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Profile: Matthew Zirbel
Matthew Zirbel was a participant or observer in the following events:
CIA officer Matthew Zirbel, who is in charge of the Salt Pit prison in Afghanistan, asks for guidance on how he should manage the prison. However, the requests are largely ignored, apparently by his immediate boss, the CIA station chief in Afghanistan, known only as Paul P. Zirbel is a junior officer and has never run a prison before, which is presumably one of the reasons he makes the requests. Zirbel’s use of the water dousing method will later cause the death of a detainee (see November 20, 2002) and the CIA’s inspector general will find that the lack of guidance was a contributory factor leading up to the death. [Associated Press, 3/28/2010]
An Afghan detainee dies of hypothermia while being brutalized by CIA interrogators at a secret prison north of Kabul code-named the “Salt Pit” (see After October 2001). The detainee, whose name is Gul Rahman, is considered uncooperative (see November 2002). [Washington Post, 3/3/2005; ABC News, 11/18/2005; Associated Press, 3/28/2010] He had originally been arrested in Pakistan, and then brought to Afghanistan. [Washington Post, 9/19/2009] An inexperienced junior CIA case officer named Matthew Zirbel, who is in charge of the Salt Pit, orders Rahman to be stripped semi-naked, chained to the concrete floor, and left overnight without blankets. [Washington Post, 3/3/2005; ABC News, 11/18/2005; Mahoney and Johnson, 10/9/2009, pp. 29 ] The incident will later be confirmed by four government officials. Afghan guards paid by the CIA and working under agency supervision take Rahman to an abandoned warehouse, drag him around on the concrete floor, causing bruising and lacerations, before chaining him in his cell. When night falls, the temperature plummets. Rahman is found in the morning, frozen to death. A CIA medic quickly autopsies him and states that “hypothermia” is the cause of death, and guards bury the body in an unmarked, unacknowledged cemetery used by Afghan forces. The man’s family is not notified, and his remains are never returned for a proper burial. The man is not listed on any registry of captives, not even as a so-called “ghost detainee.” One government official says simply, “He just disappeared from the face of the earth.” Zirbel will later be promoted. [Washington Post, 3/3/2005; ABC News, 11/18/2005] Zirbel’s supervisor, the CIA chief of station in Afghanistan known only as Paul P., will go on to play a role in incidents of detainee abuse in Iraq, although details about this are unknown. [Washington Post, 9/19/2009; Harper's, 3/28/2010] Colleagues later describe Zirbel as “bright… eager, [and] full of energy,” and say that he was placed in charge of the facility because “there were not enough senior-level volunteers,” according to one senior intelligence officer. “It’s not a job just anyone would want. More senior people said, ‘I don’t want to do that.’ There was a real notable absence of high-ranking people” in Afghanistan. Moreover, the officer will add: “[T]he CIA did not have a deep cadre of people who knew how to run prisons. It was a new discipline. There’s a lot of room to get in trouble.” The CIA will brief the chairmen and vice chairmen of the House and Senate Intelligence Committees on the death, but at least one official will say the briefing is incomplete. Senator John D. Rockefeller (D-WV), the ranking minority member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, will ask the committee chairman, Pat Roberts (R-KS), to investigate Rahman’s death, but Roberts will refuse. No one is sure if Rahman had any real connection to al-Qaeda or the Taliban. “He was probably associated with people who were associated with al-Qaeda,” one US government official will say. [Washington Post, 3/3/2005; ABC News, 11/18/2005]
CIA Assistant Deputy Director for Operations (ADDO) Stephen Kappes coaches a CIA officer in the field on what to write in a cable about the death of a detainee at the agency’s Salt Pit prison. The detainee, Gul Rahman, had been doused with water and left in the cold, later being found dead (see November 20, 2002). Reporter Jeff Stein will say that Kappes coaches the “base chief” over the cable, so presumably this means the officer responsible for the prison. [Washingtonian, 3/25/2010] This officer’s full name is not known, but his last name is Zirbel. [Mahoney and Johnson, 10/9/2009 ] According to two officials who read a report by the CIA’s inspector general on the killing, Kappes coaches Zirbel on how to deal with the incident. “The ADDO’s direction to the field officer anticipated that something worse had occurred and so gave him directions on how to report the situation in his cable,” one of the officials will say. “The ADDO basically told the officer, ‘Don’t put something in the report that can’t be proved or that you are going to have trouble explaining.’ In essence, the officer was told: Be careful what you put in your cable because the investigators are coming out there and they will pick your cable apart, and any discrepancies will be difficult to explain.” As a result, the official will say, Zirbel’s cable is “minimalist in its reporting” on what happened to Rahman. “It seems to me the ADDO should have been telling him, ‘Report the truth, don’t hold anything back, there’s an investigative team coming out, be honest and forthright. But that was not the message that was given to the chief of base by the ADDO.” CIA spokesman Paul Gimigliano will later deny this, calling this account “pathetic,” but will not say exactly what is wrong with it. [Washingtonian, 3/25/2010]
The CIA’s office of the inspector general begins an investigation of the killing of detainee Gul Rahman at the agency’s Salt Pit black site in Afghanistan (see November 20, 2002). The investigation begins after the agency’s inspector general, John Helgerson, is notified of the incident by management (see Shortly After November 20, 2002). It is unclear whether the inspector general issues a separate report on this incident or whether his office’s conclusions about it are contained in a general report on the effectiveness of the CIA’s detention and interrogation program (see May 7, 2004). Whatever the case, the inspector general’s conclusions focus on two agency officials, an officer named Matthew Zirbel, who caused Rahman’s death, and his boss, the CIA’s station chief in Afghanistan, known only as Paul P. The investigation finds that Zirbel displayed poor judgement in leaving Rahman to die, but that he made repeated requests for guidance that were largely ignored. [Associated Press, 3/28/2010]
Officials at the CIA refer a case in which a detainee named Gul Rahman apparently froze to death at the Salt Pit prison in Afghanistan (see November 20, 2002) to the Justice Department for examination. [Washington Post, 9/19/2009] The full name of the CIA officer who caused the detainee to die is not known, although his last name is Zirbel. [Mahoney and Johnson, 10/9/2009, pp. 29 ] The case is reviewed with an eye to prosecution by the US Attorneys Office for the Eastern District of Virginia, where one of the office’s top prosecutors works on it. [Washington Post, 9/19/2009] This is apparently one of eight such referrals around this time. [New York Times, 10/23/2005] According to the New York Times, the Justice Department will be “reviewing its jurisdiction” in the case in May 2005. [New York Times, 5/22/2004] The department will decide not to prosecute in October 2005 (see Mid-October 2005), but will re-examine the case in 2009 (see August 24, 2009).
The CIA’s Executive Director Kyle “Dusty” Foggo reviews the case of the killing of Afghan detainee Gul Rahman at the Salt Pit black site in 2002 (see November 20, 2002). However, he takes no action against the two officers involved in the death, one named Matthew Zirbel, who had Rahman doused with water and left with little clothing in the cold, and one known as Paul P., Zirbel’s boss who failed to provide him with the proper guidance. [Associated Press, 3/28/2010] The timing of the review is unknown, but it must occur after Foggo becomes executive director in November 2004. [New York Times, 8/12/2009; Associated Press, 3/28/2010]
The Justice Department decides not to prosecute in most cases where detainees were abused and killed by the CIA. The cases, of which there are apparently eight, had been referred to the department by the CIA’s inspector general (see (August 2004)) and were investigated primarily by the US Attorneys Office for the Eastern District of Virginia, although officials at department headquarters in Washington are also involved in the decision not to prosecute. Although some of the cases are still technically under review at this time, the department indicates it does not intend to bring charges. [New York Times, 10/23/2005] The cases include:
The death of Iraqi prisoner Manadel al-Jamadi in CIA custody in November 2003 (see Between 4:30 a.m. and 5:30 a.m. November 4, 2003 and (7:00 a.m.) November 4, 2003);
The asphyxiation of Major General Abed Hamed Mowhoush in Iraq, also in November 2003 (see November 24 or 25, 2003 and November 26, 2003). This incident involved the military, as well as at least one CIA contractor; [New York Times, 10/23/2005]
The intimidation of al-Qaeda leader Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri by a CIA officer named “Albert” using a gun and drill (see September 11, 2003).
The death of detainee Gul Rahman, who froze to death at the Salt Pit prison in Afghanistan (see November 20, 2002). The case was examined by prosecutors, but, in the end, a recommendation not to prosecute the officer who caused the detainee to die is made. [Washington Post, 9/19/2009] The officer’s first name is not known, although his last name is Zirbel. [Mahoney and Johnson, 10/9/2009, pp. 29 ] The decision is made because prosecutors conclude that the prison was outside the reach of US law; although the CIA funded it and vetted its Afghan guards, it was technically an Afghan prison. In addition, it is unclear whether Rahman, who was captured in Pakistan and then taken to Afghanistan, would have died from injuries sustained during his capture, rather than by freezing. Although hypothermia was listed as the cause of death in the autopsy, the body was not available to investigators. According to the Washington Post, “questions remain whether hypothermia was used as a cover story in part to protect people who had beaten the captive.” However, according to a “senior official who took part in the review,” the decision not to prosecute in this case is not initially that clear, and an indictment is considered. However, the prosecutors decide not to press charges against Zirbel and a memo explaining this decision is drafted. An official involved in the review will later say there is “absolutely no pressure” from the Justice Department’s management to decide not to prosecute. However, a later report by the Post will indicate there may be a split among prosecutors over the decision, and that a political appointee, US Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia Paul McNulty, assesses the case. McNulty will be nominated for the position of deputy attorney general around this time (see October 21, 2005). [Washington Post, 9/19/2009]
However, one CIA employee, a contractor named David Passaro, has been charged with detainee abuse (see June 18-21, 2003). [New York Times, 10/23/2005] The department will begin a second review of some or all of these cases in 2009 (see August 24, 2009).
Attorney General Eric Holder announces he has appointed a federal prosecutor from Connecticut, John Durham, as a special prosecutor to investigate whether CIA interrogators broke any federal laws. [US Department of Justice, 8/24/2009; Washington Post, 8/25/2009]
Decision Stems from CIA IG Report - The investigation is preliminary in nature, and will decide whether a full investigation is warranted. Holder bases his decision in part on a just-released 2004 report on torture by the CIA’s inspector general (see August 24, 2009) and a Justice Department recommendation that there should be an investigation of about a dozen cases of possible abuse and torture from Iraq and Afghanistan (see First Half of August 2009). According to the conclusion of the CIA report: “The enhanced interrogation techniques used by the agency under the CTC [Counterterrorist Center] program are inconsistent with the public policy positions that the United States has taken regarding human rights. Unauthorized, improvised, inhumane, and undocumented detention and interrogation techniques were used.” [New York Times, 8/24/2009; MSNBC, 8/25/2009] The review is also prompted by a report by the Justice Department’s Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR) into memoranda drafted by the department’s Office of Legal Counsel related to “enhanced interrogation techniques.” The OPR report recommends the department re-examine previous decisions not to prosecute in some cases related to the interrogation of certain detainees. The aim of the preliminary review is to find whether federal offenses were committed in some detainee interrogations. [US Department of Justice, 8/24/2009] According to the Washington Post, the review will focus on “a very small number of cases,” including one in which a CIA officer named Zirbel caused Afghan prisoner Gul Rahman to freeze to death at the Salt Pit prison in Afghanistan (see November 20, 2002) and the intimidation of al-Qaeda leader Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri by a CIA officer named “Albert” using a handgun and drill (see Between December 28, 2002 and January 1, 2003). These cases and the others were previously referred by the CIA inspector general to the Justice Department for examination, but the department decided not to prosecute (see (August 2004) and Mid-October 2005). [Washington Post, 9/19/2009; Associated Press, 9/7/2010]
Durham a Veteran Prosecutor - Durham has been investigating the CIA’s destruction of videotapes of interrogations that may have documented instances of torture (see January 2, 2008). Although Durham has a low public profile, he is a veteran of numerous high-level prosecutions, including cases against Boston-area organized crime figures, corrupt FBI agents, and former Governor John Rowland (R-CT). Durham is considered apolitical, and has worked closely with the Justice Department under both Democratic and Republican administrations. Connecticut defense lawyer Hugh Keefe calls him “the go-to guy for Justice whenever they get a hot case.” Former Connecticut prosecutor Mark Califano calls Durham’s approach to investigations “clinical,” and says he has “very rarely” concluded a case without bringing criminal charges. “He likes to make cases when there is evidence there,” Califano says. “You’ve got to balance whether that kind of information exists.… You can’t move forward if you don’t have the evidence.” [US Department of Justice, 8/24/2009; MSNBC, 8/25/2009; Washington Post, 8/25/2009] Boston prosecutors and defense attorneys have characterized Durham as “honest” and “tenacious.” Warren Bamford, who heads Boston’s FBI office, said Durham “kind of has blinders on in the sense that he doesn’t worry about the politics and all the other stuff that might be swirling around, and I think that’s really what makes him so successful.” [Boston Globe, 1/7/2008] In a statement, Holder says, “Mr. Durham, who is a career prosecutor with the Department of Justice and who has assembled a strong investigative team of experienced professionals, will recommend to me whether there is sufficient predication for a full investigation into whether the law was violated in connection with the interrogation of certain detainees.” [Think Progress, 8/24/2009]
Senator: Durham a 'First-Rate' Choice - Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) is enthusiastic about the choice of Durham. He says he has worked with Durham before, while Whitehouse was US Attorney for Rhode Island, and calls the prosecutor “very professional” and “a first-rate choice,” adding that Durham has “a very good grounding in this because he has been doing the investigation into the destruction of the torture tapes.” [MSNBC, 8/25/2009]
No Acknowledged 'Break' with White House - Holder notes that he will be criticized for undermining the CIA, and may be going against abjurations by President Obama to “move forward” instead of focusing on past transgressions, but says the facts left him little choice. “As attorney general, my duty is to examine the facts and to follow the law,” he says in a statement. “Given all of the information currently available, it is clear to me that this review is the only responsible course of action for me to take.… I have concluded that the information known to me warrants opening a preliminary review into whether federal laws were violated in connection with the interrogation of specific detainees at overseas locations.” White House officials say Holder’s decision does not mark a break between the White House and the Justice Department on their policies toward interrogations. Deputy press secretary Bill Burton tells reporters that “ultimately, the decisions on who is investigated and who is prosecuted are up to the attorney general.… The president thinks that Eric Holder, who he appointed as a very independent attorney general, should make those decisions.” [New York Times, 8/24/2009; Washington Post, 8/24/2009; MSNBC, 8/25/2009] Justice Department spokespersons refuse to say who will, and who will not, be investigated. [TPM Muckraker, 8/25/2009]
Entity Tags: Mark Califano, John Durham, Warren Bamford, Office of Professional Responsibility, Office of Legal Counsel (DOJ), Hugh Keefe, Obama administration, Eric Holder, Barack Obama, Bush administration (43), Matthew Zirbel, Central Intelligence Agency, “Albert”, Bill Burton, US Department of Justice, Sheldon Whitehouse
Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives
The House Judiciary Committee accidently reveals the surname of the covert CIA officer who caused the death of Afghan detainee Gul Rahman in November 2002. The officer, whose last name is now known to be Zirbel, had Rahman doused with water then left him with few clothes in the cold. Rahman was later found dead (see November 20, 2002). The surname is uncovered in a footnote to a document drafted by lawyers acting for Jay Bybee, who is accused of improper conduct over his drafting of memos that effectively authorised the CIA to torture prisoners, which the committee posts at its website. Although sections of the document are redacted, it appears censors failed to remove Zirbel’s name in this one instance. After the document is highlighted in the press in late March, the name will be redacted in the version of it posted at the committee’s website, but will survive elsewhere on the Internet. [Mahoney and Johnson, 10/9/2009 ; Harper's, 3/28/2010; New Yorker, 3/31/2010]
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