Mark Danner

The Man Who Discovered the Secret Torture Papers

Author: Scott Horton


The explosive secret Red Cross report on the Bush administration’s torture policy has Washington in an uproar comparable to the revelations from Abu Ghraib. Journalist Mark Danner, who secured the document, talks to The Daily Beast about what he discovered, and how President Obama should go after the perpetrators.

For the past two years, journalists covering the “torture beat” have pressed hard to secure one particular document: a highly confidential report prepared by the International Committee of the Red Cross dealing with the Bush administration’s infamous black sites—an archipelago of super-secret prisons run by the CIA for the nation’s most notorious terrorist prisoners. Mark Danner, a longtime writer on war and human rights who teaches at the University of California, Berkeley and at Bard College, got the scoop. In a 14,000-word feature in the April 9th issue of the New York Review of Books, Danner navigates the ICRC’s report, offering blood-curdling detail and a wealth of evidence of the torture practices the Bush administration introduced and then lied to cover up.

“Whereas in earlier reports the Red Cross used formulations that nuanced the question somewhat (saying, for instance, that Guantánamo practices were “˜tantamount to torture’),” Danner said, “in this report they spoke bluntly and forcefully, saying that the conduct was torture.”

I put four questions to Danner about his scoop and its significance:

Reporting on your article Monday, the Washington Post says the ICRC report “implies” that the Bush administration violated international law. You’ve read the report. How does it come out on the question of illegality?

There was no ambiguity in the report on this point. The ICRC professionals who prepared it concluded, and wrote explicitly, that the behavior they catalogued included torture, as well as cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment. They were judging the procedures used in the black sites against the Geneva Conventions (in the enforcement of which they play a formal role), the Convention Against Torture, and a number of other international agreements. Whereas in earlier reports the Red Cross used formulations that nuanced the question somewhat (saying, for instance, that Guantánamo practices were “tantamount to torture”), in this report they spoke bluntly and forcefully, saying that the conduct was torture. That of course is a violation of international law. But it is also a violation of domestic law. It is a crime, in fact.

By the way, on your use of the word “scoop”: one should emphasize that though this is the first time, to my knowledge, that lengthy verbatim quotations from the ICRC report have been published, many reporters have worked on this story and some have published very significant information on the ICRC’s findings. This group includes some leading writers at The Washington Post and The New York Times, who have been chasing this story with great determination for years, but, above all, Jane Mayer, who included lengthy references to the document in her reporting in The New Yorker and in her definitive book drawn from it, The Dark Side. Jane’s work on this issue, and on the torture story in general, has been brave and exemplary and my lengthy piece, written for various reasons under the stress of very great time pressure, should have called attention to her work more explicitly. It’s worth pointing out that one of the strange things about the torture story, is that revelation, which we tend to believe leads directly to exposure of wrongdoing and its punishment, has instead often led only to more and deeper revelation. I’ve written about this elsewhere as the phenomenon of “Frozen Scandal.” So though there is a “scoop” element to this story, it is not, at the end of the day, one person’s scoop.

This report focused on President Bush’s “program” as it was applied by the CIA. You have studied and written extensively about the introduction of harsh techniques at military facilities such as Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo. How do the two programs compare?

Bush’s “program” was undertaken initially by both the CIA and Department of Defense, so it’s only natural that there would be similarities.  The Schlesinger Report, prepared in the wake of the Abu Ghraib disclosures in 2004, spoke of the “migration” of techniques that had been approved for and were used by the CIA to military installations. It documents a series of cases in which military personnel observed the CIA techniques, occasions in which they participated, and then individual instances in which persons who had been involved in the program in Afghanistan were transferred to Guantanamo and then to Iraq and brought the program along with them. The techniques that the DOD and CIA shared include sleep deprivation, the use of noise and light, enforced nudity and various techniques designed to induce stress. The military relied much more heavily on humiliation techniques— forcing the detainees to wear women’s panties, for instance, or using female interrogators to humiliate them or threatening and simulating various forms of sexual violence. These techniques do not appear in the CIA camps. On the other hand, both the CIA and Defense Department programs seeem to share a number of techniques that were, according to various reports by Jane Mayer and others, developed out of the SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape) program designed to help American pilots cope with harsh treatment in captivity.

The ICRC report documents a number of practices which the Bush Administration flatly denied and its disclosure is bound to add more fuel to calls for an accounting for torture practices.  There’s a debate now over the best way forward between those who argue for Congressional investigations, prosecutions and a special blue-ribbon commission. What do you think is the best way forward?

I favor the “let a thousand flowers bloom” approach. There will certainly be a number of investigations proceeding at the same time.  For instance, Chairman Dianne Feinstein’s Senate Intelligence Committee will be looking into intelligence community practices and conducting hearings behind closed doors, looking at classified information. And it will be forming some judgments on important issues—for instance, what was the value of the intelligence gained from the use of torture techniques? Though many argue strongly that “torture doesn’t work,” the fact is that many people think it does, and that group happens to include many of the people who controlled the United States government for the last eight years. I think we need  real and credible answers, based on all the information, however classified, to the question of what torture actually brought the United States, besides the obvious political, legal and moral damage. The Senate Armed Services Committee has of course already concluded a probe. The Senate Judiciary Committee under Patrick Leahy has said it will be conducting some hearings of its own, but it is also looking at the idea of a truth commission which would bring a consolidated approach to bear on the problem, putting forward the controversial idea of trading immunity for “truthful testimony.” The obvious problem with this approach is that such a trade can only be appealing to former officials if by taking it they will be avoiding a real risk of prosecution. Finally President Obama has tasked a number of working groups inside the executive branch to study detention and interrogation policies.  In the end, I think we’ll need the consolidated approach offered by a commission but it may take us a while to get there.

The ICRC reports are confidential, shared with the government which is the subject of the report, but not with Congress or the public. Do you think the reports should be shared with Congress or the public?

The Red Cross has a difficult mission, and they pursue it by assuring the government whose treatment of detainees they  are studying a degree of confidentiality. Their job is to communicate directly, and confidentially, with governments, including the CIA, to whom this report was directed. Even when a journalist gets the report, there is a duty to weigh carefully the competing interests—the public’s interest in knowing what the government is doing against the Red Cross’s interest in maintaining a relationship with the government that can lead to the correction of problems. That’s how the system is supposed to work and I can certainly understand why the Red Cross wants to keep these reports confidential—they have to worry about their relationship with governments, all governments, in the future, or they will not be able to do their work. So there is certain damage done in publishing this, no question about it. But in this case I honestly believed there was a pressing interest in establishing the facts, facts that have been repeatedly and explicitly denied by the last US government, from President Bush on down. I believe the only way to confront some of these issues, and the way they still haunt the current US administration, is to begin with the truth, to sweep away the lies and the lingering ambiguity built on those lies. The importance of the ICRC report is that it does that. There can be no more ambiguity. The US tortured: the ICRC said it and here are the detainees descriptions, in all their disturbing detail and particularity, to demonstrate it. Only by recognizing what happened, it seems to me, can the country begin to confront it, and eventually to move beyond it. We are still at the beginning of that long path, but we have made a start.

Scott Horton is a law professor and writer on legal and national security affairs for Harper’s Magazine and The American Lawyer, among other publications.