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Issue #1686      May 27, 2015

Torture that degrades a nation

Last year’s US Senate report on CIA torture confirmed earlier findings that the CIA’s post-September 11 program of “enhanced interrogations” of terror suspects was in part based on “reverse engineering” – the survival, evasion, resistance and escape (Sere) training given to US pilots and other forces to prepare them for capture and possibly torture by enemy forces.

The CIA employed military psychologists who helped run the Sere training to design interrogations. The mock-torture sessions given to US forces became the basis for real torture in CIA “black sites.” Captives were waterboarded, frozen, put in stress positions and beaten.

Subsequently, various forms of sexual abuse and sexual humiliation have been a signature of post-September 11 interrogations by US forces.

From the weird rituals of Abu Ghraib to the “rectal hydration” revealed in the 2014 Senate intelligence committee report, different kinds of sexual and semi-sexual humiliation keep surfacing from the darker corners of the “war on terror”.

Guantanamo detainee Mohamedou Ould Slahi’s recently published diary describes repeated sexual humiliation alongside the beatings, freezings and other abuses.

These humiliations are not necessarily the worst aspects of the US interrogations – some detainees were beaten or frozen to death.

But they are politically difficult because they make CIA interrogators and their assistants look like unpleasant perverts.

This sexual abuse was actually present in the Sere training of US soldiers used to design the interrogations at Guantánamo, Abu Ghraib and the black sites where the CIA held captives.

In the mid-1990s, a “sexual exploitation” element was introduced into Sere training to reflect the way two female soldiers captured in the first Gulf war in Iraq were sexually assaulted by Saddam Hussein’s troops.

But this sexual element of the mock interrogations soon got out of hand and led to a sex-abuse scandal where US air force trainees complained of mock rapes and other forms of degrading sexual abuse.

This scandal – exposed on national television in the US – was a forewarning of the abusive interrogation methods carried out by the CIA on “war on terror” suspects. It was also an indication that the sexual abuse elements of CIA interrogations may have some origins in Sere.

The shift of sexual abuse from Sere to interrogation can be seen in one official paper, the oddly named Pre-academic Laboratory Operating Instructions, a key Sere paper used to help design CIA interrogations.

The US government released the paper in 2012 following a freedom of information request. The military manual described how to run Sere courses – the mock torture of military trainees happened under “laboratory” conditions, hence the name.

This paper was used to help design war on terror interrogations and, in particular, it was used to help write White House legal papers authorising torture. So a paper written to help US troops deal with potential torture by the enemy was used to help design torture of the suspected “enemies” in CIA prisons.

The paper discusses the use of techniques which were later used in the “war on terror” interrogations, such as “walling, cramped confinement, facial slap, sleep deprivation, attention grasp, facial hold and stress positions.”

It also has a fuller suggestion of the use of sexual humiliation in Sere and hence in “war on terror” interrogations. The paper says mock interrogations should include the “humiliation and degradation of a strip and body-cavity check,” with the latter used to make the subjects feel “uncomfortable and degraded.” It stresses that here should be a special “observer” from the “opposite sex” to witness these body-cavity checks.

This official document still falls short of describing the actual sexual assaults that happened both to air force cadets in the 1990s and to CIA prisoners in the 2000s. But it does show that Sere practices were at least partly to blame for both.

Official inquiries often skirt around this issue. The 2008 Senate Armed Service Committee Report into mistreatment of detainees is the most direct on this subject. It describes an investigation into the Abu Ghraib abuse by General George Fay, appointed by the US army to look into the scandal, and makes clear that he saw the Abu Ghraib abuse as having some origins in the CIA-led interrogations.

Fay says that the practice of stripping prisoners nude was “imported” to Abu Ghraib and could be “traced through Afghanistan and GTM” – meaning CIA sites in Afghanistan and Guantánamo – and this in turn encouraged the “depravity and degradation” of Abu Ghraib.

The report is also clear that “stripping” and related “degradation” of detainees, including “controlling the use of the latrine,” “invasion of space by a female interrogator” and “treating the student like an animal,” have their origins in Sere.

It is generally forthright about prisoner abuse but the senators suddenly lose their nerve over sexual “humiliation.”

The report redacts a whole series of degradation techniques contained in a Sere guide which were used to inform interrogations: “With respect to degradation, the guide contains examples of the methods used by Sere instructors to take away the ‘personal dignity’ of students at Sere school. Examples of degradation techniques used at Sere school include (redacted). Mr Witsch, the instructor who led the March 8, 2002 training, told the committee that stripping could also be considered ‘a degradation tactic’.” Three lines of examples were blacked out.

The redaction refers to degradation and appears alongside “stripping,” which suggests this may refer to the politically difficult “sexual exploitation” techniques.

The same report does not redact any references to waterboarding, stress positions, beating, extreme cold and so forth, so the senators must have thought these words were particularly difficult – the techniques the CIA used in the “war on terror” didn’t just degrade their prisoners, they degraded the senators themselves.

Morning Star

Next article – A reminder of comic books’ anti-women problem

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