Timeline Reflects Treatment Of Detainees

In the past eight years, America's policy on interrogations has radically changed. Newly released Justice Department memos and a Senate committee report fill in many of the gaps in our understanding of how the United States treated terrorism detainees.

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Now we're going to take a step back for the broader picture of how American interrogation policy has evolved since 9/11. NPR's Ari Shapiro has this timeline.

ARI SHAPIRO: The Bush administration was less than a year old when terrorists staged their deadliest attack ever on American soil. This was a broadcast on NPR a month after the attacks.

ROBERT SIEGEL: It's the first time that bodies at the World Trade Center have been identified solely by DNA evidence. There are no new cases of anthrax to report today, but the mail system has been disrupted in some places.

SHAPIRO: President Bush was a former governor with almost no national security experience. And as he described it years later, his single-minded focus was to make sure the terrorists didn't strike again.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: I directed our government's senior national security officials to do everything in their power within our laws to prevent another attack.

SHAPIRO: The government knew that agents might find someone with information about a future attack. And officials began exploring options to wring valuable intelligence out of a person who didn't want to talk. Six months after 9/11, the CIA picked up a man the government described as a senior lieutenant to Osama bin Laden.

Mr. JOSEPH MARGULIES (Lawyer): On March 28th, 2002, my client was arrested at a home in Faizabad, Pakistan.

SHAPIRO: Joseph Margulies is the lawyer for the detainee named Abu Zubaydah. The CIA flew Zubaydah to a prison in Thailand.

Mr. MARGULIES: And that's where he passed into the first of the secret black sites, and was gone from the face of this Earth until September 2006, when he was dropped off at Guantanamo.

SHAPIRO: This is the story of what happened between 2002 and 2006. Hundreds of detainees pass through American custody during that time. Officials at the Justice Department, the CIA and the Pentagon struggled to define how those detainees could be interrogated.

As the fights played out in Washington, a pendulum swung back and forth, largely in secret, changing the rules on how prisoners could be treated. Let's go back to that prison in Thailand. The FBI became uncomfortable with the way Abu Zubaydah was being interrogated there.

One agent called it borderline torture. And the FBI pulled out. That left the CIA to continue interrogating Zubaydah while people in Washington were still working out the rules for harsh interrogations.

Top officials met at the White House to discuss waterboarding and other tough tactics. And in August of 2002, the Justice Department finished two interrogation memos. One defined torture as pain equivalent to organ failure or death. The other told the CIA specifically which enhanced interrogation procedures it could use on Abu Zubaydah. Here's how President Bush described it much later.

Pres. BUSH: These procedures were designed to be safe, to comply with our laws, our Constitution and our treaty obligations.

SHAPIRO: Zubaydah would eventually be waterboarded more than 80 times. And there are sharp disagreements over whether the harsh interrogations produced valuable leads. Years later, CIA director Michael Hayden said Zubaydah was one of three detainees to be strapped to the waterboard.

Mr. MICHAEL HAYDEN (Former CIA Director): We used it against these three, high-value detainees because of the circumstances of the time. Very critical to those circumstances was the belief that additional, catastrophic attacks against the homeland were imminent.

SHAPIRO: While the CIA was waterboarding Abu Zubaydah, the Pentagon was developing its own tough interrogation program. Here's how Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin described it this week.

Senator CARL LEVIN (Democrat, Michigan; Armed Services Committee Chairman): Our top civilian leaders made a decision that they would authorize these coercive tactics at Guantanamo. Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld and his lawyer, Mr. Haynes, both have documented approvals and authorizations of these abusive techniques at Guantanamo. And then they went from there to Afghanistan, and from there to Iraq.

SHAPIRO: The Iraq War began in March of 2003.

(Soundbite of combat)

SHAPIRO: Within months, two unrelated events caused the pendulum to swing against harsh interrogations. First, the Justice Department hired a man named Jack Goldsmith to run the office that had written the torture memos.

Mr. JACK GOLDSMITH (Former Member of the Justice Department): I wouldn't have withdrawn and tried to replace them unless they were severely flawed, in my opinion.

SHAPIRO: When Goldsmith told the White House he wanted to withdraw the memos, the vice president's chief of staff, David Addington, tried to stop him.

Mr. GOLDSMITH: He said that the blood of the 100,000 people who die in the next attack would be on my hands as a result of that decision.

SHAPIRO: Jack Goldsmith would not last a year in the job. The other major shake-up came halfway around the world, from the bottom of the chain of command. In the notorious Abu Ghraib prison, military police photographed each other smiling and pointing at naked, terrified detainees. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld described the prisoner abuse as the actions of a few bad apples.

Former Secretary DONALD RUMSFELD (Defense Department): We're taking in - will continue to take whatever steps are necessary to hold accountable those who may have violated the code of military conduct and betrayed the trust placed in them by the American people.

SHAPIRO: The face of the scandal was 21-year-old Lynndie England.

Former Private LYNNDIE ENGLAND (U.S. Army Reserve): We didn't kill them. We didn't cut their heads off. We didn't shoot them. We didn't cut them and let them bleed to death. We just did what we were told to soften them up for interrogation. And we were told to do anything short of killing them.

SHAPIRO: England was sentenced to three years in prison. But similar incidents were happening in secret all over Iraq. Back in Washington, the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel got a new boss: Steven Bradbury. And the pendulum swung again. This time, Bradbury told the CIA it could go back to conducting harsh interrogations. Here was Bradbury testifying before Congress some years later.

Mr. STEVEN BRADBURY (Office of Legal Counsel, Justice Department): Our office has advised the CIA, when they were proposing to use waterboarding, that the use of the procedure, subject to strict limitations and safeguards applicable to the program, was not torture - did not violate the anti-torture statute. And I think that conclusion was reasonable.

SHAPIRO: People in the federal government who tried to push back were overruled.

Mr. PHILLIP ZELIKOW (Former lawyer, State Department): I felt obliged to argue that this was an extreme view of American constitutional law.

SHAPIRO: Phillip Zelikow was a top lawyer at the State Department in 2005.

Mr. ZELIKOW: The memo on my legal reasoning, I handed out myself to all my partners in the interagency process. I heard then, later, from one of my colleagues, that the White House had asked that all the copies be collected and destroyed.

SHAPIRO: The government's political leaders could quash internal dissent, but they could not silence the growing public outcry. Five years after 9/11, President Bush was forced to say publicly, again and again…

President GEORGE W. BUSH: This government does not torture people.

SHAPIRO: Behind the scenes, the pendulum swung again. The Justice Department withdrew authorization for waterboarding and other harsh interrogation techniques. By the time Michael Mukasey was nominated to become attorney general in 2007, he told Congress the United States no longer waterboards detainees.

Mr. MICHAEL MUKASEY (Former Attorney General): Given that waterboarding is not part of the current program and may never be added to the current program, I don't think it would be appropriate of me to pass definitive judgment on the technique's legality.

SHAPIRO: Of course, the story of this country's history of harsh interrogations is about much more than waterboarding. It's about the whole program of extreme practices that the United States authorized, then prohibited, then authorized and prohibited again. We know more of that story now than we ever have before, but there's still more to come. Yesterday, the Pentagon agreed to release dozens of previously unseen photographs showing abuse of detainees at prisons across Iraq and Afghanistan. Those photos are expected to come out next month.

Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.

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