Saturday, May 23, 2009

There is more to torture than waterboarding

It now goes without saying that Cheney told quite a few lies recently. What he said in and of itself was quite ugly. The truth is far uglier, and bears repeating over, and over, and over again. Contra Cheney, the people rounded up and then shipped to Guantánamo Bay were very often folks who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Many were sold to US officials or turned over to US officials to settle personal or political scores. They are at this point little more than chattel as far as the US government is concerned. Given the underwhelming response by the American public, perhaps a case can be made that these human beings are little more than chattel in the eyes of most Americans. Nor is there any indication that a recent change of regimes in the US has changed anything really. Chattel the prisoners of Gitmo remain.

It also should now go without saying that contra Cheney, torture (which by the way should not be reserved for anyone under any circumstances) was (and is) not merely "reserved" for those deemed have the "highest intelligence value", but rather can be used on anyone caught up in the US gulag. Furthermore, even those who only treat torture from a more Machiavellian perspective will end up acknowledging that information is better obtained through other means (for the intellectually and morally dense, that is means not involving torture).

Then there are the techniques themselves. Much gets made about waterboarding, which is a horrible technique that itself has a long sordid history (Pol Pot's regime used it during his reign of terror in Cambodia during the mid to late 1970s, and the technique dates back at least to the days of the Inquisition). Alex Gibney goes into the even uglier side of torture somewhat in Killing Wussification:

There has been a lot of arcane talk about the memos produced by the Office of Legal Counsel about specific "no-touch" torture techniques which, out-of-context, can sound harmless, if a bit weird. (In one of Office of Legal Counsel memos written by Steven Bradbury, he notes that, while it's OK to strip a detainee naked and make him wear a diaper, one must be careful not to chafe the skin with the Velcro straps when taking them on and off.)

What has been mostly missing from the recent debate about detainee abuse is that over 100 detainees died in custody during the war on terror. Nearly half of those deaths have been classified as homicides. For all sorts of reasons, it's worth looking at one case in particular. It's the story of Dilawar, a 22-year old taxi driver whose murder was at the center of my film, "Taxi to the Dark Side."

Dilawar lived in Yakubi, a small peanut-farming village in Afghanistan, not far from the Pakistan border. Shy and a bit of a dreamer, Dilawar drove a taxi to support his wife and young daughter because he wasn't really cut out for the hard work of farming. On December 1, 2002, he was carrying three paid fares home from the provincial capital of Khost when he and his passengers were stopped and arrested by Afghan militia. Accused of launching a rocket attack on Camp Salerno, a nearby US base, Dilawar and his passengers were turned over to American forces.

On December 5, Dilawar was flown to Bagram, the headquarters for US forces in Afghanistan and a key detention and interrogation center, where he was designated a PUC - person under control - number 421. Five days later, he was dead.

Only a week before, another detainee named Habibullah had died. The medical examiner noted that he had a pre-existing pulmonary condition. But it was the beatings he sustained at Bagram that led to the cause of his death: a blood clot that traveled to his lungs. As one member of the 519th Military Intelligence Battalion recalled, "two prisoners dying within a week of each other. That's bad."

Indeed it was.


Further investigation revealed that Dilawar's cause of death was remarkably similar to that of Habibullah. He died of a pulmonary embolism caused by trauma to his legs that was so severe that the coroner said his legs were "pulpified," and looked like they had been run over by a truck. Had he lived, the coroner later testified, Dilawar's legs would have had to have been amputated.


What could have caused such trauma? A criminal investigation revealed that the Military Police at Bagram had pummeled Dilawar's legs with peroneal strikes, an "approved" control measure that the MPs had learned one day in their guard training. It involved slamming their knees into the nerve endings on Dilawar's thighs. "It drops 'em pretty good," said one MP.

At first, soldiers told me, they used strikes to control the 122-pound Dilawar because he would often try to take off his hood, perhaps because he suffered from severe asthma. Later, as Dilawar continued to moan and cry out for his mother and father - which MPs, who couldn't understand him, may have mistaken for the signs of a troublemaker - the guards would pummel him with knee strikes over and over again, just to shut him up, or sometimes, for their amusement, just to hear him scream "allah."


Dilawar and Habibullah died, in part, because they were hooded and shackled to the wire mesh ceiling of their holding cells for hours at a time so that the blood flowed to their legs, turning peroneal strikes into death blows. But the illegal practice of overhead shackling was not the work of bad apples. It was routine at Bagram. It was policy.

For reasons no one can explain, and without written orders that anyone can or is willing to produce, a program of sleep deprivation was instituted at Bagram whereby MPs would shackle detainees to the ceiling of holding cells so that if they tried to fall asleep they would be awakened by the tugging of the handcuffs on their bloody wrists. There was nothing secret about this. There was a regular "sleep dep" schedule posted on a white board in the prison that was visible to the many high-ranking officers and Bush Administration officials who toured the prison. (It was only erased and the prisoners unshackled when the Red Cross visited Bagram.) The office of Lt. Gen. Dan K. McNeill, then commander of US forces in Afghanistan, was a stone's throw away from the prison.

Off-limits to journalists, the Bagram prison was a showplace for many touring dignitaries and high-ranking military officers. As Damien Corsetti, a member of the 519th MI unit told me, "Mr. Rumsfeld's office called our office frequently. Very high commanders would want to be kept up to date on a daily basis on certain prisoners there. The brass knew. They saw them shackled, they saw them hooded and they said right on. You all are doing a great job."

There were other "techniques" in regular use at Bagram: the use of snarling dogs, deafening music, forced nudity, and, according a number of soldiers, a kind of low-rent, homemade waterboarding set-up: wetting down a hood, putting it on a detainee's head and then heating it up to let the steam to suffocate the detainee.

It should be noted that none of these techniques were interrogation techniques per se. But they were all in the service of softening up detainees for interrogation. Other techniques - such as stress positions, like "the invisible chair," in which the detainee is made to sit as if there were a chair under him - were used in interrogations. In Dilawar's case, however, the beatings to his legs made him unable to sit on "the invisible chair," during one of his last interrogations. Thinking Dilawar was mocking him when he slid down the wall and fell on the floor - he couldn't see the deep bruises under his orange jump suit - his interrogator punished him some more.

Here's the kicker - about three days into Dilawar's ordeal, his interrogators had determined that he was just an innocent person who had been inadvertently imprisoned in Bagram. So what did they do? They kept torturing him to death. To our pro-torture crowd, he was probably an "Islamist" any way, so what's the harm? Note that in a different era, it would have been "he's just a gook" or "just a darkie" or something to that effect. If you get the impression that I'm implying that there is some underlying racism at work here, then you would be correct.

Another story over at True/Slant offers up yet one more harrowing account of life in the US gulag (h/t The Newshoggers) - this time the sort of torture experienced by a teen detained at Gitmo:
The government accuses Khadr of killing a U.S. soldier with a grenade during the battle, but in 2008 the Pentagon accidentally revealed that it had no evidence of this; it had evidence only that Khadr was present at the time. Khadr was far too young to have any useful knowledge of al Qaeda activities. Still...he was treated as a dangerous, savvy enemy combatant.

A few months after Omar Khadr arrived at Guantanamo, he was awakened by a guard around midnight. “Get up,” the guard said. “You have a reservation.” Reservation was the commonly used term at Gitmo for torture session.

...the MPs uncuffed Omar’s arms, pulled them behind his back, and recuffed them to his legs, straining them badly at their sockets. At the junction of his arms and legs he was again bolted to the floor and left alone. The degree of pain a human body experiences in this from of “stress positioning” can quickly lead to delirium, and ultimately to unconsciousness. Before that happened, the MPs returned, forced Omar onto his knees, and cuffed his wrists and ankles together behind his back. This made his body into a kind of bow, his torso convex and rigid, right at the limit of its flexibility. The force of his cuffed wrists straining upward against his cuffed ankles drove his kneecaps into the concrete floor. The guards left.

An hour or two later they came back, checked the tautness of the chains between his hands and feet, and pushed him over onto his stomach. Transfixed in his bonds, Omar toppled like a figurine. Again they left. Many hours had passed since Omar had been taken from his cell. He urinated on himself and onto the floor. The MPs returned, mocked him for a while, and then poured pine oil solvent all over his body. Without altering his chains, they began dragging him by his feet through the mixture of urine and pine oil. Because his body had been so tightened, the new motion racked it. The MPs swung him around and around, the piss and solvent washing up into his face. The idea was to use him as a human mop. When the MPs felt they had sucessfully pretended to soak up the liquid with his body, they uncuffed him and carried him back to his cell. He was not allowed a change of clothes for two days.
Waterboarding perhaps makes for some conveniently "entertaining" fodder on what passes for news programs these days. As Jay McDonough notes, swimming metaphors are relatively easy to understand. Euphemisms for that require minimal intelligence or creativity. Euphemisms for using someone as a human mop or to explain the slicing of a torture victims genitals with scalpels, or to explain what happened to Dilawar on the other hand would be a tad more difficult. And then, even if one can get the American public to actually face what is being done - whether it's directly in Bagram and Gitmo or in those prisons where other torture victims are renditioned - can one drill through centuries of Eurocentric imperialist racism to get the viewers, readers, or listeners to recognize that the victims are real, living breathing human beings? That last bit may be (and I understate this considerably I admit) the most difficult.

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