Why CIA abuse is medieval madness

SINCE medieval times, water-boarding, or forcing water into captives’ lungs, has been used to compel prisoners to confess. During the Inquisition, water-boarded prisoners admitted to shape-shifting and cavorting with the devil.

Today, terrorism suspects subjected to this medieval torture admit the wildest things too. Just ask 9/11 plotter, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed.
KSM was bound to a stiff wooden plank at a secret CIA black-site prison. Interrogators tilted one end of the platform so that his head was several inches below his feet. A rag was fixed in his mouth and cellophane was firmly wrapped over his face.

Slowly, water was poured over his mouth until he began to gag and lurch. Seconds before he blacked out, interrogators ripped off the plastic and pulled the rag from his mouth, allowing him to briefly catch his breath. After 2 1/2 minutes on the waterboard, CIA officials said he was “begging to confess”. He admitted to 31 different plots – nearly every act of terrorism against the US since the early 1990s.

While his hand in 9/11 has been independently confirmed, his other claims are less believable. Former CIA field officer Robert Baer told Time: “(KSM) is making things up. I’m told by people involved in the investigation that KSM was present during Wall Street Journal correspondent Danny Pearl’s execution but was in fact not the person who killed him. There exists videotape footage of the execution that minimises KSM’s role. And if KSM did indeed exaggerate his role in the Pearl murder, it raises the question of just what else he has exaggerated, or outright fabricated.”

Pearl’s father told ABC News in the US the facts “don’t match (KSM’s) story”. Asra Nomani, a former Wall Street Journal reporter who knew Pearl well, said: “Anyone who saw the tape of Danny’s murder could confess to those details.” She added: “From everyone I’ve talked to in Danny’s family there isn’t closure … there’s not convincing evidence that Khalid Shaikh Mohammed was the killer.”

KSM has also confessed to attempting to bomb the US’s Plaza Bank headquarters prior to his arrest in March 2003. “I was responsible for planning, training, surveying, and financing for the new (or second) wave of attacks against … Plaza Bank, Washington state,” he said during his recent Guantanamo tribunal hearing. This claim is also dubious. Plaza Bank was founded in early 2006.

Today, most of KSM’s “facts” are inseparable from fiction. Sadly this was avoidable. Rather than stripping him naked, holding him in a dark cold cell for months on end, blasting loud music and strobe lights at him, threatening violence against his two sons, and nearly drowning him, US officials should have used non-abusive techniques proven to build trust. These methods yield reliable evidence.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation is the US domestic law enforcement agency that must obtain non-coerced evidence that stands up in US courts. Over time, the FBI has developed an array of non-violent interrogation techniques. FBI investigators methodically engage their suspects in conversation, supply incentives, then slowly vet and cross-check the information their suspects reveal. Rather than shave a Muslim’s beard and abuse his Koran, they give devout men sweet figs and allow them to pray.

The FBI used rapport-building techniques before 9/11 to cultivate relationships with former al-Qa’ida operatives and unravel attacks such as the 1998 East African US embassy bombings.

“FBI agents, as officers of the court, know what the rules are,” said former FBI interrogator Jack Cloonan to The American Prospect. “We have procedures to follow. We firmly believe in this thing called due process, and do not see it as something passe or something that should be seen as an impediment.”

After 9/11, FBI methods were sidelined in favour of the CIA’s tougher techniques. The decision to drop FBI methods will haunt the US for decades. By using FBI rapport-building methods – not CIA tortures – officials could have come closer to unlocking the truth from suspects such as KSM. According to Yosri Fouda, the only journalist to interview KSM before his 2003 capture, he was a “a power-hungry mastermind” who lived for the spotlight. Likewise, the 9/11 Commission report described KSM as a flamboyant character prone to exaggeration. Given KSM’s boastful personality, officials should have known that torture – and its say-anything-to-stop-the-pain qualities – would be the worst way to get accurate intelligence.

By torturing him, the Bush administration slammed shut what could have been a window into the al-Qa’ida terror network. Now, the truth will remain hidden from both the US Government and from KSM’s victims.

Michael Otterman is a visiting scholar at the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies at University of Sydney and author of American Torture: From the Cold War to Abu Ghraib (Melbourne University Press).