Detainees Allege Being Drugged To Coerce Confessions

needle.jpgBy Joby Warrick  |

Adel al-Nusairi remembers his first six months at Guantanamo Bay as this: hours and hours of questions, but first, a needle.

“I’d fall asleep” after the shot, Nusairi, a former Saudi policeman captured by U.S. forces in Afghanistan in 2002, recalled in an interview with his attorney at the military prison in Cuba, according to notes. After being roused, Nusairi eventually did talk, giving U.S. officials what he later described as a made-up confession to buy some peace.

“I was completely gone,” he remembered. “I said, ‘Let me go. I want to go to sleep. If it takes saying I’m a member of al-Qaida, I will.'”

Nusairi, now free in Saudi Arabia, was unable to learn what drugs were injected before his interrogations. He is not alone in wondering: At least two dozen other former and current detainees at Guantanamo Bay and elsewhere say they were given drugs against their will or witnessed other inmates being drugged, based on interviews and court documents.

Like Nusairi, other detainees believed the injections were intended to coerce confessions.

The Defense Department and the CIA, the two agencies responsible for detaining terrorism suspects, both deny using drugs as an enhancement for interrogations, and suggest that the stories from Nusairi and others like him are either fabrications or mistaken interpretations of routine medical treatment.

Yet the allegations have resurfaced because of the release this month of a 2003 Justice Department memo that explicitly condoned the use of drugs on detainees.

Written to provide legal justification for interrogation practices, the memo by then-Justice Department lawyer John C. Yoo rejected a decades-old U.S. ban on the use of “mind-altering substances” on prisoners. Instead, he argued that drugs could be used as long as they did not inflict permanent or “profound” psychological damage. U.S. law “does not preclude any and all use of drugs,” Yoo wrote in the memo.

The memo has prompted new calls for the Bush administration to give a full accounting of its treatment of detainees, and to make public detailed prison medical records. Legal experts and human rights groups say that forced drugging of detainees for any non-therapeutic reasons would be a particularly grave breach of international treaties banning torture.

“The use of drugs as a form of restraint of prisoners is both unlawful and unethical,” said Leonard Rubenstein, an expert on medical ethics and the president of Physicians for Human Rights. “These allegations demand a full inquiry by Congress and the Department of Justice.”

So far, the evidence is limited to the accounts of detainees who describe similar episodes in which they were forcibly given drugs and experienced unnatural physical effects ranging from extreme drowsiness to hallucinations. U.S. military officials have acknowledged using only therapeutic drugs, such as vitamins and vaccines, on Guantanamo Bay detainees.

“Our policy is, and always has been, to treat detainees humanely,” said Navy Cmdr. J.D. Gordon, a Pentagon spokesman. “The use of medication to manipulate a detainee has never been an approved DOD interrogation technique.” While declining to comment on specific claims, Gordon said medical care was provided “based solely upon a detainee’s need,” adding that the interrogations did not affect or influence medical treatment.

Former U.S. intelligence officials have acknowledged using sedatives to subdue some terrorism suspects as they were being transported from one facility to another, but likewise insist that drugs were never used as interrogation tools.

Several former military and intelligence officials familiar with the detention program said they were unaware of any systematic use of drugs to manipulate behavior. Alberto J. Mora, a former Navy general counsel who opposed the Bush administration’s decision to use aggressive interrogation tactics, said he recalled no discussions about the use of drugs.

But Mora said he understood why some detainees are concerned. “They knew they were being injected with something, and it is clear from all accounts that some suffered severe psychological damage,” Mora said.

The injections left a searing impression among some former detainees, said Emi MacLean, a lawyer for the Center for Constitutional Rights, which represents dozens of current and former detainees. She said the stories merit investigation in light of the Yoo memo and the record of previous CIA experiments with truth serums as well psychotropic drugs.

“Many speak about forced medication at Guantanamo without knowledge about what medication they were being forced to take,” MacLean said. “For some released [military] detainees, the forced medication they experienced was the most traumatic part” of their captivity.

Nusairi is among a handful of former detainees who directly allege the use of drugs in interrogations at the military prison in Guantanamo. Others described being forcibly given sedatives that knocked them out or made them groggy before being transferred, or being forced to take pills or receive shots for unclear reasons and suffering unusual symptoms afterward.

Detainees, in interviews or in statements provided by their attorneys, described pills and injections being forcibly administered for reasons that were not always clear to them.

Mourad Benchellali, a French national who was held for three years at Guantanamo Bay, said that prison workers sometimes described the medications as antibiotics or vitamins, yet they frequently left him in a mental fog.

J. Wells Dixon, another Center for Constitutional Rights attorney who represents detainees, said the government appears to have administered drugs to detainees whose extended captivity made them distraught or rebellious.

“Many of these men have become desperately suicidal,” Dixon said. “And the government’s response has been to administer more medication, often without the consent of the prisoners.”