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Interviews Offer Look at Roles of CIA Contractors During Interrogations
As more miseries were heaped on Abu Zubaida, some members of the CIA team joined the FBI agents in pushing back. Among them was Shumate, the CIA psychologist, who voiced regret that he had played a role in recommending Mitchell to the agency, former associates said. Shumate did not return phone calls and e-mails seeking comment.
Soufan later told Justice Department investigators examining the FBI's role in detainee interrogations that he viewed Mitchell's early methods as "borderline torture."
In addition, one of the CIA team members told others in the group that he believed Abu Zubaida was being honest when he claimed to know nothing about significant al-Qaeda plots, according to two officials with access to classified reports.
Although Abu Zubaida was not a member of al-Qaeda and had limited relations with bin Laden, he was a font of information on the membership of the terrorist group because of his long-standing ties with Mohammed and North African jihadists, according to former intelligence and law-enforcement officials who have read his files. Abu Zubaida's attorneys maintain that he had no connection with al-Qaeda.
"You've got it all wrong," the detainee told one interrogator in May 2002, according to a former intelligence official with access to sensitive records. Abu Zubaida said that al-Qaeda had been surprised at the devastating efficacy of the Sept. 11 attacks and that any plans for future attacks were mere aspirations.
Abu Zubaida was lying but eventually would disclose everything, Mitchell asserted to his colleagues, citing his backers at the Counterterrorist Center. He repeated that his methods had been approved "at the highest levels," one of the interrogators later told the Justice Department investigators.
At the secret prison, dissent over Mitchell's methods peaked. First Shumate left, followed by Soufan. At the site, Shumate had expressed concerns about sleep deprivation, and back in Langley he complained again about Mitchell's tactics, according to the former U.S. official and another source familiar with events in Thailand.
Then one of the CIA debriefers left. In early June, Gaudin flew to Washington for a meeting on what was happening in Thailand, and the FBI did not allow him to return.
Jessen, newly retired from the military, arrived in Thailand that month. Mitchell and his partner continued to ratchet up the pressure on Abu Zubaida, although Bush administration lawyers had not yet authorized the CIA's harshest interrogation measures. That came verbally in late July and then in writing on Aug. 1, paving the way to new torments.
Interrogators wrapped a towel around Abu Zubaida's neck and slammed him into a plywood wall mounted in his cell. He was slapped in the face. He was placed in a coffin-like wooden box in which he was forced to crouch, with no light and a restricted air supply, he later told delegates from the Red Cross.
Finally, he was waterboarded.
Abu Zubaida told the Red Cross that a black cloth was placed over his face and that interrogators used a plastic bottle to pour water on the fabric, creating the sensation that he was drowning.
The former U.S. official said that waterboarding forced Abu Zubaida to reveal information that led to the Sept. 11, 2002, capture of Ramzi Binalshibh, the key liaison between the Hamburg cell led by Sept. 11 hijacker Mohammed Atta and al-Qaeda's leadership in Afghanistan.
But others contend that Binalshibh's arrest was the result of several pieces of intelligence, including the successful interrogation by the FBI of a suspect held at Bagram air base in Afghanistan who had been in contact via satellite phone with Binalshibh, as well as information gleaned from an interview Binalshibh gave to the television network al-Jazeera.
Abu Zubaida was waterboarded 83 times over four or five days, and Mitchell and Jessen concluded that the prisoner was broken, the former U.S. official said. "They became convinced that he was cooperating. There was unanimity within the team."
One More Time
CIA officials at the Counterterrorist Center were not convinced.
"Headquarters was sending daily harangues, cables, e-mails insisting that waterboarding continue for 30 days because another attack was believed to be imminent," the former official said. "Headquarters said it would be on the team's back if an attack happened. They said to the interrogation team, 'You've lost your spine.' "
Mitchell and Jessen now found themselves in the same position as Soufan, Shumate and others.
"It was hard on them, too," the former U.S. official said. "They are psychologists. They didn't enjoy this at all."
The two men threatened to quit if the waterboarding continued and insisted that officials from Langley come to Thailand to watch the procedure, the former official said.
After a CIA delegation arrived, Abu Zubaida was strapped down one more time. As water poured over his cloth-covered mouth, he gasped for breath. "They all watched, and then they all agreed to stop," the former official said.
A 2005 Justice Department memo released this year confirmed the visit. "These officials," the memo said, "reported that enhanced techniques were no longer needed."
Staff writers Walter Pincus and R. Jeffrey Smith and staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.