March 9, 2003
Questioning Terror Suspects in a Dark and Surreal World
CAIRO, March 8 — The capture of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed provides American authorities with their best opportunity yet to prevent attacks by Al Qaeda and track down Osama bin Laden. But the detention also presents a tactical and moral challenge when it comes to the interrogation techniques used to obtain vital information.
Senior American officials said physical torture would not be used against Mr. Mohammed, regarded as the operations chief of Al Qaeda and mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks. They said his interrogation would rely on what they consider acceptable techniques like sleep and light deprivation and the temporary withholding of food, water, access to sunlight and medical attention.
American officials acknowledged that such techniques were recently applied as part of the interrogation of Abu Zubaydah, the highest-ranking Qaeda operative in custody until the capture of Mr. Mohammed. Painkillers were withheld from Mr. Zubaydah, who was shot several times during his capture in Pakistan.
But the urgency of obtaining information about potential attacks and the opaque nature of the way interrogations are carried out can blur the line between accepted and unaccepted actions, several American officials said.
Routine techniques include covering suspects' heads with black hoods for hours at a time and forcing them to stand or kneel in uncomfortable positions in extreme cold or heat, American and other officials familiar with interrogations said. Questioners may also feign friendship and respect to elicit information. In some cases, American officials said, women are used as interrogators to try to humiliate men unaccustomed to dealing with women in positions of authority.
Interrogations of important Qaeda operatives like Mr. Mohammed occur at isolated locations outside the jurisdiction of American law. Some places have been kept secret, but American officials acknowledged that the C.I.A. has interrogation centers at the United States air base at Bagram in Afghanistan and at a base on Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean.
Qaeda operatives, including Ramzi bin al-Shibh, a suspect in the planning of the Sept. 11 attacks, were initially taken to a secret C.I.A. installation in Thailand but have since been moved, American officials said.
Intelligence officials also acknowledged that some suspects had been turned over to security services in countries known to employ torture. There have also been isolated, if persistent, reports of beatings in some American-operated centers. American military officials in Afghanistan are investigating the deaths of two prisoners at Bagram in December.
American officials have guarded the interrogation results. But George J. Tenet, the director of central intelligence, said in December that suspects interrogated overseas had produced important information.
Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld have said that American techniques adhere to international accords that ban the use of torture and that "all appropriate measures" are employed in interrogations.
Rights advocates and lawyers for prisoners' rights have accused the United States of quietly embracing torture as an acceptable means of getting information in the global antiterrorism campaign. "They don't have a policy on torture," said Holly Burkhalter, the United States director of Physicians for Human Rights, one of five groups pressing the Pentagon for assurances detainees are not being tortured. "There is no specific policy that eschews torture."
Critics also assert that transferring Qaeda suspects to countries where torture is believed common — like Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia — violates American law and the 1984 international convention against torture, which bans such transfers.
Some American and other officials subscribe to a view held by a number of outside experts, that physical coercion is largely ineffective. The officials say the most effective interrogation methods involve a mix of psychological disorientation, physical deprivation and ingratiating acts, all of which can take weeks or months.
"Pain alone will often make people numb and unresponsive," said Magnus Ranstorp, deputy director of the Center for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at St. Andrews University in Scotland. "You have to engage people to get into their minds and learn what is there."
About 3,000 Qaeda and Taliban suspects have been detained since the fall of 2001. Some have since been freed. The largest known group, about 650, is being held at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. American officials said the detainees at Guantánamo and similar military-run centers were not regarded as having valuable information.
Senior Qaeda members, however, are interrogated by specially trained C.I.A. officers and interpreters. F.B.I. agents submit questions but do not generally take part, American officials said.
Omar al-Faruq, a confidant of Mr. bin Laden and one of Al Qaeda's senior operatives in Southeast Asia, was captured last June by Indonesian agents acting on a tip from the C.I.A. Agents familiar with the case said a black hood was dropped over his head and he was loaded onto a C.I.A. aircraft. When he arrived at his destination several hours later, the hood was removed. On the wall in front of him were the seals of the New York City Police and Fire Departments, a Western official said.
It was, said a former senior C.I.A. officer who took part in similar sessions, a mind game called false flag, intended to leave the captive disoriented, isolated and vulnerable. Sometimes the décor is faked to make it seem as though the suspect has been taken to a country with a reputation for brutal interrogation.
In this case, officials said, Mr. Faruq was in the C.I.A. interrogation center at the Bagram air base. American officials were convinced that he knew a lot about pending attacks and the Qaeda network in Southeast Asia, which Mr. bin Laden sent him to set up in 1998.
The details of the interrogation are unknown, though one intelligence official briefed on the sessions said Mr. Faruq initially provided useless scraps of information.
What is known is that the questioning was prolonged, extending day and night for weeks. It is likely, experts say, that the proceedings followed a pattern, with Mr. Faruq left naked most of the time, his hands and feet bound. While international law requires prisoners to be allowed eight hours' sleep a day, interrogators do not necessarily let them sleep for eight consecutive hours.
Mr. Faruq may also have been hooked up to sensors, then asked questions to which interrogators knew the answers, so they could gauge his truthfulness, officials said.
The Western intelligence official described Mr. Faruq's interrogation as "not quite torture, but about as close as you can get." The official said that over a three-month period, the suspect was fed very little, while being subjected to sleep and light deprivation, prolonged isolation and room temperatures that varied from 100 degrees to 10 degrees. In the end he began to cooperate.
Mr. Faruq began to tell of plans to drive explosives-laden trucks into American diplomatic centers. A day later, embassies in Indonesia and more than a dozen other countries in Southeast Asia were closed, officials said. He also provided detailed information about people involved in those operations and other plots, writing out lengthy descriptions. He held out longer than Mr. Zubaydah, who American officials said began to cooperate after two months of interrogation.
American intelligence knows a great deal about Mr. Mohammed, who has been sought since the mid-1990's. That knowledge, an expert said, can provide leverage. "The important thing is to construct the suspect's personal history and learn about the person before you interrogate them," a European counterterrorism official said. "Shock is a great technique. When we can show someone that we already know a lot about them, including intimate personal details, they are shocked and more likely to start talking."
The secret C.I.A. center at Bagram where Mr. Faruq probably remains is near the two-story detention center where lower-level suspects are being held. Both sites are off limits, even to most military personnel. The only descriptions of life inside have come from released detainees.
American officials at the base say that all detainees are treated according to international law and are held under humane conditions. Still, the Americans expressed reluctance to describe details of the conditions because, as Col. Roger King, spokesman for the American-led force in Afghanistan, put it: "Every detail we give you about how we run the facility provides information to the enemy about how to be more successful in resisting if captured."
But he did provide some information that both complemented and contradicted the descriptions given by former detainees.
In a typical prison, where punishment is the aim, routine governs life. At Bagram, where eliciting information is the goal, the opposite is true. Disorientation is a tool of interrogation and therefore a way of life.
To that end, the building — an unremarkable hangar — is lighted 24 hours a day, making sleep almost impossible, said Muhammad Shah, an Afghan farmer who was held there for 18 days.
Colonel King said it was legitimate to use lights, noise and vision restriction, and to alter, without warning, the time between meals, to blur a detainee's sense of time. He said sleep deprivation was "probably within the lexicon."
Prisoners are watched, moved and, according to some, manhandled by military police officials. Most detainees live on the hangar's bottom floor, a large area divided with wire mesh into group cells holding 8 to 10 prisoners each. Some are kept on the top floor in isolation cells.
Former detainees have given disparate accounts of their treatment, with the harshest tales, predictably, emerging from the isolation cells. Those who have probably been subjected to the most thorough interrogations, and the greatest duress, have probably not been released.
Colonel King said that an American military pathologist had determined that the deaths of two prisoners in December were homicides and that the circumstances were still under investigation.
Two former prisoners said they had been forced to stand with their hands chained to the ceiling and their feet shackled in the isolation cells.
One said he was kept naked except when he was taken to interrogation room or the bathroom.
Mr. Shah, who was never in an isolation cell, said neither his hands nor feet were ever tied, but he had seen prisoners with chains around their ankles.
Colonel King said that the building was heated and that the prisoners were fed a balanced diet under which most gained weight. Mr. Shah said he had received plentiful food — bread, biscuits, rice and meat — three times a day.
The center holds fewer than 100 people, so detainees are regularly released or transported elsewhere to make room for more. Most probably spend two to three months there, Colonel King said.
Mr. Shah said his interrogators used the threat of moving him to Guantánamo Bay to try to force cooperation, warning him conditions there would not be as pleasant.
At Guantánamo Bay in Cuba, American military officials said the population, now relatively steady at about 650, was sorted into varying categories of dangerousness, a change from the early days when prisoners were treated equally, each isolated in an individual cell.
This month the military command opened a new medium-security section called Camp Four where selected prisoners live in dormitory-style housing, congregate, shower regularly, play board games and are able to write more frequent letters to family members. About 20 prisoners moved in this week, and when construction is completed as many as 200 prisoners could be housed there.
"This is designed to house people who are deemed to be less of a security risk," said Lt. Col. Barry Johnson, a military spokesman at the base.
But underlying the superficial orderliness are signs of deep psychological distress among the population. There have been 20 reported suicide attempts involving the prisoners, an extraordinarily high number compared with other prison populations, said Dr. Terry Kupers, an Oakland psychiatrist who is an authority on mental health in prisons.
[Another suicide attempt took place on Friday, The Associated Press said today.]
Except for those who are recently promoted to Camp Four, the regime for most prisoners has been isolation in single cells. They are permitted out of the cells twice a week, for 15 minutes each time, to shower and exercise in the yard. They are not permitted to have physical contact with one another.
Lt. Cmdr. Barbara Burfeind, a Pentagon spokeswoman, said guards were trained to recognize signs of deep depression and had managed to prevent any suicides.
Far less is known about the conditions for the suspected Qaeda members who have been turned over to foreign governments, either after the United States finished with them or as part of the interrogation procedure. Even the numbers and locations are a mystery.
American and foreign intelligence officials have acknowledged that suspects have been sent to Jordan, Syria and Egypt. In addition, Moroccan intelligence officials have questioned suspects and shared information with their American counterparts.
In one case in Morocco, lawyers for three Saudis and seven Moroccans accused of plotting to blow up American and British ships in the Strait of Gibraltar last summer said their clients were tortured. Moroccan officials denied that physical torture was used but acknowledged using sleep and light deprivation and serial teams of interrogators until the suspects broke.
"I am allowed to use all means in my possession," a senior Moroccan intelligence official said. "You have to fight all his resistance at all levels and show him that he is wrong, that his ideology is wrong and is not connected to religion. We break them, yes."
In Cairo, leaders of several human rights organizations and attorneys who represent prisoners said torture by the Egyptian government's internal security force had become routine. They also said they believed that the United States had sent a handful of Qaeda suspects to Egypt for harsh interrogations and torture by Egyptian officials.
"In the past, the United States harshly criticized Egypt when there was human rights violations, but now, for America, it is security first — security, before human rights," said Muhammad Zarei, a lawyer who had been director of the Cairo-based Human Rights Center for the Assistance of Prisoners.
Egyptian officials denied that any Qaeda members or terror suspects had been moved to Egypt. An Egyptian government spokesman, Nabil Osman, blamed rogue officers for abuses and said there was no systematic policy of torture.
"Any terrorist will claim torture — that's the easiest thing," Mr. Osman said. "Claims of torture are universal. Human rights organizations make their living on these claims. Their job is not to talk about the human rights of the victim but of the human rights of the terrorist or those in jail."
Mr. Osman declined to say whether Egypt had assisted with interrogations of Qaeda suspects at the request of the Americans. He would say only that both governments had cooperated in sharing information about terrorists and potential terrorist activities.
"We are providing them with a wealth of information," he said.
He said many of Egypt's antiterrorism initiatives, like military tribunals, had been imitated by the Untied States. "We set the model," he said, "for combating terrorism."