOIA lawsuits against the Bush and Obama administrations related to the treatment of detainees at Guantanamo Bay and in Iraq and Afghanistan prisons has resulted in the release more than 100,000 pages of secret government documents.
Last month, the CIA revised its MDR regulations “to more clearly reflect the current CIA organizational structure and policies and practices, and to eliminate ambiguous, redundant and obsolete regulatory provisions.”
The revised regulations, however, still says “declassification review requests will not be accepted… for any document or material containing information contained within an operational file…”
Judge Silences Zubaydah
However, it’s not just Zubaydah’s drawings that the government wants to keep secret. In a four-page order issued earlier this year, US District Court Judge Richard Roberts, who presides over Zubaydah’s habeas corpus case, issued an order that said that any statements Zubaydah has made to his attorneys describing the torture he endured must remain classified and cannot be revealed publicly in court filings. Zubaydah has given his attorneys a signed declaration totaling about 15 pages detailing the torture he was subjected to during his imprisonment at CIA-run prisons.
Roberts’ order was issued in March, in response to a motion Zubaydah’s legal team filed nearly two years earlier that accused the government of “improper classification” of documents that included statements Zubaydah made describing “the interrogation techniques inflicted upon him while in CIA custody … other personal knowledge of his experience within the CIA Torture and Rendition Program and … statements made by [Zubaydah’s] counsel based upon information that is found within the public domain.”
Roberts said Zubaydah’s legal team, in seeking to have Zubaydah’s statements related to his treatment declassified, was essentially trying to bring “a FOIA challenge in the midst of a habeas petition.”
“… The government must provide petitioner’s counsel, not the public at large, with classified information unless the government moves for an exception to disclosure,” Roberts wrote.
In 2007, during an interview with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), Zubaydah described in detail how CIA interrogators tortured him, which included placing him in a “confinement box” and repeatedly slamming his head against a wall. The interview with the ICRC was part of a confidential report on the treatment of 14 high-value detainees in custody of the agency. Journalist Mark Danner obtained the ICRC report and published a lengthy story in the New York Review of Books detailing the detainees’ statements about their torture.
Still, Roberts’ order means that anything Zubaydah says or writes or has said or written that has not been officially approved for disclosure by the government is classified and that applies to his interview with the ICRC.
Mickum said Roberts’ order and the secrecy surrounding Zubaydah’s drawings deprives his client of a “voice” and allows former Bush officials, including former Vice President Dick Cheney, to control the narrative about Zubaydah’s treatment and the efficacy of his torture.
“One of the great frustrations that we as Zubaydah’s defense counsel have faced is the inability to tell his story,” Mickum said in an interview. “That inability is brought about by two things: one, the government’s misuse and improper use of the classification system to essentially muzzle our client and his attorneys to prevent telling his side of the story. And the other is the unwillingness of the district court to make decisions on motions that have been fully briefed, in some cases, for almost three years. These include motions to declassify his diaries. In the final analysis, nothing that my client says, draws, or writes is classified. The government is using this as a ruse because they are embarrassed and don’t want this information to be revealed.”
Meanwhile, former CIA general counsel John Rizzo confirmed long held suspicions that some of the interrogation videotapes the agency destroyed showed Zubaydah being subjected to waterboarding, an admission that fuels speculation the tapes were destroyed to cover up illegal acts, not because the tapes were no longer of any intelligence value, as current and former agency officials have claimed.
“We had a representative in my office early on to review all of the tapes, and he came back, did a report,” Rizzo said during an interview with the PBS news program Frontline. “I also spoke to him in some depth about it, and he made it clear that there were portions of the tapes that clearly showed Zubaydah being waterboarded.”
John Durham, a federal prosecutor from Connecticut who was appointed special counsel by former Attorney General Michael Mukasey to investigate the tape purge, concluded his probe last year without bringing any charges against former CIA officials involved in the destruction. Durham had obtained Zubaydah’s drawings from the government during the course of his investigation, but it’s unclear if Durham used it to assist his probe.
Last year, as Truthout first reported, the government, in a federal court filing in Zubaydah’s habeas case, backed off of every major claim the Bush administration had made about him after he was captured in Pakistan in March 2002, stating that their “understanding of [Zubaydah’s] role in terrorist activities has … evolved with further investigation.”