The torture of a suspected al-Qaeda terrorist, including waterboarding, is described in meticulous detail in newly-declassified cables that CIA Director Gina Haspel sent to agency headquarters in late 2002, when she headed a secret U.S. detention facility in Thailand.
The suspect, Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, was believed to have been involved in planning the USS Cole bombing in Yemen in 2000, and the CIA was convinced that he knew about other attacks being planned.
Nashiri’s treatment during interrogation — forced nudity, shackling, being slammed against walls, being confined in a small box and mock executions, as well as waterboarding — has been previously mentioned in broad terms in official reports, hearings, court cases and news reports.
But many specifics about what happened to Nashiri during his several-week stay at the Thailand facility, while Haspel was briefly in charge, have not been made public. They are contained in 11 cables obtained under the Freedom of Information Act by the National Security Archive, a private research institute, which plans to release them early Friday.
CIA spokesman Timothy L. Barrett said the agency had no comment on the heavily redacted documents or their declassification.
In dry, unemotional reports, the cables graphically describe interrogators’ often violent attempts to glean information about possible future attacks against the United States from Nashiri, as he continued to say he had none.
On the 12th day of his detention, one cable to the home office reported, “interrogation escalated rapidly from subject being aggressively debriefed by interrogators . . . to multiple applications of the walling technique, and ultimately, multiple applications of the watering technique.”
The interrogators, it later said, “covered subject’s head with the hood and left him on the water board, moaning, shaking and asking God to help him repeatedly.” When they returned, they “adjusted subjects head restraint while telling him that all he had to do was tell them everything. Subject said he would.”
Nashiri was one of three detainees in the period after Sept. 11, 2001, who was waterboarded by the CIA; the technique, long considered torture, was deemed lawful by the Justice Department at the time.
Nashiri’s detention, both in Thailand and after his transfer in December 2002 to a second clandestine CIA site in Poland, was briefly described by the Senate Intelligence Committee in a 700-page report on the detention program released in late 2014.
The report quoted a CIA interrogator as saying that Nashiri, a Saudi Arabian national who had been captured in October 2002 in the United Arab Emirates, had overall provided “no actionable information.” He was later transferred to the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where he remains.
Haspel, a career clandestine officer and the first woman to lead the CIA, came under sharp questioning during her Senate confirmation hearing in May about the agency’s interrogation program, which has since been discredited, and her role in it.
Although she did not completely repudiate the past, she acknowledged in a letter to Sen. Mark R. Warner (Va.), the ranking Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, that “with the benefit of hindsight,” the enhanced interrogation program “is not one the CIA should have undertaken.”
It “did damage to our officers and our standing in the world,” Haspel wrote in a separate statement, and she told senators that she would be guided in the future by her “moral compass.” The committee, which had access to the cables, which were classified, conducted much of its questioning of her — and its final 10-to-5 vote in her favor — behind closed doors. The full Senate confirmed her as CIA director, 54 to 45.
Although anticipation in the committee’s public sessions was high about her role in the enhanced interrogations, it lost some steam after media outlets were forced to correct inaccurate reports saying she had been involved in the interrogation of Zayn al-Abidin Muhammed Hussein. The al-Qaeda suspect, better known by his nom de guerre, Abu Zubaida, had been waterboarded at the Thailand facility 83 times. But his subjection to that treatment had taken place before Haspel arrived.
The Thailand site was closed in December 2002.
Several previously-released CIA cables related to Haspel’s tenure at the facility, and Nashiri’s treatment, have been the subject of earlier news reports. Some documents related to the interrogation program were also declassified as part of a lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union against the CIA contract psychologists, James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, who were the architects of the enhanced interrogation program and administered many of the procedures. The case was settled last August.
Tom Blanton, director of the National Security Archive, which specializes in the declassification and archiving of U.S. government documents, said in a statement that the release of the new cables “shows the power of the Freedom of Information Act to bring accountability even to the highest levels of the CIA.”
The archive filed a request for the cables in April, after President Trump nominated Haspel for the CIA post. Blanton said in an interview that researchers were able to triangulate heavily-redacted footnotes in the Senate report, as well as documents that had been declassified as part of the case against Mitchell and Jessen and in anticipation of Haspel’s confirmation hearing, to confirm that they were sent during Haspel’s tenure as head of the Thailand facility.
Part of the final cable in the collection — like the others, with exact dates and names redacted — is composed in a sharply different style than the others, and Blanton questioned whether someone other than Haspel had written it.
Titled “Details of [day redacted] December 2002 interrogation sessions with [Nashiri],” it begins by describing how interrogators, referring to his upcoming transfer to another facility, warned him that only by providing them with “complete” information “can he hope to make his life more bearable at the ‘much worse’ place they have assured him he is going.”
“Security team backed the hooded and shackled subject against the walling panel with the towel/neck restraint over his narrow shoulders,” it relates, as an unnamed “linguist . . . strode, catlike, into the well-lit confines of the cell at 0902 hours.”
“[Redacted name] deftly removed the subject’s black hood with a swipe, paused, and in a deep, measured voice said that the subject . . . should reveal what subject had done to vex his guards to the point of rage” during a theatrical storming of his cell the previous day, described in an earlier cable, that had been designed to frighten him.
“Subject,” the December cable continued, “blinking in the fluorescent light, did a few characteristically [sic] flicks of his tongue, reacquired his nervous tick, and in a frail, squeaky voice, replied: ‘Nothing.’ ”