How CIA Tortured Its Detainees


The CIA, and the US Senate intelligence committee, would rather avoid the word “torture,” preferring euphemisms like “enhanced interrogation techniques” and “rendition, detention and interrogation program”.

Many of the techniques employed by the CIA after capturing high-value targets have been documented in CIA memos released by the Obama administration, and in numerous leaks, including a report written by the International Committee of the Red Cross, The Guardian reported.

Here are some of the techniques known to have been used, and the effects on detainees:

Rectal Feeding and Rehydration

The torture report contains new information on the CIA’s use of rectal feeding and rehydration. At least five detainees were subjected to the process, the report states. The report details how accused USS Cole bomber Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri was placed “in a forward facing position (Trendelenburg) with head lower than torso”, whilst undergoing rectal feeding.

Another detainee, Majid Khan, a legal resident of the United States and accused confident of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, was also subjected to rectal feeding. According to a CIA cable released in the report, his “‘lunch tray’ consisting of hummus, pasta with sauce, nuts and raisins was ‘pureed and rectally infused’”.

Mohammed was also subjected to rectal rehydration “without a determination of medical need”. Mohammed’s chief interrogator described use of the process as emblematic of their “total control over the detainee”.

Confinement in a Box

Placing the subject inside a confined box to restrict their movement was approved by the Bush administration in the case of Abu Zubaydah.

Zubaydah says he was placed in a number of different confinement boxes in an intense period of interrogation in Afghanistan in 2002. He told the ICRC that the boxes made it difficult to breathe and reopened wounds in his legs. He could not recall how long he spent in each confinement box, and believes he may have passed out inside.

The use of insects inside the box was also approved, to exploit a phobia Abu Zubaydah had. This element was not ultimately used, according to memos.

The Use of Cold Water

A number of those interviewed by the ICRC said they were often subjected to dousings in cold water during interrogation. Khalid Sheikh Mohammad’s co-defendant Walid bin Attash said that for the first two weeks of his detention in Afghanistan his naked body was wrapped in plastic after being doused, and kept inside the cold envelope of water for several minutes.

In November 2002, a suspected Afghan militant, Gul Rahman, died of hypothermia inside a CIA black site North of Kabul known as the Salt Pit. Rahman had been left in a cold cell, stripped from the waist down and had been doused in water, according to reports from the Associated Press.

The torture report contains more details on Rahman’s death, including details of the CIA’s interrogation methodology used. This included “48 hours of sleep deprivation, auditory overload, total darkness, isolation a cold shower and rough treatment”. The CIA Headquarters did not approve these methods in advance, the report says. But the day before Rahman’s death, one CIA officer ordered that Rahman be shackled to the wall of his cell and sat on the cold floor whilst naked from the waist down. CIA headquarters had approved the use of “enhanced measures” at this point.

The CIA officer who sent these instructions received no reprimand. Instead, four months later, he was given a $2,500 cash reward for his “consistently superior work”.


The process of suffocation by water involves strapping the individual to a tilted board, with legs above their head, placing a cloth over their face, covering their nose and mouth. Water is then poured continuously over the cloth to prevent breathing, simulate drowning and induce panic.

The process is carried out for about 40 seconds and is known to have been repeated a number of times during interrogation.

The process was carried out on three detainees, Bush administration officials have said. But the number could be higher, according to a 2012 report from Human Rights Watch.

One of those, Abu Zubaydah, a suspected senior Bin Laden lieutenant, told the ICRC: “I struggled without success to breathe. I thought I was going to die. I lost control of my urine.” He underwent the process 83 times, while another of the CIA’s highest-value detainees, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, said to be the principal architect of the 9/11 attacks, was subjected to waterboarding 183 times.

Beatings and Threats

Many detainees have reported being beaten by interrogators, and the CIA memo mentions a number of approved methods of physical contact, including “facial holds”, “insult slaps” and “attention grasps”.

Most of those interviewed by the ICRC alleged that these beatings often occurred in the immediate aftermath of their capture, often multiple times in the day.

One detainee said, “I was punched and slapped in the face and on the back, to the extent that I was bleeding. While having a rope round my neck and being tied to a pillar, my head was banged against the pillar repeatedly.”

Six of the detainees said they were slammed into walls after having a collar placed around their necks. The CIA called it “walling”: a fake, flexible wall is constructed and a detainee is thrown against it, creating a loud noise. The noise is designed to make the detainee believe they are injured.

Detainees also reported threats of severe violence and sexual assault made against them and their families. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed told the ICRC he was threatened with being brought to the “verge of death and back again”.

The torture report notes that at least three detainees were threatened with harm to their families. Interrogators implied to Nashiri that his mother would be brought in front of him and sexually abused. The report also notes one detainee was told his mother’s throat would be cut. It is not clear which detainee this references.

The torture report confirms that Nashiri was threatened with a pistol placed near his head and a cordless drill that was operated near his body. Nashiri was blindfolded at the time.

“Al-Nashiri did not provide any additional threat information during, or after, these interrogations,” the report concludes.