Edited by Sam Thielman
Content Warning: This piece contains accounts of rape, other sexual assault, torture, degradation, self-harm
IN ONE OF THE MOST HORRIFIC accounts in the entire 20-year War on Terror, a survivor of the CIA’s black sites testified at Guantanamo Bay on Thursday that his CIA captors repeatedly sexually assaulted him—sometimes as revenge for his hunger strikes.
“I was raped by the CIA medics,” Majid Khan said in an address before the Guantanamo military commission on Thursday. It was his first statement to the outside world in 18 years of captivity and abuse in Afghanistan and Guantanamo.
Khan, now 41, spent his first 16 years in Pakistan before his family moved to Maryland. He attended Owings Mills High School outside of Baltimore. He acknowledged on Thursday that his trajectory from “normal U.S. teenager” to al-Qaeda adherent to CIA and military prisoner “must be tough to comprehend.” Left unsaid was how often throughout U.S. history Americans, to say nothing of foreigners, have experienced brutality at the hands of a state that sees them as nonpersons.
He recounted asking one of the CIA medics at an Afghanistan black site in September 2003 why the medic administered what Khan called “the insertions.” Khan said the medic responded, “You’re a fucking terrorist.”
Yet the CIA’s treatment of Khan suggests that the agency did not believe Khan mattered in the world of terrorism, or even possessed much intelligence to extract. By late August 2003, he had been tortured so brutally that he signed a confession—“I don’t remember what I wrote, but I did whatever they asked,” he said—an extension of a willingness to cooperate he said he tried to establish on his first day in captivity.
Even though he had given his captors the confession they wanted, Khan said he was mostly left to rot in his cell for the seven months that followed. His interrogators showed no interest in him. Those particular seven months were a hell of a time for people allegedly out to thwart terrorist plots to show such neglect. They bracket a wave of al Qaeda violence from bombing the United Nations out of Baghdad up to the First Battle of Fallujah. “I was so starved for attention,” Khan recalled.
Khan is unique amongst Guantanamo detainees and black-site survivors. He was moved to Guantanamo Bay in 2006; in February 2012, he pleaded guilty to couriering money for al-Qaeda, and agreed to testify in military tribunals against several of the few detainees charged with crimes, including Khalid Shaikh Mohammad. The lieutenant colonels, colonels, commanders, and Navy captains of the commission are expected to sentence him to 25 to 40 years. But his cooperation, in both criminal and military prosecutions, is expected to result in Khan’s release from Guantanamo in February 2022. He has been in one cage or another since March 5, 2003.
“He has lived up to his obligation to provide U.S. authorities with credible and complete information for a decade,” said Katya Jestin, one of Khan’s longtime pro bono attorneys.
For the beleaguered, discredited U.S. military commissions to secure long-desired, long-delayed convictions of Mohammad and his fellow 9/11 co-defendants, those commissions must stipulate that Majid Khan is a credible person. Should the CIA challenge Khan’s truthfulness, it will have the effect of (further) jeopardizing the case against the 9/11 co-conspirators. That is why, as part of his plea agreement with the commissions, Khan specifically bargained for the right to issue a statement during Thursday’s sentencing hearing, which is expected to last through Friday.
“I want the world to know what they did to me,” Khan said.
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FOR MORE THAN A DECADE, the CIA has insisted that “waterboarding has been used on only three detainees,” as then-Director Michael Hayden stated in February 2008. Waterboarding induces the terrifying sensation of drowning by inundating a helpless person with buckets of water poured over a cloth on their face. The CIA claims only to have waterboarded Abu Zubaydah, Abd al-Rashid al-Nashiri, and Khalid Shaikh Mohammad.
Six years ago, following McClatchy’s lead, I wrote a piece based on the 2014 Senate intelligence committee torture report, ex-detainee lawsuits, and other declassified documents tallying at least 13 people, including Khan, whom the CIA tortured with water. In his statement, Khan attempted to describe “how it felt to be waterboarded.”
“With a hood wrapped around my face and water pouring down my throat, I coughed, I gagged, I couldn’t breathe,” he said. “I felt like I was going to die.”
After his capture in Karachi in 2003 and his transfer to CIA custody that May, Khan recalled, he was moved to multiple CIA black sites; his descriptions of these places appear to match sites the agency maintained in Afghanistan. One of them he describes as a “portable manufactured home,” with its windows obstructed. Inside, the CIA “repeatedly submerged” Khan in a “bathtub of ice water” while he was wrapped tightly in chains—here, Khan confirms an account in the Senate torture report—for an estimated 30 minutes. It was the beginning of a three-day torture session in which Khan was hung by his hands from a wooden beam stretching across the ceiling. He was naked, except for a hood, and freezing.
In July of that year, the CIA moved Khan to what he describes as “Prison B”: a “dark, underground prison” within the complex the Senate report called “Detention Site Cobalt.” Prison B was shrouded in total darkness, confirming another Senate-report detail. There, guards again submerged Khan in a “makeshift tub of ice and water.” First they pushed the restrained Khan against the tub, tilted his head back, and poured bucket after bucket of ice water into his nose and mouth. Then they flipped him over and held his head underwater. The only sense in which Khan was not waterboarded is that, from his account, the CIA appears to have dispensed with the board.
Even CIA personnel have remarked on the lack of a difference in that distinction. “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,” observed an unnamed CIA interrogator cited in the Senate torture report.
The CIA did not answer questions and declined to respond to any aspect of Khan’s remarks. Nicole de Haay, a spokesperson for the agency, said only, “CIA’s detention and interrogation program ended in 2009.”
SEVERAL TIMES during his statement, Khan affirmed accounts presented by the Senate intelligence committee in its landmark torture report. The full report, produced despite extreme CIA resistance, remains classified. Its declassified summary is the product of extensive negotiation with a hostile CIA, backed by the Obama White House. Khan’s description of experiencing torture makes its nightmarishness more vivid than the Senate, or any official inquest, ever could.
Khan said he spent 60 days inside Prison B at Cobalt. That means he experienced 60 days of total darkness. CIA personnel wore “headlamps” when entering to torture him, he recalled. In that darkness, the CIA short-shackled him to a ring bolt “18 to 24 inches high,” a restraint that induced a painful stress position making it impossible for him to fall asleep. At least one of his interrogations, he claims, was videotaped—which is very interesting, since Abu Zubaydah and al-Nashiri’s 2002 interrogations are the only ones known to have been taped. (Future CIA Director Gina Haspel, the chief of the black site where the two men were tortured, and her then-boss Jose Rodriguez had those tapes destroyed.)
At Prison B and the creepy fabricated home, Khan’s captors kept him nude and shivering, often dousing him with cold water to heighten the effect. This was less than a year after the CIA accidentally froze Gul Rahman, another detainee they kept naked and frigid, to death, also in Cobalt. The fact that the practice had already resulted in one homicide was obviously no deterrent.
Khan recalled “being hung, sleep deprived and subjected to the freezing temperatures” for so long that he hallucinated “a cow and a giant lizard.” When kicked at the phantoms, he would slip on the wet cell floor. The weight imbalance would make the pain from the suspended shackles unbearable. Months later, Khan shattered a chair to which he was restrained, which placed all his weight onto one hand and arm. The CIA reset the chair “after 6 hours or so.”
During the three days that the CIA suspended Khan from the beam in the fabricated home, one of his CIA captors sexually assaulted him for the first time. “He touched my private parts when we were alone. I told this man to stop and that I wanted to see a lawyer.” Khan said the man, either a guard or an interrogator, told him: “Are you kidding? You are in no man’s land. No one even knows where you are.”
GUARDS AND INTERROGATORS were not the only CIA personnel at the black sites. With them were medical staff from the agency’s Office of Medical Services (OMS). The presence of physicians in torture chambers is alarming—physicians swear an oath to do no harm—but the CIA has represented OMS as benefitting the detainees.
“The role of CIA medical officers in the detainee program is and always will be to ensure the safety and the well-being of the detainee,” then-Director Hayden testified to the Senate intelligence committee on April 12, 2007. “The placement of medical officers during the interrogation techniques represents an extra measure of caution. Our medical officers do not recommend the employment or continuation of any procedures or techniques.”
Hayden is a documented liar. But Majid Khan’s account reveals the enormity of precisely what Hayden was lying about. He counts OMS among the worst of his tormentors.
One of the people Khan encountered in CIA custody is a man he refers to as the Torture Doctor. Inside Prison B, the Torture Doctor came to check on him daily. Khan would describe panic attacks, extreme fear and other psychological horrors that come from being locked in a torture chamber. “He would always say, ‘You’re fine’ and depart,” Khan said at Guantanamo.
Khan “begged” the Torture Doctor for help after one of Khan’s ice-water dousing sessions inside Prison B. Instead, the Torture Doctor instructed the non-American guards to return Khan to an interrogation room and hang him by his shackled hands from a metal bar. “I pleaded for mercy, but was ignored,” Khan recounted. He had already signed a confession, but he hung there for what he estimates was 24 hours. He describes precisely what Hayden swore to the Senate did not exist: the direct operational role of CIA medical officers in torture.
That was nowhere near the worst of it.
By 2004, Khan was captive within what he calls “The Long-Term CIA Prison,” which appears to have been elsewhere in Afghanistan. There, following what he described as prolonged periods of neglect from his jailers, he began a series of hunger strikes to demand a lawyer. The hunger strikes enraged his captors. The Torture Doctor would put hot sauce on tubes that he would sharpen before inserting them up Khan’s nose for a force feeding. Then, his colleagues raped Khan, in what Khan describes as an act of vengeance.
The 2014 Senate torture report revealed “rectal rehydration” and “rectal feeding” the agency administered to Khan and others. The CIA has insisted the acts were medical necessities. But Khan had experienced multiple enemas in CIA custody. “This was different,” he remembered at Guantanamo.
“While being restrained, they inserted tubes or objects into my anus against my will,” he said, among them a garden hose connected to a faucet. In Khan’s telling, his rape was a group activity. Two guards would restrain him, sometimes to a stretcher. “A CIA medic was there to administer the insertions, but this was not a medical procedure.” This was when the medic answered Khan’s pleas for an explanation by telling him, “You’re a fucking terrorist.”
Describing what happened to Khan in further detail seems like it would violate his dignity all over again. It is sufficient to say that for a prolonged period after his rapes, Khan engaged in acts of self-harm.
After Khan and 13 others in CIA custody were transferred to military custody at Guantanamo in September 2006, the International Committee of the Red Cross met with them for the first time. The ICRC, which trades access to disappeared people for public silence, issued a February 2007 report in secret. (Mark Danner published it in the New York Review of Books in 2009.) Hayden, testifying to the Senate in secret two months later, took exception to the ICRC’s depiction of torture. “Threats of acts of sodomy, the arrest and rape of family members… There are no instances in which such threats or abuses took place.”
The Senate intelligence committee report wrote that Hayden’s testimony “is incongruent with CIA interrogation records.” Khan has exposed the reason for Hayden’s incongruence: to cover up rape.
LISTENING TO KHAN, it is difficult not to recognize patterns across the War on Terror—patterns that reflect deeper American heritages.
Sexual assault runs throughout the Forever Wars. Enforced nudity was a post-9/11 torture technique that both the CIA and the military employed. The Abu Ghraib guards led naked detainees through the prison blocks by dog leashes. Women guards at Guantanamo smeared fake menstrual blood on detainees and touched themselves in front of the prisoners. The CIA took nude photos of detainees, a humiliation Khan remarks upon. Mohammadou Slahi remembered his Guantanamo interrogator, the Chicago police detective Richard Zuley, threatening to bring his mother there, which he understood as a rape threat. Khan said at his sentencing that his interrogators threatened to rape his sister. To frighten Omar Khadr, a wounded 15-year old boy in custody at Bagram, Sgt. Joshua Claus made up a story about a kid in an American prison being raped “by four big black guys.”
Whether as an official torture technique or as an improvisation, the CIA and others reached for tools that America has frequently put to use. Sexual assault is obviously not uniquely American, nor is the War on Terror the first time Americans (or anyone else) have employed sexual violence as a tool of war. But that is no exoneration when Americans utilize it, nor even particularly valuable context. Claus’ threat to Khadr pointed, however unintentionally, to how white supremacy has wielded sexual assault throughout American history.
Khan’s statement is full of recollections of what his chains did to him. They cut into his wrists. They swelled his ankles. They left persistent physical reminders of their presence even when he was unrestrained.
The restraints, the rape, the stress positions, the confinement, the prolonged darkness, the isolation, the ubiquitous dangers to his body and mind—these have been American practices not just since 9/11, but since 1619. Only the contexts change. A CIA official who restrained Khan during a drive from one black site to another kept his foot on Khan’s neck and asked, “Can you breathe?”
For two entire years, in Afghanistan, Khan was “at all times” shackled by one of his legs to a bolt on his cell floor. One of his CIA captors, he recalled, explained something to Khan that overseers on plantations once explained to their own captives: “You’re chained like an animal; this is your life.”
DOMINATION AND VENGEANCE are the point of the torture, not the production of intelligence. Khan, realizing he was in deep trouble, cooperated from the first day he was taken into custody. By approximately the end of August, after six months of captivity—four of them in the Afghanistan black sites—Khan wrote and signed the confession that the CIA wanted. His reward for it was not assiduous conversations with CIA personnel eager to trace leads back to terrorists and stop deadly plots. It was near-isolation for another seven months. “It was at this point that I knew I would never be released,” he observed.
Brutality, once unrestrained, follows its own course and creates its own logic. Khan fished for what the CIA wanted to hear in hope of making the nightmare end. “My captors were taking their frustrations out on me and trying techniques that could never be effective,” he said. The pretext for the enterprise was eliciting information. The reality was that, in Khan’s words, “the more I cooperated and told them, the more I was tortured.”
Khan is not and does not consider himself as an innocent man. As a formal matter, he pleaded guilty to couriering $50,000 on behalf of al-Qaeda, money that financed a car bomb Jemaah Islamiya used to murder 12 people in Jakarta in August 2003, months after Khan had been captured. More broadly, Khan said he had grown “lost and vulnerable” following the death of his mother and became overly influenced by Pakistani relatives who were serious jihadis. He made no excuses. “I went willingly to al-Qaeda,” he said.
He portrayed his 2012 deal for testimony against the 9/11 co-conspirators, as well as Jemaah Islamiya’s Hambali and others, as an act of atonement. In his statement, Khan apologized to his father and his wife for putting them through his ordeal. Khan urged “all the vulnerable, lost kids out there searching for meaning… don’t find meaning in violence and hatred.”
Khan has been an “exemplary cooperator,” said Jestin, one of his lawyers. “This is irrefutable—and he is eligible for release as a result in February 2022.”
Where on earth the U.S. would release him, however, is a question the Biden administration has yet to address, let alone resolve. “They should start working on that as soon as this hearing is over—e.g., Friday afternoon, Monday at the latest,” Jestin said.
In October 2006, when the ICRC visited Khan at Guantanamo for the first time, they told him that his wife Rabia had been pregnant during his Karachi abduction. They gave him a picture of his daughter, Manaal. He described it as his first moment of joy after years of “hopelessness.” The Guantanamo guards quickly confiscated the photo of his baby girl. In his statement from Guantanamo Bay, Khan told her that when he gets free, “hugging you for the first time will be the happiest day of my life.”