CIA Used Gun, Drill in Interrogation of Alleged Cole Mastermind

By Joby Warrick and R. Jeffrey Smith
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, August 22, 2009

CIA interrogators used a handgun and an electric drill to try to frighten a captured al-Qaeda commander into giving up information, according to a long-concealed agency report due to be made public next week, former and current U.S. officials who have read the document said Friday.

The tactics -- which one official described Friday as a threatened execution -- were used on Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, according to the CIA's inspector general's report on the agency's interrogation program. Nashiri, who was captured in November 2002 and held for four years in one of the CIA's "black site" prisons, ultimately became one of three al-Qaeda chieftains subjected to a form of simulated drowning known as waterboarding.

The report also says that a mock execution was staged in a room next to one terrorism suspect, according to Newsweek magazine, citing two sources for its information. The magazine was the first to publish details from the report, which it did on its Web site late Friday.

A federal judge in New York has ordered a redacted version of the classified IG report to be publicly released Monday, in response to a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union. Since June, lawyers for the Justice Department and the CIA have been scrutinizing the document to determine how much of it can be made public. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. has been weighing the report's findings as part of a broader probe into the CIA's use of harsh interrogation methods.

The IG's report, written in 2004, offers new details about Nashiri's interrogation, including the incidents in which the detainee reportedly was threatened with death or grave injury if he refused to cooperate, one current and one former U.S. official told The Post. Both officials have seen classified versions of the report.

In one instance, an interrogator showed Nashiri a gun and sought to frighten the detainee into thinking he would be shot, the sources said. In a separate encounter, a power drill was held near Nashiri's body and repeatedly turned on and off, said the officials, who spoke about the report on the condition of anonymity because it remains classified.

The federal torture statute prohibits a U.S. national from threatening anyone in his or her custody with imminent death.

Three months before Nashiri's capture, the head of the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel -- Jay S. Bybee, now a federal judge -- advised the CIA in an August 2002 memo that threats of "imminent death" were not illegal unless they deliberately produced prolonged mental harm. Independent legal experts have called that interpretation too hedged and thus too lax.

The CIA declined late Friday to comment on the contents of the report, but an agency spokesman noted that all the incidents described in the document have been reviewed in detail by government prosecutors.

"The CIA in no way endorsed behavior -- no matter how infrequent -- that went beyond formal guidance," said the spokesman, Paul Gimigliano. "This has all been looked at; professionals in the Department of Justice decided if and when to pursue prosecution. That's how the system was supposed to work, and that's how it did work."

Nashiri, who remains in U.S. custody at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, was the alleged mastermind of the 1999 bombing of the USS Cole, which killed 17 American sailors and nearly sank the vessel. Before his capture by CIA officers, he allegedly headed al-Qaeda's operations in the Persian Gulf, and he was the most senior member of the terrorist organization in U.S. custody at the time of his arrest.

The IG's report is the most comprehensive, contemporaneous review of the secret CIA interrogation program, which ran from early 2002 until September 2006. Controversial within the spy agency, it criticized the CIA's use of coercive interrogation methods, warning that several likely violated international bans on cruel and inhumane treatment.

A third former U.S. official who has read the full, classified report said that it contained an entire section listing ways in which the CIA and contracted interrogators had "gone beyond what they were authorized to do -- a whole variety of deviations." The official said that what struck him most strongly was that the report suggested these techniques were "really not effective."

He said he concluded that "there has to be a better way to do this" but that the CIA resisted suggestions then that it should back away from the program. Asked why, the official said he could not say for sure, but he added that "maybe it was that if you change, then it means you were wrong" in pursuing the harsh interrogation methods in the first place.

A former senior agency official, intimately familiar with the program and the report, said that individual interrogators who strayed outside the agency's guidelines were promptly disciplined, and that, in some instances, their cases were referred to Justice Department prosecutors.

"Any infractions of the rules were met with anger at CIA because we realized this was a program that had to stay meticulously within the guidelines," the official said. He noted that after the IG's report was completed in 2004, the document was reviewed by administration and congressional officials, who allowed the program to continue despite its flaws.

"A reaffirmation of both administration policy and [Justice] legal authorization was sought and eventually received," the official said.

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