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Abu Zubaydah’s Interrogation, In His Own Words

For a forthcoming piece, I was combing through the International Committee of the Red Cross’s formerly-confidential 2007 interviews with the 14 detainees who, until September 2006, the CIA kept at its undisclosed “black site” secret prisons. (Mark Danner disclosed the document in a recent New York Review of Books piece.) The first annex to the report is an extended verbatim statement from Abu Zubaydah, the al-Qaeda operative captured in Pakistan in March 2002 who became the first detainee tortured by CIA and contractor interrogators based on a regimen adapted from the SERE program and approved by senior Bush administration officials. While Abu Zubaydah is hardly the most reliable narrator — he has both incentives to lie and he’s recounting events from years ago that took place in disorienting environments — his account appears to conflict with former FBI agent Ali Soufan’s account of an interrogation that took time to become brutal.

The ICRC explains that Abu Zubaydah’s narrative begins in “May 2002,” after he had “been held in hospital for what he believes were several weeks” as he convalesced from a gunshot to his leg during his capture. Soufan discusses interrogating Abu Zubaydah from “March to June 2002, before the harsh techniques were introduced later in August.” I can’t really adjudicate the dispute. It could be that Abu Zubaydah is misremembering and the ICRC is going off what he told them. Or it’s possible that Abu Zubaydah is excluding discussions he had with people like Soufan or the CIA’s John Kiriakou from his hospital bed. (Additionally, the ICRC said the interrogation took place in Afghanistan; I had understood it to take place in a Thai safe house.) I can’t explain it.

Continuing, this is all from stuff that Abu Zubaydah said took place before “the real torturing started.” He’s describing being “naked, strapped to a bed, in a very white room” that had “metal bars separating it from a larger room.” He was “shackled by hands and feet for what I think was the next 2 to 3 weeks,” which led to blistering on his legs.

I was given no solid food during the first two or three weeks, while sitting on the chair. I was only given Ensure [a nutrient supplement] and water to drink. At first the Ensure made me vomit, but this became less with time.

The cell and room were air-conditioned and were very cold. Very loud, shouting type music was constantly playing. It kept repeating about every fifteen minutes twenty-four hours a day. Sometimes the music stopped and was replaced by a loud hissing or crackling noise.

The guards were American, but wore masks to conceal their faces. My interrogators did not wear masks.

During this first two to three week period I was questioned for about one to two hours each day. American interrogators would come to the room and speak to me through the bars of the cell. During the questioning the music was switched off, but was then put back on again afterwards. I could not sleep at all for the first two to three weeks. If I started to fall asleep one of the guards would come and spray water in my face.

Presumably Soufan was one such interrogator. Even if we’re to go by the ICRC’s timetable, we’d still be in either late May or early June at this point, which overlaps with the time Soufan gives for his interrogations of Abu Zubaydah. Anyhow, during this time he “began to receive food, rice, to eat on a daily basis.” But he was kept “naked and in shackles,” a situation that continued for “another one and a half months.” A woman doctor “who asked why I was still naked” examined him after “about one and a half to two months,” which by the ICRC’s timetable would be mid June to early July for the period in which he was kept naked. After that he was given clothing. But:

[T]he next day guards came into my cell. They told me to stand up and raise my arms above my head. Then they cut the clothes off of me so that I was again naked and put me back on the chair for several days. I tried to sleep on the chair, but was again kept awake by the guards spraying water in my face.

When my interrogators had the impression I was cooperating and providing the information they required, the clothes were given back to me. When they felt I was being less cooperative the clothes were again removed and I was again put back on the chair. This was repeated several times.

There followed a period of either one month or two months — Abu Zubaydah seems like he’s repeating himself in the narrative — with no questioning. But then, “about two and a half or three months after I arrived in this place… the real torturing started.” This would, in either case, be either August or September, going off the May 2002 baseline. What he then describes is consistent with the post-August 2002 OLC approval of techniques like the “confinement box” and “walling”:

Two black wooden boxes were brought into the room outside my cell. One was tall, slightly higher than me and narrow. Measuring perhaps in area 1m x 0.75m and 2m in heigh. The other was shorter, perhaps only 1m in height. I was taken out of my cell and one of the interrogators wrapped a towel around my neck, they then used it to swing me around and smash me repeatedly against the hard walls of the room. I was also repeatedly slapped in the face. As I was still shackled, the pushing and pulling around meant that the shackles pulled painfully on my ankles.

I was then put into the tall back [I think this should be 'black'] box for what I think was about one and a half to two hours. The box was totally black on the inside as well as the outside…

And it goes on in that fashion, with descriptions of waterboarding, forced shaving and more, including an account that “I was told during this period I was one of the first to receive these interrogation techniques, so no rules applied. It felt like they were experimenting and trying out techniques to be used later on other people.”

In outline form, Abu Zubaydah’s account correlates with Soufan’s. There’s a period in which things are a certain way, and then a period where they get much worse for Abu Zubaydah. Examined with greater scrutiny, though, that earlier period is not a nice or pleasant one. Soufan never explicitly says otherwise. But he does say that during the period in which he interrogated Abu Zubaydah, he used “traditional interrogation methods.” Yet if Abu Zubaydah is to be believed, during this period he was subjected to a cold cell, prolonged nudity, prolonged shackling, constant noise, and what appears to be the manipulation of his sleep patterns. FBI agents might not recognize that as “traditional.”

Again, it could be that Abu Zubaydah is simply misremembering or misrepresenting his experience. But these are discrepancies worth exploring.

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