WASHINGTON — A detainee accused of being Al Qaeda's Persian Gulf operations chief said in court that his U.S. captors tortured him for years and forced him to falsely confess to the bombing of the U.S. destroyer Cole and to many other terrorist plots, according to a Pentagon transcript released Friday.
Abd al Rahim al Nashiri , a Saudi of Yemeni descent, told a military board at the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, that he had nothing to do with the bombing of the warship in Yemen in 2000 -- or with any other terrorist activity.
Speaking under oath, he said he made up a long list of Al Qaeda plots and attacks so his captors would stop torturing him, even telling interrogators that Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden had a nuclear bomb.
"I just said those things to make the people happy. But when they freed me, I told them all, 'I only told you these things to make you happy,' " Nashiri said at a March 14 hearing held by military officials to determine if he should be designated as an enemy combatant and tried before a military commission.
Nashiri, 42, said his U.S. captors began torturing him as soon as he was arrested in November 2002 in the United Arab Emirates; the torture stopped, he said, when he was transferred from secret CIA custody to Guantanamo last September along with 13 other "high value" detainees. Among them was confessed Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed.
In an unclassified summary of the evidence against him, military officials said Nashiri was an experienced terrorist operative with significant military and explosives training. They said he played an important role in the Cole bombing, which killed 17 U.S. sailors as the ship refueled in the port of Aden.
The evidence summary also linked Nashiri to the bombings of two U.S. embassies in East Africa in 1998 that killed at least 224 people, and said he is suspected of masterminding the October 2002 attack on the French oil tanker Limburg.
Nashiri's hearing was the first time that an accused Al Qaeda detainee in U.S. custody has made such detailed allegations that have become public. Legal experts said they raise new and serious questions about how torture claims will affect the judicial process now beginning for captives in the Bush administration's 5-year-old global counterterrorism campaign.
Eugene R. Fidell, a military law expert and critic of administration detainee policies, said Nashiri's claims -- true or not -- are not surprising because there have been allegations of CIA torture of Al Qaeda detainees for years.
But Nashiri's assertions were made during an official U.S. military justice proceeding, Fidell said. Unless the Bush administration, Congress, Pentagon and CIA address the allegations in some formal way, they could undermine the legitimacy of upcoming military commission proceedings for Nashiri and other Al Qaeda leaders, he said.
"People knew that this was going to be an issue, and here's the proof," said Fidell, president of the National Institute of Military Justice. "Someone has got to get to the bottom of these allegations. If there is nothing there, fine. If there is something there, they are going to need to address it."
During his hearing, Nashiri said through a translator that his captors tortured him while questioning him. "One time they tortured me one way, and another time they tortured me in a different way," he said.
Mohammed, during a similar hearing this month, claimed responsibility for terrorist plots that included the 1993 World Trade Center attack, the 2002 bombings of nightclubs in Indonesia and the so-called shoe-bomber plot to down U.S. airliners. At his hearing, he hinted that he had been tortured. But the bulk of his allegations were heard during the classified portion of his proceeding and have not been made public.
Without commenting on Nashiri's specific claims, CIA spokesman Paul Gimigliano said Friday: "The United States does not conduct or condone torture, and the agency's terrorist interrogation program has been implemented lawfully, with great care and close review. It has produced vital information that has helped disrupt plots and save lives."
The military officials who presided over Nashiri's hearing, whose names were redacted from the transcript, said they would investigate his claims of torture. Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman declined to comment on the allegations but said they would be "fully investigated" by the Department of Defense.
Curt Goering, Amnesty International USA's senior deputy executive director, said that a thorough and credible investigation of Nashiri's allegations must be done before any Al Qaeda operatives are tried.