“Deplorable,” “disturbing” and “embarrassing” are adjectives some members of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence used almost three years ago in response to a report investigating the CIA’s use of enhanced interrogation techniques after 9/11. The declassified portion of the report is available on the Senate panel’s website. Sid Jacobson and Ernie Colón’s “The Torture Report: A Graphic Adaptation,” is a graphic-novel style version that is equally difficult to read.
The CIA’s detention and interrogation program ran from 2002 to 2006. After sifting through 6 million pages of CIA documents, the Senate committee released a nearly 7,000-page report describing the torture and treatment of prisoners captured during the George W. Bush administration.
The full report was sent to the White House and executive branch agencies for review and comments. Only the summary (about 500 pages) has been publicly released. The rest of the document will remain restricted to the public for an additional 12 years or more. Although the names of CIA officers and locations of secret detention facilities are redacted, the interrogation techniques are described in grim detail, including waterboarding and forced rectal rehydration (when a meal is pureed and rectally infused).
The American Civil Liberties Union (on behalf of two former prisoners and the family of a prisoner who died in CIA custody) sued two former U.S. Air Force psychologists contracted by the CIA to design and implement the agency’s interrogation program, who settled the suit in August, before a court trial was set to begin.
These people appear in “The Torture Report: A Graphic Adaptation” on adjacent pages. The black-and-white illustration of two CIA officers looking over Afghan Gul Rahman’s agonized body is used as an example of the report’s 12th finding, that “the CIA’s management and operation of its detention and interrogation program was deeply flawed throughout the program’s duration, particularly in 2002 and early 2003.” After being judged as uncooperative during interrogation, Rahman was chained partially naked to the wall of his cell in a position that required him to sit on bare concrete floor; he died of suspected hypothermia in CIA custody.
When a CIA inspector reviewed his death, he found that there were no guidelines for the use of the interrogation techniques where Rahman was held and that interrogators had little or no training.
Psychologists James Mitchell and John “Bruce” Jessen, the report found, were neither experienced as interrogators nor had “any special knowledge of Al Qaeda, terrorism, or relevant cultural or lingual experience” yet “played a central role in the operation, assessments and management of the CIA’s detention and interrogation program.” In the graphic adaptation, they are pictured in suits shaking hands after the CIA contracted their company for $81 million. The graphic novel flips back and forth between interrogations of nude or nearly nude prisoners in detention facilities and their lives being discussed by suited bureaucrats in offices.
Illustrations of torture are abundant, yet they are not as difficult to read as the detailed text overflowing on every page, which closely follows the original report. What the graphic novel lacks visually makes a stomach-turning subject easier to digest.
The adaptation goes beyond the original Senate report. There are brief chapters on how the CIA, Congress and the Justice Department responded to the committee’s report and how the media represented the program while it was classified. A big-picture approach in explaining the significance and possible aftermath of the CIA program is aided by an introduction by Jane Mayer and an afterword by Scott Horton. “The experience of Latin America is instructive,” Horton notes about other secret detention and interrogation programs. “Practices like those used by the CIA were hidden, covered with national security classifications, and amnestied in Argentina, Chile and Uruguay, among other nations. It took a full generation — thirty years — before a formal process of accountability began to take hold and octogenarian intelligence officers were dragged before courts and sent to prison.”
The graphic novel is organized and provides enough context for readers who are unfamiliar with the topic, but it’s not always clear what is taken from life and what has been invented for the story. Dianne Feinstein is pictured in the forward with text directly quoted from her hour-long speech on the Senate floor after the release of the report, while voice is given to the internal thoughts of a CIA officer, who thinks, “Don’t let him make me lose my cool…don’t let him.”
“The Torture Report” is more condensed and accessible than the original densely informative summary. The questions it raises about government powers and practices remain.
Castaneda is a writer who lives in Los Angeles.
Sid Jacobson and Ernie Colón
Nation Books: 144 pp., $16.99 paper