Thursday, December 20, 2007
Former US interrogator Damien Corsetti recalls the torture of prisoners in Bagram and Abu Ghraib
Juan Cole, the indefatigable commentator on human rights and Middle Eastern affairs, has picked up on a translation of a fascinating interview in the Spanish newspaper El Mundo with Damien Corsetti, a former US Army private, who worked as an interrogator in the notorious US prisons at Bagram airbase in Afghanistan and Abu Ghraib in Iraq. Featured in the recent documentary Taxi To The Dark Side, in which he resembled a slightly less alarming version of Apocalypse Now’s Colonel Kurtz, as played by Marlon Brando, Corsetti worked at Bagram and Abu Ghraib at a time when torture and abuse were rife, and several prisoners were killed.
In October 2005, as part of the Army's investigation into the abuse of prisoners at Bagram, which led to at least two homicides, Corsetti was charged with dereliction of duty, maltreatment, assault and performing an indecent act with another person, but was cleared of all charges in June 2006. This was in spite of the fact that at Bagram he was known as “the King of Torture” and “Monster” (a name that he has tattooed on his stomach in Italian), and that one particular detainee at Guantánamo – Ahmed al-Darbi, who was captured in Azerbaijan and “rendered” to Afghanistan –identified him by his tattoo, and claimed that his abuse of prisoners included poking bound prisoners in the face with his naked penis and threatening them with sexual assault.
In this revealing interview, as Juan Cole describes it, Corsetti “says he witnessed torture but did not commit it himself. He also says that most of the individuals he interrogated had nothing to do with al-Qaeda or the Taliban.” Cole adds, “Many of the practices Corsetti says he witnessed are already illegal. Others would be banned by a new bill passed by the House of Representatives, which George W. Bush has threatened to veto. The bill would place the Central Intelligence Agency under the same rules as obtain for the US military and would disallow waterboarding, mock executions, and sexual humiliation. I repeat, Bush has pledged to veto this legislation.”
This is the translated article, which I’ve tidied up a little for clarity:
Damien Corsetti looks at me with his small eyes and says, “Look, they leave us alone in this room, they give me a roll of duct tape to tie you to the chair, I turn off the light and in five hours you sign a piece of paper for me saying that you're Osama bin Laden.”
It’s a Thursday night. Damien Corsetti – who, according to the New York Times, was nicknamed “the King of Torture” and “Monster” by his colleagues at Bagram prison, in Afghanistan – is sitting down having a glass of wine in a French restaurant in Fairfax, on the outskirts of Washington. Four days ago, this US private arrived on the outskirts of Washington from North Carolina, where he had been living since September 2006, when he was discharged from the army following a trial in which he was found not guilty of the charges of dereliction of duty, maltreatment, assault and performing indecent acts with prisoners at Bagram.
Now, Corsetti – who was also under investigation in the Abu Ghraib torture scandal – only wants to put his life “in order.” It’s a difficult task, because first he will have to forget the torture of prisoners such as al-Qaeda operative Omar al-Farouq, to which he says he was a witness in Afghanistan. “The cries, the smells, the sounds are with me. They are things that stay with you forever,” he recalls.
Corsetti arrived in Afghanistan on July 29, 2002. He was a military intelligence soldier, not an interrogator: “But the army needed reliable interrogators, because most interrogators do not meet security requirements. They are not reliable. So we arrived there instead.” Training consisted of one five-hour course in Afghanistan and, at 22, Corsetti began trying to extract information from the prisoners in the jail, prisoners who, in his opinion, “in 98 percent of cases had nothing to do with either the Taliban or al-Qaeda.”
That is how Corsetti found himself interrogating prisoners at the jail. Many of them were people who had nothing to do with George W. Bush's war on terror, like his first prisoner, whose name he still remembers – Khan Zara: “He was a peasant and he grew opium, but he was there for three months until he told us. Do you know how I found out? Because of his hands. His hands were full of calluses. Those are not the hands of a terrorist.”
Other prisoners included a farmer who had put mines on his land to kill his neighbor, with whom he had a long-standing family dispute, and another Afghan who had bombs in his house to fish in the river. They were people like Dilawar, a taxi driver detained in 2002 who had nothing to do with the Taliban and who died after four days of beatings from US soldiers.
Corsetti explains that Bagram was a very tough prison: “Each prisoner has in his cell a carpet measuring 1.2 m by 2.5 m. And they spend 23 hours a day sitting on it, in silence. If they speak, they are chained to the ceiling for 20 minutes and black visors are put on them so they can't see, and protectors are put on their ears so they can't hear. They are taken down to the basement once a week, in groups of five or six, to shower them. It's done to drive them crazy. I almost went crazy myself,” Corsetti recalls. Apart from those normal cells, there are six isolation cells in the basement of the prison, plus two rooms for those whom the former soldier describes as “special guests.”
Bagram also had an underworld in which the CIA tortured the leaders of al-Qaeda. “One day I went to an interrogation session and as soon as I arrived I knew that it was not a normal case. There were civilians, among them a doctor and a psychiatrist. The prisoner was called Omar al-Farouq, an al-Qaeda leader in Asia who had been brought to the prison by one of those agencies,” Corsetti recalls. “I don't want to go into details because it could be very negative for my country, but he was beaten brutally, every day, and tortured by other methods. He was a bad man, but he didn't deserve that.” Al-Farouq escaped from Bagram [in July 2005], an event which, according to some commentators, was tolerated by the USA. He was killed in April 2006 by British forces in the Iraqi city of Basra.
Corsetti says that he never took part in the torture: “My sole job was to sit there and make sure the prisoner didn't die. But there were several times when I thought they were about to die, when they were interrogated by those people who have no name and who work for no one in particular. It's incredible what a human being can take.” A veteran of two wars, Corsetti adds, “I have seen people die in combat. I shot at people. That is not as bad as seeing someone tortured. Al-Farouq looked at me while they tortured him, and I have that look in my head. And the cries, the smells, the sounds, they are with me all the time. It is something I can't take in. The cries of the prisoners calling for their relatives, their mother. I remember one who called for God, for Allah, all the time. I have those cries here, inside my head.”
He continues: ”In Abu Ghraib and Bagram they were tortured to make them suffer, not to get information out of them.” And, he adds, the fact is that at times the torture had no other goal that “to punish them for being terrorists. They tortured them and didn't ask them anything.” That, he says, was the case with the practice known as “the submarine” [waterboarding]: to simulate the drowning of the prisoner. Corsetti explains: “They have them hooded and they pour water on them. That makes it very difficult to breathe. I don’t think you can die through being subjected to the submarine. I certainly never saw anyone die. However, they do cough like crazy because they are totally submerged in water and that gets in their lungs. Perhaps what it can give you is serious pneumonia.” He also says, “The civilians who took part in the interrogations used the submarine whenever they wanted. They gave it to them for five or 10 minutes and didn't ask anything.”
Other torture included using extreme cold and heat: “I remember one of my prisoners trembling with cold. His teeth wouldn't stop chattering. I put a blanket on him and then another, and another, and his teeth never stopped chattering, never stopped. You could see that the man was going to die of hypothermia. But the doctors are there so that they don't die, so as to be able to torture them one more day.” At other times, he says, “they put them under blinding lights that worked mechanically, giving out flashes.”
Another important practice was psychological torture, administered by psychiatrists. “They tell them they are going to kill their children, rape their wives. And you see on their faces, in their eyes, the terror that that causes them. Because, of course, we know all about those people. We know the names of their children, where they live. We show them satellite photos of their houses. It is worse than any torture. That is not morally acceptable under any circumstances. Not even with the worst terrorist in the world,” Corsetti says, adding, “Sometimes, we put one of our women (female US military personnel) in a burqa and we made them walk through the interrogation rooms and we told them, 'That is your wife,' And the prisoner believed it. Why wouldn't they? We had those people going without sleep for a whole week. After two or three days with no sleep, you believe anything. In fact, it was a problem. The interpreters couldn't understand what they were saying. The prisoners were having hallucinations. Because, of course, this is not like if you or me go three days without sleep when we're partying. I've gone five days without sleep when I've been partying. But this is different. You're in a cell where they let you sleep only a quarter of an hour every now and then. With no contact with the outside world. Without seeing sunlight. Like that, a day seems like a week. Your mental capacity is destroyed.”
In Corsetti’s opinion, the only thing his experience as an interrogator taught him “is that torture doesn't work. One thing is losing your temper and punching a prisoner, another is to commit these acts of brutality. In Bagram we managed to find out about an al-Qaeda plan to blow up dozens of oil tankers across the world. We smashed the plot so well that they only managed to attack one, the French oil tanker Limburg, in Yemen in October 2002. And we managed to get a guy to tell us without laying a finger on him.”