Reviewing the Torture Report

The Nation recently ran a review of The Torture Report: What the Documents Say About America’s Post-9/11 Torture Program, by Larry Siems. The book is drawn from the online report that Siems developed from documents that the American Civil Liberties Union obtained from a series of freedom of information requests – those documents are publicly available on the site as well.

I don’t work on torture nor do I have any specialist knowledge of the US policies after 9/11, but Siems’ work looks fascinating. Not only is he using a massive collection of primary sources, but the way he assembles and analyses the material brings out the systemic use of torture and the dubious ends pursued on the bodies and minds of its victims.

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Key out takes from the Nation review, written by Peter Baker:

This is oddly apt: failures of understanding are part and parcel of institutionalized torture, which seems to require a systemic aversion to detail, especially the details of other people’s experiences. The most publicly visible manifestation of this aversion was the replacement of “torture”—in both the legal memos and the pages of the nation’s leading newspapers—with terms like “enhanced interrogation.” This same preference for detached vagueness pervades The Torture Report. “Cramped confinement involves the placement of the individual in a confined space,” the administration lawyer John Yoo wrote in a 2002 memo. “The confined space is usually dark.” Depending on the size of the space, “the individual can stand up or sit down.”

Abu Zubaydah’s descriptions of his “cramped confinement,” which Siems quotes, dwell on several aspects that Yoo passes over: how a cloth was draped over his confinement box to restrict his air supply; how the box was so small he could neither sit nor stand but instead had to crouch, which caused a wound in his leg to rupture; how he was given a bucket to use as a toilet, and how it tipped over and spilled while he remained inside for hours; how he lost all sense of time. It is unclear whether Yoo left such details out intentionally, or whether they simply never occurred to him. Similarly, it’s hard to know what to make of a note written by Donald Rumsfeld in ink at the bottom of a 2002 memo on detainee treatment that, among other things, set limits on forced standing. “I stand for 8-10 hours a day,” he wrote. “Why is standing limited to 4 hours?”

America commits torture, funds torture research and encourages torture around the world. It is easy to point the finger at one particularly dark corner or another, be it the CIA or the derelict grunts on the night shift. These documents suggest that a bigger problem might be the sheer number of dark corners: American force abroad is wielded and managed by so many overlapping but distinct organizations that it creates plenty of useful ambiguity as to how, exactly, the overlap is meant to work. There’s a clear sense, especially in memos related to the early days of Guantánamo, of all these various people—Army, Navy, Air Force, CIA, FBI—wandering the cell-block halls, unsure of who is doing what, when and to whom. In the absence of a plan, everyone takes turns dealing with the detainees as he or she sees fit. The guards watch, picking up ideas from the pros for later. One could call the disarray a design flaw, but that would involve assuming that torture wasn’t part of the plan. Given that we know it was, all the confusion seems to have helped; CIA agents reveled in exploiting it, often identifying themselves as FBI agents to avoid having their presence exposed or accurately documented. Defense Department agents pulled a similar move, more than once impersonating State Department officials during torture sessions.

The spectacle of lynching, and the photos documenting that spectacle, served as a boast and a warning: look what we can do—and will. With post-9/11 detainee abuse, the exact same message is being communicated, only so too is its negation: look what we disown, what only the bad apples among us desire, and for which we will duly jail them. Endless memos dissecting torture techniques and parsing existing laws out of existence are a key part of this ritual: they insist that nothing terrible is happening. In a 2002 meeting, a military lawyer was surprisingly honest: “We will need documentation to protect us.” A CIA lawyer chimes in his agreement: “Everything must be approved and documented.”

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3 thoughts on “Reviewing the Torture Report

  1. I studied international studies at postgrad and lead a debate on the desirability of torturing (So-called ticking bomb debate)
    I argued against torture and showed how it was illegal under all international laws, that it was counterproductive and lead to further abuses and degradation. We lost the debate with many self-styled Christians voting for.
    Thanks for an important post

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  2. In all likelihood, the CIA officers at those meetings were drawing on training sessions they’d received at the Air Force Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape school. SERE courses attempt, among other things, to prepare US soldiers, agents and private contractors for possible torture if captured abroad. But the differences between SERE simulations—even those in which students are, for example, waterboarded—and life in a US torture dungeon are many and crucial. SERE students have safe words. SERE students know, somewhere in their minds, that it’s just training, which will end at some point. If a SERE student is waterboarded, he is first made to do jumping jacks, which increase his heart rate, making it easier for him to hold his breath. (An insightful CIA report noted the difference between the waterboarding on SERE’s curriculum and the CIA’s waterboarding in the field as follows: “the Agency’s technique is different because it is ‘for real.’”) The mental health of SERE students and instructors is closely monitored by psychologists. In the most critical respects, SERE courses are more similar to weekend camping than to a secret US prison. When the CIA demonstrators went before the principals, then, they were likely presenting a highly condensed and bowdlerized re-enactment not of torture but of a torture simulation, creating a spectacle charged with torture’s frisson of power—the principals were, after all, deciding the intimate fate of real people—but stripped clean of every other defining detail.

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