Book Review: The United States and Torture

Reviewed: The United States and Torture: Interrogation, Incarceration and Abuse, Edited by Marjorie Cohn, New York University Press, 2011.

The United States and Torture: Interrogation, Incarceration and Abuse (New York University Press, 2011) is a treatise which, through detailed essays, recollections, evidence and testimonies, explores the subject of torture through three main sections – the history of US torture, the torture of prisoners in custody, and accountability for torture.

Washington’s role in torture has long been established through its support of military and right wing dictatorships in Latin America. As narrated in the preface by Sister Dianna Ortiz, abducted and tortured in Guatemala in 1984 for aiding the poor, the perpetrators of torture were sanctioned and sheltered by the US government. Years after her release, Ortiz’s efforts to pursue justice were met with denial from the government due to its mission to protect torturers from prosecution. Ortiz had been warned not to divulge any names; government officials from Guatemala and the US had denounced the torture as a fabrication aimed at preventing the US from giving Guatemala military aid.

The pattern of torture, denial and injustice in Latin America was applied to similar scenarios in other countries, such as the US’s support of Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi in Iran, whose secret police, the Savak, trained by the CIA, were responsible for thousands of dissidents’ deaths.

The discourse on torture was propelled to prominence in the aftermath of 9/11. President George W. Bush’s aim to split recollection of torture into pre- and post 9/11 attempted to justify contemporary torture while detaching the US’s historical involvement in torture. With Bush’s War on Terror targeting Afghanistan and Iraq, torture became a flaunted conspiracy, with rhetoric from government officials standing in stark contrast to the evidence produced from inspections in the countries.

The invasion of Afghanistan under the pretext of hunting down Osama bin Laden and his allies resulted in extensive and extreme torture. Marjorie Kohn discusses the disregard for human rights in the context of a documentary produced in 2002, entitled Afghan Massacre. Three thousand Taliban prisoners of war were rounded up and transported to interrogation buildings in cramped and unventilated conditions. Air was provided, according to the testimony of an Afghan soldier, by shooting at the containers holding the people, resulting in many deaths. Their corpses were thrown into the desert and devoured by dogs – a spectacle which was watched by around 30 American soldiers. The practice of summary execution was later admitted by Bush in 2003, “All told, more that 3,000 suspected terrorists have been arrested in many countries … Let’s put it this way – they are no longer a problem to the United States and our friends and allies.”

Extraordinary rendition, enhanced interrogation techniques and the Combatant Status Review Tribunal were put into use by the Bush Administration in their handling of terror suspects. Interrogation techniques, some practices drawn from the Cold War era and others as a result of studying psychological manipulation, were drafted into memos, paying extreme attention to avoid implicating the president in criminal liability under the US War Crimes Act. The American Psychological Association allowed its members to take part in detainee interrogations. In his essay Stephen Stolz notes that the APA “encouraged, indeed asserted without evidence, the necessity of having psychologists aid the interrogations.” John Leso, a member of the Behavioral Science Consultation Teams (BSCT) was present during torture which involved 80 hours of continuous interrogation and eventual hospitalization for induced hypothermia. Despite not having reported against the witnessed abuses, Leso remained on good terms with the APA.

Most of the evidence extracted forcibly from detainees was false, garnered after driving the detainee to mental defeat through enhanced interrogation techniques, including waterboarding. Having signed a memo stating that the Geneva Conventions didn’t apply to Al Qaeda and the Taliban, Bush approved the use of waterboarding, (authorized by Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rice, Ashcroft and Powell), on Khaled Sheikh Mohammed, accused of being the mastermind behind 9/11. Jane Myer reiterates that the waterboarding torture of detainee Ibn Sheikh al Libi resulted in erroneous information which was used to bolster Bush’s Operation Iraqi Freedom. Attempts by detainees to protest against the inhumane treatment are smothered quickly; hunger strikes are met with force feeding, in which the detainee has a tube inserted through the nostrils into the stomach without being given any sedative or anaesthetic , despite force feeding having been classified as torture by the United Nations.

Lance Tapley’s discussion of torture focuses on the systematic abuses in the US super maximum security prisons. A brief statistical introduction portrays the high percentage of non-white inmates – two thirds are black or Hispanic. Interrogation techniques are conducted on a parallel with overseas torture methods applied by the US. Indeed, in the introduction Cohn mentions John Armstrong as having headed the Connecticut Department of Corrections until 2003, when he was dispatched to Iraq in the role of prison adviser. The brutal method of cell extraction, in which guards mace, beat and sexually humiliate the prisoner leaves little avenue for prisoners to challenge these abuses due to restrictions on inmates lawsuits as decreed by the 1996 Prison Litigation Act. Deteriorating mental health is punished instead of treated and, despite these prisons claiming to house violent and dangerous prisoners, there have been cases where an accusation of contraband or disobeying a guard’s orders were sufficient reason for being jailed in super maximum security prisons.

A befitting conclusion to the book by Jordan Paust expounds upon the criminal liability of Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld. Their violation of the US constitution prohibiting torture and prosecution was swiftly acted upon by President Obama after the release of the Bradbury memos. Obama’s statement implied that the CIA taking action on ‘improper advice’ would not be prosecuted, thus creating measures of impunity. Obama’s electoral promise of change seems to have therefore withdrawn into the labyrinth of injustice created by his predecessors.

Ramona Wadi is a freelance writer living in Malta. Visit her blog here.