Q & A: The CIA's Record on Detainee Treatment

NPR Senior Correspondent John McChesney spent months investigating the death of Manadel al-Jamadi. He obtained confidential CIA and military investigative documents and interviewed people who were on the scene during Jamadi's final hours. Here, McChesney discusses the story.

The NPR report goes into some detail about the rough physical treatment Manadel al-Jamadi received from the moment he was taken into U.S. custody. What do we know about the way the Navy SEALs and the CIA treated other detainees during this period?

There is some evidence that the CIA used the Navy SEALs to rough up detainees after capture in the so-called sandpit at Camp Jenny Pozzi, the SEALs' base of operation in Iraq. Gunner's Mate Albert Hong was a member of SEAL Team 7 and was on the mission that captured Jamadi.

This is Hong's account as it appears in an investigative report from the CIA's Office of Inspector General, dated Aug. 10, 2004:

"According to Hong, during CIA interrogations of prisoners in the volleyball (sand) pit, he observed CIA personnel threaten to kill the prisoner, followed by the CIA interrogator placing the muzzle of his weapon to the detainee's hooded head to show he meant it.... After threatening to kill the prisoner, Hong said that CIA personnel would ask ST (SEAL team) members for assistance.

Members of the ST would then pick the prisoner up and apply choke holds, drop them in the sand and roll them on their side or stomach, and place a knee in the detainee's back while pulling his chin back, thereby hyper-extending his body…. According to Hong this would last for 15-20 minutes before the prisoner was taken into the Romper Room for further interrogation.

Hong stated that the CIA interrogation routine was always the same, progressing from threats, to the gun in the head, to choke holds, to the hyper-extension. He said he observed this on 2-3 occasions. Hong stated that he never saw a CIA individual 'lay a hand on a detainee.'"

Attorney Frank Spinner, who successfully defended Navy SEAL Lt. Andrew Ledford against court-martial charges that he allowed his men to beat Jamadi, says the CIA did ask the SEALS to rough up detainees at the sand pit.

"I know there was one occasion," Spinner told me, "where one of the Navy SEALS testified he was hitting one of these captured individuals — he believed — at the insistence of the CIA interrogator." That SEAL was Dan Cerrillo, the one who first confronted Jamadi and wrestled with him in the apartment.

What did CIA personnel on the ground in Iraq during this period tell CIA investigators about how detainees were treated?

Investigators from the CIA's Office of Inspector General questioned the chief of the CIA's Detainee Exploitation Cell (DEC) in Iraq about the treatment of detainees. Here's part of the official investigative report, dated Aug. 19, 2004, with the speaker's name deleted by the government for security reasons:

"(Blank) stated that he did not observe any mistreatment of al-Jamadi or the other two detainees. (Blank) said he had no recollection of anyone choking the prisoners and said it was 'absolutely and patently untrue' that he placed a choke hold on any detainee, adding, 'it never happened.'

In response to a direct question, (Blank) replied that it was 'absolute bullshit' that he either observed, recommended, participated in, or encouraged others to threaten a detainee with death, place a weapon to detainee's head, apply pressure points or ocular pressure, or squeeze a detainee's testicles."

The NPR report also quotes Frank Spinner, the attorney who defended Navy SEAL Lt. Andrew Ledford, as saying that the CIA regarded Jamadi as a "bad guy." Is there evidence to support that claim?

All we know is what has been alleged by the CIA. In documents NPR reviewed, the CIA says Jamadi was a former captain in the Iraqi Army and a former member of the Organization of Military Industrialization. That organization was referred to by former Secretary of State Colin Powell in his controversial February 2003 speech before the U.N., in which he laid out the U.S. case for going to war in Iraq. Powell was speaking about ways Saddam Hussein concealed his weapons of mass destruction programs.

Powell told the U.N.: "Orders were issued to Iraq's security organizations as well as to Saddam Hussein's own office to hide all correspondence with the Organization of Military Industrialization. This is the organization that oversees Iraq's weapons of mass destruction activities."

Attorney Frank Spinner says he tried to get government confirmation of Jamadi's alleged activities so he could use it to defend Ledford as the heroic captor of a real villain.

Spinner told me, "That's one area where the government stonewalled us and we never did receive any confirmation. And you do get the impression that either the CIA or the Navy wanted to cover up some truth about al-Jamadi."

Why is not altogether clear. Testimony at Ledford's court-martial revealed that CIA intelligence in Iraq during this period was patchy at best. Before he captured Jamadi, Dan Cerrillo testified that the SEAL team first blew a door off the wrong apartment, then barged in and took the wrong man captive.

Cerrillo said the CIA's intelligence was "wrong as usual," his words while testifying at Ledford's court-martial.

We do know that Jamadi had been severely wounded at some point. Military medical examiners found an old slug still embedded in his spleen, surrounded by scar tissue. And there were scars on his back and thighs, perhaps from shrapnel and that bullet. So it's most likely that he fought in either the Iran-Iraq war or the first Gulf War.

At NPR's request, Dr. Edmund Donoghue, the Cook County, Ill., medical examiner, analyzed the government's autopsy of Jamadi's body and determined that he most likely died from asphyxia. How much material from that official autopsy was actually available to the doctor?

Dr. Donoghue had the entire autopsy, along with dozens of autopsy photographs. He also had the report of the CIA's follow-up interview with the military medical examiner, Dr. Jerry Hodge, which is included here along with the autopsy report. He was also briefed on what we know of Jamadi's treatment before he arrived at Abu Ghraib.

Is there any indication that the Jamadi case and others involving detainees may result in a change of U.S. policy?

In a 90 to 9 vote, the Senate has already passed a ban on torturing detainees in U.S. custody. The issue now goes to a Senate-House conference, but it has sparked a huge debate. Arizona Republican John McCain, who himself was abused as a POW during the Vietnam War, drafted the key part of the provision. It would ban the use of “cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment” against any detainee in U.S. custody, regardless of where that person was being held. The White House has made it clear that it opposes the amendment, and is trying to exempt covert agents who work for agencies other than the Pentagon. CIA personnel would be included in this exemption.

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