Adam Ash

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Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Finally: torture on trial

1. A Trial for Thousands Denied Trial – by Naomi Klein/The Nation

Something remarkable is going on in a Miami courtroom. The cruel methods US interrogators have used since September 11 to "break" prisoners are finally being put on trial.

This was not supposed to happen. The Bush Administration's plan was to put José Padilla on trial for allegedly being part of a network linked to international terrorists. But Padilla's lawyers are arguing that he is not fit to stand trial because he has been driven insane by the government.

Arrested in May 2002 at Chicago's O'Hare airport, Padilla, a Brooklyn-born former gang member, was classified as an "enemy combatant" and taken to a Navy prison in Charleston, South Carolina. He was kept in a 9-by-7-foot cell with no natural light, no clock and no calendar. Whenever Padilla left the cell, he was shackled and suited in heavy goggles and headphones. Padilla was kept under these conditions for 1,307 days. He was forbidden contact with anyone but his interrogators, who punctured the extreme sensory deprivation with sensory overload, blasting him with harsh lights and pounding sounds. Padilla also says he was injected with a "truth serum," a substance his lawyers believe was LSD or PCP.

According to his lawyers and two mental health specialists who examined him, Padilla has been so shattered that he lacks the ability to assist in his own defense. He is convinced that his lawyers are "part of a continuing interrogation program" and sees his captors as protectors. In order to prove that "the extended torture visited upon Mr. Padilla has left him damaged," his lawyers want to tell the court what happened during those years in the Navy brig. The prosecution strenuously objects, maintaining that "Padilla is competent," that his treatment is irrelevant.

US District Judge Marcia Cooke disagrees. "It's not like Mr. Padilla was living in a box. He was at a place. Things happened to him at that place." The judge has ordered several prison employees to testify at the hearings on Padilla's mental state, which begin February 22. They will be asked how a man alleged to have engaged in elaborate antigovernment plots now acts, in the words of brig staff, "like a piece of furniture."

It's difficult to overstate the significance of these hearings. The techniques used to break Padilla have been standard operating procedure at Guantánamo Bay since the first prisoners arrived five years ago. They wore blackout goggles and sound-blocking headphones and were placed in extended isolation, interrupted by strobe lights and heavy metal music. These same practices have been documented in dozens of cases of CIA "extraordinary rendition" as well as in prisons in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Many have suffered the same symptoms as Padilla. According to James Yee, former Army Muslim chaplain at Guantánamo, there is an entire section of the prison called Delta Block for detainees who have been reduced to a delusional state. "They would respond to me in a childlike voice, talking complete nonsense. Many of them would loudly sing childish songs, repeating the song over and over." All of Delta Block was on twenty-four-hour suicide watch.

Human Rights Watch has exposed a US-run detention facility near Kabul known as the "prison of darkness"--tiny pitch-black cells, strange blaring sounds. "Plenty lost their minds," one former inmate recalled. "I could hear people knocking their heads against the walls and the doors."

These standard mind-breaking techniques have never faced scrutiny in a US court because the prisoners in the jails are foreigners and have been stripped of the right of habeas corpus--a denial that, scandalously, was just upheld by a federal appeals court in Washington, DC. There is only one reason Padilla's case is different: He is a US citizen. The Administration did not originally intend to bring Padilla to trial, but when his status as an enemy combatant faced a Supreme Court challenge, the Administration abruptly changed course, charging Padilla and transferring him to civilian custody. That makes Padilla's case unique: He is the only victim of the post-9/11 legal netherworld to face an ordinary US trial.

Now that Padilla's mental state is the central issue in the case, the government prosecutors have a problem. The CIA and the military have known since the early 1960s that extreme sensory deprivation and sensory overload cause personality disintegration--that's the whole point. "The deprivation of stimuli induces regression by depriving the subject's mind of contact with an outer world and thus forcing it in upon itself. At the same time, the calculated provision of stimuli during interrogation tends to make the regressed subject view the interrogator as a father-figure." That comes from Kubark Counterintelligence Interrogation , a 1963 declassified CIA manual for interrogating "resistant sources."

The manual was based on the findings of the agency's notorious MK Ultra program, which in the 1950s funneled about $25 million to scientists to research "unusual techniques of interrogation." One of the psychiatrists who received CIA funding was the infamous Ewen Cameron of Montreal's McGill University. Cameron subjected hundreds of psychiatric patients to large doses of electroshock and total sensory isolation and drugged them with LSD and PCP. In 1960 Cameron gave a lecture at the Brooks Airforce Base in Texas in which he stated that sensory deprivation "produces the primary symptoms of schizophrenia."

There is no need to go so far back to prove that the US military knew full well that it was driving Padilla mad. The Army's field manual, reissued just last year, states, "Sensory deprivation may result in extreme anxiety, hallucinations, bizarre thoughts, depression, and anti-social behavior," as well as "significant psychological distress."

If these techniques drove Padilla insane, that means the US government has been deliberately driving hundreds, possibly thousands, of prisoners insane around the world. What is on trial in Florida is not one man's mental state. It is the whole system of US psychological torture.

2. America tortures (yawn)
In just a few years we've grown disturbingly comfortable with the fact that the U.S. practices torture.
By Rosa Brooks /LA Times

IT WAS MUCH LIKE the usual Nigerian e-mail scam, but it had a dispiriting twist.

"Greetings," went the e-mail, "I am Captain Smith Scott of the US Marine Force … in Baghdad-Iraq. On the 10th day of February 2007 … we captured three (3) of the Terrorists…. In the process of torture they confessed being rebels for late Ayman al-Zawahiri and took us to a cave in Karbala…. Here we recovered…. some US Dollars amounting to $10.2M…. I am in keen need of a Reliable and Trustworthy person like you who would receive, secure and protect these boxes containing the US Dollars for me up on till my assignment elapses here in Iraq."

Apparently, savvy e-mail scammers now assume that a reference to U.S. Marines torturing prisoners lends credibility to their come-ons.

Well, why not? Thanks to Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, "extraordinary renditions" and "black sites," many people now take for granted the image of the American as torturer. At least 100 prisoners have been killed while in U.S. custody in Iraq and Afghanistan, and many more have been beaten, humiliated and abused. Still others have been secretly handed over to our even less-scrupulous friends in various Middle Eastern intelligence services. And though the vast majority of our troops and officials abide by both the spirit and the letter of U.S. and international laws, such abusive tactics have been authorized by officials at the highest level of the U.S. government.

In November 2001, 66% of Americans said they "could not support government-sanctioned torture of suspects" as part of the war on terrorism. And when photos of abuses at Abu Ghraib surfaced in the spring of 2004, the U.S. news media treated it — rightly — as a major scandal. In October 2005, the U.S. Senate voted 90-9 in support of legislation prohibiting the inhumane treatment of prisoners, sponsored by Arizona Sen. John McCain.

But over the last year, we seem to have lost our former sense of outrage, though prisoner abuse has hardly ended. A handful of low-ranking people have been convicted for their roles in abuses at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere, but the bigger fish carry on as usual. In September, President Bush gave a speech defending the use of "alternative" interrogation methods; a poll shortly after that found public opposition to torture was down to 56%. In October, Congress obligingly passed the Military Commissions Act, which permits the use of coerced testimony in trials of suspected enemy combatants and restricts the ability of U.S. courts to examine allegations of abuse.

Lately, news relating to torture has been greeted by a collective yawn. On Jan. 31, German prosecutors issued a warrant for the arrest of 13 CIA operatives involved in the illegal abduction of Khaled Masri, a German citizen who was taken to Afghanistan for a little "alternative" interrogation — and then unceremoniously abandoned in Albania when the CIA realized that it had grabbed the wrong guy. On Feb. 16, an Italian court indicted 26 U.S. intelligence operatives and contractors accused of kidnapping an Islamic cleric and taking him to Egypt, where, he says, he was tortured.

It should be huge news when two of our European allies demand the arrest of U.S. government agents — but these stories were rapidly superseded on the front pages by news of Anna Nicole Smith's embalming and matters of similarly pressing national interest. (This newspaper learned the names of several of the indicted officials but declined to print them "because they have been charged only under their aliases.")

If you need any more evidence that the American public has gotten blasé about torture, consider the hit Fox action drama "24." The show featured 67 torture scenes during its first five seasons, and most of those depicted torture being used by "heroic" U.S. counter-terror agents.

In this week's New Yorker, Jane Mayer reported on the efforts of human rights groups, interrogation experts and military leaders to persuade the show's producers to stop glamorizing torture. A few days after her story was posted on the New Yorker's website, executive producer Howard Gordon announced that "24" will indeed have fewer torture scenes in the future — but not because of the complaints. The reason for the shift? Torture "is starting to feel a little trite," Gordon explained. "The idea of physical coercion or torture is no longer a novelty or surprise."

We've come a long way since 1630, when John Winthrop, first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, told the settlers on the Arabella that "we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us." If we failed to live up to the high standards we set for ourselves, warned Winthrop, "we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world."

His prediction, it turns out, was absolutely right. Just ask the Nigerian e-mail scammers.


3. Interrogations Behind Barbed Wire
Who's to blame for America's new torture techniques?
By Mischa Gaus /In These Times

His psychiatrists call it "Groundhog Day."

José Padilla--the once-renowned "dirty bomber" who is now little more than a dim light in the government's galaxy of desperadoes--has spent almost five years in solitary confinement. Whenever his lawyers attempt to discuss his case with him, he has the same response, begging them over and over again not to. When they try, his face seizes in tics and his body contorts uncontrollably.

"Mr. Padilla may be suffering from some form of brain injury," writes a forensic psychiatrist who evaluated him for his lawyers. His story illuminates what has happened to many prisoners of America's war on terror.

In addition to being tormented psychologically, Padilla and other Guantánamo detainees say the U.S. military has drugged them against their will. Each new disclosure of U.S. treatment of detainees hints at a continuing fascination in the intelligence community with developing and employing interrogation techniques that arise from a long and spotty history--techniques intelligence research says cannot be depended on to extract reliable information.

Accusations of drugging

In These Times has learned that several other detainees have joined Padilla in claiming they were involuntarily drugged.

Adil Al Nusairi, a 33-year-old former Saudi police officer, says he was imprisoned by the Taliban while traveling to Pakistan for eye surgery, before being sold to U.S. forces for a bounty by Pakistani police. Several times during his four-year incarceration at Guantánamo, Nusairi claims he was injected with an unknown substance, according to his lawyer, Anant Raut.

One time, groggy and disoriented after spending half a day in a freezing cell, he says he was interrogated for hours, his captors demanding over and over that he admit he was part of al-Qaeda.

"OK, I'll admit it, if you'll let me sleep," he said, according to his lawyer's notes. Sent back to his cell, Al Nusairi tried to read the Koran and couldn't. He became so weak he could barely lift his arms. His vision blurred and he began to drool uncontrollably onto himself.

Despite facing allegations similar to many other detainees, Al Nusairi was released from the camp last May along with 14 of his countrymen in a series of incremental releases detainee lawyers find arbitrary. The men were held briefly by the Saudi government, but are now free--although they have been instructed not to speak about their experience.

Two other Guantánamo detainees say they've found drugs powdered or half-dissolved in their food and drink. Kristine Huskey, now at American University's International Human Rights Law Clinic, represented one of the men, Fawzi Al Odah, a Kuwaiti who is still being held captive. Lawyers for the other detainee who has reported finding drugs in his meals have requested anonymity to protect their client from potential repercussions.

The effects detainees report are consistent: Dizziness and disorientation, lethargy and "clouded" thinking. Lawyers say the reports are credible because they were volunteered by the detainees, were not produced in response to government demands or accusations, and are detailed, discrete events.

Because of the obstacles repeatedly put in front of counsel, lawyers for the detainees have difficulty accessing medical records. Padilla, however, boasts something no Guantánamo detainee can: A U.S. passport. Because he is a U.S. citizen, his lawyers have been able to investigate his detention more closely than any Guantánamo prisoner. Finding out what has been done to this very broken man could breach the walls erected by the Bush administration around the medical and psychological treatment of the 14,000 prisoners that the Pentagon says are currently being held in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantánamo.

Becoming an enemy combatant

In May 2002, eight months after the 9/11 attacks, Padilla was arrested at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport, accused of plotting to explode a crude radioactive bomb. He spent three and a half years at the Charleston Naval Brig in South Carolina as an "enemy combatant." In December 2005, when an imminent Supreme Court deadline could have forced a precedent-setting review of his military imprisonment, the Bush administration changed his status from "enemy combatant" to criminal defendant. Pending a review of his mental competency, he now faces a civilian jury in Miami on federal charges of conspiring to participate in and aid "violent jihad" in Bosnia and Chechnya in the late '90s. Robert Chesney, who specializes in national security law at Wake Forest University, has compared the prosecution's tactics to charging Al Capone with tax evasion.

The government now pins responsibility for the "dirty bomb" plot on Binyam Mohamed, a detainee at Guantánamo and one of three prisoners who made statements under duress connecting Padilla to al-Qaeda's leadership. After being captured in Pakistan, Mohamed was rendered to Morocco at the behest of the United States. Moroccan jailors elicited the information about Padilla at the tip of a razor blade, sunk repeatedly into Mohamed's genitals, according to his attorney, Clive Stafford Smith.

Mohamed's case may one day be heard in the new $125 million Guantánamo tribunal building, future home of the administration's quasi-courts. It's a legal environment plastic enough to permit hearsay and evidence derived from torture, so long as it's "reliable" and in the "interest of justice," in the words of the Military Commissions Act passed by Congress last September.

Since Padilla, like Mohamed, was termed an enemy combatant during his detention at the Charleston Navel Brig, how the military treated Padilla is unknown, despite a September court order demanding his medical records be revealed. His lawyers say they have received 68 "fairly innocuous" pages, separated by the two-year gap from when he was taken to the brig in 2002 and when he was given access to attorneys in 2004.

Details about what took place during that period could reveal much about the lengths the administration has gone to break detainees. Padilla has repeatedly said he was injected with a "truth serum," possibly LSD or another hallucinogen. Orlando do Campo, a member of Padilla's defense team, says the medical records thus far mention no drugging. To date, only a few scant notes chronicle the military's psychological evaluation of him. The record is so thin Padilla's psychiatrists call it "unusual" and "concerning."

"Someone popped in his cell and wrote one line," says do Campo.

Padilla's lawyers call his treatment "outrageous." He was housed in a nine-foot by seven-foot cell, the window of which was taped to prevent natural light from entering. The cell was furnished with a steel platform for a bed, had no clock, and darkness and temperature were controlled externally. Noxious smells seeped in, and adjoining cell doors were electronically opened and closed, disrupting his sleep.

What most terrifies Padilla, according to the psychiatrists' reports, is the Bush administration's final trump card. If the civilian trial proves unsatisfactory, the administration has reserved the right to again declare Padilla an enemy combatant and return him to the brig.

The Bush administration seemingly claims the right to subject detainees to whatever it sees fit. In 2005, when he was head of Guantánamo's medical system, Capt. John Edmondson, a physician, announced that due to the conditions of the detainees' incarceration, their competency could not be assumed--and thus medical interventions could be delivered without their consent.

Edmondson made the claim in response to accusations that force-feeding hunger-striking detainees was unethical. He wrote, "I do not feel the individuals in this situation meet the criteria for ethical self determination."

For the most part, the medical community has repudiated the U.S. military. The American Medical Association and American Psychiatric Association have prohibited their members from participating in interrogations--and the psychiatrists have spelled out practices they find incompatible with Hippocratic principles, including humiliation, infliction of physical pain, and sensory and sleep deprivation.

The one professional group that has not banned the aiding of interrogation is the American Psychological Association (APA). A leaked interrogation log, reported by Time magazine two years ago, reveals that a psychologist was present during an interrogation where the prisoner was made to perform dog tricks and given intravenous fluids to force him to urinate on himself.

The ethical stance of the APA is meaningful because during a six-year period in the '90s, the military granted some psychologists the same prescribing privileges as psychiatrists--a privilege long sought-after by the APA and one it continues to lobby the government to expand. The APA passed a resolution condemning torture last August, but pointed to the U.S. government's reservations about the U.N. Convention Against Torture in their resolution. Those reservations claim that, "in order to constitute torture, an act must be specifically intended to inflict severe physical or mental pain or suffering."

Decades of dubious tactics

Regardless of who is or isn't responsible for drugging detainees, the information gained from doing so is not well regarded by intelligence professionals. But the Bush administration has a record of ignoring career intelligence officers. In a 2002 memo written to justify torture in overseas interrogations, former Assistant Attorney General Jay S. Bybee argued that drugging should be included in the roster of techniques available to interrogators. And while that memo was repudiated, Guantánamo attorneys maintain that their clients are being drugged.

"Truth serums do not force the subject to tell the truth," writes Kristin E. Heckman and Mark D. Happel of the MITRE Corporation, a military-funded research center, in "Educing Information," a survey of interrogation research published by the National Defense Intelligence College in December. "[A]lthough a subject's inhibitions have been lowered, there is no guarantee that any of the information elicited will be accurate," they write. According to the report, the persistence of coercive strategies in interrogation is based on anecdotal knowledge and Cold War norms, not rigorous examination of effectiveness.

"Truth drugs" have long proven unreliable. The Korean War brought public hysteria about Chinese and Soviet brainwashing camps turning captured GIs into unwitting dupes. In response, in 1953 the CIA launched Project MKULTRA, a series of 149 experiments over two decades that used subjects--including prisoners--to test mind-control techniques, including hypnosis and then-new hallucinogens like LSD. The Senate's Church Committee brought the abuses to light in the late '70s, revealing that only a handful of thousands of subjects knew what was being done to them.

Not a single mind-control experiment succeeded. "The whole MKULTRA program was a giant dead-end," says Alfred McCoy, a University of Wisconsin-Madison historian and author of A Question of Torture: CIA Interrogation, From the Cold War to the War on Terror .

Far more influential as a model for getting prisoners to reveal sensitive information was the CIA's KUBARK interrogation manual, written in 1963 and declassified a decade ago. Along with a discussion of building rapport with interrogation subjects, it recommends coercive strategies: Deprive subjects of sensory stimuli, destabilize and disorient them, and use self-inflicted pain--for instance, having the captive stand at attention for great lengths of time. Such tactics are more likely to sap resistance than inflict pain.

Taking this advice, the military devised a training program to aid soldiers in resisting interrogation if they are captured. The nexus of the military's "stress inoculation" training is the Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE) courses at the JFK Special Warfare School at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. The SERE training process has been reverse-engineered to exploit detainees.

As Jane Mayer reported in the New Yorker in 2005, many of the elements of the SERE curriculum surfaced in Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib, including insulting detainees' religious texts, water-boarding prisoners, exploiting national flags, humiliating detainees sexually, and the essentials of sensory surfeit and denial: hooding, shackling, muffling, denying sleep, withholding food and clothes, and subjecting prisoners to loud, repetitive noise and temperature extremes.

Another element of the SERE program is biochemical. Psychologists and psychiatrists at Fort Bragg have studied the level of hormones present in stressful situations, particularly cortisol, which increases anxiety and alertness. The changes in cortisol levels recorded during the trainings have been among the largest ever documented, according to a 2000 report in Special Warfare , a publication of the JFK Special Warfare School.

"Stress inoculation occurs only when the stress intensity is at the optimal level," the report's authors wrote, "low enough so as not to overwhelm them ... if the stress level is too high, stress sensitization will occur."

The application of SERE's cortisol findings to detainees could allow interrogators to find their "breaking" points, Brig. Gen. Stephen Xenakis, a psychiatrist who led the Southeast Regional Army Medical Command before retiring nine years ago, told In These Times . Using the measure of cortisol to find the hormonal point at which a detainee can no longer protect himself could help interrogators inflict the precise amount of stress that would make a detainee most vulnerable to questioning.

But while truth serums and SERE tactics--and their associated mental changes--both produce acquiescence, the efficacy of either is very much in doubt. Steven Kleinman, an Air Force senior intelligence officer, writes in "Educing Information" that compliance with interrogators has been confused with meaningful cooperation. Born of the desire to understand--and withstand--Soviet-era coercive interrogations, Kleinman writes, the emphasis of U.S. interrogators has focused on techniques to bring about submission, not the production of reliable information.

"Once torture starts, it begins very quickly to proliferate," says McCoy, the historian. "The techniques become increasingly brutal. Whether it's Algiers in 1957 or Afghanistan in 2002--in every instance we have, it proliferates out of control."

That the tactics learned at SERE were being exported to the interrogation chambers of the "long war" became very apparent to Col. Morgan Banks, a SERE administrator and psychologist who advised on interrogations at Guantánamo and Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan. Consequently, he instituted a new rule for SERE graduates in 2004: Sign a pledge that SERE techniques will not be used on detainees in U.S. custody.

Such assurances come too late for Padilla, who becomes "visibly terrified" at the thought of watching his interrogation tapes and "appears to be incapacitated by Post Traumatic Stress Disorder," according to psychiatric evaluations.

"It is clear that there are definite similarities, with some techniques being identical, between some of the tactics allegedly used on José Padilla and those adapted from the SERE program for use as interrogation methods at Guantánamo and elsewhere," says Nathaniel Raymond, senior communications strategist for Physicians for Human Rights, which tracks detainee abuse.

In court filings, Padilla's lawyers describe him as a "piece of furniture"--a man objectified and dehumanized by the U.S. government; a government that is relentlessly focused on extracting information, regardless of its utility or its veracity, from him and hundreds of others. At any cost.

(Mischa Gaus is a freelance writer based in Chicago.)


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