Tales from torture’s dark world

by Mark Danner

On a bright sunny day two years ago, President George W. Bush strode into the East Room of the White House and informed the world that the United States had created a dark and secret universe to hold and interrogate captured terrorists. “In addition to the terrorists held at Guantánamo,” the president said, “a small number of suspected terrorist leaders and operatives captured during the war have been held and questioned outside the United States, in a separate program operated by the Central Intelligence Agency.” At these places, Mr. Bush said, “the C.I.A. used an alternative set of procedures.”

He added: “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.”

This speech will stand, I believe, as George W. Bush’s most important: perhaps the only historic speech he ever gave. In his fervent defense of his government’s “alternative set of procedures” and his equally fervent insistence that they were “lawful,” he set out before the country America’s dark moral epic of torture, in the coils of whose contradictions we find ourselves entangled still.

At the same time, perhaps unwittingly, Mr. Bush made it possible that day for those on whom the alternative set of procedures were performed eventually to speak. For he announced that he would send 14 “high-value detainees” from dark into twilight: they would be transferred from the overseas “black sites” to Guantánamo. There, while awaiting trial, the International Committee of the Red Cross would be “advised of their detention, and will have the opportunity to meet with them.”

A few weeks later, Red Cross officials — whose duty it is to monitor compliance with the Geneva Conventions and to supervise treatment of prisoners of war — traveled to Guantánamo and began interviewing the prisoners. Their stated goal was to produce a report that would “provide a description of the treatment and material conditions of detention of the 14 during the period they were held in the C.I.A. detention program,” periods ranging “from 16 months to almost four-and-a-half years.”

As the Red Cross interviewers informed the detainees, their report was not intended to be released to the public but, “to the extent that each detainee agreed for it to be transmitted to the authorities,” to be given in strictest secrecy to officials of the government agency that had been in charge of holding them — in this case the C.I.A., to whose acting general counsel, John Rizzo, the report was sent on Feb. 14, 2007. The result is a document — labeled “confidential” and clearly intended only for the eyes of those senior American officials — that tells a story of what happened to each of the 14 detainees inside the black sites.

A short time ago, this document came into my hands. Because these stories were taken down confidentially in patient interviews by professionals from the International Committee of the Red Cross, and not intended for public consumption, they have an unusual claim to authenticity. Indeed, since the detainees were kept strictly apart and isolated, both at the black sites and at Guantánamo, the striking similarity in their stories would seem to make fabrication extremely unlikely. As its authors state in their introduction, “The I.C.R.C. wishes to underscore that the consistency of the detailed allegations provided separately by each of the 14 adds particular weight to the information provided below.”

Beginning with the chapter headings on its contents page — “suffocation by water,” “prolonged stress standing,” “beatings by use of a collar,” “confinement in a box” — the document makes compelling and chilling reading. The stories recounted lead inexorably to this unequivocal conclusion, which, given its source, has the power of a legal determination: “The allegations of ill treatment of the detainees indicate that, in many cases, the ill treatment to which they were subjected while held in the C.I.A. program, either singly or in combination, constituted torture. In addition, many other elements of the ill treatment, either singly or in combination, constituted cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.”

Perhaps one should start with the story of the first man to whom, according to news reports, the president’s “alternative set of procedures” were applied, Abu Zubaydah, a senior member of Al Qaeda, captured in a raid in Pakistan in March 2002. The arrest of an active terrorist with actionable information was a coup for the United States. After being treated for his wounds — he had been shot in the stomach, leg and groin during his capture — Abu Zubaydah was brought to one of the black sites, probably in Thailand:

“I woke up, naked, strapped to a bed, in a very white room. ... After some time, I think it was several days, but can’t remember exactly, I was transferred to a chair where I was kept, shackled by hands and feet for what I think was the next two to three weeks. During this time I developed blisters on the underside of my legs due to the constant sitting. I was only allowed to get up from the chair to go [to] the toilet, which consisted of a bucket.

“I was given no solid food during the first two or three weeks, while sitting on the chair. I was only given Ensure and water to drink. At first the Ensure made me vomit, but this became less with time.

“The cell and room were air-conditioned and were very cold. Very loud, shouting-type music was constantly playing. It kept repeating about every 15 minutes, 24 hours a day. Sometimes the music stopped and was replaced by a loud hissing or crackling noise.

“The guards were American, but wore masks to conceal their faces. My interrogators did not wear masks.”

It is important to note that Abu Zubaydah was not alone with his interrogators, that everyone in that white room — guards, interrogators, doctor — was in fact linked directly, and almost constantly, to senior intelligence officials on the other side of the world. “It wasn’t up to individual interrogators to decide, ‘Well, I’m going to slap him, or I’m going to shake him,’” said John Kiriakou, a C.I.A. officer who helped capture Abu Zubaydah, in an interview with ABC News. Every one of the steps taken with regard to Abu Zubaydah “had to have the approval of the deputy director for operations. So before you laid a hand on him, you had to send in the cable saying, ‘He’s uncooperative. Request permission to do X.’ The cable traffic back and forth was extremely specific.... No one wanted to get in trouble by going overboard.”

Shortly after Abu Zubaydah was captured, C.I.A. officers briefed the National Security Council’s principals committee, including Vice President Dick Cheney, the national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, and Attorney General John Ashcroft, in detail on the interrogation plans for the prisoner. As the interrogations proceeded, so did the briefings, with George Tenet, the C.I.A. director, bringing to senior officials almost daily reports of the techniques applied.

At the time, the spring and summer of 2002, Justice Department officials, led by John Yoo, were working on a memorandum, now known informally as “the torture memo,” which claimed that for an “alternative procedure” to be considered torture, and thus illegal, it would have to cause pain of the sort “that would be associated with serious physical injury so severe that death, organ failure, or permanent damage resulting in a loss of significant body function will likely result.” The memo was approved in August 2002, thus serving as a legal “green light” for interrogators to apply the most aggressive techniques to Abu Zubaydah:

“I was taken out of my cell and one of the interrogators wrapped a towel around my neck; they then used it to swing me around and smash me repeatedly against the hard walls of the room. ... I saw that one of the walls of the room had been covered with plywood sheeting. From now on it was against this wall that I was then smashed with the towel around my neck. I think that the plywood was put there to provide some absorption of the impact of my body. The interrogators realized that smashing me against the hard wall would probably quickly result in physical injury.”

After this beating, Abu Zubaydah was placed in a small box approximately three feet tall. “They placed a cloth or cover over the box to cut out all light and restrict my air supply. As it was not high enough even to sit upright, I had to crouch down. It was very difficult because of my wounds. The stress on my legs held in this position meant my wounds both in the leg and stomach became very painful. I think this occurred about three months after my last operation. It was always cold in the room, but when the cover was placed over the box it made it hot and sweaty inside. The wound on my leg began to open and started to bleed. I don’t know how long I remained in the small box; I think I may have slept or maybe fainted.

“I was then dragged from the small box, unable to walk properly, and put on what looked like a hospital bed, and strapped down very tightly with belts. A black cloth was then placed over my face and the interrogators used a mineral water bottle to pour water on the cloth so that I could not breathe. After a few minutes the cloth was removed and the bed was rotated into an upright position. The pressure of the straps on my wounds was very painful. I vomited. The bed was then again lowered to horizontal position and the same torture carried out again with the black cloth over my face and water poured on from a bottle. On this occasion my head was in a more backward, downwards position and the water was poured on for a longer time. I struggled against the straps, trying to breathe, but it was hopeless. I thought I was going to die.”

Walid bin Attash, a Saudi involved with planning the attacks on American embassies in Africa in 1998 and on the Navy destroyer Cole in 2000, was captured in Pakistan on April 29, 2003: “On arrival at the place of detention in Afghanistan I was stripped naked. I remained naked for the next two weeks.... I was kept in a standing position, feet flat on the floor, but with my arms above my head and fixed with handcuffs and a chain to a metal bar running across the width of the cell. The cell was dark with no light ...”

This forced standing, with arms shackled above the head, seems to have been standard procedure. It proved especially painful for Mr. bin Attash, who had lost a leg fighting in Afghanistan: “After some time being held in this position my stump began to hurt so I removed my artificial leg to relieve the pain. Of course my good leg then began to ache and soon started to give way so that I was left hanging with all my weight on my wrists.”

Cold water was used on Mr. bin Attash in combination with beatings and the use of a plastic collar, which seems to have been a refinement of the towel that had been looped around Abu Zubaydah’s neck: “On a daily basis during the first two weeks a collar was looped around my neck and then used to slam me against the walls of the interrogation room. ... Also on a daily basis during the first two weeks I was made to lie on a plastic sheet placed on the floor which would then be lifted at the edges. Cold water was then poured onto my body with buckets. ... I would be kept wrapped inside the sheet with the cold water for several minutes. I would then be taken for interrogation.”

Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the key planner of the 9/11 attacks, was captured in Pakistan on March 1, 2003. After three days in what he believes was a prison in Afghanistan, Mr. Mohammed was put in a tracksuit, blindfold, hood and headphones, and shackled and placed aboard a plane. He quickly fell asleep — “the first proper sleep in over five days” — and remains unsure of how long the journey took. On arrival, however, he realized he had come a long way:

“I could see at one point there was snow on the ground. Everybody was wearing black, with masks and army boots, like Planet X people. I think the country was Poland. I think this because on one occasion a water bottle was brought to me without the label removed. It had [an] e-mail address ending in ‘.pl.’”

He was stripped and put in a small cell. “I was kept for one month in the cell in a standing position with my hands cuffed and shackled above my head and my feet cuffed and shackled to a point in the floor,” he told the Red Cross. “Of course during this month I fell asleep on some occasions while still being held in this position. This resulted in all my weight being applied to the handcuffs around my wrist, resulting in open and bleeding wounds. [Scars consistent with this allegation were visible on both wrists as well as on both ankles.] Both my feet became very swollen after one month of almost continual standing.”

“The toilet consisted of a bucket in the cell, which I could use on request” – while shackled to the ceiling – “but I was not allowed to clean myself after toilet during the first month. ... I wasn’t given any clothes for the first month. Artificial light was on 24 hours a day.”

For interrogation, Mr. Mohammed was taken to a different room. The sessions lasted for four to eight hours. “If I was perceived not to be cooperating I would be put against a wall and punched and slapped in the body, head and face. A thick flexible plastic collar would also be placed around my neck so that it could then be held at the two ends by a guard who would use it to slam me repeatedly against the wall. ... The beatings became worse and I had cold water directed at me from a hose-pipe by guards while I was still in my cell.

“The worst day was when I was beaten for about half an hour by one of the interrogators. My head was banged against the wall so hard that it started to bleed. Cold water was poured over my head. This was then repeated with other interrogators. Finally I was taken for a session of water boarding. The torture on that day was finally stopped by the intervention of the doctor.”

These men and others almost certainly have blood on their hands. There is strong reason to believe that they had critical parts in planning and organizing terrorist operations that caused the deaths of thousands of people. From everything we know, they deserve to be tried and punished — to be “brought to justice,” as President Bush vowed they would be. But the fact that judges, military or civilian, throw out cases of prisoners who have been tortured — and have already done so at Guantánamo — means it is highly unlikely that they will be brought to justice anytime soon.

For the men who have committed great crimes, this seems to mark perhaps the most important and consequential sense in which “torture doesn’t work.” Torture destroys justice. The use of torture deprives the society whose laws have been so egregiously violated of the possibility of rendering justice.

In the wake of the Red Cross report, what we can say with certainty is that the United States tortured prisoners and that the Bush administration, including the president himself, explicitly and aggressively denied that fact. We can also say that the decision to torture, in a political war with militant Islam, harmed American interests by destroying the democratic and Constitutional reputation of the United States, undermining its liberal sympathizers in the Muslim world and helping materially in the recruitment of young Muslims to the extremist cause. By deciding to torture, we freely chose to embrace the caricature they had made of us. The consequences of this choice, legal, political and moral, now confront us. Time and elections are not enough to make them go away.

Mark Danner, a professor of journalism at the University of California, Berkeley, is the author of “Torture and Truth: America, Abu Ghraib and the War on Terror.” This article is edited from The New York Times, March 15, 2009, and is drawn from a longer article in The New York Review of Books, which can be found at: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/22530

– PeaceMeal, March/April 2009

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)

Alleged 20th hijacker on 9-11 was tortured; charges dropped

The top Bush administration official in charge of deciding whether to bring Guantánamo Bay detainees to trial has concluded that the U.S. military tortured Mohammed al-Qahtani, a Saudi national who allegedly planned to participate in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, and has dismissed all charges against him. Susan Crawford, the Pentagon’s convening authority of military commissions, stated, “We tortured Qahtani, His treatment met the legal definition of torture. And that’s why I did not refer the case” for prosecution. The system she oversees probably can’t function now, she said, because it may be forever tainted.

The harsh techniques used against Qahtani, Crawford said, were approved by then-Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld. In December, a Senate Armed Services Committee report concluded that “Rumsfeld’s authorization of aggressive interrogation techniques for use at Guantánamo Bay was a direct cause of detainee abuse there.”

Crawford, 61, a retired judge who served as general counsel for the Army during the Reagan administration and as Pentagon inspector general when Dick Cheney was secretary of defense, is the first senior Bush administration official responsible for reviewing practices at Guantánamo to publicly state that a detainee was tortured. She said the combination of the interrogation techniques, their duration and the impact on Qahtani’s health led to her conclusion. “This was not any one particular act; this was just a combination of things that had a medical impact on him, that hurt his health. It was abusive and uncalled for. And coercive. Clearly coercive. It was that medical impact that pushed me over the edge” to call it torture, she said.

“For 160 days his only contact was with the interrogators,” said Crawford, who personally reviewed Qahtani’s interrogation records and other military documents. “Forty-eight of 54 consecutive days of 18-to-20-hour interrogations. Standing naked in front of a female agent. Subject to strip searches. And insults to his mother and sister.” At one point Qahtani was threatened with a military working dog named Zeus. With a leash tied to his chains, he was also led around the room “and forced to perform a series of dog tricks,” a military report shows.

The interrogation was so intense that it left Qahtani in a “life-threatening condition.” He had to be hospitalized twice at Guantánamo with bradycardia, a condition in which the heart rate falls below 60 beats a minute and which in extreme cases can lead to heart failure and death.

President Bush and Vice President Cheney have said that U.S. interrogations never involved torture. “The United States does not torture. It’s against our laws, and it’s against our values,” Bush asserted on Sept. 6, 2006, when 14 high-value detainees were transferred to Guantánamo from secret CIA prisons in other countries. (See article on next page.) And in a interview in January with the Weekly Standard, Cheney said, “And I think on the left wing of the Democratic Party, there are some people who believe that we really tortured.”

“There is no doubt he was tortured,” Gitanjali S. Gutierrez, Qahtani’s civilian attorney, said. “He has loss of concentration and memory loss, and he suffers from paranoia. ... He wants just to get back to Saudi Arabia, get married and have a family.” Fifteen of the 19 hijackers on 9-11 were from Saudi Arabia. None was from Iraq.

Qahtani was denied entry into the United States a month before the September 11 attacks and was allegedly planning to be the plot’s 20th hijacker. He was later captured in Afghanistan and transported to Guantánamo in January 2002.

“There's no doubt in my mind he would’ve been on one of those planes had he gained access to the country in August 2001,” Crawford said of Qahtani, who remains detained at Guantánamo. “He’s a muscle hijacker. ... He’s a very dangerous man. What do you do with him now if you don’t charge him and try him? I would be hesitant to say, ‘Let him go.’” That, she said, is a decision that President Obama will have to make.

Crawford, a lifelong Republican, said, “I sympathize with the intelligence gatherers in those days after 9-11, not knowing what was coming next and trying to gain information to keep us safe. But there still has to be a line that we should not cross.” She added, “If we tolerate this and allow it, then how can we object when our servicemen and women, or others in foreign service, are captured and subjected to the same techniques? How can we complain? Where is our moral authority to complain? Well, we may have lost it.”

– edited from an article by Bob Woodward in The Washington Post, January 14, 2009
PeaceMeal, March/April 2009

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)

Spanish court reviews torture by Bush-era officials

LONDON — A high-level Spanish court has taken the first steps toward opening a criminal investigation against six former Bush administration officials, including former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, on whether they violated international law by providing a legalistic framework to justify the use of torture of American prisoners at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, an official close to the case said. The case was sent to the prosecutor’s office for review by Baltasar Garzón, the crusading investigative judge who ordered the arrest of former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet in 1998 on charges of assassination and multiple counts of torture. The official said that it was “highly probable” that the case would go forward and that it could lead to arrest warrants.

The complaint under review also names John Yoo, the former Justice Department lawyer who wrote secret legal opinions saying the president had the authority to circumvent the Geneva Conventions, and Douglas Feith, the former undersecretary of defense for policy. The others named are William Haynes II, former general counsel for the Department of Defense; Jay Bybee, Mr. Yoo’s former boss at the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel; and David Addington, who was the chief of staff and legal adviser to Vice President Dick Cheney.

Some American experts said that even if warrants were issued for Bush administration officials, it was a near certainty that they would not lead to arrests if the officials did not leave the United States. The U.S. government is likely to ignore any extradition requests.

The 98-page complaint is based on the Geneva Conventions and the 1984 Convention Against Torture, which is binding on 145 countries, including Spain and the United States. Countries that are party to the torture convention have the authority to investigate torture cases. Spain can claim jurisdiction in the case because five citizens or residents of Spain who were prisoners at Guantánamo Bay have said they were tortured there.

Judge Garzón has built an international reputation by bringing high-profile cases against human rights violators as well as international terrorist networks like Al Qaeda. Gonzalo Boye, the Madrid lawyer who filed the complaint, said that the six Americans cited had had well-documented roles in approving illegal interrogation techniques, redefining torture and abandoning the definition set by the 1984 Torture Convention.

The Justice Department ethics office has been conducting its own investigation into the work of Mr. Yoo and some of his colleagues for more than four years.

– edited from The New York Times, March 29, 2009
PeaceMeal, March/April 2009

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)

Torture victim vindicated

Maher Arar, a Syrian-born Canadian citizen, took his wife and two children on a beach vacation in Tunisia in September 2002. But he flew home alone early for his job as a software engineer. On a stopover at JFK Airport in New York en route to Montreal, Mr. Arar, now 36, was seized and interrogated by U.S. border agents. Informed by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police that Arar was suspected of Islamic extremism, U.S. intelligence officials held him incommunicado from his family for two weeks. Under the Bush administration’s program of “extraordinary rendition,” Arar was then sent to Syria, where he was tortured into signing a false confession. After 10 months in a rat-infested, underground cell the size of a grave, he was released without charge.

Since Arar’s return home, the Canadian government committed itself to investigating its role in this outrage. A two-year Commission of Inquiry led by Justice Dennis O’Connor found that a secret RCMP unit created shortly after Sept. 11, 2001, was responsible for first incorrectly labeling Arar as a terrorist and then overstating its case against him in documents given to the U.S. The head of the RCMP resigned over the incident.

On January 26, Prime Minister Stephen Harper publicly apologized for any role Canadian officials played in Arar’s terrifying ordeal. Canada agreed to compensate Arar $10.5 million plus $1 million for legal fees. As part of the negotiated settlement, PM Harper says his government accepts all 23 recommendations of the Commission of Inquiry, including an independent review of all RCMP information-sharing practices and the development of procedures for dealing with Canadians imprisoned overseas. “We cannot go back and fix the injustice that occurred to Mr. Arar, but we can make changes to lessen the likelihood that something like this will ever happen again,” Harper said.

In a press conference, Maher Arar said, “My suffering, the suffering of my family, did not end when I was released. The struggle to clear my name has been long and hard. My kids have suffered silently, and I feel that I owe them a lot.”

While Arar has been cleared of any suspicions in Canada, the U.S. government still has him, his wife and his children on a watch list so that they cannot travel in or over the United States or its territories. Arar said he avoids U.S. airspace as much as possible because he is afraid that the plane might have problems and have to land in the U.S., which might begin his ordeal all over again.

Mr. Arar is currently suing the U.S. government over his deportation to certain torture in Syria. The administration has stymied his lawsuit by claiming that to allow it to go forward would jeopardize U.S. state secrets. Perhaps most galling, even though it is an open secret that we send people to other countries for interrogation where they are sure to be tortured, the White House continues to claim that our actions are consistent with the Convention Against Torture—a treaty that explicitly prohibits such conduct.

The Arar case is the perfect storm of Bush administration arrogance and dishonesty, coalescing with its utter disregard for the principles of due process and human rights that once were the foundation of our republic. The contrast between the model of responsible and responsive governance in Canada and the defensive, lying posture of the White House on this matter of national character is one answer to the question: Why does the rest of the world hate us?

– edited from Brock Press (Canada) and the Salt Lake Tribune
PeaceMeal, May/June 2007

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)

New law absolves Bush of war crimes

President Bush has succeeded in quietly pardoning himself and other members of his Administration of any crimes connected with the past torture and mistreatment of U.S. detainees. The “pardon” provision is buried in the Military Commissions Act of 2006 just passed by the House and Senate — Bush’s legislation to create new military tribunals and rules for terrorist detainees.

The new law strips detainees of the habeas corpus right to challenge their detention in court and allows evidence seized in this country or abroad without a search warrant to be admitted in trials. It broadens the definition of enemy combatants to include noncitizens living legally in the United States and in foreign countries as well as anyone — U.S. citizens included — who meets criteria defined by the president or secretary of defense.

In addition, the legislation weakens the War Crimes Act of 1996, a federal law that makes it a crime to mistreat detainees in violation of the Geneva Conventions. The legislation bans the most extreme interrogation methods used by the CIA and military, such as waterboarding — a technique used to simulate drowning, but it leaves a loophole for the president to determine the limits of torture by allowing him to set specific interrogation techniques. The bill not only allows the president to determine the meaning and application of the Geneva Conventions; it also strips the courts of jurisdiction to hear challenges to his interpretation. An amendment intended to prompt the Administration to say publicly what techniques it considers out of bounds failed.

The new law waters down the specification of torture under the War Crimes Act and also makes the weaker definition retroactive to Sept. 11, 2001. Ostensibly providing immunity from prosecution to CIA interrogators for past offenses, that provision also covers the president and other officials because it applies to any U.S. national.

Avoiding prosecution under the War Crimes Act has been an obsession of the Bush Administration since shortly after 9/11. In a January 2002 memorandum to the president, then-White House Counsel and now-Attorney General Alberto Gonzales pointed out the problem of prosecution for detainee mistreatment under the War Crimes Act. Gonzales understood that the specter of prosecution could hang over top Administration officials involved in detainee torture throughout their lives. Because there is no statute of limitations in cases where death resulted from the mistreatment, prosecutors far into the future, not appointed by Bush or beholden to him, would be making the decisions whether to prosecute.

Republicans argued that the new legislation would provide the necessary tools to fight a new kind of enemy. Democrats argued that the changes were being rushed through for political gain close to a major election and that they would fundamentally threaten the foundations of the American legal system and come back to haunt lawmakers as one of the greatest mistakes in history.

Overall, the new bill reallocates power among the branches of government, taking authority away from the judiciary and handing it to the president. Lawsuits challenging the legislation are inevitable, and critics — even Republicans — say substantial parts of it may well be rejected by the Supreme Court.

– compiled from the Chicago Sun-Times and The New York Times
PeaceMeal, Sept/October 2006

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)

bukovsky.jpg (2753 bytes)Torture’s long shadow

by Vladimir Bukovsky

Cambridge, England – One nasty morning, Comrade Stalin discovered that his favorite pipe was missing. Naturally, he called in his henchman, Lavrenti Beria, and instructed him to find the pipe. A few hours later, Stalin found it in his desk and called off the search. “But, Comrade Stalin,” stammered Beria, “five suspects have already confessed to stealing it.”

This joke, whispered among those who trusted each other when I was a kid in Moscow in the 1950s, is perhaps the best contribution I can make to the current argument in Washington about legislation banning torture and inhumane treatment of suspected terrorists captured abroad. Now that President Bush has made a public show of endorsing Sen. John McCain’s amendment, it would seem that the debate is ending. But that the debate occurred at all, and that prominent figures are willing to entertain the idea, is perplexing and alarming to me. I have seen what happens to a society that becomes enamored of such methods in its quest for greater security; it takes more than words and political compromise to beat back the impulse.

This is a new debate for Americans, but there is no need for you to reinvent the wheel. Most nations can provide you with volumes on the subject. Indeed, with the exception of the Black Death, torture is the oldest scourge on our planet. That is why there are so many conventions against it. Every Russian czar after Peter the Great abolished torture upon being enthroned, and every time his successor had to abolish it all over again. The czars were hardly bleeding-heart liberals, but long experience in the use of these “interrogation” practices in Russia had taught them that once condoned, torture will destroy their security apparatus. They understood that torture is the professional disease of any investigative machinery.

Apart from sheer frustration and other adrenaline-related emotions, investigators in hot pursuit have enormous temptation to use force to break the will of their prey because they believe that, metaphorically speaking, they have a “ticking bomb” case on their hands. But, much as a good hunter trains his hounds to bring the game to him rather than eating it, a good ruler has to restrain his henchmen from devouring the prey, lest he be left empty-handed.

Investigation is a subtle process, requiring patience and fine analytical ability, as well as skill in cultivating one’s sources. When torture is condoned, these rare talented people leave the service, having been outstripped by less gifted colleagues with their quick-fix methods, and the service itself degenerates into a playground for sadists. Thus, in its heyday, Joseph Stalin’s notorious NKVD (the Soviet secret police) became nothing more than an army of butchers terrorizing the whole country, but incapable of solving the simplest of crimes. And once the NKVD went into high gear, not even Stalin could stop it at will. He finally succeeded only by turning the fury of the NKVD against itself. He ordered his chief NKVD henchman, Nikolai Yezhov (Beria’s predecessor), to be arrested together with his closest aides.

So, why would democratically elected leaders of the United States ever want to legalize what a succession of Russian monarchs strove to abolish? I have no answer to this question, but I do know that if Vice President Cheney is right and that some “cruel, inhumane or degrading” (CID) treatment of captives is a necessary tool for winning the war on terrorism, then the war is lost already. As someone who has been on the receiving end of the “treatment” under discussion, let me tell you that trying to make a distinction between torture and CID techniques is ridiculous.

Now it appears that sleep deprivation, as used on Guantanamo Bay captives, is “only” CID. Well, congratulations, comrades! It was exactly this method that the NKVD used to produce those spectacular confessions in Stalin’s “show trials” of the 1930s. At the end, the victim would sign any confession without even understanding what he had signed.

I know from my own experience that interrogation is an intensely personal confrontation, a duel of wills. This is precisely why torture occurs even when it is explicitly forbidden. How, then, can you force your officers and your young people in the CIA to commit acts that will scar them forever? For scarred they will be. Take my word.

Today, when the White House lawyers seem preoccupied with contriving a way to stem the flow of possible lawsuits from former detainees, I strongly recommend that they think about another flood of suits — from the men and women in your armed services or the CIA agents who have been or will be engaged in CID practices. Our rich experience in Russia has shown that many will become alcoholics or drug addicts, violent criminals or, at the very least, despotic and abusive fathers and mothers.

If America’s leaders want to hunt terrorists while transforming dictatorships into democracies, they must recognize that torture, which includes CID, has historically been an instrument of oppression — not an instrument of investigation or of intelligence gathering. No country needs to invent how to “legalize” torture; the problem is rather how to stop it from happening.

Vladimir Bukovsky, 63, spent nearly 12 years in Soviet prisons, labor camps and psychiatric hospitals for nonviolent human rights activities. He is the author of several books, including "Judgment in Moscow," and has lived primarily in Cambridge, England, since 1976. His article is edited from The Washington Post, 18 Dec. 2005, and was reprinted in PeaceMeal, Sept/October 2006.

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)

Revisiting Abu Ghraib

After two years of relative silence, there is suddenly new interest in asking questions about Abu Ghraib prison. The Bush administration, which recently announced plans to shut the notorious prison and transfer detainees to other sites in Iraq, would like the world to believe that it has dealt with the abuse and that it's time to move on. But questions about what took place there — and who was responsible — won't end with Abu Ghraib's closure.

A spokesman for the Army's Criminal Investigation Command (CID) recently told Salon that the agency has reopened its investigation into Abu Ghraib "to pursue some additional information," after having called the case closed in October 2005. CID is the agency to which Spc. Joseph Darby handed over the first horrific images of detainee abuse at Abu Ghraib on Jan. 13, 2004.

An Army dog handler, Sgt. Michael Smith, 24, was sentenced March 22 to six months behind bars for using his snarling Belgian shepherd to torment prisoners at Abu Ghraib for his own amusement. Convicted of five charges including maltreatment of prisoners, Sgt. Smith could have gotten 8½ years in prison. Lawyers for Smith argued that he was only implementing policies approved by his superiors to soften up prisoners for interrogation. Smith said he wished he had gotten his orders in writing.

The Army recently blocked the retirement of Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller, the former Guantánamo, Cuba interrogation commander who allegedly brought tougher intelligence tactics to Abu Ghraib, pursuant to a request by two senators that he be kept on active duty so that he could face further questioning for his role in the detainee abuse scandal. Miller refused to testify at the dog-handler trials, invoking the military equivalent of the Fifth Amendment to shield himself from self-incrimination.

However, Col. Thomas Pappas, former commander of military intelligence at Abu Ghraib, has charged that Miller introduced the use of dogs and other harsh tactics at the prison. Col. Pappas was granted immunity from prosecution in exchange for his testimony at the trial of Sgt. Michael Smith.

U.S. Army Reserve Capt. Christopher Brinson is fighting a reprimand he received for his role in the abuse. Brinson, currently an aide to Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.), supervised military police Cpl. Charles A. Graner Jr. — one of the ringleaders of the abuse, who was court-martialed and sentenced to 10 years in prison — and some of the other guards who have been convicted in the scandal. Brinson joins a growing chorus of Abu Ghraib figures who blame the higher command structure for what happened at the prison.

Salon has obtained and posted online the Army's forensic report of what happened at Abu Ghraib: dates, times, places, cameras and, in some cases, identities of the detainees and soldiers involved in the abuse. Included is an archive of 279 photos and 19 videos of Abu Ghraib abuse first gathered by the CID, along with information drawn from the CID's own timeline of the events depicted. See: www.salon.com/news/abu_ghraib/2006/03/14/introduction

– edited from Salon.com, 30 March 2006, and The Associated Press
PeaceMeal March/April 2006

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)

U.S. losing friends over torture

by Edward M. Gomez

The seemingly unstoppable pattern of lies and lying about their lies that has become the hallmark of George W. Bush and his administration’s top officials, spokespersons, and supporters in the media reached something of a bizarre apotheosis the second week of November. As news analyst Michael Gawenda, writing in the Australian daily The Age, noted incredulously, “When the president of the United States, under repeated questioning and under pressure, has to declare, as he did [during a stop in Panama], ‘We do not torture,’ you know that even his allies in Congress no longer believe him.”

Bush’s Panama performance was “a sad spectacle,” snapped The Economist, the respected British news magazine that had endorsed Bush in the 2000 election. A stinging editorial, “How to Lose Friends and Alienate People,” criticized the way Bush administration officials have handled the torture controversy. Their approach, the publication scoffed, “beggars belief.”

Not lost on many foreign observers is the unmistakable — and now well-documented — role Vice President Dick Cheney has played in formulating and tirelessly advocating the Bush administration’s torture policy. In the Jamaica Observer, columnist Wayne Brown wrote: “I don’t know how else to put this: Is ... Dick Cheney mad? And has his titular boss, G.W. Bush, started all unawares down the road to impeachment? It may be too soon to answer those questions, but not to begin asking them.”

A commentator in Saudi Arabia’s Arab News, citing the U.S. military prison camp at Guantánamo, Cuba, noted: “By all accounts, appalling torture and ill treatment were committed against detainees, who were denied due process, prisoner-of-war status, and the protection of the Geneva Conventions. Reportedly, dozens of suicide attempts and massive ‘self-harm action’ were thwarted by the military when detainees tried to hang themselves with bedding or clothing, with one attempt resulting in permanent brain damage.” Similarly, The Washington Post’s revelation that “the C.I.A. maintains a string of jails [in Eastern European countries], where it can keep people indefinitely and in secret, only heightens the suspicion that ... Cheney wants the agency to keep using ‘enhanced interrogation techniques.’ These include ‘waterboarding,’ or making a man think he is drowning.”

Revelations of torture carried out by U.S. personnel overseas “are all the more shocking because the United States, given its unrivaled status as a big power, sets the tone for what is acceptable behavior for other governments worldwide,” an Arab News commentator observed. “When it is dismissive of the rule of law and the sanctity of human rights ... it grants license to other governments to commit similar abuses, like those in Israel and Uzbekistan, Syria and Nepal.”

The Economist admonished: “[T]he loss to America in terms of public opinion [is] clear and horrifically large. Abu Ghraib was a gift to the insurgency in Iraq; Guantánamo Bay and its dubious military commissions ... have acted as recruiting sergeants for al-Qaeda around the world. In the cold war, America championed the Helsinki human-rights accords. This time, the world’s most magnificent democracy is struggling against vile terrorists who thought nothing of slaughtering thousands of innocent civilians — and yet the [Bush] administration has somehow contrived to turn America’s own human-rights record into a subject of legitimate debate.”

As The Age’s Gawenda puts it, that debate over the Bush administration’s tolerance of — or apparent enthusiasm for — torture and the fact that such activity by Americans is being carried out at all is “about chickens coming home to roost. It’s about the growing realization in America that the systematic abuse and torture of prisoners and detainees held by the U.S. around the world is a direct consequence of administration policies and directives.”

For the Jamaica Observer’s Wayne Brown, Bush’s “we do not torture” utterance was “a lie so stark, so beyond-brazen, that one cringed to watch him say it.” Ultimately, the Jamaican columnist also lamented “[t]he belated explosion of American shame over ... Bush’s torture policy ... for which his presidency will be remembered, along with the unprovoked attack which destroyed a whole country — and has so far gotten 15,000 American boys killed or crippled.”

In an increasingly violent world, it may be that the price of Bush’s torture policy is merely waiting to be extracted. That payback will come if or when any of America’s growing number of enemies ever captures any U.S. soldiers or other personnel and mistreats them. If or when that day comes, Washington will have no good argument to make about the illegality of the horror.

Author, artist, and critic Edward M. Gomez is a former diplomat and multi-lingual correspondent for TIME magazine. His article (edited here) was posted on SF Gate.com, Nov. 15, 2005.

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)

‘Quaint’ Gonzales must go

The Senate must reject President Bush’s nomination of Alberto Gonzales to succeed John Ashcroft as Attorney General of the United States. No amount of explaining by Mr. Gonzales can eradicate the shameful record that makes him unfit to be America’s chief law-enforcement officer. Mr. Gonzales’s advisory memos, which factored into the White House decision to set aside the Geneva Conventions and other laws as part of the global war on terrorism, have documented his willingness to sacrifice the rule of law for the political positions of his boss.

As White House counsel, Mr. Gonzales played a key role in pushing the administration to brand the Geneva Conventions "obsolete" and "quaint" and to unilaterally declare them inapplicable to al-Qaida and the Taliban. He also played a key role in the decision to use Guantanamo Bay as a global detention facility because it was believed to be outside the reach of U.S. courts and the rule of law. The U.S. Supreme Court held otherwise in June 2004.

Perhaps most disturbingly, Mr. Gonzales sat at the apex of the storm that swirled within the Bush administration’s legal ranks over the use of "coercive interrogation" practices and torture to extract information from detainees in Cuba, Afghanistan, and Iraq. One of the "torture memos," produced for Gonzales by the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, argued that the president had power outside of the Constitution as commander in chief to nullify both the Geneva Conventions and the federal war crimes statute whenever he deemed it necessary. Another memo, produced by the Defense Department’s lawyers, opined that an interrogator was "guilty of torture only if he act[ed] with the express purpose of inflicting severe pain or suffering on a person within his custody or physical control." Together, these legal memoranda and policies adopted by the Bush administration on Mr. Gonzales’s watch had the effect of eviscerating the nation’s institutional, moral, and legal constraints on the treatment and interrogation of prisoners.

President Bush and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld may not have personally ordered the abuses at Abu Ghraib, but on advice from lawyers like Mr. Gonzales, they adopted policies that set the conditions for those abuses and for the worst scandal to affect the U.S. government since Watergate. Inquiry into Mr. Gonzales’s role in creating the Administration’s flawed legal policies in the war on terrorism has so far been prevented by President Bush with a variety of legal tactics, including claims of executive privilege and attorney-client privilege.

And despite the incredible damage done by this scandal to our country’s political and moral standing in the world, not to mention our prospects of winning the hearts and minds of people in the Middle East, no one of any significance has yet answered for these policies. On the contrary, it appears many of the lawyers responsible for Abu Ghraib have been rewarded: Office of Legal Counsel chief Jay Bybee now sits as a judge on the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals; Pentagon General Counsel William Haynes II was nominated (but not confirmed) for a seat on the 4th Circuit; and now Mr.Gonzales is in line to be promoted, too.

The Gonzales nomination is being actively opposed by Veterans for Common Sense, an organization comprising military veterans who have served in every U.S. conflict since 1941. VCS believes that approval of this nomination will do harm to the United States’ standing in the world and further damage the honor of the U.S. military, which has already suffered as a result of the torture scandal in Iraq. Secretary of State (and former General) Colin Powell himself rebutted one of Mr. Gonzales’s memos. Powell correctly noted that by failing to apply the Geneva Conventions to our enemies, we not only fail to take the high moral ground, but place our own troops at risk of being treated in like manner.

Confirmation hearings on the Gonzales nomination are expected in January 2005. We encourage you to write personal letters to your Senators opposing the nomination.

– information from Slate.msn.com and Veterans for Common Sense
PeaceMeal Nov/December 2004

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)