WASHINGTON_ A Saudi terror suspect admitted that he was the missing 20th hijacker in the Sept. 11 attacks during harsh interrogation at the U.S. prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, an Air Force general who investigated alleged abuse at the camp told a Senate committee Wednesday.
Air Force Lt. Gen. Randall M. Schmidt said Mohamed al-Kahtani said he had expected to be aboard United Airlines Flight 93, which crashed in a Pennsylvania field after passengers apparently attempted to retake control from the hijackers. Only four hijackers were aboard that plane; five hijackers were aboard each of the other planes that struck the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
Schmidt said Kahtani confessed to participating in the hijacking only after frustrated interrogators began to use techniques that an FBI agent later complained were abusive.
Schmidt said his investigation of the FBI complaint found that Kahtani's treatment had been excessive in two instances—once when he was shackled to the floor and then when he was smeared with red ink that a female interrogator told him was menstrual blood. Schmidt said he had recommended that the commander of the camp at the time, Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller, be reprimanded for failing to supervise the interrogation.
But Gen. Bantz J. Craddock, the chief of U.S. Southern Command, which oversees the prison camp in Cuba, rejected that recommendation, saying he found no evidence that Miller had broken any laws or policies. Instead, he referred the case to the Army's inspector general.
Schmidt and Craddock testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Wednesday in the first public airing of Schmidt's probe into FBI complaints and the first in which U.S. officials discussed the results of Kahtani's interrogation.
Craddock said Kahtani had resisted eight months of standard Army interrogation techniques, but didn't break until interrogators began using more coercive methods, most of which occurred during a two-month period in late 2002 to early 2003.
Schmidt said his investigation found that Kahtani was deprived of sleep, shackled to the floor on at least one occasion, interrogated for up to 20 hours at a time, stripped naked and forced to endure extremes of heat and cold, in an effort to get him to talk.
He also said interrogators called Kahtani's mother and sisters whores, called him a homosexual, made him wear a woman's panties and bra, forced him to dance with a male interrogator, put a leash around his neck and made him perform tricks like a dog.
But Schmidt said the interrogation conformed broadly to methods specified in the Army's 1987 interrogation manual or to more coercive techniques later approved by Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld. Still, he concluded that Kahtani was subjected to "abusive and degrading treatment" because of "the cumulative effect of creative, persistent and lengthy interrogations" and recommended that Miller be reprimanded.
Craddock said he refused the recommendation because Miller had violated no laws or policies.
Schmidt also said that his investigation had found only three incidents of abuse out of 24,000 interrogations, including Kahtani's shackling and being smeared with red ink.
The third incident occurred when a Navy lieutenant commander threatened to kill an unnamed "high-value" detainee and his family. The identity of the detainee is still secret. No action was taken against the officer, a reservist who has since retired and refused to cooperate with investigators.
"As the bottom line, though, we found no torture," Schmidt said. "Detention and interrogation operations were safe, secure and humane."
Some senators were critical of Schmidt and Craddock, including Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a former prisoner of war in Vietnam. McCain questioned Craddock sharply over the way prisoners are treated at Guantanamo.
"I hold no brief for the prisoners," McCain said. "But I do hold a brief for the reputation of the United States of America as to adhering to certain standards of treatment of people, no matter how evil or terrible they might be."
Democrats on the panel were harsher, with Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., challenging Craddock's decision not to reprimand Miller, who later went on to take command of the infamous Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.
"General Craddock, I think what you've done is take an investigation which was sincere and detailed and turned it into a justification and exoneration of a senior officer," Reed said.
Reed said Craddock's decision fit a pattern of punishment that has been meted out in the scandals in Iraq, where only low-ranking soldiers have been disciplined while high-ranking officers were cleared.
But other Republicans applauded the military's investigation of the incidents and said it proved that U.S. treatment of prisoners was humane and acceptable, especially given the barbarity of the Sept. 11 attacks.
"We've got nothing to be ashamed of," said Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla. "What other country, attacked as we were, would exercise the same degree of self-criticism and restraint?"
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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