A report released last Monday indicating that U.S. military doctors designed, enabled and engaged in the torture of detainees during both the Bush and Obama administrations highlights the urgency in revitalizing the debate around torture and abuse. The report found that the medical personnel allowed “cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment” of prisoners. –XO
Torture is a live debate in America. The killing and capture of Osama bin Laden resurrected the discourse. Just as soon as the team of Navy Seals dispatched the al Qaeda leader, advocates for abusive interrogations vied for the trophy corpse to advance their agenda. They claimed their methods helped to pinpoint the al Qaeda leader. The future of America in terms of torture hangs in balance, with the bin Laden’s body and his neutralized threat on one side of the scale and the lingering revulsion at the Abu Ghraib abuse on the other. Over the course of the decade, events could decisively tip the scales.
The Obama Justice Department closed the prospect of accountability for detainee abuse. As the New York Times put it, a September 2012 decision by the department “eliminates the last possibility that any criminal charges will be brought as a result of the brutal interrogations carried out by the CIA.” With that possibility shut down, the chances that detainee abuses could return improves.
After all, perception is reality. It is highly questionable that the abuse of detainees ultimately netted bin Laden. In an email interview, former CIA agent Robert Baer put those claims in question. “I’ve seen claims enhanced interrogation helped. But frankly I’d be skeptical of it at least until something solid comes out,” he said. So far, that solid piece of evidence has not been seen, but advocates of “harsh interrogations” can always take cover behind “classified” information in making those assertions.
Even before bin Laden’s killing, polls indicated that only a minority of Americans believed that torture can never be justified. A shocked and awed America remains, perhaps grudgingly, supportive of torture. Much of America has converged around this sentiment on torture: “it’s a dirty job, but someone’s gotta do it.”
One of the distinguishing features of the Third World is the degree to which many ordinary people (to say nothing of the so-called elite) believe that those kinds of “dirty jobs” are the ultimate, unavoidable solution—resorted to with a shrug of the shoulders, in the name of security. And that conviction infects like a cancer. It is a contagion that takes hold of a national psyche and generates institutional decay.
Americans might be put off by the idea of inflicting physical torment onto a captive individual, applied in a premeditated, official fashion. The government’s sterilizing terminology to justify the actions—such as enhanced interrogation techniques (EITs), stress positions, etc.—may not even obscure the issue for them. Many remember the ghoulish images of Abu Ghraib.
But torture may well make a comeback in America, largely because U.S. administrations have guarded the secrets. Washington has not even had a Third World-style truth commission on the topic. And victims have not been able to ventilate and address their grievances in court. As a July 2010 report by the American Civil Liberties Union puts it:
“The truth is that the Obama administration has gradually become an obstacle to accountability for torture. It is not simply that … the [Obama] administration has fought to keep secret some of the documents that would allow the public to better understand how the program was conceived, developed, and implemented. It has also sought to extinguish lawsuits brought by torture survivors—denying them recognition as victims, compensation for their injuries, and even the opportunity to present their cases.”
Former directors of the CIA hold definitively open the prospect of “harsh” interrogation returning in America, as Gen. Hayden made clear when he castigated Obama for allowing the techniques to be made public. Should the country suffer another trauma, it could swiftly return to torture like it’s 2001.
And it turns out that America doesn’t have “precision guided” interrogators, capable of hitting just the right pressure points only on the highest value detainees who hold the most time sensitive information. America’s “rough” interrogations pretty much resembled the approach of poor and developing countries around the world. That reality is crucial to the torture debate. Many Americans seem to believe that the United States tortured “differently,” but all evidence points to the fact that it fell into common, Third World tendencies.
The most brutal treatment was not reserved only for those captives who were so high ranking that they might hold the secrets of orchestrated, time-ticking plots. The idea that only select high-value detainees were subjected to “enhanced interrogation” by disciplined interrogators makes a nice story but conflicts with declassified information. America’s torturers behaved with little more restraint than their counterparts in Latin America, or the rest of the Third World. The numbers belie the mythology around the practice. Torturers were not precise and they were not selective.
“Government documents show that hundreds of prisoners were tortured in US-run detention facilities, and that more than one hundred were killed, many in the course of interrogations,” said a July 2010 report by the American Civil Liberties Union.
Not only did America torture, not only did it torture often, the profile of the American torturer also bears similarities to his counterpart in the Third World.
Poor, Underprivileged Torturer
The left wing of rich countries has traditionally been associated with denouncing the military regimes of the 1980s, in Latin America, Asia and Africa. In particular, they have singled out torturers for special disdain. But that was so 20th century.
In the cutting-edge world of political correctness, the torturer of the past becomes the “violence worker” of today. Under such a perspective, the torturer himself is a victim of the system. And really, the poor torturer! Surely, getting some good shut-eye can be rudely interrupted if you have those rude flashbacks of blood-curdling screams and broken, anguished human cries. Putting aside extraneous sympathies for the torturers, this bit of politically correct retrospective has been useful in clarifying just who did the torturing in Latin America and other countries. According to “Torture, Terrorism and the State,” by Vittorio Bufacchi and Jean Maria Arrigo:
“Military training programs have been studied through interviews with former torturers in Greece, Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Uruguay, Nicaragua, and Israel. Often the young, the poor, or the uneducated are recruited. Brutal training at the outset desensitizes trainees to their own pain, suffering, and humiliation. Confinement and initiation rites isolate them from prior relationships. They usually experience moral tension in their new roles and variously resort to denial, psychological compartmentalization, alcohol, or drugs. The efficacy of shame tactics in disorienting subjects tends to lead to sexual tortures that in turn contribute to stigmatization and corruption of torturers. Haritos-Fatouros, who has deeply researched the training of torturers, observed that ‘the perpetrators of evil in the Abu Ghraib prison have also become its victims who will suffer disgrace, imprisonment, and mental disorders in the years to come’. ‘Who is responsible for so many ruined lives?’ she asks. A study of ‘violence workers’ in Brazil’s suppression of ‘communist insurgents’ showed that torturers experienced even greater job-related stress than members of death squads.” (Journal of Applied Philosophy, Vol. 23, No. 3, 2006)
This kind of analysis shows that the poor and uneducated were recruited to do the “manual labor” of the military regimes. Now the U.S. government did not troll the fringes of society to find torturers, as Latin American regimes seem to have done. But it did crawl down the hierarchical totem pole, recruiting outside contractors of questionable expertise to conduct the rough interrogations, according to information now declassified. It did not involve its elite interrogators with years of experience and knowledge in dealing with detainees, sometimes because those agents balked at implementing the EITs. Many were not even present during those kinds of abusive interrogations.
The American interrogator was often hired and paid to conduct the abusive interrogations. Often, they were not the regular staff of the CIA or any other government institution. Many were employees of Mitchell Jessen & Associates, a publicly traded company that (as all public companies are organized to do) was geared towards making a profit, in this particular instance as a result of detainee abuse.
And importantly, those contractors did not have training on how to interrogate detainees. Instead, most came from a military school that trains service men and women to resist the torture techniques of the Third World. And so what they knew, quite specifically, were Third World, abusive interrogation methods.
In America, those two different kinds of expertise had been kept distinct. You have the elite interrogators, on one side, doing the interrogating. In another camp are the folks who help U.S. personnel resist the kind of torture they might be subjected to in the Third World. In the NCE, those two backgrounds were conflated. After all, standards and protocols were being thrown to the wayside, like so much quibbling nit-picking of a bygone era.
And so the U.S. government tapped contractors who knew a thing or two about Third World-style torture. And that methodology, according to many knowledgeable sources, is commonly geared to breaking down a captive in order to coerce false confessions for propaganda purposes, rather than extract accurate information. The U.S. contractors were familiar with, and used on detainees, Third World techniques, as conducted by Chinese communist interrogators on US soldiers during the Korean War. The abuse was geared to making American captives “confess” to war crimes.
Colonel Steve Kleinman, the former head of the Air Force’s strategic interrogation program, said of the EITs: “People who defend this say ‘we can make them talk.’ Yes, but what are they saying? The key is that most of the training is to try to resist the attempts to make you comply and do things such as create propaganda, to make these statements in either written or videotaped form. But to get people to comply, to do what you want them to do, even though it’s not the truth—that is a whole different dynamic than getting people to produce accurate, useful intelligence.”
Kleinman said that the EIT-type interrogations used on U.S. servicemen during the Korean War “actually compelled some of our pilots to admit to dropping chemical weapons on cities and so forth, when in fact that didn’t happen.” He adds that such treatment is not just physically harsh, it is also geared towards inducing debility, depression and dread through emotional and psychological techniques. Those techniques, he said, “profoundly altered somebody’s ability to answer questions truthfully even if they wanted to. It truly undermined their ability to recall, so therefore it would call into question its efficacy in an intelligence-based interrogation.” He said such an approach “stands in stark contrast to intelligence interrogation, where the overriding objective is provide timely, accurate, reliable, comprehensive intelligence.”
So not only did the U.S. government mimic Third World practices by failing to deploy its most talented and qualified interrogators in questioning the most highly prized captives, it also borrowed directly from the Third World playbook, utilizing communist, Chinese strategies, that date back to the Korean War. In doing so, the United States regressed. American military and civilian institutions that are involved in conducting interrogations have put considerable research, thought and ingenuity into strategies to extract information from recalcitrant, violent detainees. Some of those tactics are not pretty. But they conformed to norms of decency. And according to many authoritative sources, they work.
The NCE seemed to demand a break with the past. In making that break, the United States tortured like Third World countries, using torturers of similar characteristics. Importantly, it has also suffered comparable institutional consequences.
After all, the introduction of a practice as controversial as torture is bound to divide institutions. Though much of the world sees members of the Third World military elite as uniformly responsible for torture especially in the ’70s and ’80s, armed forces of developing countries can be ideologically diverse. The exile and later assassination of Chilean Gen. Carlos Prats, an adversary of Gen. Augusto Pinochet, is a salient example, but similar divisions abound in the Third World. Consider the following, also from the Bufacchi, Arrigo study:
“Torture programs have been very disruptive of military organization. To save itself as an institution, the Brazilian military gradually eliminated torture practices between 1975 and 1986, under the leadership of several generals.
Divisions revolving around torture also arose between and within U.S. institutions. While many CIA interrogators opposed the abuse of detainees, the CIA top-brass supported the practice. The FBI, under the leadership of Robert Mueller, meanwhile, decided against the use of EITs. And so the FBI, which is geared towards extracting information from criminals, could not cooperate with the CIA on interrogations. Former FBI agent Ali Soufan in 2009 broke with his earlier silence on the issue of enhanced interrogation techniques and said in May of that year in Senate testimony:
“Another disastrous consequence of the use of the harsh techniques was that it reintroduced the ‘Chinese Wall’ between the CIA and FBI – similar to the wall that prevented us from working together to stop 9/11. In addition, the FBI and the CIA officers on the ground during the Abu Zubaydah interrogation were working together closely and effectively, until the contractors’ interferences. Because we in the FBI would not be a part of the harsh techniques, the agents who knew the most about the terrorists could have no part in the investigation. An FBI colleague of mine, for example, who had tracked KSM and knew more about him than anyone in the government, was not allowed to speak to him.”
What’s more, in the Third World the torturing of captives tends to corrupt supporting professionals, such as doctors and psychologists. The Rehabilitation and Research Centre for Torture Victims (RCT) of Copenhagen, Denmark claims that, according to documents, “many hundreds of doctors have participated in torture” in Uruguay, Chile and Argentina.
In the United States, the EITs also compromised medical professionals, causing institutional harm in that regard. Steven H. Miles, MD states in a study (“Abu Ghraib: Its Legacy for Military Medicine) that: “Government documents show that the US military medical system … sometimes collaborated with interrogators or abusive guards, and failed to properly report injuries or deaths caused by beatings.”
Indeed, two retired military psychologists Bruce Jessen and Jim Mitchell played a key role in devising and experimenting with Chinese, WWII-era torture techniques that were used on Abu Zubaydah and others. Some medical professionals opted out. As Soufan states in testimony, while Abu Zubaydah was being tormented by CIA contractors, “an operational psychologist for the CIA had left the location because he objected to what was being done.”
So not only have America’s abuses resembled those of the Third World, the consequences have also been similar. But the Third World has made some stabs at accountability, regarding torture and the medical profession. According to Dr. Miles, in a separate article for medical journal BMJ: “In Greece, Dimitrios Kofas, a doctor stationed at the persecution section of a prison in Athens, was sentenced to prison within a year of the military junta being deposed. The Chilean Medical Society actively investigated complaints against doctors and expelled six doctors for overseeing torture during Pinochet’s rule. Three years after Argentina’s junta fell, Dr. Jorge Berges was sentenced to prison for carrying out torture. A South African medical board tabled complaints against police doctors who failed to report or treat the fatal head injury inflicted by police on civil rights leader Steven Biko; two doctors were punished eight years after his death.”
Where is the comparable accountability in America?
Coalition of Willing Torturers
Even a cursory look at techniques being used in the Third World to torment detainees illustrates similarities with the EITs conducted in America. Apart from cribbing from communist Chinese torture techniques, the United States’ EITs resemble those of most any Third World country that treats its captives “roughly.” Throw a dart at a map of the world’s torturing regions and there you will find policies similar to EITs.
A State Department human rights report on Jordan, for example, states: “The most frequently alleged methods of torture include sleep deprivation, beatings on the soles of the feet, prolonged suspension with ropes in contorted positions, and extended solitary confinement.” That sounds alarmingly similar to American EITs. The U.S. government, either through contractors or U.S. officials, subjected detainees to stress positions (which included being shackled naked to a floor), waterboarding (a regular dousing of cold water while in a cell of about 50 degrees Fahrenheit), sleep deprivation, etc.
And that similarity has apparently led to another troubling development. America’s decision to deploy EITs has put it in league, at least circumstantially, with Third World countries and at odds with other rich and industrialized countries of the world. After a decade of negotiations, the UN General Assembly in 2004 approved the Optional Protocol to the Convention on Torture. The protocol is geared towards bolstering enforcement of the convention on torture by establishing a system of regular visits to prison facilities. It was adopted with 127 votes in favor and 4 against (and 42 abstentions). The four states that opposed the treaty were: Nigeria, Marshall Islands, Palau and, yes, the world’s only superpower, the United States of America. Israel, one of the states that voted in favor, later said it had cast that vote by mistake, due to “human technical error.”
Prior to 9/11, the country’s decision to refrain from torturing its captives was more vital than a commitment to a treaty or convention. It was intrinsic to the American ethos. It was upheld consistently and—more often than not—unilaterally, even in the absence of any treaty. America, in its continued shock and awed state, seems liable to dust-off the EITs and general lack of standards and safeguards that led to detainee abuse. Surely, the supporters of such policies are waiting for their opportunity to launch their techniques again.
It is difficult to prove conclusively that torture isn’t useful. The Obama administration has given credence to much of the mythology and romanticism surrounding torture by refusing to make public crucial information that could change people’s minds. Given the suppression of that information, advocates for torture control its image.
What remains clear, though, is that torture is a Third World phenomenon. And by submitting to fear and corruption, the United States used the same kind of techniques, similar kind of torturers, and suffered comparable consequences to Third World torturing countries. When the debate on torture resuscitates in response to some global event, the American people should remember those troubling parallels and decide just what direction they want their country to go. Indeed, the similarities with the Third World have become broad, varied and difficult to foresee.
This essay is excerpted from Ximena Ortiz’s The Shock and Awing of America: Echoing Consequences of Fear and Alienation.
Ximena Ortiz is the former executive editor of The National Interest, editorial writer for The Washington Times, bureau chief for AP-Dow Jones in Santiago, Chile and Washington correspondent for Buenos-Aires based Tiempos del Mundo. She is the recipient of the Pulliam Foundation Fellowship Award and the Virginia Press Association Award for Editorial Writing.