30+ torture memos remain sealed while thousands of torture photos will eventually be released. Be prepared: Learn the deep history of US torture in SERE, Vietnam, Latin America, GMTO, Black Sites and beyond in American Torture.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Poetry: Declassified

Posted by Michael Otterman at 10:11 PM |

This fall, University of Iowa Press will publish Poems from Guantánamo: The Detainees Speak. The collection is comprised entirely of declassified poems written by detainees held at the base. A number of poems were rejected for declassification because, according the Pentagon, the poetry “presents a special risk” due to its “content and format.” Below is one poem that made it past Pentagon censors:

Death Poem

By Jumah al-Dossari

Take my blood.
Take my death shroud and
The remnants of my body.
Take photographs of my corpse at the grave, lonely.

Send them to the world,
To the judges and
To the people of conscience,
Send them to the principled men and the fair-minded.

And let them bear the guilty burden, before the world,
Of this innocent soul.
Let them bear the burden, before their children and before history,
Of this wasted, sinless soul,
Of this soul which has suffered at the hands of the “protectors of peace.”

More here.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

The "Dungeon Above the Ground"

Posted by Michael Otterman at 9:43 PM |

Guantanamo's Camp Six (above), built by Halliburton subsidiary Kellogg Brown & Root, opened in late 2006. According to prison designer John VanNatta, the $24 million complex is oriented to “long-term incarceration” and contains 200 cells. Today, the prison houses the fourteen "high value" detainees transferred to Guantanamo from CIA black sites in October 2006, plus dozens of other inmates including Australia's David Hicks. US lawyer Sabin Willett recently visited the new complex. Willett found at Camp Six "a degree of cruelty universally condemned under all bodies of law related to incarceration. The conditions . . . constitute an immediate and urgent threat to the (prisoners') mental and physical health."

He added:

"The cell walls, ceiling and floor are solid metal. Each cell contains a bed, toilet, sink and metal mirror. No cell admits any natural light or air. There are no windows or openings in the walls, floor, or ceiling, except strips of glass approximately four inches wide by 24 inches high (10 x 60 cm) in and adjacent to the metal door. The glass gives a view of an interior corridor where MPs (military police) are stationed, and of a clock. The prisoners are constantly watched by MPs as they sleep, as they eat, as they defecate. They have great difficulty sleeping and are frequently awakened by banging or shouts of MPs. Neither inside the cell nor in rec time do the prisoners ever see another living thing, except MPs and the other five men in the pod. Except for being held by gloved MPs during transfers they never touch another living thing. They never see, smell, or touch plants, soil, the sea, or any creature except insects."

(More here, here and here. Photo: AFP)

Tuesday, January 23, 2007


Posted by Michael Otterman at 9:03 PM |

Below are two articles about paying the price for doing the right thing. Both pieces reflect the ingrained sense of loyalty inherent in military culture-- loyalty above morals, ethics, and religious conviction.

Meet Joseph Darby: Exposing The Truth Of Abu Ghraib

Meet Torin Nelson: Haunted by Abu Ghraib

Monday, January 22, 2007

Exposing the Obvious

Posted by Michael Otterman at 8:32 PM |

What have we learned about interrogation over the past 800 years? According to the Intelligence Science Board (ISB), an interdisciplinary advisory panel of the Defense Department, not very much. The ISB recently unveiled Educing Information, a 374-page survey on the current state of interrogation scholarship and its application to US policy. The report was launched amid "concerns about recent U.S. interrogation activities, subsequent investigations, and the efficacy of contemporary tactics, techniques, and procedures." The survey's chief finding: torture doesn't work.

The report cites one 13th century jurist writing at the time of the Inquisition:

Some of these cells are dark and airless, so that those lodged there cannot tell if it is day or night…. In other cells there are kept miserable wretches laden with shackles…. These cannot move, but defecate and urinate on themselves. Nor can they lie down except on the frigid ground…. And thus coerced they say that what is false is true, choosing to die once rather than to endure more torture. As a result of these false and coerced confessions not only do those making confessions perish, but so do the innocent people named by them…. [M]any of those who are newly cited to appear [before the inquisitors], hearing of the torments and trials of those who are detained…assert that what is false is true; in which assertions they accuse not only themselves but other innocent people, that they may avoid the above mentioned pains…. Those who thus confess afterward reveal to their close friends that those things that they said to the inquisitors are not true, but rather false, and they confessed out of imminent danger.

Not much has changed. "Why, in the 21st century, with all our accumulated knowledge about how human beings think and interact and function, are we still repeating costly medieval mistakes?" askes John A Wahlquist, an ISB panelist and former Deputy Director of Intelligence for US Southern Command. One problem, according to ISB member Steven M Kleinman, is that US interrogation doctrine is "adulterated by the principles of coercive interrogation drawn from studies of Communist methodologies." As a result, "evidence of the employment of coercive methods by U.S. interrogators has appeared with alarming frequency."

As noted in an earlier post and thoroughly discussed in American Torture, Soviet methods hinged on pain, disorientation and fear are successful at securing confessions, but not the truth. But why does the pro-pain myth persist? The answer, they found, is two-fold. One one hand, there is very little hard scientific evidence about what works and what doesn't work during interrogation. “We do not really know what we think we know. Overall, knowledge of behavioral indicators that might assist in the detection of deception is very limited," said Dr. Gary Hazlett, an expert on the effects of stress on the human body. Secondly, interrogators and their superiors are influenced by popular depictions of torture on shows like NYPD and 24. According to law professor Robert A. Destro: "Prime time television is not just entertainment. It is 'adult education.' We should not be surprised when the public (and many otherwise law-abiding lawyers) applaud when an actor threatens the 'hostile du jour' with pain or mayhem unless he or she answers a few, pointed questions before the end of the episode. The writers craft the script using 'extreme' measures because they assume, as our own government has, that police-state tactics studied for defensive purposes can be 'reverse engineered' and morphed into cost-effective, 'offensive' measures. Though eminently understandable, such reactions are incredibly short-sighted and profoundly unethical."

According to Col. Steven M. Kleinman, a senior Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE) official with first-hand experience with Soviet methods, "The scientific community has never established that coercive interrogation methods are an effective means of obtaining reliable intelligence information." Another contributor, Dr. Pauletta Otis, of the US Marine Center for Advanced Operational Cultural Learning, put it bluntly: "[M]ost professionals believe that pain, coercion, and threats are counterproductive to the elicitation of good information."

The full report is available here.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Covering Torture

Posted by Michael Otterman at 7:58 PM |

Simple question: Who is driving the torture debate? I thought it would be helpful to give a brief, non-exhaustive overview of the current landscape.

The New York Times and Washington Post have dominated coverage. Last month, a NYT story on page A1 above the fold discussed the torture of an American contractor in Iraq-- by American troops. The following day, another NYT piece on page A1 exposed the failures of the Dept. of Justice (DOJ) to investigate allegations of CIA torture. (To date, the DOJ has not prosecuted one CIA officer accused of torture.) Meanwhile, at the Washington Post, Dana Priest has dominated the issue. In fact, she'll likely take home a Pulitzer this year for her work on rendition and CIA blacksites. Priest is no newcomer to the torture debate. In the mid 1990s, she blew the lid off School of the Americas torture training and the Army's Project X. Check out some of her older pieces here and here.

Newsweek, Time and the New Yorker are commendable here. During the Cold War, Newsweek peeled back the secrecy surrounding military 'torture schools'-- programs known today as SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape). Strong coverage continues today. (The mag did retract a story in 2005 about Koran desecration at Guantanamo-- a decision I believe was due more to political pressure than the facts. More here.) Time's coverage is also noteworthy. Last year they acquired an actual interrogation logbook documenting the torture of Mohammad al Qahtani-- the so-called 20th hijacker. (The document is downloadable from the Documents section of this site). Finally, there is the New Yorker. Seymour Hersh, of My Lai fame, and Jane Mayer cover torture for the mag. Hersh led the pack on Abu Ghraib while Jane Mayer was the first to uncover the sinister links between SERE schools and torture in Guantanamo, Iraq and Afghanistan.

Salon is the undisputed online leader on the torture issue. They've devoted more space to torture than any other online outlet. In fact, Salon was the first site to post the full set of Abu Ghraib photos. Of course, the torture debate rages in the blogosphere as well. Leading the way here is Andrew Sullivan. Sullivan, in his blog, the Daily Dish, closely tracks the debate and injects it with a unflinching humanity-- eloquently exposing what America has lost by turning to torture. I must also mention Balkinization. Jack Balkin, Marty Lederman, and Sandy Levinson have tag-teamed this issue from top to bottom. If you are new to their site, skip directly to the indispensable 'Anti-Torture Memo' collection of essays, commentary and quips.

Human Rights Organizations
CCR, ACLU, HRF, HRW, PHR -- get familiar with these acronyms. They are, respectively, the Center for Constitutional Rights, American Civil Liberties Union, Human Rights First, Human Rights Watch, and Physicians for Human Rights. Each organization has devoted invaluable amounts of resources to the torture issue. For example, last month CCR filed war crimes charges against Donald Rumsfeld and other top administration officials (plus DOJ lawyers) in a German court. (Check out their website for more info.) Also worth noting here is the ACLU's searchable library of torture-related documents. The site contains over 10,000 files declassified by the government after a 2003 Freedom of Information Act request.

This list can go on and on-- but I think I've covered the most important sources. Where do you turn for reliable coverage of the torture debate? Let me know in the comments section below.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

American Torture?

Posted by Michael Otterman at 7:53 PM |

So what is 'American Torture'? Ok, it's a book to be released next year by Melbourne University Publishing and Pluto Press about the US government's use of torture from 1945 onward. But is there such a thing as American torture?-- namely, a style of interrogation amounting to torture that is uniquely American? The answer is yes.*

*-- why the asterisk? Let me explain, starting at the beginning. Today, the Pentagon and CIA use a range of techniques that can only be described as torture. Here are two examples of torture inflicted by the US government on US nationals.

1> Donald Vance, a private American contractor, was held for three months at Camp Cropper. (I wont delve into the kafka-esque grounds for his detention here, which in itself could/will likely be the subject of an entire book or film). This contractor was tortured. According to the New York Times:

'The fluorescent lights in his cell were never turned off, he said. At most hours, heavy metal or country music blared in the corridor. He said he was rousted at random times without explanation and made to stand in his cell. Even lying down, he said, he was kept from covering his face to block out the light, noise and cold. And when he was released after 97 days he was exhausted, depressed and scared. [...] “It’s really hard,” he says [about his treatment at Cropper]. “I don’t really talk about this stuff with my family. I feel ashamed, depressed, still have nightmares, and I’d even say I suffer from some paranoia."' (link)

2> Jose Padilla is a US citizen arrested in May 2002 then declared an enemy combatant. After his arrest, then US Attorney General John Ashcroft claimed Padilla planned to detonate a radioactive 'dirty bomb'-- a charge that has been quietly retracted by the government. NPR reported:

"According to court papers filed by Padilla's lawyers, for the first two years of his confinement, Padilla was held in total isolation. He heard no voice except his interrogator's. His 9-by-7 foot cell had nothing in it: no window even to the corridor, no clock or watch to orient him in time. Padilla's meals were delivered through a slot in the door. He was either in bright light for days on end or in total darkness. He had no mattress or pillow on his steel pallet; loud noises interrupted his attempts to sleep. Sometimes it was very cold, sometimes hot. He had nothing to read or to look at. Even a mirror was taken away. When he was transported, he was blindfolded and his ears were covered with headphones to screen out all sound. In short, Padilla experienced total sensory deprivation. During length interrogations, his lawyers allege, Padilla was forced to sit or stand for long periods in stress positions. They say he was hooded and threatened with death. The isolation was so extreme that, according to court papers, even military personnel at the prison expressed great concern about Padilla's mental status." (link)

At the very least, both Padilla and Vance endured sleep deprivation, sound bombardment, forced standing, cold temperatures and extreme sensory deprivation. Result: Lasting depression, humiliation, nightmares, paranoia.

Torture? Yes. Torture has many definitions-- including:

'the infliction of intense pain to body or mind to extract a confession or
information, or for sadistic pleasure’. US Army Field Manual, Intelligence Interrogation 1992

'any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession...' UN Convention Against Torture

'the intentional infliction of severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, upon a person in the custody or under the control of the accused; except that torture shall not include pain or suffering arising only from, inherent in or incidental to, lawful sanctions...' Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court

The common thread between these definitions-- plus all standard definitions of the term-- is the notion of intentional infliction of severe or intense mental and/or physical pain. The techniques listed above achieved just that. Each delivered severe mental-physical pain resulting in serious physiological complications. (disagree?-- I will revisit this issue in later posts. I will say for now though that the US State Dept and UN classify this treatment as torture).

Today, these are the standard techniques used in American detention centers around the globe. The same techniques have been described/pictured at Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, CIA black sites in Thailand, Eastern Europe, and Northern Africa. These are American techniques, American tortures.

So, still, why the asterisk? Well, while these methods are used by Americans-- upon fellow Americans and non US citizens-- they were not invented by American interrogators. As my book points out, these were the techniques used by Soviets and Chinese Communists to secure confessions for propaganda purposes. Here's an example from the book.

In 1948, Joseph E. Evans, the Wall Street Journal’s Berlin correspondent, discussed the use of these tortures in Bulgaria:

'[A technique] for securing information or cooperation is to stand a man in water up to his waist and leave him there for twenty-four or more hours. More subtle psychological tortures include simulating terrifying sounds outside an already exhausted man’s cell in the middle of the night, and the endless interrogations themselves—calling the victim in from his cell at any hour of the day or night, repeatedly, day after day, never allowing him to get enough sleep to think clearly or finally, to care. It is this sort of thing which reduces human beings to dithering idiots, which produces those amazing confessions …'

Studies found that these methods were developed by Soviet secret police starting from the reign of Ivan the Terrible. Today, forced standing, isolation, and humiliation, are American tortures used across the globe in US detention facilities. Fifty years ago, they were Soviet tortures. We've adopted them, and sharpened them, but they are not of our own creation.

Monday, January 15, 2007

welcome welcome welcome

Posted by Michael Otterman at 11:29 PM |

Welcome to AmericanTorture.com, the offical blog and website of author Michael Otterman (me!). American Torture takes its name from my book of the same title, which will be released in March 2007 in Australia with Melbourne University Publishing and in April 2007 in the US and UK with Pluto Books. The book traces the past 60 years of America's use of torture at home and abroad, culminating in the domestic legalization of torture in October 2006 with passage of the Military Commissions Act.

This blog will provide a venue for discussions about America's use of torture and feature updates about the fate of the over 10,000 'enemy combatants' and 'security detainees' held across the globe in secret CIA prisons and in places like Guantanamo Bay, Cuba and Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan. The blog is not strictly limited to the torture debate-- it will also serve as a place for experts and non-experts alike to post thoughts and reactions to related issues occuring in the United States and elsewhere. In addition to this blog, AmericanTorture.com features a host of declassified documents that chart America's involvement in torture from the early cold war onward. Click on the Documents button above to check out the collection.

I am currently in Sydney, Australia, where I am a Visiting Scholar at the University of Sydney's Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies. I will be touring the US from mid-April through mid-May, the UK in late May, then will be back in Australia from early June. I plan to keep the content fresh on this site, to the best of my abilities, over the course of the coming months. I do need help though! If you would like to be a featured blogger, feel free to email me at americantorture@gmail.com and I'll be happy to talk it over. Otherwise, please post comments/reactions in the comments section below the postings. Hope to hear from you!