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The Logic of Torture

When the soldiers approached them they were standing by their car, a blue Opel. Salem Uraiby [who had worked for Reuters as a cameraman for twelve years] shouted “Reuters, Reuters, journalist, journalist.” At least one shot was fired into the ground close to them.

They were thrown to the ground and soldiers placed guns to their heads. Their car was searched. Soldiers found their camera equipment and press badges and discovered no weapons of any kind. Their hands were cuffed behind their backs and they were thrown roughly into a Humvee where they lay on the floor… .

Once they arrived at the US base (this was [forward operating base] Volturno near Fallujah) they were kept in a holding area with around 40 other prisoners in a large room with several open windows. It was bitterly cold… .

Bags were alternately placed on their heads and taken off again. Deafening music was played on loudspeakers directly into their ears and they were told to dance around the room. Sometimes when they were doing this, soldiers would shine very bright [flashlights] directly into their eyes and hit them with the [flashlights]. They were told to lie on the floor and wiggle their backsides in the air to the music. They were told to do repeated press ups and to repeatedly stand up from a crouching position and then return to the crouching position.

Soldiers would move between them, whispering things in their ear… . Salem says they whispered that they wanted to have sex with him and were saying “come on, just for two minutes.” They also said he should bring his wife so they could have sex with her… .

Soldiers would whisper in their ears “One, two, three …” and then shout something loudly right beside their ear. All of this went on all night… . Ahmad said he collapsed by morning. Sattar said he collapsed after Ahmad and began vomiting… .

When they were taken individually for interrogation, they were interrogated by two American soldiers and an Arab interpreter. All three shouted abuse at them. They were accused of shooting down the helicopter. Salem, Ahmad, and Sattar all reported that for their first interrogation they were told to kneel on the floor with their feet raised off the floor and with their hands raised in the air.

If they let their feet or hands drop they were slapped and shouted at. Ahmad said he was forced to insert a finger into his anus and lick it. He was also forced to lick and chew a shoe. For some of the interrogation tissue paper was placed in his mouth and he had difficulty breathing and speaking. Sattar too said he was forced to insert a finger into his anus and lick it. He was then told to insert this finger in his nose during questioning, still kneeling with his feet off the ground and his other arm in the air. The Arab interpreter told him he looked like an elephant… .

Ahmad and Sattar both said that they were given badges with the letter “C” on it. They did not know what the badges meant but whenever they were being taken from one place to another in the base, if any soldier saw their badge they would stop to slap them or hurl abuse.9

Different soldiers, different unit, different base; and yet it is obvious that much of what might be called the “thematic content” of the abuse is very similar: the hooding, the loud noises, the “stress positions,” the sexual humiliations, the threatened assaults, and the forced violations—all seem to emerge from the same script, a script so widely known that apparently even random soldiers the Reuters staffers encountered in moving about the Volturno base knew their parts and were able to play them. All of this, including the commonly recognized “badge,” suggests a clear program that had been purposely devised and methodically distributed with the intention, in the words of General Sanchez’s October 12 memorandum, of helping American troops “manipulate an internee’s emotions and weaknesses.”


I think what happened is that you took a sophisticated concept at Gitmo, where the Geneva Convention did not apply … and you put it in the hands of people [in Iraq] who should have been driving trucks, or doing something else instead of guarding prisoners. It was a disaster waiting to happen.
—Senator Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Armed Services Committee

What “sophisticated concept” does Senator Graham have in mind? How can what seems to be random and bizarre brutality possibly be described as “sophisticated”?

Though we are limited here to what is publicly known, as Senator Graham with his security clearances is not, it is still possible to chart, in the history of “extreme interrogation” since the late Fifties, a general move toward more “scientific” and “touch-less” techniques, the lineaments of which are all too evident in the morbid accounts now coming out of Iraq. The most famous compilation of these techniques can be found in the CIA’s manual KUBARK Counterintelligence Interrogation, produced in 1963, and in particular its chapter “The Coercive Counterintelligence Interrogation of Resistant Sources,” which includes the observation that

All coercive techniques are designed to induce regression… . The result of external pressures of sufficient intensity is the loss of those defenses most recently acquired by civilized man… . “Relatively small degrees of homeostatic derangement, fatigue, pain, sleep, loss, or anxiety may impair these functions.”10

The intent of such “homeostatic derangement,” according to the CIA manual, is to induce “the debility-dependence-dread state,” causing the prisoner to experience the “emotional and motivational reactions of intense fear and anxiety.” …

The circumstances of detention are arranged to enhance within the subject his feelings of being cut off from the known and the reassuring, and of being plunged into the strange… . Control of the source’s environment permits the interrogator to determine his diet, sleep pattern and other fundamentals. Manipulating these into irregularities, so that the subject becomes disorientated, is very likely to create feelings of fear and helplessness. [emphasis added]

Thus the hooding, the sleep deprivation, the irregular and insufficient meals, and the exposure to intense heat and cold. As a later version of the manual puts it, the “questioner”

is able to manipulate the subject’s environment, to create unpleasant or intolerable situations, to disrupt patterns of time, space, and sensory perception… . Once this disruption is achieved, the subject’s resistance is seriously impaired. He experiences a kind of psychological shock, which may only last briefly, but during which he is far … likelier to comply… . Frequently the subject will experience a feeling of guilt. If the “questioner” can intensify these guilt feelings, it will increase the subject’s anxiety and his urge to cooperate as a means of escape.11 [emphasis added]

Viewed in this light, the garish scenes of humiliation pouring out in the photographs and depositions from Abu Ghraib—the men paraded naked down the cellblock with hoods on their heads, the forced masturbation, the forced homosexual activity, and all the rest—begin to be comprehensible; they are in fact staged operas of fabricated shame, intended to “intensify” the prisoner’s “guilt feelings, increase his anxiety and his urge to cooperate.” While many of the elements of abuse seen in the reports from Iraq, particularly the sensory deprivation and “stress positions,” resemble methods used by modern intelligence services, including the Israelis and the British in Northern Ireland, some of the techniques seem clearly designed to exploit the particular sensitivities of Arab culture to public embarrassment, particularly in sexual matters.

The American military, of course, is well aware of these cultural sensitivities; last fall, for example, the Marine Corps offered to its troops, along with a weeklong course on Iraq’s customs and history, a pamphlet which included these admonitions:

Do not shame or humiliate a man in public. Shaming a man will cause him and his family to be anti-Coalition.

The most important qualifier for all shame is for a third party to witness the act. If you must do something likely to cause shame, remove the person from view of others.

Shame is given by placing hoods over a detainee’s head. Avoid this practice.

Placing a detainee on the ground or putting a foot on him implies you are God. This is one of the worst things we can do.

Arabs consider the following things unclean:

Feet or soles of feet.

Using the bathroom around others. Unlike Marines, who are used to open-air toilets, Arab men will not shower/use the bathroom together.

Bodily fluids… .12

These precepts, intended to help Marines get along with the Iraqis they were occupying by avoiding doing anything, however unwittingly, that might offend them, are turned precisely on their heads by interrogators at Abu Ghraib and other American bases. Detainees are kept hooded and bound; made to crawl and grovel on the floor, often under the feet of the American soldiers; forced to put shoes in their mouths. And in all of this, as the Red Cross report noted, the public nature of the humiliation is absolutely critical; thus the parading of naked bodies, the forced masturbation in front of female soldiers, the confrontation of one naked prisoner with one or more others, the forcing together of naked prisoners in “human pyramids.” And all of this was made to take place in full view not only of foreigners, men and women, but also of that ultimate third party: the ubiquitous digital camera with its inescapable flash, there to let the detainee know that the humiliation would not stop when the act itself did but would be preserved into the future in a way that the detainee would not be able to control. Whatever those taking them intended to do with the photographs, for the prisoners the camera had the potential of exposing his humiliation to family and friends, and thus served as a “shame multiplier,” putting enormous power in the hands of the interrogator. The prisoner must please his interrogator, else his shame would be unending.

If, as the manuals suggest, the road to effective interrogation lay in “intensifying guilt feelings,” and with them “the subject’s anxiety and his urge to cooperate as a means of escape,” then the bizarre epics of abuse coming out of Abu Ghraib begin to come into focus, slowly resolving from what seems a senseless litany of sadism and brutality to a series of actions that, however abhorrent, conceal within them a certain recognizable logic. Apart from the Reuters report, we don’t know much about what went on in the interrogation rooms themselves; up to now, the professionals working within those rooms have mostly refused to talk.13 We do know, from the statements of several of the military policemen, that the interrogators gave them specific instructions: “Loosen this guy up for us. Make sure he has a bad night. Make sure he gets the treatment.” When one of these soldiers, Sergeant Javal S. Davis, was asked why he didn’t protest the abusive behavior, he answered that he “assumed that if they were doing anything out of the ordinary or outside the guidelines, someone would have said something. Also, the wing belongs to [Military Intelligence] and it appeared that MI personnel approved the abuse.” He went on, speaking about one of the other accused policemen:

The MI staffs, to my understanding, have been giving Graner compliments on the way he has been handling the MI holds [i.e., prisoners held by military intelligence]. Example being statements like “Good job, they’re breaking down real fast”; “They answer every question”; “They’re giving out good information, finally”; and “Keep up the good work”—stuff like that.14

As a lawyer for another of the accused, Staff Sergeant Ivan Fredericks, told reporters,

The story is not necessarily that there was a direct order. Everybody is far too subtle and smart for that… . Realistically, there is a description of an activity, a suggestion that it may be helpful and encouragement that this is exactly what we needed.

These statements were made by accused soldiers who have an obvious motive to shift the blame. Though few in military intelligence have spoken, and three have reportedly claimed the equivalent of Fifth Amendment protection,15 one who has talked to journalists, Sergeant Samuel Provance, confirmed Sergeant Davis’s assertion that the policemen were following orders:

Military intelligence was in control. Setting the conditions for interrogations was strictly dictated by military intelligence. They weren’t the ones carrying it out, but they were the ones telling the MPs to wake the detainees up every hour on the hour… .

Provance told the reporters that “the highest ranking officers at the prison were involved and that the Army appears to be trying to deflect attention away from the military intelligence’s role.”16

One needn’t depend on the assertions of those accused to accept that what happened in Abu Ghraib and elsewhere in Iraq was not the random brutality of “a few bad apples” (which, not surprisingly, happens to be the classic defense governments use in torture cases). One needn’t depend on the wealth of external evidence, including last fall’s visit to Abu Ghraib by Major General Geoffrey Miller, then the commander of Guantanamo (and now commander of Abu Ghraib), in which, according to the Taguba report, he “reviewed current Iraqi Theater ability to rapidly exploit internees for actionable intelligence”17 ; or Lieutenant General Sanchez’s October 12 memorandum, issued after General Miller’s visit, instructing intelligence officers to work more closely with military policemen to “manipulate an internee’s emotions and weaknesses”; or statements from Thomas M. Pappas, the colonel in charge of intelligence, that he felt “enormous pressure,” as the insurgency increased in intensity, to “extract more information from prisoners.”18 The internal evidence—the awful details of the abuse itself and the clear logical narrative they take on when set against what we know of the interrogation methods of the American military and intelligence agencies—is quite enough to show that what happened at Abu Ghraib, whatever it was, did not depend on the sadistic ingenuity of a few bad apples.

This is what we know. The real question now, as so often, is not what we know but what we are prepared to do.


Should we remain in Algeria? If you answer “yes,” then you must accept all the necessary consequences.
—Colonel Philippe Mathieu, The Battle of Algiers (1965)

When, as a young intelligence officer, the late General Paul Aussaresses arrived in war-torn Algeria a halfcentury ago and encountered his first captured insurgent, he discovered that methods of interrogation were widely known and fairly simple:

When I questioned them I started by asking what they knew and they clearly indicated that they were not about to talk… .

Then without any hesitation, the policemen showed me the technique used for “extreme” interrogations: first, a beating, which in most cases was enough; then other means, such as electric shocks … ; and finally water. Torture by electric shock was made possible by generators used to power field radio transmitters, which were extremely common in Algeria. Electrodes were attached to the prisoner’s ears or testicles, then electric charges of varying intensity were turned on. This was apparently a well-known procedure… .19

Aussaresses remarks that “almost all the French soldiers who served in Algeria knew more or less that torture was being used but didn’t question the methods because they didn’t have to face the problem directly.” When as a responsible officer he gives a full report to his commander on his methods—which are yielding, as he notes, “very detailed explanations and other names, allowing me to make further arrests”—he encounters an interesting response:

Are you sure there aren’t other ways of getting people to talk?” he asked me nervously. “I mean methods that are …”

Faster?” I asked.

No, that’s not what I mean.”

I know what you mean, Colonel. You’re thinking of cleaner ways. You feel that none of this fits in with our humanistic tradition.”

Yes, that’s what I mean,” answered the Colonel.

Even if I did agree with you, sir, to carry out the mission you’ve given me, I must avoid thinking in moral terms and only do what is most useful.”

Aussaresses’s logic is that of a practical soldier: a traditional army can defeat a determined guerrilla foe only through superior intelligence; superior intelligence can be wrested from hardened insurgents in time to make it “actionable” only through the use of “extreme interrogation”—torture; therefore, to have a chance of prevailing in Algeria the French army must torture. He has nothing but contempt for superior officers, like his colonel, who quail at the notion of “getting their hands dirty”—to say nothing of the politicians who, at the least sign of controversy over the methods he is obliged to employ, would think nothing of abandoning him as “a rotten apple.”

It has long since become clear that President Bush and his highest officials, as they confronted the world on September 11, 2001, and the days after, made a series of decisions about methods of warfare and interrogation that General Aussaresses, the practical soldier, would have well understood. The effect of those decisions—among them, the decision to imprison indefinitely those seized in Afghanistan and elsewhere in the war on terror, the decision to designate those prisoners as “unlawful combatants” and to withhold from them the protections of the Geneva Convention, and finally the decision to employ “high pressure methods” to extract “actionable intelligence” from them—was officially to transform the United States from a nation that did not torture to one that did. And the decisions were not, at least in their broad outlines, kept secret. They were known to officials of the other branches of the government, and to the public.

The direct consequences of those decisions, including details of the methods of interrogation applied in Guantanamo and at Bagram Air Base, began to emerge more than a year ago. It took the Abu Ghraib photographs, however, set against the violence and chaos of an increasingly unpopular war in Iraq, to bring Americans’ torture of prisoners up for public discussion. And just as General Aussaresses would recognize some of the methods Americans are employing in their secret interrogation rooms—notably, the practice of “water-boarding,” strapping prisoners down and submerging them until they are on the point of drowning, long a favorite not only of the French in Algeria but of the Argentines, Uruguayans, and others in Latin America20—the general would smile disdainfully at the contradictions and hypocrisies of America’s current scandal over Abu Ghraib: the senior American officers in their ribbons prevaricating before the senators, the “disgust” expressed by high officials over what the Abu Ghraib photographs reveal, and the continuing insistence that what went on in Abu Ghraib was only, as President Bush told the nation, “disgraceful conduct by a few American troops, who dishonored our country and disregarded our values.” General Aussaresses argued frankly for the necessity of torture but did not reckon on its political cost to what was, in the end, a political war. The general justified torture, as so many do, on the “ticking bomb” theory, as a means to protect lives immediately at risk; but in Algeria, as now in Iraq, torture, once sanctioned, is inevitably used much more broadly; and finally it becomes impossible to weigh what the practice gains militarily in “actionable intelligence” against what it loses politically, in an increasingly estranged population and an outraged world. Then as now, this was a political judgment, not a military one; and those who made it helped lose the generals’ war.

A half-century later, the United States is engaged in another political war: not only the struggle against the insurgency in Iraq but the broader effort, if you credit the administration’s words, to “transform the Middle East” so that “it will no longer produce ideologies of hatred that lead men to fly airplanes into buildings in New York and Washington.” We can’t know the value of the intelligence the torturers managed to extract, though top commanders admitted to The New York Times on May 27 that they learned “little about the insurgency” from the interrogations. What is clear is that the Abu Ghraib photographs and the terrible story they tell have done great damage to what was left of America’s moral power in the world, and thus its power to inspire hope rather than hatred among Muslims. The photographs “do not represent America,” or so the President asserts, and we nod our heads and agree. But what exactly does this mean? As so often, it took a comic, Rob Corddry on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, to point out the grim contradiction in this:

There’s no question what took place in that prison was horrible. But the Arab world has to realize that the US shouldn’t be judged on the actions of a … well, we shouldn’t be judged on actions. It’s our principles that matter, our inspiring, abstract notions. Remember: Just because torturing prisoners is something we did, doesn’t mean it’s something we would do.

Over the next weeks and months, Americans will decide how to confront what their fellow citizens did at Abu Ghraib, and what they go on doing at Bagram and Guantanamo and other secret prisons. By their actions they will decide whether they will begin to close the growing difference between what Americans say they are and what they actually do. Iraqis and others around the world will be watching to see whether all the torture will be stopped and whether those truly responsible for it, military and civilian, will be punished. This is, after all, as our President never tires of saying, a war of ideas. Now, as the photographs of Abu Ghraib make clear, it has also become a struggle over what, if anything, really does represent America.

May 27, 2004
(This is the second of two articles.)

  1. 9

    See Greg Mitchell, “Exclusive: Shocking Details on Abuse of Reuters Staffers in Iraq,” Editor and Publisher, May 19, 2004, which includes excerpts from the Baghdad bureau chief’s report.

  2. 10

    See KUBARK Counterintelligence Interrogation—July 1963, archived at “Prisoner Abuse: Patterns from the Past,” National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 122, p. 83; www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB122. “KUBARK” is a CIA codename.

  3. 11

    See Human Resource Exploitation Training Manual1983, National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 122, “Non-coercive Techniques”; www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB122.

  4. 12

    See “Semper Sensitive: From a Handout That Accompanies a Weeklong Course on Iraq’s Customs and History,” Marine Division School, Harper’s, June 2004, p. 26. For a discussion of shame and the American occupation of Iraq, see my “Torture and Truth.”

  5. 13

    Though we do know something of what has gone on at other American interrogation centers, for example, the American air base at Bagram, Afghanistan. See Don Van Natta Jr., “Questioning Terror Suspects in a Dark and Surreal World,” The New York Times, March 9, 2003, and my “Torture and Truth.”

  6. 14

    See Scott Higham and Joe Stephens, “Punishment and Amusement,” The Washington Post

  7. 15

    Richard A. Serrano, “Three Witnesses in Abuse Case Aren’t Talking: Higher-ups and a Contractor Out to Avoid Self-incrimination,” San Francisco Chronicle, May 19, 2004.

  8. 16

    See White and Higham, “Intelligence Officers Tied to Abuses in Iraq.”

  9. 17

    See General Antonio M. Taguba, “Article 15-6 Investigation of the 800th Military Police Brigade” (The Taguba Report), page 7.

  10. 18

    See Douglas Jehl, “Officers Say US Colonel at Abu Ghraib Prison Felt Intense Pressure to Get Inmates to Talk,” The New York Times, May 18, 2004.

  11. 19

    See Paul Aussaresses, The Battle of the Casbah: Terrorism and Counter-Terrorism in Algeria, 1955-1957, translated by Robert L. Miller (Enigma, 2002).

  12. 20

    See James Risen, David Johnston, and Neil A. Lewis, “Harsh CIA Methods Cited in Top Qaeda Interrogations,” The New York Times, May 13, 2004.

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