How the US set the gold standard for torture

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.


  1. says

    “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.”

    How’s that hopey-changey thing working out?

  2. slc1 says

    Aside from the morality of these activities, was there ever any analysis performed as to whether any useful intelligence information came out of them. Torture is a good device for obtaining false confessions, not so good for obtaining intelligence information. Generally, the types of low level munchkins captured on the battlefield don’t have much useful intelligence information to begin with. On the contrary, all too ofter the information obtained is either wrong or outdated, which is worse then no intelligence at all.

  3. slc1 says

    As to why Obama isn’t pursuing the perpetrators, one of the reasons is the fact that, if he pursues the Cheneys and the Rumsfelds of the world, a Rethuglican successor may well pursue members of his administration. Example, the impeachment charges against President Clinton were, in part, payback for the impeachment of President Nixon. As President Kennedy was once quoted as saying, don’t get mad, get even.

    This, of course, doesn’t excuse his failure to hold Bush Administration figures accountable for their war crimes.

  4. rory says


    You know what’s a good way to make sure that some future putative Republican administration doesn’t come after you for war crimes once you’re out of office? DON’T COMMIT ANY WAR CRIMES.

    Obviously I’d be unsuitable for government work, because to me that seems straightforward.

  5. says

    was there ever any analysis performed as to whether any useful intelligence information came out of them

    There’s been some ad-hoc analysis but I doubt even the torturers know; after the brave torturer heroes were quick to destroy the evidence of their crimes, thereby also destroying any chance they had of justifying them.
    And, if you think that’s a coincidence, I have a strip of land in the middle east for sale that you might be interested in…

    I’m fairly confident that they found nothing. That’s based on a few things that synthesize together to paint a broad picture of failure. For one thing, you have the fact that Khalid Shayk Mohammed was captured along with his laptop, which was not encrypted yet they still waterboarded him. That tells me they were not looking for intelligence at all; it was just revenge (or, more precisely dominance) Secondly, if there had been a big success thanks to torture, the establishment would have leaked that fact in order to justify it. Lastly, the US’ war against Al Queda was not prosecuted particularly effectively or rapidly. Since intelligence gained through torture has a very very short lifespan, we would have expected to see a very different response – if we’d seen stuff like: KSM is grabbed, and 2 days later SEALs hit Bin Laden’s location – then it might be plausible. Instead we saw an operational pace that matched an offensive based on traffic analysis, low-level penetration, and a whole lot of back-end analytical work. There is no way someone can sell the story that they had operational intelligence collected through torture and chose not to use it out of fear of giving away their methods. Paradoxically, the fact that the US was pretty incompetent (as usual!) with its intelligence means that they didn’t actually have any ultra high-quality material of exactly the sort that proponents of torture imagine they’ll get through that method.

  6. says

    The story of KSM’s laptop is an interesting one. I can almost imagine the scenario where they are thinking they’re going to need to torture him to get the encryption key to the laptop, but then they’re all sheepish and downcast when they image the hard drive and load it into encase and discover there’s no encryption at all… Aw, fooey…. no fun…. But then the order comes down to break him, anyway, and they perk up and start frisking around…

  7. sailor1031 says

    Shoot – they’ll come after you anyway if they want. It doesn’t take much to be designated a ‘person of interest’. Be assured they’ll find something in that NSA database to justify grabbing you.

  8. Mano Singham says

    What I think is also new is the codification of the methods into an actual ‘how-to’ manual that is officially approved.

  9. Corvus illustris says

    Consider that horrible horrible German interrogator of WW_2, who got the goods by persuasion. The US army brought him to this country after the war so that he could teach our good guys something. Apparently the Bush gang were so busy with My Pet Goat that they didn’t read Scharff’s lecture notes.

  10. Corvus illustris says

    Ever the pedant: Your link translates verschärfte Vernehmungsmethoden as “sharpened” methods; in a more neutral context I might say verschärfen meant “intensify”; but I think we have to credit “enhanced” to good old Yankee (maybe more likely Johnny Reb) ingenuity.

  11. Corvus illustris says

    I hope I will not be taken as an apologist for the Gestapo if I point out that–at least in this one page of the linked manual–the worst thing they list is “beating with a stick” and that a physician must be present if more than 20 blows are applied (welcome to Singapore, or is it Malaysia). Rather than following in their footsteps, with waterboarding we boldly go where no one has gone before–oh, wait–

  12. slc1 says

    Re Corvus illustris

    I believe that caning is a common form of punishment in both Malaysia and Singapore.

  13. MNb says

    At least the Gestapo made sure indeed their methods were effective – that they got the information they wanted. Every surviving resistance fighter who was captured from Western Europe can tell you that.
    The American practice remind me more of the KGB practice during the good old Stalin paranoia.

  14. Corvus illustris says

    Every surviving resistance fighter who was captured from Western Europe can tell you that.

    And among the nonsurvivors are the ones who managed not to give them what they wanted.

    I think that the link MR found @5.1.1 is just to a memo, or cover page if there indeed exists a manual; having watched a German crew build a road, I see German systematic efficiency as largely mythical.

    The Ami practice just exhibits that national streak of sadism that we don’t see when we look in the mirror.

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