US May Have Taped Visits to Detainees
The Bush administration informed all foreign intelligence and law enforcement teams visiting their citizens held at Guantanamo Bay that video and sound from their interrogation sessions would be recorded, according to documents obtained by The Washington Post. The policy suggests that the United States could possess hundreds or thousands of hours of secret taped conversations between detainees and representatives from nearly three dozen countries.
Numerous State Department cables to foreign government delegations in 2002 and 2003 show that each country was subject to rules and regulations "to protect the interests and ensure the safety of all concerned." Condition No. 1 stated that U.S. authorities would closely monitor the interrogations, a practice that the Defense Department confirmed last week was also carried out to gather intelligence.
"The United States will video tape and sound record the interviews between representatives of your government and the detainee(s) named above," read several of the nearly identical cables, obtained via a Freedom of Information Act request.
Should such videotapes exist, they would reveal how representatives from countries such as China, Egypt, Jordan, Libya, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Tunisia treated detainees in small interrogation booths at the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba -- sessions that some detainees have said were abusive and at times contained threats of torture or even death. Though attorneys for the detainees have long sought to obtain such evidence, the administration has thus far denied the requests and has not indicated that such tapes exist.
The Defense Department has long maintained that it did not regularly videotape interrogations at Guantanamo Bay, and only last month acknowledged recording at least seven hours of Canadian officials interrogating terrorism suspect Omar Khadr after the Canadian Supreme Court ordered Canadian officials to release those tapes. The Khadr tapes show that U.S. officials had the capability and infrastructure to record the conversations from several angles.
In the Khadr tapes, the young Canadian is shown having polite but tense conversations with Canadian intelligence officers in a small booth with a table, chairs and a wall-mounted air conditioner. At times, Khadr appears frustrated and distraught, complaining about his treatment during captivity. The videos captured images from multiple vantage points, including from behind the slats of a vent, and also captured audio from the sessions.
Navy Cmdr. J.D. Gordon, a Pentagon spokesman, said that the videotaping of visits by foreign delegations was not "standard operating procedure" but that such monitoring was done to protect the detainees, the foreign officials and the United States. He also said it was conducted for "intelligence-collection purposes."
"If videotapes were made, they were likely used for translators to transcribe and/or for intelligence officers to clarify their notes after the fact," Gordon said. Defense officials declined to list the countries that had sent intelligence agents because the roster is classified, but they put the number at more than 30. They declined to say how many tapes were made.
The documents show that the State Department was working with several governments in early 2002, allowing them to bring three-person teams to Guantanamo Bay for week-long visits. Early delegations were from such countries as Bahrain, Belgium, France and Russia, according to e-mails provided to The Post, just as the facility's detainee population was dramatically increasing.
Officials from governments that visited detainees at Guantanamo Bay said they understood that the sessions would be taped and expected that it would happen, both for security and intelligence purposes.
"We knew for a while that all the interrogations and questioning was being recorded, and that that was the routine," said one Yemeni official who spoke on the condition of anonymity for lack of authorization to discuss the visits. "We sent a total of three teams, and it was common knowledge that all the interviews with the detainees were videotaped and recorded."
Current and former U.S. government officials said the foreign delegation visits in 2002 -- shortly after the facility was opened -- were key to intelligence gathering because foreign agents could speak a detainee's language and could put the conversations in a context that eluded U.S. interrogators.
U.S. officials required the foreign delegations to share their final reports from such visits, as well as any recordings the foreign agents made themselves. A U.S. official also witnessed the conversations, often from within the same room.
"The value we saw was that these guys would know their nationals and could get information better than we could," said a U.S. official familiar with the visits. "We were pretty green in this area at that time. We also wanted to know what was going on in the room, because we were on the hook for the well-being of everyone that came in there."
Every country that has received a detainee transfer from Guantanamo Bay at one point visited the facility to identify its nationals and to question them from an intelligence and law enforcement perspective, two U.S. officials said.
Some countries visited numerous times, including Bahrain, which sent a delegation in April 2002 and then about once a year after that, according to Joshua Colangelo-Bryan, a lawyer who represented six Bahraini nationals and described the meetings as tense.
"There was nothing comforting about the visits," he said. "I don't remember anyone talking about knowing they were being videotaped in those meetings, but if you have the Khadr videotape and this statement, that seems pretty clear. The question is: Did the U.S. destroy everything?"
In 2005, lawyers representing the detainees obtained an order from a judge in the U.S. District Court in the District of Columbia forcing the government to preserve all evidence of possible coercion, including videotapes. After the CIA acknowledged last year that it destroyed tapes of detainee interrogations, Pentagon officials said they were continuing to preserve evidence in the case of Hani Saleh Rashid Abdullah, a Yemeni detainee at Guantanamo Bay, but have never specified what evidence they have.
Detainees have for years reported being threatened by their home governments in interrogations at the facility, some to the point of trying to commit suicide after the meetings for fear of having to return home to face possible torture or death. The Center for Constitutional Rights, which has represented hundreds of Guantanamo Bay detainees, has criticized the U.S. government, saying that it ushers "interrogators from recognized human rights abusing regimes onto the U.S. military base" and that it allows threats and abuse "with the active involvement of U.S. forces."
The lawyers have vowed to push for evidence of such abuse at the Supreme Court-mandated habeas corpus hearings that are scheduled to begin soon.
George Brent Mickum IV, a Washington lawyer who represents Guantanamo Bay detainees, said he has learned from a former interrogator at the facility that U.S. officials kept an index listing all the videotapes of the foreign delegations. He also said that one of his clients -- Bisher al-Rawi, who was returned to England from Guantanamo Bay -- was interviewed by Britain's MI-5 intelligence service at least five times at the facility, conversations Mickum says would show that Rawi should not have been imprisoned.
"There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that these tapes did in fact exist and that, contrary to what the military says, it was absolutely SOP," Mickum said. "I would be shocked if they had not been destroyed."
Zachary Katznelson, legal director of Reprieve, which represents 32 Guantanamo Bay detainees, said that foreign governments have threatened some of his clients and that he would be interested in seeing the interrogation tapes as potential evidence that the United States has been complicit in sending detainees to countries that are known to torture.
"I think there's no question, if you invite someone in, and they threaten them, the person who invited them in should be held accountable," Katznelson said. "We will request any and all videotapes by U.S. and foreign intelligence services to find out what was being done to them and what threats were made against them."
One of Reprieve's clients, Hisham Sliti, a Tunisian who remains detained, told the organization that the Tunisian government sent three people to interrogate him and that they threatened him with "water torture in the barrel" upon his return.
Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.
© 2008 The Washington Post