Human Rights

'These People Fear Prosecution': Why Bush's CIA Team Should Worry About Its Dark Embrace of Torture

The <i>New Yorker</i>'s Jane Mayer discusses the fallout from the Red Cross' shocking report on CIA torture and its serious legal implications.

On the night of April 6, a long-secret document was published -- in its entirety for the first time -- that provided a clear, stark look at the CIA torture program carried out by the Bush administration.

Dated Feb. 14, 2007, the 41-page report describes in harrowing detail the "ill treatment" of 14 "high-value" detainees in U.S. custody, as recounted by the prisoners in interviews with the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Besides listing the various kinds of harsh interrogation tactics undertaken by the CIA -- among them "suffocation by water," "prolonged stress standing," "beatings by use of a collar," "confinement in a box," "prolonged nudity," "threats," "forced shaving" and other methods -- the report reveals the disturbing role of medical professionals in the torture of suspects, which included using doctors' equipment to monitor their health, even as torture was carried out.

Just as Americans have known about Bush-era torture for years, lawyers and human rights activists have long known about the ICRC report and its contents. Both are due in large part to the work of journalists and their sources, who have brought to light the many post-9/11 abuses committed in the name of counterterrorism.

In February 2005, Jane Mayer of theNew Yorker magazine published a story called "Outsourcing Torture: The Secret History of America's 'Extraordinary Rendition' Program," which reported in intricate detail the sordid mechanisms of the Bush administration's kidnap-and-torture program -- a practice so violent and dramatic that it inspired a major Hollywood film a few years later.

As Mayer wrote at the time, however, "Rendition is just one element of the administration's new paradigm."

The CIA itself is holding dozens of 'high value' terrorist suspects outside of the territorial jurisdiction of the U.S., in addition to the estimated 550 detainees in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. The administration confirmed the identities of at least 10 of these suspects to the 9/11 Commission -- including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, a top al-Qaida operative … -- but refused to allow commission members to interview the men, and would not say where they were being held. Reports have suggested that CIA prisons are being operated in Thailand, Qatar and Afghanistan, among other countries. At the request of the CIA, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld personally ordered that a prisoner in Iraq be hidden from Red Cross officials for several months, and Army Gen. Paul Kern told Congress that the CIA may have hidden up to a hundred detainees."

Among the revelations of the ICRC report is that the CIA did indeed hide prisoners from the Red Cross.

Mayer has been a staff writer at theNew Yorker since 1995. In the years after 9/11, her investigative articles have been critical to piecing together the story of how the United States became a country that tortures in the name of the so-called "war on terror."

Mayer was recently awarded the Ron Ridenhour Prize for her book, The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How The War on Terror Turned Into a War on American Ideals (Doubleday). Co-sponsored by The Nation Institute and the Fertel Foundation, the Ridenhour prize honors journalists and whistle-blowers whose work has helped to "protect the public interest, promote social justice or illuminate a more just vision of society." Mayer will be honored alongside other winners of the Ridenhour prize on April 16 at the National Press Club in Washington.

AlterNet's Rights & Liberties Editor Liliana Segura spoke to Mayer over the phone from New York, the morning after the release of the ICRC report.

***

Liliana Segura: Last night, the full ICRC report was posted online, detailing the torture at the CIA black sites. Of course, you've been writing for a long time about this; how did you first come to know about the report, and what's the significance of it coming out now, especially with everything it reveals about medical professionals being involved in torture?

Jane Mayer: Well, there are certain confidential source issues that cover how I first came to know about it, but I can say that when I did finally talk to people who were familiar with what was in it -- which was more than a year ago at this point -- what I was hearing was so startling that it just completely stopped me dead in my tracks.

Basically, what I was hearing was that there was a report that was by this independent authority -- the ICRC, which is not a political entity in any way. It's a very cautious group and has tremendous credibility -- saying that there was an actual program of torture that was implemented by the U.S. government, and that the government had been warned that what it was doing was breaking the law.

And what seemed to really catch the eye of the people I was interviewing who were familiar with what was in the report was just the horribleness and the power of the United States government focusing everything that had been learned over the past couple decades on how to break a person down psychologically as well as physically. All that focused on just a couple dozen people who were just basically being tormented in a way that was just kind of unimaginable.

So, people who I interviewed who knew about what was in the report were really upset about it -- really, really upset -- and it certainly caught my eye as a reporter. So I then started to try very hard to see if I could get the report. And I never succeeded. I got close enough to be able to piece together what was in it. And that's what's in The Dark Side. And I'm gratified to see that my sources -- who I consider to have been very brave to tell me what they were able to -- were completely accurate.

So you'll see there are whole scenes from the report that are in The Dark Side and many, many details, including the news that [the treatment of detainees] was considered torture by the ICRC -- not "tantamount to torture," but actual torture.

But, you know, reading the report itself, finally -- there's just no comparison to seeing the actual document.

LS: Is there anything in the report in particular that has struck you that you didn't know before?

JM: One of the things that caught my eye last night was that it's clear that the CIA -- and I think you'd have to guess the Department of Defense -- lied to the Red Cross. They told the Red Cross when it visited Guantanamo [in 2002] that it had seen all of the detainees. But what the report says is that some of the detainees -- some of the high-value detainees -- realized when they were finally sent to Guantanamo in 2006 that they'd been there before. They were there. And yet the Red Cross was not allowed to see them. The Red Cross was told they'd seen everybody.

So the CIA and DOD lied to the Red Cross. There were some hidden prisoners in Guantanamo. That's an overt act; lying to the Red Cross, hiding prisoners from them. So, that's interesting to me.

There are also some specific details [about the torture] I didn't know. I didn't realize they used hospital beds to waterboard people, with motorized reclining backs, which is hideous.

I knew there were doctors there -- I mean, people will tell you that there were doctors there, and it's in the book -- but there's still something so specifically terrible about reading that they would attach some kind of modern monitor that could monitor oxygen to the finger of a prisoner while they were busy depriving him of oxygen.

They told him -- Khalid Sheik Mohammed (and this was in the New Yorker stories I did and it was in the book) -- that they would take him to the brink of death and back but they wouldn't kill him. So, they used sort of the most modern medicine to make sure they did exactly that. Its kind of a horrible combination of modernism and the Dark Ages all in one.

LS: Do we have any idea who these doctors are?

JM: Well, I'm glad people are asking that question, because, really, since the beginning, one of the things that has obsessed me is: Who were the doctors? What kind of doctors would do this? Some of them are described as literally working in ski masks to cover their faces so that people wouldn't know their identity.

LS: Like executioners.

JM: Yeah. So people have to find out, there just absolutely has to be some more accountability about this. Who were the doctors -- and what does the profession say about this? I mean, there's been a tremendous debate about this within the psychiatric profession and within the psychology profession, but there really has not been a similar debate within the medical profession.

I've already heard from one friend who's a doctor this morning, saying "God -- something's got to happen with this." Things will happen, I think.

LS: I wanted to ask you about accountability. It seems like every other day we're hearing about how Obama's Department of Justice is standing up in court and defending some Bush administration practice, or else the administration is making a statement that suggests that there's not going to be any move for accountability. Yet House Judiciary Chairman Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., just released a 540-page report reiterating the allegations against the Bush administration and calling for a special prosecutor appointed by Attorney General Eric Holder. What would it take for that to happen?

JM: What would it take for that to happen? It would take Obama. It would take Obama weighing in on this. And, you know, it seems that his general style is to try to find consensus rather than to isolate people and confront them. I think that an early tip-off to his thinking was when he described possible accountability as "witch hunts" and said we're not going to have witch hunts.

And yet I think that they're going to find it impossible to be where they are. Right now, they're trying to assert some kind of neutral position about the Bush years. They've come out critical, they've said "we're fixing this, it was wrong," and they have started to fix it -- I give them credit for doing a lot of the right things.

But what they're trying to do is not have to open up the past, as they keep saying, and I don't think that's going to work because they're going to have a choice here. They're at a fork in the road, where either they're going to open things up, or they're going to have to cover things up. There's not a real neutral position to be there. And that's what I think they're beginning to realize.

LS: A lot of people have been surprised by the positions Obama has taken -- for instance, saying that prisoners at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan don't have the right to habeas corpus (although a court recently contradicted that). Are there any Bush-era tactics that are now an inextricable part of Obama's counterterrorism policies?

JM: The progress so far is: there's no longer torture -- there's no program of torture that's being practiced by the United States anymore. And there are no more secret prison sites. And they are trying to do something to bring all of the prisoners whose rights were violated in the Bush years back inside the rule of law. They're trying to sort out the people in Guantanamo and charge some. … I think it's also progress that they charged [Ali Saleh Kahlah] al Marri, who was being held forever as an enemy combatant without any rights. So, I see this as progress.

LS: Does this mean that the CIA black sites have been dismantled? Also, what about renditions? Isn't Obama keeping open the possibility of keeping Clinton-era style rendition in place?

JM: Obama's executive orders issued in his first week, direct the government to abide by the Geneva Conventions standards as they are internationally understood, and to allow the ICRC to have access to all detainees. This means the U.S. can no longer treat anyone in its custody cruelly, let alone torture them, and it means that the Red Cross can meet with all prisoners, which ends the Bush practice of hidden, black-site prisons and disappearances.

The Obama administration is claiming that it will undertake renditions without torture or cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment. They say they will only snatch suspects against whom there are legitimate charges and only deliver them to stand trial in legitimate justice systems where there is no threat of torture. Essentially, they claim it's a return to the pre-9/11 Clinton program, which was ostensibly "rendition to justice." But some sources who were involved in the Clinton years have told me it was a very rough business. The CIA has fought very hard to keep the program going in a modified form. We'll see if they can do it in the transparent, legal and humane way the executive orders require. I have my doubts.

I think that there's a ton still to do here. And some of the early positions they've taken -- defending state secrets and denying, as you say, habeas corpus rights to prisoners held in Bagram -- you know, they're worrisome. I think there's more going on here, though, which people haven't really focused on, which is: there's a real tug-of-war going on about the confirmation process. A number of top appointees who Obama wants to put in to handle some of these issues have not been confirmed. The Republicans in the Senate are really holding up people that Obama needs to make changes for the better.

You've got Harold Koh, who's been nominated to be the top lawyer for the State Department. He's a great defender of human rights. His nomination confirmation is in trouble because the Republicans are talking about trying to block him.

And the same thing is true of Dawn Johnsen, who has been nominated for the head of the Office of Legal Council. And there are a number of other top positions that are open that are really important. The Obama administration doesn't have enough staff to handle what it needs to do.

Meanwhile, it's being hit by wave after wave of litigation, because the human rights community's approach in the Bush years was "we're gonna litigate." So there is case after case breaking and requiring action from the Obama administration, which doesn't have its people in place yet. And I think that's part of the problem. So, I'm cutting them more slack then some critics, because I don't think we're seeing everything they want to do yet.

LS: So is what you're saying that they are buying themselves time, adopting these Bush positions or defending them for the moment?

JM: Well they're definitely buying themselves time on Guantanamo, but they haven't bought themselves very much time. They gave themselves 180 days; they've got three task forces, which took a long time to get up and running. I hear from people who are involved in this that it's a really complicated process.

And on the state-secrets cases -- you know, I don't know whose really making these decisions. But again, on accountability, I think it comes back to Obama himself. And he is spread so thin and so distracted by so many other emergencies right now, I'm not sure that he's really giving it the attention that some of us think it needs.

So that's what I think is going on. I'm not sure that I would impute terrible motives to them at this point. I think it's more disorganization and delay.

LS: I wanted to ask you about "preventive detention" (of terrorism suspects, including the remaining prisoners at Guantanamo Bay), since you wrote about it a few months back. Do you have any recent information on Obama's plans to use it, or is that something that they're still sorting out?

JM: I think it's going to be a big fight in the administration. We're kind of waiting to see.

I mean, some of Obama's Justice Department appointees think that there might need to be some kind of national security court that would allow for some sort of preventive detention. There have been experiments with this elsewhere in the world, and most of them have become real human-rights problems.

And there are other people who think this is anathema and tell me that there's just no way that Obama is going to back this sort of thing. I mean, he's being faced with a lot of very tough choices here and, meanwhile, I think that the intelligence community is bombarding him with threats, saying "if you become more transparent, you're going to endanger the country" -- they're sounding too much like Dick Cheney, [saying] that if they let out information, it's going to really hurt the country, it's going to really hurt our relations with other liaison intelligence agencies. … So, he's stuck in the middle of a big fight.

LS: I'm glad you brought up Dick Cheney. I wanted to ask you about him since he plays such an important role in your book, and also because there's this bizarre way in which he seems to be more in the public eye now than he ever was as vice president. What do you think that's about?

Also, you've noted that interesting quote by Cheneyreferring to Guantanamo prisoners, "People will want to know where they've been and what we've been doing with them." Do you think he fears prosecution at all? Do you think that's part of why he's out there talking and defending … ?

JN: Listen, all of these people fear prosecution. And it seems unthinkable to prosecute them to most people. But face it: The ICRC report; from some standpoints, it can be seen as a crime scene. And its a crime scene that was authorized by the top of our government. They all have some legal liability here. Cheney coming out -- you know, I can't really -- it's hard to get inside Cheney's mind, but I can say politically what it has the effect of doing is putting a marker down, so that if there's another attack, the Republicans can say, "You see, the Democrats weakened America. We warned them, and we told you so." So, I think in some ways it's a political gambit. And it's also a play for his legacy. He's trying to say "I'm not a war criminal."

Can I say one thing about the Ridenhour Prize? One thing I wanted to say was that Ron Ridenhour -- who was the whistle-blower about My Lai [in the Vietnam War] -- one of his contentions was always that there was authorized slaughter there. It was not just Lt. William Calley who was going on a berserk spree on his own. And so I think that it's kind of fitting that the ICRC report comes out which shows, again, the point that I was trying to make in The Dark Side, which is: This was not just an isolated episode of bad behavior, it was not just the people at the bottom of the barrel, as Donald Rumsfeld called them.

This was an authorized program of abuse from the top of the U.S. government. So there are a lot of parallels there. In both cases, what makes the headlines is the abuse, but the larger point that people have to grapple with is going up the chain of command, how it was authorized.

LS: The importance of whiste-blowers and journalists in the Bush era was, for many people, undisputed. What do you consider to be the role of journalists now?

JM: Abuse is bipartisan. Abuse of power is bipartisan. So I don't think the role of the press ever disappears. As you're pointing out, there's a lot still to do and a lot still to write about. So we're all struggling to keep at it.

Liliana Segura is an AlterNet staff writer and editor of AlterNet's Rights & Liberties Special Coverage.
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