In Torture We Trust?
A report released on May 10, 2004, by the International Red Cross Organization on the abuse of Iraqi detainees by US troops that took place at the Abu Gharib prison indicates that the torture of prisoners by the American military intelligence officials were not isolated incidents, but instead systematic.
Last year, Nation writer Eyal Press wrote in a March Nation cover-story, "In Torture We Trust," about how torture was regaining a new mainstream acceptance in the age of 9/11 and the Bush Administration. Read Press's article, originally published in the March 31, 2003 issue of The Nation, below.
The recent capture of Al Qaeda leader Khalid Shaikh Mohammed is the latest indication that the taboo on torture has been broken. In the days after Mohammed's arrest, an unnamed official told the Wall Street Journal that US interrogators may authorize "a little bit of smacky-face" while questioning captives in the war on terrorism. Others proposed that the United States ship Mohammed off to a country where laxer rules apply. "There's a reason why [Mohammed] isn't going to be near a place where he has Miranda rights or the equivalent," a senior federal law enforcer told the Journal. "You go to some other country that'll let us pistol-whip this guy."
Asked about this by CNN's Wolf Blitzer, Senator Jay Rockefeller IV, a Democrat from West Virginia and vice chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, replied, "I wouldn't take anything off the table where he is concerned, because this is the man who has killed hundreds and hundreds of Americans over the last ten years." (An aide to Rockefeller subsequently insisted that the Senator did not condone turning Mohammed over to a regime that tortures.) In fact, sending US captives to abusive allies, and other policies that potentially implicate America in torture, have been in use for months.
On December 26 of last year, the Washington Post published a front-page story detailing allegations of torture and inhumane treatment involving thousands of suspects apprehended since the September 11 terrorist attacks. Al Qaeda captives held at overseas CIA interrogation centers, which are completely off-limits to reporters, lawyers and outside agencies, are routinely "softened up"--that is, beaten--by US Army Special Forces before interrogation, as well as thrown against walls, hooded, deprived of sleep, bombarded with light and bound in painful positions with duct tape. "If you don't violate someone's human rights some of the time, you probably aren't doing your job," one official said to the Post of these methods, which at the very least constitute cruel and inhumane treatment and may rise to the level of "severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental," the benchmark of torture.
The same article reported that approximately 100 suspects have been transferred to US allies, including Saudi Arabia and Morocco, whose brutal torture methods have been amply documented in the State Department's own annual human rights reports. "We don't kick the [expletive] out of them," one official told the Post. "We send them to other countries so they can kick the [expletive] out of them." Many captives have been sent to Egypt, where, according to the State Department, suspects are routinely "stripped and blindfolded; suspended from a ceiling or doorframe with feet just touching the floor; beaten with fists, whips, metal rods, or other objects; subjected to electric shocks." In at least one case, a suspect was sent to Syria, where, the State Department says, torture methods include "pulling out fingernails; forcing objects into the rectum...using a chair that bends backwards to asphyxiate the victim or fracture the spine." A story in Newsday published just after Mohammed's arrest quoted a former CIA official who, describing a detainee transferred from Guantánamo Bay to Egypt, said, "They promptly tore his fingernails out and he started telling things."
Just as pundits debated Mohammed's possible transfer, evidence emerged that remaining in US custody might not be any safer : Death certificates released for two Al Qaeda suspects who died while in US custody at the Bagram base in Afghanistan showed that both were killed by "blunt force injuries." Other detainees told of being hung from the ceiling by chains.
The Bush Administration insists that the United States has not violated the UN Convention Against Torture, which the Senate ratified in 1994. But the cascade of recent revelations has left human rights groups understandably alarmed. Shortly after the Washington Post article appeared, a coalition of organizations, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, fired off a letter to Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz calling upon the Bush Administration to unequivocally denounce torture and clarify that the United States will "neither seek nor rely upon intelligence obtained" through such practices. But few have echoed their call. "There's been a painful silence about this," says Human Rights Watch executive director Ken Roth. "I haven't heard anyone in Congress call for hearings or even speak out publicly." The silence extends to the media, where, until Mohammed's capture, no follow-up investigations and few editorials had appeared--not even in the New York Times.
The absence of debate may simply reflect a preoccupation with Iraq, but it may also signal that in these jittery times, many people see torture as justified. In the aftermath of the World Trade Center attack, numerous commentators did suggest that the absolute prohibition on torture should be reconsidered. Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz famously proposed allowing US judges to issue "torture warrants" to prevent potentially catastrophic terrorist attacks. Writing in The New Republic last fall, Richard Posner, a judge on the US Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, expressed reservations about Dershowitz's proposal but argued that "if the stakes are high enough, torture is permissible. No one who doubts that this is the case should be in a position of responsibility."