Torture By Any Other Name


Approved CIA methods of interrogation have been termed by the White House and Right-wing media as ‘torture lite,’ an ‘alternative set of methods,’ ‘tough’ techniques, or ‘counter-resistance’ methods.

According to the conservative editors of the Wall Street Journal, acts permitted by the Military Commissions Act (MCA) like hypothermia, waterboarding and sleep deprivation are not ‘torture or even abuse, as some Administration critics dishonestly charge.

Instead, they merely ‘make life uncomfortable for alQaeda prisoners.’

Euphemisms do not erase the fact that these methods constitute torture under internationally recognised definitions of the term. The original UN definition of torture from the Convention Against Torture (CAT) uncorrupted by the United States’s various understandings states that torture is:

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.

The range of techniques still used today in SERE schools (Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape) and by the CIA clearly fall under this definition.

According to the UN Committee Against Torture, stress positions, hooding and hypothermia ‘constitute torture as defined in Article 1.’ This is a view shared by the US State Department.

Each year, the State Department’s Country Reports on Human Rights have taken other countries to task for using these techniques. According to the 2005 report, rendition partners like Jordan, Syria and Egypt, in addition to extreme physical tortures like burning, pulling out fingernails, and beating, also use ‘methods of torture’ that include ‘sleep deprivation,’ ‘extended solitary confinement,’ and ‘dousing victims with cold water.’

These techniques have been rightly called torture for decades. For example, in their 1956 report for the CIA, Lawrence Hinkle and Harold Wolff aptly noted that:

The effects of isolation, anxiety, fatigue, lack of sleep, uncomfortable temperatures, and chronic hunger produce disturbances of mood, attitudes, and behaviour in nearly all prisoners. The living organism cannot entirely withstand such assaults. The Communists do not look upon these assaults as ‘torture.’

Undoubtedly, they use the methods which they do in order to conform, in a typical legalistic manner, to overt Communist principles which demand that ‘no force or torture be used in extracting information from prisoners.’ But these methods do, of course, constitute torture and physical coercion. All of them lead to serious disturbances of many bodily processes.

Nearly 60 years ago, the Wall Street Journal took a similar view though, of course, back then they weren’t talking about the United States using these techniques.

In 1948, describing methods used by Communists in Bulgaria, the Journal noted that ‘a favourite militia torture is to stand a person on his tiptoes, arms outstretched, his fingertips touching the wall.’ Bulgarian police also used:

Psychological tortures including 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.

According to the newspaper, these were ‘confessions by torture.’

SERE techniques profoundly disrupt the body and mind. The ‘harsh’ methods used by the CIA and no longer authorised for the US military constitute torture because they inflict severe mental and physical pain.

At Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, the Red Cross found that detainees had ‘concentration difficulties, memory problems, verbal expression difficulties, incoherent speech, acute anxiety reactions, abnormal behaviour and suicidal tendencies’ due to ‘methods and duration of interrogation.’

At Guantánamo Bay in Cuba, the FBI noted that Mohammad al-Qahtani was ‘talking to non-existent people, reporting hearing voices, crouching in a corner of the cell covered with a sheet for hours on end’ after suffering through months of SERE torture.

Sleep deprivation and forced standing used both in Stalin’s prisons and CIA ‘black sites‘ today inflict enormous damage. As Hinkle and Wolff reported, hours of forced standing produce ankles and feet that ‘swell to twice their normal circumference’ and eventually produce a ‘delirious state, characterised by disorientation, fear, delusions and visual hallucinations.’ Although it sounds innocuous, sleep deprivation is described as one of the cruellest forms of torture.

József Cardinal Mindszenty the stimulus for America’s early fascination with mind control was released from prison in December 1956 and was allowed to take up residence in the US Embassy in Budapest to serve out his sentence. Mindszenty later told reporters that he was kept awake for 29 nights to force his confession. He called it ‘unspeakable brutality.’

Associated Press reporter William Oatis and American businessman Robert Vogeler also admitted to imagined crimes after days without sleep. One of the best descriptions of the effects of this torture comes not from these men, but from former Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin. In the 1930s, Begin was also imprisoned by the Soviets and kept awake for days. According to Begin:

In the head of the interrogated prisoner a haze begins to form. His spirit is wearied to death, his legs are unsteady, and he has one sole desire: to sleep, to sleep just a little, not to get up, to lie, to rest, to forget Anyone who has experienced this desire knows that not even hunger or thirst are comparable with it I came across prisoners who signed what they were ordered to sign, only to get what the interrogator promised them. He did not promise them their liberty. He promised them if they signed uninterrupted sleep!

The fact that these tortures do not leave permanent marks can be deceptive. According to Physicians for Human Rights:

The lack of physical signs can make psychological torture seem less significant than physical torture, but the consensus among those who study torture and rehabilitate its victims is that psychological torture can be more painful and cause more severe and long-lasting damage even than the pain inflicted during physical torture.

According to Peter Kooijmans, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture from 1985 to 1993:

Often a distinction is made between physical and mental torture. This distinction however, seems to have more relevance for the means by which torture is practised than for its character. Almost invariably the effect of torture, by whatever means it may have been practised, is physical and psychological.

Even when the most brutal physical means are used, the long-term effects may be mainly psychological; even when the most refined psychological means are resorted to, there is nearly always the accompanying effect of severe physical pain.

Waterboarding, a form of mock execution, cruelly fuses both the mental and physical. In October 2006, Vice President Dick Cheney confirmed that waterboarding is one of the CIA’s ‘alternative techniques.’ Using it on suspected terrorists, he said, is a ‘no-brainer.’ According to a former SERE instructor:

Waterboarding is a torture. Period I ran a waterboard team at SERE and administered dozens of students through the process as a tool to show what the worst looks like, short of death. This is why there is a doctor and a psychologist standing right next to the student to do it safe and to help the student recover it is not a simulation, when applied you are, in fact, drowning at a controlled rate we just determine how much and how long you’ll break. Everyone breaks.

Although the pain of choking and sheer terror is brief, this torture leaves lasting effects. Dr Allen Keller, the Director of the Program for Survivors of Torture in New York, told the New Yorker that some victims he treated after they were waterboarded remained ‘traumatised for years.’ One patient, he said, ‘couldn’t take showers, and panicked when it rained.’

As of November 2006, Australia’s David Hicks is still detained at Guantánamo Bay. In July 2006, his civilian lawyer, David McLeod, said Hicks was ‘very, very depressed.’ McLeod added:

He has to lie on the floor, the air conditioning is kept on full, he has very few clothes, and he shivers All his letters and cards have been taken away from him and he’s not receiving any. He has no contact at all with the outside world.

Moazzam Begg, a former detainee who spoke with Hicks, recounted his poor mental state:

One of the things he said to me is, ‘Please, when you get out from here, please tell people that my sanity is at risk here.’ He used to tell me quite often that he felt like just banging his head so hard against the walls that he just ends up killing himself.

Mamdouh Habib told me that ‘there’s no way you’re gonna come out of Camp Five normal.’ Habib has sought treatment to deal with the psychological after-effects of the torture he endured. After several meetings with Habib, I was convinced that he still had a long way to go. While he looked down at his scarred right hand, he told me something I cannot soon forget.

‘I am here,’ he said, ‘but I am still not free.’

This is an extract from American Torture: From the Cold War to Abu Ghraib and Beyond by Michael Otterman (MUP), available now.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.