Mark Danner

The Red Cross on Torture

Author: Emily Bazelon (the XX Factor)

We knew, thanks to Jane Mayer’s book The Dark Side, that the International Committee of the Red Cross called the Bush administration’s treatment of certain detainees in CIA custody torture. Now we know, from the text of the ICRC’s report leaked to writer Mark Danner, about the mountain of specifics behind that label. See here for Danner’s shorter New York Times op-ed and here for his longer piece in the New York Review of Books.

The ICRC interviewed 14 high-value detainees in late 2006 at Guantanamo. The Red Cross points out that the “consistency” of their accounts “adds particular weight” to their credibility. Some details also match the stories of former British detainees who described what happened to them after release.

What repeats: a month of standing, arms over the head and shackled, in a frigid room with incessant noise. Little sleep. Face-slapping and head-smashing against walls. Doctors checking for vital signs during water-boarding. The ICRC also picks up on refinements. A towel around the neck of one detainee (Abu Zabaydah) during head-smashing turns into a plastic collar for detainees interrogated later. When Walid ben Attash is forced to stand shackled, the stump of his amputated leg hurts, and he kicks away his prosthesis. Then the pressure on his good leg increases, and he calls his captors to give him back his artificial limb. Afterward, they sometimes take away the prosthesis and then measure the swelling in the leg he has left to stand on.

In Israel in 1999, when a state report came out of the intelligence service’s use of cruelly painful stress positions and sleep deprivation on Palestinian detainees, the country’s Supreme Court essentially banned torture by forcing the government to plead a necessity defense for any interrogator who used it. Here and now, the Obama administration has forsworn water-boarding and is currently holding the CIA to the standards for interrogation of the U.S. military, which preclude the techniques in the ICRC report. But the government has left open what it will let the CIA do in the future, and at his confirmation hearing, CIA head Leon Panetta signaled that he is open to some harsher techniques, case by case.

Is it better for the executive branch to answer these questions itself, or for a court to step in, as Israel’s did? Does the leak of the ICRC report further the goal of truth-telling for the sake of telling, as Sen. Leahy has been arguing in favor of the truth commission he has proposed for the Senate judiciary committee? Or does knowing what happened mean wanting to know who exactly authorized it, at the highest levels? And then once we know that, how do we thread the president’s needle of “looking forward, not backward” and prosecuting the crimes we have evidence of? The questions are sharpening, not going away.