Detainee says torture made him confess

Times Staff Writer

A detainee accused of being Al Qaeda’s Persian Gulf operations chief said in court that his U.S. captors tortured him for years and forced him to falsely confess to the bombing of the U.S. destroyer Cole and to many other terrorist plots, according to a Pentagon transcript released Friday.

Abd al Rahim al Nashiri , a Saudi of Yemeni descent, told a military board at the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, that he had nothing to do with the bombing of the warship in Yemen in 2000 -- or with any other terrorist activity.

Speaking under oath, he said he made up a long list of Al Qaeda plots and attacks so his captors would stop torturing him, even telling interrogators that Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden had a nuclear bomb.

“I just said those things to make the people happy. But when they freed me, I told them all, ‘I only told you these things to make you happy,’ ” Nashiri said at a March 14 hearing held by military officials to determine if he should be designated as an enemy combatant and tried before a military commission.

Nashiri, 42, said his U.S. captors began torturing him as soon as he was arrested in November 2002 in the United Arab Emirates; the torture stopped, he said, when he was transferred from secret CIA custody to Guantanamo last September along with 13 other “high value” detainees. Among them was confessed Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed.


In an unclassified summary of the evidence against him, military officials said Nashiri was an experienced terrorist operative with significant military and explosives training. They said he played an important role in the Cole bombing, which killed 17 U.S. sailors as the ship refueled in the port of Aden.

The evidence summary also linked Nashiri to the bombings of two U.S. embassies in East Africa in 1998 that killed at least 224 people, and said he is suspected of masterminding the October 2002 attack on the French oil tanker Limburg.

Nashiri’s hearing was the first time that an accused Al Qaeda detainee in U.S. custody has made such detailed allegations that have become public. Legal experts said they raise new and serious questions about how torture claims will affect the judicial process now beginning for captives in the Bush administration’s 5-year-old global counterterrorism campaign.

Eugene R. Fidell, a military law expert and critic of administration detainee policies, said Nashiri’s claims -- true or not -- are not surprising because there have been allegations of CIA torture of Al Qaeda detainees for years.

But Nashiri’s assertions were made during an official U.S. military justice proceeding, Fidell said. Unless the Bush administration, Congress, Pentagon and CIA address the allegations in some formal way, they could undermine the legitimacy of upcoming military commission proceedings for Nashiri and other Al Qaeda leaders, he said.

“People knew that this was going to be an issue, and here’s the proof,” said Fidell, president of the National Institute of Military Justice. “Someone has got to get to the bottom of these allegations. If there is nothing there, fine. If there is something there, they are going to need to address it.”

During his hearing, Nashiri said through a translator that his captors tortured him while questioning him. “One time they tortured me one way, and another time they tortured me in a different way,” he said.

Mohammed, during a similar hearing this month, claimed responsibility for terrorist plots that included the 1993 World Trade Center attack, the 2002 bombings of nightclubs in Indonesia and the so-called shoe-bomber plot to down U.S. airliners. At his hearing, he hinted that he had been tortured. But the bulk of his allegations were heard during the classified portion of his proceeding and have not been made public.

Without commenting on Nashiri’s specific claims, CIA spokesman Paul Gimigliano said Friday: “The United States does not conduct or condone torture, and the agency’s terrorist interrogation program has been implemented lawfully, with great care and close review. It has produced vital information that has helped disrupt plots and save lives.”

The military officials who presided over Nashiri’s hearing, whose names were redacted from the transcript, said they would investigate his claims of torture. Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman declined to comment on the allegations but said they would be “fully investigated” by the Department of Defense.

Curt Goering, Amnesty International USA’s senior deputy executive director, said that a thorough and credible investigation of Nashiri’s allegations must be done before any Al Qaeda operatives are tried.

“One of the most elementary precepts of the rule of law is the absolute inadmissibility in any legitimate legal proceeding of any shred of evidence obtained by torture,” Goering said. “Although the Pentagon has said they will investigate, given the Bush administration record so far on these matters, it strains credulity that any such investigation would be anything other than substandard, or [that] those responsible would be held accountable.”

Specific details of Nashiri’s alleged torture were not included in the 36-page transcript of his hearing before a Combatant Status Review Tribunal; there was also a classified hearing for which a transcript has not been released. Some of his claims appeared to be redacted by U.S. government censors, who had delayed the release of the transcript for a week, saying they were still reviewing it.

At a briefing Friday with reporters, Pentagon spokesman Whitman said any redactions of information in the transcript were made in the interest of national security.

At least four U.S. military officers participated in the hearing, but they spent virtually all of their time asking Nashiri about details of the alleged plots and not about his claims of torture.

There is little doubt that U.S. officials will designate Nashiri as an enemy combatant. At the very least, one U.S. counterterrorism official said Friday, “There is extremely strong information from multiple sources that this individual was key to the Cole bombing and other maritime plots.”

Nashiri denied those accusations during his hearing and said he made up the claim that Bin Laden had a nuclear bomb. He also said he made up Al Qaeda plans to bomb American ships in the Gulf and a plan to hijack a plane and crash it into a ship.

But in several often-rambling comments and answers, he made many incriminating statements.

Nashiri said he knew virtually all of the players known to be involved in the Cole bombing and other Al Qaeda plots. He said he visited Bin Laden often, and that the Al Qaeda leader gave him as much as $500,000 over the years for personal expenses and business deals.

In turn, Nashiri said, he gave much of that to other known militants who probably used the funds to carry out Al Qaeda attacks.

“But I’m not responsible if they take the money and they go and fight or do something else” related to terrorism, Nashiri told the military hearing officers.

Asked if he had ever trained in an Al Qaeda camp or swore allegiance to Bin Laden, Nashiri said he had not.

But he admitted meeting many Al Qaeda operatives while visiting “the battlefields” in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Chechnya and elsewhere.