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Exporting Torture: Former Chicago Police Detective Tied to Brutality at Guantánamo

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A former Guantánamo Bay interrogator involved in torture was also a longtime Chicago police officer known for abusing people of color. According to The Guardian, Richard Zuley spent three decades as a notoriously brutal detective on the Chicago police force. From 1977 to 2007, Zuley used tactics including torture, threats and abuse to elicit confessions from suspects, the majority of whom were not white. One of those confessions was later ruled to be false, and the sentence was vacated. Zuley’s methods included shackling suspects to walls through eyebolts for several hours, allegedly planting evidence, and issuing threats of harm to family members and sentences of the death penalty unless a suspect confessed. Zuley was also accused of brutal methods at Guantánamo Bay, where he was a reserve officer in charge of interrogating a prisoner who said he made a false confession due to torture. The Guardian report comes just after the notorious Chicago police commander Jon Burge was released from a halfway house after he served four-and-a-half years for lying under oath about torturing prisoners in Chicago in the 1970s and 1980s. We speak to Spencer Ackerman, national security editor at The Guardian.

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

NERMEEN SHAIKH: We’re speaking to Spencer Ackerman of The Guardian. Last week, he published a story headlined “Bad Lieutenant: American Police Brutality, Exported from Chicago to Guantánamo.” The article looked at Richard Zuley, who used torture to extract confessions from minorities for years in Chicago and then went on to work at Guantánamo. This is a clip of Lathierial Boyd, one of the innocent men Zuley interrogated in Chicago.

LATHIERIAL BOYD: I was mounted to the wall and floor. I remained in that room through two lineups. And I remember I asked—after that second lineup, I asked Zuley if anybody had picked me out of the lineup, and he said no. And I said, “See, I told you. You got the wrong guy. I haven’t done anything.” He smiled at me and said, “We’re charging you anyway.”

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Lathierial Boyd served 23 years in prison before he was found to be wrongfully convicted. So, Spencer, can you talk more about Richard Zuley and how you came across his police record?

SPENCER ACKERMAN: Sure. The Guardian excerpted the Guantánamo Bay manuscript of Mohamedou Ould Slahi, whose interrogation at Guantánamo Bay is just one of the most brutal that we’ve ever known about thus far. And my editor asked me if I would go through the manuscript ahead of the excerpt and just see if there were any news stories we might want to do out of it. And one of the footnotes mentioned that in government reports and other sources, including a really fantastic piece of reporting by Jess Bravin of The Wall Street Journal, his 2013 book, The Terror Courts, the lead interrogator during the most intense torturous period of Slahi’s interrogation was a Chicago police officer named Richard Zuley.

And I thought, “Well, I had never heard about a U.S. police officer being in any U.S. military or intelligence interrogation facility. What must his record in Chicago have been like?” and, from there, found some court cases, including Lathierial Boyd’s federal civil rights case against Zuley, got in contact with his lawyer, found out about some more cases and started pulling records to find out what this guy’s record in Chicago was. And we found some really ominous parallels between how he policed Chicago streets and what he did in Guantánamo Bay torture centers.

AMY GOODMAN: And what happened with Lathierial ultimately?

SPENCER ACKERMAN: Lathierial Boyd, after 23 years of being put in prison on a murder that there was never any physical evidence that he committed, was found in 2013 by an investigation from the Cook County state’s attorney to have his conviction voided, as it was completely baseless, and they found there was no evidence that could justify keeping him in prison, even though he had served 23 years.

AMY GOODMAN: And the suit?

SPENCER ACKERMAN: And now, after he got out, they file—Lathierial Boyd and his attorney, Kathleen Zellner, filed a civil rights suit to try and get some kind of justice for Lathierial and, as well, try and create both more disclosure around the way Chicago police practices have operated, including Richard Zuley.

AMY GOODMAN: So, let’s go back to one of Zuley’s victims—this one, though, not in Chicago, in Guantánamo—Mohamedou Ould Slahi. During interrogations at Guantánamo, you report—approved then by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld—Slahi detailed the treatment in his memoir, which was just published. In this clip from The Guardian’s video report about his case, we hear his lawyer Nancy Hollander and actor Dominic West reading from his diary.

NANCY HOLLANDER: Mohamedou was subjected to a whole list of torture techniques that had been approved by the secretary of defense.

YAHID OULD SLAHI: [translated] They told him they had taken my mother from Mauritania and put her in a single cell in Guantánamo. And if he didn’t give officials the information they expected, she would be severely tortured.

NANCY HOLLANDER: Significantly, they included what in Guantánamo was known as the “frequent flyer program.” And they called it that because they wouldn’t let people sleep. And they proceeded to torture him.

MOHAMEDOU OULD SLAHI: [read by Dominic West] “Blindfold the [expletive] if he tries to look.” One of them hit me hard across the face, and quickly put the goggles on my eyes, ear muffs on my ears, and a small bag over my head. They tightened the chains around my ankles and my wrists; afterwards, I started to bleed. I thought they were going to execute me.

AMY GOODMAN: Mohamedou Ould Slahi remains at Guantánamo to this day and is yet to be charged with a crime. Spencer Ackerman, if you can talk about this and then also talk about whether the Chicago media is following up on these explosive reports where you’re making these connections?

SPENCER ACKERMAN: Yeah, so, it wasn’t just that the military couldn’t charge—or anyone couldn’t charge—Slahi with anything. Military investigators for the prosecution found that the reason why they couldn’t charge him with anything is what Richard Zuley did to Mohamedou Slahi, that the torture that Slahi was subjected to by the United States of America so tainted all of the evidence in this case that it became fundamentally unchargeable. In 2010, by the way, a federal judge ruled in Slahi’s habeas case that he had to be let go. Barack Obama’s Justice Department has appealed that decision, and that’s why Slahi is still in Guantánamo Bay today.

Now, as we were reporting this, we found that there were these connections between the way Zuley tortured Slahi and his police work as a Chicago detective. Slahi was short-shackled for extended periods of time. We found that happened to Lathierial Boyd. We found that happened to Benita Johnson. We found that happened to Andre Griggs. Johnson and Griggs, for instance, were shackled for between, they say, 24 and 30 hours in their cases. Andre Griggs was suffering through heroin withdrawal during that time, and he wasn’t given medication for that.

This was done as a method to try and get Griggs and Johnson to confess to crimes that they say they never committed. Those confessions formed the vast majority of the evidence against them. And this was something that we saw, as well, Zuley doing at Guantánamo. He told Slahi, “You can either be a witness, or you can be a defendant.” All he had to do was confess. Slahi’s torture, much like with Griggs and with Johnson, was so bad that eventually he just said, “I’ll sign whatever you put in front of me.” As he put it in his book, “If you want to buy, I am selling.”

Before that happened, as just one of the methods that Zuley employed, Zuley threatened to have his mother taken to Guantánamo Bay in what he described as its all-male environment. I don’t think it’s particularly hard to understand that to be a rape threat.

AMY GOODMAN: Very quickly, before we go, Chicago has a long history of this issue of police torture. This month, the notorious Chicago police commander, Jon Burge, was released from a halfway house after he served four-and-a-half years for lying under oath. But what he’s accused of was leading a torture ring that interrogated more than a hundred African-American men in Chicago in the 1970s and '80s. They routinely used electric shock, suffocation with plastic bags, typewriter covers, among other methods, to extract confessions from men who were later shown to be innocent. The Chicago Torture Justice Memorials Project documented some of the men's stories. This is Shadeed Mu’min.

SHADEED MU’MIN: He handcuffed me real tight, know what I’m saying? He cut my circulation off. He went out of the room and stayed, I guess, for about an hour, and then came back and tried to talk to me. What could I tell him, you know, about the robbery? I told him, “I couldn’t tell you anything about no robbery. I know nothing about what you’re talking about.” And he said then that, “Oh, you’re going to play tough.” Said, “You will tell us, before you leave here, what we want to know.” Said, “I’ve been known to get out of peoples what I want.” He got real upset and said, “You will talk, you black mother [bleep].” He said, “I’ll make you talk, or kill you as I want.” So, I still don’t understand. So he—in anger, he rushed to the typewriter and grabbed the plastic cover off there and just crammed it down over my head. And it’s like he was a madman. And several officers were helping him. But I was trying to get my arms out from behind the chair, but I couldn’t do anything. And I passed out. And like I say, he gave me a breath of air. And I came to, conscious. And he—”You ready to talk?” And I said, “I don’t have anything to tell you still.” So he do it again. The third time, out of the third time, that’s when I told him, I said, “I’ll tell you whatever you want to know, man. Just don’t do this no more.”

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Shadeed Mu’min speaking about his interrogation by former Chicago police commander Jon Burge. Statistics compiled by the People’s Law Office show Chicago has paid at least $64 million in settlements and judgments in civil rights cases related to Burge’s police abuses alone. The Chicago Reader reported some of the Burge techniques may have been learned when he was in Vietnam, where he served as a military policeman. Spencer, we’re going to end on Jon Burge. Any connection to Richard Zuley?

SPENCER ACKERMAN: So, not directly. Even though they served in Chicago around the same time, supposedly, from everyone I’ve talked to, including Flint Taylor, who’s Burge’s probably chief legal investigator, doesn’t seem like they actually worked together. Nevertheless, there is a context for this in Chicago. There’s a long-standing tradition of police abuses, primarily against African-American residents of Chicago. It sits now, with what we’re reporting, at this uncomfortable intersection between both that long and nefarious history of abuse against African Americans, primarily, in Chicago and this post-9/11 era in which secret detentions, longtime interrogations without charge, and so forth, seem to be now increasingly influencing domestic police work.

AMY GOODMAN: And is the Chicago media picking it up, especially in this time of a mayoral re-election race?

SPENCER ACKERMAN: They seem to be running reports based primarily on the Chicago police denial given to us. We’ll see if that changes.

AMY GOODMAN: Spencer Ackerman, national security editor at The Guardian, where he’s published a two-part series on police abuse in Chicago, “The Disappeared: Chicago Police Detain Americans at Abuse-Laden 'Black Site'” and “Bad Lieutenant: American Police Brutality, Exported from Chicago to Guantánamo.” We’ll link to them at our website, as well as your interview, as well, with Victoria Suter.

This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. When we come back, we go to northern Iraq, to Erbil, to speak with journalist Patrick Cockburn. Stay with us.

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