The War On Terror Encapsulated In One Case

As we continue to debate the question of whether torture is an abomination or actually a great idea that worked well and should be used whenever we're feeling afraid, I want to point to one case in particular, that of Jose Padilla. The entire deranged history of the Bush administration's War on Terror can be seen in Padilla's story, and now we know even more about it.

In case you don't remember, on June 10, Attorney General John Ashcroft interrupted a trip to Russia to hold a press conference announcing that a month prior, the United States had thwarted a major terrorist threat by arresting Padilla, a Chicago man who had travelled to the Pakistan and joined up with al Qaeda. Padilla, Ashcroft said, was plotting to detonate a "dirty bomb" that would release radioactive material over Washington, potentially killing thousands. But we got him before he could carry out his horrific plan.

By the time of Ashcroft's dramatic press conference, Bush administration officials had already decided that Padilla could be held as an enemy combatant—which meant that, on the say-so of the president, an American citizen arrested in America could be imprisoned for life, with no trial and no access to a lawyer. Padilla spent years in a military brig under a program of intense isolation in which he sat in a bare cell with nothing to do, not even anything to read, while the lights stayed on 24 hours a day. Here's a description of what he was subjected to:

The purpose of the extraordinary privacy, according to experts familiar with the technique, was to eliminate the possibility of human contact. No voices in the hallway. No conversations with other prisoners. No tapping out messages on the walls. No ability to maintain a sense of human connection, a sense of place or time.

In essence, experts say, the US government was trying to break Padilla's silence by plunging him into a mental twilight zone.

When they had to move him from one place to another, they would put earmuffs and blacked-out goggles on him so he could have no sensory input. Again, this isolation lasted for years. This wasn't in a CIA "black site," it was on an American military base. And what did it produce? Quite predictably, it literally drove Padilla insane. But it didn't produce any vital intelligence, because Padilla didn't have any to offer. He was more terrorist wannabe than terrorist mastermind. That "dirty bomb" plot? It didn't exist. It turns out that Padilla approached al Qaeda operatives with a brilliant idea he found on the Internet in this article, which he apparently was too dumb to realize was a parody. It involved getting some uranium, putting it in a bucket, attaching the bucket to a six-foot rope, and swinging it over your head for 45 minutes until it exploded.

And what about the Bush administration's extraordinary position that it could imprison him—again, an American citizen arrested on American soil—for life with no charge? Here's what happened:

In 2006, just before the Supreme Court was set to decide whether to hear Padilla's case, the Bush administration suddenly transferred Padilla to Miami. Padilla was no longer an enemy combatant. References to a dirty bomb disappeared. Overnight, the so called "enemy combatant" became a criminal defendant, sent to regular federal court charged with conspiracy to commit murder and terrorism support charges.

He was convicted of those charges and sentenced to life in prison. But this story isn't over. Even to this day, the CIA and its defenders tout Padilla's arrest as a success of the torture program. The problem is that he wasn't caught because of torture. Here's what the Intelligence Committee's report has to say:

A review of CIA operational cables and other CIA records found that the use of the CIA's enhanced interrogation techniques played no role in the identification of "Jose Padilla" or the thwarting of the Dirty Bomb or Tall Buildings plotting. CIA records indicate that: (1) there was significant intelligence in CIA databases acquired prior to—and independently of—the CIA's Detention and Interrogation Program to fully identify Jose Padilla as a terrorist threat and to disrupt any terrorist plotting associated with him; (2) Abu Zubaydah provided information on the terrorist plotting of two individuals who proposed an idea to conduct a "Dirty Bomb" attack, but did not identify their true names; (3) Abu Zubaydah provided this information to FBI special agents who were using rapport-building techniques, in April 2002, more than three months prior to the CIA's "use of DOJ-approved enhanced interrogation techniques"; and (4) the Intelligence Community internally assessed that the "Dirty Bomb" and "Tall Buildings" plots were infeasible as envisioned.

But the Republicans on the committee dissent. Here's what they say:

Specifically, sleep deprivation played a significant role in Abu Zubaydah's identification of Jose Padilla as an d-Qa'ida operative tasked to carry out an attack against the United States. Abu Zubaydah provided this information to FBI agents during an interrogation session that began late at night on April 20, 2002, and ended on April 21, 2002. Between April 15, 2002 and April 21, 2002, Abu Zubaydah was deprived of sleep for a total of 126.5 hours (5.27 days) over a 136 hour (5.6 day) period—while only being permitted several brief sleep breaks between April 19, 2002 and April 21, 2002, which totaled 9.5 hours. Thus, all information provided by Abu Zubaydah subsequent to his return from the hospital on April 15, 2002, was obtained during or after the use of enhanced interrogation techniques and cannot be excluded from supporting the CIA's effectiveness representations under the Study's flawed analytical methodology.

What happened here was that Abu Zubaydah was in the hospital, being interrogated by the CIA, over an extended period with only brief sleep breaks. But he was given sleep breaks, which makes what they were doing different from the use of sleep deprivation as a torture technique. And according to the Republicans themselves, all the breaks—totalling 9.5 hours—came in the two days before he identified Padilla. So at that point, he had had some rest. Zubaydah gave the information to FBI interrogator Ali Soufan, who was employing a far different strategy of building rapport with him.

So the entirety of the torture advocates' claim that it was torture that produced Padilla's identity is that Abu Zubaydah was softened up a bit by prior sleep deprivation, and that's why he identified Padilla.

As I said, this story has everything: the overhyping of a threat that turns out to be all but fictitious, the treatment of the most fundamental provisions of the United States Constitution as if they were a minor inconvenience that could be discarded at the president's whim, the useless torture of detainees, the absurd defense of that torture, and on and on. It's the whole War on Terror right there.

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