But thankfully my lovely mother brought me a recent copy, and I spent the train ride back from Berlin reading it in its entirety. This article about CIA-run secret prisons is worth a read. It’ll ruin your day and make you embarrassed to be an American, but better to know what’s going on, right?
Mohammed’s interrogation was part of a secret C.I.A. program, initiated after September 11th, in which terrorist suspects such as Mohammed were detained in “black sites”—secret prisons outside the United States—and subjected to unusually harsh treatment. The program was effectively suspended last fall, when President Bush announced that he was emptying the C.I.A.’s prisons and transferring the detainees to military custody in Guantánamo. This move followed a Supreme Court ruling, Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, which found that all detainees—including those held by the C.I.A.—had to be treated in a manner consistent with the Geneva Conventions. These treaties, adopted in 1949, bar cruel treatment, degradation, and torture. In late July, the White House issued an executive order promising that the C.I.A. would adjust its methods in order to meet the Geneva standards. At the same time, Bush’s order pointedly did not disavow the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” that would likely be found illegal if used by officials inside the United States. The executive order means that the agency can once again hold foreign terror suspects indefinitely, and without charges, in black sites, without notifying their families or local authorities, or offering access to legal counsel.
It’s kind of pathetic when it takes a Supreme Court decision to tell us that we need to comply with the Geneva Conventions. And it’s terrifying when our CIA can simply make people disappear and treat them in a manner that would be illegal on American soil.
When pro-torture conservatives defend these practices, they often scoff at the definition of “torture,” arguing that playing loud music or making someone stand up for a long time is hardly torturous. Except that’s not quite what’s happening — those methods are being used in conjunction with several others in a “Clockwork Orange kind of approach” to literally push prisoners to the point of psychotic break. These techniques have killed prisoners in American custody.
“They were very arrogant, and pro-torture,” a European official knowledgeable about the program said. “They sought to render the detainees vulnerable—to break down all of their senses. It takes a psychologist trained in this to understand these rupturing experiences.”
The use of psychologists was also considered a way for C.I.A. officials to skirt measures such as the Convention Against Torture. The former adviser to the intelligence community said, “Clearly, some senior people felt they needed a theory to justify what they were doing. You can’t just say, ‘We want to do what Egypt’s doing.’ When the lawyers asked what their basis was, they could say, ‘We have Ph.D.s who have these theories.’ ” He said that, inside the C.I.A., where a number of scientists work, there was strong internal opposition to the new techniques. “Behavioral scientists said, ‘Don’t even think about this!’ They thought officers could be prosecuted.”
Nevertheless, the SERE experts’ theories were apparently put into practice with Zubaydah’s interrogation. Zubaydah told the Red Cross that he was not only waterboarded, as has been previously reported; he was also kept for a prolonged period in a cage, known as a “dog box,” which was so small that he could not stand. According to an eyewitness, one psychologist advising on the treatment of Zubaydah, James Mitchell, argued that he needed to be reduced to a state of “learned helplessness.” (Mitchell disputes this characterization.)
The “We want to do what Egypt’s doing” quote is telling. We have, in fact, taken much guidance from human rights abusers when it comes to our “war on terror.” In our supposed efforts to spread freedom and democracy abroad, we’ve adopted the hallmarks of the most regressive societies in the world: Secret prisons, torture, consolidation of power in an executive, curbing of civil liberties at home, legal maneuvering to justify our actions, manipulation of the international community.
Steve Kleinman, a reserve Air Force colonel and an experienced interrogator who has known Mitchell professionally for years, said that “learned helplessness was his whole paradigm.” Mitchell, he said, “draws a diagram showing what he says is the whole cycle. It starts with isolation. Then they eliminate the prisoners’ ability to forecast the future—when their next meal is, when they can go to the bathroom. It creates dread and dependency. It was the K.G.B. model. But the K.G.B. used it to get people who had turned against the state to confess falsely. The K.G.B. wasn’t after intelligence.”
As the C.I.A. captured and interrogated other Al Qaeda figures, it established a protocol of psychological coercion. The program tied together many strands of the agency’s secret history of Cold War-era experiments in behavioral science. (In June, the C.I.A. declassified long-held secret documents known as the Family Jewels, which shed light on C.I.A. drug experiments on rats and monkeys, and on the infamous case of Frank R. Olson, an agency employee who leaped to his death from a hotel window in 1953, nine days after he was unwittingly drugged with LSD.) The C.I.A.’s most useful research focussed on the surprisingly powerful effects of psychological manipulations, such as extreme sensory deprivation. According to Alfred McCoy, a history professor at the University of Wisconsin, in Madison, who has written a history of the C.I.A.’s experiments in coercing subjects, the agency learned that “if subjects are confined without light, odors, sound, or any fixed references of time and place, very deep breakdowns can be provoked.”
Agency scientists found that in just a few hours some subjects suspended in water tanks—or confined in isolated rooms wearing blacked-out goggles and earmuffs—regressed to semi-psychotic states. Moreover, McCoy said, detainees become so desperate for human interaction that “they bond with the interrogator like a father, or like a drowning man having a lifesaver thrown at him. If you deprive people of all their senses, they’ll turn to you like their daddy.” McCoy added that “after the Cold War we put away those tools. There was bipartisan reform. We backed away from those dark days. Then, under the pressure of the war on terror, they didn’t just bring back the old psychological techniques—they perfected them.”
The C.I.A.’s interrogation program is remarkable for its mechanistic aura. “It’s one of the most sophisticated, refined programs of torture ever,” an outside expert familiar with the protocol said. “At every stage, there was a rigid attention to detail. Procedure was adhered to almost to the letter. There was top-down quality control, and such a set routine that you get to the point where you know what each detainee is going to say, because you’ve heard it before. It was almost automated. People were utterly dehumanized. People fell apart. It was the intentional and systematic infliction of great suffering masquerading as a legal process. It is just chilling.”
It’s kind of like the right’s take on things like the internment of ethnic minorities — it was totally wrong, until we think we might want to do it again. Torture is wrong, until we want to use it.
And this is what we’re hanging the American flag on:
In all likelihood, Mohammed was transported from Pakistan to one of the Afghan sites by a team of black-masked commandos attached to the C.I.A.’s paramilitary Special Activities Division. According to a report adopted in June by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, titled “Secret Detentions and Illegal Transfers of Detainees,” detainees were “taken to their cells by strong people who wore black outfits, masks that covered their whole faces, and dark visors over their eyes.” (Some personnel reportedly wore black clothes made from specially woven synthetic fabric that couldn’t be ripped or torn.) A former member of a C.I.A. transport team has described the “takeout” of prisoners as a carefully choreographed twenty-minute routine, during which a suspect was hog-tied, stripped naked, photographed, hooded, sedated with anal suppositories, placed in diapers, and transported by plane to a secret location.
A person involved in the Council of Europe inquiry, referring to cavity searches and the frequent use of suppositories during the takeout of detainees, likened the treatment to “sodomy.” He said, “It was used to absolutely strip the detainee of any dignity. It breaks down someone’s sense of impenetrability. The interrogation became a process not just of getting information but of utterly subordinating the detainee through humiliation.” The former C.I.A. officer confirmed that the agency frequently photographed the prisoners naked, “because it’s demoralizing.” The person involved in the Council of Europe inquiry said that photos were also part of the C.I.A.’s quality-control process. They were passed back to case officers for review.
A secret government document, dated December 10, 2002, detailing “SERE Interrogation Standard Operating Procedure,” outlines the advantages of stripping detainees. “In addition to degradation of the detainee, stripping can be used to demonstrate the omnipotence of the captor or to debilitate the detainee.” The document advises interrogators to “tear clothing from detainees by firmly pulling downward against buttoned buttons and seams. Tearing motions shall be downward to prevent pulling the detainee off balance.” The memo also advocates the “Shoulder Slap,” “Stomach Slap,” “Hooding,” “Manhandling,” “Walling,” and a variety of “Stress Positions,” including one called “Worship the Gods.”
In the process of being transported, C.I.A. detainees such as Mohammed were screened by medical experts, who checked their vital signs, took blood samples, and marked a chart with a diagram of a human body, noting scars, wounds, and other imperfections. As the person involved in the Council of Europe inquiry put it, “It’s like when you hire a motor vehicle, circling where the scratches are on the rearview mirror. Each detainee was continually assessed, physically and psychologically.”
According to sources, Mohammed said that, while in C.I.A. custody, he was placed in his own cell, where he remained naked for several days. He was questioned by an unusual number of female handlers, perhaps as an additional humiliation. He has alleged that he was attached to a dog leash, and yanked in such a way that he was propelled into the walls of his cell. Sources say that he also claimed to have been suspended from the ceiling by his arms, his toes barely touching the ground. The pressure on his wrists evidently became exceedingly painful.
This is not America. And beyond the obvious human rights abuses, that’s what bothers me the most about these stories — they reflect a profound distrust and hostility toward the American legal system and American values. If our legal system works, then let’s use it — gather evidence legally, arrest terrorist suspects legally, and put them on trial. Follow international human rights norms (and treaties we’ve signed). I don’t think Americans are going to be particularly soft on terrorist suspects, so that’s definitely not the concern. The concern is that going through established legal means isn’t politically expedient. And so we sidestep national and international law because we’re arrogant and we think it’s ok if we do it.
But that’s not who we are. We’re a society that values liberties, individual and collective. We value the rule of law. We value the balance of governmental powers. We value human rights. The current regime has compromised all of these values, and then has the nerve to dismiss as “unpatriotic” anyone who asked questions. They should be ashamed. I am ashamed.
Read the whole article. It only gets worse.