How the CIA tortured its guinea pig detainee Abu Zubaydah

Abu Zubaydah was the first high-profile al-Qaida terror suspect captured after the Sept. 11 attacks, and the first to vanish into the spy agency's secret prisons.
Abu Zubaydah was the first high-profile al-Qaida terror suspect captured after the Sept. 11 attacks, and the first to vanish into the spy agency's secret prisons. U.S. Central Command, File/AP Photo

When the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) needed a test subject for what would become known as “enhanced interrogation techniques,” suspected al-Qaeda operative Abu Zubaydah became the guinea pig.

But the methods employed to force the Saudi Arabia-born, Palestinian terror suspect to give up information has been labelled as torture by the U.S. government, in the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence report released Tuesday.

U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein, chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, wrote in her executive summary the evidence that interrogation techniques were torture is “overwhelming and incontrovertible.”

Some of the details of Zubaydah’s torture were well known before the completion of the report. But for the first time, the U.S. government is acknowledging just how cruel some of these techniques were and how little benefit to national security they may have had.

READ MORE: 5 key findings from the Senate committee report on CIA interrogations

Zubaydah, now 43, was captured in a March 2002 raid in Pakistan. According to the report, FBI special agents questioned Zubaydah in March 2002. Although he was hospitalized — he had been hit by a bullet during the raid — and breathing through a tube, he told the special agents he wanted to co-operate.

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But the CIA already had the wheels turning on ways to “overcome Abu Zubaydah’s resistance to interrogation.” The CIA believed he had information regarding an imminent plot. He was considered a High-Value Detainee.

“Our [CIA] lead interrogator will require Abu Zubaydah to reveal the most sensitive secret he knows we are seeking,” a quote from a 2002 CIA update, cited in the Senate report, read. “In accordance with the strategy, and with concurrence from FBI Headquarters, the two on-site FBI agents will no longer directly participate in the interview/debriefing sessions.”

Zubaydah was first transferred to and held in Thailand, where his torture began.

In Thailand, at what was known as Detention Site Green, he was also held in isolation for 47 days before being questioned for 20 straight days using “enhanced interrogation techniques.”

Among other approved techniques, CIA interrogators waterboarded Zubaydah 83 times in a 17-day period.

READ MORE: 13 enhanced interrogation techniques used by the CIA

The interrogators strapped Zubaydah to a board, covered his face with a cloth and poured water over it.

Zubaydah was “completely unresponsive, with bubbles rising through his open full mouth,” after undergoing waterboarding — a technique later described in the report as “evolving into a ‘series of near drownings.'”

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Here’s how the report detailed the “most aggressive interrogation phase” of that detention:

“Security personnel entered the cell, shackled and hooded Abu Zubaydah, and removed his towel (Abu Zubaydah was then naked). Without asking any questions, the interrogators placed a rolled towel around his neck as a collar, and backed him up into the cell wall (an interrogator later acknowledged the collar was used to slam Abu Zubaydah against a concrete wall). The interrogators then removed the hood, performed an attention grab, and had Abu Zubaydah watch while a large confinement box was brought into the cell and laid on the floor.” A cable states ‘Abu Zubaydah was unhooded and the large confinement box was carried into the interrogation room and paced [sic] on the floor so as to appear as a coffin.'”

He spent a total of 266 hours in that “coffin” during the 20 days of interrogation.

Even some CIA veterans at the Thai prison were horrified by the scene, according to the Senate report. In one cable, a staffer said “several on the team [were] profoundly affected … some to the point of tears and choking up.” The harsh tactics continued through the month until staffers concluded that the detainee was cooperative.
WATCH: Senator Feinstein calls CIA torture a stain on America’s legacy

By the sixth day, interrogators already knew it was “highly unlikely” Zubaydah knew any of the information the CIA wanted from him.

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The torture of Zubaydah was in the works for months before it began. The CIA contracted two psychologists to develop the techniques and test them on “some of the CIA’s most significant detainees” before trying them out on Zubaydah and future detainees, the report explained. Those psychologists had no “experience as an interrogator, nor did either have specialized knowledge of [al-Qaeda], a background in counterterrorism, or any relevant cultural or linguistic expertise.”

They also prepared for the chance he could develop a “serious medical condition” or even die.

“In the event [Abu Zubaydah] dies, we need to be prepared to act accordingly, keeping in mind the liaison equities involving our hosts,” the report quoted a CIA officer at Detention Site Green saying in a July 2002 cable.

Zubaydah was transferred, through the U.S. rendition program, to Poland, in Dec. 2002. He alleges he was tortured at that site as well, before being transferred to a series of other sites until finally being held at the U.S. Internment Facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba in 2006. He remains a detainee at the facility to this day.

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He has yet to be charged with any crimes under the government’s military tribunals – a limbo predicted in 2002 by CIA terror experts, according to the Senate report.

In July 2014, the European Court of Human Rights ordered the government of Poland to pay Zubaydah 130,000 Euros (CDN $184,054) for violating his rights by allowing the CIA to hold and torture him on the country’s soil.

The 500-page report released on Tuesday is a declassified summary of a 6,700-page report that cost the U.S. government $40 million (CDN $45.8 million) to complete over the course of nearly six years.

With files from The Associated Press

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