March 2002: Abu Zubayadah, the first “high value” detainee & first tortured guinea pig

Abu Zubaydah was described as al-Qaeda’s coordinator of attacks who helped manage an Al Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan. He was detained at a “black site” in Thailand and first interrogated from March to June 2002, by two seasoned FBI agents, Ali Soufan and Steve Gaudin, who spoke English and Arabic had experience interrogating counterintelligence agents. Soufan was known as one of the FBI’s top experts on Al-Qaeda who conducted a training course at Guantanamo in early 2002, preaching the virtues of FBI’s traditional rapport-building techniques; not only for their effectiveness, but that they were critical for maintaining America’s image in the Middle East: “The whole world is watching what we do here. We’re going to win or lose this war depending on how we do this.”

Philip Zelikow, the  Executive Director of the 9/11 Commission, who joined the Bush administration in 2005, and was the senior counselor to Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice who is a historian on the faculty of the University of Virginia, extolled Ali Soufan as “one of the most impressive intelligence agents – from any agency” that the panel encountered. (Newsweek, 2009)

The capture of Zubaydah led to a flurry of high level meetings and presentations attended by President Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, and CIA Director George Tenet and his deputy. Tenet explained that, after careful study, the CIA had concluded that the only way to obtain the details of the terrorist organization’s future plans from al-Qaida fanatics was to use the SERE methods. Tenet assured the group that these interrogation practices had already been tested in the training of thousands of Americans.

Ali Soufan testified in closed Congressional hearings; wrote an Op Ed piece in The New York Times (2009); and a highly rated book, The Black Banners (2011) in which he emphasized that a team of FBI and CIA interrogators had succeeded in obtaining valid actionable information from Abu Zubaydah using traditional rapport-building interview techniques – without resorting to harsh interrogation –i.e., torture.

“We discovered, for example, that Khalid Shaikh Mohammed was the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks. Abu Zubaydah also told us about Jose Padilla, the so-called dirty bomber. This experience fit what I had found throughout my counterterrorism career: traditional interrogation techniques are successful in identifying operatives, uncovering plots and saving lives. There was no actionable intelligence gained from using enhanced interrogation techniques on Abu Zubaydah that wasn’t, or couldn’t have been, gained from regular tactics.” (Soufan. My Tortured Decision, New York Times, 2009)

But the tenor of the interrogations changed in April 2002, when James Mitchel, a CIA contractor, showed up and took charge of Zybaydah’s interrogation, replacing FBI interrogators. CIA’s Office of Technical Support (OTS) cabled a new “proposed interrogation strategy” to CIA’s interrogation team where Abu Zubaydah was held. CIA-contracted psychologists, Mitchell and Jessen, then road-tested their ghoulish techniques. Jane Mayer’s series in the New Yorker (2005) was one of the earliest to report about the CIA torture program. In her book, The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How The War on Terror Turned into a War on American Ideals (2008) Mayer described the eyewitness accounts of Mitchell’s announcement that Zubaydah

“had to be treated like a dog in a cage.” [Mitchel said] “it was like an experiment, when you apply electric shocks to a caged dog, after a while, he’s so diminished, he can’t resist.” Mayer wrote, “FBI agents were appalled. They argued that Zubayda was not a dog, he was a human being. To which Mitchell retorted, “Science is science.” (p. 156)

Der Spiegel reported that Zybaydah stated years later, “I was told during this period that I was one of the first to receive these interrogation techniques, so no rules applied. It felt like they were experimenting and trying out techniques to be used later on other people.” (Goetz & Sandberg. CIA Outsourced Development of Interrogation Plan, 2009)

For nearly a month they subjected Abu Zubaydah to increasingly painful and terrifying torture techniques. As early as 2004, the Top Secret, CIA Inspector General Report described the torture techniques used. (The much redacted report was released in 2008 and 2009)

The new interrogation strategy was meant to instill in a prisoner “psychological dependence upon the interrogator,” and “an increased sense of learned helplessness.” The emphasis on “psychological dependence” mirrors the language and theories behind control of human behavior that were explored in the MKULTRA mind control program. (Jeffrey Kaye, 2014)

Cables to and from CIA Headquarters reveal that Abu Zubaydah was subjected to waterboarding 83 times; at one point he became “completely unresponsive, with bubbles rising through his open mouth, [having] lost consciousness.”  The interrogations lasted for weeks without ever eliciting any information from Abu Zubaydah.

After being subjected to torture, Abu Zubaydah clammed up: rather than acknowledge defeat, the interrogators wanted to double down on a failed approach. Harsh interrogations would work, they were arguing, if only they were harsher. Mitchell insisted that Zubaydah would talk only when he had been reduced to complete helplessness and dependence. When the CIA team began building a coffin in which they planned to bury him alive, a furor erupted among both FBI and CIA agents over the morality and legality of this move. Ali Soufan later told Justice Department investigators that he considered the methods he witnessed to be “borderline torture.” He recalls shouting “We’re the United States of America, and we don’t do that kind of thing.”

Dr. R. Scott Shumate, then chief operational psychologist for the C.I.A.’s counterterrorism center, opposed the extreme methods and, according to an article in Vanity Fair, “packed his bags in disgust, leaving before the most dire tactics had commenced.”

“With Shumate gone, the interrogators were free to unleash what they called the “SERE school” techniques. These included blasting the Red Hot Chili Peppers at top volume, stripping Zubaydah naked, and making his room so cold that his body turned blue…Ultimately, the F.B.I. pulled its agents from the scene and ruled that they could not be present any time coercive tactics were used, says Michael Rolince. It was a momentous decision that effectively gave the C.I.A. complete control of interrogations.” (Katherine Eban. Rorscharch and Awe, Vanity Fair, 2007)

Even though non-coercive interrogation methods had been successful, and the experimental coercive techniques did not yield useful information, the CIA and the administration leadership were determined to pursue that course of action. The torture techniques used on Zubaydah became standardized as enhanced interrogation techniques.

“They hit the glass ceiling with waterboarding. So what do you do? You do it again and again and again: with Abu Zubaydah, 83 times; with Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, 183 times. When you repeat a tactic on an individual 183 times, do you think the technique is working? […] they are basically accelerating these techniques because they are not working…”
(The CIA Torture Debate, Frontline, PBS Dec. 10, 2014)