Torture: It’s the new American way
‘WE WILL bury you,” Nikita Khrushchev told U.S. diplomats in 1956. The conventional wisdom is that Khrushchev got it wrong: The repressive Soviet state collapsed under the weight of its own cruelties and lies while democratic America went from strength to strength, buoyed by its national commitment to liberty and justice for all.
But with this week’s blockbuster report of secret CIA detention facilities in Eastern Europe, cynics may be pardoned for wondering who really won the Cold War.
According to Dana Priest, the Washington Post investigative reporter who broke the story Wednesday, it all started on Sept. 17, 2001, when President Bush signed a secret executive order authorizing the CIA to kill, capture or detain Al Qaeda operatives.
There was only one problem: The CIA didn’t know where to put the people it detained. Those detainees thought to be of “high value” needed to be kept somewhere ... special. Somewhere impregnable, like Alcatraz. And somewhere secret, far from the prying eyes of reporters or Red Cross officials. Because these high-value prisoners -- so-called ghost detainees -- were going to be subjected to “enhanced interrogation techniques.”
That’s Orwell-speak for what’s known in English as torture. The list of enhanced techniques is classified but reportedly includes such old favorites as “waterboarding” (feigned drowning) and feigned suffocation. Authorized techniques also may have included the “Palestinian hanging,” a “stress position” in which a detainee is suspended from the ceiling or wall by his wrists, which are handcuffed behind his back.
It was this enhancement that preceded the death of Manadel Jamadi, an Iraqi who died in CIA custody at Abu Ghraib in November 2003, according to government investigative reports. When Jamadi was lowered to the ground, blood gushed from his mouth as if “a faucet had turned on,” said Tony Diaz, an MP who witnessed his torture. Later, other guards posed with Jamadi’s battered corpse, and the leaked photos shocked the world.
That’s not the kind of publicity a freedom-loving democracy needs, so the CIA reportedly opted for secret “black sites.” It’s not as easy as you might think to find a spot where you can torture people in peace. Abu Ghraib is full of camera-clicking reservists, and the Marquis de Sade’s castle lies in ruins. The Tower of London’s dungeons still boast an excellent range of enhanced interrogation equipment, but they attract too many giggling children.
CIA operatives apparently considered uninhabited islands near Zambia’s Lake Kariba, but interrogators didn’t much like the idea of catching one of those nasty local diseases so prevalent in Central Africa. Marburg hemorrhagic fever? No thanks.
Thailand worked for a while, but the Thai government got cold feet when press reports outed the existence of a local CIA site. And Guantanamo’s CIA interrogation facility had to be closed when the Supreme Court pointed out that Guantanamo is not a law-free zone.
Remember the flap last spring when Amnesty International called Guantanamo an American “gulag”? Maybe that’s what gave the CIA the idea of locating some black sites in Eastern Europe. (“Hmm, gulag, gulag ... that reminds me of something.... Hey! Maybe there are some leftover Soviet-era detention facilities we can use for our enhanced interrogations!”)
At the request of “senior U.S. officials,” the Washington Post declined to identify the locations of the Eastern European black sites. But Marc Garlasco, a military analyst at Human Rights Watch, says that host countries may include Poland and Romania.
Human Rights Watch examined flight records showing that on Sept. 22, 2003, for instance, around the same time several high-value Al Qaeda detainees were transferred out of CIA facilities in Afghanistan, a CIA-linked Boeing 737 with the tail number N313P flew from Kabul to Szymany Airport in Poland. The next day, it landed at Mihail Kogalniceanu military airfield in Romania. Released Guantanamo detainees have corroborated the use of this plane as a prisoner transport, and rights groups and journalists say witnesses also have reported seeing hooded prisoners being loaded and unloaded from the same plane at various other locations.
During the Cold War, we thought we knew what distinguished us from our Soviet bloc enemies. We did not have a gulag; we did not imprison and torture our enemies. But the war on terror has distorted our national values. We have used some of the same tactics we once decried. The Soviet Union’s legacy of terror lives on, its tactics embraced by some of our leaders. Vice President Dick Cheney continues to insist that the McCain amendment, which prohibits U.S. personnel from cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment of prisoners, should not be applicable to the CIA.
Somewhere in Moscow’s Novodevichyi cemetery, Khrushchev is probably laughing inside his grave.