Saturday, September 24, 2005

THE CURRENT ISSUE OF TIME has an article about new reports of extensive, systematic torture committed against detainees in Iraq and Afghanistan. The article says that the torture occurred in 2003 and 2004, before and during the time when the torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraib was being investigated by the military, but before the Abu Ghraib torture scandal became public.

The only reason that we are now finding out about this is because one individual -- a "decorated former Captain in the Army's 82nd Airborne Division," according to military authorities -- decided to blow the whistle. He reported the torture to Human Rights Watch and to three senior Republican senators: Bill Frist (Majority Leader), John Warner (chair of the Armed Services Committee), and John McCain (who was himself tortured in Vietnam). And the reason the Captain (whose identity is not being revealed) went to Human Rights Watch and to the U.S. Senate is because there was no other way he could get anyone to take these charges seriously or investigate them. Apparently he tried for a year and a half to get the military chain of command to do something about the torture, but they just ignored it.

The HRW report provides details of what prisoners were forced to endure:

  • Daily beatings to "prepare" detainees for interrogations. Prisoners were smashed into their "cages" (soldiers' term), kicked, assaulted with metal bats, beaten in the head, chest, legs, and stomach.
  • Forced exercise and stress positioning, kept up until the detainee lost consciousness.
  • Extreme sleep deprivation (for days, not hours).
  • Exposure to extremes of heat and cold (in immediate succession; this was a common form of torture in the former Soviet Union under Stalin and later as well).
  • Denying food and water for extended periods of time.
  • Soaking detainees with cold water and then covering them with dirt and sand.

Here is an excerpt from the account given by one sergeant who corroborated portions of the Captain's allegations:

The "Murderous Maniacs" was what they called us at our camp because they knew if they got caught by us and got detained by us before they went to Abu Ghraib then it would be hell to pay. They would be just, you know, you couldn't even imagine. It was sort of like I told you when they came in it was like a game. You know, how far could you make this guy goes before he passes out or just collapses on you. From stress positions to keeping them up fucking two days straight, whatever. Deprive them of food water, whatever.

To "Fuck a PUC" means to beat him up. We would give them blows to the head, chest, legs, and stomach, pull them down, kick dirt on them. This happened every day.

To "smoke" someone is to put them in stress positions until they get muscle fatigue and pass out. That happened every day. Some days we would just get bored so we would have everyone sit in a corner and then make them get in a pyramid. This was before Abu Ghraib but just like it. We did that for amusement.

Guard shifts were four hours. We would stress them at least in excess of twelve hours. When I go off shift and the next guy comes we are already stressing the PUC and we let the new guy know what he did and to keep fucking him. We put five-gallon water cans and made them hold them out to where they got muscle fatigue then made them do pushups and jumping jacks until they passed out. We would withhold water for whole guard shifts. And the next guy would too. Then you gotta take them to the john if you give them water and that was a pain. And we withheld food, giving them the bare minimum like crackers from MREs [Meals Ready to Eat, the military's prepackaged food]. And sleep deprivation was a really big thing.

Someone from [Military Intelligence] told us these guys don't get no sleep. They were directed to get intel [intelligence] from them so we had to set the conditions by banging on their cages, crashing them into the cages, kicking them, kicking dirt, yelling. All that shit. We never stripped them down because this is an all-guy base and that is fucked up shit. We poured cold water on them all the time to where they were soaking wet and we would cover them in dirt and sand. We did the jugs of water where they held them out to collapse all the time. The water and other shit...start[ed] [m]aybe late September, early October, 2003. This was all at Camp Mercury, close to the MEK base like 10 minutes from Fallujah. We would transport the PUCs from Mercury to Abu Ghraib.

Soldiers were goaded by their superior officers into torturing detainees. They were told that these detainees had just been brought in from killing Americans. They were told these are the guys who killed your buddies.

Soldiers were told to beat and torture prisoners so they would "cooperate" during interrogations. They were also urged to do whatever they felt like doing to the prisoners as a form of "stress relief." Commanding officers didn't just know what was going on; they actively encouraged the torture.

So this time, we have to make sure that our elected officials refuse to accept the "isolated incident" garbage. These are and were not isolated incidents. This is policy, and it goes to the highest levels.

When the Abu Ghraib scandal broke in April 2004, senior officials in the Bush administration claimed that severe prisoner abuse was committed only by a few, rogue, poorly trained reserve personnel at a single facility in Iraq. But since then, hundreds of other cases of abuse from Iraq and Afghanistan have come to light, described in U.S. government documents, reports of the International Committee of the Red Cross, media reports, legal documents filed by detainees, and from detainee accounts provided to human rights organizations, including Human Rights Watch. 3 And while the military has launched investigations and prosecutions of lower-ranking personnel for detainee abuse, in most cases the military has used closed administrative hearings to hand down light administrative punishments like pay reductions and reprimands, instead of criminal prosecutions before courts-martial. The military has made no effort to conduct a broader criminal investigation focusing on how military command might have been involved in reported abuse, and the administration continues to insist that reported abuse had nothing to do with the administration's decisions on the applicability of the Geneva Conventions or with any approved interrogation techniques.

These soldiers' firsthand accounts provide further evidence contradicting claims that abuse of detainees by U.S. forces was isolated or spontaneous. The accounts here suggest that the mistreatment of prisoners by the U.S. military is even more widespread than has been acknowledged to date, including among troops belonging to some of the best trained, most decorated, and highly respected units in the U.S. Army. They describe in vivid terms abusive interrogation techniques ordered by Military Intelligence personnel and known to superior officers.

Most important, they demonstrate that U.S. troops on the battlefield were given no clear guidance on how to treat detainees. When the administration sent these soldiers to war in Afghanistan, it threw out the rules they were trained to uphold (embodied in the Geneva Conventions and the U.S. Army Field Manual on Intelligence Interrogation). Instead, President Bush said only that detainees be treated "humanely," not as a requirement of the law but as policy. And no steps were taken to define what humane was supposed to mean in practice. Once in Iraq, their commanders demanded that they extract intelligence from detainees without telling them what was allowed and what was forbidden. Yet when abuses inevitably followed, the administration blamed only low-ranking soldiers instead of taking responsibility.

These soldiers' accounts show how the administration's refusal to insist on adherence to a lawful, long-recognized, and well-defined standard of treatment contributed to the torture of prisoners. It also shows how that policy betrayed the soldiers in the field -- sowing confusion in the ranks, exposing them to legal sanction when abuses occurred, and placing in an impossible position all those who wished to behave honorably.

Look, this is a disgrace. The United States is not a beacon of freedom. The United States is a country that tortures, disappears, and murders political prisoners, just like any other brutal regime you can think of or name. There is no way Americans can pretend that our country is a model for anything good or positive if we do not demand that our government stop acting like we're trying to top Saddam Hussein's record for brutality.

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