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Analysis. As Donald Trump considers reviving "enhanced interrogation," The New York Times released excerpts of a torture victim's testimony.

Abu Zubaydah describes the feeling of being tortured by the CIA

A version of this article originally appeared in Latterly, a magazine reporting on social justice issues globally.

President Donald Trump pledged to put “America first” in his inaugural address. Friendship and goodwill are fine, he said, but “it is the right of all nations to put their own interests first.”

But few developed nations would go as far as Trump in putting their own countries’ interests first. During his campaign, Trump said he would torture the families of “terrorists” and said he would “bring back a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding.”

In an interview with New York Times editors, Trump said he’d spoken with Defense Secretary nominee Gen. James Mattis, who doesn’t believe torture is effective in gathering intelligence. Some news outlets reported the comments as a “stunning reversal” on torture, but that’s not really what he said. In fact, Trump said he would waterboard detainees if doing so were “important to the American people”—in effect putting the defense of human rights up for referendum. Here’s that section of the transcript in full so no one can accuse me of selective quotation [my emphasis in bold]:

Gen. Mattis is a strong, highly dignified man. I met with him at length and I asked him that question. I said, what do you think of waterboarding? He said — I was surprised — he said, ‘I’ve never found it to be useful.’ He said, ‘I’ve always found, give me a pack of cigarettes and a couple of beers and I do better with that than I do with torture.’ And I was very impressed by that answer. I was surprised, because he’s known as being like the toughest guy. And when he said that, I’m not saying it changed my mind. Look, we have people that are chopping off heads and drowning people in steel cages and we’re not allowed to waterboard. But I’ll tell you what, I was impressed by that answer. It certainly does not — it’s not going to make the kind of a difference that maybe a lot of people think. If it’s so important to the American people, I would go for it. I would be guided by that. But Gen. Mattis found it to be very less important, much less important than I thought he would say. I thought he would say — you know he’s known as Mad Dog Mattis, right? Mad Dog for a reason. I thought he’d say ‘It’s phenomenal, don’t lose it.’ He actually said, ‘No, give me some cigarettes and some drinks, and we’ll do better.’

During his confirmation hearing, Trump’s nominee for CIA director, Mike Pompeo, said “absolutely not” when asked if he would bring back “enhanced interrogation” if Trump ordered him to. But, less persuasively, he added: “Moreover, I can’t imagine I would be asked that by the President-elect.” Given Trump’s unequivocal statements on torture, it shouldn’t have been difficult for Pompeo to imagine.

In written responses to the Senate about torture, Pompeo was more evasive on the topic, saying things like, “an exact scientific study has not been performed as to whether less coercive methods could have produced the same results” as torture.

He said he understands torture is currently illegal, but “if experts believed current law was an impediment to gathering vital intelligence to protect the country, I would want to understand such impediments and whether any recommendations were appropriate for changing current law.”

Who those experts might be is unclear. Previously, the CIA engaged two “experts” named James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, psychologists who designed and carried out the torture of Abu Zubaydah. I’ve written in detail about it before, based on the summary of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s investigation into the CIA’s torture program. But the full report is still classified, and nothing further was known about Zubaydah’s torture until Thursday, when The New York Times published excerpts of Zubaydah’s own recollections supplied by his lawyers. The newly released documents show the effects of American brutality in the words of one of its victims.

What makes the Zubaydah case so compelling, and so tragic, is that his treatment was entirely unnecessary. Aside from the near universal conclusion that torture doesn’t work (“No one claims that torture is an effective interrogation tool—least of all the people who practice it,” wrote journalist Naomi Klein), Zubaydah had already told FBI agents everything he knew by the time the CIA started working on him. The FBI’s method? Getting to know him and building rapport by his hospital bedside.

But just to make sure he wasn’t holding back information, CIA interrogators spent 15 days in August 2002 waterboarding Zubaydah, slamming him against a wall, dragging him naked by the neck with a towel, depriving him of sleep and locking him in stress positions in coffin-like boxes. What follows are key lines from Zubaydah’s testimony, which is disturbing to read in its entirety and illustrate treatment Trump considers not harsh enough.


They would then leave a dish of food that consisted of white dry rice with a very little amount of string beans along with a can of water. They would leave me totally naked except for a towel that they threw on my genitals. I was freezing from the intense cold. My nerves were just about to break from the extreme constant noise that was coming from an unseen device.


And before I made any attempt to understand what he was saying or respond to him he started brutally banging my head and my back against the wall. He talked a little more and then started again brutally banging me. I felt my back was breaking due to the intensity of the banging. He started slapping my face again and again, meanwhile he was yelling. He then pointed to a large black wooden box that looked like a wooden casket. He said: “from now on this is going to be your home.”


He was twisting a thick towel which was wrapped with a plastic tape so it could be given the shape of a noose. He wrapped it around my neck and brutally dragged me. I fell on the floor along with the bucket, with all its content [excrement] that fell on me. The guards did not intervene. It was he who dragged me on the floor with that noose towel. He brutally dragged me towards the wall.


While he was beating me on my face and banging my back he said, while increasing the intensity of beating: “I see you don’t cover your face to avoid the beating. You think you have pride. I will show you now what pride is about.” He started banging my head against the wall with both his hands. The banging was so strong that I felt at some point that my skull was in pieces, or that the artificial bone in my open head was falling apart. I don’t know how to describe that feeling. The feeling was abnormal.


As soon as they locked me up inside the box I tried my best to sit up, but in vain, for the box was too short. I tried to take a curled position but to no vain, for it was too tight. It was a serious problem. I spent long countless hours inside. I felt I was going to explode from bending my legs and my back and from being unable to spread them not even for short instants. The very strong pain made me scream unconsciously.


I didn’t understand the reason for this very strong restraint and found them suddenly putting a black cloth over my head and covered it completely. I suddenly felt water being poured. It shocked me because it was very cold. But the water didn’t stop. So the idea was not to torture me with very cold water in a very cold environment. They could have done that all over my body which would made me startle and shiver. Yet the water that was being continuously poured and flowed over my face was indeed aimed at giving me the feeling of drowning resulting from a feeling of suffocation. And this is exactly what happened. They kept pouring water and concentrating on my nose and my mouth until I really felt I was drowning and my chest was just about to explode from the lack of oxygen. Indeed that was the first time and the first day that I felt I was going to die from drowning. Yet I didn’t know what happened. All I know or remember is that I started vomiting water but also rice and string beans.


They shook the box so heavily which made me fall from the bucket. The strikes continued. There were probably ten strikes. Then they stopped. Then every (1/4) quarter of an hour they would bang again ten times, maybe to make sure I am unable to sleep.


The humiliations, the terrorizing, the bringer, the pain, the tension, the nervousness and the sleep deprivation lasted for some time until one day they did all these things to me but with more intensity and for longer periods of time before they brought me back to the big box and they started banging on it with me inside to prevent me at least from sleeping.


Zubaydah was waterboarded 83 times before the CIA concluded he possessed no more useful information. Video tapes of his torture were destroyed by CIA deputy director for operations Jose Rodriguez, but one agent cautioned viewers to “prepare for something not seen previously.” Zubaydah, a senior member of al Qaeda, has been in Guantanamo Bay prison for more than 10 years without charge, and as of October it seems likely he’ll never be free again.

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