A favored method of forcing confessions during the Spanish Inquisition was a form of suffocating water torture called “toca” – which is similar to the controversial practice of “waterboarding” used on detainees at Guantanamo Bay and at secret CIA “rendition” camps in other countries. The process, applied to American POWs during World War II by their Japanese captors, was called “the water cure” and was regarded as a war crime at the International Tribunal in Toyko following the war.
During the Inquisition toca frequently resulted in its victims admitting to casting spells on their innocent neighbors or other such unacceptable behavior for which they would be burned at the stake. When it was used on a man alleged to be Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the accused mastermind behind the 9/11 attacks, the captive confessed responsibility for almost 30 terrorist plots, including assassination designs against Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, Pope John Paul and other leaders. Mohammed, frequently referred as “KSM,” is one of six individuals the U.S. government designates as “high-value detainees” who could be executed at Guantanamo following military “commission” trials set to begin.
Held devoid of outside contact since his capture in Pakistan in early 2003 until he met his defense counsel, Navy Captain Prescott Prince, two weeks ago at a secret CIA camp apart from other detainees at the Guantanamo base, KSM has yet to clarify his approach to the trial with his lawyer, but Prince has stated a belief that a fair trial was not possible in the circumstances.
Michael Ratner, the West Shokan and Manhattan resident who serves as president of the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) defending another of the high-value captives, Mohammed al-Qalitani, has paid close attention to the KSM case. Having devoted his legal career to the defense of civil and human rights, he’s well aware of the lasting impact upon rights the decisions in these cases will have, registering them as among the most important court battles of the modern era.
“Here’s my view of (KSM). The government has admitted that he was water-tortured, right?” Ratner asked. “We represent a lot of clients who have undergone those types of torture. Essentially, my earliest experience was with guys called the “Tipton 3″, who weren’t even waterboarded but confessed to being in a training camp with Osama bin Laden. At first they denied it, then they were tortured and confessed. British intelligence has proven they were working in England at the time they were supposedly being trained by bin Laden. That gives you an example. Another client, Maher Arar – a famous Canadian taken off a U.S. airplane at Kennedy Airport and sent to Syria for torture, supposedly also confessed to being trained in Afghanistan. He’s never been to Afghanistan in his life. He’s been completely exonerated by the Canadians. They just claimed he was al-Qaida. Basically the rule we plead applicable to these cases is ‘people under torture will say whatever their torturers want to hear.’ That’s generally been the case and my office has seen many of these false confessions – not only in Guantanamo but as a classic factor in regular criminal law. So, you have a problem with (KSM) right away.”
Ratner notes that KSM “takes credit for everything” in his statement, including deeds it would have been impossible for him to have planned. He confessed to killing the journalist Daniel Pearl, who was in Pakistan investigating ties between the Pakistani intelligence service, ISI, and the 9/11 hijackings. Former CIA officer Robert Baer, whose former agency is closely linked to the ISI, has stated “My old colleagues say with 100% certainty that KSM did not kill Pearl” and even the Pearl family rejects this claim. Even the true identity of the captive has been questioned – since KSM was reported killed in a raid on his Karachi apartment in December 2001.
Referring to the then still-classified KSM confession upon which a NYCDEP police chief (who has since left the department under a cloud suggesting abuse of authority in a separate matter) based his decision to close local Monument Road, in Olive, Ratner said he can think of nothing in the statement which indicated such a threat.
“Let’s be serious here, whoever he is, and we won’t know that until there’s some independent evidence about that, it just seems crazy (to close the road on the basis of an obscure, projected threat to attack the Ashokan dam),” said Ratner, recalling the times he’s had to take the detour. “You can go over the George Washington Bridge on a truck without being checked or through the Holland Tunnel and, assuming anybody knows where the place is, they’re talking about the last of the homemade dams here and how much (explosive) it would take to blow all the way down to it; it’s absurd.”
Ratner said lawyers in his office with high security clearances that have seen some material he’s never seen but, because of how closely held by high level CIA and military officials detainee information is, he doubts that the FBI had anything to show the police chief beyond the now-declassified KSM confession.
Secret evidence is a huge problem in the cases, said Ratner. “What they are able to do under the rubric of secret evidence is say they have all kinds of things and there’s no way of showing that they don’t. What we DO know is that to the extent they’re relied on it, it comes out that it’s not reliable or it’s exaggerated.”
Excessive secrecy has been a government hallmark since the 9/11 attacks, particularly in regard to evidence. Building debris, kept under armed guard and loaded on trucks with global positioning devices to make sure none of it went astray, was disposed of despite loud protests. The FBI seized over 80 videos of the Pentagon crash and refuse to show any of them except for a few stills. The CIA destroyed video tapes of hundreds of detainee interrogations in defiance of a judge’s orders and an air traffic control manager likewise destroyed audio tapes relating to the hijackings. Records on a man accused of being bin Laden’s driver were “lost.”
More than 100 detainees died in U.S. custody between 2002 and October 2005. Suicides at Guantanamo’s Camp Delta have been classified by military authorities as “PR exercises” and acts of “asymmetrical warfare” against the U.S. rather than indications of desperation. But some prosecutors and former interrogators will be testifying for the defense in the upcoming trials. Even Maj. Gen. Michael E. Dunlavey, who was in charge of Army interrogations at Delta, now admits that “torture doesn’t work.”
Agents from the Pentagon’s Criminal Investigation Task Force (CITF) working to build legal cases against the detainees told MSNBC in October 2006 that they had opposed the interrogation tactics not only because they were illegal but because they were “not likely to produce truthful information, either for preventing more al-Qaida attacks or prosecuting terrorists” and may, in fact, make the cases impossible to try. There were other legal and effective ways to elicit the desired information than those in use at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison and other detention sites where interrogation specialists, (some hired from private firms to evade limitations of conduct imposed by international law), plied their trade. The agents said that their own resistance to torture techniques was overruled at the highest levels of government and Ratner has some points about that we will revisit in the final installment of this report.
At this time, Michael Ratner’s group at the CCR is defending Mohammed al-Qahtani, a Saudi accused of having been assigned a highjacking role that fateful day by KSM but was refused entrance to the U.S. and was arrested on the Afghani-Pakistani border in December 2001. Although he was one of the captives whose physical, sexual, chemical and psychological mistreatment would negate any prosecution against him in a civil or military court, he was named as one of the six to face the death penalty this month from a special military commission of officers who, unlike other courts, can consider evidence shielded from the public and even permit statements coerced by torture. Spectators approved by the Pentagon can watch the proceedings behind a sound-proofed window, listening to an audio-feed which can be cut off if the defendant begins to say anything he shouldn’t, but they are forbidden to report anything not approved by censors.
To Ratner it is, like the lightless underground steel cells and the conduct of the country in the past 7 years, “barbaric.”
CCR’s 20-something client, al-Qahtani, was interrogated 18 to 20 hours a day for 48 of 54 days in one stretch, being revived in hospital at one point when his heart rate fell to 35 beats a minute. He “confessed” to being trained at al-Qaida camps and identified 30 fellow detainees as bin Laden bodyguards, all of which he later recanted. All of this as he was drugged and reduced to the “physically and psychologically broken” state his CCR attorney Gitanjali S. Gutierrez now describes and “nothing new” was learned from him, as one interrogator admitted.
“The government has never come forward with any evidence that wasn’t obtained by torture,” Gutierrez declared. Likewise, Ratner has observed that the measures employed are anything but a formula for obtaining truthful information.
This report concludes in the next issue.