Al Qaeda terror suspect was test case for CIA’s brutal tactics

Abu Zubaydah’s ordeal became the CIA’s blueprint for the brutal treatment of terror suspects, according to the senate intelligence committee’s report released on Tuesday.

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WASHINGTON // Abu Zubaydah was the CIA’s guinea pig.

He was the first high-profile Al Qaeda terror suspect captured after the September 11 attacks, and the first to vanish into the spy agency’s secret prisons, the first subjected to grinding white noise and sleep deprivation tactics and the first to gasp under the simulated drowning of waterboarding.

Zubaydah's ordeal became the CIA's blueprint for the brutal treatment of terror suspects, according to the senate intelligence committee's report released on Tuesday.

The report cites Zubaydah’s detention in Pakistan in March 2002 as a turning point in the Bush administration’s no-holds-barred approach to terror suspects and the CIA’s development of coercive interrogation tactics.

The United States brutalised scores of terror suspects with interrogation tactics that turned secret CIA prisons into chambers of suffering and did nothing to make America safer after the 9/11 attacks, the report concluded.

It accused the CIA of offering a misleading version about what it was doing with its “black site” captives and deceiving the US about the effectiveness of its techniques. The report was the first public accounting of tactics employed after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, and it described far harsher actions than had been widely known.

The tactics employed included confinement to small boxes, weeks of sleep deprivation, simulated drowning, slapping and slamming, and threats to kill, harm or sexually abuse families of the captives. The report catalogued the use of ice baths, death threats, shackling in the cold and waterboarding. Many detainees developed psychological problems.

The case of Abu Zubaydah offers a personal view of those experiences.

While CIA officials subjected Zubaydah to a growing array of harsh interrogations, legal officials working for President George W Bush wrote memos citing Zubaydah as a key test case to justify the extreme measures.

The senate report said CIA had a pre-arranged plan about how to dispose of Zubaydah’s body if he were to die during questioning – he would be cremated.

Straining under a waterlogged cloth clamped over his face, Zubaydah became “completely unresponsive, with bubbles rising through his open, full mouth”, according to CIA emails cited in the report. He was body-slammed by his captors. He was hooded, then unmasked and ominously shown a coffin-like box. He was locked in a cramped cell, reduced to wailing and hysteria, the report said.

Zubaydah’s torment became the template for the CIA’s black-site interrogations, providing CIA medical specialists with the limits of human endurance and Bush administration officials with the legal outlines of how they would deal with future terror suspects.

While healing, Zubaydah was questioned by FBI and CIA interrogators. But the FBI soon withdrew from the black site after protesting that CIA interrogators were using abusive techniques on Zubaydah.

In a 2006 speech that confirmed the detention and interrogation programme and cited Zubaydah, Mr Bush said the detainee was a “senior terrorist leader and a trusted associate of Osama bin Laden”.

Jose Rodriguez, the senior CIA official who oversaw Zubaydah's questioning, said on CBS' 60 Minutes that Zubaydah "gave us a roadmap that allowed us to capture a bunch of Al Qaeda senior leaders".

The senate report disputes both accounts, saying Zubaydah was a low-level minnow in the Al Qaeda hierarchy and offered no substantive information about real terror plots or structure.

More than 12 years after his capture, Zubaydah remains confined to the detention camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. He has yet to be charged with any crimes under the government’s military tribunals.In a 2002 email to CIA headquarters, the CIA’s interrogators said they wanted assurances that Zubaydah would never be allowed to publicly describe what they were doing to him, recommending that he should “remain incommunicado for the remainder of his life”.

* Associated Press