There is much about the Bush Administration’s practice of torture in its “global war on terror” that we don’t yet know, but there is also much that we do know. At the behest of the government, uniformed servicemen and -women, contract interrogators, CIA employees and people in foreign countries have beaten, maimed, sodomized and killed prisoners held in custody. In Afghanistan, in Iraq, at Guantánamo Bay and elsewhere, prisoners have been kicked and punched, their bones broken. Their heads have been hooded, wrapped in duct tape and smashed. Their flesh has been seared with the chemicals in fluorescent lights. They have been frozen to death, suffocated, hung upside down until dead, starved, electrically shocked and waterboarded. And in few if any of these cases have the victims been individually charged; in none of these instances has evidence, pro or con, been formally presented against the individual subjected to excruciating pain or death.
We know this in part from no less than five reports (or summaries, as in the case of the Church report) released by the Defense Department, beginning with the famous report of Major Gen. Antonio Taguba, issued in March 2004. We know this, too, from the work of organizations like Human Rights First and Human Rights Watch. And from FBI interviews, many thousands of pages of which were released as a result of ACLU Freedom of Information Act requests; and from the memoirs and interviews of those who either conducted or witnessed the interrogations.
The contours of the Bush Administration’s torture regime emerged in Afghanistan, where the first prisoners of the war the United States launched in October 2001 were held in US custody. On the desert sands outside Bagram, in a compound of wire cages and wooden isolation cells set up at the Bagram Collection Point and at “forward operating bases” such as Kandahar, American soldiers performed “intelligence triage,” questioning alleged members of the Taliban and Al Qaeda to determine their suitability for transfer to Guantánamo. In January 2002, 158 men were shipped to Camp X-Ray, the predecessor to Camp Delta. Before the end of the year, more than 600 detainees were in Guantánamo and increasing numbers were held in Afghan prisons.
Unusually harsh techniques–methods that skirted and extended the rules established by military interrogation manuals and ignored Geneva Convention protocols–characterized early American military behavior and policy. Pressured by higher-ups for more information more quickly, interrogators devised their own repertoire, including the use of dogs and a technique referred to as “monstering,” a refinement of sleep deprivation.
In a series of now notorious memos and reports that the government drafted between the fall of 2001 and August 2002, government lawyers laid out a legal basis for torture, largely by defining torture so narrowly that it practically ceased to exist. At the very time (August 2002) that “torture” was being redefined in Washington as treatment of “an intensity akin to that which accompanies serious physical injury such as death or organ failure,” the scope of allowable treatment was expanded in Afghanistan and in Defense Department and CIA policy. In August, for example, Capt. Carolyn Wood established a new interrogation policy at Bagram, one that added innovative, cruel techniques not authorized in the Army field manuals, and that ultimately resulted in two documented deaths.
By the time the first prisoners were taken in Iraq, a green light to abuse had been issued formally and in writing. In July 2003 the United States rounded up supporters of Saddam’s sons, sometimes including whole families, and imprisoned them, increasing the number of those incarcerated in Abu Ghraib to 700-800, by September to 3,000, by later fall to 7,000 and eventually to more than 8,000. Under mortar attack, lacking sufficient “food, water, latrines, blankets for the winter months, and on and on,” handling prisoners was a nightmare even without mounting pressures to disgorge actionable intelligence, according to the memoir of Brig. Gen. Janis Karpinski, the former military police commander at Abu Ghraib.