The OLC Memos, “Erroneous and Inflammatory Assumptions,” and John Rizzo’s Lies

In his statement on the torture memos today, Obama suggested that some of the "assumptions" about what Americans had done were wrong, and that releasing the memos would correct these "assumptions."

First, the interrogation techniques described in these memos have already been widely reported. Second, the previous Administration publicly acknowledged portions of the program – and some of the practices – associated with these memos. Third, I have already ended the techniques described in the memos through an Executive Order. Therefore, withholding these memos would only serve to deny facts that have been in the public domain for some time. This could contribute to an inaccurate accounting of the past, and fuel erroneous and inflammatory assumptions about actions taken by the United States.[my emphasis]

This suggests (though weakly) that the OLC memos–and not other evidence–should be taken as authoritative on the events surrounding our interrogation program.

Though, on several counts, this is not true.

The most troubling example pertains to Abu Zubaydah’s mental state before he was tortured. John Yoo (writing under Jay Bybee’s name) goes to some lengths to establish Abu Zubaydah’s sanity. After five paragraphs that basically make Abu Zubaydah out to be a self-confident stud, here’s what Yoo says about AZ’s psychological health.

According to your reports, Zubaydah does not have any pre-existing mental conditions or problems that would make him likely to suffer prolonged mental harm from your proposed interrogation methods. Through reading his diaries and interviewing him, you have found no history of "mood disturbance or other psychiatric pathology[,]" "thought disorder[,] … enduring mood or mental health problems." He is in fact "remarkably resilient and confident that he can overcome adversity." When he encounters stress or low mood, this appears to last only for a short time. He deals with stress by assessing its source, evaluating the coping resources available to him, and then taking action. Your assessment notes that he is "generally self-sufiicient and relies on his understanding and application of religious and psychological principles, intelligence and discipline to avoid and overcome problems." Moreover, you have found that he has a "reliable and durable support system" in his faith, "the blessings of religious leaders, and camaraderie of like-minded mujahedin brothers." During detention, Zubaydah has managed his mood, remaining at most points "circumspect, calm, controlled., and deliberate." He has maintained tius demeanor during aggressive interrogations and reductions in sleep. You describe that in an initial confrontational incident, Read more

The Torture Memos

ACLU has them posted:

August 1, 2002 John Yoo memo

First May 10, 2005 Steven Bradbury memo

Second May 10, 2005 Steven Bradbury memo

May 30, 2005 Steven Bradbury memo

And while you’re over at ACLU, consider showing them some love for all their great work prying these out of the government. 

Consider this a working thread.

Update: Did I say they were worried about blows to the head? From the August 1, 2002 memo:

For walling, a flexible false wall will be constructed. The individual is placed with his heels touching the wall. The interrogator pulls the individual forward and then quickly and firmly pushes the individual into the wall. It is the individual’s shoulder blades that hit the wall. During this motion, the head and neck are supported with a rolled hood or towel that provides a c-collar effect to help prevent whiplash. To further reduce the probability of injury, the individual is allowed to rebound from the flexible wall. 

Oh, and did I mention that they were using Abu Zubaydah as a human guinea pig, to test out methods they wanted to get approved? I ask, you see, because Abu Zubaydah told the ICRC that they only put in the "flexible false wall" after they started this technique.

It’s Not the Water-Boarding, It’s the Blows to the Head

Just to lay out a few details based on this article explaining that Obama continues to waver on what parts of the 2005 Bradbury torture memos to reveal. (h/t Steve)

1. According to the WSJ,  it’s not the description of water-boarding that the CIA wants to hide. It’s the description of how the CIA threw people against the wall.

Among the details in the still-classified memos is approval for a technique in which a prisoner’s head could be struck against a wall as long as the head was being held and the force of the blow was controlled by the interrogator, according to people familiar with the memos.

2. We know from the ICRC report this technique had been used, three years before Bradbury wrote his OLC memos, with Abu Zubaydah.

I was taken out of my cell and one of the interrogators wrapped a towel around my neck, they then used it to swing me around and smash me repeatedly against the hard walls of the room.


When I was let out of the box I saw that one of the walls of the room had been covered with plywood sheeting. From now on it was against this wall that I was then smashed with the towel around my neck. I think that the plywood was put there to provide some absorption of the impact of my body. The interrogators realized that smashing me against the hard wall would probably quickly result in physical injury.

(According to the report, five more of the High Value Detainees described the same treatment.)

3. We know that Abu Zubaydah now has mental injuries and–apparently–cannot stand trial.

The WSJ quotes intelligence officials claiming that, if these details are made public, it’ll be a propaganda tool for the terrorists.

Intelligence officials also believe that making the techniques public would give al Qaeda a propaganda tool just as the administration is stepping up its fight against the terrorist group in Afghanistan and Pakistan

But these details have already been made public, in the ICRC report and elsewhere. What the intelligence officials want to hide is that–even after they did this damage to Abu Zubadaydah (though before the ICRC called it torture in 2007)–Steven Bradbury wrote an OLC memo declaring this treatment legal.

They Should Have Listened to Noor al-Deen

I presume this story on Abu Zubaydah is an attempt to highlight the difficulty of choices facing the Obama administration, as well as to draw some attention to things like the excerpts of the ICRC report on Abu Zubaydah’s (and others’) torture. It reminds us what we already know–that Abu Zubaydah suffers from a head injury that made his memory bad and wasn’t even a member of al Qaeda, making his torture that much more pointless.

Because his name often turned up in intelligence traffic linked to al-Qaeda transactions, some U.S. intelligence leaders were convinced that Abu Zubaida was a major figure in the terrorist organization, according to officials engaged in the discussions at the time.

But Abu Zubaida had strained and limited relations with bin Laden and only vague knowledge before the Sept. 11 attacks that something was brewing, the officials said.


"The government doesn’t retreat from who KSM is, and neither does KSM," said Joseph Margulies, a professor of law at Northwestern University and one of Abu Zubaida’s attorneys, using an abbreviation for Mohammed. "With Zubaida, it’s different. The government seems finally to understand he is not at all the person they thought he was. But he was tortured. And that’s just a profoundly embarrassing position for the government to be in." 

The news, here, seems to be that the US picked up a young associate of Abu Zubaydah the same night they got the older man. And that associate, Noor al-Deen, basically corroborated the details the intelligence community is now accepting. Before the US started torturing Abu Zubaydah.

Noor al-Deen, a Syrian, was a teenager when he was captured along with Abu Zubaida at a Pakistani safe house. Perhaps because of his youth and agitated state, he readily answered U.S. questions, officials said, and the questioning went on for months, first in Pakistan and later in a detention facility in Morocco. His description of Abu Zubaida was consistent: The older man was a well-known functionary with links to al-Qaeda, but he knew little detailed information about the group’s operations.


On the night of March 28, 2002, Pakistani and American intelligence officers raided the Faisalabad safe house where Abu Zubaida had been staying. A firefight ensued, and Abu Zubaida was captured after jumping from the building’s second floor. He had been shot three times.

Cowering on the ground floor and also shot was Noor al-Deen, Read more

The Abu Zubaydah Experiment

The NYRB New Yorker has a piece with long excerpts from the leaked Red Cross report on American torture of high value detainees. (h/t scribe; corrected per scribe) Read it. It’s chilling in its systematicity–the constant involvement of doctors, the efforts to hide any marks of torture, the invention of clinical language to describe torture.

I’ll return to the report, but for the moment just one observation.

Amid a slew of details on the treatment of Abu Zubaydah, the article describes Abu Zubaydah learning that he was the guinea pig for these techniques.

We do not know if the plywood [to minimize the damage from slamming him against the wall] appeared in Zubaydah’s white room thanks to orders from his interrogators, from their bosses at Langley, or perhaps from their superiors in the White House. We don’t know the precise parts played by those responsible for "choreographing" the "alternative set of procedures." We do know from several reports that at a White House meeting in July 2002 top administration lawyers gave the CIA "the green light" to move to the "more aggressive techniques" that were applied to him, separately and in combination, during the following days:

After the beating I was then placed in the small box. They placed a cloth or cover over the box to cut out all light and restrict my air supply. As it was not high enough even to sit upright, I had to crouch down. It was very difficult because of my wounds. The stress on my legs held in this position meant my wounds both in the leg and stomach became very painful. I think this occurred about 3 months after my last operation. It was always cold in the room, but when the cover was placed over the box it made it hot and sweaty inside. The wound on my leg began to open and started to bleed. I don’t know how long I remained in the small box, I think I may have slept or maybe fainted.

I was then dragged from the small box, unable to walk properly and put on what looked like a hospital bed, and strapped down very tightly with belts. A black cloth was then placed over my face and the interrogators used a mineral water bottle to pour water on the cloth so that I could not breathe. Read more

A Few Thoughts on the Torture Tape Inventory

The ACLU has released the inventory of torture tapes the CIA destroyed (h/t MD).

Silly me. I once suggested that the CIA didn’t have a torture tape librarian! This is, as it turns out, a fairly meticulous list of torture tapes.

The inventory makes clear something I had suggested on Monday. While there were over 90 tapes destroyed, they are still just torture tapes from two detainees. There are clear references to Abu Zubaydah in the first set (labeled Detainee #1), so the second set must be al-Nashiri (Detainee #2).

Note the description on the first tape "Do not tape over." Then tapes 89 and 90 are listed as "Tape and rewind." And the two al-Nashiri tapes are also "Tape and rewind" tapes. This suggests that at some point, the CIA stopped keeping each torture video, and started simply reusing them–much the same way the White House started reusing the storage tapes for its email (I’m sure that’s just a coinkydink, really). Al-Nashiri was captured in November 2002, so they presumably switched to tape and rewind by then. (That is, incidentally, around the time they first briefed Congress on the torture they were doing, though they claimed they were not yet doing it.)

But look at the numbering. Tapes 91 and 92–presumably of al-Nashiri–are labeled Tapes 2 and 3. This suggests there’s a Tape 1 that is not in this inventory. Where did Tape 1 from al-Nashiri go?

In any case, it looks like they took about six months of tapes of Abu Zubaydah’s interrogations, saved them for years, and destroyed them in 2005. You think that’s one of the many reasons they have never gotten around to charging Abu Zubaydah?

What about Abu Zubaydah?

While I’m glad that Susan Crawford has acknowledged publicly what we all know–that Mohammed al-Qahtani was tortured (see Spencer’s take here)–I’m just as interested in the questions that "crack reporter" Bob Woodward didn’t ask.

Such as, "Is that the same reason Abu Zubaydah was not charged along with the other 9/11 plotters?"

The answer to that question might raise all sorts of uncomfortable answers, though. After all, Qahtani was not in the same category as the other 9/11 plotters, in either the treatment he received (since it came at Gitmo rather than in black sites overseas, and came while under DOD custody rather than CIA custody), or in his actions (that is, he was stopped short of participating in 9/11, if that was indeed his intent). 

But Abu Zubaydah’s treatment resembles Khalid Sheikh Mohammed’s: while in CIA custody at a black site, he was waterboarded, not just once, but a bunch of times.

So if you admitted that Abu Zubaydah had been tortured–and therefore could not be tried–then it would raise questions about why KSM can be charged.

And if those questions were asked, you might have to differentiate between KSM and Zubaydah. KSM–as was made clear in his appearance in the Gitmo show trials–still has his wits about him. Zubdaydah, from all reports, does not.

Or, just as importantly, KSM will happily admit to having done the things we accuse him of. But Zubaydah appears to have been over-sold as the mastermind of the attacks. In fact, if you admitted that Abu Zubaydah admitted to stuff he didn’t really do after having been broken through torture, then you’d have the beginning of the pattern–with Qahtani and Zubaydah–proving that torture doesn’t work.

I’m glad Susan Crawford has finally admitted that we tortured Qahtani and because of that he can’t be charged. But will she have the courage (and the clearance) to admit that about Abu Zubaydah, too?

Working Thread: DOJ IG Report on Torture

William Ockham and masaccio have been making very interesting comments about the DOJ IG report on torture for the last several days, and I decided it was high time to put up a working thread on the report.

To kick us off, let me point to a long masaccio comment in which he explores the apparent plan–subsequently scotched–to transfer al-Qahtani out of Gitmo so he could be tortured more aggressively.

WilliamOckham asked on an earlier thread about the redactions in the chapter on Al-Qahtani. I have been looking at that chapter, and I am pretty sure the missing word is transfer or transport. Most of the deletions to that point in the report relate to one of three things: detention locations other than Iraq, Bagram, and GTMO; techniques of interrogation used on specific people; and agencies, probably including the CIA and perhaps its personnel and divisions.

When we get to Chapter 5 on Al-Qahtani, we see the redaction in question. Apparently the point of interviewing him was to see what he could tell people about the 9/11 attacks, since he was believed to be the twentieth hijacker. In line with the other redactions, we see CIA, or some other three letter word redacted, and more redactions of techniques and people. We get a real hint about the word transfer or transport from footnote 71, which specifically states that there was a proposal to move Al-Qahtani to Jordan or Egypt to allow them to use other techniques. This appears in the text at least once, at page 88. The use of SERE techniques is raised, and footnote 62 says that these include dietary manipulation, sleep deprivation, nudity and waterboarding. There are several other mentions of the use of waterboarding.

There are several references to the intention of the military to very aggressive techniques, using words like relentless, and sustained attack (p. 90). Then there is this:

According to the FBI, [its agents] had concerns not only about the proposed techniques, but also about the “glee” with which the would-be participants discussed their respective roles in carrying out these techniques and the “utter lack of sophistication” and “circus-like atmosphere” within this interrogation strategy session.

This lead me to speculate that the key to the redaction is that the transfer in question is not the transfer to Jordan or Egypt, but to an American black site where US personnel or contractors would torture him. Read more

CIA Once Again Buries Information on Abu Zubaydah’s Torture

I have long pointed out the close connection between the CIA’s OIG report on torture and the tapes of Abu Zubaydah’s interrogation. The key dates are:

January 2003: CIA IG begins investigation into detainee interrogation.

February 10, 2003: Jane Harman writes a letter recording CIA Counsel Scott Muller drawing a connection between the torture tapes and the CIA IG investigation.

You discussed the fact that there is videotape of Abu Zubaydah following his capture that will be destroyed after the Inspector General finishes his inquiry

May 2003: CIA IG reviews the torture tapes at black site.

May 2004: CIA IG completes investigation, finding that CIA interrogation techniques are "cruel and inhumane."

May 2004: CIA and White House discuss destroying the tapes of Abu Zubaydah’s interrogation.

November 9, 2005: Most complete report of IG investigation appears, revealing the "cruel and inhumane" conclusion.

Mid-November 2005: Torture tapes destroyed.

While there are surely other reasons why the CIA destroyed the torture tape, one thing the destruction of the tapes did was to eliminate one key piece of evidence that led the CIA’s own IG to conclude that the CIA’s interrogation methods were cruel and inhumane.

Well, over the course of the DOJ’s IG investigation into interrogation techniques, the CIA once again prevented investigators from accessing information–this time in the form of an interview of Abu Zubaydah–that would contribute to a conclusion that interrogation treatment was cruel and inhumane. In a footnote, DOJ’s IG report reveals that it interviewed High-Value Detainees at Gitmo, but that CIA refused to let DOJ’s IG to interview Abu Zubaydah.

When the OIG investigative team was preparing for its trip to GTMO in early 2007, we asked the DOD for permission to interview several detainees, including Zubaydah. The DOD agreed, stating that our interviews would not interfere with their attempts to obtain any intelligence from the detainees, including Zubaydah. However, the CIA Acting General Counsel [John Rizzo] objected to our interviewing Zubaydah. [three lines redacted]

Read more

In Which Country Were the Tapes Stored?

The NYT’s article has one more detail of note–again, reporting something that is intuitive, but not something that had been confirmed before, AFAIK. The torture tapes were stored in the country–singular–where the interrogations of Abu Zubaydah and al-Nashiri took place.

Until their destruction, the tapes were stored in a safe in the C.I.A. station in the country where the interrogations took place, current and former officials said. According to one former senior intelligence official, the tapes were never sent back to C.I.A. headquarters, despite what the official described as concern about keeping such highly classified material overseas.

Which raises some really interesting questions. Abu Zubaydah has been widely reported to have been taken from Pakistan to Thailand to be interrogated. Yet al-Nashiri’s trajectory has been less clear. He was reported to have been detained in the United Arab Emirates but it has never been clear where he was taken after he was captured (though I’ve seen unreliable sources say al-Nashiri was taken to Jordan).

But according to the NYT, al-Nashiri was apparently interrogated in the same country as Abu Zubaydah. So, presumably, Thailand, unless Abu Zubaydah was moved.

Though there is a distinct possibility that Abu Zubaydah was moved. From James Risen’s State of War:

The CIA assigned a group of agency officials to try to find alternative prison sites in countries scattered around the world. They were studying, said one CIA source, "how to make people disappear."

There were a number of third world countries, with dubious human rights records, willing to play host. One African country offered the CIA the use of an island in the middle of a large lake, according to CIA sources, and other nations were equally accommodating. Eventually, several CIA prisons were secretly established, including at least two major ones, code-named Bright Lights and Salt Pit. A small group of officials within the CIA’s Counterterrorist Center was put in charge of supporting the prisons and managing the interrogations.


Bright Light is one of the prisons where top al Qaeda leaders–including Abu Zubaydah and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the cenral planner of the September 11 attacks–have been held. Bright Light’s location is secret, and it has been used for only a handful of the most important al Qaeda detainees. (30)

This passage follows Risen’s reporting that Abu Zubaydah was moved to Thailand not long after his capture. Which suggests, as far as Risen knows, Bright Light may not be in Thailand. Read more