Report

A Pistol Near the Head and a Cordless Drill Near the Body

The Senate’s torture report says a CIA operative held a cordless electric drill to the body of a top al Qaeda suspect and turned it on. Then things got really brutal.

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In releasing the long-awaited Intelligence Committee report on the CIA’s interrogation and detention program, Sen. Dianne Feinstein declared on the Senate floor Tuesday that its revelations are a “stain on our values and our history.” As the massive report is picked over in coming days, one section is sure to be held out as an example of Feinstein’s contention: a CIA operative interrogating al Qaeda suspect Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri by pointing a gun at him and then holding a cordless power drill near his body and turning it on.

An al Qaeda operative who allegedly masterminded the 1999 bombing of the USS Cole, Nashiri was arrested in Dubai in 2002 and shuttled into the CIA’s network of secret prisons. Once there, he was judged to be of sufficient intelligence value to be subjected to the agency’s so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques” — the antiseptic phrase, according to President Barack Obama and his top officials, for torture. Nashiri was one of three al Qaeda operatives — 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and top al Qaeda operative Abu Zubaydah being the others — to be repeatedly waterboarded, the interrogation technique that simulates the experience of drowning.

After being arrested in Dubai, Nashiri was first interrogated in the custody of what the Senate report describes only as a foreign government. During that interrogation, he provided information on terrorist plotting in the Persian Gulf. He was then transferred to the CIA’s custody, where he was first subjected to a regimen of waterboarding. According to the Senate report, he was waterboarded at least three times.

By December 2002, Nashiri’s CIA captors concluded that he was being “cooperative and truthful” in his statements, that he was a “compliant detainee,” and that he was not “withholding important threat information.”

CIA headquarters did not agree with this assessment. “It is inconceivable to us that al-Nashiri cannot provide us concrete leads,” CIA headquarters cabled back to the prison, according to a document cited in the massive Senate report. “When we are able to capture other terrorists based on his leads and to thwart future plots based on his reporting, we will have much more confidence that he is, indeed, genuinely cooperative on some level.”

The CIA agents interrogating Nashiri recommended against resuming enhanced interrogation techniques because they thought he was already being cooperative, but headquarters wanted more. With two of the prison’s interrogators sent home to be with their families with the holidays, CIA headquarters dispatched an officer to carry out further interviews with Nashiri. Some within the agency objected to his deployment, as he had not been through interrogation training and was seen by some as “too confident, had a temper, and had some security issues.”

According to the report, that was exactly why the operative had been sent there. Top CIA officials felt that Nashiri was being treated too leniently, and wanted the unnamed officer to “fix” this problem. Shortly after his arrival at the prison, the officer cabled back to headquarters that “Nashiri responds well to harsh treatment.”

The officer then proceeded to use a series of “unauthorized interrogation techniques.” Nashiri was placed in a standing stress position with his hands fixed over his head for two and a half days. Then, while Nashiri was blindfolded, the officer placed a pistol by his head and operated a cordless drill “near his body,” in the words of the report.

These techniques did not result in the actionable intelligence the CIA was hoping it would. “Al-Nashiri did not provide any additional threat information during, or after, these interrogations,” the report notes, referring to the stepped up interrogation regimen used by the officer dispatched by headquarters.

A fall 2003 CIA report cited by the Senate study described other allegations of unauthorized interrogation techniques used on Nashiri by the CIA officer and other interrogators. These techniques included: “slapping al-Nashiri multiple times on the back of the head during interrogations; implying that his mother would be brought before him and sexually abused; blowing cigar smoke in al-Nashiri’s face; giving al-Nashiri a forced bath using a stiff brush; and using improvised stress positions that caused cuts and bruises resulting in the intervention of a medical officer, who was concerned that al-Nashiri’s shoulders would be dislocated using the stress positions.”

The treatment of Nashiri prompted concern among some at CIA headquarters, including the agency’s head of interrogations. When in January 2003 the interrogation chief received a plan for Nashiri’s future treatment, he threatened to resign and said that he would “no longer be associated in any way with the interrogation program due to serious reservation about the current state of affairs.” The interrogation program, he wrote in an email, “is a train wreak [sic] waiting to happen and I intend to get the hell off the train before it happens.”

The interrogation chief put those concerns in a cable. Nashiri, the operative wrote, had been “held in very difficult conditions, both physically and mentally.” Continued use of enhanced interrogation methods, the interrogator noted, may push him “over the edge psychologically” and “may cause him to cease cooperation on any level.”

The cable, though, wasn’t distributed within the base where Nashiri was being interrogated, and the brutality continued. The Senate report says CIA operatives instead resumed enhanced interrogation techniques, “beginning with shaving him, removing his clothing, and placing him in a standing sleep deprivation position with his arms affixed over his head.” Subsequently, Nashiri developed “a head cold which caused his body to shake for approximately ten minutes during an interrogation.”

From June 2003 to September 2006, Nashiri was transferred to five different CIA prisons, and during that period he “was diagnosed by some CIA psychologists as having ‘anxiety’ and ‘major depressive’ disorder.” Others, however, found no sign of illness. Along with the reports of possible mental illness, Nashiri became an increasingly “difficult and uncooperative detainee,” attempting to assault his CIA captors and damaging items in his cell.

“At one point, al-Nashiri launched a short lived hunger strike that resulted in the CIA force feeding him rectally,” the report notes, a clinical way of describing an operative forcibly inserting a tube into Nashiri’s anus and using it to push nutrients into his body.

In October 2004, 21 months after the last documented use of enhanced interrogation techniques on Nashiri, a CIA assessment concluded that the inmate had provided “essentially no actionable information” and that he was unlikely to do so in the future.

As the CIA notes in its response to the Senate study, the officer who used the drill was punished for his actions, receiving a one-year letter of reprimand and being suspended for five days without pay. During that one-year period, he was barred from pay increases and promotions. That officer retired from the agency in 2004 but returned as a contractor in June 2005.

The prison chief was also sanctioned by the agency, receiving a two-year letter of reprimand and was suspended for ten days without pay. He retired before the measures could be implemented.

Nashiri remains imprisoned at the U.S. military base at Guantanamo Bay, where he has been indicted on charges related to his alleged involvement in the attack on the Cole and plotting to strike other ships.

Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy covering cyberspace, its conflicts, and controversies. @eliasgroll

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