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US turns to torture to crack prisoners of war

By Dana Priest and Barton Gellman
December 27 2002


Deep inside the forbidden zone at the United States-occupied Bagram air base in Afghanistan are a cluster of metal shipping containers protected by a triple layer of concertina wire.

The containers hold the most valuable prizes in the US-led war in Afghanistan - suspected al-Qaeda operatives and Taliban commanders.

Those who refuse to co-operate inside the secret CIA interrogation centre are sometimes kept standing or kneeling for hours, in black hoods or spray-painted goggles, intelligence specialists familiar with CIA interrogation methods say.

At times they are held in awkward, painful positions and deprived of sleep with a 24-hour bombardment of lights - subject to what are known as "stress and duress" techniques.

Those who co-operate are rewarded by interrogators whose methods include feigned friendship, respect, cultural sensitivity and, in some cases, money. The most hardened cases are turned over - "rendered", in official parlance - to foreign intelligence services whose practice of torture has been documented by the US Government and human rights organisations.

US officials have said little publicly about interrogation methods, but interviews with former intelligence officials and 10 current national security officials, some of whom have seen the handling of prisoners, provide insight into how the US Government is conducting this part of the war. The picture that emerges is of a brass-knuckled quest for information, often in concert with allies of dubious human-rights reputation, in which the traditional lines between right and wrong, legal and inhumane, are evolving and blurred.

While the US Government publicly denounces the use of torture, all of the national security officials interviewed defended the use of violence against captives as "just and necessary", and they were confident the American public would back their view. The CIA, which has responsibility for interrogations, declined to comment.

"If you don't violate someone's human rights some of the time, you probably aren't doing your job," said one official who has supervised the capture and transfer of accused terrorists. "I don't think we want to be promoting a view of zero tolerance on this."

The off-limits patch of ground at Bagram is one of a number of secret overseas detention centres where US due process does not apply. Another is Diego Garcia, an island in the Indian Ocean that the US leases from Britain.

In other cases, usually involving lower-level captives, the CIA hands them to foreign intelligence services, notably those of Jordan, Egypt and Morocco, with a list of questions the agency wants answered.

These "extraordinary renditions" are done without resort to legal process and usually involve countries with security services known for using brutal means.

According to one official who has been directly involved in transferring captives the understanding is: "We don't kick the [expletive] out of them. We send them to other countries so they can kick the [expletive] out of them."

Nearly 3000 suspected al-Qaeda members and their supporters have been detained worldwide since September11, 2001. Some officials estimated that fewer than 100 captives have been transferred to third countries. But thousands have been arrested and held with US assistance in countries known for brutal treatment of prisoners, the officials said.

At a joint hearing of the House and Senate intelligence committees in September, Cofer Black, then head of the CIA Counterterrorist Centre, spoke cryptically about the agency's new forms of "operational flexibility" in dealing with suspected terrorists. "All you need to know is that there was a before 9/11, and there was an after 9/11," Mr Black said. "After 9/11 the gloves come off."

The Washington Post


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