Allison Kilkenny: Unreported

The Green Light

Posted in Bush, torture by allisonkilkenny on April 2, 2008

By: Phillippe Sands at Vanity Fair
Spread by: Chris Mueller

As the first anniversary of 9/11 approached, and a prized Guantánamo detainee wouldn’t talk, the Bush administration’s highest-ranking lawyers argued for extreme interrogation techniques, circumventing international law, the Geneva Conventions, and the army’s own Field Manual. The attorneys would even fly to Guantánamo to ratchet up the pressure—then blame abuses on the military. Philippe Sands follows the torture trail, and holds out the possibility of war-crimes charges.


The abuse, rising to the level of torture, of those captured and detained in the war on terror is a defining feature of the presidency of George W. Bush. Its military beginnings, however, lie not in Abu Ghraib, as is commonly thought, or in the “rendition” of prisoners to other countries for questioning, but in the treatment of the very first prisoners at Guantánamo. Starting in late 2002 a detainee bearing the number 063 was tortured over a period of more than seven weeks. In his story lies the answer to a crucial question: How was the decision made to let the U.S. military start using coercive interrogations at Guantánamo?

The Bush administration has always taken refuge behind a “trickle up” explanation: that is, the decision was generated by military commanders and interrogators on the ground. This explanation is false. The origins lie in actions taken at the very highest levels of the administration—by some of the most senior personal advisers to the president, the vice president, and the secretary of defense. At the heart of the matter stand several political appointees—lawyers—who, it can be argued, broke their ethical codes of conduct and took themselves into a zone of international criminality, where formal investigation is now a very real option. This is the story of how the torture at Guantánamo began, and how it spread.

“Crying. Angry. Yelled for Allah.”

One day last summer I sat in a garden in London with Dr. Abigail Seltzer, a psychiatrist who specializes in trauma victims. She divides her time between Great Britain’s National Health Service, where she works extensively with asylum seekers and other refugees, and the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture. It was uncharacteristically warm, and we took refuge in the shade of some birches. On a table before us were three documents. The first was a November 2002 “action memo” written by William J. (Jim) Haynes II, the general counsel of the U.S. Department of Defense, to his boss, Donald Rumsfeld; the document is sometimes referred to as the Haynes Memo. Haynes recommended that Rumsfeld give “blanket approval” to 15 out of 18 proposed techniques of aggressive interrogation. Rumsfeld duly did so, on December 2, 2002, signing his name firmly next to the word “Approved.” Under his signature he also scrawled a few words that refer to the length of time a detainee can be forced to stand during interrogation: “I stand for 8–10 hours a day. Why is standing limited to 4 hours?”

The second document on the table listed the 18 proposed techniques of interrogation, all of which went against long-standing U.S. military practice as presented in the Army Field Manual. The 15 approved techniques included certain forms of physical contact and also techniques intended to humiliate and to impose sensory deprivation. They permitted the use of stress positions, isolation, hooding, 20-hour interrogations, and nudity. Haynes and Rumsfeld explicitly did not rule out the future use of three other techniques, one of which was waterboarding, the application of a wet towel and water to induce the perception of drowning.

The third document was an internal log that detailed the interrogation at Guantánamo of a man identified only as Detainee 063, whom we now know to be Mohammed al-Qahtani, allegedly a member of the 9/11 conspiracy and the so-called 20th hijacker. According to this log, the interrogation commenced on November 23, 2002, and continued until well into January. The techniques described by the log as having been used in the interrogation of Detainee 063 include all 15 approved by Rumsfeld.

“Was the detainee abused? Was he tortured?,” I asked Seltzer. Cruelty, humiliation, and the use of torture on detainees have long been prohibited by international law, including the Geneva Conventions and their Common Article 3. This total ban was reinforced in 1984 with the adoption of the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, which criminalizes torture and complicity in torture.

A careful and fastidious practitioner, Seltzer declined to give a straight yes or no answer. In her view the definition of torture is essentially a legal matter, which will turn on a particular set of facts. She explained that there is no such thing as a medical definition of torture, and that a doctor must look for pathology, the abnormal functioning of the body or the mind. We reviewed the definition of torture, as set out in the 1984 Convention, which is binding on 145 countries, including the United States. Torture includes “any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person.”

Seltzer had gone through the interrogation log, making notations. She used four different colors to highlight moments that struck her as noteworthy, and the grim document now looked bizarrely festive. Yellow indicated episodes of abusive treatment. Pink showed where the detainee’s rights were respected—where he was fed or given a break, or allowed to sleep. Green indicated the many instances of medical involvement, where al-Qahtani was given an enema or was hospitalized suffering from hypothermia. Finally, blue identified what Seltzer termed “expressions of distress.”

We talked about the methods of interrogation. “In terms of their effects,” she said, “I suspect that the individual techniques are less important than the fact that they were used over an extended period of time, and that several appear to be used together: in other words, the cumulative effect.” Detainee 063 was subjected to systematic sleep deprivation. He was shackled and cuffed; at times, head restraints were used. He was compelled to listen to threats to his family. The interrogation leveraged his sensitivities as a Muslim: he was shown pictures of scantily clad models, was touched by a female interrogator, was made to stand naked, and was forcibly shaved. He was denied the right to pray. A psychiatrist who witnessed the interrogation of Detainee 063 reported the use of dogs, intended to intimidate “by getting the dogs close to him and then having the dogs bark or act aggressively on command.” The temperature was changed, and 063 was subjected to extreme cold. Intravenous tubes were forced into his body, to provide nourishment when he would not eat or drink.

We went through the marked-up document slowly, pausing at each blue mark. Detainee 063’s reactions were recorded with regularity. I’ll string some of them together to convey the impression:

Detainee began to cry. Visibly shaken. Very emotional. Detainee cried. Disturbed. Detainee began to cry. Detainee bit the IV tube completely in two. Started moaning. Uncomfortable. Moaning. Began crying hard spontaneously. Crying and praying. Very agitated. Yelled. Agitated and violent. Detainee spat. Detainee proclaimed his innocence. Whining. Dizzy. Forgetting things. Angry. Upset. Yelled for Allah.

The blue highlights went on and on.

Urinated on himself. Began to cry. Asked God for forgiveness. Cried. Cried. Became violent. Began to cry. Broke down and cried. Began to pray and openly cried. Cried out to Allah several times. Trembled uncontrollably.

Was Detainee 063 subjected to severe mental pain or suffering? Torture is not a medical concept, Seltzer reminded me. “That said,” she went on, “over the period of 54 days there is enough evidence of distress to indicate that it would be very surprising indeed if it had not reached the threshold of severe mental pain.” She thought about the matter a little more and then presented it a different way: “If you put 12 clinicians in a room and asked them about this interrogation log, you might get different views about the effect and long-term consequences of these interrogation techniques. But I doubt that any one of them would claim that this individual had not suffered severe mental distress at the time of his interrogation, and possibly also severe physical distress.”

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