Tracing the Trail of Torture

The other day on Jerry Agar’s radio show, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld responded to accusations about American atrocities at our prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. He accused the detainees there of manipulating public opinion by lying about their treatment. He said, in part:

“They’re taught to lie, they’re taught to allege that they have been tortured, and that’s part of the [terrorist] training that they received. We know that torture is not occurring there. We know that for a fact. … The reality is that the terrorists have media committees. They are getting very clever at manipulating the media in the United States and in the capitals of the world. They know for a fact they can’t win a single battle on the battlefields in the Middle East. They know the only place they can win a battle is in the capitol in Washington, D.C., by having the United States lose its will, so they consciously manipulate the media here to achieve their ends, and they’re very good at it.”

Statements like this have been commonplaces from an administration whose president repeatedly insists it doesn’t do “torture,” while its assembled lawyers do their best to redefine torture out of existence. Here’s how, for instance, our vice president has described the lives of detainees at Guantanamo Bay: “They’re living in the tropics. … They’re well fed. They’ve got everything they could possibly want. There isn’t any other nation in the world that would treat people who were determined to kill Americans the way we’re treating these people.”

As a matter of fact, the record of detainee abuse, humiliation, and torture at Guantanamo and elsewhere is by now overwhelming – and it’s been laid out by a remarkably wide-ranging set of sources. In June 2005, for example, Time magazine released excerpts from official interrogation logs on just one Guantanamo prisoner, Mohammad al-Qahtani, reputedly the 20th September 11th hijacker who never made it into the U.S. This stunning record of mistreatment over time so threatened the detainee’s health that it should certainly have qualified as torture under this administration’s definition (“must be equivalent in intensity to the pain accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death”) in its famed “torture memo” of 2002.

Or let’s remember that two years’ worth of blistering memos and e-mails by disgusted FBI agents stationed at Guantanamo Bay (obtained and released by the American Civil Liberties Union) laid out styles of detainee mistreatment that should have staggered someone’s imagination:

“‘On a couple of occasions, I entered interview rooms to find a detainee chained hand and foot in a fetal position to the floor, with no chair, food or water,’ the FBI agent wrote on Aug. 2, 2004. ‘Most times they had urinated or defecated on themselves, and had been left there for 18 to 24 hours or more.’ In one case, the agent continued, ‘the detainee was almost unconscious on the floor, with a pile of hair next to him. He had apparently been literally pulling his own hair out throughout the night.'”

Just in the last week, the administration that doesn’t do torture found itself in court fighting hard for a torture exemption from the McCain anti-torture amendment, thanks to extreme force-feeding methods being used on a prisoner on a Guantanamo hunger strike. According to Josh White and Carol D. Leonnig of the Washington Post, “Bush administration lawyers, fighting a claim of torture by a Guantanamo Bay detainee, yesterday argued that the new law that bans cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment of detainees in U.S. custody does not apply to people held at the military prison. In federal court yesterday and in legal filings, Justice Department lawyers contended that a detainee at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, cannot use legislation drafted by Sen. John McCain … to challenge treatment that the detainee’s lawyers described as ‘systematic torture.'”

In the meantime, U.S. military officers, “breaking with domestic and international legal precedent,” refused to rule out the admission of evidence obtained by torture at the military trials the Pentagon is now running at Guantanamo.

The week before, Jane Mayer wrote a thoroughly depressing New Yorker piece, “Annals of the Pentagon,” about former U.S. Navy General Counsel Alberto J. Mora, a conservative military man who just happened to believe in the law. Hers was a gripping tale of Mora’s losing battle to stop Donald Rumsfeld and his followers from circumventing the Geneva Conventions and instituting a “gloves-off” policy of torture and abuse at Guantanamo. Tim Golden and Eric Schmitt of the New York Times produced a front-page story that same week ("Growing Afghan Prison Rivals Bleak Guantanamo"), pointing out something well covered by the British Guardian almost a year ago: We now have a second Guantanamo on our hands, a prison at Bagram Air Force Base in Afghanistan that may indeed make Guantanamo look like the “tropics.” There, 500 or so detainees, beyond all law or oversight, have been kept under barbaric conditions, in some cases for two to three years.

The week before that, the latest Abu Ghraib photos were released, even grimmer than the previous batch – a huge story around the world – to largely “been there, done that” coverage in the United States. Each day, it seems, more and worse pours out, largely to no obvious effect here. It is in this context that Dahr Jamail, who began hearing of American torture practices while covering the war in Iraq in 2003 as an independent journalist, looks back on the last several years and considers the nature of our torture regime. Tom

Tracing the Trail of Torture

Embedding torture as policy from Guantanamo to Iraq
by Dahr Jamail

They told him, “We are going to cut your head off and send you to hell.”

Ali Abbas, a former detainee from Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, was filling me in on the horrors he endured at the hands of American soldiers, contractors, and CIA operatives while inside the infamous prison.

It was May of 2004 when I documented his testimony in my hotel in Baghdad. “We will take you to Guantanamo,” he said one female soldier told him after he was detained by U.S. forces on Sept. 13, 2003. “Our aim is to put you in hell so you’ll tell the truth. These are our orders – to turn your life into hell.” And they did. He was tortured in Abu Ghraib less than half a year after the occupation of Iraq began.

While the publication of the first Abu Ghraib photos in April 2004 opened the floodgates for former Iraqi detainees to speak out about their treatment at the hands of occupation forces, this wasn’t the first I’d heard of torture in Iraq. A case I’d documented even before then was that of 57-year-old Sadiq Zoman. He was held for one month by U.S. forces before being dropped off in a coma at the general hospital in Tikrit. The medical report that came with his comatose body, written by U.S. Army medic Lt. Col. Michael Hodges, listed the reasons for Zoman’s state as heat stroke and heart attack. That medical report, however, failed to mention anything about the physical trauma evident on Zomans’ body – the electrical point burns on the soles of his feet and on his genitals, the fact that the back of his head had been bashed in with a blunt instrument, or the lash marks up and down his body.

Such tales – and they were rife in Baghdad before the news of Abu Ghraib reached the world – were just the tip of the iceberg; and stories of torture similar to those I heard from Iraqi detainees during my very first trip to Iraq, back in November 2003, are still being told, because such treatment is ongoing.

Institutionalizing Torture: Abu Ghraib

While President Bush has regularly claimed – as with reporters in Panama last November – that “we do not torture,” Janis Karpinski, the U.S. brigadier general whose 800th Military Police Brigade was in charge of 17 prison facilities in Iraq, including Abu Ghraib back in 2003, begs to differ. She knows that we do torture, and she believes that the president himself is most likely implicated in the decision to embed torture in basic war-on-terror policy.

While testifying this Jan. 21 in New York City at the International Commission of Inquiry on Crimes Against Humanity Committed by the Bush Administration, Karpinski told us: “General [Ricardo] Sanchez [commander of coalition ground forces in Iraq] himself signed the eight-page memorandum authorizing literally a laundry list of harsher techniques in interrogations to include specific use of dogs and muzzled dogs with his specific permission.”

All this, as she reminded us, came after Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller, who had been “specifically selected by the secretary of defense to go to Guantanamo Bay and run the interrogations operation,” was dispatched to Iraq by the Bush administration to “work with the military intelligence personnel to teach them new and improved interrogation techniques.”

Karpinski met Miller on his tour of American prison facilities in Iraq in the fall of 2003. Miller, as she related in her testimony, told her, “It is my opinion that you are treating the prisoners too well. At Guantanamo Bay, the prisoners know that we are in charge and they know that from the very beginning. You have to treat the prisoners like dogs. And if they think or feel any differently you have effectively lost control of the interrogation.”

Miller went on to tell Karpinski in reference to Abu Ghraib, “We’re going to Gitmo-ize the operation.”

When she later asked for an explanation, Karpinski was told that the military police guarding the prisons were following the orders in a memorandum approving “harsher interrogation techniques,” and, according to Karpinski, “signed by the secretary of defense, Don Rumsfeld.”

That one-page memorandum “authorized sleep deprivation, stress positions, meal disruption – serving their meals late, not serving a meal. Leaving the lights on all night while playing loud music, issuing insults or criticism of their religion, their culture, their beliefs.” In the left-hand margin, alongside the list of interrogation techniques to be applied, Rumsfeld had personally written, “Make sure this happens!!” Karpinski emphasized the fact that Rumsfeld had used two exclamation points.

When asked how far up the chain of command responsibility for the torture orders for Abu Ghraib went, Karpinski said, “The secretary of defense would not have authorized without the approval of the vice president.”

Karpinski does not believe that the many investigations into Abu Ghraib have gotten to the truth about who is responsible for the torture and abuse because “they have all been directed and kept under the control of the Department of Defense. Secretary Rumsfeld was directing the course of each one of those separate investigations. There was no impartiality whatsoever.”

Does she believe the torture and abuse at Abu Ghraib has stopped?

“I have no reason to believe that it has. I believe that cameras are no longer allowed anywhere near a cellblock. But why should I believe it’s stopped? We still have the captain from the 82nd airborne division [who] returned and had a diary, a log of when he was instructed, what he was instructed, where he was instructed, and who instructed him. To go out and treat the prisoners harshly, to set them up for effective interrogation, and that was recently as May of 2005.”

Karpinski was referring to Capt. Ian Fishback, one of three American soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division at Forward Operating Base Mercury near Fallujah who personally witnessed the torture of Iraqi prisoners and came forward to give testimony to human rights organizations about the crimes committed.

Karpinski, who was made the scapegoat for the atrocities which occurred at Abu Ghraib, went public as a whistleblower, and retired with a demotion in rank after serving a quarter of a century in the Army. General Sanchez, on the other hand, was transferred to Germany, where he is continuing his tenure as commander of the V Corps. However, he was reportedly relieved of his role and not promoted to a fourth star due to the fact that the Abu Ghraib scandal first broke during his watch.

But Abu Ghraib was – and remains – only a symptom of a much deeper problem.

The Guantanamo Treatment

“Since the start of the war on terror, the intelligence community, led by the CIA, has revived the use of torture, making it Washington’s weapon of choice,” writes Alfred McCoy in his new book, A Question of Torture.

When the infamous Abu Ghraib photo of the prisoner on a box draped in black, head covered with a sack, arms outstretched with electrical wires attached to his fingers, was made public, it had a deeper resonance for McCoy than simply documenting a war crime of the present moment.

“In that photograph you can see the entire 50-year history of CIA torture,” McCoy told Amy Goodman in a Democracy Now! interview. “It’s very simple. He’s hooded for sensory disorientation, and his arms are extended for self-inflicted pain. And those are the two very simple fundamental techniques” that, as his book makes vividly clear, the CIA pioneered in breakthrough research on torture, funded to the tune of billions of dollars in the 1950s. In his book, he adds: “The photographs from Iraq illustrate standard interrogation practice inside the global gulag of secret CIA prisons that have operated, on executive authority, since the start of the war on terror.”

Rather than placing blame merely on the handful of guards in Abu Ghraib who were reprimanded (and in a few cases jailed) for their crimes against humanity, McCoy believes that they – and the interrogators there – were simply “following orders” and, like Karpinski, considers that “responsibility for their actions lies higher, much higher, up the chain of command.”

When I interviewed Ali Abbas in Iraq, his descriptions from Abu Ghraib bore a remarkable similarity to those given by detainees released from the American prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and from the little-noticed American mini-gulag in Afghanistan.

“They shit on us, used dogs against us, used electricity, and starved us,” he told me. “They cut my hair into strips like an Indian. They shaved my mustache, put a plate in my hand, and made me go beg from the prisoners, as if I was a beggar.”

Lawyers at the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York in a statement on the detention experiences of three men they represent who were held in both Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay reveal, for example, similarly over-the-top treatment. And such treatment long preceded anything recorded at Abu Ghraib. Starvation rations were common and, in Sherbegan Prison in Afghanistan in December 2001, one of the detainees, Shafiq Rasul, described the situation as follows: “We all had body and hair lice. We got dysentery and the toilets were disgusting. It was just a hole in the ground with shit everywhere. The whole prison stank of shit and unwashed bodies.”

He would not be allowed to wash for at least six weeks. He would be transferred to a U.S. base in Kandahar and endure a “forced cavity search” while he was hooded, then go on to suffer countless beatings. When he was later transferred to Guantanamo Bay, he would witness the “Guantanamo haircut” where men would either have their heads shaved completely or have a cross shaved into their head in order to insult their faith. Denial of medical care and long stays in solitary confinement, along with sleep deprivation tactics, were the norm.

Other forms of treatment included:

  • Gratuitous violence: Prisoners would be punched, kicked, and slammed to the ground.
  • Exposure to the elements: Prisoners were locked in cage-like structures located in hangers with no heating.
  • Denial of nourishment.
  • Denial of religious rights including purposeful desecration of the Koran.
  • The use of dogs to threaten prisoners.

And keep in mind, this was the norm. The extreme we know from the recorded deaths of at least 98 prisoners in American hands in these years.

Outsourcing Torture

Extraordinary renditions – the kidnapping of terror suspects and their transport to countries willing to torture them for the Bush administration – have been the rage (for the CIA) in Europe in recent years and have enraged European publics. But far less is often known about what happens to those kidnapees on the other end of the process. Craig Murray, however, knows more than most of us. He was the British ambassador to Uzbekistan from 2002 to 2004, a time when that country’s strong man, Islam Karimov, was described by Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell, and Donald Rumsfeld as an “important ally” of George Bush in his war on terror. Murray was dismissed by the British government in October 2004 when he made public his findings on extraordinary renditions to Uzbekistan and the torture by Uzbek security personnel of those rendered into their hands by the CIA.

Murray describes Karimov as having long-standing ties with Bush. These seem to have begun in 1997 when Bush was still governor of Texas. He then met with Uzbek Ambassador Sadyk Safaev, a meeting (for which there is documented evidence) organized by Ken Lay, CEO of Enron, in order to enlist the governor in brokering a $2 billion gas deal between the corporation and that oil-rich country. Karimov, says Murray, “was a guest in the White House in 2002. It’s very easy to find photos of George Bush shaking Karimov’s hand.” Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was, he added, “particularly chummy with Karimov” back then and, at the time, the administration was making use of the Karshi-Khanabad air base, also known as K2, in that country.

Murray is not alone in considering Karimov one of the most vicious dictators on the planet, a man personally responsible for the death of thousands. The ambassador helped uncover evidence of one detainee who “had had his fingernails extracted, he had been severely beaten, particularly about the face, and he died of immersion in boiling liquid. And it was immersion, rather than splashing, because there is a clear tide mark around the upper torso and arms, which gives you some idea of the level of brutality of this regime.”

While not certain that detainees who had been rendered were boiled alive, about extraordinary rendition Murray said, “There is no doubt that George Bush and Condoleezza Rice have been lying through their teeth about extraordinary rendition for some time.” As he put it, “The United States, as a matter of policy, is willing to accept intelligence got by torture by foreign agencies. I can give direct firsthand evidence of that and back it up with documents.”

When asked why he decided to go public with his information, Murray replied, “I think it’s just what any decent person would do. I mean, when you come across people being boiled and their fingernails pulled out or having their children raped in front of them, you just can’t go along with it and sleep at night.”

The U.S. vacated the K2 base as the result of political fallout from the massacre of over 600 demonstrators by Karimov’s security forces in May 2005. Karimov has since moved back under Russian protection.

Nevertheless, Murray is convinced that the U.S. continues to rendition people to other grim and willing regimes around the globe to be tortured.

In addition to the degradation and inhumanity involved in torture, which afflicts those meting it out as well as those on the receiving end, both intelligence officials and law enforcement personnel believe that information obtained by torture is almost invariably useless. In addition, torture policies, seldom kept secret for long, invariably produce outrage and opposition on a large scale.

Here, for instance, is a typical response a rebel in Fallujah offered a colleague of mine in Iraq in January 2005:

“We are fighting in Fallujah first because we are defending our religion. Because they desecrate our Holy Koran. They put the Koran in the sewage. They rape our women. They rape them in Abu Ghraib. The raiding, the burning, the detentions, the evictions, the killing it is continuous, everyday and night. These are the reasons we resist the Americans.”

“George Bush Is the Law”

Testimony from Afghan prisons and Guantanamo, the photos and video from Abu Ghraib, evidence of extraordinary renditions to the far corners of the planet – all of this doesn’t even encompass the full reach of Bush administration torture policies or the degree to which they have been set in motion at the highest levels of the American government. But what simply can’t be clearer is this: horrific methods of torture have been used regularly against detainees in U.S. custody in countries around the globe, while an American president, vice president, and secretary of defense, among others, openly advocated policies that, until recently, would have been considered torture in any democratic country. In the meantime, the Bush administration has twisted the law just enough to allow authorities to potentially pick up more or less anyone they desire at any time they want to be held wherever the government decides for as long as its officials desire with no access to lawyer or trial – and now, for the first time, the possibility has arisen, at least in the military trials in Guantanamo, that testimony obtained by torture will be admissible.

All of this can also be seen as part of a desperate attempt by a failing superpower to ratchet up the use of force in the service of subjugation, as has happened time and time again in the past.

In A Question of Torture, McCoy quotes one CIA analyst, whose expertise was in the now long-departed Soviet Empire, this way:

“When feelings of insecurity develop within those holding power, they become increasingly suspicious and put great pressures upon the secret police to obtain arrests and confessions. At such times police officials are inclined to condone anything which produces a speedy ‘confession,’ and brutality may become widespread.”

Testifying at the same commission of inquiry as Karpinski, Michael Ratner, once head of the National Lawyers’ Guild, now president of the Center for Constitutional Rights and an expert on international human rights law, caught the essence of our present situation:

“Let there be no doubt this administration is engaged in massive violations of the law. Torture is an international crime. What [George Bush] has done is basically lay the plan for what has to be called a coup d’état in America. [His Presidential Signing Statement attached to the McCain anti-torture amendment] makes three points. … First, speaking as the president, my authority as commander in chief allows me to do whatever I think is necessary in the war on terror including use torture. Second, the commander in chief cannot be checked by Congress. Third, the commander in chief cannot be checked by the courts. In other words… George Bush is the law.”

Torture is usually defined as “infliction of severe physical pain as a means of punishment or coercion,” or as “excruciating physical or mental pain, agony.” No civilized society can accept laws which justify the use of torture. So it’s not surprising that Ali Abbas was astonished to discover Americans willing to inflict such humiliating and inhumane treatment on him while he was in their custody in Abu Ghraib. “They cannot be human beings and do these things,” was the way he put it. He concluded: “This, what happened to me, could happen to anybody in Iraq.”

Unfortunately, what happened to him can now conceivably happen to anyone, anywhere in the world, according to George Bush.

One of the last things Abbas said as our interview ended was, “Saddam Hussein was a cruel enemy to us. Once I made it to Abu Ghraib though, I wished I had been killed by him rather than being alive with the Americans. Even now, after this journey of torture and suffering, what else can I think?”

Dahr Jamail is an independent journalist who spent over eight months reporting from occupied Iraq. He presented evidence of U.S. war crimes in Iraq at the International Commission of Inquiry on Crimes against Humanity Committed by the Bush Administration in New York City this January. He writes regularly for Inter Press Service,, Asia Times, TomDispatch, and maintains his own Web site

Copyright 2006 Dahr Jamail

Author: Tom Engelhardt

An editor in publishing for the last 25 years, Tom Engelhardt is the author of The End of Victory Culture, a history of American triumphalism in the Cold War era, now out in a revised edition with a new preface and afterword, and Mission Unaccomplished, TomDispatch Interviews With American Iconoclasts and Dissenters. He is at present consulting editor for Metropolitan Books, a fellow of the Nation Institute, and a teaching fellow at the journalism school of the University of California, Berkeley. Visit his Web site. This article originally appeared at To stay on top of important articles like these, sign up to receive the latest updates from