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The Secrecy of Torture: What Happens When Survivors’ Memories Are “Declassified”?

Among the numerous bizarre facets of the Guantanamo Bay prison saga is the classification of people’s memories as state secrets.

Among the numerous bizarre facets of the Guantánamo Bay prison saga is the classification of people’s memories as state secrets. For years, Guantánamo prisoners who were held in CIA secret prisons known as “black sites” could not publicly discuss their experiences and memories of their captivity. The US government argues that, in doing so, the prisoners would reveal classified information about the CIA’s torture program, such as the names of interrogators, the locations of facilities and the torture techniques that were used.

For years, it was almost impossible to discuss the issue of torture openly in the military commissions because so many details were allowed to be kept secret. However, the December 2014 release of the Senate report on the CIA torture program has forced the US government to relax its position on keeping former CIA prisoners’ memories classified.

Since the Senate report declassified several aspects of the CIA’s torture report, it is now easier for defense attorneys to discuss how their clients were abused by the agency. Overall, the release of the report has shifted the precedent, making it harder for the government to keep a tight lid on the program. However, this does not mean full transparency has been achieved – much information about the torture program that should be public will remain classified.

The first person to test the US government’s new limits is Majid Khan, a US resident of Pakistani origin who was captured by Pakistan authorities in 2003, handed over to the CIA, held in secret prisons and transferred to Guantánamo Bay in 2006. He remains detained at Guantánamo. Where exactly Khan was captured and held remains classified.

According to an extensive Reuters report by journalist David Rohde, “Khan’s account is contained in 27 pages of interview notes his lawyers compiled over the past seven years. The US government cleared the notes for release last month through a formal review process.” Khan, whose account became public last month, said he was subjected by the government to a form of anal rape called “rectal feeding,” as well as waterboarding, loud music and sleep deprivation. He said that guards hung him naked from poles and held his head underwater. According to the Senate report and previous disclosures, these torture tactics were not only used on Khan; they were par for the course for the nearly 120 men held in CIA black sites around the world – of whom at least 26 were wrongfully held (they did not even meet the CIA’s own detention standard). They were beaten; slammed into walls; put in stress positions; and subjected to several forms of humiliation, torture and abuse.

Parts of Khan’s account include forms of abuse that were not disclosed in the Senate torture report, such as interrogators frequently touching and pouring ice water on his genitals and videotaping him naked. Additionally, Reuters pointed out, “Khan said his feet and lower legs were placed in tall, boot-like metal cuffs that dug into his flesh and immobilized his legs. He said he felt that his legs would break if he fell forward while restrained by the cuffs.”

One of Khan’s worst torture experiences occurred during a May 2003 interrogation session. As Reuters described:

“[G]uards stripped him naked, hung him from a wooden beam for three days and provided him with water but no food. The only time he was removed from the beam was on the afternoon of the first day, when interrogators shackled him, placed a hood over his head and lowered him into a tub of ice water.

An interrogator then forced Khan’s head underwater until he feared he would drown. The questioner pulled Khan’s head out of the water, demanded answers to questions and again dunked his head underwater, the detainee said. Guards also poured water and ice from a bucket onto Khan’s mouth and nose.

Khan was again hung on the pole hooded and naked. Every two to three hours, interrogators hurled ice water on his body and set up a fan to blow air on him, depriving him of sleep, he said. Once, after hanging on the pole for two days, Khan began hallucinating, thinking he was seeing a cow and a giant lizard.”

Khan said he experiences regular panic attacks because of his time in CIA captivity. Khan’s horrific account is a harbinger of what will be revealed if more CIA torture victims’ accounts are declassified and made public.

The classification of former CIA prisoners’ memories has been a major point of contention raised by defense attorneys in the Guantánamo military commissions. All the defendants in the commissions cases were held in CIA black sites. In 2013, James Connell, defense attorney for 9/11 case defendant Ammar al-Baluchi, and other Guantánamo defense lawyers filed a motion to declassify their clients’ thoughts and memories of CIA torture. Defense attorneys have long argued that the details of their clients’ captivity in CIA black sites – their memories, including the torture they experienced – should be able to serve as mitigating evidence, since torture is illegal under US and international law.

Whether Khan’s disclosure will impact the other military commissions cases – the five alleged 9/11 plotters and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, the suspected mastermind of the USS Cole bombing in 2000 – is uncertain, largely due to the system’s separate classification review process. Just because Khan was able to publicly discuss his treatment in CIA captivity does not mean the other Guantánamo defendants will be able to do so immediately. US Navy Commander Walter Ruiz, defense attorney for 9/11 case defendant Mustafa al-Hawsawi, explained to Truthout, “If I wanted to, at this point, provide anything that wasn’t in the Senate report or anything that hasn’t been declassified – and for Mr. Hawsawi, there’s nothing else other than what was seen in the Senate report – we would have to submit it through a classification review and have somebody look at that and come back and say, ‘It’s no longer classified’ so we can talk about it.”

Another factor in the US government allowing Khan to publicly discuss his memories of CIA confinement, according to Ruiz, is that Khan’s case is closer to sentencing than the 9/11 or al-Nashiri cases. In February 2012, Khan struck a plea bargain with the US government. In exchange for pleading guilty to “five war crimes, including murder, attempter murder and spying,” according to The Washington Post, and testifying against other detainees in the military commission trials, Khan will serve no more than 19 years in Guantánamo.

Ruiz did say Khan being allowed to discuss his memories of CIA torture is a positive development and could help the other Guantánamo defense attorneys in their efforts to make their clients’ stories public. “I think that it’s a step in the right direction,” he said, adding that if more people are able to disclose their memories, it will open up new possibilities for litigation and accountability.

However, Ruiz pointed out that full accountability and transparency are “very far away.” The full Senate report on the CIA torture program is over 6,000 pages, but the only part that has been declassified is a summary of over 520 pages. Ruiz said the government continues to withhold information contained in the full report from defense lawyers.

The US government can declassify records in two ways – either by declassifying an entire document and letting the public see it or declassifying a portion or summary of the document’s information. When the government does the latter, “what they’re really doing is picking the information they want to declassify and the remaining information remains classified,” explained Ruiz. For example, the CIA blacked out numerous words in its declassification review process of the Senate report, such as names of covert officers, number of CIA employees, agency expenditures and salaries, foreign government liaisons and locations of secret prisons. Ruiz also told Truthout that when his team asked for medical records of CIA black sites, they were not given the actual records but summaries of the records instead. As a result, the public got a sanitized version of what the government is doing.

Photos of CIA Black Sites

Even though the US government is allowing Khan to publicly discuss his time in CIA captivity, other details of the agency’s torture program remain secret, including photographic evidence of the black sites.

While reviewing material collected for the Senate report on the CIA torture program, government prosecutors discovered around 14,000 photographs of former CIA black sites, The Washington Post reported recently. Most of the pictures “depict black sites in Thailand, Afghanistan and Poland,” with “fewer shots of prisons in Romania and Lithuania,” according to the Post. The photographs show internal and external views of the secret prisons but do not show the detainee interrogations and torture. However, the cache does contain “images of naked detainees during transport” and “photographs of confinement boxes.”

Among the cache are images of the notorious, dark, dungeon-like “Salt Pit prison in Afghanistan where one detainee, Gul Rahman, died of hypothermia in CIA custody. Before he died, during his captivity, the CIA cut off Gul Rahman’s clothes, dragged him naked across the dirt floor, and hooded, slapped and punched him. As part of the CIA’s de rigueur, detainees in the “Salt Pit” were regularly stripped of their clothing, forced to walk around naked in humiliation, hosed down while naked, place in rooms with cold temperatures, subjected to blaring music, deprived of sleep, put in stress positions and water-boarded.

Khaled al-Masri, a German and Lebanese citizen, was detained and tortured by the CIA for four months in Salt Pit. In January 2004, the CIA released al-Masri after admitting they captured the wrong guy. Al-Masri later stated that Majid Khan was detained with him in the “Salt Pit”.

The Post added that also “among the photographs are images of [Abu] Zubaydah shortly after he was captured in 2002; he was wounded in the leg during a shootout with Pakistani security forces. The pictures show his injury. Later shots show him wearing an eye patch.”

Abu Zubaydah, a Saudi citizen of Palestinian descent, was suspected by the US government of being a top al-Qaeda leader. He was captured by CIA and FBI agents, working with Pakistani intelligence, in Pakistan in March 2002. For four years, Zubaydah was detained in CIA black sites – with the exception of a brief detention in Guantánamo – and tortured in various ways, including wall slamming, waterboarding 83 times, sleep deprivation, forced nudity and stress positions, and confinement in small boxes.

According to the Senate report, Zubaydah lost his eye in CIA custody, but how he lost it remains a mystery. The CIA’s torture of Zubaydah produced little valuable information, and the US government later realized it overestimated his role in al-Qaeda. In fact, Zubaydah was never even a member of al-Qaeda. He did work at Khalden – a training camp for Arab mujahideen fighting the Soviet Union – but Zubaydah’s main responsibility was filing paperwork for trainees. Moreover, Khalden was independent from al-Qaeda and the Taliban. In 2006, Zubaydah was transferred to Guantánamo, which is where he remains detained without charge.

Additionally, the “pictures also show CIA personnel and members of foreign intelligence services, as well as psychologists Bruce Jessen and James Mitchell, among the architects of the interrogation program.” Bruce Jessen and James Mitchell are two psychologists who taught classes in Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape (SERE) – a program that teaches US military personnel how to survive, resist torture and evade capture by enemy forces. After 9/11, Jessen and Mitchell were contracted by the CIA to develop an interrogation program, and the two psychologists reverse-engineered SERE techniques into torture tactics used by the CIA. Thus, Jessen and Mitchell analyzed and twisted a program designed for survival training into a project designed for a very different purpose: torture.

Rather than just extracting intelligence for preventing terrorist attacks, a key purpose of the CIA torture program was exploitation: turning detainees into informants for the US government and eliciting false confessions that the Bush administration used as “intelligence” for the war in Iraq.

One person who knows Jessen and Mitchell is Capt. Michael Kearns, a retired US Air Force intelligence officer who also taught SERE, and he is appalled at his former colleagues’ use of the program in developing the CIA torture techniques. Kearns told Truthout, “SERE is a program for teaching survival and should never allow … ‘gross uncorrected failure,’ while Dr Bruce Jessen’s ‘Exploitation Plan’ (which has yet to be declassified) was exactly the opposite – exploitation at its worst.”

One person subjected to such exploitation was Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, who was held in a CIA black site in Afghanistan and sent to Egypt, Jordan, Mauritania and Morocco to also be tortured by those governments. During his time in Egyptian custody, al-Libi claimed the Iraqi government had ties with al-Qaeda, which included explosives and chemical weapons training – claims he later recanted and admitted he fabricated to escape the torture. However, al-Libi’s claims were used by the Bush administration to support invading Iraq. Al-Libi died in a Libyan prison in May 2009.

Meanwhile, the architects of the program stood to gain significantly by its implementation. “Worst of all,” Kearns said, “Mitchell, Jessen and Associates profited handsomely in this brutality.” In March 2005, during their contract with the CIA, Jessen and Mitchell formed a consulting firm called Mitchell, Jessen & Associates. The CIA paid the company $81 million for its services. That does not include the money the CIA gave Jessen and Mitchell for their torture expertise before they formed the company and were paid a daily rate.

As attorneys, advocates and journalists piece together what happened at the CIA black sites, the photographs taken there are valuable pieces of evidence. However, defense attorneys were not informed of the photographs. Regarding the pictures, Connell told the Washington Post, “If pictures from black sites exist, they are crime scene photographs,” adding, “The military commission rules require the prosecution to turn them over to the defense, but federal and international prosecutors should also get a copy – not to mention the public.”

Secrecy of CIA Torture and Police Brutality

Beating and torturing people in one’s custody behind a veil of secrecy is not just the domain of the CIA and US military, but also of the police. One man who exemplifies this connection is Chicago-detective-turned-Guantánamo-interrogator Richard Zuley, who was profiled in an extensive Guardian investigative series.

From 1977 to 2007, Richard Zuley was a detective on Chicago’s North Side. He was also a US Navy reserve lieutenant, who occasionally performed intelligence and counterterrorism work for the military upon request.

As a Chicago detective, Zuley was notorious for torturing and abusing suspects – most often poor and working-class people of color – to yield confessions, “even while ignoring potentially exculpatory evidence,” according to the Guardian investigation. Zuley’s abusive interrogation tactics include shackling suspects to walls for long periods of time, threatening to harm family members, pressuring suspects to implicate themselves and others, threatening the death penalty and possibly planting evidence.

In late 2002, Zuley was sent to Guantánamo as a liaison officer for the US European Command and was later tasked with leading a special interrogation team. To interrogate detainees in Guantánamo, Zuley utilized many of the brutal techniques he used in Chicago. In fact, as the Guardian pointed out, Zuley’s interrogation plan was personally cleared by then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. One man Zuley tortured was Mohamedou Ould Slahi, who gives his personal testimony in the book Guantánamo Diary. Zuley lied and told Slahi that the prisoner’s mother was detained, and if he did not cooperate, she would be sent to Guantánamo as the only woman prisoner – which Slahi’s lawyers considered to be a rape threat. Slahi ultimately succumbed to the torture and told interrogators what they wanted to hear, even though he had nothing to admit.

According to the Guardian, “After Zuley took over in July 2003, Slahi was subjected to even more extreme interrogation tactics: multiple death threats, extreme temperatures, sleep deprivation and a terrifying nighttime boat ride in which he was made to believe that worse was in store.” Slahi remains in Guantánamo and has never been charged.

Both the CIA and US police have a tradition of evading transparency and accountability for their actions. In November 2005, then-head of the CIA’s clandestine service, Jose Rodriguez (who, before that, was chief of staff of the agency’s Counterterrorism Center shortly after 9/11 to 2004), destroyed dozens of videotapes showing CIA interrogators torturing Abu Zubaydah and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri at a black site in Thailand. After retiring in 2007, Rodriguez still defends his actions – both torture and destroying the tapes.

Though the memories of police abuse survivors are not explicitly classified, they are very often ignored or categorically denied. However, now that more people have cellphone cameras, documented evidence is becoming more available – and more stories are coming to light. Ruiz, who also worked as a defense lawyer in the domestic judicial system, told Truthout that videos and images of police violence confirm what lawyers like him have known for years, after repeatedly “hearing the stories of the abused.” The prevalence of people with camera phones taping police violence, says Ruiz, means “people are now able to see, with their own eyes, the abuses of power.”

Ruiz said this trend of increased visibility ties into why Rodriguez destroyed the CIA torture tapes. Rodriguez “understood that people could never see that. Because if anybody were able to see that, there would be a backlash. …That’s why there is a push to keep things hidden, out of the view of the general public eye, because of what you’ve seen in the police sector and their brutality and excessive power.” Seeing pictures or video of police violence, torture or other acts of state brutality has a bigger impact on people’s perceptions than merely hearing about it, he said.

The connecting thread between the US torture program and police brutality, according to Ruiz, is “power, lack of accountability, impunity and arrogance, too.” Regardless of whether memories of torture victims are “classified,” the larger culture of secrecy impedes accountability for CIA torture abroad and police brutality at home.

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