By Joby Warrick
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 15, 2008
A former translator for Osama bin Laden alleged to have helped the terrorist leader escape from Afghanistan's Tora Bora mountains in 2001 was recently transferred to the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, after lengthy interrogation by the CIA at a secret prison, U.S. officials said yesterday.
Muhammad Rahim, an Afghan national and bin Laden follower for nearly two decades, is the second CIA detainee to be transferred to military custody since the Bush administration confirmed 18 months ago that it had maintained a network of secret CIA prisons to interrogate key terrorism suspects.
At the time, the president said 14 such detainees had been transferred to the military, emptying the prison system, but he left open the possibility that new prisoners could be added in the future.
Rahim "gave aid to al Qaeda, the Taliban and other anti-Coalition militants," CIA Director Michael V. Hayden said in an e-mail to agency employees yesterday. Hayden said Rahim had initially been placed in the CIA's custody, "given his past and the continuing threat he posed to American interests."
U.S. intelligence and defense officials described Rahim as a former member of al-Qaeda's leadership circle and a "tough, seasoned jihadist," in Hayden's words. Rahim served as a translator and assistant to bin Laden and other al-Qaeda leaders and was a key figure in the group's escape from Tora Bora under U.S. and allied attack, they said.
Afterward, he allegedly was involved in recruiting terrorists and planning attacks against U.S. and Afghan targets, the officials said. In one instance, he sought to acquire chemicals for use in a planned attack on U.S. troops in Afghanistan, the sources said. The chemical attack never took place.
Rahim was captured in Pakistan last summer -- apparently by local authorities -- and turned over to the CIA in August, officials said. The agency declined to disclose details of his capture, or to reveal where and how he was interrogated.
Hayden has said the agency halted the use of the controversial practice of "waterboarding," or simulated drowning, but preserved the right to use other aggressive techniques in attempting to extract information from terrorist suspects. In his e-mail, Hayden said the agency is "determined to meet that [terrorist] threat, but using only methods that our laws allow."
Some experts cautioned that Rahim's capture constitutes only incremental progress in the counterterrorism effort. "These groups are quite robust in their ability to replace those who are lost -- in fact, they expect it and plan for it," said Ben Venzke, chief operating office of the IntelCenter, a private, Washington area group that specializes in monitoring terrorist groups. "That doesn't diminish the value of capturing or killing terrorists. It simply puts it in context."
The CIA also has declined to say how many other captives, if any, remain in secret prison sites. Under international law, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) must be allowed to visit captured combatants, but the Bush administration has differed with the Red Cross over how quickly such visits are required and has refused to allow its delegations inside the CIA's secret prisons.
Michael Khambatta, an ICRC spokesman, confirmed that his group had not been allowed to visit Rahim but plans to meet with him soon at Guantanamo Bay.
Human-rights groups said Rahim's transfer was notable mainly as a reminder that the Bush administration continues to employ secret detention sites and controversial interrogation methods. Last Saturday, President Bush vetoed legislation that would have barred the CIA from using what the agency calls "enhanced interrogation techniques" such as forced standing, temperature extremes and extended sleep deprivation at such sites.
"Congress must step up its oversight of the CIA program and force an end to the use of torture and other inhuman methods of interrogation by all US personnel," Elisa Massimino, Washington director of Human Rights First, said in an e-mail. While terrorists should be held accountable for their acts, the "secret detention and abuse of detainees impeded this important objective," she said.
News of Rahim's transfer came as a Guantanamo Bay prisoner, who was captured in Afghanistan, won a temporary reprieve from deportation by the Bush administration to his native Algeria. In a 2 to 1 decision, a federal appeals court in Washington ordered a further review by a federal district court of the lawfulness of Ahmed Belbacha's detention. Belbacha's lawyers have argued that their client faces certain torture if he is forced to return home.
About 280 detainees remain in U.S. custody at Guantanamo.
Staff writer Josh White and staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.