Torture American Style


On March 27, The New York Times reported that Guantanamo Bay prisoner David Hicks, a 31-year-old Australian with some al-Qaida training, had pleaded guilty to supporting a terrorist organization. It was the first conviction of a Guantanamo detainee under the new military commission law passed by Congress, and is sure to be offered by the Bush administration as proof that its effort to try terrorism suspects from Guantanamo is working. The Times‘ initial report was notably brief. “Mr. Hicks,” the piece blandly concluded, “has been detained for more than five years.”

What happened during those five years? The answer can be found in Michael Otterman’s American Torture: From the Cold War to Abu Ghraib and Beyond. It’s a powerful book that provides a comprehensive overview of torture tactics practiced by U.S. agencies from 1950 to the present, and offers critical background on Hicks’ case.

Hicks was a spiritually ambivalent soul seeker from Adelaide who, before converting to Islam in 2000, skinned kangaroos in a meat factory, trained horses in Japan, and fought for the Kosovo Liberation Army on the U.S. side. After moving to Pakistan to study Arabic, he wrote letters home that read like a giddy college sophomore living abroad. “My best adventure yet,” he once exclaimed. “I have seen so many things and places.” By 2001 he was in Afghanistan, flirting with a more extreme faith and, somewhat haplessly, training with the Taliban. When the United States invaded, troops captured the 115-pound Hicks (who was guarding a tank), dismissed his pleas that he had long wanted to leave the Taliban but was “stuck were I was,” and removed him to a U.S. ship. Then they had their way with him.

It was pure hell. Aboard the ship he was, according to Otterman, “spat upon, beaten, kicked and called ‘an Aussie Kangaroo.'” Beatings lasted up to 10 hours. Upon arrival at GITMO, he was, according to affidavits, forced to swallow unidentified medication, deprived of sleep, turned over to men who slammed his head into the pavement while he was blindfolded, and offered the services of a prostitute if he spied on other prisoners (he refused). These techniques proved a mere warm-up. Hicks spent more than a year alone in a metal cage, an experience that left him “teetering on the edge of losing my sanity,” as he wrote his dad. Recently Hicks sent another letter to his father in which he explained, “I’ve reached the point where I’m highly confused and lost. … I can no longer picture what happens outside. … My entire world has become this little room.” This is the David Hicks who agreed to a plea deal on March 26. It was not the same David Hicks who had once gallivanted with the Taliban. That man had been broken.

Torture will do that. But torture is not something average Americans think their country abides. Government sanctioned beatings of human beings into submission happens elsewhere, in barbaric places with tyrannical regimes. Of course, those who have not heard of Hicks certainly remember Abu Ghraib. In the wake of Abu Ghraib, President Bush rushed to correct any harmful misconceptions. He twitched, smirked, and reassured us that the images of torture being seared into the world’s consciousness were, in fact, the sadistic handiwork of a few scofflaws. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld concurred, decrying the tactics of Lynndie England and Charles Graner-tactics that seemed to relish sexual humiliation-as “un-American” and “inconsistent with the values of our nation.” Given the values that Rumsfeld evoked-rule of law, liberty, justice, and respect for basic natural rights-one might give the administration the benefit of the doubt and legitimately conclude that both Abu Ghraib and the less-publicized Hicks’ case were sad anomalies on an otherwise clean national rap sheet. As Otterman demonstrates, however, torture is and has been at the core of our national security endeavors for a very long time.

Contemporary manifestations of American torture have their origin in the Cold War. Early attempts to devise means of pacifying captives into submission began with CIA research into mind control. Tests with LSD and THC, the active ingredient in pot, aimed to counter whatever “truth serum” Soviets were evidently using to compromise secret agents. These efforts categorically bonked, often with comical results. After CIA agents laced the cigarettes of seven military officers with THC in the 1950s, it reported how “the sense of humor is accentuated to the point where any statement or situation can become extremely funny to the subject.” Rather than the desired id leakage-that is, an overspillage of unexpurgated truth-the CIA got “great loquacity and hilarity.” Whatever envy one might feel for the officers turned into giggle boxes, the CIA wasn’t always so kooky. The dosing of over 7,000 unwitting soldiers in Maryland with LSD warrants greater concern, especially given that most were black, deemed “of not too high mentality,” and dosed only after a plan to leech LSD into a city’s water supply was scotched.

By the 1960s, methods became sophisticated enough to warrant acronyms. The CIA worked closely with Army Special Forces to establish SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape) and DDD (Debility, Dependency, and Dread) as acceptable torture tactics. SERE began as a program designed to prevent captured U.S. soldiers and intelligence officials from squealing. Essentially, it was a bag of mind-fuck tricks, the goal being, as Otterman puts it, to “leave deep psychological wounds but few physical scars.”

Standard SERE techniques, all of them tested extensively on U.S. soldiers, included delivering racial and religious insults, forcing captives “into painful and sexually explicit positions,” water boarding (a sort of simulated drowning), sleep deprivation, and solitary confinement. Victims of SERE methods might be allowed to eat once a day and be given 30 seconds to do so-forcing them to behave like rabid dogs in a kennel. Or, as one American soldier was, they might be blindfolded, brought into an interrogating room, stripped naked, and told by a woman that “you are fat and have the smallest dick I have ever seen.” George W. Bush, by the way, calls SERE torture “an alternative set of procedures” necessary to “protect the American people and our allies.”

DDD was far too harsh to test extensively on American soldiers, so the CIA relied on the Vietnamese. As North Vietnamese POWs reached critical mass in the 1970s, the CIA-through a program called Phoenix-exploited them as “fodder for deadly DDD interrogation sessions.” If SERE was a mind fuck, DDD was an ass-kicking. According to a witness of DDD applications to one victim, agents “administered electric shock, beat him with clubs, poured water down his nose while his mouth was gagged, applied ‘Chinese water torture’ (dripping water slowly, drop by drop, onto the bridge of his nose for days on end), and kept him tied to a stool for days at a time without food or water while questioning him around the clock.” Another account: “I have seen blindfolded men, their hands tied behind them, thrown out of helicopters-the helicopter was only 3 feet off the ground, but the blindfolded men couldn’t know that. They would collapse in shivering heaps when they hit the ground. … I have watched while these same men, still blindfolded and tied, were made to run down a steep hill, at the bottom of which were three rows of concertina barbed wire.” Throw in electric shocks to the genitals, fingernail removal, and the insertion of dowels into ear canals, and Otterman’s larger point starts to become clear-torture “radicalizes enemies, yields unreliable information, and is ultimately self-defeating.”

This did not keep CIA and Army Special Forces from honing their torture techniques in Latin America throughout the 1980s and-after a bit of soul-searching in the 1990s-bringing them back to life after September 11 in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Guantanamo. Otterman traces these developments deftly, with an impressive grasp of the relevant literature, including massive documentation acquired through FOIA applications, and a prose style that allows the evidence to speak for itself.

Perhaps most impressively, Otterman tackles the legal machinations of the administration. How is it legal to shock a man’s genitals and explain that his wife is being raped as punishment for his “crime?” How is this behavior consistent with such inconvenient international realities as the War Crimes Act, the Geneva Conventions, and the International Criminal Court? With the right lawyers, anything is legal. To get away with such violations of civil liberties, one needs little more than a formidable legal staff gifted with hair-splitting logic, souls on ice, and hearts of stone.

Fortunately for the Bush administration, one could not swing a golf club without hitting such a specimen. The Office of Legal Counsel, a team of lawyers housed in the Justice Department, came equipped with the kind of thinkers who were quick to create a legal environment in which the White House and the OLC lawyers could claim, in Otterman’s words, that “any American could torture anyone deemed to be a terrorist using any method, at any time, for any reason.” Once the Department of Defense bagged a captive, it could employ the tactics of SERE and DDD so long as its “specific intent” was not to “inflict excruciating and physical or mental pain or suffering,” an easy legal escape hatch when the “specific intent” is, of course, to protect the American way of life.

Perhaps someday this lunacy will be a thing of the past. Perhaps someday historians, following the lead of this gutsy book published by a relatively unknown press, will quit griping about the sorry state of the world and start wielding their hoary pens in the name of social justice. They might do so by ordering a moratorium on books about how jolly great the Founding Fathers were and initiating a surge of literature showing us how the founders’ vision is being dismantled by torture advocates like John Yoo, David Addington, and George Bush. Or they might simply make a big to-do about Rumsfeld’s personal reaction to concerns that GITMO detainees were being forced to stand for long periods; he bragged, “I stand for eight-10 hours a day.” Yes, they might remind history of this inane remark. In fact, they might consider making it his epitaph.

James McWilliams is an Observer contributing writer.

Enjoy this story? Want to support the writer? We are a journalism non-profit that relies on readers—not corporations or special interests—so we can always tell the unvarnished truth. Help us keep up the fight for Texas by donating to our tip jar.