Torture Part One

by Michael Patrick O'Leary

This article appeared on Page 10 of  Ceylon Today on Wednesday January 21 2015.

Colman's Column3


Something invented by the Marquis de Sade or Hieronymus Bosch. The Guardian.


Prisoners were subjected to “rectal feeding”; this is a medieval technique in which the intestines are inflated with a viscous material to cause severe intestinal pain. The “lunch tray” for one detainee, which contained hummus, pasta with sauce, nuts and raisins, was pureed and pushed into his rectum. Rectal examinations were conducted with “excessive force”. One prisoner was later diagnosed with anal fissures, chronic haemorrhoids and “symptomatic rectal prolapse”. This sounds like sadistic rape and sodomy.

Detainees were forced to stand on broken limbs for hours, kept in complete darkness, deprived of sleep for up to 180 hours, sometimes standing, sometimes with their arms shackled above their heads. There were mock executions and Russian roulette. Interrogators revved power drills near prisoners’ heads. They threatened to slit the throat of one detainee’s mother, sexually abuse another and threatened prisoners’ children. One prisoner died of hypothermia brought on by being forced to sit naked on a bare concrete floor. At least 39 detainees experienced techniques like “cold water dousing” – different from the quasi-drowning known as waterboarding.

These horror stories come from a recently published report from the US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. The investigation took four years and cost $40 million. The Senate report claims the CIA repeatedly lied about a programme involving brutal techniques employed after 9/11. The Senate committee published nearly 500 pages of its investigation into the CIA’s detention and interrogation programme during the Bush “war on terror”. The full report is over ten times longer, so a great deal is still hidden from the public. What we have is bad enough.

Exactly 119 detainees were held at CIA sites in various countries from 17 September 2001 to 22 January 2009. Of all those who were held and interrogated, 22 per cent were found to be innocent. There was no process for freeing them. At least 17 detainees were tortured without approval from CIA headquarters. Some CIA officers were said to have been reduced “to the point of tears” by witnessing the treatment meted out to one detainee.

Privatisation of Pain

True to the neo-liberal ethos of the Washington Consensus, the hands-on coalface work of torture was contracted out to private enterprise. The main men are named in the report as “Grayson Swigert” and “Hamilton Dunbar”. In reality, these were two psychologists called James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen. The private company they set up had a contract with the CIA which earned them $81m. The company office, two floors bug-proofed and equipped with high security doors, was at 108 Washington Street, Spokane, in Washington State. At the Fairchild Air Force base on the outskirts of Spokane, the doctors had worked on programmes to train Special Forces in resistance to torture, how to cope with the type of interrogation they might face if captured. Their sales pitch to the CIA was that if they could teach US forces not to talk, they had the techniques to get information out of prisoners. In truth, they had no experience in military interrogation, neither had any specialised knowledge about al-Qaeda – neither had “relevant cultural or linguistic expertise”. A CIA officer said no “professional in the field would credit” the doctors’ judgments “as psychologists assessing the subjects”. They were both accused of “arrogance and narcissism”. They were more than back-room boffins. According to the report, “The psychologists personally conducted interrogations of some of the CIA’s most significant detainees using these techniques.”

Hypocrites and Hippocrates

The Hippocratic Oath enjoins doctors to “do no harm”. The American Medical Association endorsed a set of professional codes stating that doctors should not participate in torture directly or indirectly. They also have a duty to document it and report it, going outside the chain of command if necessary.


The Senate report clearly shows that doctors were responsible for actually designing the torture programmes and that several “medical officers” enabled and supervised torture as it was being inflicted. CIA medical officers used their intimate knowledge of the human body to harm people the US government deemed enemies.
Dr Steven Miles is a professor at the University of Minnesota Medical School, a board member of the Center for Victims of Torture, and author of Oath Betrayed: America’s Torture Doctors. His website tracks doctors who participate in torture around the world. He says that, firstly, doctors design methods of torture that do not leave scars. They are also involved in trying to prevent prisoners dying and, thirdly, they falsify medical records and death certificates to conceal the injuries of torture.

Dr Miles says: “Essentially the doctors and psychologists were built in to the entire torture system. They weren’t simply bystanders who were called in to respond when the system went off the rails.“

Public Support?

A Washington Post/ABC News poll found that Americans, by a 59-31% margin, believe that CIA “treatment of suspected terrorists” in detention was justified. A plurality deemed that “treatment” to be “torture,” by a 49-38% margin.

In May 2009, the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion and Public Life found that the more religious an American is, the more likely he or she is to support torture. When poll respondents were asked, “Do you personally think the CIA treatment of suspected terrorists amounted to torture, or not?” most Americans said the abuses did not constitute torture. However, non-religious Americans who were more easily convinced that the “enhanced interrogation techniques” were, in fact, torture.

Most Christians, were in favour of torture. Non-religious Americans were one of the few subsets that opposed the torture techniques – and that includes breakdowns across racial, gender, age, economic, educational, and regional lines.

Ineffective As Well As Wrong

No compelling evidence has ever been put forward to show that torture can produce reliable intelligence. Human memory is fallible and the techniques used – typically causing stress, pain, sleep deprivation, or confusion – might have been specifically designed to produce unreliable information. The intelligence and military communities have long accepted this. The Intelligence Science Board provided scientific guidance to the US intelligence community. The US Army’s Training Manual, states: “The use of force is a poor technique, as it yields unreliable results, may damage subsequent collection efforts, and can induce the source to say whatever he thinks the interrogator wants to hear.”

Ali Soufan, a former FBI special agent with considerable experience interrogating al-Qaeda operatives, told Time magazine: “When they are in pain, people will say anything to get the pain to stop. Most of the time, they will lie, make up anything to make you stop hurting them. That means the information you’re getting is useless.”
The Senate report definitively squashes the claim that torture generated intelligence that prevented further terrorist attacks and saved lives. Tortured detainees either disclosed nothing, or supplied fabricated information, or revealed information that had been already been discovered through traditional, non-violent interrogation techniques.


It seems that the main purpose of torture is to satisfy the desire to hurt the person you assume has done something bad.


Obama and Torture

David Bromwich, author of, essays on ethics and politics, wrote about the Senate report in the London Review of Books. He looked at President Obama’s stance: “He denounced torture and implied, early on, that the practices fomented by Bush and Cheney fitted the international definition of torture; yet Obama also told workers at the CIA, in early 2009, that under no circumstances would they be prosecuted. He paired the words of responsible acknowledgment with a policy of non-accountability. This show of forbearance was high-sounding in its way – hate the crime, pardon the criminal – but if it makes a generous line to take with vices such as a gambling habit or heavy drinking, the hands-off resolution seems radically unsuited to crimes such as rape, torture and murder”.


Bromwich again: “The promise of impunity that has greeted the lawless conduct of government officials obeys the ancient maxim fac et excusa. The deeds in fact are free to recur because the excuses are potentially limitless. We are all patriots – Obama’s word for CIA interrogators – and under enemy attack, we respond as patriots do.” Bromwich says we cannot fathom the motives of these “patriots”. Sadistic self-indulgence may have played a part. “A principle such as an unconditional ban on torture is tested precisely by its observance in a fear-engendering crisis. If your belief in the principle gradually disintegrates, it was never a solid belief.”


Michael White, writing in The Guardian, drew hundreds of outraged comments when he wrote: “ it is also a day of redemption for the American system of imperfectly accountable government”. There was much resistance to accountability. The CIA declined, in the words of Senator Dianne Feinstein, to “compel its workforce to appear before the committee”. Almost all the Republicans in Congress, with the distinct exception of John McCain, opposed the publication of the findings.

In 2002 ,the New York Times planned to publish a story about a secret prison in Thailand, but Cheney persuaded them to suppress it. Cheney symbolises the malignancy that took over the American psyche. According to Bromwich Cheney’s evil was grounded in psychotic fear, with which he contaminated a huge nation: “His words and actions testify to a personal fear so marked that it could project and engender collective fear.”

There is a law in the U.S. against torture but there is no sign of prosecutions because the techniques were declared legal at the time. As Dr Miles says: “it was a matter of a structured system of complicity. This has greatly harmed the US medical community’s ability to speak on behalf of doctors who are protesting torture around the world.”

“Torture is wrong, torture is always wrong. Those of us who want to see a safer and more secure world, who want to see extremism defeated, we won’t succeed if we lose our moral authority, if we lose the things that make our systems work and countries successful”. David Cameron said that.

More next week about torture in other countries, including Britain.