Jeremy Scahill’s book Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield (2013) describes how the US became one of the most sophisticated torture regimes the world has ever known. It started out by the government creating the program known as SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape) that was meant to train US forces to be able to resist torture if they were captured by enemy forces. They studied all the torture practices from medieval times onwards to distill out the most effective ones and created a SERE manual to be used as part of survival training exercises.
Then along come Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Condoleeza Rice and others who decided to switch things around and use the SERE manual, not just for training their own troops to resist torture, but as a guidebook on how to torture the people they captured. As a result, the US ended up having the dubious distinction of setting the gold standard for torture, often done at the many ‘black sites’ (i.e. secret prisons) it created around the world, far from any oversight.
How did they get around the fact that torture is not only against the law but is also an international war crime? The way they always do whenever reality contradicts their desires, by changing the definition of torture, making it so narrow that anything that did not result in actual death was not considered torture. Of course, people still died but those deaths were put down to other causes by the complicit medical personnel.
Here is Scahill’s account from pages 89 and 90 of his book of what the torture regime looks like. It makes for grim reading.
Years after the black sites had been established and scores of prisoners were shuttled through them, the International Committee of the Red Cross compiled testimonials of fourteen prisoners who had survived. Some were snatched in Thailand, others in Dubai or Djibouti. Most were taken in Pakistan. The ICRC report described what would happen once US forces took a prisoner:
The detainee would be photographed, both clothed and naked prior to and again after transfer. A body cavity check (rectal examination) would be carried out and some detainees alleged that a suppository (the type and the effect of such suppositories was unknown by the detainees) was also administered at that moment.
The detainee would be made to wear a diaper and dressed in a tracksuit. Earphones would be placed over his ears, through which music would sometimes be played. He would be blindfolded with at least a cloth tied around the head and black goggles. In addition, some detainees alleged that cotton wool was also taped over their eyes prior to the blindfold and goggles being applied…
The detainee would be shackled by [the] hands and feet and transported to the airport by road and loaded onto a plane. He would usually be transported in a reclined sitting position with his hands shackled in front. The journey times … ranged from one hour to over twenty-four to thirty hours. The detainee was not allowed to go to the toilet and if necessary was obliged to urinate and defecate into the diaper.
According to the ICRC, some of the prisoners were bounced around to different black sites for more than three years, where they were kept in “continuous solitary confinement and incommunicado detention. They had no knowledge of where they were being held, no contact with persons other than their interrogators or guards.” The US personnel guarding them wore masks. None of the prisoners was ever permitted a phone call or to write to inform their families they had been taken. They simply vanished.
During the course of their imprisonment, some of the prisoners were confined in boxes and subjected to prolonged nudity-sometimes lasting for several months. Some of them were kept for days at a time, naked, in “stress standing positions,” with their “arms extended and chained above the head.” During this torture, they were not allowed to use a toilet and “had to defecate and urinate over themselves.” Beatings and kickings were common, as was a practice of placing a collar around a prisoner’s neck and using it to slam him against walls or yank him down hallways. Loud music was used for sleep deprivation, as was temperature manipulation. If prisoners were perceived to be cooperating, they were given clothes to wear. If they were deemed uncooperative, they’d be stripped naked. Dietary manipulation was used-at times the prisoners were put on liquid-only diets for weeks at a time. Three of the prisoners told the ICRC they had been waterboarded. Some of them were moved to as many as ten different sites during their imprisonment. “I was told during this period that I was one of the first to receive these interrogation techniques, so no rules applied,” one prisoner, taken early on in the war on terror, told the ICRC. “I felt like they were experimenting and trying out techniques to be used later on other people.”
The prisoner was right. They were, and they did.
These are the practices that the Nobel Peace Prize-winning president Obama excused after he came to office. Not a single person who committed torture or authorized torture or provided the justifications for torture has been punished.