Torture as National Policy
by Dahr Jamail
Tomdispatch.com, March 9, 2006
They told him, "We are going to cut
your head off and send you to hell."
Ali Abbas, a former detainee from Abu
Ghraib prison in Iraq, was filling me in on the horrors he endured
at the hands of American soldiers, contractors, and CIA operatives
while inside the infamous prison.
It was May of 2004 when I documented his
testimony in my hotel in Baghdad. "We will take you to Guantánamo,"
he said one female soldier told him after he was detained by U.S.
forces on September 13, 2003. "Our aim is to put you in hell
so you'll tell the truth. These are our orders -- to turn your
life into hell." And they did. He was tortured in Abu Ghraib
less than half a year after the occupation of Iraq began.
While the publication of the first Abu
Ghraib photos in April 2004 opened the floodgates for former Iraqi
detainees to speak out about their treatment at the hands of occupation
forces, this wasn't the first I'd heard of torture in Iraq. A
case I'd documented even before then was that of 57 year-old Sadiq
Zoman. He was held for one month by U.S. forces before being dropped
off in a coma at the general hospital in Tikrit. The medical report
that came with his comatose body, written by U.S. Army medic Lt.
Col. Michael Hodges, listed the reasons for Zoman's state as heat
stroke and heart attack. That medical report, however, failed
to mention anything about the physical trauma evident on Zomans'
body --- the electrical point burns on the soles of his feet and
on his genitals, the fact that the back of his head had been bashed
in with a blunt instrument, or the lash marks up and down his
Such tales -- and they were rife in Baghdad
before the news of Abu Ghraib reached the world -- were just the
tip of the iceberg; and stories of torture similar to those I
heard from Iraqi detainees during my very first trip to Iraq,
back in November 2003, are still being told, because such treatment
Institutionalizing torture: Abu Ghraib
While President Bush has regularly claimed
-- as with reporters in Panama last November -- that "we
do not torture," Janis Karpinski, the U.S. Brigadier General
whose 800th Military Police Brigade was in charge of 17 prison
facilities in Iraq, including Abu Ghraib back in 2003, begs to
differ. She knows that we do torture and she believes that the
President himself is most likely implicated in the decision to
embed torture in basic war-on-terror policy.
While testifying this January 21 in New
York City at the International Commission of Inquiry on Crimes
against Humanity Committed by the Bush Administration, Karpinski
told us: "General [Ricardo] Sanchez [commander of coalition
ground forces in Iraq] himself signed the eight-page memorandum
authorizing literally a laundry list of harsher techniques in
interrogations to include specific use of dogs and muzzled dogs
with his specific permission."
All this, as she reminded us, came after
Major General Geoffrey Miller, who had been "specifically
selected by the Secretary of Defense to go to Guantánamo
Bay and run the interrogations operation," was dispatched
to Iraq by the Bush administration to "work with the military
intelligence personnel to teach them new and improved interrogation
Karpinski met Miller on his tour of American
prison facilities in Iraq in the fall of 2003. Miller, as she
related in her testimony, told her, "It is my opinion that
you are treating the prisoners too well. At Guantánamo
Bay, the prisoners know that we are in charge and they know that
from the very beginning. You have to treat the prisoners like
dogs. And if they think or feel any differently you have effectively
lost control of the interrogation."
Miller went on to tell Karpinksi in reference
to Abu Ghraib, "We're going to Gitmo-ize the operation."
When she later asked for an explanation,
Karpinski was told that the military police guarding the prisons
were following the orders in a memorandum approving "harsher
interrogation techniques," and, according to Karpinski, "signed
by the Secretary of Defense, Don Rumsfeld."
That one-page memorandum "authorized
sleep deprivation, stress positions, meal disruption --serving
their meals late, not serving a meal. Leaving the lights on all
night while playing loud music, issuing insults or criticism of
their religion, their culture, their beliefs." In the left-hand
margin, alongside the list of interrogation techniques to be applied,
Rumsfeld had personally written, "Make sure this happens!!"
Karpinski emphasized the fact that Rumsfeld had used two exclamation
When asked how far up the chain of command
responsibility for the torture orders for Abu Ghraib went, Karpinski
said, "The Secretary of Defense would not have authorized
without the approval of the Vice President."
Karpinski does not believe that the many
investigations into Abu Ghraib have gotten to the truth about
who is responsible for the torture and abuse because "they
have all been directed and kept under the control of the Department
of Defense. Secretary Rumsfeld was directing the course of each
one of those separate investigations. There was no impartiality
Does she believe the torture and abuse
at Abu Ghraib has stopped?
"I have no reason to believe that
it has. I believe that cameras are no longer allowed anywhere
near a cellblock. But why should I believe it's stopped? We still
have the captain from the 82nd airborne division [who] returned
and had a diary, a log of when he was instructed, what he was
instructed, where he was instructed, and who instructed him. To
go out and treat the prisoners harshly, to set them up for effective
interrogation, and that was recently as May of 2005.
Karpinski was referring to Captain Ian
Fishback, one of three American soldiers from the 82nd Airborne
Division at Forward Operating Base Mercury near Fallujah who personally
witnessed the torture of Iraqi prisoners and came forward to give
testimony to human rights organizations about the crimes committed.
Karpinski, who was made the scapegoat
for the atrocities which occurred at Abu Ghraib, went public as
a whistle-blower, and retired with a demotion in rank after serving
a quarter of a century in the Army. General Sanchez, on the other
hand, was transferred to Germany where he is continuing his tenure
as commander of the V Corps. However, he was reportedly relieved
of his role and not promoted to a fourth star due to the fact
that the Abu Ghraib scandal first broke during his watch.
But Abu Ghraib was -- and remains -- only
a symptom of a much deeper problem.
The Guantánamo treatment
"Since the start of the war on terror,
the intelligence community, led by the CIA, has revived the use
of torture, making it Washington's weapon of choice," writes
Alfred McCoy in his new book, A Question of Torture.
When the infamous Abu Ghraib photo of
the prisoner on a box draped in black, head covered with a sack,
arms outstretched with electrical wires attached to his fingers,
was made public, it had a deeper resonance for McCoy than simply
documenting a war crime of the present moment.
"In that photograph you can see the
entire 50-year history of CIA torture," McCoy told Amy Goodman
in a Democracy Now! interview. "It's very simple. He's hooded
for sensory disorientation, and his arms are extended for self-inflicted
pain. And those are the two very simple fundamental techniques"
that, as his book makes vividly clear, the CIA pioneered in breakthrough
research on torture, funded to the tune of billions of dollars
in the 1950s.
In his book, he adds: "The photographs
from Iraq illustrate standard interrogation practice inside the
global gulag of secret CIA prisons that have operated, on executive
authority, since the start of the war on terror."
Rather than placing blame merely on the
handful of guards in Abu Ghraib who were reprimanded (and in a
few cases jailed) for their crimes against humanity, McCoy believes
that they -- and the interrogators there -- were simply "following
orders" and, like Karpinski, considers that "responsibility
for their actions lies higher, much higher, up the chain of command."
When I interviewed Ali Abbas in Iraq,
his descriptions from Abu Ghraib bore a remarkable similarity
to those given by detainees released from the American prison
in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and from the little noticed American
mini-gulag in Afghanistan.
"They shit on us, used dogs against
us, used electricity and starved us," he told me. "They
cut my hair into strips like an Indian. They shaved my mustache,
put a plate in my hand, and made me go beg from the prisoners,
as if I was a beggar."
Lawyers at the Center for Constitutional
Rights in New York in a statement on the detention experiences
of three men they represent who were held in both Afghanistan
and Guantánamo Bay reveal, for example, similarly over-the-top
treatment. And such treatment long preceded anything recorded
at Abu Ghraib. Starvation rations were common and, in Sherbegan
Prison in Afghanistan in December, 2001, one of the detainees,
Shafiq Rasul, described the situation as follows: "We all
had body and hair lice. We got dysentery and the toilets were
disgusting. It was just a hole in the ground with shit everywhere.
The whole prison stank of shit and unwashed bodies."
He would not be allowed to wash for at
least six weeks. He would be transferred to a U.S. base in Kandahar
and endure a "forced cavity search" while he was hooded,
then go on to suffer countless beatings. When he was later transferred
to Guantánamo Bay, he would witness the "Guantánamo
haircut" where men would either have their heads shaved completely
or have a cross shaved into their head in order to insult their
faith. Denial of medical care and long stays in solitary confinement,
along with sleep deprivation tactics, were the norm.
Other forms of treatment included:
0. Gratuitous violence: Prisoners would
be punched, kicked, and slammed to the ground.
0. Exposure to the elements: Prisoners were locked in cage-like
structures located in hangers with no heating.
0. Denial of nourishment.
0. Denial of religious rights including purposeful desecration
of the Quran.
0. The use of dogs to threaten prisoners.
And keep in mind, this was the norm. The
extreme we know from the recorded deaths of at least 98 prisoners
in American hands in these years.
Extraordinary renditions -- the kidnapping
of terror suspects and their transport to countries willing to
torture them for the Bush administration -- have been the rage
(for the CIA) in Europe in recent years and have enraged European
publics. But far less is often known about what happens to those
kidnappees on the other end of the process. Craig Murray, however,
knows more than most of us. He was the British Ambassador to Uzbekistan
from 2002 to 2004, a time when that country's strong man, Islam
Karimov, was described by Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell, and
Donald Rumsfeld as an "important ally" of George Bush
in his war on terror. Murray was dismissed by the British government
in October 2004 when he made public his findings on extraordinary
renditions to Uzbekistan and the torture by Uzbek security personnel
of those rendered into their hands by the CIA.
Murray describes Karimov as having longstanding
ties with Bush. These seem to have begun in 1997 when Bush was
still governor of Texas. He then met with Uzbek Ambassador Sadyk
Safaev, a meeting (for which there is documented evidence) organized
by Ken Lay, CEO of Enron, in order to enlist the governor in brokering
a two billion-dollar gas deal between the corporation and that
oil-rich country. Karimov, says Murray, "was a guest in the
White House in 2002. It's very easy to find photos of George Bush
shaking Karimov's hand." Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld
was, he added, "particularly chummy with Karimov" back
then and, at the time, the administration was making use of the
Karshi-Khanabad air base, also known as K2, in that country.
Murray is not alone in considering Karimov
one of the most vicious dictators on the planet, a man personally
responsible for the death of thousands. The ambassador helped
uncover evidence of one detainee who "had had his fingernails
extracted, he had been severely beaten, particularly about the
face, and he died of immersion in boiling liquid. And it was immersion,
rather than splashing, because there is a clear tide mark around
the upper torso and arms, which gives you some idea of the level
of brutality of this regime."
While not certain that detainees who had
been rendered were boiled alive, about extraordinary rendition
Murray said, "There is no doubt that George Bush and Condoleezza
Rice have been lying through their teeth about extraordinary rendition
for some time." As he put it, "The United States, as
a matter of policy, is willing to accept intelligence got by torture
by foreign agencies. I can give direct firsthand evidence of that
and back it up with documents."
When asked why he decided to go public
with his information, Murray replied, "I think it's just
what any decent person would do. I mean, when you come across
people being boiled and their fingernails pulled out or having
their children raped in front of them, you just can't go along
with it and sleep at night."
The U.S. vacated the K2 base as the result
of political fallout from the massacre of over 600 demonstrators
by Karimov's security forces in May 2005. Karimov has since moved
back under Russian protection.
Nevertheless, Murray is convinced that
the U.S. continues to rendition people to other grim and willing
regimes around the globe to be tortured.
In addition to the degradation and inhumanity
involved in torture, which afflicts those meting it out as well
as those on the receiving end, both intelligence officials and
law enforcement personnel believe that information obtained by
torture is almost invariably useless. In addition, torture policies,
seldom kept secret for long, invariably produce outrage and opposition
on a large scale.
Here, for instance, is a typical response
a rebel in Fallujah offered a colleague of mine in Iraq in January
"We are fighting in Fallujah first
because we are defending our religion. Because they desecrate
our Holy Quran. They put the Quran in the sewage. They rape our
women. They rape them in Abu Ghraib. The raiding, the burning,
the detentions, the evictions, the killing it is continuous, everyday
and night. These are the reasons we resist the Americans."
"George Bush is the law"
Testimony from Afghan prisons and Guantánamo,
the photos and video from Abu Ghraib, evidence of extraordinary
renditions to the far corners of the planet -- all of this doesn't
even encompass the full reach of Bush administration torture policies
or the degree to which they have been set in motion at the highest
levels of the American government. But what simply can't be clearer
is this: horrific methods of torture have been used regularly
against detainees in U.S. custody in countries around the globe,
while an American President, Vice President and Secretary of Defense,
among others, openly advocated policies that, until recently,
would have been considered torture in any democratic country.
In the meantime, the Bush Administration has twisted the law just
enough to allow authorities to potentially pick up more or less
anyone they desire at any time they want to be held wherever the
government decides for as long as its officials desire with no
access to lawyer or trial -- and now, for the first time, the
possibility has arisen, at least in the military trials in Guantánamo,
that testimony obtained by torture will be admissible.
All of this can also be seen as part of
a desperate attempt by a failing superpower to ratchet up the
use of force in the service of subjugation, as has happened time
and time again in the past.
In A Question of Torture, McCoy quotes
one CIA analyst, whose expertise was in the now long-departed
Soviet Empire, this way: "When feelings of insecurity develop
within those holding power, they become increasingly suspicious
and put great pressures upon the secret police to obtain arrests
and confessions. At such times police officials are inclined to
condone anything which produces a speedy 'confession,' and brutality
may become widespread."
Testifying at the same commission of inquiry
as Karpinski, Michael Ratner, once head of the National Lawyers'
Guild, now president of the Center for Constitutional Rights and
an expert on international human rights law, caught the essence
of our present situation:
Let there be no doubt this administration
is engaged in massive violations of the law. Torture is an international
crime. What [George Bush] has done is basically lay the plan for
what has to be called a coup-d'état in America. [His Presidential
Signing Statement attached to the McCain anti-torture amendment]
makes three points First, speaking as the President, my authority
as commander in chief allows me to do whatever I think is necessary
in the war on terror including use torture. Second, the Commander
in Chief cannot be checked by Congress. Third, the Commander in
Chief cannot be checked by the courts. In other words George
Bush is the law.
Torture is usually defined as "infliction
of severe physical pain as a means of punishment or coercion,"
or as "excruciating physical or mental pain, agony."
No civilized society can accept laws which justify the use of
torture. So it's not surprising that Ali Abbas was astonished
to discover Americans willing to inflict such humiliating and
inhumane treatment on him while he was in their custody in Abu
Ghraib. "They cannot be human beings and do these things,"
was the way he put it. He concluded: "This, what happened
to me, could happen to anybody in Iraq."
Unfortunately, what happened to him can
now conceivably happen to anyone, anywhere in the world, according
to George Bush.
One of the last things Abbas said as our
interview ended was: "Saddam Hussein was a cruel enemy to
us. Once I made it to Abu Ghraib though, I wished I had been killed
by him rather than being alive with the Americans. Even now, after
this journey of torture and suffering, what else can I think?"
Dahr Jamail is an independent journalist
who reports from Iraq.