What Torture Is, and Why It’s Illegal and Not “Poor Judgment”

14.3.10

The seal of the US Justice DepartmentIt’s now over three weeks since veteran Justice Department lawyer David Margolis dashed the hopes of those seeking accountability for the Bush administration’s torturers, but this is a story of such profound importance that it must not be allowed to slip away.

Margolis decided that an internal report (PDF) into the conduct of John Yoo and Jay S. Bybee, who wrote the notorious memos in August 2002, which attempted to redefine torture so that it could be used by the CIA, was mistaken in concluding that both men were guilty of “professional misconduct,” and should be referred to their bar associations for disciplinary action.

Instead, Margolis concluded, in a memo (PDF) that shredded four years of investigative work by the Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR), the DoJ’s ethics watchdog, that Yoo and Bybee had merely exercised “poor judgment.” As lawyers in the Office of Legal Counsel, which is charged with providing objective legal advice to the Executive branch on all constitutional questions, Yoo and Bybee attempted to redefine torture as the infliction of physical pain “equivalent in intensity to the pain accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death,” or the infliction of mental pain which “result[s] in significant psychological harm of significant duration e.g. lasting for months or even years.”

Yoo, notoriously, had lifted his description of the physical effects of torture from a Medicare benefits statute and other health care provisions in a deliberate attempt to circumvent the UN Convention Against Torture, signed by President Reagan in 1988 and incorporated into US federal law, in which torture is defined as:

any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person …

Obsessed with finding ways in which “severe pain” could be defined so that the CIA could torture detainees and get away with it, Yoo drew on some truly revolting examples of physical torture, citing a particularly brutal case, Mehinovic v. Vuckovic, in which, during the Bosnian war, a Serb soldier named Nikola Vuckovic had tortured his Bosnian neighbor, Kemal Mehinovic, with savage and sadistic brutality. Yoo dismissed the possibility that other torture techniques — waterboarding, for example, which is a form of controlled drowning, and prolonged sleep deprivation — might cause “significant psychological harm of significant duration,” or physical pain rising to a level that a judge might regard as torture.

In both of his definitions, however, Yoo was clearly mistaken. No detailed studies have yet emerged regarding the prolonged psychological effects of the torture program approved by Yoo and Bybee, largely because lawyers for the “high-value detainees” in Guantánamo have been prevented — first under Bush, and now under Obama — from revealing anything publicly about their clients.

However, lawyers for Ramzi bin al-Shibh, who was charged in the Bush administration’s Military Commissions, made a good show of demonstrating that bin al-Shibh is schizophrenic and on serious medication, when they argued throughout 2008 that he was not fit to stand trial, and I have seen no evidence to suggest that bin al-Shibh was in a similar state before his four years in secret CIA prisons.

Abu ZubaydahAn even more pertinent example is Abu Zubaydah, a supposed “high-value detainee,” held in secret CIA prisons for four and a half years, for whom the torture program was originally developed. Zubaydah’s case may well be the most shocking in Guantánamo, because, although he was subjected to physical violence and prolonged sleep deprivation, was confined in a small box and was waterboarded 83 times, the CIA eventually concluded that he was not, as George W. Bush claimed after his capture, “al-Qaeda’s chief of operations,” but was, instead, a “kind of travel agent” for recruits traveling to Afghanistan for military training, who was not a member of al-Qaeda at all.

Zubaydah was clearly mentally unstable before his capture and torture, as the result of a head wound sustained in Afghanistan in 1992, but as one of his lawyers, Joe Margulies, explained in an article in the Los Angeles Times last April, his subsequent treatment in US custody has caused a profound deterioration in his mental health that would certainly constitute “significant psychological harm of significant duration.” Margulies wrote:

No one can pass unscathed through an ordeal like this. Abu Zubaydah paid with his mind. Partly as a result of injuries he suffered while he was fighting the communists in Afghanistan, partly as a result of how those injuries were exacerbated by the CIA and partly as a result of his extended isolation, Abu Zubaydah’s mental grasp is slipping away. Today, he suffers blinding headaches and has permanent brain damage. He has an excruciating sensitivity to sounds, hearing what others do not. The slightest noise drives him nearly insane. In the last two years alone, he has experienced about 200 seizures.

Moreover, when it came to defining physical torture, the OPR Report’s authors noted that, as so often in the memos, Yoo had ignored relevant case history. The key passage in the report deals with the US courts’ decisions regarding the Torture Victim Protection Act (TVPA). Yoo had drawn on Mehinovic for his description of physical torture “of an especially cruel and even sadistic nature,” and, as the authors noted, he also argued that “only ‘acts of an extreme nature’ that were ‘well over the line of what constitutes torture’ have been alleged in TVPA cases.”

The authors continued:

Thus, the memorandum asserted, “there are no cases that analyze what the lowest boundary of what constitutes torture.” [sic]

That assertion was misleading. In fact, conduct far less extreme than that described in Mehinovic v. Vuckovic was held to constitute torture in one of the TVPA cases cited in the appendix to the Bybee memo. That case, Daliberti v. Republic of Iraq, 146 F. Supp. 2d 146 (D.D.C. 2001), held that imprisonment for five days under extremely bad conditions, while being threatened with bodily harm, interrogated, and held at gunpoint, constituted torture with respect to one claimant.

A close inspection of Daliberti (which dealt with US personnel seized by Iraqi forces between 1992 and 1995) is revealing, as the D.C. District Court held that “Such direct attacks on a person and the described deprivation of basic human necessities are more than enough to meet the definition of ‘torture’ in the Torture Victim Protection Act.” The judges based their ruling on the following:

David Daliberti and William Barloon allege that they were “blindfolded, interrogated and subjected to physical, mental and verbal abuse” while in captivity. They allege that during their arrests one of the agents of the defendant threatened them with a gun, allegedly causing David Daliberti “serious mental anguish, pain and suffering.” During their imprisonment in Abu Ghraib prison, Daliberti and Barloon were “not provided adequate or proper medical treatment for serious medical conditions which became life threatening.” The alleged torture of Kenneth Beaty involved holding him in confinement for eleven days “with no water, no toilet and no bed.” Similarly, Chad Hall allegedly was held for a period of at least four days “with no lights, no window, no water, no toilet and no proper bed.” Plaintiffs further proffer that Hall was “stripped naked, blindfolded and threatened with electrocution by placing wires on his testicles … in an effort to coerce a confession from him.”

Yoo and his apologists will undoubtedly quibble yet again. There is the threat of electrocution, a threat made with a gun, and deprivation of water, in one case for eleven days, none of which feature in the OLC’s memos. However, outside of the specific torture program approved by the OLC, numerous prisoners who were held at Bagram before being transported to Guantánamo have stated that they were actually subjected to electric shocks while hooded (rather than being threatened with electrocution), and that being threatened at gunpoint was a regular occurrence.

Moreover, it has also been stated that the withholding of medication was used with Abu Zubaydah after his capture, when he was severely wounded, and it should also be noted that numerous ex-prisoners have stated that, in Guantánamo, it was routine for medical treatment to be withheld unless prisoners cooperated with their interrogators (PDF).

Most of all, however, a comparison between Daliberti and the OLC memos reveals the extent to which the techniques approved by Yoo resulted in “severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental,” which clearly exceeded that endured by David Daliberti and his fellow Americans in Iraq.

First of all, there is waterboarding, an ancient torture technique that has long been recognized as torture by the United States. As Eric Holder noted during his confirmation hearing in January 2009, “We prosecuted our own soldiers for using it in Vietnam.” With this in mind, it ought to be inconceivable that anyone could argue that waterboarding Abu Zubaydah 83 times and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed 183 times could be anything less than torture.

In addition, the prolonged isolation, prolonged sleep deprivation, nudity, hooding, shackling in painful positions, cramped confinement, physical abuse, dousing in cold water, beatings and threats endured by the CIA’s “high-value detainees,” as revealed in the leaked ICRC report (PDF) based on interviews with the 14 men transferred to Guantánamo from secret CIA prisons in September 2006, completes a picture that surely “shocks the conscience” more than the torture described in Daliberti, especially as those held were subjected to these techniques for far longer periods.

Susan CrawfordShould any further doubts remain about the definition of torture — and how it was implemented in the “War on Terror” — these should have been dispelled in January 2009, when, shortly before President Bush left office, Susan Crawford, the retired military judge who was the Convening Authority for the Military Commissions at Guantánamo (responsible for deciding who should be charged) granted the most extraordinary interview to Bob Woodward of the Washington Post.

Crawford told Woodward that the reason she had not pressed charges against Mohammed al-Qahtani, a Saudi who was initially put forward for a trial by Military Commission, along with Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Ramzi bin al-Shibh and three other men, was because he was tortured in Guantánamo. “We tortured Qahtani,” she said. “His treatment met the legal definition of torture.”

“The techniques they used were all authorized, but the manner in which they applied them was overly aggressive and too persistent,” Crawford explained. “You think of torture, you think of some horrendous physical act done to an individual. This was not any one particular act; this was just a combination of things that had a medical impact on him, that hurt his health. It was abusive and uncalled for. And coercive. Clearly coercive. It was that medical impact that pushed me over the edge,” and to conclude that it was torture.

As I explained in an article at the time:

Al-Qahtani’s treatment was severe, of course. As Time magazine revealed in an interrogation log that was made available in 2005 (PDF), he was interrogated for 20 hours a day over a 50-day period in late 2002 and early 2003, when he was also subjected to extreme sexual humiliation, threatened by a dog, strip-searched and made to stand naked, and made to bark like a dog and growl at pictures of terrorists. On one occasion he was subjected to a “fake rendition,” in which he was tranquilized, flown off the island, revived, flown back to Guantánamo, and told that he was in a country that allowed torture.

In addition, as I explained in my book The Guantánamo Files:

The sessions were so intense that the interrogators worried that the cumulative lack of sleep and constant interrogation posed a risk to his health. Medical staff checked his health frequently — sometimes as often as three times a day — and on one occasion, in early December, the punishing routine was suspended for a day when, as a result of refusing to drink, he became seriously dehydrated and his heart rate dropped to 35 beats a minute. While a doctor came to see him in the booth, however, loud music was played to prevent him from sleeping.

The techniques used on al-Qahtani were approved by defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld, but the impetus came from the torture memos written and authorized by Yoo and Bybee. Moreover, although Crawford was not so principled when it came to considering the treatment to which the “high-value detainees” had been subjected in CIA custody — on the basis, presumably, that such information would be easier to conceal in a Military Commission than al-Qahtani’s well-publicized ordeal — it is clear from the ICRC report on the “high-value detainees” that their treatment also “met the legal definition of torture.” In addition, it seems probable that the treatment of the 80 other prisoners held in secret CIA prisons, the treatment of prisoners in Afghanistan, before their arrival in Guantánamo, and the treatment of over a hundred prisoners in Guantánamo, who were subjected to versions of the “enhanced interrogation techniques” used on al-Qahtani would also constitute torture.

Jay S. Bybee and John YooFor these reasons, David Margolis’ whitewash of John Yoo and Jay S. Bybee cannot be the final word. In his memo to Attorney General Eric Holder, dismissing the report’s conclusions, Margolis tried to claim that it was important to remember that Yoo and Bybee were working in extraordinary circumstances, striving to prevent another major terrorist attack. In an early version of the report, OPR head Mary Patrice Brown dismissed this argument, asserting that “Situations of great stress, danger and fear do not relieve department attorneys of their duty to provide thorough, objective and candid legal advice, even if that advice is not what the client wants to hear.”

This is correct, but another authoritative source also explains why there are no excuses for twisting the law out of all shape in an attempt to justify torture. As the UN Convention Against Torture stipulates (Article 2.2), “No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat or war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture.”

The UN Convention also stipulates (Article 4. 1) that signatories to the Convention “shall ensure that all acts of torture are offences under its criminal law” and requires each State, when torture has been exposed, to “submit the case to its competent authorities for the purpose of prosecution” (Article 7.1). As with Article 2.2, there are no excuses for not taking action, and that includes political expediency, or, as Barack Obama described it, “a belief that we need to look forward as opposed to looking backwards.”

Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK). To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed (and I can also be found on Facebook and Twitter). Also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, updated in January 2010, details about the new documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, and launched in October 2009), and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.

As published exclusively on Truthout. You can Digg the original article here.

For a sequence of articles dealing with the use of torture by the CIA, on “high-value detainees,” and in the secret prisons, see: Guantánamo’s tangled web: Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Majid Khan, dubious US convictions, and a dying man (July 2007), Jane Mayer on the CIA’s “black sites,” condemnation by the Red Cross, and Guantánamo’s “high-value” detainees (including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed) (August 2007), Waterboarding: two questions for Michael Hayden about three “high-value” detainees now in Guantánamo (February 2008), Six in Guantánamo Charged with 9/11 Murders: Why Now? And What About the Torture? (February 2008), The Insignificance and Insanity of Abu Zubaydah: Ex-Guantánamo Prisoner Confirms FBI’s Doubts (April 2008), Guantánamo Trials: Another Torture Victim Charged (Abdul Rahim al-Nashiri, July 2008), Secret Prison on Diego Garcia Confirmed: Six “High-Value” Guantánamo Prisoners Held, Plus “Ghost Prisoner” Mustafa Setmariam Nasar (August 2008), Will the Bush administration be held accountable for war crimes? (December 2008), The Ten Lies of Dick Cheney (Part One) and The Ten Lies of Dick Cheney (Part Two) (December 2008), Prosecuting the Bush Administration’s Torturers (March 2009), Abu Zubaydah: The Futility Of Torture and A Trail of Broken Lives (March 2009), Ten Terrible Truths About The CIA Torture Memos (Part One), Ten Terrible Truths About The CIA Torture Memos (Part Two), 9/11 Commission Director Philip Zelikow Condemns Bush Torture Program, Who Authorized The Torture of Abu Zubaydah?, CIA Torture Began In Afghanistan 8 Months before DoJ Approval, Even In Cheney’s Bleak World, The Al-Qaeda-Iraq Torture Story Is A New Low (all April 2009), Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi Has Died In A Libyan Prison , Dick Cheney And The Death Of Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, The “Suicide” Of Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi: Why The Media Silence?, Two Experts Cast Doubt On Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi’s “Suicide”, Lawrence Wilkerson Nails Cheney On Use Of Torture To Invade Iraq, In the Guardian: Death in Libya, betrayal by the West (in the Guardian here), Lawrence Wilkerson Nails Cheney’s Iraq Lies Again (And Rumsfeld And The CIA) (all May 2009) and WORLD EXCLUSIVE: New Revelations About The Torture Of Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi (June 2009), The Logic of the 9/11 Trials, The Madness of the Military Commissions (November 2009), UK Judges Compare Binyam Mohamed’s Torture To That Of Abu Zubaydah (November 2009), UN Secret Detention Report Asks, “Where Are The CIA Ghost Prisoners?” (January 2010), Binyam Mohamed: Evidence of Torture by US Agents Revealed in UK (February 2010). Also see the extensive archive of articles about the Military Commissions.

For other stories discussing the use of torture in secret prisons, see: An unreported story from Guantánamo: the tale of Sanad al-Kazimi (August 2007), Rendered to Egypt for torture, Mohammed Saad Iqbal Madni is released from Guantánamo (September 2008), A History of Music Torture in the “War on Terror” (December 2008), Seven Years of Torture: Binyam Mohamed Tells His Story (March 2009), When Torture Kills: Ten Murders In US Prisons In Afghanistan (July 2009), US Torture Under Scrutiny In British Courts (July 2009), What The British Government Knew About The Torture Of Binyam Mohamed (August 2009), Torture in Bagram and Guantánamo: The Declaration of Ahmed al-Darbi (September 2009), UK Judges Order Release Of Details About The Torture Of Binyam Mohamed By US Agents (October 2009), “Model Prisoner” at Guantánamo, Tortured in the “Dark Prison,” Loses Habeas Corpus Petition (December 2009), Dark Revelations in the Bagram Prisoner List (January 2010), and also see the extensive Binyam Mohamed archive.

And for other stories discussing torture at Guantánamo and/or in “conventional” US prisons in Afghanistan, see: The testimony of Guantánamo detainee Omar Deghayes: includes allegations of previously unreported murders in the US prison at Bagram airbase (August 2007), Guantánamo Transcripts: “Ghost” Prisoners Speak After Five And A Half Years, And “9/11 hijacker” Recants His Tortured Confession (September 2007), The Trials of Omar Khadr, Guantánamo’s “child soldier” (November 2007), Former US interrogator Damien Corsetti recalls the torture of prisoners in Bagram and Abu Ghraib (December 2007), Guantánamo’s shambolic trials (February 2008), Torture allegations dog Guantánamo trials (March 2008), Sami al-Haj: the banned torture pictures of a journalist in Guantánamo (April 2008), Former Guantánamo Prosecutor Condemns “Chaotic” Trials in Case of Teenage Torture Victim (Lt. Col. Darrel Vandeveld on Mohamed Jawad, January 2009), Judge Orders Release of Guantánamo’s Forgotten Child (Mohammed El-Gharani, January 2009), Bush Era Ends With Guantánamo Trial Chief’s Torture Confession (Susan Crawford on Mohammed al-Qahtani, January 2009), Forgotten in Guantánamo: British Resident Shaker Aamer (March 2009), A Child At Guantánamo: The Unending Torment of Mohamed Jawad (June 2009), Torture In Guantánamo: The Force-feeding Of Hunger Strikers (June 2009), As Judge Orders Release Of Tortured Guantánamo Prisoner, Government Refuses To Concede Defeat (Mohamed Jawad, July 2009), Torture And Futility: Is This The End Of The Military Commissions At Guantánamo? (September 2009), A Truly Shocking Guantánamo Story: Judge Confirms That An Innocent Man Was Tortured To Make False Confessions (Fouad al-Rabiah, September 2009), UK Court Orders Release Of Torture Evidence In The Case Of Shaker Aamer, The Last British Resident In Guantánamo (December 2009), Shaker Aamer: UK Government Drops Opposition To Release Of Torture Evidence (December 2009), Afghan Nobody Faces Trial by Military Commission (January 2010), Murders at Guantánamo: Scott Horton of Harper’s Exposes the Truth about the 2006 “Suicides” (January 2010), Two Algerian Torture Victims Are Freed from Guantánamo (January 2010), and the extensive archive of articles about the Military Commissions.

59 Responses

  1. US Training Manual Used As Basis for Bush’s Torture Program Is Released by Pentagon « Peace and Justice Post says...

    […] two memos — the “torture memos” — signed by his boss, Jay Bybee, on August 1, 2002, which purported to redefine torture so that it could be used by the CIA, and approved the use of ten torture techniques on Abu […]

  2. Ten Years of Torture: Marking the 10th Anniversary of John Yoo’s “Torture Memos” | _ says...

    […] The decision to allow Margolis to allow Yoo and Bybee to evade accountability is typical of the Obama administration, which has refused to engage with any attempt — internally or internationally — to prosecute those involved in the Bush administration’s torture program, even though crimes were undeniably committed, as I explained in an article a month after Margolis’s whitewash. […]

  3. Ten Years of Torture: Marking the 10th Anniversary of John Yoo’s “Torture Memos” « Stop Making Sense says...

    […] The decision to allow Margolis to allow Yoo and Bybee to evade accountability is typical of the Obama administration, which has refused to engage with any attempt — internally or internationally — to prosecute those involved in the Bush administration’s torture program, even though crimes were undeniably committed, as I explained in an article a month after Margolis’s whitewash. […]

  4. Hiding Horrific Tales of Torture: How Guantanamo Fuels Injustice (Andy Worthington) says...

    […] wrote two memos — the “torture memos,” signed by OLC head Jay S. Bybee — in which he cynically attempted to redefine torture, and endorsed an interrogation plan for Abu Zubaydah using torture techniques including […]

  5. yahoo.com says...

    Ur blog post, Room Darkening Shades “What Torture Is, and Why It’s Illegal and Not “Poor Judgment” | Andy Worthington” was well worth writing a comment on! Simply just wished to point out you truly did a fantastic work.

    Many thanks ,Fanny

  6. All Guantánamo Prisoners Were Subjected to “Pharmacological Waterboarding” by Andy Worthington | Dandelion Salad says...

    […] memos prepared in August 2002 by former DoJ attorneys Jay Bybee and John Yoo for the CIA’s torture program permitted the use of drugs for interrogations. The authority was […]

  7. By One Vote, US Court OKs Torture and “Extraordinary Rendition” | Dandelion Salad says...

    […] in a lawsuit filed by the ACLU on behalf of five men subjected to “extraordinary rendition” and torture, is one such story. The men — Binyam Mohamed, Ahmed Agiza, Abou Elkassim Britel, Mohamed Farag […]

  8. On Bush’s Waterboarding Claims, UK Media Loses Its Moral Compass by Andy Worthington | Dandelion Salad says...

    […] of the Spanish Inquisition as “tortura del agua” can be repackaged, with the advice of corrupt lawyers in the Justice Department, as an “enhanced interrogation technique” that is legally permissible. In addition, […]

  9. Seven Years of War in Iraq says...

    […] Some activists were still burnt out from campaigning for Barack Obama, others thought the new President had waved a magic wand and miraculously cured all America’s ills, while others, to the right of common sense and decency, were beginning to mobilize in opposition to a President who, to be frank, should have been more of a disappointment to those who thought that “hope” and “change” might mean something than to those who supported the Bush administration’s view of the world. Obama escalated the war in Afghanistan, endorsed indefinite detention without charge or trial for prisoners at Guantánamo, and shielded Bush administration officials and lawyers from calls for their prosecution for turning America into a nation with secret prisons, an extraordinary rendition program, and a detention policy for terror suspects based on the use of torture. […]

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Andy Worthington

Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo, co-director, We Stand With Shaker. Also, singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers) and photographer.
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