Scandal: Detainee Treatment

Updated Jan. 22, 2009

In January 2002, President Bush decided that combatants captured in Afghanistan and the "war on terror" were not prisoners of war and therefore weren't protected by the Geneva Conventions' rules for humane prisoner treatment. With backing from administration lawyers, Bush loosened the rules on interrogations and gave the CIA new powers to set up secret detention facilities in other countries.

Interrogation room in Camp Delta at Gitmo (Credit: Joe Raedle/Getty Images)In early 2002, the U.S. began to bring "enemy combatants" to its base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba -- a kind of legal no-man's land that the administration argued was subject to neither U.S. law nor any other national jurisdiction. Some prisoners there faced harsh interrogations. (In May 2008, the Department of Justice released a report describing how FBI agents documented abuses at Guantanamo and were then ignored by top officials.)

According to one Pentagon report, the interrogation techniques at Guantanamo later "migrated to Afghanistan and Iraq." In April 2004, CBS' 60 Minutes II broadcast the now-infamous photos of prisoners being abused at Abu Ghraib. The New Yorker's Seymour Hersh soon followed with an exposé detailing the military's until-then classified report on the abuse. In the aftermath, a handful of soldiers were charged with crimes.

The administration has begun military tribunals for enemy combatants. Six of the tribunals' own prosecutors have protested the tribunal's lack of fairness, and the tribunals' legal adviser was reassigned after he displayed signs of bias for the prosecution. On June 12, the Supreme Court ruled that the government had violated the rights of prisoners who had been detained indefinitely without charges at Guantanamo and gave detainees the right to challenge their detentions in U.S. courts. 

When President Obama took office on Jan. 20, he immediately ordered Gitmo prosecutors to seek a 120-day halt on the military commissions there, which they did. The president then issued a series of executive orders calling for the closure of Gitmo within one year and an end to the abusive interrogation techniques favored by the Bush administration.

Essential Reading:

There's been an enormous amount of fine reporting on torture. Some highlights:

Most reporters have moved on, but for continuing coverage, check out the Miami Herald's Guantanamo Bay page.


  • The ACLU has obtained and published thousands of pages of government documents on torture.
  • The "Taguba Report" details the mistreatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib. (Some key excerpts.)
  • These infamous photos capture U.S. soldiers abusing and humiliating Abu Ghraib prisoners.
  • Ex-Deputy Assistant Attorney General John Yoo wrote this March 2003 memo that authorized the use of torture on enemy combatants. Part one (PDF) and part two (PDF).
  • The Justice Department's compiled this 2008 report on the FBI's knowledge (PDF) of the CIA's harsh interrogation tactics at Gitmo.
  • The New York Times has compiled an extensive database of past and present Gitmo detainees.
  • For more documents and details on methods of interrogation, check out Slate's Torture Guide. It's slightly dated but chock full of handy info.

Latest Stories

Newly Released Memo Inadvertently Reveals CIA Held (and Abused) Missing Prisoner ProPublica, 5/3

Exclusion of Coercion-Tainted Evidence Echoes Other Gitmo Cases ProPublica, 10/6

Rare Interrogator Testimony Defeats Gitmo Torture Claim in Civilian Court ProPublica, 8/20

Judges Reject Interrogation Evidence in Gitmo Cases ProPublica, 8/13

DoJ Report: CIA Memo Used to Justify Waterboarding Inaccurate Newsweek, 2/22

America’s Secret Afghan Prisons The Nation, 2/1

Judges Urge Congress to Act on Indefinite Terrorism Detentions ProPublica, 1/22

Justice Task Force: 50 Gitmo Detainees Should Be Held Indefinitely Washington Post, 1/22

Former Gitmo Detainee Blames Torture for Failure of Rehabilitation BBC, 1/15

U.S. Military Probes Allegations of Detainee Abuse in Afghanistan Washington Post, 1/8

Defense Dept. Faulted for Not Taping Detainee Washington Post, 12/11

Gitmo Detainee, Abused in U.S. Custody, Is Returned to Kuwait ProPublica, 12/10

Law School Study Finds Evidence of Cover-Up After Gitmo Deaths Huffington Post, 12/8

Resumed Gitmo Military Trials Face New Challenges Washington Post, 12/4

2 Afghans Allege Abuse at U.S. Site Washington Post, 11/30

Soldiers: Sergeant Ordered Detainees Killed Due to Army Policy CNN, 11/20

With Few Strong Cases, Government Rushes Toward Plea Deals for Guantanamo Detainees ProPublica, 11/13

Pentagon Ignored Repeated FBI Warnings on Abusive Interrogations Washington Independent, 11/9

Gitmo Chart Update: Six Detainees Released to Palau ProPublica, 11/3

Judge’s Finding Highlights Risks of Abusive Interrogations at Gitmo ProPublica, 10/8

U.S. Hid Interrogation Tapes of 9/11 Suspect Until Now Washington Independent, 10/6

Did 10 Classified Bush-Era Torture Docs Go Missing? Mother Jones, 9/28

PBS’s NOW Explores Preventive Detention ProPublica, 9/4

Report Shows Tight CIA Control on Interrogations New York Times, 8/26

Deaths, Missing Detainees Still Blacked Out in CIA Report ABC News, 8/26

CIA Report Details ‘Inhumane’ Interrogation Techniques Washington Post, 8/25

2 U.S. Architects of Harsh Tactics in 9/11’s Wake New York Times, 8/12

Interrogator: ‘Intolerance’ Led to Torture CQ Politics, 8/12

Target of Obama-Era Rendition Alleges Torture Huffington Post, 8/12

Criminal Investigation Into CIA Treatment of Detainees Expected LA Times, 8/10

Tracking Obama’s Struggles to Defend Gitmo Detentions ProPublica, 8/7

Military Lawyer: U.S. Paid Gitmo Prosecution Witnesses Washington Independent, 8/5

Their Own Private Guantánamo ProPublica, 7/22

U.S. Helped Chinese Interrogate Uighurs at Guantanamo McClatchy, 7/17

Ex-Gitmo Detainee Undercuts Pentagon Report’s Credibility McClatchy, 7/8

Obama Seems to Rule Out Executive Order on Indefinite Detentions ProPublica, 7/2

ProPublica Reporters Discuss Their Articles ProPublica, 7/2

White House Is Drafting Executive Order to Allow Indefinite Detention; Move Would Bypass Congress ProPublica, 6/26

Review of Gitmo Detainees Has Been Slow and Complex ProPublica, 6/26

Senator Slams General’s Torture Testimony ABC News, 6/17

Detainee says He Lied to CIA in Harsh Interrogations Los Angeles Times, 6/16

CIA Urges Judge To Keep Bush-Era Docs Sealed Washington Post, 6/9

U.S. Lawyers Agreed on Legality of Brutal Tactic New York Times, 6/8

Iraqi PM Prompted Obama’s Switch on Detainee Photos McClatchy, 6/2

Judge Orders Gitmo Documents Released AP, 6/2

Uighurs Detainees Stage Protest at Gitmo Miami Herald, 6/2

Obama Admin Tries to Block Uighur Detainees from U.S. ABC News, 6/1

Justice Dept. Asks Judges to Block Abuse Photos AP, 5/29

Do CIA Cables Show Doctors Monitoring Torture? ProPublica, 5/28

Has Consulting Firm For CIA Gone MIA? ProPublica, 5/27

Guantanamo: Recruiting Ground for Terrorists? McClatchy, 5/27

Ex-Detainee Describes Struggle After Gitmo Washington Post, 5/26

Obama’s Proposed Gitmo Legal Plan Rife With Problems McClatchy, 5/22

DoD Report: 1 in 7 Freed Gitmo Detainees Returns to Terrorism New York Times, 5/21

Gitmo Panel Urges U.S. to Take Chinese Uighurs Financial Times, 5/20

Amid Queries, CIA Worries About Future Interrogations Washington Post, 5/19

Obama to Keep Tribunals; Stance Angers Some Backers New York Times, 5/18

Cheney Said Gitmo Detainees Revealed Iraq-al Qaida Link McClatchy, 5/18

FBI Interrogator Calls Harsh Tactics ‘Ineffective’ McClatchy, 5/14

Obama Considers Detaining Terror Suspects Indefinitely Wall Street Journal ($), 5/14

Mark Danner and ProPublica’s Dafna Linzer Talk Torture ProPublica, 5/13

Report: Military Was Split on Interrogation Tactics Washington Post, 5/12

FBI Whistleblower: Gonzales Pushed Harsh, Ineffective Tactics ABC News, 5/12

Memos Shed Light on CIA Use of Sleep Deprivation Los Angeles Times, 5/11

A Secret E-Mail Argument Among Psychologists About Torture ProPublica, 5/8

Memo: Rep. Pelosi Knew About Use of Harsh Tactics Washington Post, 5/8

Government Could Destroy Records in Hundreds of Guantanamo Cases ProPublica, 5/7

First Gitmo Trial Under Obama Set Miami Herald, 5/7

Ex-Bush Official Suspects Cheney Silenced Anti-Torture Memo Mother Jones, 5/6

Charges Unlikely over Interrogation Memos Los Angeles Times, 5/6

Congress Seeks State Dept’s ‘Alternative’ Torture Memo TPMMuckraker, 5/5

Former Bush Officials Work to Soften Report on Interrogations Washington Post, 5/5

Tortured Profession: Psychologists Warned of Abusive Interrogations, Then Helped Craft Them ProPublica, 5/5

Detainee Compromises Likely Washington Post, 5/4

How an FBI Agent Got a Detainee to Talk Without Torture Newsweek, 4/28

How ‘07 ABC Interview Shaped a Torture Debate New York Times, 4/28

CIA Must Turn Over Details of Pre-Torture Interrogation Tapes Public Record, 4/28

U.S. Weighs Release of More CIA Memos Wall Street Journal ($), 4/27

In 2002, Military Agency Warned Against ‘Torture’ Washington Post, 4/27

CIA Reportedly Declined to Closely Evaluate Harsh Interrogations Los Angeles Times, 4/27

Yemen Dispute Slows Closing of Guantanamo New York Times, 4/24

U.S. Plans to Accept Several Chinese Muslims from Guantanamo Los Angeles Times, 4/24

This Week in Scandals: Stress Tests and Stress Positions ProPublica, 4/24

Pentagon to Release Photos of Detainee Abuse Next Month Washington Post, 4/24

Harsh Interrogation Methods Approved As Early As Summer 2002 Washington Post, 4/23

Dozens of Prisoners Held by CIA Still Missing, Fates Unknown ProPublica, 4/22

List of Likely CIA Prisoners Who Are Still Missing ProPublica, 4/22

Did Interrogators Cross Legal Line? Secret Sections of CIA IG Report May Hold Clues ProPublica, 4/21

Ex-State Dept Official: WH Tried to Destroy My ‘Torture Memo’ Dissent Foreign Policy, 4/21

Obama Confirms Door Is Open for Prosecution of Authors of Torture Memos ProPublica, 4/21

DOJ Sits on Secret CIA Interrogation Memo Washington Independent, 4/21

Who Are the Torture Memo Authors? TPMMuckraker, 4/20

Waterboarding Used 266 Times on 2 Suspects New York Times, 4/20

Administration Opposes Charging Interrogation Memo Authors Washington Post, 4/20

Former CIA Director Defends Interrogation New York Times, 4/20

Divisions Arose on Rough Tactics for al-Qaida Figures New York Times, 4/20

Bush Memos Suggest Abuse Isn’t Torture If a Doctor Is There ProPublica, 4/17

Is Torture Really Over? Salon, 4/17

Interpreter for FBI Thinks Interrogators Beat Terror Suspect New York Times, 4/16

Obama Promises to Defend Interrogators, But No Promise on the Bush Lawyers Who Signed Off ProPublica, 4/16

Are we missing something? .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

Get Updates

Our Hottest Stories