Green Lights for Torture

So there were WMDs in Iraq after all. They’re called digital cameras. Partly because of them the US faces one of the most humiliating defeats in imperial history. But there’s also a clear paper trail. Not just the long and copiously documented record of US torture, with many of its refinements acquired by the CIA from the Nazis after World War Two, but the more recent lineage of encouragement.

Within in 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 torture was being used on detainees in the US. On May 3, 2004, two such detainees, a Pakistani called Javaid Iqbal and an Egyptian, Ehab Elmaghraby, filed a civil complaint with a US court describing their beatings in the Brooklyn Detention Center, being forced to walk naked in front of female guards, put in a tiny cell lit 24 hours a day without blankets, mattress or toilet paper. Both were expelled from the US, pleading guilty to charges unrelated to terrorism. The Detention Center was harshly criticized in a 2003 DOJ report for serious maltreatment of inmates.

By early November, 2001, public opinion here in the US was being softened up for the use of torture. At the start of November the Washington Post published a piece by Walter Pincus citing FBI and Justice Department investigators as saying that “traditional civil liberties may have to be cast aside if they are to extract information about the Sept 11 attacks and terrorist plans.” Pincus reported that “alternative strategies under discussion are using drugs or pressure tactics, such as those used occasionally by Israeli interrogators.”

Jonathan Alter, Newsweek’s in-house liberal pundit, confided to his readers in the weekly’s edition for November 5, 2001, that something was needed to “jump-start the stalled investigation.” His tone was facetiously upbeat, in line with the “just hazing” approach now promoted by the pain-averse Rush Limbaugh. Alter: “Couldn’t we at least subject them [detainees] to psychological torture, like tapes of dying rabbits or high decibel rap?” Alter also made respectful reference to Harvard’s pride, Alan Dershowitz, then running around the country promoting the idea of “torture warrants” issued by judges and recommending needles under detainees’ fingernails, and to Israel, where (in Alter’s terms) “until 1999 an interrogation technique called ‘shaking’ was legal. It entailed holding a smelly bag over a suspect’s head in a dark room”, a decorous way of referring to how Palestinians were nearly suffocated by having their heads stuffed in sacks of excrement by Israeli toturers.

It was not far into the war in Afghanistan that Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld made plain his views of the treatment of prisoners, after horrifying accounts began to surface of the treatment of Taliban POWs.

Recall that after the surrender of the Kunduz fortress in November 2001 hundreds of Taliban were taken prisoner along with an American called John Walker Lindh. Rumsfeld had originally stated that the US was “not inclined to negotiate surrenders”. He then amended this to say that the Taliban should be let out of the net but that foreign fighters should expect no mercy: “My hope is they will either be killed or taken prisoner.”

It turned out they endured both Rumsfeld’s options. A year later Jamie Doran, a British television producer, aired his documentary establishing beyond reasonable doubt that hundreds of these prisoners – with no distinction between Taliban or “foreign fighters”- died either by suffocation in the container trucks used to transport them towards the Shebarghan prison, or by outright execution near Shebarghan.

On the basis of interviews with eyewitnesses, Doran said U.S. soldiers were present when the containers were opened. “When the containers were finally opened, a mess of urine, blood, faeces, vomit and rotting flesh was all that remained … As the containers were lined up outside the prison, a [U.S.] soldier accompanying the convoy was present when the prison commanders received orders to dispose of the evidence quickly. Newsweek’s investigation into the Afghan atrocities (“The Death Convoy of Afghanistan,” 26 August 2002) stated that “American forces were working intimately with ‘allies’ who committed what could well qualify as war crimes.”

Witnesses also stated “600 Taliban PoWs who survived the containers’ shipment to the Shebarghan prison … were taken to a spot in the desert and executed in the presence of about 30 to 40 U.S. special forces soldiers” (The Globe and Mail, 19 December 2002). Other U.S. soldiers are said to have involved themselves directly and enthusiastically in the “dirty work” of prisoner torture and the disposal of corpses. “The Americans did whatever they wanted,” stated one Afghan witness. “We had no power to stop them. Everything was under the control of the American commander.”

John Walker Lindh was kept in a coffin sized box. As his lawyer later stated, the photographs left no doubt as to what kind of treatment he had endured. Part of his lawyer’s final deal with the prosecution was a dropping of any possible charges of torture.

From May , 2003, the Red Cross was complaining to US army commanders and to proconsul Bremer in Iraq, to Rumsfeld, assistant defense secretary Paul Wolfowitz and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice about frightful treatment of Iraqi prisoners in Abu Ghraib and elsewhere. “The elements we found were tantamount to torture,” Pierre Kraehenbuehl, operations director for the Swiss-based International Committee of the Red Cross, told reporters in Geneva at the end of the first week in May, 2004, after the Wall Street Journal disclosed the contents of a major Red Cross report. “They were clearly incidents of degrading and inhuman treatment.”

Kraehenbuehl said said the ICRC investigations showed “a pattern, a broad system” rather than “isolated acts of individual members of the coalition forces.” During an unannounced October visit to Abu Ghraib, for example, the ICRC monitors witnessed “the practice of keeping persons completely naked in totally empty concrete cells in total darkness for several consecutive days,” the report said.

The Red Cross teams also saw guards forcing male prisoners to parade around in women’s underwear, according to the summary report. When an ICRC official complained to the military officer in charge, the report says, the American explained that the practice was “part of the process.” The ICRC report said the suspects were “beaten severely by [coalition forces] personnel” and one man, identified as 28-year-old Baha Daoud Salim, died. In the words of the report, “His co-arrestees heard him screaming and asking for assistance.”

The Red Cross began making its complaints just about the time, back in May and June 2003, the U.S. was on a full-press diplomatic campaign to compel other countries to sign bilateral agreements exempting U.S. citizens, whether military or civilians, from the potential jurisdiction of the new International Criminal Court (ICC) in Rome.

What’s clear enough is that the quality of US leadership from the very top down, both civilian and military, is rancid. Accountability has long gone out of the window. The venality and corruption of Bremer’s coalition officials and many of Sanchez’s officers have naturally allowed many in the armed forces to degenate into criminal thuggery. Iraqi families complain that after US troops have searched and smashed up their homes, the occupants return to find their safes broken open and their savings and valuables stolen.

The Red Cross report cites some coalition military intelligence officers as reckoning that “between 70 per cent and 90 per cent of the persons deprived of their liberty in Iraq had been arrested by mistake.”

It’s ironic how the great moral crusade for freedom and democracy in Iraq has foundered on a photo of Private Lynndie England hauling around The Other on a dog leash. Even the images of torture degrade one’s moral instincts with appalling speed. I”d love to see a photo of Anne Coulter clipping the leash on Rush Limbaugh, though not being Muslim he probably wouldn’t care. Remember, being forced to strip naked and have one’s genitals menaced by savage dogs is something Muslims apparently find abhorrent. Those Others are a bunch of ninnies, aren’t they? Not like us Christians.


Alexander Cockburn’s Guillotined!, A Colossal Wreck and An Orgy of Thieves: Neoliberalism and Its Discontents are available from CounterPunch.