A season of cruelty
by Ken Coates Cracks are appearing in the foundation stones of our civilisation. Long- standing taboos about national sovereignty have already fallen. Apart from the sovereignty of the megapower, all other sovereignty is qualified, if not abrogated. The universal prohibition of torture is now another victim. On January 11, the Economist opened its lead story with the question: "Is torture ever justified?" With some diffidence, the magazine answered No. But perhaps, it thought, sleep deprivation, lengthy interrogations and the use of the truth serum might be defined as falling outside the domain of torture. What provoked the Economist to think these thoughts? There has been a controversy in the Washington Post, triggered by an important article which appeared on December 26 last year. The article alleged quite specifically that unjustifiable interrogation techniques were being used at the US bases of Bagram in Afghanistan and on Diego Garcia. "Deep inside the forbidden zone at the US-occupied Bagram air base in Afghanistan, around the corner from the detention centre and beyond the segregated clandestine military units, sits a cluster of metal shipping containers protected by a triple layer of concertina wire", it said. "The containers hold the most valuable prizes in the war on terrorism — captured Al-Qaeda operatives and Taliban commanders." This valuable cargo seems to have been made for ill-treatment. Non-co-operators are kept standing or kneeling for hours on end, hooded or clad in spray-painted goggles. Deprived of sleep At times, they are held in painful or awkward positions and deprived of sleep with a 24-hour bombardment of lights under "stress and duress" technique. By contrast, co-operators are given modest creature comforts, friendly interrogators and, "in some cases, money". Some of the non-co-operators are handed over to foreign intelligence services which are far less squeamish about torture than the United States is supposed to be. This process of handover is called "rendering." Not all non-co-operating prisoners need to be "rendered" because the US maintains a number of detention centres where the due process which should rule in the rest of the US does not hold sway. When I raised this question in the British press, Foreign Office Minister Baroness Amos denied that it was possible for Diego Garcia to be used for interrogation since the US forces had never asked permission for such use. I sought a response from the Washington Post and was told by one of those responsible for the original article that they saw no reason to modify their story. Further checking reveals that there is no British civilian administration on Diego Garcia. The island usually has a small compliment of less than 50 naval personnel under a Royal Navy commander who also acts as the representative of the British Foreign Office. According to the Washington Post, US officials superintend most of the interrogations, especially those of senior captives. Smaller fry are handed over to less squeamish interrogators in Jordan, Egypt or Morocco, together with the lists of the questions to which the CIA requires answers. These "extraordinary renditions" are subject to no legal controls, although the appointed torturers have frequently been the subject of angry denunciations by US human rights organisations. "According to US officials, nearly 3000 suspected Al-Qaeda members and their supporters have been detained world-wide since September 11, 2001. About 625 are at the US military's confinement facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Some officials estimated that fewer than 100 captives have been rendered to third countries. Thousands have been arrested and held with US assistance in countries known for brutal treatment of prisoners, the officials said." Cofer Black, who heads the CIA counter-terrorist centre, said: "There was a before 9/11 and an after 9/11. "After 9/11 the gloves come off." Part of the glove stripping process is that of rendering. We don't kick the shit out of them. We send them to other countries so they can kick the shit out of them." Mind altering drugs Mind-altering drugs are by no means the only devices employed in the administration of such kickings. Systematic deprivation of sleep, selective withholding of pain-killing drugs for wounded people and other more or less "acceptable" cruelties are among the other standard treatment for rendered victims. Before they are rendered, reports the Washington Post, captives are often softened up by military police and US army special forces troops who beat them up and confine them in tiny rooms. Commonly, they are blindfolded and thrown into walls, tied up in painful postures, exposed to loud noises and unremitting intimidation. How does rendering proceed? Sometimes, for instance in Saudi Arabia, "we are able to observe through one-way mirrors the live interrogations," said a senior US official. "In others, we usually get summaries. We will feed questions to the investigators". The Saudis have been very helpful with US enquiries, as was acknowledged by CIA head George Tenet in his speech of December 11, 2002. Rendition to Jordan is comparatively common because the Jordanians are considered very professional interrogators. "The most frequently alleged methods of torture include sleep deprivation, beating on the soles of the feet, prolonged suspension with ropes in contorted positions and extended solitary confinement," said the 2001 report of the State Department on Human Rights in Jordan. Morocco is another popular centre for rendition, notwithstanding a recent official ban on torture, which human rights organisations believe to be more honoured in the breach than the observance. Prominent among the contributors to this report was Professor Alan Dershowitz, who called for the legalisation of torture to enable it to be controlled. Dershowitz is a civil libertarian who wishes to put an end to the blindfold culture of US interrogators, forcing them to apply for a torture order or warrant in each individual case where tortures are to be applied. The argument for such control is based on the presumption that illicit torture has been widespread and continuing. Since the CIA has, beyond doubt, been involved in training torturers in Latin America and further afield, what Dershowitz said will ring true for many people. But Dershowitz fails to consider that the legitimisation of torture would undoubtedly mean an exponential increase in its use, given the present culture of rabid irrationalism. What is known to everyone who has worked in the field of rehabilitation of victims of torture is that the torture is not about the pursuit of information but the humiliation of its victims. Dehumanising the torturers This purpose does not take account of or comprehend its result, which is the dehumanisation of the torturers themselves and those who employ them. It would be unwise to say that no truthful information is ever extracted by the administration of pain. But what is absolutely plain is that torture normally generates false confessions because people will say anything to stop the pain, even if only intermittently. After the war on Iraq, there will be many more prisoners in line to be tortured, whether by "our own" specialists or by suitable foreign volunteers from among the lackeys who are willing to assist in rendition. Cruelty will be in season. How will this conduce to the restoration of peace or the development of human rights or the growth of civilisation? We are about to establish new schools of brutality, to which the only antidote known to us at this time is human sympathy and solidarity. This will be generated in the peace movement or, failing that, nowhere at all.
* * *Acknowledgement to Morning Star