A federal court judge on Monday revealed that the brutal interrogation of an alleged "war on terror" detainee imprisoned at Guantanamo for more than seven years was videotaped and she ordered the government to turn over the materials to the prisoner's lawyers.
Mohammed al-Qahtani was someone Bush administration officials had referred to as the "20th hijacker" of the 9/11 attacks. The government claimed the Saudi man intended to take part in 9/11, but he was denied entry into the United States by an immigration official a month before the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
As reported previously, specific interrogation methods used against al-Qahtani were approved by former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld in a December 2002 action memorandum.
The treatment of al-Qahtani was cataloged in an 84-page "torture log" that was leaked in 2006. The "torture log" shows that beginning in November 2002 and continuing well into January 2003, al-Qahtani was subjected to sleep deprivation, interrogated in 20-hour stretches, poked with IVs and left to urinate on himself.
In an interview with The Washington Post last January, Susan Crawford, the retired judge who heads military commissions at Guantanamo, became the highest ranking US official who said the interrogation of al-Qahtani met the legal definition of torture and, as a result, she would not allow a war crimes tribunal against him to proceed because the evidence against him was tainted.
"We tortured [al] Qahtani," Crawford told veteran Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward. Though the war crimes charges were dropped, al-Qahtani remains detained indefinitely at Guantanamo, where he has been imprisoned since February 2002.
Al-Qahtani filed a habeas corpus petition in October 2006 challenging his imprisonment, and his attorneys argued that any admissions he made about his alleged involvement in terrorist activities were extracted through torture and threats of torture, assertions that Bush administration officials had vehemently denied.
The human rights group, Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), which has represented al-Qahtani since 2005, disclosed the court documents containing details of the existence of video and audiotapes of al-Qahtani's interrogations. The group filed court papers in March seeking any video tapes of al-Qahtani's interrogation and other records.
"After the intense scrutiny of the government's torture and interrogation of Mr. al Qahtani, it is shocking that the government has hidden the existence of these tapes from the public for so many years," said CCR attorney Gitanjali S. Gutierrez. "The government's interrogation of him has been the topic of multiple military, Justice Department and congressional investigations. These tapes should have been acknowledged long ago."
In a six-page order, US District Court Judge Rosemary Collyer wrote: "in order to clear these tapes for release, multiple agencies including the Department of Defense ('DOD'), the FBI, and the Central Intelligence Agency would have to review the tapes frame-by frame" and that would be "excessively burdensome."
"However, the tapes created at the end of the period from August 13, 2002 to November 22, 2003 likely have some value to [the defense]," Collyer added. "To justify [al-Qahtani's] detention, the Government relies on [his] statements made from April 2003 through March 2004. [Al-Qahtani] challenges the veracity and reliability of the statements.
"He contends that his statements were so tainted by the cumulative effects of abusive treatment that took place previously that the statements cannot be credited or relied upon ... To provide relevant information to [al-Qahtani] and yet to ease the burden on the Government, the Court will order the Government to produce only those audio/video recordings of Petitioner created between November 15, 2002 and November 22, 2002."
On November 23, 2002, Rumsfeld verbally authorized interrogators to use harsh methods during the interrogation of al-Qahtani, according to previous investigations into the Bush administration's torture program.
According to an FBI inspector general's report released last year, agents employed by the bureau raised concerns in October 2002 with Marion Bowman, the Justice Department's deputy general counsel in charge of national security, about the methods used during interrogations at Guantanamo Bay.
An FBI agent stationed at Guantanamo then sent the agency an analysis on November 27, 2002, calling into question the legality of the interrogation techniques, stating that the methods used appeared to violate the US torture statute. Bowman then alerted William "Jim" Haynes, then the Department of Defense general counsel.
The same day Bowman raised concerns with Haynes, Haynes advised Rumsfeld to approve of the "enhanced interrogation" methods, according to comments Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-California) made during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing last year that focused on the contents of the FBI report.
"According to Mr. Bowman, Haynes claimed he didn't know anything about the coercive interrogation techniques that were occurring at Guantanamo, despite the fact that he recommended on November 27, 2002, that Secretary Rumsfeld formally approve the very techniques that were being used at Guantanamo" and during al-Qahtani's interrogation, Feinstein said.
Rumsfeld, FBI Inspector General Glenn Fine told the committee, ignored FBI agents' warnings and on December 2, 2002, signed an action memorandum approving the use of "enhanced techniques" against prisoners at Guantanamo, concluding that the tactics stopped short of torture.
On December 11, 2002, interrogators began to apply what they called the "pride and ego down approach," subjecting al-Qahtani to religious and sexual humiliation, making him bark like a dog and calling him "a pig" as he was made to pick up piles of trash with his hands cuffed. According to a December 13, 2002, entry contained in the al-Qahtani's "torture log," the interrogators sought to "escalate the detainee's emotions."
"A mask was made from an MRE [meals ready to eat] box with a smiley face on it and placed on the detainee's head for a few moments. A latex glove was inflated and labeled the 'sissy slap' glove. This glove was touched to the detainee's face periodically after explaining the terminology to him.
"The mask was placed back on the detainee's head. While wearing the mask, the team began dance instruction with the detainee. The detainee became agitated and began shouting. The mask was removed and detainee was allowed to sit. Detainee shouted and addressed lead [interrogator] as 'the oldest Christian here' and wanted to know why lead allowed the detainee to be treated this way."
The log contains numerous entries describing al-Qahtani's reaction to the interrogations, as he cried, shook, moaned, yelled, prayed, cried out for Allah, trembled uncontrollably and asserted his innocence.
According to a report by CCR attorneys, "on one occasion described in the interrogation log, Mr. al-Qahtani was rushed to a military base hospital when his heart rate fell dangerously low during a period of extreme sleep deprivation, physical stress and psychological trauma.
"The military flew in a radiologist from the US Naval Station in Puerto Rico to evaluate the computed tomography ('CT' or 'CAT') scan. After being permitted to sleep a full night, medical personnel cleared Mr. al-Qahtani for further interrogation the next day. During his transportation from the hospital, Mr. al-Qahtani was interrogated in the ambulance."
Rumsfeld's December 2, 2002, action memo was criticized by Alberto Mora, the former general counsel of the Navy.
"The interrogation techniques approved by the Secretary [of Defense] should not have been authorized because some (but not all) of them, whether applied singly or in combination, could produce effects reaching the level of torture, a degree of mistreatment not otherwise proscribed by the memo because it did not articulate any bright-line standard for prohibited detainee treatment, a necessary element in any such document," Mora wrote in a 14-page letter to the Navy's inspector general.
A December 20, 2005, Army inspector general report relating to the capture and interrogation of al-Qahtani included a sworn statement by Lt. Gen. Randall M. Schmidt, who said Secretary Rumsfeld was "personally involved" in the interrogation of al-Qahtani and spoke "weekly" with Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller, the commander at Guantanamo, about the status of the interrogations between late 2002 and early 2003.