The other day on Jerry Agar’s radio show, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld responded to accusations about American atrocities at our prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. He accused the detainees there of manipulating public opinion by lying about their treatment. He said, in part:
“They’re taught to lie, they’re taught to allege that they have been tortured, and that’s part of the [terrorist] training that they received. We know that torture is not occurring there. We know that for a fact? The reality is that the terrorists have media committees. They are getting very clever at manipulating the media in the United States and in the capitals of the world. They know for a fact they can’t win a single battle on the battlefields in the Middle East. They know the only place they can win a battle is in the capitol in Washington, D.C. by having the United States lose its will, so they consciously manipulate the media here to achieve their ends, and they’re very good at it.”
Statements like this have been commonplaces from an administration whose President repeatedly insists it doesn’t do “torture,” while its assembled lawyers do their best to redefine torture out of existence. Here’s how, for instance, our Vice President has described the lives of detainees at Guantanamo Bay: “They’re living in the tropics? They’re well fed. They’ve got everything they could possibly want. There isn’t any other nation in the world that would treat people who were determined to kill Americans the way we’re treating these people.”
As a matter of fact, the record of detainee abuse, humiliation, and torture at Guantanamo and elsewhere is by now overwhelming — and it’s been laid out by a remarkably wide-ranging set of sources. In June 2005, for example, Time Magazine released excerpts from official interrogation logs on just one Guantanamo prisoner, Mohammad al-Qahtani, reputedly the 20th September 11th hijacker who never made it into the U.S. This stunning record of mistreatment over time so threatened the detainee’s health that it should certainly have qualified as torture under this administration’s definition (“must be equivalent in intensity to the pain accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death”) in its famed “torture memo” of 2002.
Or let’s remember how two years’ worth of blistering memos and e-mails by disgusted FBI agents stationed at Guantanamo Bay (obtained and released by the American Civil Liberties Union) laid out styles of detainee mistreatment that should have staggered someone’s imagination:
“‘On a couple of occasions, I entered interview rooms to find a detainee chained hand and foot in a fetal position to the floor, with no chair, food or water,’ the FBI agent wrote on Aug. 2, 2004. ‘Most times they had urinated or defecated on themselves, and had been left there for 18 to 24 hours or more.’ In one case, the agent continued, ‘the detainee was almost unconscious on the floor, with a pile of hair next to him. He had apparently been literally pulling his own hair out throughout the night.'”
Just in the last week, the administration that doesn’t do torture found itself in court fighting hard for a torture exemption from the McCain anti-torture amendment, thanks to extreme force-feeding methods being used on a prisoner on a Guantanamo hunger strike. According to Josh White and Carol D. Leonnig of the Washington Post, “Bush administration lawyers, fighting a claim of torture by a Guantanamo Bay detainee, yesterday argued that the new law that bans cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment of detainees in U.S. custody does not apply to people held at the military prison. In federal court yesterday and in legal filings, Justice Department lawyers contended that a detainee at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, cannot use legislation drafted by Sen. John McCain… to challenge treatment that the detainee’s lawyers described as ‘systematic torture.'”
In the meantime, U.S. military officers, “breaking with domestic and international legal precedent,” refused to rule out the admission of evidence obtained by torture at the military trials the Pentagon is now running at Guantanamo.
The week before, Jane Mayer wrote a thoroughly depressing New Yorker piece, “Annals of the Pentagon,” about former U.S. Navy General Counsel Alberto J. Mora, a conservative military man who just happened to believe in the law. Hers was a gripping tale of Mora’s losing battle to stop Donald Rumsfeld and his followers from circumventing the Geneva Conventions and instituting a “gloves-off” policy of torture and abuse at Guantanamo. Tim Golden and Eric Schmitt of the New York Times produced a front-page story that same week (Growing Afghan Prison Rivals Bleak Guantanamo), pointing out something well covered by the British Guardian almost a year ago: We now have a second Guantanamo on our hands, a prison at Bagram Air Force Base in Afghanistan that may indeed make Guantanamo look like the “tropics.” There, 500 or so detainees, beyond all law or oversight, have been kept under barbaric conditions, in some cases for two to three years.
The week before that, the latest Abu Ghraib photos were released, even grimmer than the previous batch — a huge story around the world — to largely “been there, done that” coverage in the United States. Each day, it seems, more and worse pours out, largely to no obvious effect here. It is in this context that Dahr Jamail, who began hearing of American torture practices while covering the war in Iraq in 2003 as an independent journalist, looks back on the last several years and considers the nature of our torture regime.