U.S. Torture


The Torture Question PBS special


"We lost a big chunk of our democracy on September 28, 2006. That was the day the Senate voted, 65 to 34, to approve the Military Commissions Act, assuring that this "flagrantly unconstitutional" bill, as Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont accurately labeled it, would become law...

"This law skews our system of checks and balances. It eviscerates the Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth Amendments. And it repudiatees the Magna Carta.

"It allows the President of the United States to label anyone--including a US citizen--an enemy combatant and to deprive that person of basic due process rights to challenge his or her detention in court. And it authorizes the President "to try alien unlawful enemy combatants" (the bill's terminology) before a military tribunal, with inferior legal safeguards. If convicted of a serious crime in such a kangaroo court, these enemy combatants can then be executed.

"This law destroys the writ of habeas corpus, the guarantee that you can challenge your detention in court...

"This law, says Vincent Warren, executive director of the center, gives the President "the privelege of kings."

"The law also dilutes Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions. The Supreme Court, in the Hamdan decision this past June, said the Executive Branch had to uphold Common Article 3. But this new law says forget about that.

"Common Article 3 requires nations to treat detainees "humanely," and it forbids "violence to life and person, in particular murder of all kinds, mutilation, cruel treatment and torture" and "outrages upon personal dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment...

"The passage of this law indicates that we are not a "civilized people"...

"One last thing: The Military Commissions Act retroactively grants immunity to Bush Administration officials who countenanced torture. Bush and Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld and Alberto Gonzales thus gave themselves, as the ACLU notes, a "get out of jail free" card for their previous actions...

"Historians looking back on our era will describe the Patriot Act and the Military Commissions Act as bookends on the shelf marked "the assault on democracy"" (Matthew Rothschild. Comment. The Progressive, Nov. 2006: 8-9).


"Proponents of torture present a false choice between tortured intelligence and no intelligence at all. There is, in fact, a well-established American alternative to torture that we might call empathietic interrogation. US Marines first used this technique during World War II to extract accurate intelligence from fanatical Japanese captives on Ssaipan and Tinian within forty-eight hours of landing, and the FBI has practiced it with great success in the decades since. After the East Africa bombings of US embassies, the bureau employed this method to gain some of our best intelligence on Al Qaeda and win US court convictions of all of the accussed.

"One of the bureau agents who worked on that case, Dan Coleman, has since been appalled by the CIA's coercive methods after 9/11. "Have any of these guys ever tried to talk to anyone who's been deprived of his clothes?" Coleman asked. "He's going to be ashamed and humiliated and cold. He'll tell you anything you want to hear to get his clothes back. There's no value in it." By contrast, FBI reliance on due process and empathy proved effective in terror cases by building rapport with detainees.

"Bush's example of Zubaydah actually supports Coleman's point. FBI agents say they were getting more out of him before the CIA came in with gloves off.

""Brutalization doesn't work," Coleman concluded from his years in FBI counterterrorism. "We know that. Besides, you lose your soul"" (Alfred W. McCoy. "The Myth of the Ticking Time Bomb." The Progressive, Oct., 2006: 20-24).


"If there was ever any doubt, it is now clear that the torture at Abu Ghraib cannot be dismissed as the actions of a few bad actors. Two leaked memorandums... make crystal clear that this Administration consciously sought out every loophole it could find to justify inflicting physical and psychological pain on captives for the purpose of obtaining intelligence. The memos are the "smoking guns"...

"...the memos argue, it would be unconstitutional for Congress, or international law, to seek to constrain the President's prerogatives, even on a matter as universally prohibited and morally repugnant as torture.

"...Both memos read like a tax lawyer's advice on loopholes...

"...claim torture was a "necessity," that he was tortuing "in self-defense" or that he was following "superior orders." All of this, of course, is directly contrary to established federal and international law, which holds that under no circumstances is torture "justified" or "excused"...

"... the Administration's attitude is... perilously close to totalitarianism..." ("Torture and Democracy." The Nation, July 5, 2004: 3-4).


"Within a few days of the Trade Towers going down in September 2001, a vacationing FBI agent told an acquaintance of mine in Puerto Vallarta that detainees in the United States were being tortured. On May 3, 2004, two such detainees, a Pakistani called Javaid Iqbal and an Egyptian, Ehab Elmaghraby, filed a civil complaint with a U.S. court describing their beatings in the Brooklyn Detention Center, one of them sodomized with a flashlight and put in a tiny cell lit twenty-four hours a day without blanket, mattress or toilet paper... The center was harshly criticized in a 2003 Justice Department report for serious maltreatment of inmates...

"It was not far into the Afghan war... [when] Jamie Doran, a British television producer, aired his documentary establishing beyond a reasonable doubt that hundreds of [U.S.] prisoners -- with no distinction between Taliban and foreign fighters -- died either by suffocation in the container trucks used to transport them to prison, or by outright execution.

"On the basis of interviews with eyewitnesses, Doran said U.S. soldiers were present when the containers were opened, and that "a mess of urine, blood, faeces, vomit and rotting flesh was all that remained...

"The Red Cross began making.. complaints.. about... the United States... compel[ling] other countries to sign bilateral agreements exempting U.S. citizens, whether military or civilian, from potential jurisdiction of the new International Criminal Court in the The Hague.

"What clear enough is that the quality of U.S. leadership from the very top down, both civilian and military, is rancid... have allowed discipline in the armed forces to degenerate into criminal thuggery" (Alexander Cockburn. "Green Lights for Torture." The Nation, May 31, 2004: 9).


"...the now-infamous photographs of Iraqi prisoners being tortured and sexually humiliated by American soldiers... Ultimate responsibility lies in Washington. Despite George W. Bush's expression of "disgust" -- "that's not the way we do things," he insisted -- there is reason to believe abusive interrogation methods have become an integral part of the Administration's "war on terrorism"... Amnesty International has received scores of reports over the past year of detainees in Iraq "being routinely subjected to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment... Amnesty and Human Rights Watch are calling for a public investigation into allegations of torture by coalition forces...

"Given that the war in Iraq is, in part, a war of images, the Abu Ghraib scandal represents a profound and perhaps irreversible defeat for the United States" ("The Horror of Abu Ghraib." The Nation, May 24, 2004: 3).


"... Donald Rumsfeld took six days to comment and why George W. Bush's early reaction was a peeved and childish "I didn't like it one bit"...

"...the United States has just lost its last remaining rationale for the misbegotten invasion of Iraq...

"Human rights groups report many more instances of unlawful detention, torture and abuse, and there are at least ten pending investigations of prisoner deaths that we know of... the Coalition.. permitted private companies to hire for security work Serbian mercenaries and confessed members of South African pro-apartheid death squads...

"The pictures and stories... reinforce the pre-existing impression of Americans as racist, cruel and frivolous... [meanwhile] the Commander in Chief who avoided active service and has made such a mess of Iraq is honored as manly and decisive..." (Katha Pollitt. "Show & Tell in Abu Ghraib." The Nation, May 24, 2004: 9).


"The Abu Ghraib prison scandal now implicates the highest levels of the Bush administration in violating federal law and in war crimes...

"The President has known for more than two years that his administration has been pursuing policies that could qualify as war crimes under federal and international law...

"...the President adopted as policy -- an end run around federal laws. The War Crimes Act, passed by Congress in 1996, allows criminal prosecution of Americans for actions that violate the rights granted prisoners and civilians by the Geneva Conventions and for "outrages upon personal dignity." It is backed by the full range of federal penalties, up to and including the death penalty...

"The evidence emerging from Abu Ghraib reveals high crimes and misdemeanors in the precise sense of the Constitution's impeachment clause" ("Orders to Torture." The Nation, June 7, 2004: 3).


"..just what was so hard to understand about this [Bush] bunch? We knew they were dishonest. We knew they were fanatical. We knew they were purposely ignorant and bragged about not reading newspapers. We knew they were vindictive. We knew they were lawless. We knew they were obsessively secretive. We knew they had no time or patience for those who raised difficult questions. We knew they were driven by fantasies of religious warfare, personal vengeance and ideological triumph. We knew they had no respect for civil liberties. And we knew they took no responsibility for the consequences of their incompetence. Just what is surprising about the manner in which they've conducted the [Iraq] war?" (Eric Alterman. "Hawks Eating Crow." The Nation, JUne 7, 2004: 10).


"...raped, cut off ears, cut off heads, taped wires from portable telephones to human genitals, and on and on... war crimes committed in Vietnam by U.S. troops... The fact that such crimes were committed by U.S. troops is indisputable" (Eric Alterman. "We Lie. We Decide." The Nation, Sep. 20, 2004: 10).


"...Task Force 6-26 is a secret unit composed mostly of US Navy SEALs operating in Baghdad--its existence unacknowledged by the Pentagon... running an off-the-books prison for detainees and applying more-than-moderate physical pressure [torture]... implicated in two prisoner deaths...

"IF, as Rumsfeld insists, it is against US policy to torture prisoners, where did these skilled military interrogators learn their craft?...

"...the abuses of US military prisons are so systemic, severe and corrosive that transnational legal intervention is amply justified--all the more so, given US abstention from the International Criminal Court" ("Prosecuting US Torture." The Nation, Jan. 3, 2005: 3-4).


"...as drills focused on "breaking down the human inhibition to killing," he began to realize he had made the wrong choice. Aghast at finding himself joining in training chants like, "What makes the grass grow? Blood, blood, bright red blood," he filed for conscientious objector status...

""Even atrocities are standard operating procedure." At the hearing, he recounted in graphic and shocking detail how his unit killed more than thirty innocent Iraqi civilians at checkpoints, "lighting them up" with machine gun fire. He also described how Marines shot dead unarmed Iraqi demonstrators who posed no threat" ("War Resisters Go North." The Nation, Jan. 3, 2005: 4-6).


"There are certain things you aren't supposed to mention in public in America. The systematic state-sponsorship of torture by the United States... the US government has used assassination down the years as an instrument of national policy... the CIA's complicity with drug-dealing criminal gangs...

"One of the CIA's favored modes of self-protection is the "uncover-up." The agency first denies with passion, then later concedes, in muffled tones, the charges leveled against it... Such charges [as] recruitment of Nazi scientists and SS officers; experiments on unwitting American civilians; efforts to assassinate Castro; alliances with opium lords in Burma, Thailand and Laos; an assassination program in Vietnam; complicity in the toppling of Ssalvador Allende in Chile; the arming of opium traffickers and religious fanatics in Afghanistan; the training of murderous police and soldiers in Guatemala and El Salvador; and involvement in drugs-and-arms shuttles between Latin America and the United States" (ALexander Cockburn. "Why They Hated Gary Webb." The Nation, Jan. 3, 2005: 9).


"One of the great mysteries in the "war on terror" is why so few people have been held responsible for torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment inflicted on prisoners since 9/11. So much detail about so much abuse in so many places has now emerged that one cannot help concluding that the problem is systemic. There have been reports of burning cigarettes being placed in suspects' ears, waterboarding, men being shackled naked to cold floors so long that they urinate and defecate on themselves, mock burials and actual homicides. These abuses have reportedly taken place at Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, Bagram Air Force Base in Afghanistan, undisclosed CIA detention centers and, with US concurrence, in foreign prisons to which we have "rendered" suspects on a CIA plane. Memos have been leaked linking these practices to policies developed at the highest levels of the Justice Department and the Pentagon. Yet there has been no accountability" ("Accounting for Torture." The Nation, March 21, 2005: 4).


""Well, we now know a great deal about what has gone on in U.S. detention facilities under the Bush administration. Several government and Red Cross reports detail the way many detainees have been treated. We know for certain that the United States has tortured five inmates to death. We know that 23 others have died in U.S. Custody under suspicious circumstances. We know that torture has been practiced by almost every branch of the U.S. military in sites all over the world--from Abu Ghraib to Tikrit, Mosul, Basra, Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay...

"We know that thousands of men, women and children were grabbed almost at random from their homes in Baghdad, taken to Saddam's former torture palace and subjected to abuse, murder, beatings, semi-crucifixions and rape...

"Get your minds around it. Our country is guilty of torture. To quote myself, "What are you going to do about this? It's your country, your money, your government. You own this country, you run it, you are the board of directors. They are doing this in your name. The people we elected to public office do what you want them to. Perhaps you should get in touch with them"" (Molly Ivins. "Don't blame Newsweek." Texas Observer, May 27, 2005: 14).


The REAL Purpose of Torture

"The fear is even thicker among Muslims in the United States where the Patriot Act gives police the power to seize the records of any mosque, school, library or community group on mere suspicion of terrorist links. When this intense surveillance is paired with the ever-present threat of torture, the message is clear: You are being watched, your neighbor may be a spy, the government can find out anything about you. If you misstep, you could disappear onto a plane bound for Syria, or into "the deep dark hole that is Guantanamo Bay"...

"This is torture's true purpose: to terrorize--not only the people in Guantanamo's cages and Syria's isolation cells but also, and more important, the broader community that hears about these abuses. Torture is a machine designed to break the will to resist--the individual prisoner's will and the collective will...

"Yet despite this body of knowledge, torture continues to be debated in the United States as if it were merely a morally questionable way to extract information, not an instrument of state terror. But there's a problem: No one claims that torture is an effective interrogation tool--least of all the people who practice it. Torture "doesn't work. There are better ways to deal with captives," CIA director Porter Goss told the Senate Intelligence Committee on Feb. 16. And a recently declassified memo written by an FBI official in Guantanamo states that extreme coercion produced "nothing more than what FBI got using simple investigative techniques." The Army's own interrogation field manual states that forece "can induce the source to say whatever he thinks the interrogator wants to hear."

"And yet the abuses keep on coming..." (Naomi Klein. "Torture's dirty secret: It works." The Nation, May 30, 2005: 10).


"Away to prison for three years goes Lynndie England, her pleas for mercy ignored by the military panel in Fort Hood, Texas. So what's the tally so far to indicate America's revulsion over the systematic use of torture by its own forces? It tots up to a handful of rednecks. Scot-free go those who inherited a secret system of torture that goes back decades and who insured that its relentless and widening application would soon bring the practice to light. The framers of the policy go free. The lawyers who gave torture its new garb of legality plump themselves down in richly endowed chairs at our most esteemed law schools or are rewarded with seats on the Supreme Court. The senior military officers who ordered the use of dogs, isolation cells smeared with filth, water boards and other techniques designed to drive their captives mad have escaped all sanction, except for the eloquent reproofs of Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba. Lumpen intellecturlas, like Jonathan Alter and Alan Dershowitz, whoc clamored for torture need fear no indictment or downtime on the cable shows" (Alexander Cockburn. "From Lynndie England to Shaquille O'Neal." The Nation, Oct. 17, 2005: 11).


"Panama City... the US military ran the notorious School of the Americas from 1946 to 1984, a sinister educational institution that, if it had a motto, might havebeen, "We do torture." It is here in Panama, and, later, at the school's new location in Fort Benning, Georgia, where the roots of the current torture scandals can be found. According to declassified training manuals, SOA students--military and police officers from across the hemisphere--were instructed in many of the same "coercive interrogation" techniques that have since migrated to Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib: early morning capture to maximize shock, immediate hooding and blindfolding, forced nudity, sensory deprivation, sensory overload, sleep and food "manipulation," humiliation, extreme temperatures, isolation, stress positions--and worse. In 1996 President Clinton's Intelligence Oversight Board admitted that US-produced training materials condoned "execution of guerillas, extortion, physical abuse, coercion and false imprisonment"...

"...the embrace of torture by US officials long predates the Bush Administration and has in fact been integral to US foreign policy since the Vietnam War.

"It's a history that has been exhaustively documented in an avalanche of books, declassified documents, CIA training manuals, court records and truth commissions. In his upcoming book, A Question of Torture, Alfred McCoy synthesizes this unwieldy cache of evidence, producing an indispensable and riveting account of how monstrous CIA-funded experiments on psychiatric patients and prisoners in the 1950s turned into a template for what he calls "no-touch torture," based on sensory deprivation and self-inflicted pain. McCoy traces how these methods were field-tested by CIA agents in Vietnam as part of the Phoenix program and then imported to Latin America and Asia under the guise of police training programs...

"...let's be clear about what is unprecedented about it: not the torture but the openness. Past administrations tactfully kept their "black ops" secret; the crimes were santioned but they were practiced in the shadows, officially denied and condemned. The Bush Administration has broken this deal: Post-9/11, it demanded the right to torture without shame, legitimized by new defitions and new laws.

"Despite all the talk of outsourced torture, the Bush Administration's real innovation has been its in-sourcing, with prisoners being abused by US citizens in US-run prisons and transported to third countries in US planes. It is this departure from clandestine etiquette, more than the actual crimes, that has so much of the military and intelligence community up in arms: By daring to torture unapologetically and out in the open, Bush has robbed everyone of plausible deniability...

"Several of these cases are documented in Jennifer Harbury's powerful new book, Truth, Torture, and the American Way" (Naomi Klein. "'Never Before!' Our Amnesiac Torture Debate." The Nation, Dec. 26, 2005: 11-12).


"The American Civil Liberties Union released documents on forty-four deaths of prisoners in US custody, twenty-one of them officially classified as homicides. For example, an Iraqi prisoner died while being interrogated in 2004. He had been deprived of sleep, exposed to extreme temperatures, doused with cold water and kept hooded...

"Several provisions of law forbid not only torture but humiliation of prisoners. The Geneva Conventions prohibit "outrages upon personal dignity, in particular humiliating or degrading treatment" of war captives. The UN Convention Against Torture condemns "cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment"--and Congress enforced the provisions of the convention in a criminal statute. The Uniform Code of Military Justice makes cruelty, oppression or "maltreatment" of prisoners by US forces a crime...

"When George W. Bush was aksed about torture in early November, he said: "Any activity we conduct is within the law. We do not torture." How could he say that after the hundreds of convincing reports of torture and maltreatment? One possible answer is that he has not allowed himself to know the truth. Another is that his lawyers have so gutted the law governing these matters that not much, in their view, is unlawful.

"But there is another explanation for Bush's words: confidence that words can overcome reality. Just as a large part of the American people could be led to believe in nonexistent links between Saddam Hussein and the 9/11 bombers, so it could be persuaded--in the teeth of the evidence--that "we do not torture." And there is reason for that confidence.

"Congress has shown no great zeal for tracking down responsibility for the abuse of detainees in Iraq. Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay. It has reacted with the equivalent of a yawn...

"The truth is that most members of Congress are scared to do anything that could be portrayed, in a campaign, as being soft on terrorists. They worry that if there is another terrorist strike in this country, any vote to hold true to the law of war or even to investigate what has happened could be held against them...

"Not one of the major actors in the torture story has been effectively called to account: not Rumsfeld, who loosened the rules on interrogation of prisoners; not Alberto Gonzales, now Attorney General, who as White House Counsel approved the torture memorandums; and not the Justice Department lawyers who wrote them" (Anthony Lewis. "The Torture Administration." The Nation, Dec. 26, 2005: 13-15).


"The outlook of Richard Nixon was that he was above the law. Watergate disabused him of the notion. The position of George W. Bush is that he is a law unto himself...

"...former Army Reserve Brigadier General Janis Karpinski, who was in charge of Abu Ghraib... [says], "This [what happened at Abu Ghraib] is about instructions delivered with full authority and knowledge of the Secretary of Defense and probably Cheney. I don't know if the President was involved or not. I don't care. All I know is, those instructions were communicated from the Secretary of Defense's office, from the Pentagon... through [General Geoffrey] Miller, to Abu Ghraib"" (Nat Hentoff. "Abu Ghraib's General Speaks." The Progressive, Nov. 2005: 12).


Colby Glass, MLIS