Journalism in the Public Interest

Six Claims on Detainee Torture, Skewered

Here’s a breakdown of last week’s scathing report on the U.S.’s “indisputable” use of torture after 9/11.

U.S. military guards move a detainee inside the Guantanamo Bay detention center. (John Moore/Getty Images)

Among the news that ended up being buried in the events last week: A nonpartisan think tank, the Constitution Project, released a scathing, 577-page report on the U.S.’s treatment, and torture, of detainees in the aftermath of 9/11. The investigation began in 2009, after Obama opposed creating a “truth commission.”

With a Senate investigation of detainee treatment still classified, the report from the bipartisan task force is the most comprehensive public review to date. The 11-member panel interviewed more than 100 former military officials, detainees and policymakers.

Among their findings: There is no compelling security reason to keep classified details about the CIA’s now-shuttered black prisons. The task force hopes their report will spur more government transparency on the treatment of detainees, starting with the release of the Senate investigation.

Here’s a rundown of previous claims skewered by the report: 

Claim No. 1: The U.S. didn’t use torture.

“Perhaps the most important or notable finding of this panel is that it is indisputable that the United States engaged in the practice of torture,” the report concludes. The task force says that despite overwhelming evidence of torture, both government officials and many in the media have continued to present the issue as a two-sided debate.   

The task force measured confirmed reports on detainee treatment against several international and domestic legal definitions of torture. The U.S.’s tactics unequivocally amount to torture, they found, under definitions the U.S. itself has used to accuse other countries of the same crime.

Former UN ambassador John Bolton rejected the task force’s findings, telling the Associated Press the report is “completely divorced from reality.” Bolton said a team of lawyers scrutinized the policies to ensure interrogation never crossed the line.

Claim No. 2: When torture happened, it was because of a few low-level “bad apples.”

The report details how the decisions to use “enhanced interrogation” techniques were not rogue entry-level soldiers, but rather came from decisions made at the top of the administration. As a former Marine general told the task force, "Any degree of 'flexibility' about torture at the top drops down the chain of command like a stone —the rare exception fast becoming the rule."

Claim No. 3: Only three terror suspects were waterboarded by the CIA.

The task force’s findings support and elaborate on a Human Rights Watch report, which detailed how the CIA tortured at least two Libyans with water and abused several others to “win favor with el-Gaddafi's regime,” the task force found.

The testimonies of the two Libyans undermine the Bush administration’s repeated claims that the CIA only waterboarded against three people.

Claim No. 4: Torture definitely worked.

Former Vice President Dick Cheney and others have claimed that abusive treatment saved “thousands of American lives.” But the report found no evidence that torture itself was actually useful. As Obama's former National Director of Intelligence Admiral Dennis Blair wrote, as quoted in the report, "There is no way of knowing whether the same information could have been obtained through other means."

The movie Zero Dark Thirty, which gets a shout out in the report, has fueled the debate about whether torture ultimately helped the U.S. find Osama bin Laden. Officials have pointed to the tips provided by one detainee, Hassan Ghul, who was beaten and deprived of sleep while held in a secret CIA prison.  

But the report is skeptical of the connection. As the report notes, Senator Dianne Feinstein and other officials said key information Ghul provided was “acquired before the CIA used their enhanced interrogation techniques against the detainee.”

Claim No. 5: A third of released Gitmo detainees have returned to terrorism.

Many lawmakers have used the supposedly high rate of detainee recidivism to justify keeping detainees at Gitmo. The government has claimed that nearly a third of released detainees returned to terrorism. But the report noted that Gitmo prisoner shouldn’t be counted as “returning to the battlefield” if they were never there in the first place. A former Guantanamo commander told the panel that up to half of detainees “were mistakes.”

Government stats also include both confirmed and suspected reports of “re-engagement.”  Nor, the report notes, does the government have “firm guidelines” on what counts as a return to terrorism.

Claim No. 6: It’s all behind us.

“We need to look forward as opposed to looking backwards,” Obama said in 2009. But the report details how the ongoing lack of transparency and oversight leaves the door open for abuse. The CIA’s prisons have been closed, but the report notes that the current Army Field Manual on Interrogation contains amendments made in 2006 allow for sleep deprivation, separation and stress positions to be used in interrogation.

The bipartisan task force also concluded that current treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo, such as force-feeding hunger striking inmates and keeping them in indefinite detention, could qualify as torture under international law. The committee couldn’t come to a consensus on whether the prison at Guantanamo should be closed.

Torture never provided much or any useful information. It rarely works.
As an interrogator in WW II we tried it once - sleep deprivation - without success. The supply officer would not tell us where his depots were.

Bush-Cheney and their Neocon friends thought it was OK on others.

Lest the “bad apple” claim be misunderstood, recall that the old truth “one bad apple can spoil the barrel” refers to the fact that when healthy individuals are confined with or otherwise constrained by even a single diseased individual, the rot will spread to them all.

In the case at hand, a small number of of high-level officials were affected by a type of rot, and thousands of lower-level enlisted were constrained to operate within the foul environment that created.  Some number of the the low-level people went bad in turn, but referring to them as a few low-level “bad apples” is an inaccurate application of the old saying.

Furthermore, concluding from the relative fewness of the “bad apples” that they can be neglected in the larger scheme of things also inverts the lesson of the old truth, which is that those with the rot must be discarded and not have any contact with or authority over the healthy.

Both Bush II and Cheney have admitted to torture, Bush admits it in his book. Not only are these two guilty of ordering torture, making them war criminals, they are human rights abusers, terrorizing, during their reign of terror, Arabs around the world, something that Obama has not stopped, in fact, he’s increased the terror on Arabs around the world with the use of unmanned drones to kill many innocent victims with claimed “high value targets”, even a 16 year old US citizen suspected of absolutely nothing, along with 11 or 12 others while sitting at an open air cafe’ in Yemen, not a single one, as I’ve been able to ascertain, was suspected of anything. You think you are safer because of these action, in reality Bush and Obama have built up many future generations of hate towards America that will reap hell on all of us, probably for decades to come. Let’s all remember that McVey was a home grown mass murder, the result of the killing of many innocent children in Waco, TX. Isn’t this what the Boston bombers were/are? We’ve only begun to pay the price Bush and Obama have destined us to endure.

For further reading"The Phoenix Project” and the internet links to the author’s interview with William Colby.

So what is exactly new in this article?

James M. Fitzsimmons

April 23, 2013, 5:58 a.m.

I am not a believer in moral equivalence as justification but I am still having difficulty understanding how Drone strikes by the Obama Administration are somehow less morally offensive than the Bush Administration’s tactics. Apparently two different administrations with different ideologies have come to the same conclusion based upon intelligence available to them that terrorism threats demand violent aggressive action. The President needs to articulate to us why we as a country must do what we are doing to protect ourselves and he needs to be candid in explaining the consequences of our actions or alternatively of our non-action.

Not only that, gunste (but thanks for those details), but the Spanish Inquisition gained confessions of witchcraft using identical tactics.  People under torture say what the torturer wants to hear.  From that, we can conclude that either Cheney is lying about actionable intelligence or he believes in witches.

James, I think the problem (as ProPublica has reported before—probably largely in Cora Currier’s articles) is that “there is no drone war,” as far as the Obama Administration is concerned.  They’ve announced policies of how they target drone strikes and celebrate the occasional drone success.  We worry over downed drones in places nobody knew we were at war.  They even have a medal for the “heroic” scum that engage in warfare from the safety of a private office.  But they insist that any operations are classified and therefore we can’t know about it.

Since we don’t know what they’re doing, why would they explain why they’re doing it…?

(And then they wonder why al Qaeda finds it easy to recruit and why people want guns…or I guess they don’t, but appreciate the possibility of using those details to escalate rights abuses.)

This article is part of an ongoing investigation:

The Detention Dilemma

The government remains uncertain what to do with its prisoners at Guantanamo Bay.

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