CIA Director John Brennan on Thursday stood by his agency’s claim that interrogators used waterboarding only on three high-profile detainees.
Asked by McClatchy at a press briefing whether he could categorically say that those were the only three people subjected to the simulated drowning procedure, Brennan said he has learned to avoid being categorical.
“What I will say based on everything that I’ve seen, what I’ve read, it indicates that there were three individuals that were subjected to that,” he said. “And I can only tell you what I am aware of, what I have read, and the data I have observed. And so, I will stand by that at this time.”
His denial comes in the face of evidence cited in a Senate report released this week that suggests waterboarding was more widespread than the CIA has admitted.
CIA officials have acknowledged using waterboarding on three people: Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who allegedly masterminded the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks; a senior al Qaida operative from Saudi Arabia named Zayn al Abidin Muhammed Hussein – also known as Abu Zubaydah; and Abd al-Rahim al Nashiri, who was accused of planning the bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen in 2000.
The Senate report describes a “water dousing” technique tantamount to waterboarding allegedly being used in Afghanistan on at least five other CIA detainees, identified as Mustafa al Hawsawi, Abu Hazim, Mohammad Shoroeiya, Abu Hudhaifa and Majid Khan.
“Interrogators used the water dousing technique in various ways,” the report reads. “At detention site Cobalt (in Afghanistan), detainees were often held down, naked, on a tarp on the floor, with the tarp pulled up around them to form a makeshift tub, while cold or refrigerated water was poured on them. Others were hosed down repeatedly while they were shackled naked, in the standing sleep deprivation position.”
The report said that some detainees, including Hawsawi, were apparently doused while restrained on the ground or strapped to a waterboard, a device on which detainees were shackled at an incline with their mouths and noses covered by a cloth. Interrogators poured water over them to force a gag reflex and simulate drowning.
Hawsawi later described such sessions to another CIA interrogator, who wrote an email that what Hawsawi had experienced in April 2003 “could be indistinguishable from the waterboard.”
“If one is held down on his back, on the table or on the floor, with water poured in his face I think it goes beyond dousing and the effect, to the recipient, could be indistinguishable from the water board,” wrote the interrogator, whose name was redacted from the report. “I have real problems with putting one of them on the water board for ‘dousing.’ Putting him in a head down attitude and pouring water around his chest and face is just too close to the water board.”
The email is cited in the report as evidence that interrogators extensively used “water dousing” in a manner that closely approximated waterboarding on a number of detainees without seeking authorization from CIA headquarters beforehand.
The CIA’s inspector general investigated Hawsawi’s dousing and concluded that Hawsawi’s experience “reflected the way water dousing was done” at the CIA facility in Afghanistan code-named Cobalt. The inspector general said the method had been developed with guidance from CIA attorneys and the agency’s Office of Medical Services.
Following other abusive techniques, Hawsawi was diagnosed with chronic hemorrhoids, an anal fissure, and symptomatic rectal prolapse, according to the Senate report. One of the five accused 9/11 conspirators, the Saudi Arabian was captured in Pakistan in 2003 and now is being held at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.
Another detainee, Abu Hazim, was doused with freezing water in a way similar to waterboarding in April 2003, according to an account by a CIA linguist detailed in the Senate report.
The linguist told the CIA inspector general in 2004 that Abu Hazim, a Libyan whose real name is Khalid Sharif, turned blue during the ordeal.
“When water dousing was used on Abu Hazim, a cloth covered Abu Hazim’s face, and (an officer) poured cold water directly on Abu Hazim’s face to disrupt his breathing,” the Senate report reads, quoting from a CIA memo. “(The linguist) said that when Abu Hazim turned blue, a physician’s assistant removed the cloth so that Abu Hazim could breathe.”
Sharif had been arrested in Pakistan in April 2003, along with fellow Libyan Mohammed al Shoroeiya. They were detained by U.S. personnel for months, in pitch darkness, often naked, beaten and denied food and sleep, according to interviews with the two men by Human Rights Watch. Eventually they were rendered to Libya.
Sharif was released in 2010 and Shoroeiya was freed the following year, during the uprising against Moammar Gadhafi. After his release, Shoroeiya described being waterboarded to Human Rights Watch investigators.
The Senate report explains in a footnote that while there are no CIA records of Shoroeiya or other detainees being subjected to waterboarding at an unnamed detention facility in Afghanistan, a photograph exists of a waterboard device at the site, surrounded by buckets, a bottle of unknown pink solution and a watering can.
“In meetings between the (Intelligence) Committee staff and the CIA in the summer of 2013, the CIA was unable to explain the details of the photograph, to include the buckets, solution, and watering can, as well as the waterboard’s presence at (the site),” the report states.
Another footnote in the report indicates that detainees Abu Hudhaifa and Majid Khan were placed in a tub and drenched with ice water.
Raised in Baltimore, Khan pleaded guilty to war crimes and is imprisoned at Guantanamo. In addition to the water abuse, Khan had pureed food forced up his rectum while in CIA custody, the report states. Now 34, has tried to commit suicide multiple times, according to the Senate report.
Abu Hudhaifa, it turned out, was probably “not the person he was believed to be.” He was among 26 people held by the CIA who the agency later determined had been wrongly detained.
Human rights advocates see no meaningful distinction between what the CIA defines as waterboarding and the so-called water dousing described in the report.
“It’s water torture, the same thing however you do it,” said Laura Pitter, senior national security researcher in Human Rights Watch’s U.S. program.
“It’s yet another documentation of CIA lies about how limited and carefully measured the program was, which they said over and over and over again,” Pitter said. “That was clearly false.”
By denying the extent of waterboarding, the CIA is trying to minimize its crimes and cover them up, she said.
“I don’t know how much more evidence is needed to get people to understand the ramifications of that kind of conduct that is allowed to continue without sanction,” she said. “It is an agency that has no checks on it.”
Carol Rosenberg of The Miami Herald contributed to this article.