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For Real: Torture America Style | The Nation

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For Real: Torture America Style

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On October 7, 2003, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a Freedom of Information Act request for all documents related to post-9/11 detention and interrogation practices. The request was filed simultaneously with the Defense Department, the State Department, the Justice Department and the Central Intelligence Agency. By the following May, no response had been issued, so the ACLU filed a second request, and in June took the government to court in hopes of forcing it to comply. Three months later the ACLU prevailed, and by the end of 2004 the documents were beginning to flow. Since then, well over 130,000 pages have been released and posted to a searchable database on the ACLU website.

The Torture Report
What the Documents Say About America’s Post-9/11 Torture Program.
By Larry Siems.
Buy this book.

About the Author

Peter C. Baker
Peter C. Baker lives in Chicago and Wilmington, North Carolina.

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The database contains, of course, the now infamous “torture memos”: the arguments, crafted by George W. Bush’s closest legal advisers, that waterboarding and the like were neither torturous nor illegal—and that such considerations didn’t apply to US presidents (or indeed anyone else in government, so long as the infliction of pain was not provably his or her “specific intent”). But these were only a small handful of documents among thousands: interrogation and torture logs, prison administration memos, courtroom transcripts and minutes from policy meetings. Several such documents known to exist have still not been released: in regard to one, the government has argued that not only is its existence classified but so too is the font in which it may or may not be written. Other records have been destroyed, including at least ninety-two videos of CIA interrogations. Of the material that has been released, much has been significantly redacted.

Despite these gaps (and in part because of them), this vast forest of paper comprises a sprawling, fragmented alternative literature on post-9/11 torture—one that lacks the coherence and pacing of many useful books on the subject, but which is not without other values. To spend an afternoon clicking through the ACLU database is to make some acquaintance, in a way that only primary documents allow, with the fact that behind every US act of torture is a massive, globe-spanning and poorly organized bureaucracy. Like all bureaucracies, it has a language peculiarly its own, shot through with jargon, euphemism and tics: empire whispering to itself in memo form.

In 2009 the ACLU hired Larry Siems, a poet and PEN American Center program director, to head a website called The Torture Report. His charge was to write about post-9/11 prisoner abuse, relying as exclusively as possible on the primary documents. Siems posted sections of the report as he finished them, and they received running commentary from a set group of people with relevant expertise, including lawyers, civil rights bloggers and a former military interrogator. There were links to all documents referenced. The site went live in September 2009, and Siems posted his final installment in March 2011. Now the full report has been released as a book, with the commenters’ suggestions and insights incorporated into the text.

For much of The Torture Report, Siems focuses on a few particularly well-documented and egregious cases. By his own admission, he barely touches on large swatches of the post-9/11 torture project; there could easily be another fifty volumes of The Torture Report. Thankfully, he is also willing to roam freely through the document wilderness, straying far from his central cases in search of context or common themes, and quoting liberally along the way. The result is a compromise between the tidiness of most narrative reportage and the chaos of the primary texts: a story shaped by Siems, but very much co-narrated by his subjects.

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Lingering with the documents as Siems does—offering a play-by-play of the abuse—is a grim antidote of sorts for the simplifications that have run rampant through the torture discourse of the past decade. The first such simplification was that any instance of torture by US forces was entirely the independent, extracurricular initiative of “bad apples” (“a perverse, kinky group,” per The Weekly Standard) on “the night shift”—a phrase that was repeated ad nauseam as if it meant anything, as if it was somehow obvious that what happens after sundown doesn’t really count. The “bad apples” line has been thoroughly debunked and seems to have fallen out of circulation, only to be replaced by a more accurate but equally thin cliché: that the torture went “straight to the top” of the government. Much less disclosed or understood is the exact nature of the channels running between “the top” and the interrogation chamber.

Often they were quite direct. Describing the early torture of Abu Zubaydah, a Saudi citizen, in a CIA prison in Thailand, Siems notes that every move his interrogators made was cleared in advance by a cable from Langley. As one of them later described it, “Before you laid a hand on him, you had to send in the cable saying, ‘He’s uncooperative. Request permission to do X.’ And that permission would come.” Whenever authorization was sought for more obviously torturous techniques, CIA director George Tenet would bring the request to a meeting in the White House Situation Room with his fellow National Security Council “principals,” a group that included Condoleezza Rice, Donald Rumsfeld, Colin Powell and John Ashcroft.

But as deceitful (and unsavory) as it was for the Bush administration to pin detainee abuse on a few “deviant” individuals, it is equally inaccurate to assert that every incident of torture was directly ordered or stage-managed from above, or that every technique involved had been cleared in advance by a memo from on high. Needless to say, some were. Yet again and again, the documents describe the process of new guidelines being drafted, debated, edited and circulated, spelling out exactly which torture techniques were now “legal”—only for interrogators to subsequently unleash a procedure not listed, or even one explicitly banned.

Then, too, the language in which the limits were set often betrayed their meaninglessness. “Approval of the use of all Category II techniques and one Category III technique…is hereby rescinded,” Rumsfeld wrote in a 2003 memo, responding to pressure from Alberto Mora, the Navy’s anti-torture general counsel. But: “Should you determine that particular techniques in either of these categories are warranted in an individual case, you should forward that request to me.” Later that year, Rumsfeld wrote another memo authorizing a new list of twenty-four techniques. It ended: “If, in your view, you require additional interrogation techniques for a particular detainee, you should provide me…a written request.” Predictably, more 
requests would come. Perhaps equally predictably, individual interrogators would continue improvising on the spot, as they had been from the start. In Siems’s report, torture is obviously not just a matter of a few bad apples, but equally obviously not just evil at the top. It is something else—something for which no ready phrase exists.

This is oddly apt: failures of understanding are part and parcel of institutionalized torture, which seems to require a systemic aversion to detail, especially the details of other people’s experiences. The most publicly visible manifestation of this aversion was the replacement of “torture”—in both the legal memos and the pages of the nation’s leading newspapers—with terms like “enhanced interrogation.” This same preference for detached vagueness pervades The Torture Report. “Cramped confinement involves the placement of the individual in a confined space,” the administration lawyer John Yoo wrote in a 2002 memo. “The confined space is usually dark.” Depending on the size of the space, “the individual can stand up or sit down.”

Abu Zubaydah’s descriptions of his “cramped confinement,” which Siems quotes, dwell on several aspects that Yoo passes over: how a cloth was draped over his confinement box to restrict his air supply; how the box was so small he could neither sit nor stand but instead had to crouch, which caused a wound in his leg to rupture; how he was given a bucket to use as a toilet, and how it tipped over and spilled while he remained inside for hours; how he lost all sense of time. It is unclear whether Yoo left such details out intentionally, or whether they simply never occurred to him. Similarly, it’s hard to know what to make of a note written by Donald Rumsfeld in ink at the bottom of a 2002 memo on detainee treatment that, among other things, set limits on forced standing. “I stand for 8-10 hours a day,” he wrote. “Why is standing limited to 4 hours?”

When the NSC principals met to consider authorizing “new” techniques, they did not seek out testimony from people—US citizens or otherwise—on whom they’d been inflicted in the past. Nor did they solicit advice from those who study the effects of such techniques on the body and mind. Instead, CIA agents would visit the principals in the Situation Room and describe what they wanted done. Sometimes they even put on demonstrations. Whatever these demonstrations showed, they surely did not include blood, urine, feces, dogs, nudity or the presence of anything resembling the total domination of one person by another, and the obliteration of his free will by fear.

In all likelihood, the CIA officers at those meetings were drawing on training sessions they’d received at the Air Force Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape school. SERE courses attempt, among other things, to prepare US soldiers, agents and private contractors for possible torture if captured abroad. But the differences between SERE simulations—even those in which students are, for example, waterboarded—and life in a US torture dungeon are many and crucial. SERE students have safe words. SERE students know, somewhere in their minds, that it’s just training, which will end at some point. If a SERE student is waterboarded, he is first made to do jumping jacks, which increase his heart rate, making it easier for him to hold his breath. (An insightful CIA report noted the difference between the waterboarding on SERE’s curriculum and the CIA’s waterboarding in the field as follows: “the Agency’s technique is different because it is ‘for real.’”) The mental health of SERE students and instructors is closely monitored by psychologists. In the most critical respects, SERE courses are more similar to weekend camping than to a secret US prison. When the CIA demonstrators went before the principals, then, they were likely presenting a highly condensed and bowdlerized re-enactment not of torture but of a torture simulation, creating a spectacle charged with torture’s frisson of power—the principals were, after all, deciding the intimate fate of real people—but stripped clean of every other defining detail.

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