US terror interrogation went too far, experts say

Reports find that Jose Padilla's solitary confinement led to mental problems.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Jose Padilla had no history of mental illness when President Bush ordered him detained in 2002 as a suspected Al Qaeda operative. But he does now.

The Muslim convert was subjected to prison conditions and interrogation techniques that took him past the breaking point, mental health experts say.

Two psychiatrists and a psychologist who conducted detailed personal examinations of Mr. Padilla on behalf of his defense lawyers say his extended detention and interrogation at the US Naval Consolidated Brig in Charleston, S.C., left him with severe mental disabilities. All three say he may never recover.

Recommended: CIA's harsh interrogation techniques: three key memos now online

Padilla's psychological condition is important because his situation marks the first time an enemy combatant in the war on terror is in a position to present a verifiable claim of abuse at the hands of US interrogators. Padilla's mental health itself is a form of evidence, mental-health experts say, and it strongly suggests that – at least in Padilla's case – the government's harsh interrogation and confinement tactics went too far.

Padilla is currently on trial in Miami on terror conspiracy charges. Prosecutors say he was a willing Al Qaeda recruit who attended a training camp in Afghanistan. He denies the allegations. Closing arguments in the three-month trial are slated to begin Monday.

Beyond the outcome of his Miami trial, larger issues loom. Chief among them, legal scholars say, is whether Mr. Bush acted within his constitutional authority when he ordered Padilla, a United States citizen, held without charge as an enemy combatant at the brig for three years and seven months.

Padilla's treatment in the brig raises another issue, these scholars say: whether the Constitution ever permits the government to force a man to confess to involvement in terrorist plots and, in doing so, risk destruction of a portion of his mind.

Defense Department officials reject charges that Padilla was mistreated. "The government in the strongest terms denies Padilla's allegations of torture – allegations made without support and without citing a shred of record evidence," writes Navy Commander J.D. Gordon, a spokesman for the secretary of Defense, in an e-mail. "Any credible allegations of illegal conduct by US military personnel are taken seriously and looked into in painstaking detail."

He adds, "There has never been a substantiated case of detainee abuse at Charleston Navy brig."

The Padilla mental-health issue arises as the Bush administration faces increasing pressure to balance the requirements of the criminal justice system against the demands of its intelligence-collection system. Information about Padilla's detention and interrogation at the brig is classified. But his mental health status can't be kept secret.

Rare window into detention

His psychological reports are on file in his Miami court case. The three reports total 34 pages and offer a rare window into the psychological effects of Padilla's experience in the brig. The mental-health experts were retained by Padilla's lawyers for testimony during pretrial motions. The reports reflect their professional judgments offered to a reasonable degree of medical certainty.

In Padilla's case, these experts say, the pattern of signs and symptoms clearly suggest their origin is the brig . Unlike many allegations of harm from interrogation methods, Padilla's mental condition – and the probable cause of his mental disabilities – can be critically assessed and verified by an independent panel of mental-health professionals, provided Padilla cooperates, these and other psychology experts say.

The judge in Padilla's criminal case has already ruled that Padilla is suffering from a mental disability, but she refused to allow defense lawyers to explore the issue of whether the disability was caused by Padilla's treatment in the brig.

US intelligence officials had good reason to want to learn what Padilla knew. He was detained on suspicion that he was plotting with Al Qaeda to detonate a radiological "dirty bomb" in the US. He was arrested eight months after the 9/11 attacks as he stepped off a plane in Chicago from the Middle East. Officials were worried about the possibility of a second wave of terror attacks and the presence of sleeper cells in the US.

Padilla's interrogation was designed to overcome his will to keep silent, and then to wring from him every detail of what officials thought he might know of Al Qaeda's plans and operations.

Bush and other administration officials have repeatedly said that America does not use torture. They stress that all terror suspects are treated humanely.

"There have been 12 major reviews conducted of detention operations over the past several years, none of which found there was any policy that ever condoned abuse," says Commander Gordon, the Pentagon spokesman. "The reviews have resulted in numerous recommendations which have been implemented and have improved our detention operations."

The mental-health experts say their focus is on Padilla, not on policies.

"He is not the same man who was taken into custody in 2002," says Angela Hegarty, a forensic psychiatrist in New York who spent 22 hours examining Padilla. "Whatever happened to him in there has radically changed him."

Stuart Grassian, a Boston psychiatrist, says Padilla's experience in the brig has left members of his family stunned and frightened. "People who have known him and loved him before his military detention don't feel they can even bear to see him because he is so clearly mentally ill."

Tricky issue: US citizenship

The administration has faced criticism for using harsh interrogation tactics on foreign enemy combatants at Guantánamo Bay and other locations overseas. But Padilla's situation is unique.

Padilla is a US citizen who was arrested and detained on US soil. Because of this status, his case was closely followed at the highest levels of the US government. The president himself signed the order authorizing Padilla's detention.

In 2002, the Justice Department produced a "torture" memo stating that victims would have to experience pain equivalent to organ failure to prove torture.

"The development of a mental disorder such as post-traumatic stress disorder, which can last months or even years, or even chronic depression, which can last a considerable period of time if untreated, might satisfy the prolonged harm requirement" to prove torture, the memo says.

Drs. Hegarty and Grassian say Padilla's psychological condition exceeds even the high standard for mental damage set by the 2002 torture memo. "This whole issue of torture turns on the question of what are the types of effects that one would expect from putting a person in this situation in the brig," says Grassian. "If you would expect a person to become so deranged as to become psychotically terrified, to me that constitutes torture."

The issue is not new. Lawyers representing Padilla in his criminal case in Miami filed motions last year charging that their client had been tortured while in military custody. They said the abuse rendered Padilla mentally incompetent to assist in his own defense at trial.

But in a February hearing, US District Judge Marcia Cooke sidestepped the torture accusations. She ruled that even though mental-health experts had identified mental disabilities, Padilla was competent enough to face prosecution.

"The mere fact that the defendant is suffering from a mental disease or defect does not render the defendant incompetent to stand trial," Judge Cooke declared.

Mental-health experts say that a legal determination of competence to stand trial doesn't undercut the severity of Padilla's existing mental disabilities.

Throughout his three-month trial in Miami, Padilla has sat quietly at the defense table. He looks more the part of a legal assistant in his charcoal gray suit with neatly cropped hair and eyeglasses than the radical jihadist he is alleged to have become. He turns and smiles to his mother when she attends the trial. But unlike his two codefendants he rarely interacts with his lawyers.

'I saw this individual happy ... joking'

A Bureau of Prisons psychologist who examined Padilla prior to the court competency hearing, found that Padilla was suffering from mental disabilities. But Dr. Rodolfo Buigas disagreed with the other mental-health experts on the severity of Padilla's conditions, painting a somewhat rosy picture of the onetime military detainee. "I saw this individual happy. I saw this individual joking in the context of the evaluation. I saw the full, broad range of emotions," Dr. Buigas testified.

The psychologist also testified that Padilla declined to answer most of his questions, including his date of birth, and refused to participate in any psychological testing during the six hours the two men spent together.

Others with more significant interaction with Padilla say his brig experience has left him in a state of mental disorganization.

Some psychological tests place him on par with individuals who have suffered brain damage, according to the reports prepared by Hegarty, Grassian, and Patricia Zapf, a New York psychologist and psychology professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.

Padilla's treatment in the brig is classified as a state secret.

Ironically, no one knows this better than Padilla himself. When Hegarty, the psychiatrist, asked him about his interrogation in the brig, Padilla responded: "I can't talk about what happened to me because it is classified."

Although Padilla has been meeting with his Miami lawyers for more than a year and a half, he refuses to discuss his treatment in the brig in any detail.

The torture allegations made last year in the Miami court case were raised as a result of repeated sessions asking Padilla "yes or no" whether he'd endured the kinds of harsh interrogation tactics reported in the press. He reluctantly answered yes to some, and no to others. But his lawyers could pry no details or narrative from him.

They asked Hegarty for help.

He changed the subject and twitched

She spent days attempting to establish a rapport, days trying to get him to open up. "The first two hours were utterly useless each day. I got no data at all," Hegarty says. Eventually he would relax and talk about relatively minor subjects. When Hegarty tried to steer him toward the brig or the evidence in his criminal case "he would just stop, change the subject, and twitch," she said.

During her week-long effort, Hegarty would arrive each morning to discover Padilla once again unwilling to talk. She says the experience was like the movie "Groundhog Day," in which the same events repeat over and over. "The 22 hours I spent with him, it was like it never happened," Hegarty says. "It was chilling."

Grassian relates in his report that Padilla's mother found it emotionally difficult to visit her son in Miami because it involved observing his diminished mental condition. Padilla tried to reassure her that he was fine, that the government was treating him very well. At one point, Grassian says, Padilla suggested that his mother write directly to Bush to help her speed through red tape to arrange her next visit. The president was sure to help her out, Padilla assured his mother.

"It was utterly irrational," Grassian writes in his report. "After all, it was President Bush who had ordered him detained as an enemy combatant."

Padilla's mother became increasingly anxious. Finally she confronted her son: "Did they torture you?" she asked.

"He turned towards her, his face grimacing, his eyes blinking, and in panic and rage he demanded: 'Don't you ever, ever, ask that question again,' " the Grassian report says.

What makes Padilla's case especially challenging from a psychological perspective is that he denies having any symptoms of psychological distress. Experts say it is an attempt by Padilla to avoid being viewed in any way as mentally disturbed.

"He was told not to talk about what happened in the brig and that if he ever spoke about what happened, people would think he was crazy," Hegarty says. "This admonition has power over him," she says. "He becomes visibly terrified as he is saying it."

Critical focus on the brig

Hegarty, Grassian, and Zapf all agree that Padilla exhibits symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder and that he has become psychotically disorganized. They say that Padilla's ordeal in the brig was so psychologically unsettling that it has left him terrorized. Any reminder of the ordeal through questions by his lawyers or others, triggers a recurrence of the disorganizing terror Padilla experienced in the brig, they say.

"As soon as you try to approach a subject related to the brig he starts grimacing and you can just see he becomes mentally disorganized. Anyone who watched this with a reasonably unbiased eye would find it so creepy," Grassian says. "You can see the terror come out of him."

Padilla has been on trial in Miami since May on charges that he became a willing Al Qaeda recruit. The government never presented any part of the alleged "dirty-bomb" plot in the case, and some analysts say the government's cobbled-together case against Padilla is weak.

It is unclear what Padilla thinks about the possibility of an acquittal in Miami. But Hegarty says that if Padilla's lawyers win the case it could mark the worst possible outcome for him. That's because the president might try to move Padilla back to his old cell in the brig.

"There is no question in my mind that his first and most important priority is to not go back to the brig," Hegarty says. "This is what leaves me chilled, if one were to offer him a long prison term or return to the brig, he would take prison, in a heartbeat."

She adds, "He told me more than once that if he went back to the brig he knew what he had to do." Her notes reflect Padilla's hints of suicide.

Worst outcome: a return to the brig

Although it is still unknown exactly what happened to Padilla during his three years and seven months in the Charleston brig, Hegarty says this much is certain – for Padilla returning to the brig would be a fate worse than death.

Legally, Padilla isn't at a dead end. Last year, three justices of the Supreme Court issued a highly unusual warning. If the government attempts to take Padilla back to the brig, they said, Padilla could, if necessary, appeal directly to the highest court in the land.

Some longtime court-watchers suggest Padilla already has the support of at least five of the nine justices, and maybe more.

When Padilla's case originally reached the high court in 2004, it was dismissed on technical grounds by a 5-to-4 vote. The vote allowed the continued harsh treatment of Padilla.

Justice John Paul Stevens, a US Navy intelligence officer during World War II, filed a dissent. He quoted a 1949 opinion by then Justice Felix Frankfurter.

It said: "There is torture of mind as well as body; the will is as much affected by fear as by force. And there comes a point where this court should not be ignorant as judges of what we know as men."

When did Padilla's mental problems begin?

If Jose Padilla's mental disabilities are evidence that US coercive interrogation tactics are too harsh, a key issue is when the disabilities began.

It's possible they began before he was detained by the US military.

In a pretrial hearing in Mr. Padilla's terror conspiracy case in Miami, a prosecutor said that perhaps they stemmed from his time in Pakistan or his alleged time in Afghanistan. Padilla was in the region during US operations in Afghanistan in 2001 and early 2002, a time of massive US bombing raids and other military action. But the prosecutor offered no evidence.

Conversely, several pieces of evidence suggest that the problems began at the Navy brig in South Carolina.

In May 2002, a month before he entered the brig, Padilla was taken into custody, held in New York City, and given access to a court-appointed lawyer, Donna Newman. Two years later, when the Bush administration first allowed Padilla to see his lawyers again, Ms. Newman and another attorney visited.

"There is no question he had changed," Newman says. "Prior to his being held in South Carolina there was no reason to suspect that he had any kind of [mental] problem."

She adds, "After his being held in the brig ... his focus seemed less direct, his eye contact was similarly diminished, and he was more taciturn."

"Mr. Padilla had no evidence of any mental illness prior to his arrest and incarceration in 2002," writes Stuart Grassian, a Boston psychiatrist, in his report for Padilla's defense team. He examined medical documents and interviewed Padilla's family, including his mother, siblings, and ex-wife.

Patricia Zapf, a New York psychologist, also retained by the defense, quotes Padilla's mother in her report as saying that her son had "never suffered from any mental illness or received treatment for any psychological or psychiatric problems." His mother said she had visited him eight or nine times but that it was becoming too hard emotionally to "see Jose that way." She added that he did not have facial ticks prior to being incarcerated.

"Mr. Padilla shows extreme anxiety," Ms. Zapf said at a pretrial hearing. "He said he will go back there. He will die there. He is fearful of his time in the brig. Everything that he talks about is with respect to the time at the brig, no other time point."

Jose Padilla timeline

1970 Born in Brooklyn, N.Y.

1974 His father dies; the family later moves to Chicago.

1980s ­ Several run-ins with the law, including gang involvement and convictions for battery and armed robbery. A robbery turns deadly after a friend stabs a victim. He enters a juvenile detention center and remains until age 18.

1989 ­ Moves to Florida with mother.

1991 ­ Serves 10 months in Broward County jail for firing a shot after a road-rage altercation. He becomes interested in Islam.

Mid-1990s ­ Employed with his girlfriend, Cherie Maria Stultz, at a Taco Bell managed by the cofounder of an Islamic school. Eventually, they both convert. He changes his name to Ibrahim. They marry.

1998 ­ Travels alone to Egypt to study Islam and Arabic with funds collected at his mosque. Eventually, he and Stultz file for divorce. He marries an Egyptian.

2000 ­ Visits Saudi Arabia for the hajj, then Yemen and Pakistan. The US Justice Department claims he meets with Al Qaeda operatives in Pakistan and attends a terrorist training camp in Afghanistan.

2002 ­ Reportedly talks with Al Qaeda leaders about a "dirty bomb" plot. On his return to US to see family, FBI agents arrest him in Chicago. President declares him an "enemy combatant" and he begins 43 months of detention and interrogation in a naval brig.

2003-2006 ­ Courts wrestle over whether the president has authority to order the military detention of a US citizen arrested on US soil. The administration indicts him in criminal court. The US Supreme Court dismisses a case challenging the legality of his military detention.

2007 Is tried in criminal court on terror conspiracy charges in Miami.

– Compiled by Leigh Montgomery

Sources: George Mason School of Law; FBI; court filings; news reports

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