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"A Train Wreck Waiting to Happen": Shocking Stories from the Senate's Torture Report

Noa Yachot,
Former Senior Editor,
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December 10, 2014

In the last 24 hours, pundits have spoken at length about the Senate Intelligence Committee’s landmark torture report, the executive summary of which was released yesterday. For good reason. Despite all of the leaks, the previously released documents, and the reports already written, the cruelty and illegality exposed in the 525-page document are astounding. It’s hard to believe that an American government agency engaged in such systematic brutality and has faced no meaningful accountability.

This International Human Rights Day – as we consider how we went so dramatically off course, and how we can make amends – let’s especially remember the victims and survivors of the U.S. torture program. They haven’t found recourse in U.S. courts, and they weren’t interviewed for the Senate report. Some remain detained without charge or trial, and many are still coping with the deep psychological scars and physical consequences of torture. But their stories can still be told, and the Senate report goes into laudable detail on what they endured.

Four such stories, based almost exclusively on information taken from the Senate torture report, are shared below. They don’t include the detainees forced to stand on broken legs, endure ice water baths, or undergo “rectal rehydration” (in reality, rape) at the hands of interrogators, at least one of whom had anger management issues while another “reportedly admitted to sexual assault.” These stories represent just a fraction of the prisoners profiled in the report, including at least 26 individuals wrongfully detained even according to the CIA’s unlawful standards.

But together, they represent many of the worst elements of the program – the abuse itself, the breakdown in oversight, the preference for merciless brutality over credible intelligence gathering, and the complicity of the highest levels of government.

The Death of Gul Rahman

The report provides new details about the death of Gul Rahman, at a black site codenamed COBALT in the report, but known to the world as the Salt Pit. The country name is redacted, but we know Rahman died in Afghanistan.

The officer in charge of the Salt Pit at the time of Rahman’s death is referred to in the report as “CIA OFFICER 1.” He was, the report says, on his first overseas assignment at the time and had no experience handling interrogations. CIA records show that other CIA officers recommended he not have access to classified information due to a “lack of honesty, judgment, and maturity.”

Details of Rahman’s death are provided, and they are gruesome.

[CIA OFFICER 1] ordered that Gul Rahman be shackled to the wall of his cell in a position that required the detainee to rest on the bare concrete floor. Rahman was wearing only a sweatshirt, as [CIA OFFICER 1] had ordered that Rahman’s clothing be removed when he had been judged to be uncooperative during an earlier interrogation. The next day, the guards found Gul Rahman’s dead body. An internal CIA review and autopsy assessed that Rahman likely died from hypothermia—in part from having been forced to sit on the bare concrete floor without pants. [CIA OFFICER I’s] initial cable to CIA Headquarters on Rahman’s death included a number of misstatements and omissions that were not discovered until internal investigations into Rahman’s death.

The officers responsible for Rahman’s death were never even reprimanded. In fact, just four months later, CIA OFFICER 1 was recommended by a superior for a $2,500 reward for “consistently superior work.” He was formally certified in April 2003 as a CIA interrogator.

In 2005, a CIA “Accountability Board” reviewed the circumstances of Rahman’s death, and it recommended a punishment of 10 days suspension without pay for OFFICER 1. In February 2006, however, CIA Executive Director K.B. Foggo told the officer that he would take no disciplinary action against him. In a memo explaining his decision, he wrote:

Cable traffic reviewed by the board shows conclusively that Headquarters generally was aware of, and posed no objections to, the confinement conditions and interrogation techniques being imposed on Rahman…

Former Assistant U.S. Attorney John Durham, who in 2008 led a Department of Justice investigation into some aspects of the torture program, recommended a full criminal investigation be opened into Rahman’s death. Attorney General Eric Holder eventually closed the case. There was no indictment.

The Wrongful Detention of Khalid El-Masri

Khaled El-Masri is a German citizen who was wrongfully detained in Macedonia and turned over to the CIA, who rendered him to Afghanistan in 2004. (The country is redacted in the Senate report.)

Some CIA officials expressed doubts early on as to whether they had arrested the right person. The National Security Council ultimately ordered him repatriated to Germany. He would eventually be deposited at night, without explanation, on a hill top in Albania.

In March 2006, the CIA admitted to five members of the Senate Intelligence Committee that the agency had detained and subsequently released Khaled. In 2007, the CIA’s internal watchdog concluded that the detention was wrong. In the words of the inspector general, “[a]vailable intelligence information did not provide a sufficient basis to render and detain Khalid al-Masri” and the “Agency’s prolonged detention of al-Masri was unjustified.” In its formal response to the Senate’s report, the CIA finally fesses up to its mistakes over what it describes as “the improper capture and rendition of Khalid al-Masri.” The CIA’s response goes further, noting that there was no lawful basis for Khaled’s capture, rendition, or detention – and that the agency “plainly took too long to remediate its mistake.”

Despite these admitted mistakes, back in 2007, the CIA director decided that no measures would be taken against those responsible for Khaled’s abduction and torture, because “[t]he Director strongly believes that mistakes should be expected in a business filled with uncertainty and that, when they result from performance that meets reasonable standards, CIA leadership must stand behind the officers who make them.”

The ACLU sued the CIA over El-Masri’s unlawful detention. The suit made its way through the court system, and though his story was widely known throughout the world, the Supreme Court accepted the government’s arguments that hearing the case would harm state secrets. It dismissed the suit in October 2007, the same month the CIA told the Senate Intelligence Committee that it had lacked the evidence to detain and render El-Masri.

The Torture of al-Nashiri: A “Train Wreck Waiting to Happen”

Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri is a former CIA detainee presently held at Guantánamo Bay, where he faces the death penalty for his alleged role in the bombing of the U.S.S. Cole. He was tortured by the CIA over at least four separate periods, despite being assessed as “compliant and cooperative” at the end of each one.

But the intelligence he provided wasn’t good enough for some, and officers at CIA headquarters ordered he continue to be tortured. When some interrogators determined in December 2002 that he wasn’t withholding important information, officers at CIA headquarters responded:

When we are able to capture other terrorists based on his leads and to thwart future plots based on his reporting, we will have much more confidence that he is, indeed, genuinely cooperative on some level.

The torture of al-Nashiri resumed after a short pause in December 2002 by an officer the report refers to as CIA OFFICER 2. This officer hadn’t been trained, certified, or approved to use the CIA’s unlawful techniques, and his deployment was met with some objections because some colleagues had reported he was “too confident, had a temper, and had some security issues.” It was later suggested that he was sent to interrogate Al-Nashiri because “Agency management” felt that other interrogators had been “too lenient” with Al-Nashiri and thus “[CIA OFFICER 2]] was sent to [DETENTION SITE BLUE] to ‘fix’ the situation.”

The torture of al-Nashiri continued:

For example, [CIA OFFICER 2] placed al-Nashiri in a “standing stress position” with “his hands affixed over his head” for approximately two and a half days. Later, during the course of al-Nashiri’s debriefings, while he was blindfolded, [CIA OFFICER 2] placed a pistol near al-Nashiri’s head and operated a cordless drill near al-Nashiri’s body. Al-Nashiri did not provide any additional threat information during, or after, these interrogations.

Allegations of unauthorized torture techniques used on al-Nashiri were described in a 2003 CIA Office of Inspector General report, including:

slapping al-Nashiri multiple times on the back of the head during interrogations; implying that his mother would be brought before him and sexually abused; blowing cigar smoke in al-Nashiri’s face; giving al-Nashiri a forced bath using a stiff brush; and using improvised stress positions that caused cuts and bruises resulting in the intervention of a medical officer, who was concerned that al-Nashiri’s shoulders would be dislocated using the stress positions.

The report also notes that al-Nashiri was force-fed rectally while on a hunger strike.

In January 2003, after receiving the interrogation plan for al-Nashiri, the CIA chief of interrogations sent an email to colleagues expressing reservations with the program and informing them he would be retiring shortly. Among other things, he wrote, “[t]his is a train wreck [sic] waiting to happen and I intend to get the hell off the train before it happens.” He also expressed concern about al-Nashiri’s psychological state and the use of psychologists as interrogators. Those two psychologists, James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen (referenced in the report as DUNBAR and SWIGERT), oversaw some of the worst interrogations and were ultimately paid over $80 million by the CIA to take over the program.

Psychologists continued to express concern about al-Nashiri’s mental state over the years – including, most recently, a torture expert during a pre-trial military commissions hearing at Guantánamo.

Muhammad Rahim: Torture Not Prohibited

Alleged al Qaeda facilitator Muhammad Rahim was captured in Pakistan in 2007. Believing him to have information on Osama bin Laden, then-CIA Director Michael Hayden asked the president to issue an executive order determining that the Geneva Conventions did not prohibit the use of the CIA’s torture techniques on Rahim.

An Office of Legal Counsel memo, along with an accompanied executive order, was issued on July 20, 2007, determining that a combination of six techniques (“sleep deprivation, dietary manipulation, facial grasp, facial slap, abdominal slap, and the attention grab”) could be lawfully used on Rahim.

From the report:

During the interrogation of Rahim using the CIA’s enhanced interrogation techniques, Rahim was subjected to eight extensive sleep deprivation sessions, as well as to the attention grasp, facial holds, abdominal slaps, and the facial slap. During sleep deprivation sessions, Rahim was usually shackled in a standing position, wearing a diaper and a pair of shorts. Rahim’s diet was almost entirely limited to water and liquid Ensure meals. CIA interrogators would provide Rahim with a cloth to further cover himself as an incentive to cooperate. For example, a July 27, 2007, cable from the CIA detention site states that when Rahim showed a willingness to engage in questioning about “historical information,” he was “provided a large towel to cover his torso” as a “subtle reward.” CIA interrogators asked Rahim a variety of questions during these interrogations, seeking information about the current location of senior al-Qa’ida leaders, which he did not provide.

After a six-week pause, the torture resumed, with a sleep deprivation session that lasted a total of 138.5 hours, from November 2 until November 8, 2007.

In the words of the Senate report, “The CIA’s detention and interrogation of Mohammad Rahim resulted in no disseminated intelligence reports.” He is currently detained at Guantánamo Bay.


There you have it. Alarm bells ignored; an utter lack of accountability; abduction, secret detention, and torture, including of innocents; brutality to the point of death. Impunity for these crimes has caused terrible damage to the American justice system and to the principle that no one is beyond the law. The statute of limitations hasn’t run out on many of the worst offenses. A special prosecutor should be appointed, and fast.

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