The American Way of Torture

'If We're Not in the Room, Who Is to Say?'

 American intelligence agents have been torturing terrorist suspects, or engaging in practices pretty close to torture. They have also been handing over suspects to countries, such as Egypt, whose intelligence agencies have a reputation for brutality. The Economist, London, January 11


The picture that emerges is of a brass-knuckled quest for information . . . in which the traditional lines between right and wrong, legal and inhumane, are evolving and blurred.The Washington Post, December 26

Kenneth Roth, Human Rights Watch: confronting Bush
photo: ©2003 Peter Maass
Kenneth Roth, Human Rights Watch: confronting Bush


U.S. officials who take part in torture, authorize it, or even close their eyes to it, can be prosecuted by courts anywhere in the world. —Kenneth Roth, Human Rights Watch


On December 26, Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, which reports on human rights abuses in some 70 countries, wrote a letter to George W. Bush, with copies to Colin Powell, Donald Rumsfeld, and Condoleezza Rice:

"Human Rights Watch is deeply concerned by allegations of torture and other mistreatment of al-Qaeda detainees described in The Washington Post ('U.S. Decries Abuse but Defends Interrogations') on December 26. The allegations, if true, would place the United States in violation of some of the most fundamental prohibitions of international human rights law. . . . Torture is never permissible against anyone, whether in times of peace or war."

I have been collecting fragments of press reports of torture by American intelligence agencies over the past year, but the Washington Post story was the first extensive, detailed account of what is going on at CIA facilities in the Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan.

From the front page of the December 26 Washington Post, about the Bagram air base: "Those who refuse to cooperate inside this secret CIA interrogation center are sometimes kept standing or kneeling for hours, in black hoods or spray-painted goggles, according to intelligence specialists familiar with CIA interrogation methods. At times, they are held in awkward, painful positions and deprived of sleep with a 24-hour bombardment of lights—subject to what are known as 'stress and duress' techniques."

These CIA facilities are closed to the press and other outsiders, including some other government agencies, the Post reports. Moreover, "According to Americans with direct knowledge and others who have witnessed the treatment, captives are often 'softened up' by MPs and U.S. Army Special Forces troops who beat them up and confine them in tiny rooms.

"The alleged terrorists are commonly blindfolded, and thrown into walls, bound in painful positions." Medication to alleviate pain is withheld. Or, as a source in the story notes "in a deadpan voice, 'pain control for wounded patients is a very subjective thing.' "

Says "an official who has supervised the capture and transfer of accused terrorists, 'If you don't violate someone's human rights some of the time, you probably aren't doing your job.' " Another official is quoted: "We don't kick the [expletive] out of them. We send them to other countries so they can kick the [expletive] out of them." The term for these transfers is "extraordinary renditions." There is, of course, no legal process; and among the foreign intelligence services who lend a brutal hand are those of Jordan, Egypt, and Morocco. At least once, torturers in Syria have been enlisted.

The Washington Post report by Dana Priest and Barton Gellman dutifully quotes National Security Council spokesman Sean McCormack: "The United States is treating enemy combatants in U.S. government control, wherever held, humanely and in a manner consistent with the Third Geneva Convention of 1949." (Emphasis added.) Note the phrase "wherever held." Prisoners shipped to torturers in other countries remain under American control.

One official directly involved in these "renditions" to foreign torture chambers said in The Washington Post, "I do it . . . with my eyes open." According to the Post, another "Bush administration official said the CIA, in practice, is using a narrow definition of what counts as 'knowing' that a suspect has been tortured. 'If we're not there in the room, who is to say?' said one official conversant with recent reports of renditions."

The December 26 story was followed the next day by an editorial, "Torture Is Not an Option." It ended: "The critical first step for the administration is to clarify what tactics it is using and which are still off limits. . . . The American people ought to know and ought to be able to respond through their representatives and through individual and organizational voices. It shouldn't be the administration's unilateral call." After all, "there are certain things democracies don't do, even under duress."

There has been only a scattered, brief follow-up in the press on this torture story, even though, as The Economist notes, "there seems little reason to doubt [its] veracity." Moreover, The Economist, which I read with care every week, adds: "Although well documented, the account has produced official denials and only a desultory discussion among American commentators, who seem no keener to discuss the subject than the British and French were when the issue arose in Northern Ireland and Algiers." (Emphasis added.)

There has been no quick, independent coverage, for example, in The New York Times, which reminds me of when the Post's Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein broke the Watergate story and the Times lagged far behind. The Times recovered then, but the recent "paper of record" is not living up to its legendary past importance. It misses such stories as the Post's on torture, and its editorials have become utterly predictable. The fault is not with the reporters. (See Dexter Filkins on Arafat, January 12.) The decline began with the ascension of publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. and has quickened under executive editor Howell Raines. It's too bad the New York Herald Tribune isn't still around.

But as for the American way of torture, Human Rights Watch is on the job, and Kenneth Roth will not let go.

 
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