By Carol D. Leonnig
Sunday, January 18, 2009
I remember the day when I first had reason to write the word "torture" in my reporter's notebook. It surely hadn't come up before in my time covering the federal courts for The Post, not even in grisly trial testimony of gangland hit men describing how they offed their drug market rivals and snitches.
In late 2004, I began hearing that some of the 550 foreign men held as suspected terrorists at the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, were accusing American soldiers and interrogators of brutal, medieval-sounding abuse. Detainees told their newly assigned lawyers that their captors had repeatedly beaten them with rifle butts and fists until they needed hospitalization, kept them from sleeping more than a couple of hours at a time for weeks and shackled their feet and hands to the floor for entire days.
Standing in the granite halls of the E. Barrett Prettyman U.S. Courthouse and listening to one hush-hush account, I was skeptical, but scribbled down the details anyway. As I later talked over the rumored claims with my editors, they reacted with a mixture of jaundiced disbelief and caution.
Geez, torture, they said. Could it really be true?
That was more than four years ago. Now "torture" is not just a word scribbled tentatively on a notepad but a practice confirmed by a senior Pentagon official who reviewed the U.S. government's treatment of a prisoner. "We tortured" Mohammed al-Qahtani, military commission leader Susan J. Crawford told The Post's Bob Woodward last week. Her statement didn't shock me; it confirmed what I had come to know about these interrogation methods after years of reporting on Guantanamo. But it got me thinking about what a toxic accusation it had once been, and how reporters had tried to square the prisoners' chilling accounts and the administration's indignant denials about what was happening in U.S.-run detention camps around the world.
By December 2004, the prisoners' stories were just beginning to move from hallway talk among sources and a reporter to public court files, as a result of two major Supreme Court decisions in detainees' favor the previous summer. By a slim majority, the justices had ruled that detainees could challenge their detention in U.S. courts, and that impartial military tribunals should weigh the evidence against them. The Pentagon hastily held the first tribunals in the fall. Then the partially redacted transcripts for dozens of prisoners of Pentagon-run detention centers were filed in the federal court that I covered.
In those transcripts, the government dryly laid out its frightening arguments for linking the detainees to terrorist plots, al-Qaeda cells or even Osama bin Laden himself. The accused had their say as well. One by one, the men brought to Guantanamo's fledgling Camp X-Ray said that they had been rounded up by mistake and horribly abused by interrogators at the prison.
In the first week of December, I came upon a gaggle of lawyers whispering furiously among themselves before entering the courtroom of U.S. District Judge Joyce Hens Green for a hearing that I'd been warned could make news. Inside, attorney Joe Margulies wouldn't say out loud exactly what had happened to his client, Australian Mamdouh Habib -- many of the details were still classified by the government -- but he was now leveling the charge for the first time in public and using the word. Torture.
"I don't think anything remotely like torture has occurred at Guantanamo," the Justice Department's Brian Boyle insisted in a similar hearing the next day, adding that a few rogue soldiers had been reprimanded for isolated incidents.
The week before Christmas, the Pentagon firmly denied a flurry of new specific torture allegations I had asked about.
"The claim that detainees have been physically abused, beaten or tortured is simply not true," said Army Col. David McWilliams, a spokesman for the U.S. Southern Command in Miami, which oversees operations at Guantanamo Bay. "From the beginning, we have taken extra steps to treat prisoners not only humanely but extra cautiously. We do not use any kind of coercive or physically harmful techniques."
Meanwhile, in the newsroom, my editors, fellow reporters and I gingerly debated when, exactly, it was appropriate to use the explosive word "torture" in print. The prisoners were making a lot of sensational-sounding claims in court, through their lawyers' filings. How could we get to the truth? And how much credit should we give to men we couldn't talk to, who were alleged by our government to be radical jihadists who had been arrested near al-Qaeda strongholds just before the Sept. 11 attacks?
The gap between the military's accounts and those of the detainees' lawyers couldn't have been wider in those days. Each side said that the other was lying.
Take Feroz Abbasi, one of the first prisoners flown to Guantanamo. According to the military, the 21-year-old had been training to be a suicide bomber for al-Qaeda when he was arrested near Kunduz, Afghanistan, in December 2001, and was present at the al-Farooq training camp when Osama bin Laden gave an inspirational speech to the fighters there just before the Sept. 11 attacks.
But Abbasi, a former computer student from South London, told his lawyer, Gitanjali S. Gutierrez, that he had nearly lost his sanity while being held in solitary confinement in Cuba for more than a year. He said that on the day he "confessed" to training as a suicide bomber, his American interrogators had tortured him so badly that he had to be treated at the camp hospital for his injuries. He urged her to get the medical records.
Some detainees' accounts did sound unbelievable at first. Habib, whose account was declassified in January 2005, told his lawyer that U.S. authorities had taken him to Guantanamo and repeatedly beaten him there. But first, he said, he was flown to an Egyptian prison, where he was hung by his arms from hooks on a wall, forced to run on a cylindrical drum and repeatedly shocked with a cattle prod.
Murat Kurnaz, a German religious student accused of working with a suicide bomber who later allegedly killed dozens in the 2003 Istanbul mosque bombings, told The Post that female interrogators at Guantanamo grabbed his genitals and smeared menstrual blood over his body.
And over and over again, the Pentagon warned us that detainees were manufacturing wild claims.
"We know detainees are trained to lie about their captivity," Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman told me in early 2005, amid more reports of abuse. "They're instructed in the benefits of lying about their detention."
Yet many of the claims turned out to be true.
Eventually, our paper would learn through small revelations and big scoops that abuse and coercive treatment were standard operating procedure when it came to prisoners at Guantanamo and other sites. The photos of prisoners stripped naked and terrorized by dogs in Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison, a July 2005 report found, involved techniques that had been used months earlier in Guantanamo and approved by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.
The Post's Dana Priest revealed in November 2005 that the CIA was capturing terrorism suspects in foreign cities and "vanishing" them to secret prisons in Eastern Europe. In 2007, the New York Times reported that the Justice Department had secretly blessed the use of a host of interrogation techniques historically considered to be torture, including waterboarding, or simulated drowning.
While the evidence of U.S.-sanctioned abuse mounted, the government's cases for proving that its Guantanamo prisoners were the "worst of the worst" terrorist plotters were falling apart. Attorney Brent Mickum had warned me in 2004 that when I was allowed to read the then-top-secret case files, I'd see that the proof was "paper-thin to non-existent."
Habib was released in February 2005 to Australia, weeks before the government was scheduled to answer a judge's questions about his torture allegations.
One month earlier, the alleged al-Qaeda henchman Abbasi had been released without charges to his native England. That year, four other Britons alleged to have been training under bin Laden were released as well.
In 2006, Kurnaz was released, too. I had reported the year before on records I had obtained showing that the government knew within weeks of his arrival at Guantanamo in January 2002 that it had no evidence against him. His friend, the alleged Istanbul suicide bomber, was still alive and living in Bremen.
In some ways, the ground has dramatically changed since the first torture claims surfaced. In his confirmation hearings last week, Eric H. Holder Jr., President-elect Barack Obama's nominee for attorney general, said that he believes waterboarding is torture.
When the T-word first arose in court, I remember the convincing Clint Eastwood voice of Justice Department lawyer Terry Henry dismissing torture as an outlandish allegation. But by the time of a March 2006 hearing, not even the bench was giving him the typical respectful benefit of the doubt.
U.S. District Judge Gladys Kessler was hearing detainee lawyers' claims that a new feeding chair for prisoners on hunger strike was Guantanamo's latest torture tactic. A prisoner who refused to eat would be strapped into the chair for up to two hours while nutrients were pumped into his nose through a tube as thick as a small broom handle. Kessler paused after Henry assured her that, according to Guantanamo's medical director and the base commander, the feeding inflicted no significant pain.
Kessler said that she had read many sealed records about the evidence against detainees and about their treatment, and that she now had much less trust in the government.
"I know it's a sad day when a federal judge has to ask a DOJ attorney this, but I'm asking you," Kessler said. "Why should I believe them?"
Carol D. Leonnig, a reporter on The Post's national staff, covered the U.S. District Court in Washington from 2003 to 2008. Post researcher Julie Tate contributed to this article.