Tackling torture

U.S. defends itself at the U.N., but a panel at UC Davis says Bush policies are to blame for torture

Photo Illustration by Ginger Fierstein

On the same day that U.S. officials defended against U.N. charges of torture in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba; Iraq; and Afghanistan, panelists at a UC Davis forum challenged the administration’s contention that it has an “absolute commitment” to eradicating torture and preventing abuse.

While State Department lawyers argued in Geneva that abuses of prisoners represented aberrations that have been stopped and a few misguided soldiers have been punished, panelists at UC Davis refuted Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s assertion that incidents of torture were the work of isolated individuals. Further, they charged that sanctioned torture would not stop even with the much publicized legislative ban won last year in a battle led by Senator John McCain, R-Arizona.

Instead of putting an end to the psychological torture practiced secretly by the CIA for some 50 years, the Bush administration has now made it part of its policy. So said Alfred W. McCoy, professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and an expert on CIA interrogation techniques.

The remarks came during a panel discussion on Guantánamo held before a nearly sold-out crowd at Freeborn Hall on the Davis campus on May 5. McCoy was joined on the panel by Michael Ratner, a prominent civil attorney who won a Supreme Court case granting Guantánamo prisoners the right to question their detention in court. Former U.S. Army Muslim chaplain James Yee, who was arrested for espionage while assigned to Guantánamo and released without being charged, rounded out the slate. Amy Goodman, host of the radio and television program Democracy Now!, moderated the discussion, which was sponsored by the university’s Center for the Study of Human Rights in the Americas.

Psychological torture—a far more damaging and less easily detectable form of abuse than physical torture—is legalized by the Detainee Treatment Act of 2005, McCoy said. These interrogation tools involve self-inflicted pain, sensory deprivation and exploitation of cultural and personal sensitivities.

“It’s no accident that Pvt. Lynndie England was shown in photographs leading a prisoner around by a leash,” McCoy said, noting that humiliation based on a cultural aversion to dogs among Muslims is one of the “signatures” of this peculiarly American brand of psychological torture.

Other signatures are evident in the much-circulated photo of a hooded man standing on a box with his arms outstretched in Abu Ghraib as well as in hundreds of other photos taken in that detention center in Iraq. Standing for long periods and holding arms out generate self-inflicted pain; the hood induces sensory deprivation. Sexual humiliation—standard fare in the photos and tales of torture told by prisoners—also fits the model of standardized psychological torture.

Americans are uneducated about torture, McCoy charged, and turn a blind eye to the practice of psychological torture in the mistaken belief that it’s both relatively harmless and responsible for saving lives by preventing terrorist attacks.

Rumsfeld told Tony Snow of Fox News last summer that, indeed, lives have been saved because of intelligence gathered at Guantánamo. Specifics have not been forthcoming, however.

The two sides agree on little, and McCoy also disputes assertions that torture yields useful information. It’s accurate only 3 percent to 5 percent of the time, he said, adding that the 95 percent to 97 percent inaccurate information confuses more than it helps.

Rumsfeld is among those who say torture allegations are often lies: “Detainees are trained to lie,” he said, again in an interview with Snow on Fox News. “They’re trained to say they were tortured.”

Yet, a report commissioned by the U.N. Committee on Torture found evidence that the United States has employed practices that “amount to torture.” And although Yee has no firsthand knowledge of torture being perpetrated there, he heard enough stories from prisoners about abuses in his role as a chaplain to make Guantánamo appear less the “model detention facility” Rumsfeld describes and more like the modern gulag activists say it is.

“Gitmo’s secret weapon was the use of religion against prisoners,” Yee told those gathered at Freeborn Hall. “They were shackled and forced to sit in the center of a satanic symbol painted on the floor. Guards, who tried to force them to bow down in the center of the symbol, told the prisoners, ‘Satan is your god now.’”

According to the stories, female interrogators stripped naked in front of Muslim men, who by culture and religious practice have little contact with females outside their marriages. When prisoners closed their eyes, guards pried their eyelids open. Yee told stories of men who were reportedly touched inappropriately by female guards and forced to touch women’s genitals. Rough treatment of the Quran by guards checking for contraband led to a series of suicide attempts during Yee’s tenure in Guantánamo.

Being a U.S. citizen on American soil didn’t help Yee—a West Point graduate and Army chaplain—when it came to the use of these sorts of fear-producing interrogation tactics. When he arrived in the States on a visit home from Guantánamo, Yee was arrested on allegations of espionage. Though he wasn’t hooded, Yee suffered sensory deprivation when forced to wear blacked-out goggles and sound-blocking ear muffs while being transported. He was held in secret for 10 days until his incarceration was leaked to the media. After 76 days in solitary confinement in an underground cell in a South Carolina brig, Yee was suddenly returned to duty and given a commendation. He resigned.

What’s allowed and what is prohibited by the Detainee Treatment Act has yet to be defined. Last week, the Senate Armed Services Committee called for a legal definition of interrogation methods banned as “cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment of prisoners.” But release of the Army Field Manual that’s supposed to standardize those techniques for both the military and the CIA was recently set back again.

Controversy over a particularly horrific interrogation tool called “waterboarding” continues. Prisoners subjected to it believe they’re drowning, and ABC quoted its sources in a November report as saying that CIA officers who subjected themselves to waterboarding “lasted an average of 14 seconds before caving in.” Here’s how it works: A prisoner’s head is wrapped cellophane. He’s strapped to an incline board with his head below the level of his feet. Water is poured over the prisoner’s face, causing him to gag involuntarily and panic.

McCoy said it’s permissible under the act, though on May 8, U.S. officials told the U.N. committee that waterboarding would be banned in the Army Field Manual when it’s released.

Regardless of what techniques are ultimately determined to be permissible or banned, President Bush has effectively neutered the congressional ban on “cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment of foreign prisoners” through a signing statement that reserves the president’s discretion to use any techniques necessary to protect Americans from terrorism.

Senators McCain and John Warner, R-Virginia, who authored the ban, issued a statement immediately, noting that Congress had resisted White House pressure to include a “presidential waiver” and suggesting that the late-December signing statement violated the intent of Congress in banning such interrogation techniques. The pair promised close oversight by Congress, but, as Ratner noted, Congress has yet to take action.

Today, nearly 500 prisoners remain detained at Guantánamo Bay without being charged or tried for alleged terrorist acts, and an unknown number are being held in as many as two dozen secret sites outside the jurisdiction of U.S. courts.

Ratner, who led efforts to shut Guantánamo in the 1990s when it was used to hold HIV-positive refugees from Haiti, hopes to see it shuttered once again. He’s not alone in his calls to close the center. The British attorney general wants it closed. Activists in the United States and around the world want it closed. And the United Nations has now demanded its closure.

On May 8, President Bush told the German press he wants to close Guantánamo but is waiting for the U.S. Supreme Court to rule on whether detainees there can be tried in military or civilian court.

Why aren’t Americans outraged? Goodman blamed the media, which she said instilled the sight of Saddam Hussein’s statue being torn down in Baghdad as the “defining image for [Americans] of the Iraq War.” The situation’s different in Europe, where television, through repetition of much different images, has made torture a defining issue.

Maybe Americans just have more pressing matters on their minds. That’s what Howard Dean, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, suggested when asked on April 20 about the party’s lack of a defined position on Guantánamo, torture and secret prisons as well as the fact that he’s never discussed the issue with party leaders Senator Harry Reid, D-Nevada, and Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi, D-California.

“I’m not trying to apologize for not being concerned about human rights; we obviously are concerned about human rights,” Dean said during a breakfast meeting with The American Prospect. “But when you start talking about the things that worry Americans every day, it’s health care, it’s security, it’s whether your government is corrupt or not, it’s your job, it’s your education. At six, we may already have too many issues.”

Some 51,000 Americans signed a petition condemning “torture, government kidnapping, and indefinite detention” that was delivered to the United Nations by the American Civil Liberties Union on May 8. The petition reads: “These are not ideas we associate with the United States of America. We demand our country back.”

The activists speaking on May 5 at UC Davis continue their efforts to create debate over the issue and fight through legal channels where they can. But in the end, they called for mass action and agreed with Ratner, who said, “Without serious protest, we’re not going to get anywhere.”