Historians Against the War

Torture, American Style

Sign the Petition

Speaker's Bureau

Press Releases and Statements

Virtual Movement Archive


Teaching Resources

Civil Liberties and Academic Freedom


Join our Listserv

Download HAW images

Contact Us

Torture of Prisoners in U.S. Custody

By Marjorie Cohn

Major General Geoffrey Miller, the American commander in charge of detentions and interrogations at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, recently conducted an overnight tour of the facility for journalists.

He proudly displayed "Camp Liberty" and "Camp Redemption," newly renovated in response to the torture scandal unleashed by the release of the disgusting photographs last spring.

Under the new system in place at Abu Ghraib, an interrogation plan is submitted to a lawyer for approval before any interrogation begins. The time required to process prisoners has been reduced from 120 to 50 days. Since July, 60% of the reviews have lead to releases.

Three hundred Iraqi prisoners were released on one day in September. Each walked away with $25 and a 12-page glossy pamphlet on Iraq's interim government.

General Miller, the tour guide, oversaw interrogations at the United States prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. He had been sent to Abu Ghraib last fall to transfer his interrogation system from Cuba to Iraq. It was on his watch that the worst mistreatment, depicted in the publicized photos, occurred.

Several official reports were written with more disturbing revelations. The International Committee of the Red Cross documented 70 - 90 % of those held at Abu Ghraib were there by mistake.

The reaction of the Bush administration to the revelations of torture was to prosecute seven low ranking soldiers.

In spite of calls for investigation of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and President George W. Bush for complicity in the mistreatment, the prison torture scandal has been on the back burner in the national discourse.

The September release of Seymour Hersh's book Chain of Command: The Road from 9/11 to Abu Ghraib, however, has put the issue back on the radar screen.

Rumsfeld testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee that his department was alerted to the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib in January 2004. Rumsfeld told Bush in February about an "issue" involving mistreatment of prisoners in Iraq, according to a Senior White House aide.

These claims are disingenuous. The roots of Abu Ghraib, writes Hersh, lie in the creation of the "unacknowledged" special-access program (SAP) established by a top-secret order signed by Bush in late 2001 or early 2002. The presidential order authorized the Defense Department to set up a clandestine team of Special Forces operatives to defy international law and snatch, or assassinate, anyone considered a "high-value" Al Qaeda operative, anywhere in the world.

Rumsfeld expanded SAP into Iraq in August 2003. It was Rumsfeld who approved the use of physical coercion and sexual humiliation to extract information from prisoners. Rumsfeld and Bush set this system in motion long before January 2004. The mistreatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib was part of the ongoing operation.

Hersch quotes a CIA analyst who was sent to the U.S. military prison at Guantánamo in late summer of 2002, to find out why so little useful intelligence had been gathered. After interviewing 30 prisoners, "he came back convinced that we were committing war crimes in Guantánamo."

By fall 2002, the analyst's report finally reached General John A. Gordon, the deputy national security adviser for combating terrorism, who reported directly to national security adviser Condoleezza Rice. Gordon was deeply distressed by the report and its implications for the treatment of captured American soldiers. He also thought "that if the actions at Guantánamo ever became public, it'd be damaging to the president."

Gordon passed the report to Rice, who called a high-level meeting in the White House situation room. Rumsfeld, who had been encouraging his soldiers to get tough with prisoners, was present at the meeting. Yet Rice asked Rumsfeld "what the issues were, and he said he hadn't looked into it." Rice urged him to look into it: "Let's get the story right," she declared.

A military consultant with close ties to Special Operations told Hersh that war crimes were committed in Iraq and no action was taken. "People were beaten to death," he said. "What do you call it when people are tortured and going to die and the soldiers know it, but do not treat their injuries?" the consultant asked rhetorically. "Execution," he replied to his own question.

We should have seen it coming. In Bush's January 2003 State of the Union Address, he said: "All told, more than 3,000 suspected terrorists have been arrested in many countries, and many others have met a different fate." He added, "Let's put it this way. They are no longer a problem for the United States and our friends and allies."

Bush was admitting he had sanctioned summary execution, in direct violation of international, and United States, law.

The Bush administration has also admittedly engaged in the illegal practice of rendition, where people are sent to other countries to be tortured. The C.I.A. acknowledged in testimony before Congress that prior to 2001, it had engaged in about seventy "extraordinary renditions."

In December 2001, for example, American operatives kidnapped two Egyptians and flew them to Cairo, where they were subjected to repeated torture by electrical shocks from electrodes attached to their private parts.

Rape, sodomy with foreign objects, the use of unmuzzled dogs to bite and severely injure prisoners, and beating prisoners to death have been documented at Abu Ghraib. Women beg their families to smuggle poison into the prisons so they could kill themselves because of the humiliation they suffered.

Allegations of routine torture have emerged from Mosul and Basra as well. "Some were burnt with fire, others [had] bandaged broken arms," claimed Yasir Rubaii Saeed al-Qutaji. Haitham Saeed al-Mallah reported seeing "a young man of 14 years of age bleeding from his anus and lying on the floor." Al-Mallah heard the soldiers say that "the reason for this bleeding was inserting a metal object in his anus."

The army has charged one Sergeant with assault and other crimes, and is recommending that two dozen other American soldiers face criminal charges, including negligent homicide for mistreatment of prisoners in Afghanistan.

In September, three Americans running a private prison, but reportedly working with the CIA, were convicted of kidnapping and torture and sentenced to 8-10 years in prison by an Afghan court. Afghan police had reportedly found three men hanging from the ceiling, and five others were found beaten and tied in a dark small room.

The Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, a treaty ratified by the U.S. and thus part of its binding domestic law, defines torture as follows: the infliction of severe pain or suffering for the purpose of obtaining a confession, discrimination, coercion or intimidation.

Torture, inhuman treatment, and willful killing are grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions, treaties ratified by the United States. Grave breaches of Geneva are considered war crimes under the U.S. War Crimes Act of 1996. American nationals who commit war crimes abroad can receive life in prison, or even the death penalty if the victim dies.

Under the doctrine of command responsibility, a commander can be held liable if he knew or should have known his inferiors were committing war crimes and he failed to prevent or stop them.

When John Walker Lindh was captured in Afghanistan in December 2001, his American interrogators stripped and gagged him, strapped him to a board, and displayed him to the press. He was writhing in pain from a bullet left in his body. A Navy admiral told the intelligence officer interrogating Lindh that "the secretary of defense's counsel has authorized him to 'take the gloves off' and ask whatever he wanted."

Although initially charged with crimes of terrorism carrying life in prison, Attorney General John Ashcroft permitted Lindh to plead guilty to lesser crimes that garnered him 20 years. The condition: Lindh make a statement that he suffered "no deliberate mistreatment" while in custody. The cover-up was underway.

Lawyers from the Defense Department and Justice Department penned lengthy memos and created a definition of torture much narrower than the one in the Torture Convention. They advised Bush how his people could engage in torture and avoid prosecution under the U.S. Torture Statute.

More than 300 lawyers, retired judges, and law professors (including this writer), a former FBI director, an ex-Attorney General, and seven past presidents of the American Bar Association, signed a statement denouncing the memos, which, we wrote, "ignore and misinterpret the U.S. Constitution and laws, international treaties and rules of international law." The statement condemns the most senior lawyers in the Department of Justice, Department of Defense, White House, and Vice President Dick Cheney's office, who "have sought to justify actions that violate the most basic rights of all human beings."

Even the conservative American Bar Association (ABA) criticized what it called "a widespread pattern of abusive detention methods." Those abuses, according to the ABA, "feed terrorism by painting the United States as an arrogant nation above the law."

Relying on advice in these memos, Bush issued an unprecedented order that, as commander-in-chief, he has the authority to suspend the Geneva Conventions. In spite of Geneva's requirement that a competent tribunal decide whether someone qualifies for prisoner of war (POW) status, Bush took it upon himself to decide that Al Qaeda and Taliban prisoners in Afghanistan were not protected by the Geneva Convention on the POWs.

This decision was premised on the reasoning of White House Counsel Alberto Gonzalez [Bush's current nominee for Attorney General, ed.], that "the war against terrorism is a new kind of war, a new paradigm [that] renders obsolete Geneva's strict limitations on questioning of enemy prisoners and renders quaint some of its provisions."

A still-secret section of the recently-released U.S. Army's Fay Report says that "policies and practices developed and approved for use on Al Qaeda and Taliban detainees who were not afforded the protection of the Geneva Conventions, now applied to detainees who did fall under the Geneva Conventions' protections."

And Bush didn't take into account that even prisoners who don't are not POWs must still be treated humanely under the Geneva Convention on the Treatment of Civilians In Time of War.

The Schlesinger Report that came out within a day of the Fay Report accused the Pentagon's top civilian and military leadership of failing to exercise sufficient oversight and permitting conditions that led to the abuses. Rumsfeld's reversals of interrogation policy, according to the report, created confusion about which techniques could be used on prisoners in Iraq.

Rumsfeld has admitted ordering an Iraqi prisoner be hidden from the International Committee of the Red Cross. Pentagon investigators believe the CIA has held as many as 100 "ghost" detainees in Iraq. Hiding prisoners from the Red Cross violates Geneva.

The Schlesinger Report confirmed 5 detainee deaths as a result of interrogation, and 23 more deaths are currently under investigation.

The torture of prisoners in U.S. custody did not begin in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantánamo. "I do not view the sexual abuse, torture and humiliation of Iraqi prisoners by American soldiers as an isolated event," says Terry Kupers, a psychiatrist who testifies about human rights abuses in U.S. prisons. "The plight of prisoners in the USA is strikingly similar to the plight of the Iraqis who were abused by American GIs. Prisoners are maced, raped, beaten, starved, left naked in freezing cold cells and otherwise abused in too many American prisons, as substantiated by findings in many courts that prisoners' constitutional rights to remain free of cruel and unusual punishment are being violated."

Torture techniques used in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Guantánamo are all too familiar in prisons in the U.S. as well. Hooded, robed figures with electrical wiring attached to them have been seen at the city jail in Sacramento, California. Prisoners in Maricopa County jails in Phoenix, Arizona have been forced to wear women's underwear. And guards in the Utah prison system have piled naked bodies in grotesque and uncomfortable positions.

The connection between mistreatment of prisoners here and abroad is even more direct than that. For example, John Armstrong ran Connecticut's Dept. of Corrections from 1995-2003, before being sent to Iraq as a prison adviser in September 2003. On his Connecticut watch, two mentally ill prisoners died while being restrained by guards. Two more inmates died in custody after guards mistreated them. And Armstrong made a remark once that equated the death penalty with euthanasia.

Speaking of the death penalty, the use of the gas chamber was challenged in California as cruel and unusual punishment, before the execution of Robert Alton Harris about 10 years ago. As a result California adopted the use of the lethal injection because it was more "humane" method of killing a person. Lawyers in Kentucky are now challenging the three-chemical cocktail used for lethal injections in many states as cruel and unusual. It took one man in Kentucky 12 minutes to die from the humane lethal injection.

In May 2000, the U.N. Committee Against Torture considered the United States' initial report on implementation of the Convention Against Torture. It expressed concern at torture and ill-treatment by prison guards - much of it racially motivated--and the sexual abuse of female prisoners by male guards. Human Rights Watch reports that sexual misconduct is rarely investigated, much less punished, and that punishments tend to be light.

Eight prison guards were acquitted of charges they subjected prisoners to cruel and unusual punishment by arranging gladiator-style fights among inmates, and setting up the rape of an inmate by a notoriously violent inmate known as the "Booty Bandit" at Corcoran State Prison in California.

Although Bush signed the Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003, the law provides for no enforcement mechanism or cause of action for rape victims.

But prison guards have been convicted of organizing assaults on inmates in a federal prison in Florence, Colorado, and at Pelican Bay State Prison in California. The Department of Justice concluded that conditions at prisons in Newport, Arkansas are unconstitutional. And New Jersey prison guards reportedly brutalized over 600 prisoners.

A U.S. District Court Judge in California threatened to place the prisons into receivership if the Department of Corrections (DOC) didn't overhaul its internal disciplinary system. In response, the DOC has undertaken an independent Bureau of Review to ensure violations do not occur in the future.

In the wake of the September 11 attacks, more than 1200 Arab, Muslim, and South Asian men were rounded up in one of the most extensive incidents of racial profiling in the U.S. since the Japanese were interned during World War II. A December 2003 report by the Department of Justice's Office of the Inspector General investigated allegations of physical and verbal abuse of non-citizen prisoners by the Federal Bureau of Prisons' (BOP) Metropolitan Detention Center (MDC) in Brooklyn, NY.

BOP policy prohibits staff members from using brutality, physical violence, intimidation toward inmates, or any force beyond that which is reasonably necessary to subdue an inmate.

The report concluded that several MDC staff members slammed and bounced detainees into the walls, twisted or bent their arms, hands, wrists, or fingers, pulled their thumbs back, tripped them, and dragged them on the floor. It also found violations of BOP policy by verbal abuse as well.

In Estelle v. Gamble, the U.S. Supreme Court applied the Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishment to conditions of confinement that are incompatible with the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society.

The United Nations' Economic and Social Council promulgated the Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners. The Supreme Court in Estelle specified that these rules should be included in the measurement of "evolving standards of decency."

The rules provide that corporal punishment, punishment by placing in a dark cell, and all cruel, inhuman, or degrading punishments shall be completely prohibited as punishments for disciplinary actions.

Fyodor Dostoevsky once said, "The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons."

In May, when the Abu Ghraib scandal was on the front pages, there were demands for Rumsfeld to resign. But Cheney told Rumsfeld there would be no resignations. It was blatantly political. We're going to hunker down and tough it out, Cheney said, so as not to hurt Bush's chances for election in November.

In spite of George W. Bush's renunciation of the International Criminal Court, many people around the world are clamoring for Bush and his deputies to be held accountable for the widespread torture of prisoners in Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantánamo, and the CIA's secret prisons elsewhere. In the words of Yale law professor Bruce Ackerman: "It is one thing to protect the armed forces from politicized justice; quite another, to make it a haven for suspected war criminals."

Marjorie Cohn is a Professor at Thomas Jefferson School of Law. She co-authored Cameras in the Courtroom: Television and the Pursuit of Justice, and publishes frequent articles and does media commentary about U.S. foreign policy and human rights. Professor Cohn is a criminal defense attorney, executive vice president of the National Lawyers Guild, the U.S. representative to the executive committee of the American Association of Jurists, and contributing editor to truthout.org. She can be reached at libertad48@san.rr.com.

Torture, American Style