Interrogators received intelligence from detainees that helped U.S. troops in Afghanistan attack Taliban fighters last summer — and they did it through casual questioning and not torture, the military's chief interrogator here said.
In a rare interview with The Associated Press, veteran interrogator Paul Rester complained that his profession has gotten a bad reputation because of accounts of waterboarding and other rough interrogation tactics used by the CIA at "black sites."
Lawyers for Guantanamo detainees, however, allege their clients have been subjected to temperature extremes, sleep deprivation and threats at this U.S. military base in southeast Cuba.
Wearing a blue-striped business shirt without a tie and looking more like a harried executive than a top interrogator, Rester groused that his line of work is "a business that is fundamentally thankless."
He sat hunched over a table in a snack room inside the building where the top commanders keep their offices. In an attempt to keep personnel from blabbing about intelligence-gathering, a poster showed a picture of a hooded gunman and the words: "Keep talking. We're listening" — today's version of the World War II-era admonishment that "Loose lips sink ships."
"Everybody in the world believes that they know how we do what we do, and I have to endure it every time I turn around and somebody is making reference to waterboarding," Rester said. He insisted that Guantanamo interrogators have had many successes using rapport-building and said that technique was the norm here.
For security reasons, he would only discuss one of the successes, and that was only because his boss, Rear Adm. Mark Buzby, already had described it in a speech last month. Buzby said several detainees, using poster board paper and crayons, drew detailed maps of the Tora Bora area in eastern Afghanistan that enabled coalition forces to wipe out safe houses, trenches and supplies last summer as Taliban forces were returning to the stronghold they had abandoned more than five years ago.
Buzby, in a separate interview with the AP, said a U.S. commander in Afghanistan had requested the information on a Friday and it was obtained and sent to Afghanistan by the end of the weekend.
Rester indicated the interrogators casually asked the detainees about their knowledge of Tora Bora, not letting on that it was tactically important for a pending military strike.
"And it may in fact, since it was five years old, have seemed totally innocuous to the persons we were talking to," Rester said.
Buzby, the top commander of detention operations at Guantanamo, said the intelligence "had a very positive effect ... for us and a very negative effect on the enemy operating in that area." He declined to be more specific.
Rester: Two detainees had rougher treatment
In the interview, Rester said only two detainees were given rougher treatment in Guantanamo, and that was during the earlier days: Mohammed al-Qahtani, alleged to be the 20th hijacker, who was turned away from the United States by immigration officials just before the Sept. 11 attacks, and an unidentified man Rester said recruited lead hijacker Mohamed Atta.
"Most of the stories (of detainee abuse) that have propagated all stem from those two," said Rester, who began his career in the Vietnam War. "The constant attention on that takes away from the fact that the productive, consistent direct approach ... has enabled us to possess the vast body of knowledge that we actually have."
Al-Qahtani told a military panel at Guantanamo that he was beaten, restrained for long periods in uncomfortable positions, threatened with dogs, exposed to loud music and freezing temperatures and stripped nude in front of female personnel at Guantanamo. He said he admitted meeting Osama bin Laden and agreeing to participate in a "martyr mission" for al-Qaida only because he was tortured, and told the panel that he was innocent.
A 2005 military investigation concluded that al-Qahtani had been subjected to harsh treatment approved by then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld because he would not crack under interrogation. He is one of six Guantanamo detainees who were charged Monday in connection with the Sept. 11 attacks. The Pentagon said it was seeking the death penalty for all six.
Under the Military Commissions Act, statements obtained through torture are not admissible. But some statements obtained through "coercion" may be admitted at the discretion of a military judge.
Joshua Colangelo-Bryan, a lawyer who represents several detainees, scoffed at Rester's contention that rough treatment at Guantanamo was restricted to just two men.
"There are so many accounts by FBI agents ... and others who personally saw non-rapport-building techniques that Rester's statement is just not credible," he said.
The 2005 military investigation stemmed from FBI agents' allegations that detainees were being mistreated, and determined that interrogators used unauthorized techniques when two detainees were short-shackled to an eyebolt on a floor, when duct tape was used to "quiet" a detainee and when interrogators threatened the family of a detainee.
"It distracts from the efforts of every other individual who has been in contact with (military) intelligence," Rester said. "Nothing is a substitute for really knowing the subject matter, having the knowledge of the language and culture and being able to sit down with someone and speak as grown-ups."