WASHINGTON — The top Bush administration official in charge of deciding whether to bring Guantanamo Bay detainees to trial has concluded that the U.S. military tortured a Saudi national who allegedly planned to participate in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, interrogating him with techniques that included sustained isolation, sleep deprivation, nudity and prolonged exposure to cold, leaving him in a "life-threatening condition."
"We tortured (Mohammed al-)Qahtani," said Susan Crawford, in her first interview since being named convening authority of military commissions by Defense Secretary Robert Gates in February 2007. "His treatment met the legal definition of torture. And that's why I did not refer the case" for prosecution.
Crawford, a retired judge who served as general counsel for the Army during the Reagan administration and as Pentagon inspector general when Dick Cheney was secretary of defense, is the first senior Bush administration official responsible for reviewing practices at Guantanamo to publicly state that a detainee was tortured.
Military prosecutors said in November that they would seek to refile charges against Qahtani, 30, based on subsequent interrogations that did not employ harsh techniques. But Crawford, who dismissed war crimes charges against him in May 2008, said in the interview that she would not allow the prosecution to go forward.
Crawford, who personally reviewed interrogation records and other military documents, said Qahtani faced "48 … consecutive days of 18- to 20-hour interrogations. Standing naked in front of a female agent. Subject to strip searches. And insults to his mother and sister."
At one point Qahtani was threatened with a dog named Zeus, according to a military report. Qahtani "was forced to wear a woman's bra and had a thong placed on his head during the course of his interrogation … (and) was told that his mother and sister were whores."
The interrogation was so intense that Qahtani was hospitalized twice at Guantanamo because his heartbeat dropped so low it put him at risk of heart failure and death.
The FBI established that Qahtani intended to join the 2001 hijackers. Mohamed Atta, the plot's leader, who died steering American Airlines Flight 11 into the World Trade Center, went to the Orlando airport to meet Qahtani on Aug. 4, 2001, but the young Saudi was denied entry by a suspicious immigration inspector.
"I sympathize with the intelligence gatherers in those days after 9/11, not knowing what was coming next and trying to gain information to keep us safe," said Crawford, a lifelong Republican. "But there still has to be a line that we should not cross. And unfortunately what this has done, I think, has tainted everything going forward."