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Official American Sadism

Guantanamo: Beyond the Law

a series of five articles by Tom Lasseter
in the McClatchy Newspapers, June 15–19, 2008, available at www.mcclatchydc.com/detainees

Broken Laws, Broken Lives:Medical Evidence of Torture by US Personnel and Its Impact

a report by Physicians for Human Rights, with a preface byMajor General Antonio M. Taguba
Physicians for Human Rights, 130 pp., available at brokenlives.info


Mohammed Jawad, an Afghan accused of throwing a grenade at a convoy of American soldiers in Kabul in late 2002, wounding two, was brought to the Guantánamo Bay prison camp in February 2003. He was then seventeen years old. In December 2003 he attempted suicide. The following May he was subjected to what Guantánamo officials called the “frequent flyer program.” Every three hours, day and night, he was shackled and moved to another cell—112 times over fourteen days.

We know about what was done to Mr. Jawad because the military lawyer assigned as his defense counsel, Major David J.R. Frakt (Air Force Reserve), sought and won from a military judge an order for his jailers to produce the records of his captivity. Major Frakt brought out the realities of Jawad’s treatment in his closing argument at a pre-trial hearing on June 19, 2008—an argument that was a remarkable display of legal and moral courage.

Why was Mohammed Jawad tortured?” Major Frakt asked. “Why did military officials choose a teenage boy who had attempted suicide in his cell less than five months earlier to be the subject of this sadistic sleep deprivation experiment?” Officers at Guantánamo said they did not believe he had any valuable intelligence information, and he was not even questioned during the “frequent flyer program.” “The most likely scenario,” Major Frakt said, “is that they simply decided to torture Mr. Jawad for sport, to teach him a lesson, perhaps to make an example of him to others.”

But Major Frakt did not stop with those who tormented Mohammed Jawad. He addressed President Bush’s order of February 7, 2002, that those detained at Guantánamo as alleged al-Qaeda or Taliban members and supporters were not to be given the protections of the Geneva Conventions. “February 7, 2002,” he said,

America lost a little of its greatness that day. We lost our position as the world’s leading defender of human rights, as the champion of justice and fairness and the rule of law….

Sadly, this military commission [which was holding the Jawad hearing] has no power to do anything to the enablers of torture such as John Yoo, Jay Bybee, Robert Delahunty, Alberto Gonzales…, David Addington, William Haynes, Vice President Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld….

Major Frakt’s reference to “the enablers” raised a fundamental question: How did the United States government get into the business of torturing prisoners? Sleep deprivation was by no means the only harsh technique used on prisoners at Guantánamo and elsewhere. Others included forcing prisoners into stress positions, exposing them to harsh lights and extreme hot and cold temperatures, sexual humiliation, nudity, and waterboarding, the “water cure” that inflicts partial suffocation. 1

Since the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib was exposed, in April 2004, the Bush administration has maintained that any mistreatment was the work of a few “bad apples.” No action has been taken against any higher-up, military or civilian. But a steady accumulation of disclosures, capped in June by a Senate committee report and hearing, has made it clear that abusive treatment of prisoners was a deliberate policy that came from the top—the Pentagon, the Justice Department, and the White House.

In July 2002 the office of the Pentagon’s general counsel made a survey of the techniques used in a Pentagon program designed to teach ways of resisting torture by enemy forces. (The program focused especially on techniques used by Chinese forces during the Korean War to induce American prisoners to confess falsely to such things as using germ warfare.) In August, Assistant Attorney General Jay S. Bybee, head of the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, issued a secret fifty-page memorandum concluding that the president had plenary power to order the torture of prisoners in the war on terror. It built on an earlier memo by John Yoo and Robert Delahunty, which had been approved by Alberto Gonzales, then President Bush’s White House counsel. Bybee’s legal conclusions were incorporated into a memorandum prepared for Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld.

In October 2002 a senior lawyer at the Central Intelligence Agency, Jonathan Fredman, went to Guantánamo and discussed harsh interrogation techniques with military officers. A military lawyer at Guantánamo, Lieutenant Colonel Diane Beaver, said that some previously forbidden methods such as sleep deprivation were being used on prisoners by the military at the Bagram Air Base detention center in Afghanistan but were kept hidden from the International Committee of the Red Cross when its representatives visited. “The ICRC is a serious concern,” she said. Fredman said that whether harsh treatment could be called torture was “a matter of perception.” He said, “If the detainee dies, you’re doing it wrong.”

In November 2002 the Defense Department’s general counsel, William J. Haynes II, recommended that Secretary Rumsfeld formally approve a number of aggressive interrogation methods at Guantánamo, including stress positions, the use of attack dogs, and sensory deprivation. Rumsfeld gave his approval in a secret order of December 2, 2002.

A number of military leaders warned against the harsh new techniques. Alberto Mora, general counsel of the Navy, told Haynes that they “could rise to the level of torture.” He said that if they were not curbed, he would write a memorandum saying that some of them violated “domestic and international legal norms.” On January 15, 2003, Rumsfeld withdrew his approval. In April he signed another memo listing approved methods, including sleep “adjustment,” and said others would be considered if requested.

ABC News reported in April of this year that President Bush’s top national security officials met in 2003 to discuss “enhanced” interrogation methods. Among those in the meetings were Vice President Cheney and his then counsel, now chief of staff, David Addington; Attorney General John Ashcroft; Condoleezza Rice, then Bush’s national security adviser; Rumsfeld and Haynes. Asked about the report, the President confirmed it. “As a matter of fact,” he told Martha Raddatz of ABC, “I told the country we did that. And I also told them it was legal. We had legal opinions that enabled us to do it.”


The Bush administration has made determined efforts to suppress all information about the mistreatment of its prisoners. Videotapes of at least two particularly horrendous interrogations were destroyed. In legal hearings, at Guantánamo and elsewhere, government lawyers have objected to disclosure of interrogation methods, arguing that it would alert al-Qaeda members to what they would face if captured. We still do not know what was done to Jose Padilla, an American held for years in solitary confinement as an alleged enemy combatant and now reportedly suffering long-term psychological damage. 2

Nevertheless, any American who wanted to know about the cruelties his government has inflicted on prisoners and how they came about could have learned a good deal by this spring. A number of experts on the law and on the facts of torture have published commentary frequently in print and blogs, and I have benefited greatly from their writing. This past spring the scholar of international law Philippe Sands published his valuable book Torture Team: Rumsfeld’s Memo and the Betrayal of American Values 3 ; Vanity Fair printed a lengthy extract from it. Human Rights Watch and other human rights groups have published important reports on the abuse of prisoners.

Tom Lasseter and a team of reporters from the McClatchy Newspapers took a new and significant look at the situation in a series of five substantial articles in June. His stories disposed of some official myths about the detainees—for example, that as a group they were “the worst of the worst,” as Secretary Rumsfeld put it. Lasseter also gave some appalling accounts of the mistreatment of prisoners.

An Afghan named Nusrat Khan was in his seventies when American troops put him in an isolation cell in the prison at the Bagram Air Base in the spring of 2003. He had had at least two strokes. For almost four weeks, Khan said, he was kept blindfolded, with earphones on and his hands tied behind his back. When he was finally taken out of the cell, Lasseter wrote, Khan was “half-mad and couldn’t stand without help.” He said he was then transferred to Guantánamo on a stretcher.

One of the useful accomplishments of the Lasseter series was to remind readers that Guantánamo is not the only place where prisoners have been and continue to be held. In Afghanistan, for example, in addition to Bagram the US maintains a prison at the Kandahar Air Base. At both of these, Lasseter said, prisoners were routinely subjected to physical abuse from early in 2002. And there are the still-secret prisons run by the CIA.

At Bagram, Lasseter wrote, guards kicked, kneed, and punched prisoners with systematic brutality. Former guards as well as detainees told McClatchy reporters about what Lasseter called sadistic violence. According to them, the brutality reached a peak in December 2002, when two Afghans were hung from ceiling chains by their wrists and beaten to death by American soldiers.

Two soldiers were prosecuted for those killings. Specialist Willie Brand admitted that he hit one of the Afghan men thirty-seven times. He was sentenced to be reduced in rank to private. The other person prosecuted was Captain Christopher Beiring, who commanded an army reserve military police company. He was given a letter of reprimand.

The army lawyer who investigated Beiring, Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Berg, urged leniency because “the government failed to present any evidence of what are ‘approved tactics, techniques and procedures in detainee operations.’” In other words, members of the United States Army are no longer expected to know that beating a prisoner to death is against the rules.

Why were the guards so brutal? Anger at the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Lasseter suggests—and a sense that their superiors in Washington wanted “the gloves off.” President Bush’s decision to eliminate the protection of the Geneva Conventions sent the message that there were no rules.

The McClatchy papers spent eight months investigating and working on the articles. (That is a reminder that bloggers, who we are sometimes told are the future of journalism, are not likely ever to have the time and resources to look into serious official wrongdoing as newspapers at their best do.) McClatchy reporters interviewed American, Afghan, and other officials—and sixty-six former detainees.

Of the sixty-six former prisoners, only twenty-two were originally detained by American forces. The rest were turned in by feuding members of other tribes, angry neighbors, or people who wanted to collect the large bounties offered by the United States for “terrorists.” Thomas White, a former secretary of the army, said it was obvious from the time the Guantánamo detention facility opened in early 2002 that at least a third of the prisoners did not belong there.

Another notable point made by the McClatchy articles was that the mistreatment of prisoners made some who had no previous connection with anti-American movements profoundly angry at the United States. It is hardly a surprising result to report, but the articles gave chapter and verse. They quoted a Pakistani intelligence report on men released from Guantánamo as saying that they had “extreme feelings of resentment and hatred against USA.”

  1. 1

    Asphyxiation has long been understood to be a—perhaps the most—terrifying threat faced by human beings. The Spanish Inquisition used the water torture on its victims. Japanese prison officials who used it on prisoners in World War II were prosecuted as war criminals by the United States.

  2. 2

    For more than two years Mr. Padilla was detained in a navy brig on the order of President Bush, without being charged with any offense and without access to counsel. He was kept in a cell with nothing to read except, for a short time, a copy of the Koran, and no sense of time or daylight and no interaction with anyone except his interrogators. When he was once taken to a dentist, his eyes and ears were covered to maintain the sensory deprivation. A psychiatrist who subsequently examined him, Dr. Angela Hegarty, found him to in an “absolute state of terror, terror alternating with numbness. It was as though the interrogators were in the room with us.”

  3. 3

    Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.

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