Questioning Terror Suspects in a Dark and Surreal World

By DON VAN NATTA Jr.

 

CAIRO, March 8 - The capture of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed provides American

authorities with their best opportunity yet to prevent attacks by Al Qaeda

and track down Osama bin Laden. But the detention also presents a tactical

and moral challenge when it comes to the interrogation techniques used to

obtain vital information.

 

Senior American officials said physical torture would not be used against

Mr. Mohammed, regarded as the operations chief of Al Qaeda and mastermind of

the Sept. 11 attacks. They said his interrogation would rely on what they

consider acceptable techniques like sleep and light deprivation and the

temporary withholding of food, water, access to sunlight and medical attention.

 

American officials acknowledged that such techniques were recently applied

as part of the interrogation of Abu Zubaydah, the highest-ranking Qaeda

operative in custody until the capture of Mr. Mohammed. Painkillers were

withheld from Mr. Zubaydah, who was shot several times during his capture in Pakistan.

 

But the urgency of obtaining information about potential attacks and the

opaque nature of the way interrogations are carried out can blur the line

between accepted and unaccepted actions, several American officials said.

 

Routine techniques include covering suspects' heads with black hoods for

hours at a time and forcing them to stand or kneel in uncomfortable

positions in extreme cold or heat, American and other officials familiar

with interrogations said. Questioners may also feign friendship and respect

to elicit information. In some cases, American officials said, women are

used as interrogators to try to humiliate men unaccustomed to dealing with

women in positions of authority.

 

Interrogations of important Qaeda operatives like Mr. Mohammed occur at

isolated locations outside the jurisdiction of American law. Some places

have been kept secret, but American officials acknowledged that the C.I.A.

has interrogation centers at the United States air base at Bagram in

Afghanistan and at a base on Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean.

 

Qaeda operatives, including Ramzi bin al-Shibh, a suspect in the planning of

the Sept. 11 attacks, were initially taken to a secret C.I.A. installation

in Thailand but have since been moved, American officials said.

 

Intelligence officials also acknowledged that some suspects had been turned

over to security services in countries known to employ torture. There have

also been isolated, if persistent, reports of beatings in some

American-operated centers. American military officials in Afghanistan are

investigating the deaths of two prisoners at Bagram in December.

 

American officials have guarded the interrogation results. But George J.

Tenet, the director of central intelligence, said in December that suspects

interrogated overseas had produced important information.

 

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld

have said that American techniques adhere to international accords that ban

the use of torture and that "all appropriate measures" are employed in interrogations.

 

Rights advocates and lawyers for prisoners' rights have accused the United

States of quietly embracing torture as an acceptable means of getting

information in the global antiterrorism campaign. "They don't have a policy

on torture," said Holly Burkhalter, the United States director of Physicians

for Human Rights, one of five groups pressing the Pentagon for assurances

detainees are not being tortured. "There is no specific policy that eschews torture."

 

Critics also assert that transferring Qaeda suspects to countries where

torture is believed common - like Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia - violates

American law and the 1984 international convention against torture, which

bans such transfers.

 

Some American and other officials subscribe to a view held by a number of

outside experts, that physical coercion is largely ineffective. The

officials say the most effective interrogation methods involve a mix of

psychological disorientation, physical deprivation and ingratiating acts,

all of which can take weeks or months.

 

"Pain alone will often make people numb and unresponsive," said Magnus

Ranstorp, deputy director of the Center for the Study of Terrorism and

Political Violence at St. Andrews University in Scotland. "You have to

engage people to get into their minds and learn what is there."

 

About 3,000 Qaeda and Taliban suspects have been detained since the fall of

2001. Some have since been freed. The largest known group, about 650, is

being held at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. American officials said the detainees at

Guantánamo and similar military-run centers were not regarded as having

valuable information.

 

Senior Qaeda members, however, are interrogated by specially trained C.I.A.

officers and interpreters. F.B.I. agents submit questions but do not

generally take part, American officials said.

 

 

 

Starving the Senses

Deprivation And Black Hoods

 

Omar al-Faruq, a confidant of Mr. bin Laden and one of Al Qaeda's senior

operatives in Southeast Asia, was captured last June by Indonesian agents

acting on a tip from the C.I.A. Agents familiar with the case said a black

hood was dropped over his head and he was loaded onto a C.I.A. aircraft.

When he arrived at his destination several hours later, the hood was

removed. On the wall in front of him were the seals of the New York City

Police and Fire Departments, a Western official said.

 

It was, said a former senior C.I.A. officer who took part in similar

sessions, a mind game called false flag, intended to leave the captive

disoriented, isolated and vulnerable. Sometimes the décor is faked to make

it seem as though the suspect has been taken to a country with a reputation

for brutal interrogation.

 

In this case, officials said, Mr. Faruq was in the C.I.A. interrogation

center at the Bagram air base. American officials were convinced that he

knew a lot about pending attacks and the Qaeda network in Southeast Asia,

which Mr. bin Laden sent him to set up in 1998.

 

The details of the interrogation are unknown, though one intelligence

official briefed on the sessions said Mr. Faruq initially provided useless

scraps of information.

 

What is known is that the questioning was prolonged, extending day and night

for weeks. It is likely, experts say, that the proceedings followed a

pattern, with Mr. Faruq left naked most of the time, his hands and feet

bound. While international law requires prisoners to be allowed eight hours'

sleep a day, interrogators do not necessarily let them sleep for eight consecutive hours.

 

Mr. Faruq may also have been hooked up to sensors, then asked questions to

which interrogators knew the answers, so they could gauge his truthfulness, officials said.

 

The Western intelligence official described Mr. Faruq's interrogation as

"not quite torture, but about as close as you can get." The official said

that over a three-month period, the suspect was fed very little, while being

subjected to sleep and light deprivation, prolonged isolation and room

temperatures that varied from 100 degrees to 10 degrees. In the end he began to cooperate.

 

Mr. Faruq began to tell of plans to drive explosives-laden trucks into

American diplomatic centers. A day later, embassies in Indonesia and more

than a dozen other countries in Southeast Asia were closed, officials said.

He also provided detailed information about people involved in those

operations and other plots, writing out lengthy descriptions. He held out

longer than Mr. Zubaydah, who American officials said began to cooperate

after two months of interrogation.

 

American intelligence knows a great deal about Mr. Mohammed, who has been

sought since the mid-1990's. That knowledge, an expert said, can provide

leverage. "The important thing is to construct the suspect's personal

history and learn about the person before you interrogate them," a European

counterterrorism official said. "Shock is a great technique. When we can

show someone that we already know a lot about them, including intimate

personal details, they are shocked and more likely to start talking."

 

 

 

The Centers

Details Emerge From the Shadows

 

The secret C.I.A. center at Bagram where Mr. Faruq probably remains is near

the two-story detention center where lower-level suspects are being held.

Both sites are off limits, even to most military personnel. The only

descriptions of life inside have come from released detainees.

 

American officials at the base say that all detainees are treated according

to international law and are held under humane conditions. Still, the

Americans expressed reluctance to describe details of the conditions

because, as Col. Roger King, spokesman for the American-led force in

Afghanistan, put it: "Every detail we give you about how we run the facility

provides information to the enemy about how to be more successful in

resisting if captured."

 

But he did provide some information that both complemented and contradicted

the descriptions given by former detainees.

 

In a typical prison, where punishment is the aim, routine governs life. At

Bagram, where eliciting information is the goal, the opposite is true.

Disorientation is a tool of interrogation and therefore a way of life.

 

To that end, the building - an unremarkable hangar - is lighted 24 hours a

day, making sleep almost impossible, said Muhammad Shah, an Afghan farmer

who was held there for 18 days.

 

Colonel King said it was legitimate to use lights, noise and vision

restriction, and to alter, without warning, the time between meals, to blur

a detainee's sense of time. He said sleep deprivation was "probably within

the lexicon."

 

Prisoners are watched, moved and, according to some, manhandled by military

police officials. Most detainees live on the hangar's bottom floor, a large

area divided with wire mesh into group cells holding 8 to 10 prisoners each.

Some are kept on the top floor in isolation cells.

 

Former detainees have given disparate accounts of their treatment, with the

harshest tales, predictably, emerging from the isolation cells. Those who

have probably been subjected to the most thorough interrogations, and the

greatest duress, have probably not been released.

 

Colonel King said that an American military pathologist had determined that

the deaths of two prisoners in December were homicides and that the

circumstances were still under investigation.

 

Two former prisoners said they had been forced to stand with their hands

chained to the ceiling and their feet shackled in the isolation cells.

 

One said he was kept naked except when he was taken to interrogation room or

the bathroom.

 

Mr. Shah, who was never in an isolation cell, said neither his hands nor

feet were ever tied, but he had seen prisoners with chains around their ankles.

 

Colonel King said that the building was heated and that the prisoners were

fed a balanced diet under which most gained weight. Mr. Shah said he had

received plentiful food - bread, biscuits, rice and meat - three times a day.

 

The center holds fewer than 100 people, so detainees are regularly released

or transported elsewhere to make room for more. Most probably spend two to

three months there, Colonel King said.

 

Mr. Shah said his interrogators used the threat of moving him to Guantánamo

Bay to try to force cooperation, warning him conditions there would not be as pleasant.

 

 

 

Guantánamo Bay

Order Obscures Signs of Distress

 

At Guantánamo Bay in Cuba, American military officials said the population,

now relatively steady at about 650, was sorted into varying categories of

dangerousness, a change from the early days when prisoners were treated

equally, each isolated in an individual cell.

 

This month the military command opened a new medium-security section called

Camp Four where selected prisoners live in dormitory-style housing,

congregate, shower regularly, play board games and are able to write more

frequent letters to family members. About 20 prisoners moved in this week,

and when construction is completed as many as 200 prisoners could be housed there.

 

"This is designed to house people who are deemed to be less of a security

risk," said Lt. Col. Barry Johnson, a military spokesman at the base.

 

But underlying the superficial orderliness are signs of deep psychological

distress among the population. There have been 20 reported suicide attempts

involving the prisoners, an extraordinarily high number compared with other

prison populations, said Dr. Terry Kupers, an Oakland psychiatrist who is an

authority on mental health in prisons.

 

[Another suicide attempt took place on Friday, The Associated Press said today.]

 

Except for those who are recently promoted to Camp Four, the regime for most

prisoners has been isolation in single cells. They are permitted out of the

cells twice a week, for 15 minutes each time, to shower and exercise in the

yard. They are not permitted to have physical contact with one another.

 

Lt. Cmdr. Barbara Burfeind, a Pentagon spokeswoman, said guards were trained

to recognize signs of deep depression and had managed to prevent suicides.

 

Advertisement

  <http://graphics.nytimes.com/images/misc/spacer.gif>           

 

 

 

Foreign Soil

Many Definitions Of `Acceptable'

 

Far less is known about the conditions for the suspected Qaeda members who

have been turned over to foreign governments, either after the United States

finished with them or as part of the interrogation procedure. Even the

numbers and locations are a mystery.

 

American and foreign intelligence officials have acknowledged that suspects

have been sent to Jordan, Syria and Egypt. In addition, Moroccan

intelligence officials have questioned suspects and shared information with

their American counterparts.

 

In one case in Morocco, lawyers for three Saudis and seven Moroccans accused

of plotting to blow up American and British ships in the Strait of Gibraltar

last summer said their clients were tortured. Moroccan officials denied that

physical torture was used but acknowledged using sleep and light deprivation

and serial teams of interrogators until the suspects broke.

 

"I am allowed to use all means in my possession," a senior Moroccan

intelligence official said. "You have to fight all his resistance at all

levels and show him that he is wrong, that his ideology is wrong and is not

connected to religion. We break them, yes."

 

In Cairo, leaders of several human rights organizations and attorneys who

represent prisoners said torture by the Egyptian government's internal

security force had become routine. They also said they believed that the

United States had sent a handful of Qaeda suspects to Egypt for harsh

interrogations and torture by Egyptian officials.

 

"In the past, the United States harshly criticized Egypt when there was

human rights violations, but now, for America, it is security first -

security, before human rights," said Muhammad Zarei, a lawyer who had been

director of the Cairo-based Human Rights Center for the Assistance of Prisoners.

 

Egyptian officials denied that any Qaeda members or terror suspects had been

moved to Egypt. An Egyptian government spokesman, Nabil Osman, blamed rogue

officers for abuses and said there was no systematic policy of torture.

 

"Any terrorist will claim torture - that's the easiest thing," Mr. Osman

said. "Claims of torture are universal. Human rights organizations make

their living on these claims. Their job is not to talk about the human

rights of the victim but of the human rights of the terrorist or those in jail."

 

Mr. Osman declined to say whether Egypt had assisted with interrogations of

Qaeda suspects at the request of the Americans. He would say only that both

governments had cooperated in sharing information about terrorists and

potential terrorist activities.

 

"We are providing them with a wealth of information," he said.

 

He said many of Egypt's antiterrorism initiatives, like military tribunals,

had been imitated by the Untied States. "We set the model," he said, "for

combating terrorism."