By Joby Warrick and R. Jeffrey Smith
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, August 23, 2009
A CIA officer who allegedly used a gun to intimidate a captured al-Qaeda suspect was formally disciplined for violating the agency's rules for conducting interrogations, but Bush administration Justice Department officials ultimately declined to file charges against him, according to two former intelligence officials familiar with the case.
The officer, who has not been identified, was immediately called back to CIA headquarters to face an internal accountability board and was "reprimanded and reassigned" for committing acts outside the CIA's legal guidelines for interrogating terrorism suspects. At the time of the 2002 incident, the guidelines permitted the use of sleep deprivation and waterboarding -- simulated drowning -- on some suspects, according to a former senior intelligence official who closely followed the events.
The CIA officer eventually resigned, two former agency officials confirmed Saturday.
In a separate incident, interrogators reportedly used an electric drill to intimidate the same detainee, al-Qaeda commander Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, the group's former chief in the Persian Gulf and the alleged mastermind of the deadly USS Cole suicide bombing in 2000.
"The agency, where appropriate, took its own disciplinary action when the Department of Justice declined prosecution," CIA spokesman George Little said Saturday.
A spokesman for the agency declined to comment on details of the episodes, but current and former government officials said the use of the gun is described in a classified CIA inspector general's report, which is slated to be released in declassified form on Monday.
A Justice Department spokesman declined to comment on the contents of the report Saturday.
The CIA disciplinary panel was convened within weeks of the officer allegedly bringing a handgun into an interrogation room at a secret detention facility in an apparent attempt to convince Nashiri he would be killed if he failed to cooperate, U.S. officials said.
The 2004 IG report describes both incidents. Some of its details, including the interrogators' alleged use of the gun and power drill, were made public in an article on Newsweek magazine's Web site late Friday. The magazine also reported that officers staged a mock execution by firing a gun in the cell next to Nashiri's to make him think another detainee had been executed.
A federal judge in New York ordered the release of the report in response to a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. has been reviewing the document in an effort to decide whether to launch an investigation into the CIA's coercive interrogation methods.
Some officials involved in the case viewed the use of a gun during interrogation as a possible violation of a U.S. law that prohibits threatening detainees with imminent death. But Justice Department lawyers reviewed the case and declined to file charges, according to several former and current intelligence officials who tracked the case. It was unclear why the lawyers took that position.
A. John Radsan, a former federal prosecutor who also served as assistant general counsel at the CIA, said such a case might be difficult to successfully prosecute.
"The victims are not sympathetic. Witnesses may not talk. Evidence may be gone," Radsan said. "If anyone is indicted, there will be the usual graymail. The defendant is going to push [Justice] to reveal things about the program that will even make this administration uncomfortable. The defendant will say whatever he did was reasonable reliance on advice from government lawyers."
When interviewed by the Red Cross in 2006, Nashiri did not specifically describe the alleged mock execution but said he had been threatened with "sodomy, and the arrest and rape of his family," according to a copy of the humanitarian group's secret report to the Bush administration in February 2007, which was leaked to the New York Review of Books this year. Nine of the 14 former CIA prisoners interviewed reported being subjected to "threats of ill-treatment," it said.
The U.S. anti-torture statute bans acts intended to inflict severe mental or physical pain or suffering resulting from, among other things, "the threat of imminent death" or threats of being "subjected to death."
"Mock executions or threats to an individual's life produce extreme fear and loss of control in the victim," said Scott Allen, medical adviser for Physicians for Human Rights, a nonprofit advocacy group that campaigns against torture. "These kinds of threats can have serious, long-lasting psychological impact."
However, an August 2002 Justice Department legal memo in effect at the time of the episode interpreted the anti-torture statute to apply only to the deliberate infliction of suffering or pain that caused prolonged mental harm. In 2006, the U.S. military explicitly revised its field manual to prohibit mock executions.
Allen's group said in a June 2008 report that in interviews of 11 detainees who had been held in U.S. military custody overseas, "almost all . . . reported being threatened with severe harm, most commonly through verbal threats during interrogations."
The group reported that "some threats were terrifying claims that the detainee or members of his family would be killed or severely harmed -- or that the detainee would never be released."
Staff writers Karen DeYoung and Carrie Johnson and staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.