Uncovering documented instances of torture is a challenge. That challenge grows even greater when the torture one is investigating is undertaken by agencies whose definition demands secrecy and cover up. Therefore, when I began this article by looking for instances of torture committed by the United States Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and Israel’s Shin Bet, I met nothing but dead ends and cul de sacs. It was only after I discovered documents unearthed by Wikileaks and various Israeli human rights agencies that I was able to proceed. The process involved is comparable to going back in time. A certain instance of torture is presented in the human rights report and traced back from there. While this piece is primarily discussing torture by US and Israeli intelligence agencies in a general manner, it is the specific cases that validate that discussion.
One does not need to be reminded that torture is an accepted method when it comes to interrogating prisoners today. This is true no matter whether the torturer is working for an acknowledged authoritarian regime like Mubarak’s Egypt or a supposedly democratic, liberal regime like the United States or Israel. Despite the desire of those agencies and governments involved with these interrogations to hide their methods from the public, the facts do come out. After all, unless the victims of torture are killed or permanently and completely removed from any human contact, sooner or later someone will hear their story. This became clear most recently when prisoners held in various US/CIA prisons in Afghanistan and Iraq were able to detail what had happened to them during interrogation. Furthermore, it was the leaks to the media by military members and the arrogant acknowledgement of torture by the US administration under George Bush that made it clear how widespread torture actually was. Official announcements of “enhanced interrogation methods” still being used are no longer broadcast, so if they are still in use, the public is not being told.
Most of the methods publicly acknowledged by the Central Intelligence Agency, the US military and the contractors in the Agency’s employ are methods also known to be used by the Israeli agency Shin Bet. Indeed, a report by the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem published on January 1, 2011 discusses a 1999 Israeli high court ruling that ruled “that Israeli law does not empower ISA interrogators to use physical means in interrogation, and that the specific methods discussed in the petition filed were illegal.” In the article (and elsewhere on their website) the methods discussed include sleep deprivation, beatings, painful cuffing, sudden pulling of the body, sudden twisting of the head, the “frog” crouch, and bending the back (the “banana” position), among other physical manipulations. These methods are not applied singularly, but in combination and over an extended period of time. After the court ruling and the report of the Landau Commission (which found instances similar to the court but was not as certain as to their illegality), the number of instances of torture by Shin Bet and other Israeli agencies supposedly diminished. However, they have not ended… in fact, whenever a so-called “ticking bomb” scenario appears, harsher interrogation methods are usually applied.
As anyone who has even followed the discussion around the recently released US film Zero Dark Thirty knows, it is the ticking bomb scenario that provides supporters of torture with their rationale for defending it. This discussion usually leads to more and more exceptions to the unacceptance of torture by its adherents and, one assumes, those who actually administer the interrogations.
In 2007 B’thslem and HaMoked issued another report regarding Shin Bet practices six years after the high court ruling that was supposed to have forbidden torture by Israeli Security agencies, The report, wrote “…the ISA routinely operates an interrogation system involving the psychological and physical ill-treatment of interrogees. This system includes several key aspects: The isolation of the interrogee from the outside world; the use of conditions of incarceration as a means to apply psychological pressure and to debilitate the interrogee physically; the shackling of the interrogee in painful positions; the humiliation of the interrogee; and the use of threats. In a minority of cases, probably those defined as “ticking bombs,” the ISA also uses violent interrogation methods that constitute full-scale torture (beating, the tightening of handcuffs, the sudden pulling of the body, the bending of the back, and so on).”
There are literally thousands of accounts by Palestinian detainees describing the torture dealt to them while in Israeli custody. Indeed, as the B’Tselem/HoMoked report made clear: “It should be emphasized that, far from being used only in special circumstances, torture methods are used against a large number of Palestinian detainees. According to the last official estimate, some 23,000 Palestinians were interrogated by the GSS between 1987 and 1994. According to the experience of B’Tselem and other human rights organizations, it is very rare indeed that the GSS interrogates Palestinians without using at least some of the methods described below. In 1995, following the death of a Palestinian detainee as a result of “shaking”, the then Prime Minister, the late Yitzhak Rabin, said that this method had been used against 8,000 detainees.”
The CIA is well known for its practice of torture, too. In a moment of unusual candor, General Barry McCaffrey once stated while discussing the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001: ‘We tortured people unmercifully. We probably murdered dozens of them during the course of that, both the armed forces and the CIA.’”(Cohn, Marjorie. NLG Review) Rarely has there been such a bold admission by a top military or intelligence official regarding overt violations of US and international laws. The normal procedure is to violate the laws and hope the violations go unnoticed. A prime example of this in recent years has been the CIA program of rendition. Under this program, US intelligence agents (or contractors working for the agency) have kidnapped individuals, hooded and bound them, and sent them to be tortured and interrogated in countries throughout the world. Recent revelations about this program since the so-called global war on terror was initiated listed at least fifty-four countries throughout the world that participated at the CIA’s behest.
On November 5, 2009, the London Times reported that twenty-three Americans, including Robert Seldon Lady, a former CIA base chief in Milan, were tried and convicted by an Italian court in 2009. These convictions were in regards to the rendition and torture of Abu Omar, an Egyptian cleric who was kidnapped in Milan, Italy and transferred to Germany, then to Egypt where he was tortured. All but one of those convicted were CIA agents. The Italian government has not sought extradition although all of the convicted were sentenced to at least five years in prison. Germany would also have prosecuted except that the US refused to provide relevant information to prosecutors.
In 2005, hundreds of photographs were released to the media around the world. These photos showed individuals in US military uniforms torturing and sexually abusing Iraqi prisoners in Abu Gharaib prison. The release of the photographs provoked an outcry around the world. They also caused the Washington denial machine to go into high gear. Administrators in the Pentagon, Defense Department and the White House issued statements disavowing any knowledge of the torture and abuse. Instead, these officials and other spokespeople told the media and public that the torturers were acting on their own and that the United States did not condone torture. Simultaneously, the US Congress worked in concert with the military and White House to block the publication of more pictures, some which reportedly provided even more graphic detail of the torture administered in the US-run prisons of Iraq.
When all was said and done, the public knew very little about the actual chain of command regarding this torture. Legal justifications written up by White House legal counsel were shown to have been written before the torture was alleged to have taken place. These documents are little more than rationales redefining torture in order to justify what were now termed “enhanced interrogation methods.” The methods included many of the stress positions also used by Shin Bet against Palestinians and others, along with various forms of psychological torture and even the practice of waterboarding. All of the techniques utilized are considered torture under UN conventions, yet by merely renaming them, the White House and Pentagon convinced themselves, their underlings, and enough of the US public that they did not torture. While these practices certainly continue (albeit most likely on a smaller scale), any outcry has been limited to a few antiwar, human rights and religious organizations.
As Michael Ratner of the Center for Constitutional Rights makes clear in his book The Trial of Donald Rumsfeld, the legal rationalization for the US torture of its prisoners is based on a false premise. In addition, the argument used to legitimize the premise is poorly made and ultimately wrong and illegal. Yet, dozens, if not hundreds, of human beings have been tortured using this false and illegal premise. The case presented in the The Trial of Donald Rumsfeld is straightforward and reasoned and based on decades of accepted universal practices and understanding of the definition of war crimes. It is also the basis for the case made by Ratner and others in the German courts in 2006. Unfortunately, in what most assuredly was a political decision, the German government prosecutor refused to pursue the case.
What did become clear from the uproar around the leaked Abu Ghraib photos was the following. The CIA hired so-called contractors to extricate information from Iraqi (and one assumes Afghan) prisoners. These individuals were trained by CIA operatives and others. They were given leeway in utilizing their training and, if they went beyond accepted methods, their status as contractors provided the US government and its agencies with a legal deniability. Some of the corporations involved in this web of torture included Blackwater (now Academi), Engility, (formerly known as L-3 Services and Titan Corporation), and CACI International. Of these, only Engility was forced to pay any type of compensation. None of the corporations and their employees faced any criminal charges.
According to the Center of Constitutional Rights (CCR):
The reason is because the private military contractors
have raised many legal defenses– many of which we have
argued are plainly inapplicable to private corporations –
which have taken up the court’s time and resources. So
far, CACI and Titan/L-3 have focused the courts on any
question but whether the plaintiffs were tortured. The
following are several of the defenses claimed by the contractors:
– government contractor defense argues that contractors
were operating under the control of the U.S. military
and therefore cannot be held liable for their actions because
all they were doing is what the government told
them to do and the actions of the government in “combat”
cannot be reviewed by a court.
– political question doctrine argues that the lawsuits
deal with fundamentally political or policy choices that
courts should refrain from reviewing and, in light of the
separation of powers, should leave to the executive oregislative branches;
– derivative immunity argues that that their behavior
constituted combatant activities for which the United States
is itself immune and for which contractors, in turn, should
Furthermore, a majority of the Court of Appeals for the District
of Columbia created a new defense when they dismissed
Saleh v. Titan under a “battlefield preemption” theory,
which essentially aims to bar civil lawsuits from addressing
abuses and other torts that occur on a “battlefield.” Of
course, plaintiffs challenge that the torture at issue in these
cases constitutes “combat” and that Abu Ghraib and other
prisons are “the battlefield.” This defense, if allowed to
stand, could have far reaching consequences for contractor
In short, the contractors deny their liability and so do the government agencies that hired them to do their dirty work. In other words, the plan worked exactly as it was designed to work.
Torture by intelligence agencies is difficult to prove. This is precisely how these agencies want it to be. The examples of torture and its denial discussed in this article are anecdotal evidence of a regime of torture much deeper and complex than acknowledged by the governments involved and the mainstream media. It is only through the work of nonprofits like the above-quoted Center for Constitutional Rights, the Asian Human Rights Commission and media such as the journal this originally appeared in (Torture: Asian And Global Perspectives) that the facts about torture will ever be revealed.
Ron Jacobs is the author of the just released novel All the Sinners, Saints. He is also the author of The Way the Wind Blew: a History of the Weather Underground and Short Order Frame Up and The Co-Conspirator’s Tale. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. His third novel All the Sinners Saints is a companion to the previous two and is due out in April 2013. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, published by AK Press. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
B’TSelem/Hamoked. Absolute Prohibition. The Torture and Ill-Treatment of Palestinian Detainees. May 2007
Ibid. Kept in the Dark: Treatment of Palestinian Detainees in the Petah Tikva Interrogation Facility of the Israeli Security Agency. October 2010
Center for Constitutional Rights. “Accountability for Torture by Private Military Contractors”. New York. 2011
Cohn, Marjorie. “Free Pass for Torturers.” National Lawyers Guild Review. 2011 (68)
Owen, Richard.” 23 CIA agents are sentenced over ‘extraordinary rendition’ kidnap: Italy” London. The Times. November 5. 2009.
Ratner, Michael. The Trial of Donald Rumsfeld: A Prosecution by Book. New York. The New Press. 2008