By Jason Leopold | The Pentagon’s decision to drop war-crimes charges against Mohammed al-Qahtani, the alleged “20th hijacker” in the 9/11 attacks, again underscores the consequences of the Bush administration’s descent into torture and other abusive treatment of “war on terror” detainees.
If al-Qahtani’s case had gone forward, the U.S. government would have been forced to reveal its own violations of the Geneva Convention, anti-torture statutes and the laws of war, according to lawyers representing al-Qahtani.
“All of the [incriminating] statements Mohammad al-Qahtani made or is alleged to have made were the result of torture or made under the threat of torture and that is in my view why the government decided to dismiss his case at this point,” said Vince Warren, executive director of the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) in New York.
CCR has been representing Mohammed al-Qahtani since 2005 and has led the legal battle for the human rights of detainees incarcerated at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, for the last six years.
The harsh treatment of al-Qahtani was catalogued in an 84-page log of his interrogation that was leaked in 2006. The so-called “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 IV’s, and left to urinate on himself.
On Dec. 11, 2002, interrogators began to apply what they called the “pride and ego down approach,” subjecting him 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 one entry for Dec. 13, 2002, 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 U.S. 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.”
Legal experts, who have followed the al-Qahtani case since his capture in December 2001, say a core problem for the Pentagon was that the evidence against al-Qahtani was derived substantially from admissions that he made while under harsh interrogation.
There was also circumstantial evidence related to al-Qahtani’s attempt to enter the United States before the 9/11 attacks. An immigration official turned him back and U.S. government officials claim that action forced the 9/11 hijackers to proceed with only 19 participants.
Last February, the Pentagon announced its intention to pursue the death penalty against al-Qahtani and five other men for their alleged involvement in the 9/11 attacks.
But on May 9, the Pentagon dismissed the case against al-Qahtani without explanation — and without prejudice, meaning that the charges could be reinstated at a later date. Though the charges were dropped, he will remain detained indefinitely at Guantanamo.
Al-Qahtani is believed to be one of the first detainees subjected to harsh questioning after the Justice Department issued a legal opinion in August 2002 permitting U.S. government interrogators to sidestep the Geneva Convention and use cruel and humiliating techniques, from forced nudity to stress positions to waterboarding, to extract information.
The Geneva Convention bars abusive or demeaning treatment of captives. However, John Yoo, then a senior lawyer in the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, concluded that the Geneva Convention did not apply to alleged members of al-Qaeda.
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.
Months of Torture
Gitanjali S. Gutierrez, an attorney with CCR and the lead attorney defending al-Qahtani, said in a sworn declaration that his client, imprisoned at Guantanamo, was subjected to months of torture based on verbal and written authorizations from Rumsfeld.
“Mr. al-Qahtani was subjected to a regime of aggressive interrogation techniques, known as the ‘First Special Interrogation Plan,’” Gutierrez said. “Those techniques were implemented under the supervision and guidance of Secretary Rumsfeld and the commander of GuantÃ¡namo, Major General Geoffrey Miller.
“These methods included, but were not limited to, 48 days of severe sleep deprivation and 20-hour interrogations, forced nudity, sexual humiliation, religious humiliation, physical force, prolonged stress positions and prolonged sensory over-stimulation, and threats with military dogs.”
Gutierrez’s claims about the type of interrogation al-Qahtani endured have since been borne out by the release of hundreds of pages of internal Pentagon documents, which described interrogation methods at Guantanamo, as well as by the findings of two independent reports on prisoner abuse.
Rumsfeld’s 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.
Additionally, a Dec. 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. Miller about the status of the interrogations between late 2002 and early 2003.
Last February, the Justice Department’s Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR) confirmed that it had launched a formal investigation to determine, among other issues, whether department attorneys provided the White House with poor legal advice when it said interrogators could use harsh interrogation methods against detainees.
CCR’s Warren said a trial of al-Qahtani would have forced the government to disclose how it obtained information from the defendant about alleged terrorist plans and the inner workings of al-Qaeda.
“We were pursuing the case that the government got evidence through torture,” Warren said. “The government would have to talk about how the information was obtained. That would never be able to survive in court because the torture log is clear that Mr. al-Qahtani provided information because he was being tortured.”
Warren said he wants the Pentagon to release al-Qahtani and have him sent to Saudi Arabia “where they have a system in place to maintain custody of any former Guantanamo detainee who presents a danger, as well as a strong rehabilitation program supervising those that are released.”
“It’s unlikely he would face torture or abuse on the magnitude Mr. al-Qahtani faced at Gitmo,” Warren said.