Edited by Sam Thielman
WHILE IN THE CIA'S Lithuania black site, Ammar al-Baluchi had a conversation with an Agency torturer identified in legal documents as NZ7. It was 2005, about two years after the most physically excruciating period of al-Baluchi's torture, which took place inside the total darkness of the CIA prison in Afghanistan known variously as Cobalt and the Salt Pit. After all this time, al-Baluchi had a suspicion.
He voiced it cautiously. Long after that period of acute torture, al-Baluchi repeatedly told his captors that he remained "consumed by fear" that it could return at any moment. Al-Baluchi assured NZ7 that he knew he was being "irrational," according to a never-before-seen CIA inspector general report, but "Ammar described to him his concern that he was being used as an experiment."
As an example, al-Baluchi recounted that when he had been sent to the black site in Vilnius—one of at least five places the CIA caged him—"he was afraid to complain about a pressure sore on his nose." He explained to NZ7 "he was afraid Agency officers had caused it purposely to see what his reaction would be."
The CIA inspector general couldn't corroborate that. But its 2008 study, "Report of the CIA Inspector General Regarding Allegations of Torture Made by Ammar al-Baluchi," found much to validate al-Baluchi's suspicions that the CIA was experimenting on him.
That report came closer than any contemporary CIA document I have ever seen to conceding both that the agency tortured someone and that it was wrong to do so. FOREVER WARS is publishing this extraordinary document today for the first time.
"We now know that the CIA's brutalization of Ammar at the black sites was secretly condemned by the Agency itself," said Alka Pradhan, one of al-Baluchi's military-commission attorneys. "But it didn't stop the U.S. government from holding him in a CIA facility at Guantanamo, and trying to execute him using evidence derived from that very same treatment."
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INSIDE COBALT in May 2003, the CIA starved al-Baluchi for days before giving him cans of Ensure. Interrogators hung him from his arms to make falling asleep impossible for 82 hours, and bumped Eminem at 79 decibels to underscore the point. Using a towel wrapped around his neck, they smashed his head into a plywood wall repeatedly, an approved torture technique called "walling." They repeatedly doused him, nude, with frigid water, barely half a year after the CIA accidentally froze Gul Rahman to death at that same prison. While the inspector general did not credit al-Baluchi's "allegation" that his torturers sexually assaulted him, its report states in a footnote that the CIA kept al-Baluchi naked in front of women interrogators and performed cavity searches "including of his rectum, which Ammar probably interpreted as threatening."
This torture was instructive as well as operational. The lead interrogator at Cobalt, described as NX2—more on him in a moment—was also the head of interrogation training. He brought his students in to observe and participate in al-Baluchi's torture for what the report calls "on-the-job practice" so as to be certified in how to torture people. NX2 "and his interrogator trainees almost certainly applied some of the measures exuberantly," the report judges. Less than a year into the torture program, it was unclear whether al-Baluchi's torture—particularly the walling—"was designed to elicit information from Ammar or to ensure that all interrogator trainees received their certification," the inspector general found.
Innocent men were tortured in black sites. Ammar al-Baluchi, born Ali Abdul Aziz Ali and a nephew of 9/11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Muhammad, is not one of them. When the Pakistani authorities first detained him, their rapport-based interrogation got him to say that he was part of a plan to attack the U.S. consulate in Karachi. That makes it all the more extraordinary for the CIA inspector general to criticize not only his torture but the very basis for his presence in CIA custody.
According to the timeline presented in the 2008 inspector general report, checked against the 2014 Senate intelligence committee torture report, the Pakistanis detained al-Baluchi on April 29, 2003. Redactions to the inspector general report make it difficult to determine when exactly the CIA rendered him to Cobalt, but according to the Senate report, it was likely May 17, the date the Senate determined that his torture began. The inspector general wrote that "Agency officers were determined to render Ammar and use EITs on him," using an acronym for the CIA's propagandistic euphemism "Enhanced Interrogation Techniques." At Cobalt, they tortured al-Baluchi "immediately upon his arrival," the inspector general found. The information he had already given the Pakistanis "made little difference to his circumstances."
Once al-Baluchi arrived at Cobalt—we know it was Cobalt because the inspector general describes the site as enveloped in "total darkness, because there was no lighting in the cells," matching known descriptions of Cobalt—"each of the interrogators NX2 was training used each of the measures on Ammar in order to gain their certification." An interrogator identified as SG1 told the inspector general that "the goal was for NX2 to observe the early 2003 class members employ EITs during an actual interrogation, such as Ammar's, and then to certify class members as interrogators."
Among the interrogation techniques formally approved that January by CIA Director George Tenet were "slaps" to detainees' faces and abdomens. Interrogators interviewed by the inspector general expressed ambivalence about what they actually were in practice. It seems that at least some CIA interrogators experienced cognitive dissonance stemming from their own propaganda about how they weren't torturers: "X7Q [another interrogator] stated that 'no one was beaten mercilessly' and 'I always tried to do the right thing' or 'what was expected.' SG1 opined that Ammar could have thought the facial and abdominal slaps were beatings, even though they were approved EITs." Even though.
One of the interrogators, QY7, noted that a colleague, PU2, "had trouble doing the slap correctly"—hmm—"and was 'too much into it.'" But PU2, in mid-2005, expressed something like remorse. "[H]e thinks a facial slap to someone who is shackled is 'beating the crap out of him,'" the inspector general recorded, quoting him saying: "There is no honor in it." Another colleague, QY7, said "Ammar most likely would consider any of the techniques interrogators used on him as 'beatings.'" Another interrogator in NX2's Cobalt class said he "'wished he had never been asked to do' the measures, and 'I wouldn't do them again.'"
SG1 said they, PU2, and their fellow student-torturers "took turns walling Ammar." The turns were to relieve "fatigue" that would set in on each interrogator during sessions that SG1 said typically lasted not more "than two hours at a time." SG1's colleague X7Q indicated the walling was training: "[A]ll the interrogation students lined up to 'wall' Ammar so that NX2 could certify them on their ability to use the technique." One of the torturers was 6 foot 1 and weighed 225 pounds. At intake, Ammar weighed 141 lbs and, within months, would be down to 119 lbs.
Sometime in mid-2003, the torture prompted al-Baluchi to experience what appears to have been a psychotic break. "The cable indicated Ammar told [interrogator] X3L that, while he was undergoing standing sleep deprivation, he overheard English-speaking interrogators beat, torture and finally murder his friend/wife Aafia [Siddique] and her family, including her infant child," the report states. A "debriefer" who was with al-Baluchi at multiple black sites over the years told the inspector general that he "had major psychological issues."
Yet throughout the report, the CIA's black-site medical staff, backed by higher-ups, repeatedly found al-Baluchi to be well enough for the torture to continue. Back in Virginia, an official commented that the "faked psychotic episode" signals that "base's efforts are getting to him." That adds to a portrait of the CIA's Office of Medical Services as an asset for the torture, not the check on it that the CIA has often described.
NX2, the lead Cobalt interrogator and instructor, "had a history" that his students vaguely understood but recognized as infamous. One student told the inspector general that NX2 "was accused of doing something with a detainee" and "there was lots of controversy around him." He forced al-Baluchi to kneel backward on a broom handle, a method that months before had separated the knee joints of another detainee, Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri; he also did it, according to the Senate, to a detainee named Zubair. Encountering criticism for the unauthorized stress position, he cabled back to the CIA, "It is interesting to me that we can condon [sic] IC's water boarding a detainee 70 plus time [sic] and threatening his family but I have no leeway with the most benign position."
NX2 clashed with one of the architects of the torture program, CIA contractor, psychologist, and real-life mad scientist James Mitchell. In his memoir, and confirmed by sworn testimony at Guantanamo Bay in January 2020, Mitchell identified NX2 as "the New Sheriff," who marginalized Mitchell and took over interrogations at Cobalt. "Ammar's assertion that an Agency officer—a man, [redacted] (sic)—gave him 'psychosomatic attacks' probably relates to interrogator NX2's conduct toward him and may have some justification," the inspector general concluded. The New Sheriff, the report recounts, became a rare example of a CIA officer forced out of the torture program—though never prosecuted—for his "exuberant" approach to his task. He is believed to be the late Charlie Wise, who helped the right-wing Contras torture Nicaraguans.
Whatever NX2 thought he was teaching his class of CIA torturers, he was not teaching them how to gain information. He was teaching them how to calibrate barbarism. Al-Baluchi, according to the report, lied about everything in order to make the torture stop. That was only the beginning of the problems with al-Baluchi's torture that the inspector general identified.
I DID NOT have the inspector general report leaked to me. It appeared on Thursday in a federal court filing concerning al-Baluchi's case. There are significant redactions, and a portion of the report did not show up on the case docket at all. But the version of it that was entered into the docket of al-Baluchi's death-penalty military tribunal at Guantanamo around the time of Mitchell's testimony two years ago is almost entirely blacked out. We are publishing it here so it does not languish in obscurity on the legal database PACER.
Again, al-Baluchi was by all accounts a genuine militant. No case of mistaken identity landed him in CIA custody. Along with his uncle KSM, he is one of the defendants in the 9/11 military commission. And that makes it all the more astonishing that the CIA’s inspector general came right up to the water's edge of calling the rendition and torture of al-Baluchi unjustified.
That's because the inspector general described how, formally, both rendition and "enhanced interrogation" were supposed to be operations of last resort. With al-Baluchi, they were first resorts. "The totality of the measures Agency officers used on Ammar almost certainly caused him to interpret the techniques as the 'torture' he has alleged," the inspector general wrote. I've never before seen any CIA documentation, during this period in the agency's history, come this close to a frank admission that it tortured anyone.
Even more astonishing is how scathing the report is about the CIA's justifications for why it needed to render and torture him. "Headquarters' justification for rendering Ammar and using enhanced measures on him was weak," it states bluntly.
The report repeatedly notes that before the CIA took al-Baluchi, he was cooperating with his Pakistani captors, to the point of identifying himself as part of the plot against the U.S. consulate. But, the inspector general found, the CIA's Alec Station—also known as the Usama bin Ladin Unit, the wellspring of the CIA's understanding of al-Qaeda—was convinced that the man who implicated himself to the Pakistanis simply had to know more, and only CIA torture could get it out of him.
This cognitive feedback loop, built atop assumptions rather than evidence, is a theme of the Senate torture report. But seeing the CIA’s own inspector general describe it, even through redactions, takes it out of mono and into stereo. The inspector general methodically outlines how the CIA should never have had al-Baluchi in custody in the first place and even calls his rendition "extra-legal." It's worth quoting that part at length, with their emphasis.
[Pakistan] captured Ammar and had him in custody – clearly asserting its jurisdiction – so, in custody, he no longer posed "a continuing, serious threat of violence or death to U.S. persons or interests." Then [redacted] ALEC Station [redacted, with a notation 'W87'] [in mid] 2003 told an OIG [office of the inspector general] investigator that since operatives involved in many terrorist plots had been arrested, CTC [the CIA's Counterterrorism Center, which ran the torture] had, in effect, thwarted the operations. As an example, she commented that Ammar had planned, before the [Pakistanis] apprehended him, to attack the U.S. Consulate in [Karachi] (italics added). Headquarters also knew that it was rendering Ammar extra-legally; according to a cable from Headquarters [in early] 2005, "Headquarters understands there are real political consequences for [redacted] in holding [redacted, presumably 'Pakistani'] citizens extra-legally (Italics added).
Headquarters' logic justifying Ammar's detention was fuzzy and circular. Interrogators at [Cobalt] [in mid] 2003 told Headquarters that Ammar provided "tidbits of threat information," they believed he was "withholding threat information regarding his planned operations in [redacted] and elsewhere," and that Ammar "likely had prior knowledge or the recent attacks in [redacted] and recent location information on [Osama bin Laden]." (Italics added.) Neither the interrogators nor Headquarters provided specific evidence to indicate why Ammar met the threshold for the [rendition and torture], particularly how rendering him from [redacted, presumably 'Pakistani'] legal custody to [Cobalt] was a "legitimate act of self defense." In fact, Ammar lacked knowledge of imminent threats, but Agency interrogators and analysts were convinced he was withholding information based upon their analysis of Ammar's connections to Khalid Shaykh Muhammad and what they assumed Ammar could have known.
In a footnote, someone from Alec Station, identified with a female pronoun makes the revealing admission that "people with the interrogations believe the detainees are compliant when their behavior changes, rather than when the intelligence is good. She stated that compliant [sic], to interrogators, means the detainee is answering their questions, not how well." The report continues, "Asked to comment on the criticism that decisions on whether a detainee is compliant were based more on an analyst's idea of what the detainee should know rather than actual fact, [redacted] that this is a problem with the process."
Submission, rather than truth, was the measure of the success of an act of vengeance that the CIA maintains to this day was entirely designed to produce intelligence. It is worth noting that the CIA has an internal rule against human experimentation. Ammar al-Baluchi's experience as "on-the-job practice" for a torture class demonstrates how readily discarded that rule was.
When contacted by FOREVER WARS, the CIA inspector general at the time of the report, John Helgerson, declined to comment.
AL-BALUCHI'S 2005 INTERLOCUTOR at the Vilnius black site, NZ7, was no typical interrogator. While I don't know his real name, Mitchell testified that NZ7 is the infamous "Preacher." The Preacher, along with Mitchell and his colleague Bruce Jessen, personally waterboarded Khalid Shaikh Muhammad. When the Preacher tortured people, he would add an element of religious terror, telling the helpless men that they were about to feel the Holy Spirit.
Which makes it remarkable that the Preacher expressed something like compassion for al-Baluchi. "NZ7 concluded that actions can have unintended consequences for Ammar; he is sensitive to small gestures of kindness and equally sensitive to what he perceives as acts of punishment," the inspector general recorded. It wasn't just the Preacher. "Ammar was known to Agency officers as one of the more cooperative, likable, even 'gentle' detainees," the inspector general report reads. A footnote cites a CIA official calling him "one of the more intelligent or 'bookish' of the detainees."
Al-Baluchi did not say the same of his interrogators. "They don't know how to analyze and evaluate and make very sound decisions," the report records him telling another detainee in 2006. "[T]hey did not [know] how to start to establish grounds for interrogations in the first place, and the intelligence group did not have experience." To end the torture as fast as possible, he lied to the CIA.
I said anything when I was being tortured. They asked me classified questions when I was being tortured. … They took my papers from me and my clothes and I wasn't permitted to pray and… I was tied up by a hanging chain and they were hitting me with the water and the ice and they threatened me sexually and that's what happened other than hitting… those are the words I want to say.
"Ammar's deterioration from the head-bashing, mock drownings, and ligament-tearings is now accelerating at Guantanamo," warns Pradhan, his attorney. "We are fighting for him to receive the medical care that the government has refused him for nearly 20 years."