By Josh White and Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, March 31, 2007
GUANTANAMO BAY, Cuba, March 30 -- A high-level al-Qaeda suspect who was in CIA custody for more than four years has alleged that his American captors tortured him into making false confessions about terrorist attacks in the Middle East, according to newly released Pentagon transcripts of a March 14 military tribunal hearing here.
Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, who U.S. officials believe was involved in the bombings of two U.S. embassies in East Africa in 1998 and who allegedly organized the attack on the USS Cole in Yemen in 2000, told a panel of military officers that he was repeatedly tortured during his imprisonment and that he admitted taking part in numerous terrorism plots because of the mistreatment.
"The detainee states that he was tortured into confession and once he made a confession his captors were happy and they stopped torturing him," Nashiri's representative read to the tribunal, according to the transcript. "Also, the detainee states that he made up stories during the torture in order to get it to stop."
Nashiri's allegations came just days after Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the self-confessed mastermind of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, also alleged abuse during a similar hearing before a Combatant Status Review Tribunal (CSRT) at this island detention facility, though his claims were submitted on paper and have not been released.
It is impossible to confirm or evaluate Nashiri's allegations regarding his interrogation by the CIA. U.S. government officials often caution that terrorists are trained to allege abuse at the hands of their captors, and portions of the 36-page transcript that appeared to detail the locations and methods of the alleged abuse were redacted. But such allegations could call into question the veracity of Nashiri's interrogations and those of other detainees previously held at secret CIA prisons, and could make trying the men at military commissions difficult if the alleged coercion elicited misleading information.
Bryan Whitman, a Pentagon spokesman, said the CIA cited "national security concerns" regarding the locations of detention facilities, interrogation techniques and operational details as rationale for the redactions.
Abuse allegations are generally referred to the CIA inspector general's office, which investigates from within. Defense Department and intelligence officials said Friday that allegations made during the CSRT process will be forwarded to the government agency being accused of abuse.
"I'm not going to respond to those sorts of allegations other than to emphasize that the CIA's terrorist interrogation program has been conducted lawfully, with great care and close review, producing vital information that has helped disrupt terrorist plots and save lives," said Mark Mansfield, a CIA spokesman.
Nashiri, a Saudi national, is one of 14 detainees who were confined secretly for years and are undergoing a process to determine whether they are enemy combatants against the United States and whether they should be held indefinitely in maximum security at Guantanamo Bay. A spokesman for the International Committee of the Red Cross, which has interviewed all of the detainees, declined to discuss Nashiri's case.
U.S. officials allege that Nashiri is responsible for assisting the bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, and for taking a lead role in the Cole bombing. The report of the Sept. 11 commission identified him as "the mastermind of the Cole Bombing and the eventual head of Al Qaeda Operations in the Arabian Peninsula." In addition, Nashiri was named in a New York court as an unindicted co-conspirator in the Cole bombing and was sentenced to death in absentia in Yemen for his role in the bombing.
But Nashiri said he "confessed under torture" to those attacks. "From the time I was arrested . . . they have been torturing me," he said through an interpreter in answers to the tribunal officers' questions. "One time they tortured me one way, and another time they tortured me in a different way."
Nashiri said, according to the transcript, that he "invented" some information just to "make people happy" during his interrogations. One of those statements was that Osama bin Laden, whom he had met numerous times, had procured a nuclear weapon.
"They were extremely happy because of this news," he said, according to the transcript.
It has long been publicly known that the CIA used controversial interrogation techniques that went beyond those used by the military after the Sept. 11 attacks, including waterboarding (which simulates the sensation of drowning), exposure to extreme temperatures and prolonged forced standing. Detainees who think they have been in secret CIA detention facilities have reported serious abuse there.
John Sifton, a senior terrorism researcher at Human Rights Watch, decried the secrecy and said there is ample evidence that the CIA has used illegal tactics on detainees and is trying to hide it.
"It's a bit disingenuous for the CIA to refer allegations to the inspector general" after the agency itself approved questionable techniques, he said.
Nashiri acknowledged connections to the Cole bombers but said that he was involved in a fishing business with them and that he was unaware of the plot to attack a U.S. Navy warship. He said that he sent money to the men who carried out the bombing for a fishing "project" and that he is "not responsible for them or what they have in their heads."
"The cards are stacked against al-Nashiri," said Evan Kohlmann, a terrorism analyst. "There is too much testimony and evidence suggesting his long-standing role as an al-Qaeda operative and recruiter. Many people involved in the USS Cole have been interrogated, and everyone . . . has implicated Nashiri."
Nashiri said he made himself a millionaire by the age of 19 as a merchant and periodically went to Afghanistan to meet with bin Laden. He also said he traveled to battlefields throughout the Middle East "to help people by gathering information."
Nashiri denied being a member of al-Qaeda and said he is not an enemy of the United States, though he criticized U.S. foreign policy.
"If you think that anybody who wants the Americans to get out of the Gulf as your enemy, then you will catch about 10 million peoples in Saudi Arabia that have same opinion," Nashiri said, according to the transcript.
Tyson reported from Washington. Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.