Mark Danner

Torture: Power, Democracy, and the Human Body

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The counterterrorism policies following September 11, 2001, brought the definition and legitimacy of torture to the forefront of political, military, and public debates. This timely volume explores the question of torture through multiple lenses by situating it within systems of belief, social networks of power, and ideological worldviews. Individual essays examine the boundaries of what is deemed legitimate political violence for the sake of state security, the immediate and long-term effects of torture on human and social bodies, the visual and artistic representations of torture, how certain people are dehumanized to make it acceptable to torture them, and how we understand complicity in and the ethical boundaries of torture.


Chapter 2: Now That We’ve Tortured: Image, Guilt, Consequence. Mark Danner

The following essay is reprinted from Torture: Power, Democracy, and the Human Body (University of Washington Press, December 2011), edited by Shampa Biswas and Zahi Zalloua. It is based on a talk delivered by Mark Danner at Whitman College, Walla Walla, Washington, on February 28, 2009.


Let me begin with what today has been a key word: amnesia. It is a striking word, and it makes a provocative point. When it comes to torture as practiced by the United States during the war on terror, there is certainly amnesia and an ongoing quest on the part of some to encourage and cultivate it.

But alongside that quest to forget and bury the recent past, there has also been in recent days a flurry of news about torture, much of it centering around certain vital questions of public policy that, as we speak, are being fired in the hot furnace of debate in Washington. When I boarded the plane to fly out here last night, I opened up the New York Times—the New York Times I hold here in my hand—and here on its front page found in this article, headlined “U.S. Will Give Qaeda Suspect a Civilian Trial,”the news about Mr. Ali Saleh Kahlah al-Marri, who has long been held in a U.S. Navy brig in Charleston, South Carolina. Mr. Al-Marri was arrested in Peoria, Illinois, that famously typical American city, on December 12, 2001, and, without ever passing before a judge or seeing a lawyer, was held incommunicado and in solitary confinement for nearly six years under direct order of the president of the United States.[1]

If you turn to the inside pages of this same edition of the newspaper of record, you find not only a photograph of Mr. Al-Marri, with his long beard and kaffiyeh, but another article, headlined “Senate Panel to Pursue Investigation of CIA,”in which we learn that the intelligence committee of the United States Senate is undertaking an investigation that will review the CIA’s detention and interrogation programs. This article mentions the demand by Senator Patrick Leahy, Democrat of Vermont and chairman of the Judiciary Committee, that there be a truth and reconciliation commission, or simply a truth commission, appointed to investigate the alleged crimes of the George W. Bush administration. Senator Leahy’s proposal is matched by that of his counterpart in the House, Representative John Conyers, Democrat of Michigan, and the demands of various other prominent human rights groups to establish a blue-ribbon, independent commission, perhaps modeled after the 9/11 Commission, to investigate these issues.

I think it important to emphasize here, since we are discussing “amnesia”about torture, that these demands have been prominently reported in the press, as indeed has much of the recent discussion of torture. This was not always the case. Indeed, I have heard more use of the term “waterboarding”in the broadcast press during the past two months than I have during the past five years. The word is all over the television news and discussion programs—despite the fact that, so far as we know, there has been no waterboarding under United States authority since 2003, almost six years ago. So it seems to me that one could argue, and support the argument with a good deal of evidence, that there is more discussion about torture right now, on the television, in the newspapers, among those serving on prominent committees of Congress, than there has been during the half dozen years since that practice was first disclosed in the national press.

Decisions about this country’s policies on interrogation and related matters are now being debated at the highest levels, both publicly and in the three interagency task forces that President Barack Obama established by executive order on his second full day in office. One of President Obama’s first official acts was to sign three executive orders. Another order directed that Guantánamo be closed within a year, and the associated review of the status of its individual detainees has already begun. President Obama’s third executive order directed that the United States intelligence services, and indeed all agencies of the U.S. government, limit themselves in any interrogation to those techniques set out in the army’s field manual on interrogation, which, as rewritten and published in 2006, explicitly forbids many of the techniques, including waterboarding, walling, use of prolonged nudity, and so on, that have been so controversial during the last seven years. While the matter is not quite as clear-cut as that summary may suggest—the field manual contains important loopholes that must be closed, including a troubling appendix listing various exceptions—this executive order is nonetheless very significant indeed.

As we gather here, then, on the last day of February 2009, we find ourselves at an interesting moment at which torture—which has been looming before Americans since the spring of 2004, when torture rose out of the gray newsprint and assumed for a time what might be called a “televisual shape”in the form of the Abu Ghraib images of Hooded Man and Leashed Man and the naked human pyramids and then just as quickly sank back into the newsprint—has begun to assume prominence as a true issue of public policy. We seem actually to be having a real public discussion about it. I think that singular fact deserves mention here. And however much I respect my colleagues on this panel here today, and feel the honor of having been included in such a distinguished group, I do think that there is a certain danger in saying about torture, in effect: Well, you know, we’ve done it, we’ve done it a lot, we’re still doing it, we’re going to keep doing it, and we’re going to forget about it, having done it.

This may indeed be quite true—perhaps, alas, it is likely—but it does seem worth saying that if you want to judge by the evidence, what is actually before us at this moment, that evidence points largely in the contrary direction. One must acknowledge, of course, what my colleagues know very well: that we have had a great number of investigations since 2004, a dozen or so, probably. You can find the texts of many of the major early ones in my book Torture and Truth,[2] which was published way back in October 2004. And indeed I would encourage anyone who is interested in torture to read those documents, because regardless of how similar this instance of torture may be to others, regardless of what may be a certain consistency in the history, what is indisputably distinct about what has happened over the past seven years is that there is available a full official record produced by the very government in which decisions were made, policies were disputed, legal opinions were rendered. What is different, in other words, is that much of that official record of the very government that made torture the official policy of the United States of America is publicly available to us almost in, as it were, real time.

Whatever you want to say about what the U.S. military did during the war in the Philippines at the beginning of the twentieth century, or what influence American training and advice and military aid had over what governments did in Latin America and Central America during the late 1970s—subjects many of us know very well—I don’t believe a similar public record exists from those periods in which people said: “You know, it is imperative in this situation that we use “˜extreme interrogation,’ or torture. Here are the techniques we have to use. I, as secretary of defense, I, as counsel to the president, I, as the responsible Department of Justice office, will now say, and write, that we as a government are going to do these things, and put down in black and white what our rationale for them is.”And though one of the functions of a truth commission, if it ever is convened, would be to complete that documentary record, the fact is we already have a fairly clear understanding of the narrative, beginning in the days immediately after the attacks of September 11, 2001, that shows how these decisions were made, who debated them, who said no to them and how those people were circumvented, that shows, for example, what decisions were specifically made by the secretary of defense, what boxes he checked that said: You can do this, you can’t do that.

So I’m making an appeal—and I confess I’m feeling very “journalistic”at this point before this impressive academic audience—that we start with the facts, not least because the facts are interesting. The facts are rich. And they tell a story of public officials, very few, if any, of them, I would argue, can be described as evil—no matter what you may think of former vice president Dick Cheney, who, in part by his incessant and highly public advocacy, has become the poster boy for the entire issue—and most of whom were in government to try to do the right thing. And these people sat down in their air-conditioned offices and conference rooms and decided to do these things to these people, and they put their names on documents. I know some of these people slightly. One of them, the now infamous John Yoo—who is my colleague on the Berkeley faculty, and I have publicly debated him on that campus—was certainly in no way the evil sadist of the caricatures; I believe Professor Yoo was doing what he sincerely thought was right. Of course, that doesn’t mean what he did was right—on the contrary. But I believe one of our obligations, if we truly want to understand these matters, is to ask why: Why did they make these decisions? Why did they do what they did?

We have talked about a lot of emotions today, but one of the emotions that hasn’t been mentioned is fear. Nobody has said anything about fear. Fear. I think that you can’t talk about Jack Bauer and his popularity—because the television program, 24, of which he is the hero is immensely popular—without talking about fear. Why is that show popular? Or, to put it more bluntly, why do Americans like to sit and watch Jack Bauer torture people? Why does this spectacle, communally witnessed—and I agree with my colleagues that this is a social phenomenon—serve in some way to comfort people as well as to entertain them? Because this uncomfortable question gets us, it seems to me, rather closer to the heart of the matter. We have all been traipsing around talking about this issue for years, exposing and denouncing torture in one way or another, but with the singular exception of the Abu Ghraib images, television hasn’t been much interested in it—except to make money off of it by broadcasting dramatizations like 24. This should point us, however hesitantly, toward a significant—the significant—political reality of torture: that in general, and however doggedly parts of the intellectual elite denounce it, when it comes to torture, for many if not most politicians, the raw political calculus cuts the other way.

What do I mean by that? That most politicians, when they think about torture, think: “Why in heaven’s name would I want to make a public issue of this? Such a stance is apt to hurt me, for it will be described as “˜coddling terrorists’—and at least some part of my constituents, and perhaps even most of them, will agree with that description.” I’m not speculating here but drawing on the stark legislative history. The Detainee Treatment Act of 2005, the Military Commissions Act of 2006: these laws were written and approved by Congress. Republicans introduced the Military Commissions Act—a bill that granted to the president the power to decide what was and was not torture and sheltered those who had used these techniques from prosecution under the War Crimes Act of 1996—in the fall of 2006 in significant part because a very tough midterm election was looming and the Republicans calculated that they could maneuver Democrats into a position of opposing it. And indeed Democrats could have filibustered it, stopped it, but they declined to do that, not least because they calculated, no doubt correctly, that to do so would have been to walk into a political trap.

Among the minority in Congress who did oppose it was a young senator elected the previous year from Illinois, who, when announcing his opposition to the bill, stood up in the chamber and made this blunt—almost shockingly blunt—declaration: “I realize that soon we will adjourn for the fall, and the campaigning will begin in earnest and there will be thirty-second attack ads and negative mail pieces and we will be criticized as caring more about the rights of terrorists than the protection of Americans, and I know that the vote before us was specifically designed and timed to add more fuel to that fire.”[3] That was Senator Barack Obama, before he voted against the Military Commissions Act of 2006, which is now the law of the land. The political analysis he offered has not been disputed; indeed, he seems to have taken it as obvious that voting against this law would leave one open to “thirty-second attack ads”and all the rest, placing one on the side of the terrorists. The premise here is that when the matter is presented in this crude political form, a substantial part of the country approves of these “extreme interrogation techniques”—or at the very least does not think their use should be foreclosed. On any given day, depending on what is in the news and various other factors, it may be a growing or shrinking part, but sometimes, perhaps, it is a majority—especially if what we mean by “approves”is the government maintaining the possibility of using these techniques if leaders deem them necessary. And politicians know this.

Why is this? Why do Americans watch Jack Bauer and cheer him on? I spoke a moment ago of fear. Fear is the most lucrative political emotion. In the wake of a frightening terrorist attack, many people find comfort in the idea or the image of untrammeled government power. That is, when people have been killed as they sit down to do their work—as they sit in their offices at the World Trade Center trading stocks or selling insurance over the telephone or preparing for the luncheon service at Windows on the World—and when this death comes wholly without warning out of the sky and kills three thousand people, it tends to leave a society fairly, well, terrorized. After such an event, it isn’t surprising that many find comfort in the thought that their government has within it highly intelligent, highly able people who are willing to do absolutely anything to protect them. I call this “the Dirty Harry Effect.”Dirty Harry (1971) is that famous movie starring Clint Eastwood and set, not coincidentally, in liberal San Francisco at the end, also not coincidentally, of the liberal 1960s, in which Eastwood plays a tough police detective, Harry Callahan, who, in desperately struggling to protect his city from a serial killer, is willing to do just about anything, including torturing the suspect to find out where one of his victims can be found. To put it another way, Callahan is willing to cut like a chainsaw through all that liberal red tape—including laws against torture—which, in restricting what the police can do, helps keep killers on the loose. Dirty Harry blasts through all that in order to protect citizens from killers and criminals. The appeal here, whether we are talking about Harry Callahan or Jack Bauer, is obvious: it is reassuring to think there are people out there who can cut through all those frustrating obstacles and protect us. The difference is, in 1971 Harry Callahan was a rebel, fighting against the system from within; Jack Bauer, three decades later, works directly for the president.

We are at an interesting moment, when the issue of torture threatens to move from being something we knew about—indeed, have known about for years—but didn’t really discuss, at least not as a serious public policy issue, to something we begin to confront. Thus my title: “Now That We’ve Tortured: Image, Guilt, Consequence.”I’ve talked a bit about the consequences and touched on the images. I think it essential as well to offer some images in the words of the people who have actually been subjected to these techniques. We heard a bit earlier about the absence of “survivor accounts”and how this has led the press to focus on these journalistic stunts—or, better, media stunts—in which journalists volunteer to be waterboarded, and so on. One should point out that as we meet here today we do not possess reliable first-person accounts of waterboarding, for example, though I think it is likely that we will have them at some point. Right now you cannot interview the three people known to have been waterboarded; they remain at Guantí namo. And though we do have Khalid Sheik Mohammad’s deposition, or the equivalent of it, he was not permitted by the tribunal to say anything specific about abuse, extreme interrogation, torture—whatever you’d prefer to call it.

If we have not yet had reliable accounts from the so-called high-value detainees, we do indeed have a considerable number of accounts from other prisoners taken in the war on terror who have experienced “extreme interrogation techniques.”The following account, drawn from a deposition taken by officers of the Criminal Investigation Division (CID) of the U.S. Army, is that of a man known as Detainee 7, who tells of what happened to him at Abu Ghraib prison in the fall of 2003. Detainee 7 had been arrested at a roadblock in Iraq in October 2003. I was actually reporting in Iraq at that point, and I remember vividly the tension and anxiety and insanity of that moment: the insurgency was growing rapidly, the U.S. military knew little about it and was desperate for intelligence to combat it, and because of this, the Americans were conducting neighborhood sweeps and arresting a great many Iraqi men and sending them off to Abu Ghraib for interrogation. Abu Ghraib quickly became immensely overcrowded, had at that time certainly well over ten thousand detainees, a vast number of people, most of whom shouldn’t have been there, and they were being slowly worked through the system by a handful of highly overworked interrogators—and also by military policemen, who were not supposed to be involved in interrogation but at the direction of a desperate Defense Department had become involved, with catastrophic results that we have all seen depicted in lurid colors in the Abu Ghraib photographs.

It was around this time, in the fall of 2003, that the man who came to be known as Detainee 7 was stopped at a roadblock, found to have a Republican Guard ID card in his pocket, and was arrested and shipped off to Abu Ghraib. Following are excerpts from his account, given to the CID officers of the U.S. Army, of what happened to him when he got there:

The first day they put me in a dark room and started hitting me in the head and stomach and legs. They made me raise my hands and sit on my knees. I was like that for four hours. Then the interrogator came and he was looking at me while they were beating me. I stayed in the room for five days, naked, with no clothes. They put handcuffs on my hands and they cuffed me high for seven or eight hours.[4]

“Cuffed me high”describes a familiar position for interrogations of this kind. The idea is to pull the arms behind the back and up, thus putting great stress on the shoulders, which, in extreme versions, can be dislocated. It’s fiercely painful and also quite familiar: the French cuffed prisoners this way when trying to suppress the Algerian rebellion during the late 1950s and early 1960s. Officers of some Latin American regimes, including Brazil and Argentina, favored this treatment—sometimes suspending prisoners with their hands cuffed behind their backs—during their “dirty wars”in the 1960s and 1970s. The prolonged high cuffing brings not only pain but physical damage, as Detainee 7 describes:

That caused a rupture to my right hand. I had a cut that was bleeding and had pus coming from it. They kept me this way on 24, 25 and 26 October. In the following days they put a bag over my head. The whole time I was without clothes, without anything to sleep on.

This placing of a bag over the head, or hooding, is a simple means of producing sensory deprivation and the anxiety that accompanies it: you have this heavy black cloth placed over your head and face, and you can’t see and also can’t hear very well. Your face and head grow hot and sweaty; you have trouble breathing. It is claustrophobic and causes great anxiety, for the detainee has no idea when, if ever, the hood will be removed.

So thus far in Detainee 7’s interrogation, to use the professional jargon, we see the use of “stress positions,”combined with “adjustment of clothing to induce stress”—the prolonged forced nudity—and sensory deprivation.

One day in November they started a different type of punishment where American police came into my room and put the bag over my head, cuffed my hands, took me out of the room into the hallway. He started beating me—him and five other American police. I could see their feet only from beneath the bag.

The hood greatly increases the effectiveness of beatings: the detainee doesn’t know when the blows are coming; he can’t cringe, he can’t protect his face or any other sensitive parts of his body. This vulnerability makes beatings more unpredictable and more terrifying.

A couple of those police were female, I knew because I heard their voices and I saw two of the police before they put the bag over my head. One of them was wearing glasses; I couldn’t read his name. He put tape over his name. Some of the things they did were make me sit down like a dog holding the string from the bag and they would make me bark like a dog. They were laughing at me.

Shame—the use of shame. You see this in Abu Ghraib and at Guantánamo: this focus on sensory deprivation together with shaming the prisoner. Female interrogators were often used to magnify this effect, for they were thought to be more effective in shaming devout Muslim men, who now found themselves naked and vulnerable and impotent before the women. Shame shortens the road to humiliation.

One of the police was telling me to crawl in Arabic, so I crawled on my stomach and the police were spitting on me, while I was crawling and hitting me. The police were hitting me in my kidneys, then they hit me in my right ear, it started bleeding and I lost consciousness. A few days before they hit me on my ear, the American police, the guy who wears glasses, he put red woman’s underwear over my head. And then he tied me to the window that is in the cell with my hands behind my back until I lost consciousness. And also when I was in Room #1 they told me to lay down on my stomach and they were jumping from the bed onto my back and my legs. And the other two were spitting on me and calling me names, and they held my hands and legs. After the guy with the glasses got tired, two of the American soldiers brought me to the ground and tied my hands to the door while laying down on my stomach. One of the police was pissing on me and laughing on me. And the soldier and his friend told me in a loud voice to lie down, so I did that. And then the policeman was opening my legs, with a bag over my head.

So here Detainee 7, naked but for the hood over his head, is forced to lie on his stomach on the floor, prone. He can’t see clearly what is happening to him, or what this military policeman intends to do.

He sat down between my legs on his knees, and I was looking at him from underneath the bag. And they wanted to do me—I saw him, he was opening his pants, so I started screaming loudly and the other police started hitting me with his feet on my neck and he put his feet on my head so I couldn’t scream. And then they put the loud speaker in the room and he was yelling into the microphone.

This is called, in the Department of Defense documents, “use of noise to induce stress.”Sometimes, as here, it is done with amplified voices; sometimes, as at Guantánamo, the same music is played over and over again at very high volume.

There is not time to read all of Detainee 7’s account—these are excerpts—but here is a final word from him, recounting events from a couple days later:

They took me to the room and they signaled me to get on to the floor. And one of the police he put a part of his stick that he always carries inside my ass and I felt it going inside me about 2 centimeters, approximately. And I started screaming, and he pulled it out and he washed it with water inside the room. And then two American girls that were there when they were beating me, they were hitting me with a ball made of sponge on my dick. And when I was tied up in my room, one of the girls, with blonde hair, she is white, she was playing with my dick. And they were taking pictures of me during all these instances.

We know, of course, about these photographs, and indeed this deposition became public only in the late spring of 2004, after the first of the Abu Ghraib photos had been aired by CBS News’ Sixty Minutes II and published in the New Yorker along with Seymour Hersh’s pathbreaking report. Though government officials, from President Bush on down, assured Americans that these actions were the perversions of a few low-level people, in fact many people—including people at this table today—will recognize in Detainee 7’s account familiar techniques and common themes. I’ve pointed to a few of them. While the abuses just described by Detainee 7 were not committed by professional interrogators—these were military police who didn’t have any real training in what they were doing—these MPs claimed to be, and in my view clearly were, trying to follow loose guidelines that had been given to them by superior officers, some of whom almost certainly were professional interrogators.

Let me read you another account, this one very short, that is drawn from an e-mail sent by an FBI counterterrorism official at Guantánamo several months later, in August 2004, four months after the Abu Ghraib photographs were made public:

On a couple occasions I entered a room to find a detainee chained hand and foot in the fetal position   on the floor, with no chair, food, or water. Most times they had urinated or defecated on themselves. They had been left there for eighteen to twenty-four hours or more. When I asked MPs what was going on, I was told that interrogators from the day prior had ordered this treatment and the detainee was not to be moved. On another occasion, the detainee was almost unconscious on the floor with a pile of hair next to him. He had apparently literally pulled his own hair out throughout the night.[5]

We see here the stress positions, the “adjustment of temperature to induce stress,”and so on. We also see the collaboration between the interrogators and the military police, new for the military, in which the former tell the latter, essentially, “Do such and such to “˜soften this guy up.’”

We have many accounts from FBI officials—most declassified thanks to the American Civil Liberties Union—about what was going on at Guantánamo. Most of these were sent in the months after the Abu Ghraib photographs became public, and it is fair to say that in many of these cases, a familiar bureaucratic motivation is at work, the one commonly known as CYA: cover your ass.

It is not cynical to point this out, for it is important to remember that this torture story is in part a bureaucratic story. We have many of the documents we do have for bureaucratic reasons. The famous “torture memos”written by lawyers in the Department of Justice, for example, exist certainly in large part because officials in the intelligence community wanted a so-called golden shield that would protect them when the press and the public learned about these techniques—at a moment, presumably, when sympathy for their use would be less universal than it might have been in the months after 9/11. “You want me to do this stuff to prisoners, I want an ironclad legal opinion from the Department of Justice approving them.”That’s in effect what the CIA officials said, and as a consequence, we have these torture memos—which is to say, the people who were doing this anticipated this very moment. No doubt many of the senior people remembered vividly those post-Watergate months during the mid-1970s when the Church Committee and the Pike Committee were investigating the CIA of the 1950s and 1960s, those distant times when the agency had perpetrated the assassinations, the coups d’état, and other dirty tricks of the early Cold War. In their hearings and in their final reports, the committees exposed those activities to an elite and a public that, post-Vietnam, had become much less sympathetic to the claims of national security; careers were ruined, people went to jail. And so when the Bush administration made certain requests after 9/11, those high up in the CIA with long memories said—I am speculating here—”Hold on just a moment. When this happens again, when a few years down the road the next commission gets around to doing its work, this time on what happened in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, we are not going to be the ones left without the get-out-of-jail-free card.” Or, to use another metaphor, “When the music stops this time, I am not going to be the only one standing without a chair.”

Speaking of the CIA, let us move for just a moment from the techniques used by military interrogators and policemen at Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo to those used by CIA officers on “high-value detainees”at the so-called black sites, the secret interrogation centers established in various countries around the world, including Pakistan, Afghanistan, Thailand, Morocco, Poland, and Lithuania, among others. I’d like to read one other document, this one from 2005, which sets out what I am going to call “the six techniques.”As my colleagues will know, this is an allusion to the famous Five Techniques, which British intelligence employed on Irish Republican Army prisoners during the early 1970s in Northern Ireland. These six techniques—first described to the public by Brian Ross of ABC News, together with his colleague Richard Esposito—were allegedly those used, almost always in combination, by CIA officers in secretly interrogating those who are deemed to be the most valuable prisoners.[6] Here is Ross’s and Esposito’s list:

  1. The Attention Grab: The interrogator forcefully grabs the shirt front of the prisoner and shakes him.

This technique was favored for a number of years by Israeli intelligence, the Shin Beit. We are talking about very forceful shaking—back and forth, hard. The only risk is that if it is not done right, it may break the detainee’s neck and kill him, which is, needless to say, a very considerable downside.

  1. Attention Slap: An open-handed slap aimed at causing pain and triggering fear.
  2. The Belly Slap: A hard open-handed slap to the stomach. The aim is to cause pain, but not internal injury. Doctors consulted advised against using a punch, which could cause lasting internal damage.
  3. Long Time Standing:This technique is described as among the most effective. Prisoners are forced to stand, handcuffed and with their feet shackled to an eye bolt in the floor for more than 40 hours. Exhaustion and sleep deprivation are effective in yielding confessions.

The fourth technique, long-time standing—the Soviets called it stoika—is simple and effective, as we know from a great deal of research, much of it commissioned by the CIA when it was investigating Soviet interrogation techniques during the 1950s and 1960s. When a person stands immobile for more than a couple hours, his legs begin to swell, eventually blisters form, the skin actually breaks, and finally the renal system begins to shut down. This is terribly, excruciatingly painful. At the same time, the technique sounds relatively harmless and inoffensive. Donald Rumsfeld, then secretary of defense, famously scrawled at the bottom of one of these documents, when asked to approve long-time standing for up to four hours in late 2002, “However, I stand for 8″“10 hours a day. Why is standing limited to 4 hours? D.R.”[7] Secretary Rumsfeld preferred to work at a standing desk—though it perhaps should go without saying, even if apparently it doesn’t, that standing at your desk, drinking coffee, signing papers, pausing for a meeting or two, talking to your aides and assistants, and so on, is not quite the same thing as being chained to an eyebolt in the floor, naked and immobile in a very cold room, for hour after hour. For this technique is often combined with “adjustment of temperature to induce stress,”the fifth of the six techniques.

  1. The Cold Cell:The prisoner is left to stand naked in a cell kept near 50 degrees. Throughout the time in the cell the prisoner is doused with cold water.

A variation of this technique was used in Iraq. The Special Forces guys, for example, reportedly used this in Mosul and elsewhere in northern Iraq. They would chain up prisoners on the ground outside, naked in the cold, and repeatedly douse them with cold water, and they had a thermometer placed in the rectum to give them constant body temperature readings so they would avoid inducing hypothermia and accidentally killing their prisoners, which, again, is always a risk.

  1. 6.Water Boarding: The prisoner is bound to an inclined board, feet raised, and head slightly below the feet. Cellophane is wrapped over the prisoner’s face and water is poured over him. Unavoidably, the gag reflex kicks in and a terrifying fear of drowning leads to almost instant pleas to bring the treatment to a halt.

This is the most famous of the six techniques. Though Americans have contributed a few innovations—the cellophane, for example—the technique, which in its essence is nothing more than interrupted drowning, goes back a long way, centuries in fact. More recently, the French used it extensively in fighting the National Liberation Front, or FLN, in Algeria during the 1950s and 1960s; the Argentines used it in their dirty war during the 1970s, calling it el submarino. So far as we know, American interrogators have used waterboarding on three prisoners, then held at the black sites and now at Guantánamo. Those three were among the fourteen high-value detainees whose transfer from the black sites was announced by President Bush during his remarkable speech of September 6, 2006, in which the president of the United States, standing in the White House, defends quite explicitly the U.S. government’s use of “enhanced interrogation techniques.” Though the speech had an obvious political purpose—introducing the Military Commissions Act in the run-up to the 2006 midterm elections, as discussed earlier—I believe this is one of the most important speeches President Bush ever gave. For many reasons, it is historic.

The documents I have quoted are not new. Detainee 7’s deposition dates from spring 2004, the FBI officer’s e-mail from August 2004, and Ross’s and Esposito’s piece from November 2005. Americans have known about torture for a very long time. People have been writing about it, reporters have been publishing prominent pieces about it, including, as early as December 2002, on the front page of the Washington Post. So for years now, we have been talking about torture, writing about torture. We have learned to live with it.

The question before us now is whether we will do anything about it. We have elected a new president, a Democrat, who has been outspoken in his opposition to torture. What will our political leaders now do, if indeed they do anything?

One answer we can give already is that they will go on producing reports. As I said, we already have a good many of these, but it should be acknowledged that their quality has been improving dramatically. The Senate Armed Services Committee, for example, recently released an executive summary of its report on the development and application of these extreme interrogation techniques that was authoritative, comprehensive, provocative—and absolutely devastating. Americans can find this very easily online.[8] The Senate Intelligence Committee, as I mentioned, is said to be hard at work on another such report, and we can expect that this will add essential details to an already vivid and thorough record.

Then there is the Senate Judiciary Committee, whose chairman, Senator Leahy, has proposed establishing a kind of truth commission to investigate these matters. As we meet today, Senator Leahy’s proposal is not given much chance of success. It is, to put it mildly, very controversial. One memorable response was that of Senator Arlen Specter, Republican of Pennsylvania, who declared, on hearing it, “This is not Latin America!”

One can’t help laughing a bit at this, but of course the laughter is of the mirthless kind. The real question is, What does this mean—that we are not Latin America? And, if we are not, what is the difference exactly? One obvious difference is that of magnitude. On the one hand, American officials did not kidnap thousands of people, torture and murder them, and bury them in secret graves. On the other hand, Americans did torture a great many people—we can’t say precisely how many, but it certainly seems to have been in the hundreds—and this record has been public for some time. Argentines, while their dirty war was being fought, knew people were being disappeared, but this wasn’t broadly acknowledged, not to mention reported, in the nation’s press. Americans are, it seems to me, distinguished by their ability to read in the press about much of what was happening as it was happening, which is indeed a remarkable thing—not least because it means that when we look at these proposals for a truth commission, or for prosecution, we have to cope as well with the question of how implicated the entire society, including the public, actually is. Can we truly prosecute “to the full extent of the law”those who not only acted under legal cover—that is, who acted with documents in hand, as it were, that said “authoritatively” that what they were doing was legal—but acted with the documented knowledge of many officials at the highest reaches of the government and, increasingly, with the growing knowledge of the public?

On the other side, many concerned about these issues attack the very idea of a truth commission because the phrase “truth commission”implies to some of them that people will be invited to testify—people, perhaps, like former vice president Cheney or David Addington, his chief of staff—in exchange, presumably, for some kind of immunity. This is how the South Africans managed their Truth and Reconciliation Commission

Now there are practical problems here, fairly obvious ones. The first is that the Military Commissions Act of 2006 tries explicitly to shield those who have committed these acts from prosecution under the War Crimes Act of 1996—and if you can’t credibly threaten to prosecute people, how will you persuade them to testify in exchange for immunity from prosecution? Those difficulties aside, however, many in the human rights community, in particular, find any proffer of immunity in exchange for testimony to be an egregious idea, because it would allow these people to avoid prosecution. I am somewhat sympathetic to this sentiment, but I do believe this argument also very quickly raises the question: Well, what kind of guilt do these people bear—and to what extent do we share in it?

We’ve had an emphasis here on “the social phenomenon of torture,”and I couldn’t agree more that it’s a social phenomenon. Sometimes it’s more social than others. We have had in the United States an example of torture as a truly social phenomenon, for not only has it been reported on fairly extensively but the society has known about it, and countenanced it, for years. Given this, can we as a society sit in judgment of and then prosecute Dick Cheney? Can we say: How could you have done this? We are appalled by these illegal actions, and we are going to put you in jail now.

I’m not saying, by this rhetorical question, that we can’t do that—not at all. Of course we can do it. I am saying: If we were to do that, what exactly would we be doing? Imagine for a moment Dick Cheney, sitting in the dock, looking out at the court and at the country and saying, in that steely way of his, “You used me when you needed me. When you wanted me to calm your nerves, when I was the guy who was kicking ass and taking names and torturing people. But now, now your nerves are calm. There have been no further attacks. So now you’re going to punish me—and in so doing, you’re lying to yourselves, because you’re doing no more than trying to punish your own worst instincts. However satisfying it might be to your own sense of decorum, this act is a sham, for in its essence, it has nothing to do with justice.”Now, however far we are from such a moment—and we are very, very far—my question to this distinguished panel and this very patient audience is: If Dick Cheney said those words or others like them, would he be wrong? And if so, why?

So I turn now from these aggressive provocations to my point of departure, which was my objection to the somewhat static idea that “societies torture”: that they did torture, they do torture, and they will continue to torture. So despite our distance from my little thought experiment—and we are, as I say, very far indeed, if it ever happens—it seems to me that one thing to be hoped for from this interesting moment is a bit of societal education, which might begin with a communal effort to investigate and state clearly, in a communally acceptable and communally agreed-on way, what exactly happened. Here: this is the truth—the truth set out in a way that we as a society can agree on. You can argue all you want about the implications of these things and what should be done about them, but here are the indisputable facts. Here is what was done and who ordered it, and when. This is what the Senate Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities, which investigated Watergate, did in the early 1970s.

When it comes to torture, we have much of this story already, as I have said. But what we certainly don’t have is the story of the use of these techniques, told by people who have access to all the documents, of whatever classification—a story that then leads to a reliable judgment of their effectiveness and a persuasive verdict on whether or not they really were essential to saving thousands or even millions of lives, as the former vice president and other officials have repeatedly, though generally quite unconvincingly, insisted.

Now I absolutely agree that torture does enormous political damage to a society and that the use of it by the United States has done incalculable harm to the country’s cause in fighting what is largely a political war. I believe that the use of these techniques was not only illegal and morally wrong but that it constituted a terrible, terrible mistake, which did much damage to the country. But, as I have pointed out, it is impossible to understand where we are on this issue if we don’t acknowledge that many Americans—a substantial minority and perhaps on a given day, and depending on how the question is posed, a majority—do not agree with this. Many believe that these techniques are effective and necessary. They believe in Jack Bauer; they like to think that he is out there, keeping us safe. And in this as in virtually all other things, many of our political leaders play the role not of leaders but of followers. They understand this sentiment, and many of them—and no doubt more every day, as the issue gains salience under a Democratic administration—will attempt to profit politically from that. We already see this happening, in the increasingly aggressive comments of the former vice president.

We need to acknowledge this political reality—not give in to it, but acknowledge it. It seems to me that if we are going to escape our current impasse on torture, if we are going to cleanse our society of it, we need a credible, nonpartisan or anyway bipartisan commission, led by people of unquestioned integrity, experience, and trustworthiness, who not only can investigate fully and deeply, with all necessary security clearances, what was done but can say this clearly, persuasively, and vividly: that torture is not only illegal and wrong but that, on balance, torture profoundly damaged the country, not just its reputation but its cause in the war on terror. You might ask: Well, what if such a commission reaches a very different conclusion? My answer would be that this is most unlikely, if not inconceivable, but that if it did happen, we would have to deal with that as a society as well. For at the end of the day, we all have an interest in its conclusions and how it reaches them because we are all, to some degree, implicated in this issue—we all bear, I believe, just a tiny little smidgen of guilt, for the society itself is deeply implicated. If we are going to redeem ourselves, I think the story has to be constructed, presented, and communally sanctioned, the crimes have to be expiated in a way that is just and not vengeful, and only then can we as Americans, as an American community, begin to make our way back to a relative—relative—state of grace.


[1] See David Johnston and Neil A. Lewis, “U.S. Will Give Qaeda Suspect a Civilian Trial,”New York Times, February 26, 2009.

[2] Mark Danner, ed., Torture and Truth: America, Abu Ghraib, and the War on Terror (New York: New York Review of Books, 2004).

[3] See “Statement on Military Commission Legislation: Remarks by Senator Barack Obama,”September 28, 2006, quoted in Mark Danner, “US Torture: Voices from the Black Sites,”New York Review of Books 56, no. 6 (April 9, 2009), and in Mark Danner, Stripping Bare the Body: Politics Violence War (New York: Nation Books, 2009), 517.

[4] These and the excerpts that follow are drawn from “Translation of Sworn Statement Provided by [Name Blacked Out] Detainee #[Number Blacked Out], 1430/21JAN04,”in Danner, Torture and Truth, 247″“48. Originally posted on the Web site of the Washington Post in 2004 and reprinted in Mark Danner, “The Logic of Torture,”New York Review, June 24, 2004.

[5] See “Email from [<sc>redacted</sc>] to [<sc>redacted</sc>],” August 2, 2004. Quoted in Mark Danner, “We Are All Torturers Now,”New York Times, January 6, 2005, section A, late edition, and in Danner, Stripping Bare the Body, 417.

[6] See Richard Esposito and Brian Ross, “CIA’s Harsh Interrogation Techniques Described,”ABC News, November 18, 2005.

[7] See “General Counsel of the Department of Defense Action Memo,”November 22, 2002, in Danner, Torture and Truth, 182.

[8] See Senate Armed Services Committee, “Inquiry into the Treatment of Detainees in U.S. Custody,”November 20, 2008, (accessed June 23, 2010).