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Public was misled on extent and effect of torture

Shawn Vestal
Shawn Vestal

How much water was involved in America’s waterboarding of terrorism suspects?

If that sounds glib, it’s not meant to be. As the massive and much-battled-over “torture report” by a Senate committee inches toward public disclosure, a British newspaper is reporting that the waterboarding employed against three top al-Qaida suspects far exceeds the widespread understanding of what happened. It is the latest trickle from the iceberg surrounding that report, all of which suggest that the torture program was even worse than it was thought to be – that the tactics were harsher and the results negligible, and that the CIA misled a lot of people about it.

The waterboarding was part of an interrogation program developed and employed, in part, by a pair of former Spokane U.S. Air Force psychologists. The men, Bruce Jessen and James Mitchell, helped “reverse-engineer” tactics used in survival training at Fairchild Air Force Base and other bases. They were also present at the waterboarding of one of the suspects in question at a CIA black site in 2002, according to several published accounts and government reports, and Mitchell participated firsthand.

The tactics developed for questioning suspects were quaintly called “enhanced interrogation.” They included sleep and sensory deprivation, stress position, being stripped and placed in cold environments, and forceful, strategic slapping.

Critics of the program – including other Fairchild officers at the time – have blasted it as a violation of U.S. and international law, but also as ineffective. Col. Steven Kleinman, a former interrogator in Panama and Iraq who was a top intelligence officer at Fairchild when the program was being developed, has been outspoken in his criticism. He said there was a “critical disconnect” in the thinking surrounding the tactics – that a program used to teach American soldiers to resist torture might be turned around and used to gather intelligence.

“I thought it was preposterous on its face,” Kleinman said in 2012. “This is a classic example of people involved at the senior level who really don’t understand, at all, what interrogation is about.”

Little is known specifically about the way the tactics were used. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, considered the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, was waterboarded 183 times. Abu Zubaydah, a top al-Qaida operative, was waterboarded 83 times; Mitchell and Jessen were present for much of his interrogation. The CIA destroyed 92 videotapes of the interrogation sessions in 2005. When its report on waterboarding was released in 2009, more than 20 pages on the Zubaydah interrogation were blacked out.

The impression that has been left, however, is that interrogators followed the waterboarding protocols developed to limit the activity. That involves dribbling water over a cloth placed over a suspect’s mouth for no more than 20 seconds to simulate the panicked experience of drowning.

But according to the report in the Telegraph, the suspects were held under water in tubs for much longer.

“They weren’t just pouring water over their heads or over a cloth,” the newspaper quoted one source saying. “They were holding them under water until the point of death, with a doctor present to make sure they did not go too far. This was real torture.”

Another source told the Telegraph about one interrogation: “They got medieval on his ass.”

The report in the Telegraph is hampered by the anonymity of its sources, obviously. However, much of the information that has emerged regarding the torture program – over much resistance from the CIA and the Bush and Obama administrations – has come from anonymous sources, by necessity. The Telegraph, considered a conservative newspaper in Britain, has done a lot of vigorous reporting on the claims and counterclaims surrounding the prosecution of the Iraq War, and is not some wild-eyed source of speculation.

The Senate report is expected to support the harshest criticisms of the torture program – that the methods used were illegal, that the CIA misled the government about what it was doing, and that the tactics produced little if any useful intelligence, according to reporting in the Washington Post and other newspapers. The CIA has admitted spying on Senate investigators, and the White House recently went through the report with a black marker to such an extent that Sen. Dianne Feinstein, head of the committee that produced the report, said it effectively gutted the committee’s conclusions.

It is clear that the battle over the report is a battle over how much damning material can be hidden – and it must be very damning indeed, given what is already known. An example is Mitchell and Jessen’s involvement in the torture of Zubaydah at a CIA black site in Thailand in 2002 – as described in an earlier Senate report, in reported books and in newspaper coverage.

The interrogation of Zubaydah was first undertaken by the FBI, which used rapport-building techniques in an attempt to win cooperation. FBI accounts claim these methods were effective, including learning the identity of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.

But a CIA team – involving Mitchell and Jessen – pressed for harsher techniques, and a back and forth ensued. The CIA team stuffed Zubaydah into small boxes, denied him solid food and sleep, chained him to a chair, assaulted him, and waterboarded him 83 times.

The sessions were videotaped. The tapes were among those that were destroyed in 2005 by a CIA operative who said he was afraid that if they were ever leaked, the lives of the interrogators would be in danger.

The FBI eventually took over the interrogation again, at which time they were able to learn the identity of another key suspect – Jose Padilla, the so-called ‘dirty bomber.’

Bush administration officials have continued to insist that the torture produced results. But many others say that’s not true. One of the FBI interrogators involved in the Zubaydah case later wrote an op-ed in the New York Times, concluding: “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.”

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.
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