Sexual Terrorism

The “New York Times’” recently revealed the existence of a little-known executive order issued by President Bush in the summer of ’07 that permitted U.S. intelligence operatives to circumvent restrictions on the use of humiliating and degrading interrogation techniques.

Bush’s order permitted U.S. intelligence operatives to effectively side-step the legal and moral restrictions imposed by the Supreme Court and Congress (and formally approved by Bush) as well as Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions.

Brian Benczkowski, a deputy assistant attorney general, laid-out the rationale for the continued subversion of these restrictions:

The fact that an [humiliating interrogation] act is undertaken to prevent a threatened terrorist attack, rather than for the purpose of humiliating or abuse, would be relevant to a reasonable observer in measuring the outrageousness of the act.

The Bush administration’s argument is that an interrogator can utilize what it calls “enhanced interrogation techniques” if he/she believes such techniques will thwart a possible threat or terrorist act.  For the administration, illegal (if not immoral) interrogation techniques are a corollary to preemptive military strikes that was its rationale for the invasion of Iraq.

Much attention has been paid to water-boarding as an immoral if not illegal technique utilized in the so-called War of Terror.  Little attention has been paid to the equally physically harmful and likely more long-term consequential technique of sexual humiliation and terror.

Buried deep in Mark Mazzetti’s Times article is an intriguing paragraph:

That order specifies some conduct that it says would be prohibited in any interrogation, including forcing an individual to perform sexual acts, or threatening an individual with sexual humiliation.  But it does not say which techniques could still be permitted.  [New York Times, April 27, 2008]

Yes, what “techniques” of sexual humiliation can still be used?

It seems almost impossible to precisely determine these techniques.  Reviews of the CIA, Justice and Defense department’s websites reveal little useful information.  Email queries to the Justice Department, including Benczkowski and the media-relations office, have not been answered.

An exhaustive search of the internet has provided no further information about sexual humiliation then the oblique Times reference.  (An effort for further clarification from Mazzetti has not succeeded.)  This is very much in keeping with Bush administration policies to deny, falsify, obfuscate or simply lie about techniques sanctioned and employed in its fictitious War on Terror.

In the absence of the formal specification of CIA’s approved or utilized (and they are not necessarily the same) techniques of sexual humiliation, one must draw upon previously documented U.S. military and intelligence-agency practices and the techniques used by other militaries.  These examples illustrate what the CIA and other U.S. agencies are capable of employing to break those they identify as “terrorists”.

Rape is one of the most barbaric forms of sexual humiliation and terror.  Since the Civil War, rape has been increasingly integrated into what is known as total warfare.  Women, girls and some boys have been increasingly singled out for systematic sexual abuse during civil conflicts and military campaigns.  However, rape has only been limitedly employed against adult male captives detained in Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantánamo or CIA black sites around the world. [see “’The Hard Hand of War’: Rape as an Instrument of Total War,” CounterPunch, Apri1 4, 2008]

The U.S. has employed (and, most likely, continues to employ) a host of other techniques of sexual terrorization to break male inmates.  An act of sexual humiliation serves two purposes: to physically harm and to emotionally scar those subjected to such abuse.  Sexual terrorization seeks to inflict both pain and shame, to make the recipient suffer and loath himself.  Sexual humiliation is intended to break the victim both physically and spiritually, to leave scars on (and inside) the body and in the psyche.

If (or when) top officials of the Bush administration face either an American or international war crimes tribunal over their conduct related to the invasion and occupation of Iraq, sexual humiliation and terror should not be absent from the indictment.

* * *

According to an ABC News report, in response to September 11th the CIA adopted six “Enhanced Interrogation Techniques” in mid-March 2002.  These techniques were to be used on a dozen or more alleged al Qaeda leaders detained in CIA black sites.  These “approved” techniques consisted of:

The Attention Grab: the interrogator forcefully grabs the shirt front of the prisoner and shakes him.

The Attention Slap: an open-handed slap aimed at causing pain and triggering fear.

The Belly Slap: a hard open-handed slap to the stomach; the aim is to cause pain, but not internal injury.

Long Time Standing: prisoners are forced to stand, handcuffed and with their feet shackled to an eye bolt in the floor for more than 40 hours.

The Cold Cell: the prisoner is left to stand naked in a cell kept near 50 degrees and is periodically doused with cold water.

Water-Boarding: also known as “the water cure” or “simulated drowning,” the prisoner is bound to an inclined board, feet raised and head slightly below the feet; cellophane is wrapped over the prisoner’s face and water is poured over him.

Obviously missing from the CIA’s list of interrogation techniques is sexual humiliation, degradation and terrorization. [ABC News, November 18, 2005]

Reconstructing U.S. military and intelligence officials use of sexual interrogation techniques begins in 2004 with Abu Ghraib and Seymour Hersh’s invaluable “New Yorker” article and the CBS “60 Minutes II” broadcast of soldiers’ photos.  Their combined impact not only exposed the horrendous treatment of Iraqi prisoners, but made “celebrities” out of three of the perpetrators, Army reservists Charles Graner, Sabrina Harmon and Lynndie England.  [see New Yorker, April 30, 2004 and March 24, 2008]

The best single source for details on abuses at Abu Ghraib is the study conducted by Major General Antonio Taguba.  In the report’s executive summary, the following “sadistic, blatant, and wanton criminal abuses” are identified as having been used at the prison:

videotaping and photographing naked male and female detainees;

forcibly arranging detainees in various sexually explicit positions for photographing;

forcing detainees to remove their clothing and keeping them naked for several days at a time;

forcing naked male detainees to wear women’s underwear;

forcing groups of male detainees to masturbate themselves while being photographed and videotaped;

arranging naked male detainees in a pile and then jumping on them;

positioning a naked detainee on a MRE [meals ready to eat] Box, with a sandbag on his head, and attaching wires to his fingers, toes, and penis to simulate electric torture;

placing a dog chain or strap around a naked detainee’s neck and having a female soldier pose for a picture;

sodomizing a detainee with a chemical light and perhaps a broom stick.

In a description of a meeting about the report with Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz and other high-ranking Defense Department officials, Taguba told Hersh: “I described a naked detainee lying on the wet floor, handcuffed, with an interrogator shoving things up his rectum, and said, ‘That’s not abuse. That’s torture.’ There was quiet.”  Images of these practices, like similar images of cruelty from the Vietnam and other wars, have become enshrined in the nation’s memory.

Making matters even more sadistic, the festive, if not chaotic, conditions at the prison led male soldiers to engage in “consensual” sexual liaisons with female prisoners and even record their trysts for posterity.  According to the Taguba report, “a male MP guard [was] having sex with a female detainee.”  [Taguba report, “Article 15-6 Investigation of the 800th Military Police Brigade”; New Yorker, June 25, 2007]

Subsequent to the Hersh and CBS exposés, additional photos, videotapes and personal accounts by military personnel and former detainees have come out.  More than one hundred photographs and four videos taken at Abu Ghraib were initially suppressed by the Army’s Criminal Investigations Division.  In September 2005, and only after ACLU litigation and a ruling by District Judge Alvin Hellerstein, was all the “evidence” finally released to the public. (Dozens of photos can be accessed through google and other sources.)  They provide further examples of the sexual abuse systematically employed by U.S. personnel on alleged or suspected terrorists.

Drawing from a host of media reports, a jig-saw-puzzle picture of sexual torture employed in the War on Terror begins to emerge.  Two examples are illustrative:

Scotland’s “Sunday Herald” reports that a former Iraqi prisoner claimed that there is a photo of a civilian translator raping a male juvenile prisoner; he stated, “They covered all the doors with sheets. I heard the screaming, … and the female soldier was taking pictures.”

The Associated Press reports that a former inmate, Dhia al-Shweiri, was ordered by American soldiers to strip naked, bend over and place his hands on a wall; while not sodomized, he says he was humiliated: “We are men. It’s OK if they beat me,” al Shweiri said. “Beatings don’t hurt us; it’s just a blow. But no one would want their manhood to be shattered. They wanted us to feel as though we were women, the way women feel, and this is the worst insult, to feel like a woman.”

Accepting the patriarchal sexism, the humiliation was deeply upsetting.

The experience of another former inmate, Hayder Sabbar Abd, is similarly revealing.  Abd is memorialized as the man in the hood in Lynndie England’s infamous photo.  In that photograph, the smiling England gives a thumbs-up gesture and points at Abd’s exposed genitals.

As reported by the “Independent”:

Mr. Abd said he recalled having his hood removed and being told by the soldiers’ Arabic translator to masturbate as he looked at Ms England. “She was laughing and she put her hands on her breasts,” he told the newspaper. “Of course I couldn’t do it, so they beat me in the stomach and I fell to the ground. The translator said, ‘Do it, do it. It’s better than being beaten.’ I said ‘How can I do it?’ So I put my hand on my penis, just pretending.”

At this point, one of the other prisoners, ­a friend of Mr Abd’s identified as Hussein, ­was pushed towards his genitals while the hood was put back over his own head.

“They made him sit next to me. My penis was very close to his mouth. I did not know it was my friend because of the hood. It was humiliating. We didn’t think that we would survive. All of us believed we would be killed and we would not get out alive,” said Mr Abd.

One can only wonder what England now thinks about Abu Ghraib as she sits in her jail cell at San Diego’s Naval Consolidated Brig Miramar.  And how she appreciates the “bad apples” theory in the face of the recent revelation of Bush administration “Principals” approving “harsh” interrogation techniques.

Surprising to many, nearly a year before Abu Ghraib was exposed, in May 2003, British private Gary Bartlam, previously stationed in Basra and the port of Umm Qasr, was arrested in his hometown of Tamworth, Staffordshire.  He had brought in a roll of pictures he shot in Iraq to his local photo-developer for processing.  A shocked clerk, after reviewing the shots, called the police.  Among his photos were:

* a picture showing an Iraqi man being forced to perform oral sex on a (white) man;

* a picture showing two Iraqis apparently being forced to perform anal sex;

* a picture showing two naked Iraqis cowering on the ground.

A flabbergasted Bartlam told the police that he took the shots to show his mom what was going on in Iraq.

Such interrogation practices were not limited to Iraq.  According to a report in the “Sydney Morning Hearld”: “Female interrogators tried to break Muslim detainees at Guantanamo Bay by sexual touching, wearing a miniskirt and thong underwear and in one case smearing a Saudi man’s face with fake menstrual blood, according to an insider’s written account.”

This allegation was confirmed by former Army Sergeant Erik Saar in his book, “Inside the Wire: A Military Intelligence Soldier’s Eyewitness Account of Life at Guantanamo.” Saar worked as an Arabic translator at Gitmo from December 2002 to June 2003; Major General Geoffrey Miller, the architect of Abu Ghraib intelligence techniques, was his commander.

According to Saar, a female interrogator employed an innovative technique to “break” a Saudi detainee.  He says she removed her uniform top to expose a tight-fitting T-shirt and began taunting the detainee, touching her breasts, rubbing them against the prisoner’s back and commenting on his apparent erection.  In a draft of his book, Saar’s describes her most ingenious proceedure:

She then started to place her hands in her pants as she walked behind the detainee.  As she circled around him he could see that she was taking her hand out of her pants. When it became visible the detainee saw what appeared to be red blood on her hand. She said, ‘Who sent you to Arizona?’ [the detainee had taken a pilot course]  He then glared at her with a piercing look of hatred.

She then wiped the red ink on his face. He shouted at the top of his lungs, spat at her and lunged forward so fiercely that he broke loose from one ankle shackle.

“He began to cry like a baby,” the draft says, noting the interrogator left saying: “Have a fun night in your cell without any water to clean yourself.”

“The concept,” observes Saar, “was to make the detainee feel that after talking to her he was unclean and was unable to go before his God in prayer and gain strength.”  Strict interpretation of Islamic law forbids physical contact between a man and a woman not his wife or family member or with a menstruating woman, who is considered unclean.  [The Sun, June 4, 2003;Independent, May 6, 2004; Washington Blade, May 7, 2004; Sydney Morning Hearld, January 28, 2005]

* * *

The American people, through human rights groups, the ACLU, Congress and the Courts, have fought a protracted battle with the Bush administration over the precise meaning of “enhanced interrogation techniques” used in Iraq, Guantánamo and CIA black sites.  Recent revelations show just how far the Bush administration will go to cover its tracks with regard to questionable (if not illegal) interrogation techniques.

In December ’07, it was revealed that the CIA destroyed videotapes it made in 2002 (two years before Abu Ghriab) of the interrogation of those it designated “top terrorist” suspects; these tapes were destroyed, as CIA director Michael Hayden explained, because CIA officials at the time were afraid that keeping them “posed a security risk”.

In March ‘08, Bush vetoed an intelligence bill that would have limited the CIA to interrogation techniques approved by the Army Field Manual.  It would have banned water-boarding as well as stripping prisoners naked, forcing them to perform sexual acts or to mimic sexual acts, mock executions and beating or burning of prisoners.

In April, ABC News revealed that the highest officials of the Bush administration, what is know as the “Principals,” met dozens of times after September 11th to review and approve interrogation techniques.  Those who participated in the White House Situation Room meetings included Dick Cheney, Colin Powel, Condoleezza Rice, George Tenet and John Ashcroft; the president was intentionally excluded from the meeting in apparent fear of a possible war crimes indictment.

According to ABC, “the high-level discussions about these ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ were so detailed, these sources said, some of the interrogation sessions were almost choreographed — down to the number of times CIA agents could use a specific tactic.”  The Times mentions that CIA operatives actually demonstrated some of these techniques, including water-boarding, for the principal war criminals.  One can only wonder if any of the techniques of sexual humiliation were demonstrated or if the gathered officials had to rely on their vivid (if perverse) imaginations to conjure up the actual practices and their likely consequences for the hapless victims.

Ashcroft is reported to have been the only one troubled by the use of the techniques.  Nevertheless, when queried about the meetings, Bush stated that he knew of and “approved” the techniques.

And later in April, the Times ran Mazzetti’s article further detailing CIA interrogation tactics and revealing Bush’s ’07 executive order permitting U.S. intelligence operatives to circumvent restrictions on the use of humiliating and degrading interrogation techniques.

The clock is ticking down on the Bush administration.  For all their respective protestations, one can only wonder whether the next president will (secretly) approve the use of cruel, humilating and degrading interrogation techniques, especially sexual terror.  Hidding behind plausible deniability is one of the oldest practices of those in power.  Morality and the law nearly always take second place to expedience and necessity, whether real or invented.

The Bush administration and the Congress are unlikely to make public the full scope of sexual terrorism used to break the detainee in both body and mind during the War on Terror.  Yet, detailing the actual techniques both approved and used by the interrogators (whether CIA, military or civilian contractors) is critical to establishing the true history of the invasion and occupation of Iraq.  While wishfull thinking, this accounting might support subsequent war crimes prosecutions.

DAVID ROSEN can be reached at








David Rosen is the author of Sex, Sin & Subversion:  The Transformation of 1950s New York’s Forbidden into America’s New Normal (Skyhorse, 2015).  He can be reached at; check out