NEW YORK, June 13, 2004 – LAWFUEL – Last week the White House dismissed news
accounts of an explosive August 2002 brief from the Justice Department’s
Office of Legal Counsel which has been widely criticized for seeming to flout
conventions against torture. The memo, drafted by former OLC lawyer John Yoo,
defends most interrogation methods short of severe, intentionally inflicted
pain and permanent damage.
Although White House officials said that such legal reasoning was
insignificant and did not reflect the president’s orders, Newsweek has learned
that Yoo’s memo was prompted by CIA questions about what to do with a top
Qaeda captive, Abu Zubaydah, who had turned uncooperative. And it was drafted
after White House meetings convened by George W. Bush’s chief counsel, Alberto
Gonzales, along with Defense Department general counsel William Haynes and
David Addington, Vice President Dick Cheney’s counsel, who discussed specific
interrogation techniques, says a source familiar with the discussions.
Among the methods they found acceptable: “water-boarding,” or dripping
water into a wet cloth over a suspect’s face, which can feel like drowning;
and threatening to bring in more-brutal interrogators from other nations,
reports Senior Editor Michael Hirsh, National Security Correspondent John
Barry and Washington Bureau Chief Daniel Klaidman in the June 21 issue of
Newsweek (on newsstands Monday, June 14). In this report, Newsweek examines
the long-running battle over interrogation tactics inside the Bush
administration, a struggle that continued right up until the Abu Ghraib
scandal broke in April.
That battle was touched off by the handling of the first senior Al Qaeda
operative captured amid the fighting in Afghanistan, Ibn Al-Shaykh al-Libi.
With al-Libi, the initial approach was to read him his rights like any
arrestee, one former member of the FBI team tells Newsweek. “He was basically
cooperating with us.” But this was post-9/11; President Bush had declared war
on Al Qaeda, and in a series of covert directives, he had authorized the CIA
to set up secret interrogation facilities and to use new, harsher methods. The
CIA, says the FBI source, was “fighting with us tooth and nail,” Newsweek
Al-Libi’s capture, some sources say, was an early turning point in the
government’s internal debates over interrogation methods, Newsweek reports.
FBI officials brought their plea to retain control over al-Libi’s
interrogation up to FBI Director Robert Mueller. The CIA station chief in
Afghanistan, meanwhile, appealed to the agency’s hawkish counterterrorism
chief, Cofer Black. He in turn called CIA Director George Tenet, who went to
the White House. Al-Libi was handed over to the CIA. “They duct-taped his
mouth, cinched him up and sent him to Cairo” for more-fearsome Egyptian
interrogations, says the ex-FBI official.
The FBI, with its “law enforcement” mind-set, found itself more and more
marginalized. The struggle extended to the Guantanamo Bay detention center in
early 2002, as “high-value” suspects were shipped there for interrogation.
Even within the CIA and the Defense Intelligence Agency, the debates never
ceased, Newsweek reports. The agency, say senior intelligence officials, made
sure it had explicit, written authorization from lawyers and senior
policymakers before using new interrogation techniques. At the same time the
agency felt intense pressure to extract information from suspects.
So it began experimenting with methods like water-boarding and open-handed slapping. The
CIA also asked to use “mock burial,” in which a top Qaeda captive would be led
to believe he was going to be buried alive. Administration officials declined
to say whether the proposal was ever adopted. “My overwhelming impression is
that everyone was focused on trying to avoid torture, staying within the line,
while doing everything possible to save American lives,” Tim Flanigan,
formerly Bush’s deputy White House counsel, tells Newsweek.
As with al-Libi, the internal debates usually turned on what to do with a
specific Qaeda detainee. That’s what happened in the summer of 2002 after the
capture of Abu Zubaydah, who refused to cooperate after an initial spate of
talkativeness. Frustrated CIA officials went to OLC lawyer Yoo for an opinion
on bolder methods. Another high-value Qaeda suspect captured toward the end of
2002, Mohamed al Qatani, provoked a major change of approach at Guantanamo
Bay. “There was a spike in a lot of intel that we were picking up in terms of
more attacks” on America, said Gen. James Hill, chief of the U.S. Southern
Command. “We weren’t getting anything out of him” using standard techniques
outlined in Army Field Manual 34-52. So CIA and military-intel interrogators
came up with new tactics based on the sorts of methods that U.S. Special
Forces are specifically trained to resist, a Defense source says. The Special
Forces’ Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape course culminates in
interrogations that include some physical roughing up; sensory, food and sleep
deprivation, and a “water pit” in which detainees have to stand on tip-toe to
keep from drowning, Newsweek reports.