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Al Giordano

Opening Statement, April 18, 2000
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Abuse And Torture at Guantánamo Bay

“After Being Held in Isolation for Two Years, People Will Say Anything, Particularly If Their Next Meal or the Avoidance of Coercive Techniques Depends on It”

We Are Everywhere: The Irresistible Rise of Global Anticapitalism
The book Guantánamo: What the World Should Know can be purchased online through the Authentic J-Store at this link.

By Michael Ratner and Ellen Ray
Chapter 2 of the Book Guantánamo: What the World Should Know

February 7, 2005

The United Nations Convention Against Torture

Ray: There have been allegations from the very beginning that prisoners at Guantánamo were being tortured or abused, and a number of those who have been released described the treatment they received there as torture or abuse. What is happening there? Is torture allowed under international law? Is abusive conduct permitted?

Ratner: Torture has been prohibited for many, many years. The key document today that prohibits torture is the United Nations Convention Against Torture, an international treaty that almost every country in the world, including the United States, has ratified. The Convention Against Torture says that under no circumstances can torture be used: it is an international crime, and every country in the world must pass legislation to make it a crime. The United States has made it a crime even if it occurs abroad. Not only torture but other forms of abuse are prohibited by the Convention Against Torture: cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment (conduct that is severe, but not so severe as to amount to torture) is also prohibited. A stress position, for example, such as forced standing for a number of hours, might not be torture but is still prohibited.

The Convention Against Torture also establishes what is called universal jurisdiction for cases of torture. This means that if a person is accused of torture and flees to or is present in another country, that country, if it signed the convention, has an absolute obligation to arrest that person, investigate, and either try him for torture or extradite him to the country from which he fled.

So, for example, if an American citizen engaged in torture anywhere in the world and was later found in France, let’s say, that person could be arrested in France and either tried for torture there or extradited to the place of the torture for trial. To the extent U.S. officials were or are involved in torture in Guantánamo or elsewhere, they should be careful about the countries in which they travel.

In fact, the prohibition against torture is the most fundamental international human rights prohibition, one that virtually all the nations of the world had agreed upon long before it was fully codified in the Convention.

Torture is also prohibited by customary international law – that is law that has arisen by the practices of nations. It is an absolute prohibition: under no circumstance can you torture anybody, ever. It has taken hundreds of years for this absolute prohibition to evolve into universally accepted law, but it is now an integral part of both treaty law and customary international law. The prohibition applies whether or not one is protected by the Geneva Conventions, which also prohibit torture and inhuman treatment of anyone, POW or not, who is in the custody of a government as a result of a war.

Ray: Is there any argument that can be made that torture and similar abuses are lawful if not used against prisoners of war but against unlawful combatants?

Ratner: Absolutely not. The Convention Against Torture applies to every human being. The Geneva Conventions apply to every type of combatant in a war. Even if one argues that al Qaeda suspects are not governed by the Geneva Conventions, the Convention Against Torture and other human rights treaties ratified by the United States prohibit torture as well as other cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment.

Nor does the Convention Against Torture permit any excuses for torture. Article 2 says that “no exceptional circumstances whatsoever” – whether a state of war or a threat of war, political instability, or any other public emergency—may be evoked as a justification of torture. It goes on to say that an order from a superior officer or a public authority may not be invoked as a justification for torture. That is an illegal order, and you can be punished as a criminal for carrying it out.

The convention is crystal clear: under no circumstances can you torture people, whatever you call them, whether illegal combatants, enemy combatants, murderers, killers. You cannot torture anybody ever; it’s an absolute prohibition.

So classifying these people as threats to the United States has nothing to do with how you must treat them. They still have to be treated humanely, and humane treatment does not include torture.

In addition, torture committed by U.S. soldiers or private contractors acting under U.S. authority is a violation of federal law, punishable by the death penalty if the death of a prisoner results from the torture. Another federal statute criminalizes any grave breach of the Geneva Conventions – including torture, willful killing, inhuman treatment, and causing great suffering to those in custody – as a war crime. Furthermore, a special statute criminalizes such conduct if carried out by so-called private contractors working with the U.S. military.

Ray: How is torture defined?

Ratner: The Convention Against Torture defines torture as “any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person” by a public or state official for any of a variety of reasons: punishment, getting information, and similar kinds of things. Also included in the definition of torture is the use of mind-altering drugs. The definition used in U.S. law is quite similar.

In other words, if a government official, whether a soldier, doctor, intelligence agent, military policeman, or contract interrogator, inflicts severe mental or physical pain on a detainee, that is considered torture. Something that is not considered sufficiently severe to be torture may fall into that lesser category called cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment.

For example, during the 1970s the British prison authorities forced prisoners from the Irish Republican Army to stand hooded for long periods of time against a wall, six or eight hours at a stretch. While that was not considered torture, it was considered cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment, and was considered illegal.

Ray: Since 9/11, there have been some arguments made that torture may be necessary to get information about the next terrorist attack. While you say that the Convention Against Torture allows no such exception, don’t these developments have some effect on the arguments that the prohibition on torture and similar conduct should be loosened?

Ratner: Initially, the most common hypothetical scenario was the capture of a person who knew the whereabouts of a nuclear bomb hidden in the middle of Manhattan, attached to a timer. The argument was that it was justified – more than that, it was just common sense – to torture that person until he revealed the location of the bomb, so it could be disarmed and the innocent residents of Manhattan saved. Most of the initial discussion actually centered on the conflict in Israel and the early cases of suicide bombers.

As revelations about the use of stress and duress and torture in U.S. detention camps have come out, a number of critics have been quick to excuse and to defend, to try to come up with a system that authorizes or justifies such tactics. One of the most ubiquitous is Alan Dershowitz, who says, look, if they are going to use torture anyway, why don’t we have a system, where you have to go to a court and get a warrant to be allowed to torture someone. Then, he says, we could control its use.

To me, this is an incredibly outrageous position, particularly for someone who considers himself a civil rights lawyer. It ignores the hundreds and hundreds of years during which civilizations have finally determined and agreed that torture is not civilized, in any circumstances. And it has many dangerous implications in situations less blatant than outright torture. Should we have the government go to a court to ask for permission to use stress and duress or sleep deprivation or dangerous drugs, or to keep a prisoner naked and with limited food? Is that the kind of society we want to live in?

Another critical aspect about torture is that, as many law enforcement officials acknowledge, you are not getting information that is accurate. You are potentially lining up and torturing a lot of innocent people who have nothing to do with anything and no information.

It is also counterproductive to treat people the way the United States does in Guantánamo or Bagram or Abu Ghraib if you want people to cooperate in the war on terrorism. Muslims and people of Arab ethnicity are angry and inflamed by what is being done to their people. They are not going to cooperate; worse, they are going to turn against you.

So even from a pragmatic point of view, there is a strong basis for opposing torture under any circumstance. Apart from its ineffectiveness and illegality, torture is one of the cruelest, and most dangerous things that the United States can be doing.

The claim that torture should somehow be justified is really an attack on the very dignity of humanity. It sinks us all to an inhuman and uncivilized level. It debases the victim and the torturer. In the end, torture destroys everything we value as human beings.

The Trip to Guantánamo

Ray: Although there are still thousands of prisoners being held in Afghanistan, many were transported to Guantánamo. Is there any cause for concern regarding the journey itself?

Ratner: Yes, a lot could happen and has happened along that route, from capture by warlords fighting against the Taliban and ultimately allied to the United States, to detention by U.S. troops in Kandahar or Bagram, and then in Guantánamo. A lot of the people picked up by warlords of the Northern Alliance were kept in metal shipping containers, so tightly packed that they had to ball themselves up, and the heat was unbearable. According to some detainees who were held in the containers and eventually released from Guantánamo, only a small number, thirty to fifty people in a container filled with three to four hundred people survived. And some of those released said that the Americans were in on this, that the Americans were shining lights on the containers. The people inside were suffocating, so the Northern Alliance soldiers shot holes into the containers, killing some of the prisoners inside.

So the first way they “winnowed down” the numbers, as Rumsfeld put it, was by killing them. And the survivors were turned over to the United States and sent to Bagram and Kandahar, where they were subject to very heavy measures and intense interrogation.

Ray: Were people physically abused when in U.S. custody in Afghanistan?

Ratner: Yes, in both Kandahar and Bagram prisoners were beaten, shackled all the time, forced to lie flat on the floor, kicked, pushed down into the ground, given almost nothing to eat, and kept on their knees for sixteen hours at a time. This amounts in my view to cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment, and seems to fit the definition of torture under the Convention Against Torture. It is a violation of the Geneva Conventions as well. Things were so bad at Bagram that it became known to many as the torture chamber of the United States.

After a month in Kandahar some of the prisoners were dressed in orange jumpsuits, put into chains that tied their legs, arms, and waists together, and flown to Guantánamo. Wearing blacked out goggles and ear coverings, they were shackled and chained flat against the floor in a transport plane for twentyfour hours. They didn’t know where they were going. They weren’t allowed to get up to go to the bathroom. After a few hours they were lying on the floor in their own urine and feces.

The photographed arrival of the Guantánamo prisoners created one of the more enduring images of the U.S. war on terror. The Muslim world and others were shocked when they saw crew-cut marines standing over a row of kneeling, shackled, goggled Muslim men in the Cuban sun. It became an iconic image of all that the United States was doing wrong to the Muslim world.

The British prisoners whom we represent spent the next two years under extremely high-security imprisonment at Guantánamo. First, they were detained at Camp X-Ray in dog-run-like cages, exposed to the elements and at the mercy of the Immediate Reaction Force (IRF), which would go into the cages and beat people up, a process that came to be called “IRFing.” Some of these beatings were taped and have recently been requested by one of the congressional committees involved in the investigation. They may turn out to be important evidence of abuse and torture, if the most damaging evidence implicating these IRF squads has not already been destroyed by the military.

In the middle of 2002 the cells of those initially imprisoned in the dog-run cells were upgraded and a number of prisoners, including our clients, were transferred from Camp X-Ray to Camp Delta. These prisoners were still in cage-like cells, three sides of which were chain link. Prisoners had their hair shaved off; their toilets were holes in the floor; they had to stoop to get water; and guards, female and male, walked by them twice every minute, so they had absolutely no privacy. The detainees were deprived of the most basic utensils for human care. And they underwent scores and scores of additional interrogations under coercive conditions. Some of these may have been videotaped as well. It was during this process that some of the released British detainees made false confessions.

Ray: How are the Guantánamo camps set up?

Ratner: There is a series of cell blocks, one after the other, just like storage facilities. Within Camp Delta there are levels one through four. Within each camp there are different levels, depending on how much you’ve cooperated. Level one is for the cooperators, levels two through four for the people who don’t cooperate. Then there is level four-minus. Once you get into level four-minus, from what I understand, you’re essentially in isolation, with no utensils, maybe a little bit of cloth or something to sleep on, but really very, very harsh conditions.

There is another camp, Camp Echo, which is considered solitary, and is primarily for those people who are going to face commissions. There may also be people there whom the captors consider problems.

They have built two new camps, Romeo and Tango, “R&T,” which are going to be worse than the others: total isolation camps. In these camps the detainees can be put in stripped, and after a few days given shorts – that is all they are given to wear – which only go down to about half a foot above the knee. These are for Muslim men who pray four or five times a day, men whose knees are supposed to be covered. When they sit and pray in these shorts, anyone can look into the pants and see their genitals. This is obviously meant to embarrass them and tear down the human personality of the people involved.

Ray: But the Pentagon claims it is treating the prisoners at Guantánamo well, that it is a model institution, that it is respecting the prisoners’ religion, providing Muslims with prayer rugs, the Koran, and “culturally appropriate meals.”

Ratner: This is not at all true. There are many different levels to consider in the abuses suffered there. First, there is a psychological level. People, as far we know, have been (and are still being) rounded up and taken to Guantánamo from all over the Islamic world, where they are put into wire-mesh cages for observation. They are isolated from each other and repeatedly taken into separate interrogation booths – trailers, really.

A critical psychological issue is that these people have no idea if or when they are ever getting out. For all they know, each time they are taken out of their cells they may well be put up against a wall and shot.

Ray: I read reports a year or so ago that the camp commander at the time, Major General Geoffrey Miller, floated a rumor in the media and also let it become known around the camp that the new, hard-walled prison Halliburton was building – Camp Echo – was to be a death row prison, with its own execution chamber.

Ratner: Yes, and this just reinforced the belief in the prisoners’ minds that Guantánamo was the end of the line, a death camp.

The Red Cross has said one of the most psychologically devastating things happening to people in Guantánamo is the notion that they have reached a dead end, that there is no way out. The psychological harm is horrendous. In fact, one of the threats employed to make prisoners in Iraq talk, even after they had been subjected to abuse and torture, was to threaten them with going to Guantánamo, because everyone understood that there was little or no chance of ever getting out of there.

About one in five of the prisoners have been put on antidepressants, psychotropics, and other drugs. In addition to hunger strikes, there have been more than thirty suicide attempts.

Guantánamo is like Dante’s ninth circle of hell. The temperature is often 110 degrees Fahrenheit, and of course the prisoners have no such thing as air conditioning. The place is infested by scorpions and banana rats. The detainees sleep on concrete floors, with no mattresses; the toilet is a hole in the ground. It is a horrific situation from a physical, psychological, and legal point of view.

Ray: You mentioned that mental as well as physical torture is prohibited. Guantánamo has been referred to as an experimental laboratory in psychiatric detention. It has been suggested that the prisoners have become test subjects for developing methods of interrogation in order to track and classify Islamic societies.

Ratner: Yes. In fact, one interrogator who was interviewed on CBS television boasted that some of the prisoners “are being kept as a kind of al Qaeda database to be mined indefinitely by the interrogators.” He also admitted, “It wouldn’t be prudent to let any of them go if we thought they had any information of value.”

Unfortunately, we have very limited information as to precisely what is happening at Guantánamo, and there will always be dangerously cynical arguments about whether certain conduct is literally torture or whether it is simply cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment. But both are abhorrent and contrary to the Convention Against Torture and the Geneva Conventions.

We don’t have any real observers in Guantánamo. The Red Cross goes there, but its people cannot examine the interrogation rooms, which are separate and secret. The Red Cross has made clear that their inability to speak publicly on this issue should not be taken to mean that torture is not happening there. In May 2004, it was reported that the Red Cross had issued a report on conditions at Guantánamo and furnished that report to the U.S. government. While Red Cross reports are not made public, some of the details have come out. These include stripping of inmates, short-shackling, and the use of medical information to coerce detainees into cooperating. These coercive techniques are precisely those that the released British clients have spoken about publicly for a few months.

The Red Cross publicly addressed the issue of mental torture at Guantánamo, without using the word torture. They say that what is happening to people’s mental stability and mental health is extremely serious, and they have condemned it very strongly, pointing out that keeping people in a camp for two years with no rights, no lawyers, no charges, no sense at all of if or when they might be released, has caused a quantifiable deterioration in their mental health. One could certainly argue that that fits the definition in the Convention of severe mental pain or suffering.

We do know from a number of the people who have been released from Guantánamo that mental torture, the breaking down of the human spirit, is the norm there. This is an interrogation camp, and they are consciously trying to take away people’s identities. Prisoners get toothbrushes, decent food, and other amenities only as a reward for cooperating.

Ray: But it is now abundantly clear that there is much more to their poor treatment than the withholding of amenities and the granting of rewards, isn’t it?

Ratner: There is definitely physical brutality. There are squads of U.S. military personnel – the IRFs I mentioned earlier – who occasionally beat people up, sometimes quite severely. They have held back food from recalcitrant prisoners. There are reports that during interrogation, prisoners are forced to kneel, sometimes for hours while they are chained to a ring on the floor.

The sleep deprivation I mentioned earlier has been openly admitted and authorized in Guantánamo by the Pentagon. As a result of the Abu Ghraib scandal, the Pentagon has said it is banning the use of sleep deprivation in Iraq; it remains to be seen whether its use continues in Guantánamo.

The goal of breaking down people’s will is to make them faceless, take away their culture, their religion, and their identities. The only chance they have to stop the endless interrogations is to cooperate. And the fact is that eventually many of the victims do cooperate, although cooperation may often lead to the signing of false confessions.


Ray: How intensive are the interrogations?

Ratner: The government has admitted that it conducts three hundred interrogations a week. In mid-2004, it had 2,800 soldiers and civilians (including interrogators) running a camp with somewhat more than seven hundred prisoners for two years. Some of the prisoners recently released from Guantánamo said they themselves had been interrogated as many as two hundred times, with all kinds of different techniques.

The United States is planning to use information gained during these interrogations in the military commissions. It is awful enough to try to gain intelligence for the so-called war on terror through torture and coercion, but to compound that by using coerced information in criminal proceedings is to double the outrage. These are obviously coerced statements and totally unreliable. After being held in isolation for two years, people will say anything, particularly if their next meal or the avoidance of coercive techniques depends on it.

Ray: Where do the interrogations take place and how are they done?

Ratner: The interrogations take place in special interrogation rooms where the Red Cross is not allowed. We’ve seen pictures; there’s a metal chair and a steel ring on the floor. It reminds you of slave ships to see that metal ring on the floor. Some of the released prisoners said they were chained in what are called three-piece suits, which is a chain around the waist, shackled to another around the legs and still another around the arms. And then the prisoners are taken into the interrogation room. The chair in the photographs may be just for publicity purposes, to make it look like they get to sit. Detainees were chained flat on the floor, wrists onto that ring. Some said they were chained there for twelve hours, and others said they heard of people chained for sixteen hours at a time, not allowed to go to the bathroom, having to relieve themselves while they were chained there, which is incredibly embarrassing and humiliating. And those interrogation sessions would go on and on.

Various intelligence agencies interrogated detainees. For the United States these included the FBI, the CIA, and the Department of Defense. Interrogations of British prisoners would include people from MI5, the British intelligence agency. People from Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency, interviewed some Moroccans.

In the early days of the camp a loudspeaker would blare out the words, “Cooperate and you can go home,” several times a day, spoken by the general or somebody else high up. And then another announcement followed, “A lot of people are leaving in the next few days. You can join them by cooperating.” Another message was, “We know who is telling the truth and who is lying and we can tell. Tell the truth.”

Ray: The former commander, Major General Miller, stated that three-quarters of the prisoners have been “very cooperative” as a result of his having instituted a rewards-and-punishment system. In this context, what does cooperation mean?

Ratner: It means telling the interrogators everything about your life, about all your acquaintances, anything they want to know about people back home, so they can also be rounded up and arrested. And it means confessing to whatever they want you to confess to. It means lying to them to avoid coercive punishments and to get yourself a McDonald’s Happy Meal or a Twinkie or a toothbrush, or, more importantly, to get transferred to another part of the camp that is not so humiliating and degrading. The “intelligence” about terrorism and terrorists that is coming out of the Guantánamo interrogations is therefore basically garbage. It is simply not reliable. Confessions and denunciations obtained under these kinds of coercive conditions are useless, not just for a criminal trial but for getting any real intelligence that might actually protect the people of the world against terrorist attacks.

We see example after example of that in Guantánamo, where people have falsely confessed to knowledge about Osama bin Laden or to having been somewhere or done something, or have implicated others, all to get some kind of reward, even a pitiful Big Mac.

They are constantly getting people to nail one another. They will wear someone down until, when they ask for the hundredth time “What do you know about Mr. X,” he will finally say, “Okay, he was with me at an Osama training camp.” And then they go to Mr. X and say, “Well, this guy says you were with him at an Osama training camp, we have the evidence, you might as well confess.”

Now, this prisoner has been totally incommunicado for two years, under the thumb of a military that can feed him or not feed him, keep the light on or not keep the light on, give him exercise or not give him exercise, let him shower or not let him shower, strip him or give him clothes, keep him in solitary or not keep him in solitary, sometimes have him beaten up and sometimes subject him to sleep deprivation. Eventually, he too is going to say, “Yes, I was there with the other guy at the Osama camp in Afghanistan.” And there won’t be a word of truth to it.

Ray: The United States claims that the detainees are getting good medical care. What have you heard about this from your clients?

Ratner: The government brags that the prisoners are getting better medical care than they got in Afghanistan or in Pakistan. In fact, medical care, like meals, is withheld if you don’t cooperate, according to some of those released. If you have some kind of pain or you need some sort of medicine, they won’t give it to you unless you cooperate. They hold it out as a reward for cooperation.

Ray: Is this denial of medical attention a form of torture, if not a war crime? At the very least, isn’t it completely contrary to medical ethics? Don’t doctors have an obligation to take care of their patients?

Ratner: It’s absolutely unethical for a doctor to withhold care. But what may be happening here is that a prisoner goes to the clinic and complains, but is never allowed to see a doctor; the intelligence unit is running the clinic, and the doctors are only seeing people referred to them. But if any of the doctors know this is going on and are continuing to participate in this, it’s unethical. It would constitute torture to withhold medical treatment from somebody who was in great pain or needed medical treatment, and it would most likely be a war crime.

Ray: We know from the Department of Defense’s own statements that one in five of the detainees are being medicated for clinical depression. We know there has been a rash of suicide attempts. I know you are not a medical expert, but I would like to know what you think about the medical ethics involved here, about the culpability of doctors observing and treating these detainees.

Ratner: I think it is unethical for doctors to be playing any role at all in these interrogations. It is like a doctor watching someone being tortured and advising the torturers how far they can go without killing him, which would be criminal. Some of those released say they were drugged at the whim of the commanders, and there are charges that prisoners who resisted the injections were beaten. If the doctors participate in the coercive techniques, it would be criminal as well as unethical. We have learned, for example, that some doctors conspired in an attempt to show that the suicide rate had declined, simply by reclassifying suicide attempts as what they call SIB, “self-injurious behavior,” arguing that the individuals did not really want to kill themselves. Reportedly, there were forty such incidents in the last six months of 2003.

Ray: One related question is whether a doctor should certify that an accused person is competent to stand trial when the government wants that person to do so.

Ratner: The doctors who are opposed to involvement in such a certification process point out that after you keep people in a severely coercive environment for two and a half years without them having any idea what they are charged with, you can’t just say, This guy understands the charges against him and he can stand trial. By that time, the guy is essentially putty, somebody the United States can do whatever they want with.

The staff psychiatrist at Guantánamo had the audacity to say in an interview that he thought most of the prisoners suffering from depression brought their symptoms with them. It is terrible having doctors play a part in this, if they are. It smacks of what Nazi doctors did during World War II. It seems to me the medical profession has an obligation to speak out, to say that no doctor can ethically work with the people in Guantánamo. To do so is to cooperate in an interrogation camp, a violation of international law, of the Geneva Conventions.

Ray: During one court argument, the Bush administration took the position that even if the plaintiffs were to claim their captors were engaging in the torture of Guantánamo prisoners, U.S. courts would have absolutely no legal right to question the administration’s conduct.

Ratner: That is the amazing position they took. This all goes to the question of whether Guantánamo is a lawless zone over which no court in the world has jurisdiction, a place where the United States can operate completely free of any judicial oversight.

This argument is, in my view, completely wrong, but it is why the United States is putting people in Guantánamo. When we represented the Haitian detainees who were in Guantánamo in the early 1990s, the same assertion came forward. The court of appeals asked the government’s lawyers, does this mean you can throw people overboard, you can torture them, drown them? The government said, We would not do that, but in any case this court would have nothing to say about it. This court cannot look at what we do. We assert that the United States obeys international law, but this court cannot question whether we do.

Ray: In the case of Jose Padilla, one of the American enemy combatants, which was argued before the Supreme Court in April 2004, this question of torture came up again. Apparently Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was worried that unless the Court had the power to review government actions, torture could occur and the Court would be helpless to deal with it. She asked, “Is it just up to the good will of the executive, or is there any judicial check?” What response did the lawyer for the government give?

Ratner: He said, “Where the government is on a war footing, you have to trust the executive to make the kind of quintessential military judgments that are involved during war.” Of course, he insisted that the government did not engage in torture. This exchange was particularly remarkable as it occurred only eight hours prior to the release of the Abu Ghraib torture photos on CBS.

Ray: The Bush administration says that all detainees are treated humanely “to the extent appropriate and consistent with military necessity.”

Ratner: Right. That is probably the most unbelievably telling admission they have made. They are saying they will not treat people humanely if they think military necessity requires otherwise. In other words, they will treat the prisoners humanely, without torturing them, without stress and duress, without cruel and inhuman and degrading treatment, unless they feel they need information from them they cannot otherwise get. But in such case, they can and will treat them inhumanely. One official who supervised the capture of prisoners told the Washington Post, “If you don’t violate someone’s human rights some of the time, you probably aren’t doing your job.”

That is completely unacceptable, completely illegal. Every human being everywhere in the world has to be treated humanely all the time. It’s hypocritical to torture a person when you think it’s necessary and say that at other times torture is not ethical. You must always treat people humanely. It is a staggering admission of the illegality of the Bush administration’s antiterrorism policies and a repudiation of the Convention Against Torture and of principles of international law that have been built up over hundreds of years.

Ray: There has been a lot of speculation that one deliberate goal of this incessant inhumane treatment has been the forced recruitment of detainees to become undercover agents for the U.S. government.

Ratner: This is a very important function of Guantánamo. This is exactly what the British did with IRA prisoners. Just as is being done in Guantánamo, they refused to give out the names of detainees for “security reasons” and kept them in detention for long periods of time. During that period, many of them were turned into undercover agents for British intelligence. What is going on in Guantánamo is not just about interrogation, not just about keeping allegedly dangerous people off the battlefield, but about recruiting Muslim informants to go around the Islamic world, to go back to their countries of origin and get information back to the United States, essentially to spy for the United States. One possible reason that pictures of abuse were taken in Iraq was as a means to blackmail informants – to insure that they would do their jobs as informants, on pain of release of the embarrassing photos. Until we know otherwise, I think we need to assume that similar tactics were employed in Guantánamo.

Ray: I have seen reports of CIA, FBI, and British intelligence teams working side-by-side with the interrogators at Guantánamo, helping to decide who the likely recruits are and making the pitch. The prisoners at Guantánamo, held in isolation and beyond the reach of the law, must be a dream come true for them, part of the counterterrorist policy underlying the Bush doctrine of an endless, global war on terrorism.

Ratner: Whether this has anything to do with stopping terrorism is another question to me. The CIA stations around the world are not usually about stopping terrorism; they are usually about stopping democracy. They are more concerned with continued U.S. control in these regions than in actually making us any safer at home.

And there are some serious legal problems here. While the desire to have undercover agents and to get intelligence may be on the surface legitimate, it is not legitimate or lawful to recruit such agents by holding them in isolation for years, with no charges, under intense physical and mental deprivation, to turn them in desperation into your robots. It is obviously completely illegal.

The second problem is that these kinds of infiltration operations can backfire. Your agents can end up being your well-trained enemies. And the third problem is about undercutting the independence and national will of people, about insuring U.S. hegemony in those countries where these people are sent.


Ray: Getting back to the use of torture, about a year ago the Washington Post quoted an official as saying, “We don’t kick the shit out of these detainees, we send them to other countries so they can kick the shit out of them.” What is this referring to?

Ratner: Well there are two interesting points to make. First of all, it is nonsense to say we don’t kick the shit out of these people; in fact the United States does kick the shit out of them. We can cite a number of cases where that has happened.

I know of people in Guantánamo who were beaten. But even more compelling is what happens at the U.S. detention facility at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, where the United States admits to employing extreme “stress and duress, “ which in my view constitutes torture. Of course, now we know about Abu Ghraib. Now we knew that the United States itself employs torture. Such denials are preposterous.

As for sending suspects to other countries, on a number of occasions, probably in the hundreds, the United States has used a practice called “rendition,” or sometimes “extreme rendition.” This is when you deliver a suspect to another country, without any legal proceedings or formal extradition, for interrogation. You are rendering someone up to the authorities in another country.

Ray: Aren’t you then, in effect, outsourcing your interrogations under torture?

Ratner: Yes. Say the United States has a person in custody they want to interrogate, but perhaps he has a lawyer here or a relative making inquiries. The administration avoids any embarrassing situation by sending that person to another country to be tortured and interrogated, and then simply insisting they don’t have him, that he is not in U.S. custody.

The Center for Constitutional Rights is representing the victim of a recent case of rendition. A Syrian-born Canadian citizen and resident, Maher Arar, was on a plane from Switzerland, returning to Canada from a vacation in Tunisia, on a flight that was routed through Kennedy airport. The U.S. government, and apparently the Canadians, suspected him of something, and the United States apprehended him in New York and interrogated him for a number of days and did not get what they apparently wanted. So the United States delivered him up to Syrian security services for interrogation to get information out of him by means they couldn’t use in the United States. And despite his Canadian citizenship, they then flew him to Syria, where he was born but had not been for more than twenty years – a country which, the U.S. State Department reports, consistently uses torture in its security services.

And there are other countries, allies of the United States, to which we have rendered suspects. Three of them are Egypt, Jordan, and Morocco; we render suspects consistently to these countries for purposes of torture. A CBS commentator recently estimated that there are hundreds of such cases around the world.

Ray: The Washington Post quoted a former CIA inspector general who claimed that the United States did not torture prisoners, but that if we got the results of others torturing, we could use it. Is that legal or not?

Ratner: No. First of all, to the extent the United States is implicated in either subcontracting or transporting people to another country for torture, the United States is equally guilty of the torture. Encouraging torture is also illegal conduct. The government cannot simply say, as Attorney General John Ashcroft had the audacity to say about Syria and Maher Arar, “Oh, they promised me they weren’t going to torture this person,” when the U.S. government knows that that country consistently uses torture, and sent him there for that very purpose.

Secondly, the general law is clear that for criminal trial purposes, you simply cannot use the fruits of torture. U.S. officials may say they are obtaining the information only for intelligence purposes, but that does not make it legal. By using it in any way, by asking for it in the first place, they are condoning the universally condemned practice of torture, and in my view that is also illegal.

Ray: What about other detention camps? What do we know about them?

Ratner: Guantánamo is not the only U.S. interrogation camp, but in some ways it has become the model for what the United States is doing around the world. Some prisoners are at various camps in Iraq such as Abu Ghraib, or in Afghanistan at a “highvalue” detention camp outside Bagram. The stories of torture coming from these camps are truly disgusting. Some detainees may be sent to Diego Garcia, a base in the middle of the Indian Ocean that the United States leases from Great Britain about which we know virtually nothing. And we hear stories that the most dangerous prisoners are being kept on U.S. carriers and tortured there.

The United States is also running a major detention and interrogation camp in Bagram where similar reports of torture are legion. In fact, in December 2002, two prisoners at Bagram were apparently beaten to death while they were being interrogated. A Washington Post article about the incident never used the word “torture,” but two army doctors acknowledged the deaths were from beatings, and they were ruled homicides. In May 2004, newspapers revealed that at camps in Afghanistan housing so-called high-value detainees, mock drowning –a type of water torture –was used to get information.

Ray: Let me ask you about the war in Iraq. No one knows how many Iraqi civilians are still being held in detention by the United States. Estimates ranged from 10,000 to 20,000 being held in prisons like the notorious Abu Ghraib, although many hundreds have been released since the scandal broke.

Ratner: We now know, after the horrifying photos revealed in the press, that U.S. troops at Abu Ghraib – apparently encouraged by military intelligence units, the CIA, and civilian interrogators – were using torture there, including sadistic sexual practices, to soften prisoners up for further interrogation. At least two prisoners died under this torture, and more than a dozen soldiers, including their commanding general, have been relieved of duty and are under investigation. In fact, the deputy director of U.S. military operations in Iraq admitted to CBS that this “was not an isolated series of incidents.” As of May 2004 the United States said it was investigating some 37 deaths that occurred in its detention facilities.

Ray: Is there a significant connection between the interrogators at Abu Ghraib and those at Guantánamo?

Ratner: Yes. Before these abuses occurred, in the fall of 2003 a large team of military intelligence officers, under the supervision of Guantánamo commander Major General Geoffrey Miller, who had bragged about how many of his prisoners had been induced to “cooperate,” was sent to Iraq from Guantánamo to demonstrate techniques designed to “get more information” from the prisoners. In May 2004, amazingly, General Miller was permanently transferred to Iraq as commander of all U.S. prisons there, including Abu Ghraib, to “help insure proper detention and interrogation practices in Iraq.” The logical conclusion, of course, is that it was General Miller’s orders that, at a minimum, opened the door to such abuses. Remember also that it was General Miller who brought the now dismissed prosecution against Captain James Yee, a Muslim chaplain at Guantánamo. Yee was charged first with espionage and then, when that didn’t stick, with possessing pornography. In the end, that didn’t stick either, and Yee was completely exonerated. That Miller would be appointed to head Abu Ghraib is real cynicism.

Ray: Despite the president’s professed shock and his repeated protestations that “we don’t torture people in America,” isn’t it true that the guards at Abu Ghraib were not doing anything worse than what has been done in prisons in Texas, New Orleans, New York, and elsewhere?

Ratner: It is obvious that the administration was shocked only because the photos had been taken and leaked to the press, not because of what had happened. In fact, the guards who have now been charged had earlier been congratulated for their success in “priming” the prisoners for interrogation and in “getting positive results and information.” The New York Times had an excellent article pointing out that a number of the practices seen in the photos, such as forcing prisoners to strip and wear women’s underwear, are not uncommon in certain U.S. prisons.

Ray: What effect does the administration’s attitude toward torture have on the people committing, allowing, condoning, or averting their eyes from it?

Ratner: The legal memos to the president and from the Justice Department regarding the Geneva Conventions and the War Crimes Statute, which makes criminal serious violation of the Geneva Conventions (particularly with regard to treatment of prisoners), demonstrate that, at least since the war in Afghanistan, the administration was planning to treat prisoners inhumanely. Moreover, the memos indicate that the administration feared criminal prosecution for doing so.

The condoning of outlawed methods of interrogation by those at the top obviously affects the people who practice those techniques. Bush’s actions take us all back to the Inquisition; it really is medieval. We have to be aware that allowing Americans to engage in torture corrodes the moral fabric of our society. To the extent that a civilized society remains in this country, and to the extent that we have any remaining values, they are seriously endangered.

Michael Ratner is President of the Center for Constitutional Rights. He served as co-counsel in Rasul v. Bush, the historic case of Guantánamo detainees before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Under Ratner’s leadership, the Center has aggressively challenged the constitutional and international law violations undertaken by the United States post-9/11, including the constitutionality of indefinite detention and the restrictions on civil liberties as defined by the unfolding terms of a permanent war. In the 1990s Ratner acted as a principal counsel in the successful suit to close the camp for HIV-positive Haitian refugees on Guantánamo Bay.

He has written and consulted extensively on Guantánamo, the Patriot Act, military tribunals, and civil liberties in the post-9/11 world. He has also been a lecturer of international human rights litigation at the Yale Law School and the Columbia School of Law, president of the National Lawyers Guild, special Counsel to Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide to assist in the prosecution of human rights crimes, and radio co-host for the civil rights show Law and Disorder.

Ellen Ray is President of the Institute for Media Analysis and the author and editor of numerous books and magazines on U.S. intelligence and international politics. She is co-editor with William Schaap of Bioterror: Manufacturing Wars the American Way and Covert Action: The Root of Terrorism, both published by Ocean Press in 2003.

Guantanamo: What the World Should Know on Narco News:

The Inquisition Strikes Back (Book review by Jules Siegel)


Chapter 1: Guantánamo Bay and Rule by Executive Fiat

Chapter 2: Abuse and Torture

Chapter 3: Testimony and Case Details

Chapter 4: Military Comissions and the Supreme Court

Purchase your own copy of the book Guantánamo: What the World Should Know at Salón Chingón’s Authentic J-Store

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