By Josh White
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 8, 2008
At least 17 detainees held at Guantanamo Bay were subjected to a program that moved them repeatedly from cell to cell to cause sleep deprivation and disorientation as punishment and to soften detainees for subsequent interrogation, according to U.S. military documents.
Defense Department investigations of abuse had previously revealed that the program was used in a limited manner and only on high-value detainees, but the documents indicate that the program was far more widespread and that the technique was still used months after it was banned at the facility in March 2004. Detainees were moved dozens of times in just days and sometimes more than a hundred times over a two-week period.
Military police logs for cell blocks at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, show that guards used the program -- dubbed the "frequent flyer" program in official documents -- on numerous detainees and noted the program in their 2003 and 2004 records. The logs, reviewed by The Washington Post, also indicate that the frequent cell movements took place on the same days a Navy admiral was visiting Guantanamo to assess possible detainee abuses.
Some of the detainees violently objected to the moves, spitting at guards and resisting handcuffs and shackles after enduring repeated cell transfers, leading to even more sanctions. One "cell transfer schedule" for detainee 519 -- Maher Rafat al-Quwari -- shows that he was moved six times a day for 12 days in July 2003, with a four-hour interrogation session in the middle.
Defense officials have previously acknowledged the program's existence, saying it stopped in 2004. They also have said that detainees are treated humanely and that credible allegations of abuse are investigated.
"There is no such program currently in place," said Navy Cmdr. Pauline Storum, a spokeswoman for Joint Task Force Guantanamo. "JTF Guantanamo conducts the safe and humane care and custody of detained enemy combatants legally, ethically and transparently."
U.S. military investigators deemed the program "abusive" but did not describe the extent of its use. Military police soldiers noted in handwritten entries that the cell movements were part of interrogation plans and that they were carefully organized.
For example, Moroccan detainee Ahmed Rashidi was scheduled for six-hour interrogations in the middle of the night and then moved to his cell for four hours, "then cycled through again repeatedly," according to one notation.
"Detainee must be monitored, observed, and recorded by on-duty MPs," the entry states. "The room will contain nothing more than a chair."
Ghassan Abdullah al-Sharbi, a Saudi detainee who has been charged with terrorism offenses, was in the "frequent flyer" program from November 2003 to February 2004, according to the records, moving repeatedly from cell K36 to K38. Sharbi's civilian lawyer said he was troubled to learn that his client might have faced sleep deprivation at the hands of his jailers.
"We have to assume that the frequent flyer program, what its details were, was not designed to strengthen the comfort and resolve of the prisoner," said Robert Rachlin, who represents Sharbi. "Sleep deprivation is coercive. Of course it troubles me."
Mohammed Jawad, a 24-year-old detainee accused of trying to kill U.S. forces in Afghanistan with a grenade, has asked through his lawyers to have all military commission charges against him dismissed as a result of the abuse he suffered by the frequent moves.
Other detainees could raise similar arguments in military commission cases, as Salim Ahmed Hamdan did in his commission trial that ended yesterday. The judge in that case ruled that some evidence could not be presented because of "coercive" techniques but found that his treatment at Guantanamo, including the frequent flier program, did not affect his statements to interrogators.
Jawad's lawyer, Air Force Maj. David Frakt, said the newly discovered records indicate that "no one actually knows the full scope of the abuses at Guantanamo" and that "all of these allegedly comprehensive investigations were whitewashes."
"This is only the tip of the iceberg," Frakt said. "This program was approved at the highest levels. . . . It suggests that people had simply lost their ability to distinguish right from wrong."
Vincent Warren, executive director of the Center for Constitutional Rights, said he worries that more of the organization's numerous clients at Guantanamo could have faced the frequent flier technique.
"News that this methodology is more widespread than the government has initially acknowledged is troubling but not initially surprising," Warren said. "Things like sleep deprivation are against international law and U.S. domestic law, and all investigators, including those in Congress, need to focus on these issues of programmatic torture."
Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.