For Real: Torture America Style
In The Torture Report, the players seem interested in precision only when it comes to distancing themselves from acts they knew to be vile. Time and again, the record shows Americans fixated on what might be called “bureaucratic truth”—on claims and distinctions that are meaningful primarily within a bureaucracy, but much less so outside it. For example, since early 2009 the FBI has repeatedly objected to the CIA’s preference for ineffective torture-based interrogation, especially as compared with its own, rapport-oriented techniques—and rightly so. But watch that concern in action, as described by Ali Soufan, an FBI agent who sparred with the CIA about the best way to handle Abu Zubaydah:
I protested to my superiors in the FBI and refused to be a part of what was happening. The Director of the FBI, a man I deeply respect, agreed, passing the message that “we don’t do that,” and I was pulled out….
The “we” invoked here is not the United States, but rather a single division of its enormous government. It’s a near constant refrain: torture is proceeding, and some group of interrogators—from the FBI, from the Defense Department—is ordered by their superiors to “stand well clear.” Meanwhile, another division proceeds, or farms out the dirty work to foreigners, and the torture still happens. What does it matter—to, say, a detainee in the middle of a waterboarding—whether it’s one agency or another doing the torturing?
This sort of hair-splitting goes straight to the top: during a principals’ meeting in 2002, Attorney General John Ashcroft is reported to have wondered, with some consternation, “Why are we talking about this in the White House?” He didn’t wonder, “Why is this being talked about?” (and certainly not “Why is this being done?”). Instead: not in this room. David Addington, Cheney’s legal counsel, echoed this sentiment during a discussion about destroying interrogation videos. As one participant put it, his response boiled down to “Don’t bring this into the White House.”
Once or twice, The Torture Report itself unwittingly parrots this mode of thinking, in annotations made by Matthew Alexander, the pseudonym of a former Air Force interrogator who is a prominent critic of torture. Pondering the use of techniques widely known to be useless for gathering intelligence, he asks: “If our men and women in uniform were able to accomplish their missions without the use of enhanced interrogation techniques through the World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, and up to 9/11, what changed?” Leaving aside the question of exactly what mission was accomplished in Vietnam, Alexander seems unaware of (or uninterested in) Project Phoenix, a torture and execution program designed and operated by the CIA during that war. Tens of thousands were tortured, and at least 25,000 people were tortured and then murdered (“pump and dump,” it was called)—some by CIA agents (Americans, just not “in uniform”), most by CIA-trained Vietnamese acting on CIA instructions. The latter was preferable, at least from a bureaucratic standpoint. As William Colby, Phoenix’s founder, put it: ideally, “not only were Americans not to participate…but they were to make their objections known.”
America commits torture, funds torture research and encourages torture around the world. It is easy to point the finger at one particularly dark corner or another, be it the CIA or the derelict grunts on the night shift. These documents suggest that a bigger problem might be the sheer number of dark corners: American force abroad is wielded and managed by so many overlapping but distinct organizations that it creates plenty of useful ambiguity as to how, exactly, the overlap is meant to work. There’s a clear sense, especially in memos related to the early days of Guantánamo, of all these various people—Army, Navy, Air Force, CIA, FBI—wandering the cell-block halls, unsure of who is doing what, when and to whom. In the absence of a plan, everyone takes turns dealing with the detainees as he or she sees fit. The guards watch, picking up ideas from the pros for later. One could call the disarray a design flaw, but that would involve assuming that torture wasn’t part of the plan. Given that we know it was, all the confusion seems to have helped; CIA agents reveled in exploiting it, often identifying themselves as FBI agents to avoid having their presence exposed or accurately documented. Defense Department agents pulled a similar move, more than once impersonating State Department officials during torture sessions.
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In 2004, after CBS broadcast the first photographs of detainee abuse at Abu Ghraib, many writers—most prominently Luc Sante, Susan Sontag and the historian Hazel Carby—noted their striking similarity to the photographs of lynchings of African-Americans taken from the end of the Civil War through the middle of the twentieth century. As Carby in particular observed, both sets of images, along with the acts they referenced, were attempts by Americans with power to calm their anxieties about the uncer-â¨tain future through ritualized spectacles of domination, typically erotically charged, and always enacted on nonwhite bodies.
Had the documents used in the composition of The Torture Report been available at the time, they might have played a useful supporting role in this argument. I say this not only because of all the forced nudity, sexual humiliation and threats of rape in the documents but also because of how often the interrogators admit, implicitly or otherwise, that they’re not primarily interested in gathering information. (Indeed, one fascinating CIA memo explains the distinction between an “interrogator” and a “debriefer” as follows: “A debriefer engages a detainee solely through question and answer. An interrogator is a person who completes a two-week interrogations training program, which is designed to train, qualify, and certify a person to administer [enhanced interrogation techniques].” Put more simply, in the CIA’s lexicon, “to interrogate” means “to torture.”)
At the beginning of Abu Zubaydah’s detention, his treatment was overseen by an FBI team that used rapport-building techniques only. George Tenet was impressed with the briefings they produced—until he found out they’d come from FBI agents. A CIA team was immediately dispatched to take over. Never mind that Tenet had already judged the intelligence good; torture came first. Some prisoners came to understand this. During one of his interrogations at Guantánamo’s Camp X-Ray, Mohammed al-Qahtani asked his questioner, “Sergeant A,” whether she truly wanted answers to her questions. The log reads bluntly: “SGT A states she doesn’t need an answer.” An earlier memo, proposing new tools for use on Qahtani, suggested that “if necessary the detainee may have his mouth taped shut in order to keep him from talking.”
Lynchings were highly public spectacles, attended by families bearing picnic lunches; the photographs people took were widely and proudly circulated, at least in the South, where they were commonly made into postcards. On this front, contemporary US torture and its associated documents seem at first different. Much of the visual evidence has been destroyed. The documents were classified and released only over strong government objections, and even then with key pieces withheld. The men and women who took the Abu Ghraib photos took them only for their co-workers and family members. In 2009 the Obama administration successfully blocked the court-ordered release of a cache of previously unseen photos documenting prisoner abuse in Iraq and Afghanistan, and since then FOIA requests have been made more difficult and less powerful.
Is torture simply less popular now than lynching was then? It seems more likely that one set of rituals—those involving violent subjugation—has become closely interwoven with another set: those designed to communicate a reassurance that every action of the US government is necessary, legal and, most of all, carefully thought out by â¨well-intentioned officials. The spectacle of lynching, and the photos documenting that spectacle, served as a boast and a warning: look what we can do—and will. With post-9/11 detainee abuse, the exact same message is being communicated, only so too is its negation: look what we disown, what only the bad apples among us desire, and for which we will duly jail them. Endless memos dissecting torture techniques and parsing existing laws out of existence are a key part of this ritual: they insist that nothing terrible is happening. In a 2002 meeting, a military lawyer was surprisingly honest: “We will need documentation to protect us.” A CIA lawyer chimes in his agreement: “Everything must be approved and documented.”