WASHINGTON -- The Senate Intelligence Committee’s long anticipated report on CIA interrogation and detention techniques is filled with anecdotes that make readers squeamish and disturbed. Tales of rectal feeding, threats to rape family members, death by hypothermia and the use of power drills punctuate the report's 500-plus-page summary.
But when it comes to stories that underscore the horrors and moral dilemmas of the CIA’s counter-terrorism operations in the years after 9/11, few match that of Arsala Khan.
Khan is not a widely known name. That may be because he didn’t actually rise to the level of being a national security threat. Nevertheless, he was subjected to extensive “enhanced interrogation techniques.” He was imprisoned for years after intelligence officials concluded he probably could go, and his house was destroyed.
Initially, the intelligence community was torn on whether to bring Khan in at all. He had been identified as an “Afghan national in his mid-fifties who was believed to have assisted Usama bin Laden in his escape through the Tora Bora Mountains in late 2001.” But according to the footnotes of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report summary, the CIA initially had “resisted approving Arsala Khan’s capture because of a lack of information confirming that he was a ‘continuing threat.’”
At some point, the CIA dispensed with those doubts. According to a Department of Defense Joint Task Force Guantanamo document published by the website Wikileaks, officials say they were led to believe that Khan had provided safe haven for a “low-level member" of al Qaeda they had detained. They based that assessment on “information contained in detainee’s pocket litter at time of capture which include the names of individuals, villages, and phone numbers.” Khan was referred to “as uncle in detainee’s pocket litter.”
Other evidence also pointed to Khan providing support for al Qaeda. During a May 2003 raid of a senior al Qaeda operative’s home, “a hard drive was recovered and two letters were found.” In those letters, the operative, “expressed his thanks for Arsala Khan’s financial support and protection. In a second letter, “Sulayman Jasim Abu Ghayth [a Kuwaiti regarded as one of al Qaeda's spokesmen] expressed his thanks to Arsala Khan for a different financial contribution.”
Once captured, the question became what to actually do with Khan. According to those footnotes, interrogators decided they would subject him to enhanced interrogation.
“To make a better assessment regarding [his] willingness to start talking, or assess if our subject is, in fact the man we are looking for,” according to the Senate report summary.
This was October 2003. Khan’s interrogation involved 56 hours of “standing sleep deprivation,” according to the summary. During that time, he was “barely able to enunciate” and became "visibly shaken by his hallucinations depicting dogs mauling and killing his sons and family." Khan, at one point, accused his interrogator of “killing them and feeding them to the dogs."
The report summary goes on:
Arsala Khan was subsequently allowed to sleep. Two days later, however, the interrogators returned him to standing sleep deprivation. After subjecting Khan to 21 additional hours of sleep deprivation, interrogators stopped using the CIA's enhanced interrogation techniques ‘[d]ue to lack of information from [Arsala Khan] pinning him directly to a recent activity.’ Three days after the reporting about Khan's hallucinations, and after the interrogators had already subjected Khan to the additional 21 hours of standing sleep deprivation (beyond the initial 56 hours), CIA Headquarters sent a cable stating that RDG and the Office of Medical Services believed that Arsala Khan should not be subjected to additional standing sleep deprivation beyond the 56 hours because of his hallucinations.
Despite concerns about Khan’s mental state, the CIA didn’t view the interrogation as a complete loss. What he told his interrogators made its way into a “disseminated intelligence report,” according to the footnotes of the Senate report summary. The Senate authors made a specific note that interrogators used the information Khan “provided the day he experienced the hallucinations.”
Roughly a month after this happened, the CIA concluded that Khan did not “appear to be the subject involved in ... current plans or activities against U.S. personnel or facilities.” Worse, according to the report summary, the CIA had actually developed “significant intelligence indicating that the source who reported that Arsala Khan had aided Usama bin Laden had a vendetta against Arsala Khan's family.”
They recommended that Khan be released -- and sent back home with a cash payment.
Instead, CIA interrogators “transferred him to U.S. military custody.”
They sent him to Bagram Airfield prison in Afghanistan.
In his book Interrogation of Morals, Jason Meszaros, a former Army intelligence officer, said he and another officer volunteered to interview a “high value prisoner” being held there by the name of Arsala Khan who “had been transferred in from the CIA.”
Kahn, Meszaros recalled in a phone interview Thursday, didn’t show signs of having endured torture. But that wasn’t an invitation to apply harsh methods. Instead, the task force assigned to his interrogation tried a lighter touch. They realized quickly that Kahn couldn’t see. He wasn’t technically blind, but his sight was terribly impaired. So they took him to a hospital and got him glasses.
“After that,” said Meszaros, “any time we showed up in the interrogation booth with him, we would give him his glasses and he would just open up to us. ... It was amazing.”
So, too, was the story that Kahn told. He was a village elder in Tora Bora who had learned the mountains there “like the back of his hand” from years of running weapons back and forth through Pakistan,” said Meszaros. Because of this knowledge and social status, he was asked to help bin Laden escape, when U.S. forces were bearing down in the months after 9/11.
“He walked us through the path that he took bin Laden out of there,” said Meszaros. “All he knew was he was helping a Muslim brother. He knew bin Laden was an important Muslim. And he had been fighting the good fight against the infidels, so he needed to help him. So he helped bin Laden escape.”
“He had nothing to do with al Qaeda,” Meszaros said elsewhere. “If you asked him what al Qaeda was, he would say, ‘I don’t know.’”
The intelligence Khan gave was immensely valuable, helping outline the organization structures of the Tora Bora region.
“We got more information out of him then they did,” said Meszaros, of the CIA.
But the disclosures didn’t necessarily make Khan a terrorist.
“The reality is, he was just a simple old man from a crappy little village in eastern Afghanistan who helped the wrong person,” said Meszaros “And that’s not to say that helping the wrong person doesn’t make him guilty. He did help bin Laden escape and you can take that for what it’s worth. Does he deserve to be punished? Taken to a black prison site? That’s probably a topic for another conversation."
Khan would remain in custody at Bagram Airfield prison for four years, according to the Senate report summary. Meszaros said he does not know what has happened to him after that. According to a separate Wikileaks file, Kahn's house was destroyed in a raid.