Spencer Ackerman / Wired.com – 2012-09-16 00:18:52
(September 6, 2012) — This [referring to a drawing by a Libyan of a 1- by 1-meter box into which he says he was placed during his harsh interrogation by the US in Afghanistan. Image provided by Human Rights Watch] is a drawing of a locked box, which a Libyan man says US interrogators once stuffed him into.
It’s said to be about three feet long on each side. Only once during his two years in detention was the detainee put in the box; his confinement there lasted over an hour. The circles are small holes, into which his interrogators “prodded him with long thin objects.”
It wasn’t the only box that the CIA allegedly placed him inside. Another was a tall, narrow box, less than two feet wide, with handcuffs at the top.
The detainee, Mohammed Ahmed Mohammed al-Shoroeiya, says he was placed into that one with his hands elevated and suspended by the handcuffs, for a day and a half, naked, with music blasting into his ears constantly through speakers built into the box. A different detainee describes being placed into a similar box for three days and being left with no choice but to urinate and defecate on himself.
Getting shoved into those boxes was only the start of Shoroeiya’s woes. The CIA would later deliver him and at least four others into the hands of the Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi, who further brutalized them for opposing his regime. Accordingly, a new Human Rights Watch report telling the stories of those detainees strips away a euphemism in the war on terrorism: how the CIA says it holds its nose and “works with” unsavory regimes.
“It can’t come as a surprise that the Central Intelligence Agency works with foreign governments to help protect our country from terrorism and other deadly threats,” spokeswoman Jennifer Youngblood told the Wall Street Journal. What may indeed come as a surprise is what that actually means in practice, as recounted by at least five Libyan ex-detainees Human Rights Watch interviewed.
Media reports on Thursday morning understandably focused on what Human Rights Watch called “credible allegations” of waterboarding by CIA officials, since the US has only ever acknowledged waterboarding three detainees. But what Human Rights Watch has uncovered in Libya tells a broader story.
It’s a story about how repressive governments used the war on terrorism to get the US to deliver their political opponents to their custody. It was as easy as calling them terrorists — which was enough for the US to play along.
In the drawing above, Libyans allegedly detained by the US say they were hung naked from their hands in boxes barely wide enough for their bodies, for days on end, while music constantly played.
In the case of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), that was simple enough. The organization formed in 1990 to overthrow Gadhafi and replace him with an Islamist government. Human Rights Watch concedes, “Clearly some prominent LIFG members did sympathize with and even joined al-Qaida.”
But the relationship was a complicated one. Former commanders like Noman Benotman, who now works on countering jihadist radicalization in Europe, have said that the relationship was at most transactional, as the LIFG needed a safe haven from Gadhafi. Al-Qaida helped provide one such safe haven.
On the other hand, individual members of the LIFG joined al-Qaida outright; one was killed in a US drone strike in August 2011. But by 2009, what remained of the group renounced its ties to al-Qaida. “We don’t know whether there is a current relationship between LIFG and al-Qaida,” says Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a terrorism researcher at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.
Those ties were close enough for the Bush administration to agree to quiet offers of aid by Gadhafi’s government to help avenge the 9/11 attacks. The State Department added the LIFG to its list of terrorist groups in 2001 — and quiet counterterrorism cooperation between Libya and the CIA began, the Human Rights Watch documents indicate, even before a 2004 rapprochement between the Bush White House and the Gadhafi regime.
For instance: two LIFG members, Mohammed Ahmed Mohammed al-Shoroeiya and Khalid al-Sharif, were captured in Pakistan in 2003. After interrogations by Pakistani and US personnel, they were both sent to American detention facilities that they believe were at Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan. There, they were “chained to walls naked — sometimes while diapered — in pitch black, windowless cells, for weeks or months at a time,” Human Rights Watch alleges.
Additionally, Shoroeiya and Sharif say they were were “restrained in painful stress positions for long periods of time,” “beaten and slammed into walls,” “denied food,” “denied sleep by continuous, deafeningly loud Western music” and “subjected to different forms of water torture including, in Shoroeiya’s case, waterboarding.”
They were placed in the boxes described that contorted their bodies, while they were naked, cold and in the dark. Shoroeiya also says he was waterboarded on a board that could rotate 360 degrees; the CIA denies waterboarding him.
When interrogators didn’t like the answers to their questions, their treatment would become harsher. In the taller box, Shoroeiya told Human Rights Watch, “there was just enough light to see what he said looked like blood stains on the walls.” A map of the detention facility (.pdf) the detainees sketched for Human Rights Watch indicates there were at least eight detainees kept in the facility at once.
It is at the moment impossible to corroborate these accounts. (Danger Room has contacted the CIA for a response to Human Rights Watch’s allegations; we’ll update this post if and when we receive a reply.) The ex-detainees concede they’re not certain they were actually taken to Bagram. Human Rights Watch acknowledges that they are allegations, not proof, and calls for a renewed investigation. Nor is it clear from the report that the CIA captured any detainees at Gahdafi’s behest: Since the report tells the detainees’ stories, it is silent on the circumstances that led to their capture.
But the CIA has acknowledged using most, if not all, of the torture techniques described in the report. “Prolonged diapering” was a permissible “enhanced interrogation” technique mentioned by former CIA Director George Tenet in 2003-era CIA documents declassified in 2009.
Other approved techniques Tenet described included “the attention grasp, walling, the facial hold, the facial slap (insult slap), the abdominal slap, cramped confinement, wall standing, stress positions, sleep deprivation beyond 72 hours … the use of harmless insects, the water board.” In 2002, Bush administration officials considered a CIA request to place al-Qaida member Abu Zubaydah inside a “confinement box.” The old Bagram jail was the precursor to the current detention facility at Parwan; there are reports of abuse at both facilities.
A rendering of the positions Libyans once suspected of terrorism say their US captors held them in during the early months of their detentions. Image: Human Rights Watch
It is unknown what, if any, credible intelligence about al-Qaida the detainees gave to their captors, as they say they were never members of the terrorist group. Another Libyan detainee in CIA custody, Ibn Sheikh al-Libi, told US interrogators that Saddam Hussein had ties to al-Qaida, but the CIA later recanted that intelligence as tainted by torture.
But whatever intelligence they provided, the detainees were sent back to their native Libya within a few years. And Gadhafi’s jailers had more torture planned. “In addition to long periods of solitary confinement,” Human Rights Watch alleges, “the guards punched [Shoroeiya] and beat him with sticks, steel pipes, and electrical cables that were used as a whip.”
After the Libyan revolution of 2011, Human Rights Watch obtained what it says are records of the US transfers of detainees. (.pdf) The US is under international obligations not to transfer detainees to countries with records of torture, as Gadhafi had, yet the transfers went through after Gadhafi’s officials provided diplomatic promises not to abuse any prisoners.
After the CIA intercepted materials intended for a nuclear weapons program, Gadhafi began reconciling publicly with his longtime American adversaries. Economic sanctions fell to the wayside, and US digintaries from Joe Biden to John McCain visited Libya for discussions with the longtime dictator.
Gen. Michael Hayden, the former NSA and CIA director, termed Gadhafi a “good counterterrorism partner” in February 2011 — on the eve of the war the US helped fight to oust him. That war was predicated on stopping Gadhafi’s massive human-rights abuses. President Obama did not acknowledge the US role in perpetuating them.
Human Rights Watch dubs the affair a “failure of the George W. Bush administration, in the pursuit of suspects behind the September 11, 2001 attacks, to distinguish between Islamists who were in fact targeting the United States and those who may simply have been engaged in armed opposition against their own repressive regimes.” It wants the Obama administration to appoint a commission to produce an independent, thorough accounting of all post-9/11 torture — a step that successive administrations and Congresses have rejected.
Last week, the Justice Department officially ended its pre-trial investigations into CIA torture without indicting anyone responsible for the abuses. A fuller account of US complicity with Gadhafi on torture may have to come from the deceased dictator’s intelligence chief, who was extradited back to Libya by Mauritania on Wednesday.
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