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Guantanamo Detainee Was Tortured, Says Official Overseeing Military Trials

As convening authority of military commissions, Susan Crawford is responsible for reviewing practices at Guantanamo Bay.
As convening authority of military commissions, Susan Crawford is responsible for reviewing practices at Guantanamo Bay. (Courtesy Of Susan J. Crawford)
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President Bush and Vice President Cheney have said that interrogations never involved torture. "The United States does not torture. It's against our laws, and it's against our values," Bush asserted on Sept. 6, 2006, when 14 high-value detainees were transferred to Guantanamo from secret CIA prisons. And in a interview last week with the Weekly Standard, Cheney said, "And I think on the left wing of the Democratic Party, there are some people who believe that we really tortured."

"I sympathize with the intelligence gatherers in those days after 9/11, not knowing what was coming next and trying to gain information to keep us safe," said Crawford, a lifelong Republican. "But there still has to be a line that we should not cross. And unfortunately what this has done, I think, has tainted everything going forward."

"The Department has always taken allegations of abuse seriously," Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said in an e-mail. "We have conducted more than a dozen investigations and reviews of our detention operations, including specifically the interrogation of Mohammed Al Qahtani, the alleged 20th hijacker. They concluded the interrogation methods used at GTMO, including the special techniques used on Qahtani in 2002, were lawful. However, subsequent to those reviews, the Department adopted new and more restrictive policies and procedures for interrogation and detention operations. Some of the aggressive questioning techniques used on Al Qahtani, although permissible at the time, are no longer allowed in the updated Army field manual."

After the Supreme Court ruled in the 2006 Hamdan v. Rumsfeld case that the original military commission system for Guantanamo Bay violated the Constitution and the Geneva Conventions, Congress rewrote the rules and passed the Military Commissions Act, creating a new structure for trials by commissions. The act bans torture but permits "coercive" testimony.

Crawford said she believes that coerced testimony should not be allowed. "You don't allow it in a regular court," said Crawford, who served as a judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces from 1991 to 2006.

Under the act, Crawford is a neutral official overseeing charges, trials and sentencing, with ultimate decision-making power over all cases coming before the military commissions.

In May 2008, Crawford ordered the war-crimes charges against Qahtani dropped but did not state publicly that the harsh interrogations were the reason. "It did shock me," Crawford said. "I was upset by it. I was embarrassed by it. If we tolerate this and allow it, then how can we object when our servicemen and women, or others in foreign service, are captured and subjected to the same techniques? How can we complain? Where is our moral authority to complain? Well, we may have lost it."

The harsh techniques used against Qahtani, she said, were approved by then-Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld. "A lot of this happened on his watch," she said. Last month, a Senate Armed Services Committee report concluded that "Rumsfeld's authorization of aggressive interrogation techniques for use at Guantanamo Bay was a direct cause of detainee abuse there." The committee found the interrogation techniques harsh and abusive but stopped short of calling them torture.

An aide to the former defense secretary accused the committee chairman, Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.), of pursuing a politically motivated "false narrative" that is "unencumbered by the preponderance of the facts."

In June 2005, Time magazine obtained 83 pages of Qahtani's interrogation log and published excerpts that showed some of the extreme abuse. The report of a military investigation released the same year concluded that Qahtani's interrogations were "degrading and abusive."

Crawford said she does not know whether five other detainees accused of participating in the Sept. 11 plot, including alleged mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed, were tortured. "I assume torture," she said, noting that CIA Director Michael V. Hayden has said publicly that Mohammed was one of three detainees waterboarded by the CIA. Crawford declined to say whether she considers waterboarding, a technique that simulates drowning, to be torture.

The five detainees face capital murder charges, and Crawford said she let the charges go forward because the FBI satisfied her that they gathered information without using harsh techniques. She noted that Mohammed has acknowledged his Sept. 11 role in court, whereas Qahtani has recanted his self-incriminating statements to the FBI.


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