What are you responsible for, exactly? Books have been written on this. But let’s take just three of the more bland-sounding techniques you authorized and extended and defended: “sleep deprivation” and “stress positions” and “temperature extremes.” As words and phrases, they can seem quite banal, and I can understand how you could have authorized techniques that sound like things most college sophomores or law clerks regularly endure. But in practice, they are brutal treatments designed to break the will and wash the brain of anyone subjected to them for a lengthy period.
Sleep deprivation was pioneered by the Inquisition; not only does it produce hallucinations, which were useful for proving heresy, but it also increases physical sensitivity. As Darius Rejali, the historian of torture, has noted, it “reduces a body’s tolerance for musculoskeletal pain, causing deep aches first in the lower part of the body, followed by similar pains in the upper body.” The combination of sleep deprivation and stress positions leads to unbearable mental and physical suffering. It was used by the Gestapo, by Franco’s security services, and even in the early part of the 20th century by American police. Use of sleep deprivation to procure confessions in domestic law enforcement was actually barred by the Supreme Court in 1944 (Ashcraft v. Tennessee) after a suspect was kept awake for 36 hours. The Court compared his treatment to the “physical or mental torture” used by “certain foreign nations.” And yet you, Mr. President, more than a half-century later, authorized subjecting prisoners to this technique for up to 72 hours, or 40 hours if combined with standing in handcuff restraints. In 2002, troops in Afghanistan coined the term monstering to describe one interrogator’s war against a prisoner’s desperate need for sleep.
We know of one very detailed log of such treatment, which was one of the most common forms of “enhanced interrogation” in the first years of “the program.” Mohammed al-Qahtani was kept awake for 20 hours a day for 48 of 54 consecutive days in Guantánamo Bay. That’s not the 36 hours considered the equivalent of torture by the U.S. Supreme Court; that’s 960 hours when you add them all up. This deprivation is not easily achieved. To keep someone who is this tired from falling asleep requires constant physical intervention. It means blasting loud music continuously in a cell; it means forcing an individual to stand up, and beating or poking him if he falls or tries to rest; it means constant light and sound; and it can lead quite quickly to medical problems and mental deterioration. During Qahtani’s interrogations, his refusal to drink and many days of sleep deprivation brought his heartbeat down to dangerously low levels; but even after he was urgently hospitalized for a day for dehydration to prevent his death, sleep deprivation continued—and was continuously used even as he physically deteriorated. An early FBI review of the interrogation of Qahtani found that the cumulative treatment led him to exhibit “behavior consistent with extreme psychological trauma (talking to non-existent people, reportedly hearing voices, crouching in a corner of the cell covered with a sheet for hours on end).” If you believe “extreme psychological trauma” is the same as “severe mental suffering,” then you ordered the prolonged and brutal torture of Mohammed al-Qahtani.
That was indeed the conclusion of your appointee to determine the legal status of Guantánamo detainees, Susan Crawford, who simply stated in dismissing all charges against Qahtani: “His treatment met the legal definition of torture.” Former Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, who was subjected to sleep deprivation in one of Stalin’s gulags, would have agreed with her assessment of the gravity of the primary torture technique. As Begin once wrote: “Anyone who has experienced this desire knows that not even hunger and thirst are comparable with it.”
The British used sleep deprivation against IRA terror suspects in the 1970s. The European Court of Human Rights ruled that although this use of sleep deprivation did not rise to torture, it nonetheless constituted illegal “inhuman and degrading treatment,” in breach of the European Convention on Human Rights. The reason it did not automatically qualify as torture depended on the longevity of the sleep deprivation. But 48 days and nights with no more than four hours’ sleep every 24, combined with stress positions, hypothermia, and forced nudity, push these nuances over a line any decent person would acknowledge. Sleep deprivation alone has been shown to cause psychosis, disorientation, depression, and near-madness. The idea that these techniques, which were once used to procure false confessions of witchcraft or heresy, can actually generate actionable and accurate and detailed intelligence is, to say the least, implausible.
But Qahtani was not the only prisoner subjected to sleep deprivation; hundreds and perhaps thousands of others were too. Qahtani was a high-value prisoner; most others weren’t. Qahtani was under constant medical monitoring; most others were not. Here’s a firsthand account of a sleep-deprivation regimen used at the notorious Camp Nama in Iraq, a war zone where the Geneva Conventions were always supposed to apply. An Esquire reporter and a Human Rights Watch investigator debriefed a trained interrogator, who had gone to Nama specifically to participate in the program, and gave him the pseudonym “Jeff”:
They could keep a prisoner on his feet for 20 hours, and although the rules required them to allow each prisoner four hours of sleep every twenty-four hours, nowhere did it say those four hours had to be consecutive—so sometimes they’d wake the prisoners up every half hour. Eventually they’d just collapse. “This was a very demanding method for the interrogators as well, because it required a lot of staff to monitor the prisoner, and we’d have to stay awake, too,” Jeff says. “And it’s just impossible to interrogate someone when he’s in that state, collapsed on the ground. It doesn’t make any sense.”
Qahtani was also stripped naked. This technique, which you authorized, was used by Americans in every theater of war. The nudity, again, does not sound that awful on the face of it. Western men are used to showering together in gyms and schools. But in the cultural context of extremely devout and modest Muslim men, being forced to stand naked in front of each other and especially in front of women is dehumanizing and humiliating. And it was designed to be. Crafting techniques to exploit Muslim cultural attitudes or phobias was widespread (the use of dogs fit this role as well), and involved unethical use of psychologists and doctors. Much of the sexual abuse at Abu Ghraib was not standard operating procedure. But using Muslim prisoners’ sexual phobias, taboos, and religious prohibitions against them was common. Whether smearing fake menstrual blood on a prisoner’s face, or having a woman like Lynndie England mock the exposed genitals of a terrified prisoner, sexual humiliations were not violations of the techniques you authorized. They were the techniques you authorized. And they depended for their effectiveness on the specific religious and cultural beliefs of Muslims. So to wage a war designed to expose the evil of the Taliban’s religious intolerance, we deliberately manipulated Islam into a means of abuse. In a war designed to prove that the West was not Islam’s enemy, we used Islam and Muslim culture as tools to break down the psyches of prisoners suspected of terrorism. To save religious freedom, we abused it.
The forced nudity also sharpened the edges of temperature extremes, another ancient form of torture that appeals to governments that want to torture but also to leave no physical scars, welts, or bruises. The Gestapo used what it called the “cold bath,” in which interrogators would take a prisoner’s body to a dangerously low temperature in an ice-filled tub, then remove and revive the suspect, and then subject him to freezing again. This was what happened to Qahtani at Guantánamo Bay—he was kept doused in water in a room air-conditioned to chill him until he was near-blue—but the technique crops up again and again across the theaters of war. In 2005, you authorized the CIA to use the “cold cell” technique, in which a prisoner was kept in a cell at 50 degrees and constantly covered with cold water. This was not an emergency measure for gathering information that could be used to prevent an imminent mass-casualty attack. It was a formal policy, to be integrated into the American way of warfare and human rights.
Once you established the legitimacy of freezing prisoners, captors inevitably improvised. An Army interrogator, Tony Lagouranis, described the technique as it evolved in Iraq and Afghanistan:
We used hypothermia a lot. It was very cold up in Mosul at that time, so we—it was also raining a lot—so we would keep the prisoner outside, and they would have a polyester jumpsuit on and they would be wet and cold, and freezing. But we weren’t inducing hypothermia with ice water like the [Navy] SEALs were. But, you know, maybe the SEALs were doing it better than we were, because they were actually even controlling it with the [rectal] thermometer, but we weren’t doing that.
Lagouranis did not witness the Navy SEALs’ technique himself. But the maintenance of cold cells at Gitmo, and elsewhere, shows how high up the authorization went.
Some of the torture was covered up. Among the death certificates issued for prisoners who died while being held for interrogation at Abu Ghraib, one cited by Dr. Steven Miles claimed a 63-year-old prisoner had died of “cardiovascular disease and a buildup of fluid around his heart.” But Miles noted that the certificate failed to mention that the old man had been stripped naked, continually soaked in cold water, and kept outside in 40-degree cold for three days before cardiac arrest.
Here is a report, again from Camp Nama, where the ultimate commander was Lieutenant General Stanley McChrystal, now the U.S. commander of forces in Afghanistan:
[One prisoner] was stripped naked, put in the mud and sprayed with the hose, with very cold hoses, in February. At night it was very cold. They sprayed the cold hose and he was completely naked in the mud, you know, and everything. [Then] he was taken out of the mud and put next to an air conditioner. It was extremely cold, freezing, and he was put back in the mud and sprayed. This happened all night. Everybody knew about it. People walked in, the sergeant major and so forth, everybody knew what was going on, and I was just one of them, kind of walking back and forth seeing [that] this is how they do things.