When the prisoner accused of plotting the USS Cole bombing bragged about his role in the attack during interrogations at Guantánamo Bay, his recollections and account were unreliable due to years of solitary confinement and torture by the CIA a former military interrogator testified on Friday.
Prosecutors say statements Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, a Saudi prisoner, made during interrogations in 2007 are crucial evidence against him. Defense attorneys consider them tainted by torture. Now the judge, Colonel Lanny J. Acosta Jr., is expected to decide whether the officers can testify about Mr. Nashiri’s final trial confession.
The judge’s ruling is on track to be the war tribunal’s first major decision on the admissibility of interrogations of federal agents who were brought to Guantánamo Bay to build a new case against former CIA prisoners.
The ultimate expert on the subject testified Friday that no matter how friendly the so-called clean team of FBI and Navy intelligence agents were, Mr. Nashiri’s torture legacy and years of CIA detention made unreliable what the prisoner told them.
« Weakness, addiction and terror don’t go away when they walk into a clean room in a suit and tie, » said Steven M. Kleinman, who served in the CIA and then the Air Force from 1983 to 2015 and retired as a colonel with a specialty in human intelligence.
Mr. Kleinman said prolonged solitary confinement, sleep deprivation and brutality such as that experienced by CIA prisoners degrade memory and lead to false confessions. Such treatment impairs a prisoner’s « ability to respond reliably » even years later, he said, adding that a prisoner « may be willing but is no longer able to recall events correctly. »
When asked by the judge, he said US law enforcement experience showed that solitary confinement and sleep deprivation forced prisoners to confess, and DNA evidence discredited the confessions.
Mr. Kleinman capped off months of expert and eyewitness testimony that Mr. Nashiri freely described his role in the Al Qaeda suicide attack off Yemen that killed 17 U.S. sailors on Oct. 12, 2000. In April, a forensic psychiatrist testified for the government that, based on his reading of prison records and other information, Mr. Nashiri had voluntarily confessed.
Neither expert ever met or observed the prisoner.
Military doctors diagnosed Mr. Nashiri has PTSD and depression.
To get him to talk about Al Qaeda after his capture in 2002, CIA employees at overseas prisons waterboarded him, confined him naked in a cold, cramped box, banged his head against a wall. They also used isolation and rectal abuse to keep him cooperative.
Then, in 2006, the CIA transferred him to Guantánamo Bay on orders from President George W. Bush to put him on trial. Four months later, the « clean crew » of federal agents questioned him in what they had previously testified to be friendly, non-threatening meetings.
An agent testified that Mr. Nashiri did not appear afraid and was proud of his work for Osama bin Laden on the Cole bombing. No records were made, but officers made a record as evidence of the trial.
The judge said he plans to settle the confession challenge before he retires from the military on Sept. 30 and has scheduled final arguments on that matter for later this month. As an added complication, Colonel Acosta is currently barred from passing that and other important pretrial sentences.
FBI and Navy agents and others who observed Mr. Nashiri’s interrogation in 2007 said the atmosphere was friendly and that the prisoner had incriminated himself. Mr. Kleinman said that from the prisoner’s perspective, friendly agents of a government that had tortured him likely appeared « rather insensitive » by not asking about his previous torture.
Defense attorneys chose Mr. Kleinman because he worked in an Air Force program known as SERE, for survival, evasion, resistance and escape. It teaches American pilots, commandos, and other forces at risk of enemy capture how to survive torture and other brutality using torture techniques that American POWs were subjected to by Chinese, North Korean, and North Vietnamese troops.
The mock interrogations on the SERE program were « very intense, » Kleinman said, but American service members knew their mock interrogators were Americans who would stop short of killing them on the waterboard. They were given a safe word to stop interrogation and there were multiple layers of supervision to avoid « abusive drifting ».
Also, he said, the goal was not to gather intelligence but to strengthen a service member’s resilience.
« When you’re an inmate, you don’t know when it’s over, » he said. « You don’t know how far they’ll go. »