PREAL: The "Torture Textbook" That Took CIA Interrogators to the Dark Side

04/05/2012 06:26 pm ET | Updated Jun 05, 2012
  • Crofton Black Investigator on the Secret Prisons team at Reprieve

Ten years ago -- 3 April 2002 -- US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld hailed the capture of a man by name of Abu Zubaydah, then regarded as a high-ranking al-Qaida operative.

In reply to fevered speculation about what would happen to the new captive, Rumsfeld said: "He will be properly interrogated by proper people who know how to do those things."

Ten years later, who those people were, what they knew how to do, and where they learned it, has become an increasingly widely circulated story. A new piece fitted into the jigsaw today, with the publication by Truthout's Jason Leopold and Jeffrey Kaye of one of the foundational documents of the CIA's experimental torture program -- a program which, it has become clear, was first tested on Abu Zubaydah.

The US Government had decided that their special captive required special treatment. The CIA -- newly involved, and inexperienced, in the detention and interrogation business -- was keen to try out some new ideas. As Leopold has now shown, many of these new ideas were drawn from a document going by the opaque name of "Pre-Academic Laboratory (PREAL) Operating Instructions." The PREAL manual was a textbook for military instructors, outlining how to do role-plays to teach students about pressures they might be exposed to if captured by an enemy government.

The CIA worked on their ideas for some months, spurred on by a team of specially contracted psychologists, but they needed a piece of paper: a permit from the Justice Department to put their ideas into practice, and to reassure them that what they were about to do did not constitute a crime. The crime for which they were seeking cover was torture.

Assistant Attorney General Jay Bybee, and his deputy John Yoo, obliged. On 1 August 2002, Bybee signed his name to the bottom of Yoo's 18-page legal memorandum, addressed to the CIA's top lawyer, John Rizzo. "As we understand it, Zubaydah is one of the highest ranking members of the al Qaeda terrorist organization ... Zubaydah has been involved in every major terrorist operation carried out by al Qaeda ... Moreover, he was one of the planners of the September 11 attacks." The CIA was dissatisfied with the information he had provided. "You wish to move the interrogations into what you have described as an 'increased pressure phase'."

The "increased pressure phase" drew liberally on the PREAL manual -- but with telling adjustments. The manual stressed that the pressure was a "stress inoculation," part of a learning process. It was to be strictly controlled and monitored: "If too much physical pressure is applied, the student is made vulnerable to the effects of learned helplessness, which will render the student less prepared for captivity than prior to training." The CIA substituted their own controls; learned helplessness had become the goal.

The PREAL manual describes a variety of techniques, many of which made their way into Yoo's memorandum. Walling, cramped confinement, the facial slap, sleep deprivation, the attention grasp, the facial hold and stress positions are all cited in both documents. Waterboarding -- the ultimate tool in the CIA's kit -- is not discussed in the PREAL manual, although immersion in a "water pit" does figure. Yoo used his sources -- including the manual -- to describe the elements of the "new phase" in clinical detail:

"For walling, a flexible false wall will be constructed. The individual is place with his heels touching the wall. The interrogator pulls the individual forward and then quickly and firmly pushes the individual into the wall ... the false wall is in part constructed to create a loud sound when the individual hits it."

"Cramped confinement involves the placement of the individual in a confined space, the dimensions of which restrict the individual's movement. The confined space is usually dark. The duration of confinement varies based upon the size of the container."

"Sleep deprivation may be used ... You have orally informed us that you would not deprive Zubaydah of sleep for more than eleven days at a time."

"You would like to place Zubaydah in a cramped confinement box with an insect."

"Finally, you would like to use a technique called the 'waterboard'."

It was not discussed in Yoo's memorandum, but Abu Zubaydah was waterboarded 83 times in one month. The number of times he was walled, placed in the box, sleep deprived and subjected to other of the so-called "enhanced interrogation techniques" is unpublished.

At this stage in his ten-year imprisonment odyssey, he was in Thailand. He was subsequently in many places. Poland, Morocco and Lithuania are all on public record as having been sites for his confinement. Time passed. In September 2006 he was in Guantanamo Bay. Most details of his captivity are unknown, except to his top-secret security-cleared lawyers. But one fact has filtered out. In 2009, the Department of Defense released a "narrative ... to establish the status of the individual as an enemy combatant and to substantiate their detention." In this new narrative, Abu Zubaydah was no longer "one of the highest ranking members of al Qaeda." Instead, he now had no "singular affiliation to any specific terrorist group." He had not, the DoD now said, pledged allegiance to Osama bin Laden. Like most of the text justifying his continued detention, the remainder of the long paragraph explaining this is blacked out.

Regardless of this general blackout, the movement of his case in recent years speaks eloquently. Specifically, there is none: there is no case. Abu Zubaydah is uncharged. He is not among the five prisoners due to face charges for the 9/11 crimes. He has not been charged with any of the multiple "major terrorist operations" which the US government attributed to him in 2002. In fact, the government has taken no steps to try him for involvement in any crime at all. George W. Bush, going on record in 2006 about the CIA's secret detention project, was adamant: the former CIA detainees were to be brought into the open to face trial. This determination has faded into a mirage.

On 22 January 2009 Barack Obama began his presidency with a confident flourish. The CIA was no longer to detain prisoners; the program was dismantled. The Guantanamo Bay prison, moreover, was to be closed forthwith. In 2012, the president's convictions have wilted. Ten years after his capture, the first prisoner in the CIA program -- the person around whom the program was constructed, the experimental subject whose responses formed the basis for the treatment of subsequent "high value detainees" -- is still in Guantanamo, from where his every utterance -- even his signature on legal documents -- is prohibited from entering the public domain. Documents such as these, therefore, are currently the only window on to the experiments which the CIA and their contractors carried out on him.