Killing Wussification

By Alex Gibney

What's with the ongoing "wussification" name-calling by cable chit-chat provocateurs like Ann Coulter and Sean Hannity?  While Hannity and others have offered to be waterboarded - a sign they hope will convey just how mild the process is - Coulter has compared CIA interrogation techniques to the sexual highjinks of disgraced politicians.  (In her fondness for an easy mix of sex and violence, Coulter may have been right at home at Abu Ghraib.)  While I regard her - and other "wussy" callers - as beneath contempt, I have been disturbed that intelligent friends of mine cite her "work" as evidence of what they want to believe: that the enhanced interrogation techniques that so-called liberals call torture are nothing more than fraternity pranks.

Well, Ms. Coulter, work on this: is murder a frat prank?

There has been a lot of arcane talk about the memos produced by the Office of Legal Counsel about specific "no-touch" torture techniques which, out-of-context, can sound harmless, if a bit weird.  (In one of Office of Legal Counsel memos written by Steven Bradbury, he notes that, while it's OK to strip a detainee naked and make him wear a diaper, one must be careful not to chafe the skin with the Velcro straps when taking them on and off.)

What has been mostly missing from the recent debate about detainee abuse is that over 100 detainees died in custody during the war on terror.  Nearly half of those deaths have been classified as homicides.  For all sorts of reasons, it's worth looking at one case in particular.  It's the story of Dilawar, a 22-year old taxi driver whose murder was at the center of my film, "Taxi to the Dark Side." 

Dilawar lived in Yakubi, a small peanut-farming village in Afghanistan, not far from the Pakistan border.  Shy and a bit of a dreamer, Dilawar drove a taxi to support his wife and young daughter because he wasn't really cut out for the hard work of farming. On December 1, 2002, he was carrying three paid fares home from the provincial capital of Khost when he and his passengers were stopped and arrested by Afghan militia.  Accused of launching a rocket attack on Camp Salerno, a nearby US base, Dilawar and his passengers were turned over to American forces.

On December 5, Dilawar was flown to Bagram, the headquarters for US forces in Afghanistan and a key detention and interrogation center, where he was designated a PUC - person under control - number 421.  Five days later, he was dead. 

Only a week before, another detainee named Habibullah had died.   The medical examiner noted that he had a pre-existing pulmonary condition.  But it was the beatings he sustained at Bagram that led to the cause of his death: a blood clot that traveled to his lungs.   As one member of the 519th Military Intelligence Battalion recalled, "two prisoners dying within a week of each other.  That's bad." 

Indeed it was.

The army initially declared in a press release that both men had died of natural causes.  But an enterprising NY Times reporter named Carlotta Gall managed to track down Dilawar's family in Yakubi.  Dilawar's brother, Shahpoor, showed her a folded paper he had received with Dilawar's body.  He couldn't read because it was in English.  It was a death certificate.  As Gall scanned to the cause of death, a small "x" was marked in the box for "Homicide."

Further investigation revealed that Dilawar's cause of death was remarkably similar to that of Habibullah.  He died of a pulmonary embolism caused by trauma to his legs that was so severe that the coroner said his legs were "pulpified," and looked like they had been run over by a truck.  Had he lived, the coroner later testified, Dilawar's legs would have had to have been amputated.  (Another note on the importance of photographs: by finding the autopsy pictures of Dilawar -"Taxi" made a handful of these public for the first time - I confirmed the findings of the coroner with images of Dilawar's wounds that showed such extraordinary tissue damage that many were too gruesome to be shown  in the film.)

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What could have caused such trauma?  A criminal investigation revealed that the Military Police at Bagram had pummeled Dilawar's legs with peroneal strikes, an "approved" control measure that the MPs had learned one day in their guard training.  It involved slamming their knees into the nerve endings on Dilawar's thighs.  "It drops 'em pretty good," said one MP.

At first, soldiers told me, they used strikes to control the 122-pound Dilawar because he would often try to take off his hood, perhaps because he suffered from severe asthma.  Later, as Dilawar continued to moan and cry out for his mother and father - which MPs, who couldn't understand him, may have mistaken for the signs of a troublemaker - the guards would pummel him with knee strikes over and over again, just to shut him up, or sometimes, for their amusement, just to hear him scream "allah."

Now, at this point, the reader must be thinking: this is the work of a few bad apples, rogue sadists, mean motherfuckers.  Well, having met a number of Dilawar's guards and interrogators, I don't share that view at all.  Most of the young men I met were physically imposing but polite, soft-spoken and haunted by their experiences. "Sometimes," said MP Tony Morden, "I feel I should have uh, gone with my own morality more than what was common." 

Some have been convicted by the military of various crimes, including assault and maiming, and punished with light sentences for their roles in Dilawar's death. They all admit that they did something wrong, and they accept their punishment.  Yet they resent the fact that they were singled out and prosecuted while their superior officers were barely investigated for condoning or ordering the crimes that the soldiers committed.

Who was ultimately responsible?

Dilawar and Habibullah died, in part, because they were hooded and shackled to the wire mesh ceiling of their holding cells for hours at a time so that the blood flowed to their legs, turning peroneal strikes into death blows.  But the illegal practice of overhead shackling was not the work of bad apples.  It was routine at Bagram.  It was policy. 

For reasons no one can explain, and without written orders that anyone can or is willing to produce, a program of sleep deprivation was instituted at Bagram whereby MPs would shackle detainees to the ceiling of holding cells so that if they tried to fall asleep they would be awakened by the tugging of the handcuffs on their bloody wrists.   There was nothing secret about this.  There was a regular "sleep dep" schedule posted on a white board in the prison that was visible to the many high-ranking officers and Bush Administration officials who toured the prison.  (It was only erased and the prisoners unshackled when the Red Cross visited Bagram.)   The office of Lt. Gen. Dan K. McNeill, then commander of US forces in Afghanistan, was a stone's throw away from the prison. 

Off-limits to journalists, the Bagram prison was a showplace for many touring dignitaries and high-ranking military officers.  As Damien Corsetti, a member of the 519th MI unit told me, "Mr. Rumsfeld's office called our office frequently. Very high commanders would want to be kept up to date on a daily basis on certain prisoners there. The brass knew. They saw them shackled, they saw them hooded and they said right on. You all are doing a great job."

There were other "techniques" in regular use at Bagram: the use of snarling dogs, deafening music, forced nudity, and, according a number of soldiers, a kind of low-rent, homemade waterboarding set-up: wetting down a hood, putting it on a detainee's head and then heating it up to let the steam to suffocate the detainee.

It should be noted that none of these techniques were interrogation techniques per se.  But they were all in the service of softening up detainees for interrogation.  Other techniques - such as stress positions, like "the invisible chair," in which the detainee is made to sit as if there were a chair under him - were used in interrogations.  In Dilawar's case, however, the beatings to his legs made him unable to sit on "the invisible chair," during one of his last interrogations.  Thinking Dilawar was mocking him when he slid down the wall and fell on the floor - he couldn't see the deep bruises under his orange jump suit - his interrogator punished him some more.

Now, let's move on to the results of Dilawar's interrogation.  After all, the "torture-is-tough-but-necessary" crowd maintains that torture always delivers the goods.  Let's see what actionable intelligence was obtained: After the third day of trying to find out about the rocket attack, Dilawar's interrogators concluded that he was utterly innocent.  Yet the beatings continued for another two days until Dilawar was dead.

To cover-up the fact that the Army had murdered an innocent man, the Army sent his passengers (who had also been incarcerated at Bagram) to Guantanamo.  There they sat until March 2004, when military officials concluded that the unlucky passengers "posed no threat" to American forces and sent them, without explanation, back home to the peanut fields of Yakubi.   Upon further investigation, it turned out that Afgans who had originally detained Dilawar and his passengers were the very ones who were actually responsible for the rocket attacks on Camp Salerno.  They had a record of arresting innocents, proclaiming them guilty and turning them over to US troops in order to curry favor with the Americans.

What happened to Captain Carolyn Wood, the officer in charge of interrogation at Bagram during Dilawar's incarceration?  She was given a bronze star and sent to Abu Ghraib, just prior to the abuses there.  (It appears that, at long last, she may have been questioned as part of the recent Senate Armed Services Committee report on detainee treatment.)

Her full testimony - if revealed - should be instructive.  But, as a Captain, Carolyn Wood was implementing, not formulating policy at either Bagram or Abu Ghraib.  By all accounts, she was a "can-do" soldier, popular with her soldiers (she would send post cards home to their families) who was trying to make things work for her superiors.  Yet no written orders have been produced to show us what senior officers had authorized interrogation techniques in Bagram that were forbidden according to the Army Field Manual.  So where did the orders come from?

In her testimony to the Senate, Wood claims that she first saw a power point presentation about new "aggressive" techniques approved for Guantanamo in January, 2003.  Yet there was already a very "aggressive" program going on in Bagram - complete with sleep deprivation and overhead shackling - that resulted in the murder of two detainees in December 2002.

So the Dilawar story tells us that long before Abu Ghraib, at about exactly the same time as Mohammed al-Qahtani was being interrogated in Guantanamo - supposedly in a unique way - under Rumsfeld's  "Special Interrogation Program" ("We tortured Qahtani," said Susan Crawford, a Pentagon official who was in charge of the Guantanamo military commissions, in an interview with the Washington Post) a defacto worldwide policy of lawless, cruel, inhumane treatment, often rising to the level of torture and murder, was in place that had nothing to do with the explicit authorizations for a few high-value detainees given by the Secretary of Defense and the Office of Legal Counsel. Is that worth investigating further?  I think so. 

On a more basic cultural level, for those who still consider torture to be "tough" and lawful interrogation to be "weak," I would ask the following questions.  Is it good to get bad intelligence?  Once torture starts, can it be stopped?  Is it "tough" to brutalize the innocent along with the guilty?  Is it a sign of "weakness" to wonder if captured prisoners might be innocent? Is it "tough" to confront a helpless man and beat him to death while he is shackled to the ceiling?  Is it "tough" to be so panicky that we abandon our fundamental principles at the first sign of attack? 

For Ann Coulter and Sean Hannity (or newfound TV torture promoter Dick Cheney) the Dilawar story raises the stakes in the "wussification" debate: for the amusement of your cable tv viewers, would either of you be willing to undergo the Dilawar treatment?  

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2009/05/killing-wussification/17697/