Documents Raise Disturbing Questions About Detainee Abuse Under Obama

Right after he took office, Barack Obama promised to do away with torture. But documents obtained by BuzzFeed News show for the first time how a harsh interrogation tactic thrived on his watch in Afghanistan. Human rights advocates said it could be inhumane and illegal.

Two days after his inauguration in 2009, President Barack Obama formally renounced waterboarding and other “enhanced interrogation techniques” of the George W. Bush administration. But military documents obtained by BuzzFeed News show for the first time that at least one harsh interrogation tactic thrived on Obama’s watch.

Officially called “separation,” the procedure physically isolates a prisoner so that he cannot communicate with anyone but U.S. personnel, such as guards, interrogators, and medics. Human rights advocates, including the United Nations special rapporteur on torture, have denounced separation as solitary confinement by another name — a charge the U.S. denies — and say it could amount to inhumane and illegal treatment all by itself.

But often, the documents show, separation was approved for use in combination with other interrogation techniques, raising additional alarms.

Human rights advocates have denounced “separation" as solitary confinement by another name.

Under the government’s interrogation rules — tucked away in an addendum to the Army Field Manual called “Appendix M” — separation can be imposed together with tactics such as restrictions on sleep and psychological approaches including a technique called “Fear Up,” which heightens fear to get prisoners to talk. Human rights advocates say that the combination of methods could easily add up to abuse or even outright torture, which the U.N. defines as inflicting “severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental,” to make a person talk.

In response to detailed questions, a Defense Department spokesperson wrote that interrogators apply separation in compliance “with all applicable standards of humane treatment” and that they must obtain special permission to use it “on a case-by-case basis when there is belief/concern the detainee possess [sic] information of potential intelligence value.”

But how often separation has actually been authorized, and under what circumstances, has been secret — until now. The documents, obtained after a lawsuit under the Freedom of Information Act, are heavily redacted, yet they evoke a disturbingly different picture of interrogation practices from the humane, tightly controlled image the Obama White House has put forth. They show the following:

  • The U.S. authorized separation for at least 58 detainees over a 16-month period in 2009 and 2010 at the detention facility inside the huge U.S. military base in Bagram, Afghanistan.

  • Only once did military lawyers and top brass deny a request to apply separation. Indeed, they approved requests even in cases where military lawyers expressed reservations. The father of one of those prisoners told BuzzFeed his son is now trying to pay off debts that his family incurred while he was captured.

  • In at least 23 cases, U.S. military officials explicitly requested to use other interrogation techniques in combination with separation. In one request, military officials asked to employ a strategy “in conjunction” with an already restricted technique. As was the case in all documents that requested to use other restricted methods, each one of those other methods was blacked out from the documents by military censors, raising questions about whether the totality of interrogation methods used by the U.S. rises to the level of torture or inhumane treatment.

  • In many cases, the prisoners were already being kept in “segregation” for days or even weeks before interrogators formally asked for permission to apply separation. Segregation is a different kind of isolation, which the military said is not used as an interrogation tactic but for other reasons, such as to quarantine a sick prisoner or ensure his safety.

  • In at least 21 cases, U.S. officials said detainees were already cooperating with U.S. forces when they asked to apply separation. At least three prisoners subject to separation were later deemed not a threat to the United States and were released to their families.

  • The U.S. has almost certainly authorized separation on many more occasions than those revealed in the documents, which cover only one place, Bagram, and one time, January 2010 through April 2011. Other parts of Afghanistan, let alone other countries such as Iraq, are not covered. The Defense Department did not even say whether the 58 cases detailed in the documents represent a complete accounting of separation authorized for use at Bagram during the 16-month time period. There could be more.

  • A separate military document obtained by BuzzFeed News lists more than 300 reports of alleged abuse by U.S. soldiers, interrogators, and interpreters at Bagram and other detention facilities throughout Afghanistan from January 2011 to January 2012. Seven of those who said they suffered mistreatment were subject to separation, but it is not known if their alleged abuse happened during the time they were under separation.

To obtain the documents, BuzzFeed News filed a Freedom of Information Act request to the Department of Defense about detention operations in Afghanistan. After BuzzFeed News sued in December 2014, a settlement was reached, and the department began releasing records.

The document trove includes a total of 59 “separation requests,” packets ranging from 2 to 35 pages in which military intelligence officers ask for permission to use the heavily restricted technique. Fifty-eight of the 59 requests were approved.

The documents evoke a disturbingly different picture of interrogation practices from the humane, tightly controlled image the Obama White House has put forth.

No post-interrogation reports were included, so it is not known what information, if any, was extracted from the detainees or how the detainees fared physically and mentally. It is possible that interrogators sometimes didn’t apply separation despite going through the lengthy process to obtain authorization to use it.

The request packets — which explain what interrogators think the prisoner might know and what interrogation tactics they intend to apply — provide a bureaucratic view into the treatment of detainees. But a person familiar with interrogation at Bagram, who spoke on condition of anonymity, filled in some details.

This person said that separation was always carefully monitored and that detainees were treated humanely. Indeed, the source said, “There’s things you want to do” but that he couldn’t because of the rules.

Once a request was approved, this person said, detainees were moved to a separate cell within the Bagram detention facility where sometimes “you wouldn’t talk to them for three or four days.” The “separation cells” were small, about 8 feet by 8 feet, and they reeked, he said — a rancid stench.

When it was time for the detainees to be interrogated, they were moved to separate “dome-shaped” buildings within the detention facility that resembled a pod, or “really small connexes, with a window and a door,” the person said. There were a small number of “comfort booths” with carpets and pillows, the person said, but the main interrogation rooms were stark and sparse, with a single table and a two-way mirror.

Detainees subjected to separation had contact only with military police who moved them between cells, medical personnel, and the “sole interrogator” assigned to their case, the person said. The Defense Department spokesperson told BuzzFeed News that separation “is not the same as solitary confinement or isolation,” because a prisoner is not cut off “from human contact” but interacts “with medical professionals, detention officials, and intelligence personnel.”

The “separation cells” were small, about 8 feet by 8 feet, and they reeked, he said — a rancid stench.

The United Nations rapporteur on torture, Juan Méndez, disagreed, saying that contact with interrogators and guards doesn’t count as "human contact" or negate the concept of isolation.

At BuzzFeed News’ request, Méndez reviewed two of the separation request packets and said separation was obviously a coercive tactic to induce people to talk — which he said is illegal. Any time isolation is used as an interrogation tactic, even for just one day, it violates international law, and amounts to “cruel, inhumane, and degrading” treatment, he said.

Even when solitary confinement is allowed, such as to discipline a violent prisoner, Méndez said it can never be imposed for longer than 15 days. At Bagram, separation was typically approved for 30 days at a time.

The fact that separation was authorized almost 60 times in less than a year and a half, Méndez said, should spark an investigation into what happened in U.S.-run facilities in recent years.

“Appendix M”

When the Obama administration repudiated torture, it designated the Army Field Manual as the go-to guide on how to interrogate prisoners legally. On its face, the field manual is cut-and-dried: “All prisoners and detainees, regardless of status, will be treated humanely,” it says. “Cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment is prohibited.”

But there is some fine print. A little-known annex, titled “Appendix M: Restricted Interrogation Technique — Separation,” provides “guidance for the use of separation as an interrogation technique.” The appendix was put in place under George W. Bush and embraced by the Obama administration. Human rights advocates warn that Appendix M’s carefully parsed guidance opens loopholes in the supposedly iron-clad requirement of humane treatment.

For example, depriving someone of sight, sound, and touch — sensory deprivation — is banned by Appendix M, as are hoods and duct-taping prisoners’ eyes shut. But Appendix M allows for similar techniques: “As a last resort, when physical separation of detainees is not feasible, goggles or blindfolds and earmuffs may be utilized as a field expedient method to generate a perception of separation.” Experts say the distinction between, say, hoods and blindfolds is not significant, and that what is allowed under Appendix M is just another form of sensory deprivation.

Appendix M seems to impose strict time limits. For example, physical separation can be used for only 30 days, and the “field expedient method” of earmuffs and blindfolds only for 12 hours. But those periods can be reauthorized over and over; Appendix M puts no limit on how many times that can happen.

Experts say the distinction between, say, hoods and blindfolds is not significant.

In some separation requests, military lawyers specifically encouraged interrogators to request extensions or re-request separation if they wanted to continue using the interrogation tactic past its approved date. One of those extensions was approved by Brig. Gen. Mark Martins, then overseeing military law in Afghanistan. Martins is now the lead prosecutor of the Guantanamo Bay military commissions. He declined to comment through a Pentagon spokesperson.

The fundamental purpose of “the separation interrogation technique” is to help make detainees cough up information — “to gain actionable intelligence in the war on terrorism,” as Appendix M puts it. Putting a detainee in separation prevents him from communicating with other prisoners to concoct a false story or learn how to resist interrogation methods. And it can break his spirit by fostering what Appendix M calls “a feeling of futility.”

But Appendix M explicitly states that separation is not intended to be used all by itself: “Separation should be used as part of a well-orchestrated strategy involving the innovative application of unrestricted” interrogation methods.

The appendix mandates that detainees receive a minimum of four hours of continuous sleep per 24-hour period. But the United Nations and human rights advocates have pointed out that Appendix M’s requirement could be timed to give detainees just four hours of sleep every 40 hours, something that would constitute inhumane sleep deprivation. While the U.S. has acknowledged that Appendix M could be construed to permit such an extreme sleep schedule, it has insisted it would not allow that practice.

Similarly, the main Army Field Manual warns interrogators not to “threaten or coerce” a prisoner, because doing so could violate military law. But it allows a technique called “Fear Up,” in which an interrogator “identifies a preexisting fear or creates a fear within the source. He then links the elimination or reduction of the fear to cooperation on the part of the source.” In Appendix M, the interrogator is encouraged to use “Fear Up” along with other tactics.

U.S. intelligence officials described a detainee of “above average” intelligence who “displayed a pattern of resistance, citing the Geneva Conventions as a basis by which to claim his detainment is unjust.”

Appendix M specifically bars separation from being employed on detainees covered by the Geneva Convention that covers prisoners of war and allows it only on “unlawful enemy combatants,” a term used under the Bush administration to cover members of al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and other terrorist groups. Members of those organizations “do not receive POW status and do not receive the full protections of the Third Geneva Convention,” Bush’s top military lawyer wrote in 2002, a qualification that, for more than a decade, has alarmed human rights advocates as a potential loophole for inhumane treatment.

In one of the documents, U.S. intelligence officials described a detainee of “above average” intelligence who “displayed a pattern of resistance, citing the Geneva Conventions as a basis by which to claim his detainment is unjust.” They requested — and were authorized — to use separation on him.

“If [Appendix M is] not a violation, it’s contorting the human rights framework that prevents cruel and inhuman and degrading treatment of prisoners,” said Tina Foster, a lawyer with the International Justice Network who has represented several previous Bagram detainees.

The Case of Mohammed Syed

The separation request packets cover a time period that followed Obama’s surge, a major expansion of the war in Afghanistan that led to a massive influx of prisoners to be interrogated.

The interrogations detailed in the separation requests were anything but rogue. In every case, military lawyers were consulted for approval to use the harsh tactics, and the request was accompanied by days’ worth of paperwork from military lawyers, physicians, and military interrogators.

Though heavily redacted, the separation requests often spell out the stories behind the use of the harsh tactics. All the detainees were male. Most were under 40 and were listed as healthy and able-bodied on their medical forms.

One separation packet details a raid on December 4, 2010, in Kunday village in Khost Province, where American troops arrested a 25-year-old suspected Taliban member during an operation.

Though they did not find arms, the Americans believed Mohammed Syed was an explosives expert who taught bomb-making throughout the dangerous province, and who worked with both the Haqqani network and the Taliban. He was quickly shipped to headquarters at Bagram, where the U.S. operated a giant prison called Bagram Theater Internment Facility.

Five weeks after he was captured, military intelligence officials began asking their superiors if they could employ the restricted separation tactics against Syed, whom they believed could tell them detailed information about senior terrorist leaders. The prisoner had been cooperative during his initial interrogation, they said, but after he was placed in a general population cell, he became more resistant.

It was time for Appendix M, the requesting officer said.

“Request TF 435 Commanding General, authorize the use of restricted interrogation technique Separation for [Syed], who is an unlawful enemy combatant,” a letter, dated January 5, 2010, reads.

But military lawyers, concerned about the request’s legality, weren’t convinced that Syed’s separation request was valid. The purpose of the technique, one staff judge advocate wrote, is to keep the detainee from interacting with other detainees so that he doesn’t learn interrogation resistance methods.

“It’s unclear why the technique of separation is being sought at this late date,” the military attorney wrote in one of the separation packets. “Detainee has enjoyed sufficient time in the company of other detainees to develop a cover story and/or learn interrogation resistance techniques.”

Despite these reservations, the lawyer approved the request anyway.

“It’s incredibly concerning to see military lawyers raising issues with separation and Appendix M, and then to see an outcome where you have an almost rubber-stamp process,” said Raha Wala, director of national security outreach for Human Rights First, a human rights group in Washington that has raised concern over Appendix M. “Our hope would be that lawyers would be skeptical of requests to separate or isolate detainees if there’s not a clear reason to do so.”

“You don’t have to be overly cynical to think that if they are redacting it, it’s because it is something they are not proud of."

In most of the separation requests obtained by BuzzFeed News, there are generic listed requirements mandating that the detainee get at least five hours of sleep a day (more than the minimum of four hours); that the interrogations be “legal, safe and ethical”; and that detainees be routinely monitored by health professionals throughout their separation.

But virtually every detail about how interrogators planned to treat Syed and the 57 other detainees approved for separation — including every single other interrogation technique that interrogators wanted to apply — was redacted in the documents. The Defense Department justified its redactions by citing a section of the Freedom of Information Act that allows the government to withhold information on “Intelligence activities (including covert action), intelligence sources or methods, or cryptology.”

Even if “the only thing that is happening is the separation itself, then we already have a problem,” Méndez, the U.N. special rapporteur on torture, said after reviewing the documents obtained by BuzzFeed News. “But if we also redact whatever happens during separation, it gives rise to the presumption that some other untoward procedures are used.” He added, “You don’t have to be overly cynical to think that if they are redacting it, it’s because it is something they are not proud of.”

Syed was released from detention two years ago. He wasn’t reachable directly, but his family said he now works in Dubai to support his wife, father, and five children, who remain in Afghanistan. He is working to pay off a $25,000 debt, a loan his family said they had to take to survive while Syed, the primary breadwinner, was imprisoned for four years.

To this day, his father said, Syed doesn’t like to talk about his time as a prisoner.

Allegations of Abuse

A separate document obtained by BuzzFeed News and never before made public is a spreadsheet detailing more than 300 reports of alleged abuse by U.S. troops and interrogators throughout Afghanistan from January 2011 to January 2012.

Dozens of those complaints allege abuses in interrogation facilities, by U.S. interrogators and interpreters. All of the alleged abuses reviewed by BuzzFeed News that specifically took place during interrogations were listed as “unsubstantiated” by military investigators.

Detainees said they were threatened with death, attack dogs, and rape, or their families’ lives were threatened. Ten detainees said they were abused at a secret “black jail” that the Obama administration reportedly ran at Bagram, where detainees said they faced death threats, barking dogs, and beatings. The Defense Department did not respond to questions about the abuse allegations detailed in the document or about the black jail.

In one incident, an interpreter allegedly spit at a detainee but missed and hit the interrogation cell’s Qur'ans — the revered Muslim text that was allegedly abused by American soldiers during the Bush years to humiliate detainees. Military police determined the spitting incident was “substantiated.” The interpreter was removed from the base and the investigation was closed. Regardless, the overall abuse claim was listed in the document as “unsubstantiated.” The Defense Department declined to explain the discrepancy.

One detainee said he was blindfolded, kicked, and hit with rifles.

Seven of the detainees who say interrogators abused them were subject to separation at some time, but it is not known if their alleged abuse occurred while they were undergoing that interrogation tactic. One said he was blindfolded, kicked, and hit with rifles. Another said he was beaten and forced to sign a confession he didn’t make.

For years, human rights advocates have been perplexed about the current administration’s interrogation practices. The military has stood by the lawfulness of its interrogations, both through Appendix M and otherwise. Yet despite the long-running criticisms, the Obama White House has shrouded its detention and interrogation policies in secrecy, revealing almost nothing about what actually happens inside military interrogation booths.

Its most extended public discussion of separation was in little-noticed testimony before the U.N. Committee Against Torture in 2014. Pressed by U.N. officials to nix Appendix M altogether, military and administration officials defended its use, saying it was applied only with the utmost scrutiny.

But several human rights lawyers disputed that, saying they believe the number of prisoners subject to separation is far greater than the nearly 60 detailed in the separation requests. Many spoke of clients — former prisoners at Bagram — who had been subjected to harsh interrogation methods and/or kept in solitary confinement for extended periods of time.

“Routinely, clients were kept in isolation for weeks, sometimes months, and were held without any human contact,” said Foster, the lawyer for Bagram detainees. “I’ve interviewed hundreds of men and boys who have been through Bagram. I’m surprised to hear there are only 60 documented who received this treatment.”

Aimal Yaqubi contributed reporting from Afghanistan.


U.S. officials discussed separation before the United Nations Committee Against Torture in 2014. An earlier version of this story misstated the year.

Skip to footer