How America Became A Torture Nation

by Andy Worthington 

Since I began researching Guantánamo and the “war on terror” on a full-time basis over six years ago, my motive has been to pierce the lies told about the prisoners, falsely tarred as “the worst of the worst,” even though most of them were rounded up for money, or through poor intelligence, and to expose the horrors that ensue when a rogue government — saturated in vengeance and with a long-standing disdain for restraints on executive power — disregards domestic and international law, deliberately confusing a terrorist attack with a war, depriving prisoners seized in wartime of the rights of the Geneva Conventions, and introducing arbitrary detention and torture.

Torture has permeated every aspect of America’s “war on terror,” and I have researched and written about what is known of its use at Guantánamo, and in prisons in Afghanistan, through the stories of the men held there and the documents about them that have been publicly released. I have also undertaken research into prisoners held in other locations — in the proxy prisons in countries including Egypt, Jordan, Morocco and Syria, where the torturers of those regimes extracted information on behalf of the CIA, and in the “black sites” run by the CIA, in a disturbingly novel departure from its traditional modus operandi, in Thailand, Poland, Romania, Lithuania and Morocco.

My main contribution to the documentation of these prisoners is a section of a UN report published in 2010, the “Joint Study on Global Practices in Relation to Secret Detention in the Context of Countering Terrorism,” dealing with US secret detention policies after 9/11, on which I was the lead author. That report is available here as a PDF, and in June 2010 I cross-posted the chapter dealing with US secret detention in three parts on my website — see UN Secret Detention Report (Part One): The CIA’s “High-Value Detainee” Program and Secret Prisons, UN Secret Detention Report (Part Two): CIA Prisons in Afghanistan and Iraq and UN Secret Detention Report (Part Three): Proxy Detention, Other Countries’ Complicity, and Obama’s Record.

In addition, I have also been involved in reporting on and disseminating the documentation relating to the ongoing investigation into the secret prison in Poland, and have also followed, analyzed and publicly criticized the deliberate policy in the US, at the highest levels of the Obama administration, in the Justice Department and in the courts, to prevent any accountability for the torture program from taking place. This shameful closing of ranks apparently leaves foreign investigations as the only viable route to possible prosecutions, and leaves those opposed to the use of torture having to be satisfied with knowing that, although the Bush administration’s torturers (up to and including Bush himself) are free to roam the US and to write books about their crimes, they cannot freely travel abroad, as they face the risk of being indicted for torture in other countries where the UN Convention Against Torture has not been sidelined.

Recently, I was delighted to receive, by post, a copy of The Torture Report: What the Documents Say About America’s Post-9/11 Torture Program, written by Larry Siems, the director of the Freedom to Write and International Programs at PEN American Center, and published by OR Books, which is based on the excellent website, “The Torture Report,” that Larry wrote for the ACLU, drawing on a detailed analysis of the Bush administration’s torture program, and what has been revealed about it through the release of key documents, including those obtained by the ACLU using Freedom of Information legislation.

To support Larry’s excellent book — and the great work of OR Books, which has also just published another excellent book, Drone Warfare: Killing by Remote Control, by Medea Benjamin of Code Pink — I’m cross-posting below an article introducing The Torture Report, which Larry Siems recently wrote for Slate.

How America Came To Torture Its Prisoners
By Larry Siems, Slate, April 20, 2012

It began with one document.

On Sept. 17, 2001, six days after the terrorist attacks in Washington, D.C., President George W. Bush sent a 12-page Memorandum of Notification to his National Security Council. That memorandum, we know now, authorized the Central Intelligence Agency to set up and run secret prisons. We still don’t know exactly what it says: CIA attorneys have told a judge the document is so off-limits to the courts and the American people that even the font is classified. But we do know what it did: It literally opened a space for torture.

Thanks to a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit — a lawsuit the New York Times has called “among the most successful in the history of public disclosure” — we now know much of what happened in those secret spaces the Bush administration created. Under that litigation, the American Civil Liberties Union gathered nearly 140,000 formerly classified documents from the Department of Defense, the Justice Department, and the CIA that detail the abuse of prisoners in U.S. custody in the “War on Terror.” My job, as the author of the website www.thetorturereport.org and then of the book The Torture Report: What the Documents Say About America’s Post-9/11 Torture Program, was to dig through that incredible trove of documents and figure out for myself what, exactly, my country had done.

Here is what I learned.

Our highest government officials, up to and including President Bush, broke international and U.S. laws banning torture and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment. Worse, they made their subordinates in the military and civilian intelligence services break those laws for them.

When the men and women they asked to break those laws protested, knowing they could be prosecuted for torture, they pretended to rewrite the law. They commissioned legal opinions they said would shield those who carried out the abuses from being hauled into court, as the torture ban requires. “The law has been changed,” detainees around the world were told. “No rules apply.”

Then they tortured. They tortured men at military bases and detention centers in Afghanistan and Iraq, in Guantánamo, and in U.S. Navy bases on American soil; they tortured men in secret CIA prisons set up across the globe specifically to terrorize and torture prisoners; they sent many more to countries with notoriously abusive regimes and asked them to do the torturing. At least twice, after the torturers themselves concluded there was no point to further abuse, Washington ordered that the prisoners be tortured some more.

They tortured innocent people. They tortured people who may have been guilty of terrorism-related crimes, but they ruined any chance of prosecuting them because of the torture. They tortured people when the torture had nothing to do with imminent threats: They tortured based on bad information they had extracted from others through torture; they tortured to hide their mistakes and to get confessions; they tortured sometimes just to break people, pure and simple.

And they conspired to cover up their crimes. They did this from the start, by creating secret facilities and secrecy regimes to keep what they were doing from the American people and the world. They did it by suppressing and then destroying evidence, including videotapes of the torture. They did it by denying detainees legal process because, as the CIA’s Inspector General put it in a 2004 report, when you torture someone you create an “Endgame” problem: You end up with detainees who, “if not kept in isolation, would likely divulge information about the circumstances of their detention.”

They managed all this, for a time, through secrecy — a secrecy that depended on the aggressive suppression of two groups of voices.

Over and over again, in Afghanistan and Iraq, in Guantánamo, in secret CIA black sites and at CIA headquarters, in the Pentagon, and in Washington, men and women recognized the torture for what it was and refused to remain silent. They objected, protested, and fought to prevent, and then to end, these illegal and immoral interrogations. While the president and his top advisers approved and encouraged the torture of prisoners, there was dissent in every agency, at every level.

The documents are full of these voices. In fact, it is thanks to these dissenters that much of the documentary record exists. From emails among FBI agents sharing their shock over scenes they had witnessed in interrogation booths in Guantánamo, to letters and memoranda for the record, to major internal investigations, the documents show that those who ordered and carried out the torture did so despite constant warnings and objections that their actions were ineffective, short-sighted, and wrong. It is no wonder that so many of these documents were suppressed.

Alongside the dissenters, another group of voices surfaces in these once-classified materials: the men we tortured. Theirs are the voices the entire system of incommunicado detention and closed tribunals was constructed to censor, and it worked: To this day, few Americans can identify more than a handful of detainees by name. Fewer still know how far from the “worst of the worst” the vast majority of those we tortured turned out to be.

Torture dehumanizes. But that only extends a process of dehumanization that must take place in order for abuse to happen: It is impossible to torture those whose humanity we recognize. In joke-filled letters to their attorneys, in frank and vivid testimony in tribunal transcripts, in startlingly naive and in powerfully emotional exchanges with interrogators, images emerge not of the maniacal and monolithic and monstrous, but of distinct and recognizable individuals. To hear these voices is to begin to reverse the terrible dehumanization the documents chronicle.

Last month, I was once again in a federal courtroom in New York, watching one of the last chapters in the remarkable Freedom of Information Act saga that has unearthed those 140,000 torture documents. The argument that day centered on whether the CIA would finally be required to release a single photograph of Abu Zubaydah, who was captured 10 years ago last month and who became the first subject of the Bush administration’s experiments with “Enhanced Interrogation Techniques.”

The CIA has gone to extreme lengths to conceal images of Abu Zubaydah and his treatment first in a secret CIA dungeon in Thailand and later in another CIA black site in Poland — lengths that include destroying 92 videotapes of his interrogation and torture. It has paid no price for destroying those tapes, or for holding Abu Zubaydah for more than four years in its network of secret prisons, or for his well-documented White House-orchestrated torture, which included 83 episodes of waterboarding, the last one overseen by a Washington official who flew to the black site because the administration refused to believe his interrogator’s conclusion that he was not withholding information.

The court has not yet ruled on the question of the photograph. But there is little reason to believe the CIA will now be required to turn over a picture that very well may offer graphic evidence of abuse — and at the very least would drive home the simple fact that the target of so much calculated and extreme mistreatment was a single, and at the time utterly defenseless, human being.

But we should hardly need that photograph. We already have Abu Zubaydah’s own descriptions of his ordeal, in his statement to the International Committee to the Red Cross and in his testimony (still heavily redacted) to the Guantánamo tribunals. Those descriptions match exactly the treatment the CIA proposes and Bush’s lawyers approved in the infamous Aug. 1, 2002 torture memos. We don’t have the videotapes, but we do have the list of cables that flowed back and forth between the Thai black site and Washington reporting on the progress of Abu Zubaydah’s interrogation. And we have the CIA Inspector General’s appalled reaction after he flew to Thailand to view those tapes.

It is one thing to be in the dark; it is another thing to have the record of what happened in the darkness right in front of us, and fail to reckon with it. That, sadly, is the situation in the United States today.

In March, the Polish newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza reported that prosecutors in Poland have charged the country’s former top intelligence official with depriving Abu Zubaydah and others of their freedom and allowing corporal punishment in the secret prison the CIA set up and ran near the village of Szymany.

The CIA shipped Abu Zubaydah from Thailand to Poland on Dec. 4, 2002. When he arrived in Szymany — hooded, diapered, shackled — and stepped onto the tarmac with his armed, CIA-contracted escorts, he was setting foot in a country with one of the newest constitutions in the world, a nation that in the moving words of that document’s preamble, remains “mindful of the bitter experiences of the times when fundamental freedoms and human rights were violated in our Homeland.” Ratified in 1997 — barely five years before the CIA’s plane landed — Poland ‘s constitution declares simply, “No one may be subjected to torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment. The application of corporal punishment shall be prohibited.”

That the United States operated secret prisons anywhere on earth just so we could place our prisoners and jailors outside the reach of U.S. laws prohibiting torture is outrageous, of course. But there’s something especially perverse about basing one of these facilities in a country whose “bitter recent experiences” include first Nazi occupation and extermination camps and then four decades of communist oppression. Out of those experiences, the people of Poland created a state that embraces, without reservation, the absolute ban on torture and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment, and the first thing the United States does is degrade that state by setting up and running a secret torture chamber on Polish soil.

How would Americans feel if we learned our government had secretly allowed a foreign government to violate some of our most basic laws and fundamental principles on American soil? Shouldn’t we be just as outraged to know our government conspired to violate those laws and principles abroad? That it did so in secret no longer absolves us: Plenty of the record is public now; now we know. And with Poland’s former spy chief under indictment for facilitating the CIA’s torture, and with similar investigations under way in several other countries, we, and the world, will soon know more.

Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison.