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The Black Sites: A Rare Look Inside the CIA’s Secret Interrogation Program

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Jane Mayer of The New Yorker reports that the International Committee of the Red Cross has concluded the CIA’s detention and interrogation methods is tantamount to torture. Sources told Mayer that the confidential Red Cross report also warned that U.S. officials responsible for the abusive treatment at the secret prisons may have committed “grave breaches” of the Geneva Conventions and may have violated the U.S. Torture Act. We talk to Mayer and Jameel Jaffer, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Security Program. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Today, a rare look inside the CIA’s secret interrogation program. After 9/11, the CIA began detaining terrorist suspects in so-called “black sites,” a secret network of prisons outside the United States, and subjecting them to unusually harsh and abusive treatment.

Last fall, President Bush acknowledged the CIA program for the first time and admitted the agency is using “an alternative set of procedures” to question prisoners. Bush made the admission as he ordered 14 prisoners previously held by the CIA to be transferred to military custody at Guantanamo Bay. In his address, Bush talked specifically about the case of Abu Zubaydah, captured in Pakistan in 2002 and taken to Thailand for CIA interrogation.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: We knew that Zubaydah had more information that could save innocent lives, but he stopped talking. As his questioning proceeded, it became clear that he had received training on how to resist interrogation. And so the CIA used an alternative set of procedures. These procedures were designed to be safe, to comply with our laws, our Constitution and our treaty obligations. The Department of Justice reviewed the authorized methods extensively and determined them to be lawful.

I cannot describe the specific methods used. I think you understand why. If I did, it would help the terrorists learn how to resist questioning and to keep information from us that we need to prevent new attacks on our country. But I can say the procedures were tough, and they were safe and lawful and necessary.

I want to be absolutely clear with our people and the world: The United States does not torture. It’s against our laws, and it’s against our values. I have not authorized it, and I will not authorize it.

AMY GOODMAN: While President Bush assured the public the CIA’s secret internment program was humane and legal, one of the world’s most respected and credible human rights organizations disagrees.

In a major expose in The New Yorker, investigative reporter Jane Mayer reports the International Committee of the Red Cross has concluded the CIA’s detention and interrogation methods tantamount to torture. Sources told Mayer the confidential Red Cross report also warned U.S. officials responsible for the abusive treatment may have committed “grave breaches” of the Geneva Conventions and may have violated the U.S. Torture Act. The Red Cross issued the confidential report to the Bush administration last year, but according to Jane Mayer only a handful of people inside the administration have even seen the report. Detainees almost universally told the Red Cross they made up stories to get the harsh interrogations to stop. Mayer also reveals new details about the CIA’s interrogation of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of the September 11 attacks.

Jane Mayer joins us on the phone right now from Maryland. Welcome to Democracy Now!

JANE MAYER: Thanks so much for having me.

AMY GOODMAN: Oh, it’s good to have you with us. If you could speak up as loudly as you can, there’s a lot of static on your phone.

JANE MAYER: Yeah, I’m so sorry about that.

AMY GOODMAN: By chance, do you have another line that we could call?

JANE MAYER: Yeah, let me just see if I can get a better line, because it’s really noisy. Hold on [inaudible].

AMY GOODMAN: OK, thank you very much. While we wait for Jane Mayer to come back to the phone, I want to turn to our other guest in studio here in New York. Jameel Jaffer is an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union and director of the ACLU’s National Security Program. He’s worked on filing Freedom of Information Act requests for records concerning the treatment and detention of prisoners held by the U.S. in Afghanistan, Iraq and Guantanamo Bay and is the author of an upcoming book about torture. It’s called Administration of Torture: A Documentary Record from Washington to Abu Ghraib and Beyond.

Alberto Gonzales has been on the hot seat around the U.S. attorney firings, but you have talked a lot about Alberto Gonzales when it comes to torture. What is the significance? And do you think he should be forced to resign or be fired over this?

JAMEEL JAFFER: Well, it’s actually, I think, a little frustrating that senior officials, including Alberto Gonzales, have not been held accountable for the treatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib, but also elsewhere. We now know that prisoners were abused in U.S. custody all over the world — Afghanistan, Iraq and at Guantanamo Bay. We know that they were abused because of policies that were adopted at the highest levels. Alberto Gonzales is one of the people who participated in constructing the policies that led to the abuse and, in many cases, the torture of prisoners, and yet neither Mr. Gonzales nor any of the other senior officials who were involved in creating those policies have been held to account. I think that, you know, actually, most of the senior officials who should have been held to account have been rewarded instead. They’ve been nominated and confirmed to higher posts. And that is an extremely disturbing and frustrating thing.

AMY GOODMAN: Jane Mayer, you actually begin your piece “The Black Sites” with a phone call that Alberto Gonzales made to Mariane Pearl, the widow of Danny Pearl, the Wall Street Journal reporter who was kidnapped and executed. Can you just lay out that scene?

JANE MAYER: Well, she was somewhat taken aback, because the attorney general called her in, you know, 2007 — I guess it was just this spring, in March, and said, you know, “Good news. We’ve got good news. And we’re just about to feed the wires and let them know the good news,” which was that they’ve gotten a confession in her husband’s murder from Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who was in U.S. custody. And what was weird to her was just that she had been called several years earlier with the same news from Condoleezza Rice, who had told her this secretly already. And so, she wondered, well, why are they putting it out now? I mean, why is what was a secret before public at this point? And she was, I think, somewhat worried about the possibility that it was just kind of being politically exploited in order to change the subject, because the attorney general at that point was just getting embroiled in the U.S. attorney scandal. So, I mean, it certainly did make a front page story in The New York Times and everywhere else.

AMY GOODMAN: In fact, as you write, someone else had already been convicted of the abduction and murder of her husband Daniel Pearl.

JANE MAYER: Oh, yeah. I mean, the circumstances surrounding that case are just such a mess, really, and it’s just a shame, because, I mean, Danny Pearl was a friend of mine and many other people who worked at The Wall Street Journal, and, you know, I think we all would like to see some kind of justice done in the case. And instead, you’ve got somebody in Pakistan who’s been convicted, who’s confessed to the murder at one point, then took back the confession. You’ve got a bunch of accomplices who have been handled in incredibly weirdly suspicious ways.

And then you’ve got this sudden confession from Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, where many people close to the case are, you know, dubious about whether or not it makes any sense that he committed that murder himself. But because of the extralegal process that the CIA has used in fighting the war on terror, it’s very hard to know whether any of these confessions are reliable. When you use these kinds of coercive techniques, you get information, but you don’t necessarily get good information. And then, once you’ve abused people, it’s very hard to put them back inside the regular justice system. So any defense lawyer defending Khalid Sheikh Mohammed is going to say, “Well, everything he said was said under torture, and you can’t believe any of it, and his rights have been violated so you should, you know, free him.” Now, I mean, what happens then is we’ve got the prospect at this point that the upper echelon of al-Qaeda, who are in our custody, the ones that we’ve got, may not be prosecutable because of the kinds of techniques we’ve used to get information out of them. So it really is a growing mess.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to go to break. When we come back, I want you to take us on that journey of when Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was picked up and what happened to him. We’re speaking with investigative reporter Jane Mayer, has an explosive piece in this issue of The New Yorker magazine. It’s called “The Black Sites.” We’re also talking to Jameel Jaffer, who is just coming out with a new book called Administration of Torture. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking about “The Black Sites: A Rare Look Inside the CIA’s Secret Interrogation Program.” That’s the title of Jane Mayer’s latest investigative piece in The New Yorker magazine, beginning with the Alberto Gonzales phone call to Mariane Pearl about Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. But let’s take it from there. How was he picked up? Tell us the story of his detention, Jane.

JANE MAYER: The Pakistanis actually were the people who went in first and grabbed him. The Americans sort of hold back in these situations in order not to create a local backlash in the community. He was found because the U.S. handed out a lot of cash, and somebody turned him in, which is sort of a more traditional method than — it’s nothing new in the war on terror. And anyway, soon after, he was taken into U.S. custody, and he went through a couple different prisons. And it appears, according to the Red Cross report, that he was taken to Afghanistan, where there have been a number of secret U.S. prisons.

And there, he told people, he was stripped naked, he was interrogated, particularly by females, which may have been sort of a part of his humiliation routine. He was hung by the ceiling from his arms in such a way that his toes just barely touched the ground, so that if he fell asleep it would be very painful. This was part of the sleep deprivation process, which kind of breaks down people’s resistance. He said he was put on some kind of dog leash and propelled into the walls, so that he could be sort of smashed into them. What else? He said he was deprived of food and waterboarded five times.

The waterboarding took place in Poland, it appears, where he was taken to a particularly high-tech kind of prison that it has been designated specifically for very high-valued detainees, and only about a dozen U.S. prisoners have been held there, apparently, according to various reports, both the Red Cross and there’s one that the Council of Europe from the European Parliament did. There, he was subjected to a kind of a weird routine that someone described to me as kind of Clockwork Orange sort of thing, where he was put in goggles that blacked out the light and earmuffs of some sort that blocked out sound and deprived of any normal routine, such as meals or anything that would allow him to know what time of day it was or really have any kind of marker in his existence. And it’s a program that’s developed of sort of psychological terror, in a way, to kind of make people feel that they are completely dependent on other people, have no control over their lives, and it’s something that — the technique — that really comes out of the KGB days, way back in the Cold War. And apparently it’s something the CIA has put a lot of research into over time.

Anyway, at that point, somewhere along the way, he did talk a lot, and he was waterboarded, he said, five times. Waterboarding is a technique where people are partially drowned. They feel like they’re going to drown, and they can’t breathe. And it’s described to me by a former CIA agent in this piece as terrifying, but not something that’s life-threatening. They have a doctor standing by when they do it. And it’s, you know, designed to make people feel that if they don’t speak, they will drown. And he was also told, interestingly —

AMY GOODMAN: A medical doctor?

JANE MAYER: What’s that?

AMY GOODMAN: A medical doctor?

JANE MAYER: A medical doctor, which I think is something that I would love to know more about. What kind of medical doctor would be standing by in a situation like that? Waterboarding has been, until the Bush administration, considered completely criminal. People have been court-martialed for it in earlier wars, including in the Vietnam War. So the rules and interpretation of what’s criminal changed after 9/11, and the Bush administration authorized it as one of the safe and legal techniques. And that’s what the CIA thought at the time that they were doing this.

They also — they told KSM, as he’s called in law enforcement circles, that “We’re not going to kill you, but we’re going to take you to the brink of your death and back.” And that is an interesting thing to say, because a threat of torture under international law is just as illegal as torture is; death threats are illegal, as well. But, again, this is a — they’re operating in a grey area, where the rules are unclear.

And anyway, you know, what the people at the CIA claim is that it worked. They got information out of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed that was incredibly valuable and led to the capture of Hambali in Indonesia, who was the terrorist behind the bombings of discotechs there, and also led to an al-Qaeda figure who was very important in Britain. So, you know, there are proponents of this inside the agency and obviously inside the White House.

AMY GOODMAN: Yet you raise serious questions, Jane Mayer, that others raise about the reliability of his claiming credit for, I don’t know, how many terrorist attacks, precisely, because of the kind of breaking down, the torture that he went through.

JANE MAYER: Yeah. It may be because of the breaking down that he went through that he confessed to 31 major terrorist plots that he said he was involved in. It may also just be that, you know, he’s a tremendous boaster, and he wants to build himself up to be a super-terrorist and a martyr and an historic figure. And so, it could just be partly that, as well. And also, he may realize that the credibility of the whole process is made into something of a joke when you start confessing to having, you know, tried to assassinate a variety of presidents, from Jimmy Carter to Bill Clinton. So, you know, it’s just that the whole process is so kind of outside the bounds of normal fact-finding that it becomes very hard for people to differentiate what is real and what’s not real.

One of the findings that, in this story, that really stunned me was that a top CIA official, who I can’t name, but somebody who really knows a lot about this program, said to me that 90 percent of what they got from every kind of technique they used was bogus. So 10 percent of what they got was accurate. And they are arguing that that 10 percent certainly made it worthwhile, and they think it saved people’s lives.

But I think the question, finally, that I have and that I think that Philip Zelikow asks in this story, who was the legal counselor to Condi Rice, I think is the question that the country should be asking maybe, is not “Do these techniques work?” but “Are these the only techniques that work?” And the answer, if you talk to the military and you talk to the FBI, is that there are many other ways to get more reliable information. So we may not need to go to these lengths. And I think it’s certainly something that I’d like to see some public debate on.

AMY GOODMAN: Jameel Jaffer, you talk about the difference between CIA detention, or the similarity, and the Pentagon detention and treatment of prisoners?

JAMEEL JAFFER: Right. I mean, I think that — well, first, I think Jane has done an amazing job in this article of discovering more about what took place in the CIA’s detention facilities. And that’s something that has been secret for far too long now.

But one of the things that struck me in reading the article is the numerous similarities between what happened in CIA custody and what happened in military custody. And if you look at how the military developed its techniques, its techniques that led to the abuse of prisoners at Guantanamo, for example, they were developed in exactly the same way: by reverse-engineering, these SERE methods, the Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape. These are methods that the military used ultimately against prisoners in its custody, and they are apparently the same methods that the CIA used against prisoners in its custody.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain reverse-engineering.

JAMEEL JAFFER: Well, so these are techniques that were initially developed by the military and the CIA to train personnel, U.S. personnel, who might end up in the custody of foreign governments and foreign powers that don’t abide by the Geneva Conventions. And so, it was a way of training people to resist those methods. After 9/11, what happened is that the U.S. government — Attorney General Gonzales, as we were mentioning earlier, was involved in this, as well — reverse-engineered. So it’s flipped around those methods for use, not as training in resistance for US personnel, but rather for use as interrogation methods against prisoners in U.S. custody. And those methods were kind of exaggerated, applied in many different combinations and generally turned into defensive mechanism — turned from defensive mechanisms into mechanisms that can be used affirmatively, aggressively against prisoners.

JANE MAYER: There’s actually a document I draw on in this story that is about the SERE program, and it is from somebody in the Air Force, and it’s being sent to the general counsel at the Pentagon, to William Haynes. And it describes what SERE techniques can be used to break down U.S.-held prisoners. It basically says, in so many words, you know, “This is how they break us down, so why don’t we break them down the same way?” and describes things like how to use stripping people and, you know, taking — literally how to rip their clothes off them along the seams and the buttons so that you do it in a safe way, and various other techniques like that.

I mean, the reason that you see the same techniques, I think, in both the CIA and the military is that the same experts in the SERE technique worked in both places. They were psychologists and instructors in the SERE program who somehow were brought in. And I don’t think we know the full story, really, about how they were brought in. But they were brought in to advise both the military and the CIA on their interrogation protocols.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you explain more about this — and you talk about this particularly with Abu Zubaydah — but who these psychologists are?

JANE MAYER: Well, one of them is a man named James Mitchell. Another is somebody named Bruce Jessen. There are other names that have been bandied about, but I don’t feel comfortable mentioning them, but they were people who had, again, advised on SERE techniques. And so, they knew a lot about the psychological steps people go through when they’re being tortured, and they knew that — you know, their expertise was in resistance, how to resist torture. And so, they — what happened was they wound up being asked, well, “How do we get these hardened al-Qaeda figures to stop resisting?” They believed in — or talked, at least, a lot about a program called “learned helplessness,” which is a psychological theory that springs out of experiments done on animals, particularly on dogs, where they were subjected to so many electric shocks in so many kind of random ways that at a certain point the dogs just gave up trying to escape from a pen, even though the entrance was open. And they talked about sort of — these psychologists talked about how you need to break resistance in the al-Qaeda figures, at least this is according to people I’ve interviewed. The psychologist, I should say, James Mitchell has denied that he was trying to apply learned helplessness to the al-Qaeda figures, but others who were in the room with him describe him talking about it incessantly, trying to break them down to a point where they stop trying to resist.

AMY GOODMAN: Mitchell, Jessen & Associates, based in Spokane, Washington. Jane, can you talk about the use of psychologists being considered a way by the CIA to skirt the Convention Against Torture, among other international treaties?

JANE MAYER: Right. Well, if you take a look at the so-called torture memos, the 40 pages or so of memos that were written by Jay Bybee and John Yoo way back right after 9/11, and you take a look at how they — they’re busy looking at the Convention Against Torture, basically, it seems, trying to figure a way around it. One of the things they argued, these lawyers from the Justice Department, is that if you don’t intend to torture someone, if your intention is not just to inflict terrible pain on them but to get information, then you really can’t be necessarily convicted of torture.

So how do you prove that your intent is pure? Well, one of the things they suggest is if you consult with experts who will say that what you’re doing is just interrogation, then that might also be a good legal defense. And so, one of the roles that these SERE psychologists played was a legal role. They were the experts who were consulted in order to argue that the program was not a program of torture. They are to say, “We’ve got PhDs, and this is standard psychology, and this is a legitimate way to question people.”

AMY GOODMAN: You said there has to be debate, and next week, the weekend of the 16th, 17th, 18th, 19th of August, at the Moscone Center in San Francisco, the APA, the American Psychological Association, is having its annual meeting, and there promises to be fierce debate. They’re actually going to have a track of debates with military psychologists and other psychologists around the issue of torture. There’s going to be a major protest on Friday night outside, I believe, the Moscone Center of psychologists protesting the American Psychological Association not taking a stand similar to the American Psychiatric Association, American Medical Association, refusing to participate in these coerced interrogations.

JANE MAYER: You know, psychologists have been kind of playing footsy much more with the military here. And it’s interesting, James Mitchell, who is the psychologist we’ve been talking about, is not a member of the APA, though. He was at one point, I gather, and is no longer, so he’s not in a position where he could be sanctioned in some way for what he did.

AMY GOODMAN: I guess the question is how many other psychologists are involved in this, and you yourself, wrote about reverse-engineering at Guantanamo and talked about “biscuit” [BSCT] psychologists.

JANE MAYER: Right. And some of the psychologists who were key players in this actually are officials at the APA who have set the policy here. So there’s a bit of a sort of a sense of the foxes guarding the chicken house.

AMY GOODMAN: Jane Mayer, you talk about this explosive but internal top-secret report of the International Committee of the Red Cross. Can you talk about, as much as you can, how you got a hold of it? But —

JANE MAYER: Well, I didn’t. I wish I could say I did get a hold of it, but I did not. It is a very, very closely held report. The CIA has resisted allowing any outsiders to come in and see what they do in these black prison sites or to interview any of their detainees for five years. And finally, when they transferred the detainees to Guantanamo last fall, the ICRC, the Red Cross, as we call it here, got access to the 14 that they transferred and was able to interview them and hear their stories. And I would love to have read the report. I can’t say that I did. All I was able to do was to finally piece together bits from that report by talking to people who have seen it.

And it’s apparently a scathing and explosive report that says that the United States was running a program that in the eyes of the Red Cross was potentially criminal and also a violation of the Convention Against Torture, the Geneva Conventions, and, you know, was tantamount to torture.

So, another thing that’s interesting about what’s in the report is that the details given by the detainees apparently are very, very similar. They kind of describe almost a kind of a routine that each of them went through. Yet they haven’t been able to speak to each other. So at a certain point, I guess, it becomes — even though they are allegations that are unproven by terrorists, it becomes more credible to the Red Cross, when they all tell the same story and they haven’t had a chance to speak to one another.

AMY GOODMAN: While you didn’t get to see the report, who did? Who do you understand — how high up did this go in the White House?

JANE MAYER: Oh, it’s really — the program — well, certainly the program has been authorized by the President. The program, it’s very unlike Abu Ghraib, where you might be able to argue that that was kind of the antics of unsupervised soldiers. The CIA’s program is the opposite. It is supervised and authorized from the very top of our government.

And who saw this report? The director of the CIA, the general counsel of the CIA, the secretary of state, her lawyer John Bellinger, and some people over at the NSC and then some people on the Senate and House Intelligence Committees, the Oversight Committees. But they are not allowed to speak about it. They’re not even allowed to speak about whether the report exists, in fact.

AMY GOODMAN: So you’re saying the president clearly knew. What do you make of his statements, “We do not engage in torture”? Or what do you make of the Presidential Scholars, the high school kids, who went to the White House, met with President Bush, handed him a handwritten note signed by more than a third of them, more than 50 of them, saying not to participate in extraordinary rendition, not to participate in torture — he looked up at them and said, “We do not torture”?

JANE MAYER: Well, I think he believes that. I mean, it’s a matter of definitions here. You know, and the way that his administration defines “torture,” he’s arguing that this doesn’t meet that standard. Now, it happens that one of the most conservative and credible organizations on human rights in the world, the Red Cross, disagrees with him. But the lawyers in his administration have told him that what they’re doing is legal. In some ways, I think you’ve got to fault the lawyers for not telling him such things as that waterboarding was always illegal before they okayed it.

And, you know, it’s very hard to know really what level of knowledge he has. I mean, you certainly read in Ron Suskind’s book, for instance, that he was following these interrogations closely and asking daily, you know, “What have we got? What are we getting from these guys?” He was saying, according to — I think it was in Suskind’s book — that Abu Zubaydah, when he learned that he was put on painkiller, he sort of scoffed and said, you know, “Why did they do that?” And this was after Abu Zubaydah had been shot in the groin and other places.

And, you know, it’s hard, I have to say — I’d like to be really careful. The New Yorker is a very careful news organization, and we try to stick with the facts. And I really do not know exactly what the president knew in this and how closely he was following it. And, you know, again, it’s why I really think it would be great for the country if there was a little more transparency in all this and a little more debate.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Jane Mayer, I want to thank you very much for being with us. Her piece this week in The New Yorker magazine is “The Black Sites: A Rare Look Inside the CIA’s Secret Interrogation Program.” When we come back, we’ll continue with Jameel Jaffer, and then we go to clips of the Democratic presidential debate last night in Chicago before a union audience, before the AFL-CIO. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: Jameel Jaffer with us for a few more minutes, a litigator for the American Civil Liberties Union, author of the forthcoming book, Administration of Torture, which is really a documentary record from Washington to Abu Ghraib and beyond, documents from the various agencies. We were just talking to Jane Mayer about what the president knew. You’re getting thousands of pages of documents. What does President Bush know?

JAMEEL JAFFER: Well, you know, one of the things that we are still litigating—I mean, this comes out of—the book comes out of a Freedom of Information Act request that the ACLU filed several months before the Abu Ghraib photographs became public. And the documents show that abuse was widespread in U.S. facilities overseas, but I think even more troublingly that the policies that led to that abuse came from the very top. And we are litigating over a document right now. It’s a presidential directive that set up the CIA’s detention centers overseas. So we do know that the president set up those detention centers, that it was his order that set those up.


JAMEEL JAFFER: We don’t know where the—we don’t know where the detention facilities are. We don’t have access to the document, because initially the government said to us that even to confirm or deny the existence of that document would jeopardize national security. Now, that is a claim that they’ve backed down on in the course of this litigation, but the document itself still remains under seal in government custody. And that’s something that I and my colleagues, including Amrit Singh, who is my co-author on the book, have been litigating and will continue to litigate over the next few months.

AMY GOODMAN: And the whole issue of torture, Bush to Cheney—what did Cheney know?

JAMEEL JAFFER: You know, I think that Jane said—Jane was exactly right when she said that there’s a lot we still don’t know about what—what senior officials knew and when they knew it and what role they had in creating these policies. What we do know raises a lot of questions, a lot of serious questions, about their complicity, about their responsibility for these policies. But what is somewhat troubling, I think, is that there is no debate, or there’s very little debate, going on right now about that issue.

AMY GOODMAN: Why do you think the Democrats have not held hearings on this specific issue?

JAMEEL JAFFER: You know, I think that the administration has been very successful in creating two different distracting narratives. One is the Abu-Ghraib narrative, which is essentially one that proposes that the perpetrators of this kind of abuse were rogue soldiers. And the other narrative is the ticking bomb narrative. Whenever people think about abuse of prisoners in U.S. custody, they think about one of those two things. And I think that those two narratives are very far from the truth about what actually happened.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you for being with us. I look forward to having you back. Our guest, Jameel Jaffer, has a forthcoming book called Administration of Torture.

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