Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Making Monsters Of Us All

You're traveling internationally and passing through customs in a third world airport, or even an airport in the United States. The customs official frowns at his computer screen and at your passport, and asks you to step aside. You have no idea why.

Security is summoned and officers escort you to a back room and begin to question you. You can see that they're unhappy with your answers. Something is frightfully wrong.

You are detained until a number of large men, dressed entirely in black, including black ski masks, arrive on the scene and begin to handle you roughly. Your hands are cuffed tightly behind your back, earplugs are pressed into your ears, and a hood is thrown over your head. You're wrestled to the ground and all your clothes are cut from your body with scissors, until you are completely naked. With you naked and hooded, the men snap pictures of you with a camera. You're then sedated with an anal suppository, fitted into diapers, and carried like a sack of potatoes to a waiting private jet parked in an obscure corner of the airport.

The jet takes you halfway around the world to some unknown country, where you're thrown into a dank, dark, dungeon-like prison. For several months you are tortured and interrogated, in constant fear for your life. Your interrogators want you to confess to and explain your connection to terrorists. You tell them they've made a terrible mistake, but that only causes them to treat you more brutally.

As far as your family can tell, you've disappeared from the face of the earth, and nobody knows why. Every official they contact claims to have no knowledge of what has happened to you. You've become a non-person.

But it turns out you're one of the lucky ones. Eventually you are released, without explanation and without apology. You try to reconstruct your fractured life, but you can't shake the fear, can't get the nightmares to stop.

Who has perpetrated this horrific crime upon you, and on scores, maybe hundreds, of others like you? Why, it was the government of the United States of America, that beacon of freedom and liberty and hope to the world, where due process and the rule of law is a bedrock principle.

What I have just described is called "extraordinary rendition," a secret but official part of the U.S. government's "war on terror" in the years following September 11, 2001. Agents and special forces of the U.S. government routinely kidnapped terror suspects and "rendered" them to foreign countries where torture is practiced, to be interrogated by the intelligence services in the host countries. Egypt was a common destination.

I have asked you to imagine yourself being so abducted, because we know beyond any shred of doubt that, due to bad intelligence or mistaken identity, a number completely innocent persons, including citizens of Canada and Germany, were kidnapped and rendered in essentially the manner described here. Countless others with less certain claims of innocence were likewise rendered, and as with all such victims, they were denied all due process and any ability to challenge the validity of their imprisonment.

Later on, others were rendered to secret "black" prisons in countries such as Thailand and certain former Soviet bloc eastern European countries. Moving beyond mere outsourcing to foreign governments, these black prisons were operated by the United States CIA, and the interrogation at the hands of U.S. officials was often brutal. As before, victims simply disappeared without a trace. Some detainees in black prisons arrived as a result of more normal capture, such as on the battlefield in Afghanistan or as the result of law enforcement raids in Pakistan. All were horribly mistreated.

A later analogue to these CIA-run prisons was the prison run by the U.S. military at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Again, torture there was commonplace. Like the CIA's black prisons, the military's Gitmo facility was intentionally situated in a location thought by U.S. officials to be free from the meddling influence of U.S. laws.

And all this was thoroughly underway well before the world learned of the atrocities at Abu Gahrib in Iraq.

As I said, U.S. personnel at all these prisons engaged routinely in torture as a matter of policy. What kind of torture? The following were all used, usually in combination and sometimes for long periods of time: Forced nakedness, including during sessions with female interrogators; sexual humiliation; alternating extremes of heat and cold, including lying naked on a hard slab in a cell in 50 degree F temperatures; beatings; wrapping a towel around a detainee's neck and using it as a "handle" by which to ram him head first into a wall; preying on detainee fears and phobias; stress positions that caused intense pain for hours on end; hanging by the arms with toes barely touching the ground to induce pain in the muscles and joints of the arms and back; sensory deprivation and isolation; subjection to extremely loud music and other loud sounds, some with strong emotional content (such as babies crying); threats of death, mock threats of executions; threats against the detainee's family; confinement in extremely small spaces and cages, with no ability to extend the body or move limbs; confinement in coffins; sleep deprivation, sometimes with detainees getting only four hours sleep per day for weeks on end; temporal disorientation; and waterboarding, which has been officially illegal and designated as torture by the United States for much of its history.

A number of detainees died as a result of their mistreatment. A coroner reported that one dead detainee's legs had been "pulpified" from the beatings he received. Detainees died of hypothermia in cold confinement. One died when, after beatings broke many of his ribs, he was hooded and hung from arms tied behind his back. The broken ribs and the method of his hanging resulted in slow death by asphyxiation, as in crucifixion.

Do you believe these claims are so horrifically unthinkable that they cannot possibly be true? Do you believe that if they are true, these atrocities must surely have been conducted by out-of-control rogue elements acting outside the bounds established by the U.S. government? If you believe that, you are wrong.

Two books published this year lay out all the details, not just of the dismaying brutality, but of the official sanction that endorsed it. As all this played out, an ongoing debate raged within the United States government: inside the Justice Department, inside the CIA, and inside the military. The torturers won.

A small clique led by David Addington (Vice President Cheny's chief legal counsel) manipulated and circumvented normal processes of legal debate and policy formulation inside the government to push through and sustain what had previously been unthinkable in the history of the United States: that, in the name of keeping Americans "safe," torture was to be not just condoned but encouraged as an act of official policy. Attorneys and inspectors general inside the CIA, the armed forces, the State Department, and the Justice Department found themselves powerless to stop it. To the extent that they were acting on our behalf, the torturers have made monsters of us all.

Investigative reporter Jane Mayer has produced a compelling book based on a series of articles she wrote for The New Yorker magazine. Deeply sourced and intricately detailed, The Dark Side is required reading for anybody wanting to unravel the hidden story of how torture came to be practiced by the United States of America. It is no exaggeration to say that this is one of the most important books to come along in a very long time.

A related book by British international lawyer Philippe Sands methodically follows the chain of events and persons—including top U.S. decision makers and lower level players—to produce a systematic, connected account of the official thinking and actions that led to and perpetuated torture. In Torture Team he recounts his personal quest to track down and interview important individuals, from Doug Feith (Undersecretary of Defense for Policy) to Major General Michael E. Dunlavey (first commander of Guantanamo) to Lieutenant Colonel Diane Beaver (Staff Judge Advocate at Guantanamo) to General James T. Hill (Commander of the U.S. Southern Command) to General Richard Meyers (Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff) to Spike Bowman (FBI Deputy General Counsel) to Mike Gelles (Naval Criminal Investigative Service) to Alberto Mora (U.S. Navy General Counsel) to Cal Temple (Chief of the Joint Intelligence Task Force for Combating Terrorism) to John Yoo (Deputy Assistant Attorney General) to Jim Haynes (General Counsel to the Secretary of Defense) and many, many others. Some of these were heroes, some were villains, and some were hapless individuals unable to understand what was happening.

Sands overlays the entire narrative with a multitude of verbatim entries from the official interrogation logs of "Detainee 063", otherwise know as Mohammed al-Qahtani, and concludes by laying out the legal case for culpability under international law of the highest U.S. officials.

Torture Team is fascinating, revealing, and important, but if you have time to read only one of these books, it should be The Dark Side. That's because Mayer's book is in many respects more comprehensive. By contrast, Sands's book is not so much an exhaustive documentation of the vast array of wrongdoing as it is a lawyer's quest to tease out the chain of legal culpability.

Both books are works built substantially on what historians call "primary sources." Both rely heavily on detailed accounts by a multitude of officials who were directly involved in the events being described, and thus make essential contributions to the historical record of what will remain for all time a dark stain of shame on the highest ideals of the American experiment. Every citizen who loves his country should understand, and then never forget, what we have done.


Over a period of some 54 days, "Detainee 063" was interrogated for twenty hours per day, leaving just four hours per day for sleep. The story of his interrogation was first described by Time Magazine. The complete interrogation logs, some of which are reproduced in the Sands book, can be found here.

Copyright (C) 2008 James Michael Brennan, All Rights Reserved