Detainee treatment: new details

A Justice Department audit concludes that overall, the FBI didn't engage in harsh treatment.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

At the US prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, military guards called their sleep-disruption efforts for detainees the "frequent-flier program." This involved constant cell changes meant to disrupt prisoners' rest and lower their resistance to interrogations.

Detainees routinely are blasted with loud music at many US holding sites. Songs used include the one in Meow Mix cat-food commercials and "Let the Bodies Hit the Floor" by the heavy-metal band Drowning Pool.

US interrogators have also threatened to send detainees to countries thought to use torture. One Guantánamo prisoner was taken on a long boat ride meant to trick him into believing he'd been handed over to another government.

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As these details attest, the world of US interrogations of terrorism suspects comes to vivid life in a newly released Justice Department audit of the Federal Bureau of Investigation's role in the effort.

The conclusion of this report by the inspector general is that in general, FBI agents refused to participate when US military or intelligence interrogators used harsh and potentially illegal methods on their prisoners. FBI officials in Washington clashed with the Pentagon and the Central Intelligence Agency over how to handle two top Al Qaeda operatives in US hands.

In making this point, IG officials combine excerpts from past investigations with their own interviews of FBI agents in the field to create a document that is one of the best official summaries to date of how the interrogation system has worked on a day-to-day basis.

For example, about half of the FBI agents who have served at the Guantánamo Bay base reported to the IG that they had witnessed interrogation techniques they considered to be rough or aggressive.

"The most frequently reported techniques included sleep deprivation or disruption, prolonged shackling, stress positions, isolation, and the use of bright lights and loud music," says the Justice Department audit.

In addition, the report reveals that the United States allowed Chinese officials to interrogate Chinese Uighur inmates at Guantánamo. Uighurs are an ethnic minority in China who are primarily Muslim.

As one FBI agent recounts, "one Uighur detainee, Bahtiyar Mahnut ... claimed that the night before his interrogation by Chinese officials he was awakened at 15-minute intervals the entire night and into the next day. Mahnut also claimed that he was exposed to low room temperatures for long periods of time and was deprived of at least one meal."

Critics say that the FBI only belatedly began reporting on the interrogation problems its agents saw. Critics also say that it took the revelation of the abuses at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq to push the agency and the US government in general to investigate abuses.

In explaining the difference between themselves and military interrogators, FBI agents note that they have been trained to go after different things. The FBI wants a long-term relationship with informers. The military needs battlefield intelligence to save lives – and they need it fast.

Still, the IG report concludes that the basic breakdown was this: FBI agents in the field wanted to establish a rapport with detainees. The military and intelligence agencies wanted to break them.

This came to a head as early as 2002, in the initial treatment of Abu Zubaydah, who was captured in a shoot­out in Pakistan and is thought to be the highest-ranking member of Al Qaeda in US custody.

Initially, the FBI and CIA planned a joint effort to obtain intelligence from Mr. Zubaydah, notes the report. The FBI selected for the job Agents Gibson and Thomas (both are pseudonyms), who speak Arabic, are skilled interviewers, and were familiar with the Zubaydah investigation.

Agent Gibson told investigators that he and his partner initially took charge of the effort because CIA interrogators were not at the scene when they arrived. "Gibson said he used relationship-building techniques with Zubaydah and succeeded in getting Zubaydah to admit his identity," says the Justice Department audit.

When Zubaydah's medical condition became grave, Gibson accompanied him to the hospital and assisted in giving him care. In the hospital, Zubaydah identified a photo of Khalid Sheikh Muhammad as "Muktar," the mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks.

A few days later, CIA personnel assumed control of the interviews. They said Zubaydah was only providing "throw-away information" and said they needed to diminish his capacity to resist.

The paragraph describing what the CIA did is blacked out in the publicly released version of the IG report. But Agent Thomas objected to the treatment, saying it was "borderline torture."

This clash led to an internal FBI decision that its agents would not participate in such sessions. Among other things, FBI officials felt that the methods were not effective – and that eventually they would have to answer to Congress and the public for their actions.

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