The International Committee of the Red Cross concluded in a secret report that the Bush administration's treatment of al-Qaeda captives "constituted torture," a finding that strongly implied that CIA interrogation methods violated international law, according to newly published excerpts from the long-concealed 2007 document.
The report, an account alleging physical and psychological brutality inside CIA "black site" prisons, also states that some U.S. practices amounted to "cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment." Such maltreatment of detainees is expressly prohibited by the Geneva Conventions.
The findings were based on an investigation by ICRC officials, who were granted exclusive access to the CIA's "high-value" detainees after they were transferred in 2006 to the U.S. detention camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The 14 detainees, who had been kept in isolation in CIA prisons overseas, gave remarkably uniform accounts of abuse that included beatings, sleep deprivation, extreme temperatures and, in some cases, waterboarding, or simulating drowning.
At least five copies of the report were shared with the CIA and top White House officials in 2007 but barred from public release by ICRC guidelines intended to preserve the humanitarian group's strict policy of neutrality in conflicts. A copy of the report was obtained by Mark Danner, a journalism professor and author who published extensive excerpts in the April 9 edition of the New York Review of Books, released yesterday. He did not say how he obtained the report.
"The ill-treatment to which they were subjected while held in the CIA program, either singly or in combination, constituted torture," Danner quoted the report as saying.
Many of the details of alleged mistreatment at CIA prisons had been reported previously, but the ICRC report is the most authoritative account and the first to use the word "torture" in a legal context.
The CIA declined to comment. A U.S. official familiar with the report said, "It is important to bear in mind that the report lays out claims made by the terrorists themselves."
Often using the detainee's own words, the report offers a harrowing view of conditions at the secret prisons, where prisoners were told they were being taken "to the verge of death and back," according to one excerpt. During interrogations, the captives were routinely beaten, doused with cold water and slammed head-first into walls. Between sessions, they were stripped of clothing, bombarded with loud music, exposed to cold temperatures, and deprived of sleep and solid food for days on end. Some detainees described being forced to stand for days, with their arms shackled above them, wearing only diapers.
"On a daily basis . . . a collar was looped around my neck and then used to slam me against the walls of the interrogation room," the report quotes detainee Tawfiq bin Attash, also known as Walid Muhammad bin Attash, as saying. Later, he said, he was wrapped in a plastic sheet while cold water was "poured onto my body with buckets." He added: "I would be wrapped inside the sheet with cold water for several minutes. Then I would be taken for interrogation."
ICRC officials did not dispute the authenticity of the excerpts, but a spokesman expressed dismay over the leak of the material. "We regret information attributed to the ICRC report was made public in this manner," spokesman Bernard Barrett said.
"The ICRC has been visiting the detainees formerly held by the CIA," he added, "at Guantanamo since 2006. Any concerns or observations the ICRC had when visiting the detainees are part of a confidential dialogue."
President George W. Bush acknowledged the use of coercive interrogation tactics on senior al-Qaeda captives detained by the CIA in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, but he insisted that the measures complied with U.S. and international law. Former CIA director Michael V. Hayden confirmed last year that the measures included the use of waterboarding on three captives before 2003.
President Obama outlawed such practices within hours of his inauguration in January. But Obama has expressed reluctance to conduct a legal inquiry into the CIA's policies.
The report gives a graphic account of the treatment of Zayn al-Abidin Muhammed Hussein, better known as Abu Zubaida, a Saudi-born Palestinian who was the first alleged senior al-Qaeda operative seized after Sept. 11 -- a characterization of his role that is disputed by his attorneys, who describe him as having a different philosophy of jihad than bin Laden.
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Abu Zubaida was severely wounded during a shootout in March 2002 at a safe house he ran in Faisalabad, Pakistan, and survived thanks to CIA-arranged medical care, including multiple surgeries. After he recovered, Abu Zubaida describes being shackled to a chair at the feet and hands for two to three weeks in a cold room with "loud, shouting type music" blaring constantly, according to the ICRC report. He said that he was questioned two to three hours a day and that water was sprayed in his face if he fell asleep.
At some point -- the timing is unclear from the New York Review of Books report -- Abu Zubaida's treatment became harsher. In July 2002, administration lawyers approved more aggressive techniques.
Abu Zubaida said interrogators wrapped a towel around his neck and slammed him into a plywood wall mounted in his cell. He was also repeatedly slapped in the face, he said. After the beatings, he was placed in coffinlike wooden boxes in which he was forced to crouch, with no light and a restricted air supply, he said.
"The stress on my legs held in this position meant my wounds both in my leg and stomach became very painful," he told the ICRC.
After he was removed from a small box, he said, he was strapped to what looked like a hospital bed and waterboarded. "A black cloth was then placed over my face and the interrogators used a mineral bottle to pour water on the cloth so that I could not breathe," Abu Zubaida said.
After breaks to allow him to recover, the waterboarding continued.
"I struggled against the straps, trying to breathe, but it was hopeless," he said. "I though I was going to die."
In a federal court filing, Abu Zubaida's attorneys said he "has suffered approximately 175 seizures that appear to be directly related to his extensive torture -- particularly damage to Petitioner's head that was the result of beatings sustained at the hands of CIA interrogators and exacerbated by his lengthy isolation."
Danner said the organization's use of the word "torture" has important legal implications.
"It could not be more important that the ICRC explicitly uses the words 'torture' and 'cruel and degrading,' " Danner said in a telephone interview. "The ICRC is the guardian of the Geneva Conventions, and when it uses those words, they have the force of law."
He discounted the possibility that the detainees fabricated or embellished their stories, noting that the accounts overlap "in minute detail," even though the detainees were kept in isolation at different locations.
Human rights groups echoed his assessment.
"These reports are from an impeccable source," said Geneve Mantri, a counterterrorism specialist at Amnesty International. "It's clear that senior officials were warned from the very beginning that the treatment that detainees were subjected to amounted to torture. This story goes even further and deeper than many us of suspected. The more details we find out, the more shocking this becomes."