Pentagon gives no excuses for suspect treatment; senators aghast

Mon Jun 13, 3:57 AM ET

WASHINGTON (AFP) - The US military offered no excuses for interrogation techniques used on a Saudi terror suspect at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, saying his questioning followed a "detailed plan" and that prevention of new attacks justified the means.

The retort followed publication of a secret document detailing the military's handling of Mohammed al-Qahtani, suspected of being the 20th hijacker on September 11, 2001, that suggested his interrogators may have used a combination of forced hydration and denial of bathroom facilities to pressure him for information.

The revelation has left some US lawmaker aghast, with Republican Senator Chuck Hagel openly suggesting "a vacuum of leadership" at the Pentagon.

The interrogation log obtained by Time magazine also indicated Qahtani had his head and beard shaved, was stripped naked, ordered to bark like a dog, prevented from sleeping by loud music, had pictures of scantily clad women hung around his neck and was straddled by a female interrogator, a contact particularly offensive to a Muslim.

A one point, when the detainee refused to drink water, an IV tube was inserted into his arm, he was pumped with three and a half bags of fluid and told that a bathroom visit will be allowed only in exchange for information.

When his replies did not satisfy the military, he was told to relieve himself in his pants, which he did, according to the magazine report.

His questioning spanned a three-month period from November 2002 to January 2003, when more lax interrogation guidelines authorized by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld remained in effect.

In a statement, the Defense Department disputed none of this -- and essentially confirmed the authenticity of what it called "the compromised classified interrogation log."

It said the interrogators used "approved and monitored interrogation approaches."

"Qahtanis interrogation during this period was guided by a very detailed plan and conducted by trained professionals motivated by a desire to gain actionable intelligence, to include information that might prevent additional attacks on America," the statement went on to say.

The Pentagon insisted the Saudi, who was captured on Afghan-Pakistani border in December 2001, had told US authorities about his terrorist training at two Al-Qaeda camps as well as his meetings with Osama bin Laden and other senior Al-Qaeda leaders.

"More importantly, he provided valuable intelligence information helping the US to understand the recruitment of terrorist operatives, logistics and other planning aspects of the 9/11 terrorist attack," the Defense Department said.

US officials believe Qahtani would have joined the other 19 September 11 hijackers, if his attempt to enter the United States through the Orlando International Airport had not been foiled by immigration authorities.

The explanation, however, did not sit well with at least two US senators, who openly expressed their bewilderment after reading the log.

"If, in fact, we are treating prisoners this way, it's not only wrong, but dangerous, and very dumb, and very short-sighted," fumed Hagel, appearing on CNN's "Late Edition" show.

"I just think it's a terrible mistake," echoed Democrat Dianne Feinstein.

Hagel, a veteran of the Vietnam war, warned a leadership vacuum at the top of the military hierarchy can end "in disaster for us and humility for this country."

"If there's a vacuum, something will fill that vacuum," argued the Republican. "This kind of stuff fills a vacuum."