In the recent film Rendition, a “rendered” prisoner under torture is forced to give his North African interrogator the list of names of his supposed collaborators. The American CIA agent standing by to collect the torture victim’s statement eventually comes to realise, after he discovers that the list of the names is a former national soccer team, that the torturer’s labours have produced “intelligence” of zero value. The prisoner just didn’t know anything.
In a similar, real-life case the misinformation given under torture became part of the US casus belli for the invasion of Iraq in 2003. This was the torture of Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, captured by the US in Pakistan in 2001 and sent for questioning in Egypt as part of its “extraordinary renditions” programme. According to the New York Times: “The Egyptians interrogated Libi for a year and sent him back to the US authorities talking about how Qaeda members had received chemical weapons [i.e. WMD] training in Iraq.
There was one problem: Libi says he made the story up to appease the Egyptians, who he says tortured him.” It seems, then, that the resort to barbaric methods helped the Bush administration to hear what it wanted to hear about weapons of mass destruction. The methods of the torturer were instrumental in bringing upon Iraqis, and upon the US and its allies, a terrible war. Subsequently Mr al-Libi completely vanished. He is not listed by the US as held at its naval base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. His whereabouts are a mystery – he has been “disappeared”.
Evidence has been amassed in several important books showing what happens when a civilised nation abandons the Geneva conventions governing the treatment of its prisoners. The latest of these is The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison, by a British journalist, Andy Worthington.
Basing his research mostly on the Pentagon’s own documents, obtained under freedom of information legislation, Worthington has produced a unique compendium of individual histories, combining them with a narrative of events in the “war on terror” from the beginning of the 2001 war in Afghanistan against the Taliban to the present. The overwhelming case made by the book is that, amongst the great numbers of prisoners who were swept up in Afghanistan, the majority were either completely innocent men caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, or were unimportant foot-soldiers whose involvement in an inter-Muslim civil war both pre-dated 9/11 and had no connection with it. The treatment of these captives has been wholly disproportionate.
Helpless men, of whom some have subsequently been released, were tortured before arriving at Guantánamo Bay, the torture producing forced – and untrue – confessions of their links with al-Qaeda. In a number of cases the torture was “outsourced” to selected countries. The conduct of the CIA and the US military towards their prisoners recalls in some instances the fate of prisoners at the hands of the Gestapo in World War Two. Not coincidentally, perhaps, the term adopted by the US authorities, “enhanced interrogation techniques”, expresses in English the Nazis’ identical euphemism for similar forms of torture.
One prisoner, comparing the US prison at Bagram, in Afghanistan, to Nazi camps, reported that beating and torture were considered normal, and that he was subjected to forced nudity, food deprivation and being locked in a box with very little air for prolonged periods, continuing: “Guards forced petrol and benzene into the anuses of prisoners.” Following rendition to Guantánamo Bay, prisoners reportedly received brutal treatment in supermax lockdowns.
Relying on a narrow definition of torture, President George W Bush has denied that the US tortures prisoners. It is important to understand how false this denial is. Elucidation is to be found in recent books written by lawyers representing captives, describing the US renditions programme and the torture of individuals by or at the behest of the US. Two worthwhile books are Guantánamo and the Abuse of Presidential Power, by Joseph Margulies, and Bad Men: Guantanamo Bay and the Secret Prisons, by Clive Stafford Smith. Previous testimony is provided in the excellent Ghost Plane by the journalist Stephen Grey.
The majority of US “detainees” in Guantánamo Bay are being kept isolated, in long-term solitary confinement, in “high-security facilities.” While there appears to be no operational necessity for such long-term isolation, one consequence of it is permanent psychological damage. In plain language, the detainees are being driven insane by the conditions of their incarceration. According to the normal meaning of words this is “cruel punishment” which the eighth amendment to the US Constitution specifically prohibits. The US appears to think such revenge against captives in its war on terror to be its moral right. Unfortunately for the Guantánamo detainees, because they are not US citizens, and not held in “the sovereign United States”, the US Constitution does not operate for their protection.
Jeremy Putley is a freelance writer who lives in Yorkshire, England. His previous articles have appeared in the Political Quarterly, The Spectator, The Daily Telegraph, The Sunday Telegraph, openDemocracy, and Prospect.