There's not much that Bush administration lawyers considered torture in their infamous Office of Legal Counsel memos, but mock execution made the list.
It now turns out it was also among the techniques used on detainees in U.S. custody, according to a long-suppressed CIA report that was partially declassified Monday.
Walling? Waterboarding? Acceptable "enhanced-interrogation techniques," according to the Bush-era Justice Department. Mock executions, however -- along with burning with cigarettes, rape and electric shocks to the genitalia -- were considered not to meet the legal standards.
But former CIA Inspector General John Helgerson's 2004 report recounts mock executions of Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri in December 2002, which included the use of a handgun and power drill. Those were also apparently the culmination of months of trial and error by interrogators with other detainees, as described in some detail in unredacted parts of the report.
One agent, the report says, "admitted staging a 'mock execution' in the first days that ... was open." (The ellipsis indicates a redaction, apparently referring to a particular base of operations or subsection thereof.) "According to the ... the technique was his idea but was not effective because it came across as being staged."
Apparently, interrogators needed time to practice. The report makes clear not just how terrible the mock executions were, but how terrible the agents often were at making them seem "believable." Another botched early attempt circa September 2002 was described as "transparently a ruse" by a senior operations officer who understood "no benefit was derived from it."
In order to seem more realistic, the brutality of the mock executions appears to have been gradually ratcheted up to the level of those used against Al-Nashiri. While one detainee allegedly thought to be withholding information was being interrogated, agents simulated a scuffle and fired a gun outside his interrogation room. Then they sent him past a guard who was hooded and "made to appear as if he had been shot to death," the report states.
That's still a far cry from what Al-Nashiri was put through. An agent loaded and cocked a handgun near Al-Nashiri's head on December 28 and again on January 1. He also brought a drill into an interrogation session and revved it while al-Nashiri was hooded and shackled. The incidents were reported to CIA headquarters in January 2003 and referred to the Department of Justice, which on Sept. 11, 2003, declined to prosecute.
The mock executions were illegal by any definition. But they were also ineffective. Al-Nashiri was assessed to be "compliant" in December 2002, and on his first day of interrogation, he provided "lead information on other terrorists," according to the report.
A senior operations officer, however, decided he was still withholding information and "reinstated ... hooding, and handcuffing." (The ellipses indicate a redaction, which appears to be another technique the officer reinstated.)
Al-Nashiri was also told, "We could get your mother in here," and "We can bring your family in here."
That's not to say Al-Nashiri wasn't tortured before the guns and the drill came out. The report indicates that he was subjected to "enhanced" interrogation on his first day, before he was deemed "compliant." But he was later tortured in ways that might keep even John Yoo up at night.
Ryan Grim contributed reporting.