The Forgotten Torture Report: It’s Ten Years Since the Publication of the Senate Armed Services Committee’s Pioneering ‘Inquiry into the Treatment of Detainees in US Custody’


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On December 9, I published an article marking the 4th anniversary of the publication of the executive summary of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report into the CIA’s detention and interrogation program, a five-year, $40 million project that demonstrated that torture was “not an effective means of acquiring intelligence or gaining cooperation from detainees”, that the interrogations “were brutal and far worse than the CIA represented to policymakers and others,” that the CIA made “inaccurate claims” about the “effectiveness” of the programme in an attempt to justify it and that it “led to friction with other agencies that endangered national security, as well as providing false statements that led to costly and worthless wild goose chases,” as I explained in an article at the time for Al-Jazeera.

With peoples’ minds still, hopefully, focused on questions of accountability, I also wanted to flag up that December 11 marked the 10th anniversary of an earlier report, the Senate Armed Services Committee’s ‘Inquiry into the Treatment of Detainees in US Custody,’ released on December 11, 2008, that, rather than focusing on the CIA, specifically exposed wrongdoing at the highest levels of the Bush administration.

The bipartisan report, issued by the committee’s chairman, Sen. Carl Levin, and its senior Republican, Sen. John McCain, runs to 232 pages, with a 29-page executive summary, and was based on a two-year investigation. In the course of its investigations the committee “reviewed more than 200,000 pages of classified and unclassified documents, including detention and interrogation policies, memoranda, electronic communications, training manuals, and the results of previous investigations into detainee abuse.” The committee also “interviewed over 70 individuals in connection with its inquiry,” mostly DoD, but also DoJ and FBI, “issued two subpoenas and held two hearings to take testimony from subpoenaed witnesses,” sent “written questions to more than 200 individuals,” and also “held public hearings on June 17, 2008 and September 25, 2008,” the transcripts of which, running to 380 pages, can be found here.

As I explained in an article at the time the report was published, ‘Will the Bush administration be held accountable for war crimes?’, its conclusions were that the torture and abuse of prisoners in US custody in the “war on terror” was “the direct result of policies authorized or implemented by senior officials within the [Bush] administration, including President George W. Bush, former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Vice President Dick Cheney’s former legal counsel (and [then] chief of staff) David Addington, and former Pentagon general counsel William J. Haynes II.”

As I also explained, “Since the scandal of the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq broke in April 2004, over a dozen investigations have identified problems concerning the treatment of prisoners in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantánamo, but until now no official report has gazed up the chain of command to blame senior officials for authorizing torture and instigating abusive policies, and the Bush administration has been able to maintain, as it did in the wake of the Abu Ghraib scandal, that any abuse was the result of the rogue activities of ‘a few bad apples.’”

That position, as I pointed out, was “now untenable,” because, as the report stated, “The abuse of detainees in US custody cannot simply be attributed to the actions of ‘a few bad apples’ acting on their own. The fact is that senior officials in the United States government solicited information on how to use aggressive techniques, redefined the law to create the appearance of their legality, and authorized their use against detainees. Those efforts damaged our ability to collect accurate intelligence that could save lives, strengthened the hand of our enemies, and compromised our moral authority.”

As I also explained in my article, although the report contained little new information, it was “damning in its revelation of how senior officials sought out and approved the reverse engineering of techniques taught in the US military’s SERE schools (Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape) for use on prisoners captured in the ‘war on terror.’”

I also explained how the authors laid out “a compelling timeline for the introduction of these techniques, beginning with a crucial memorandum issued by President Bush on February 7, 2002,” whose significance I have flagged up on several occasions. “This,” I added, “stated that the protections of the Geneva Conventions, which, the authors note, ‘would have afforded minimum standards for humane treatment,’ did not apply to prisoners seized in the ‘war on terror.’” The report added that “the decision to replace well established military doctrine, i.e. legal compliance with the Geneva Conventions, with a policy subject to interpretation, impacted the treatment of detainees in US custody.”

I added, “Having established the President’s role as the initial facilitator of abuse, the report then implicates those directly responsible for implementing the torture of prisoners, explaining how Haynes began soliciting advice from the agency responsible for SERE techniques in December 2001, and how Addington, Justice Department legal adviser John Yoo and White House counsel Alberto Gonzales attempted to redefine torture in the notorious ‘Torture Memo’ of August 2002, which claimed that the pain endured ‘must be equivalent to the pain accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death.’”

The authors also noted how Donald Rumsfeld “approved the use of SERE techniques at Guantánamo in December 2002 (after Haynes had consulted with other senior officials), and explain how the techniques migrated to Afghanistan in January 2003, and were implemented in Iraq by Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the commander of coalition forces, in September 2003.”

“Even so,” I added, “the report is not without its faults. The authors carefully refrain from ever using the words ‘torture’ or ‘war crimes,’ which is a considerable semantic achievement, but one that does little to foster a belief that the officials involved will one day be held accountable for their crimes. They also, curiously, omit all mention of Vice President Dick Cheney, and ignore the importance of the presidential order of November 2001, which authorized the capture and indefinite detention of ‘enemy combatants’ and established the Military Commission trial system, even though the Washington Post’s Barton Gellman has established that Cheney played a significant role in this and all the other crucial documents that led to the torture and abuse of detainees.”

As with the Senate Intelligence Committee’s CIA torture report, no one has yet been held to account for the crimes exposed in this report, but I contend that it remains important to maintain awareness of them in the hope that one day accountability will be regarded as a necessity, hence this article marking the 10th anniversary of the Senate Armed Services Committee’s detainee treatment report.

* * * * *

Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer, film-maker and singer-songwriter (the lead singer and main songwriter for the London-based band The Four Fathers, whose music is available via Bandcamp). He is the co-founder of the Close Guantánamo campaign (and see the latest photo campaign here) and the successful We Stand With Shaker campaign of 2014-15, and the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (click on the following for Amazon in the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. He is also the co-director (with Polly Nash) of the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (available on DVD here — or here for the US), and for his photo project ‘The State of London’ he publishes a photo a day from six years of bike rides around the 120 postcodes of the capital.

In 2017, Andy became very involved in housing issues. He is the narrator of a new documentary film, ‘Concrete Soldiers UK’, about the destruction of council estates, and the inspiring resistance of residents, he wrote a song ‘Grenfell’, in the aftermath of the entirely preventable fire in June 2017 that killed over 70 people, and he also set up ‘No Social Cleansing in Lewisham’ as a focal point for resistance to estate destruction and the loss of community space in his home borough in south east London. For two months, from August to October 2018, he was part of the occupation of the Old Tidemill Wildlife Garden in Deptford, to prevent its destruction — and that of 16 structurally sound council flats next door — by Lewisham Council and Peabody. Although the garden was violently evicted by bailiffs on October 29, 2018, the resistance continues.

To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to Andy’s RSS feed — and he can also be found on Facebook (and here), Twitter, Flickr and YouTube. Also see the six-part definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, The Complete Guantánamo Files, the definitive Guantánamo habeas list, the full military commissions list, and the chronological list of all Andy’s articles.

Please also consider joining the Close Guantánamo campaign, and, if you appreciate Andy’s work, feel free to make a donation.

9 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    Here’s my latest article, following up on my recent reminder of the 4th anniversary of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report into the CIA’s torture program, remembering the 10th anniversary of an earlier and lesser known report, but one that was also of great significance: the Senate Armed Services Committee’s ‘Inquiry into the Treatment of Detainees in US Custody’, released in December 2008.

    After a two-year investigation, the ‘Inquiry’ laid out a compelling narrative about how senior officials in the Bush administration – Bush himself, Donald Rumsfeld, and lawyers including Jim Haynes, David Addington, Alberto Gonzales and John Yoo – set up a program of detention and interrogation that involved doing away with the protections of the Geneva Conventions, reverse-engineering torture techniques used to train US military personnel to resist torture if captured by a hostile enemy, and seeking to re-define torture so that it could be used with impunity.

    Of course, no senior official has been punished for their crimes, but that should not stop any of us from continuing to demand that those responsible should be held accountable.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Tashi Farmilo-Marouf wrote:

    What an awful, horrible, despicable thing to do to another being. Humans.

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Tashi. Yes, and when will this particular example of the horrible things that some human beings do to others be brought to a just conclusion?

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Angela Gipple wrote:

    They are the ones who belong in Guantanamo.

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    I hear you, Angela!

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Aleksey Pesky wrote:

    Torture did not extract any valuable information. CIA analysts could not miss this circumstance. I think that this is corruption, unrecorded money for the purchase of fake combatants, overpayment for prison content, the development of ineffective programs, etc.

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks for your thoughts, Aleksey. You touch on important aspects of the story – the fabrication of evidence to justify America’s post-9/11 actions, to cite a key example.

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    Elizabeth Barger wrote:

    The only thing to see from this report is the torturers do it because they like it. So rotten, and to think we still honor these soulless monsters.

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, that sadism is at the heart of it, Elizabeth. It always concerned me that those leading the US after 9/11 were so clearly motivated by vengeance, when that really isn’t an appropriate response in terms of an effective strategy.
    As for honoring them, yes, it was a profoundly dispiriting experience watching them all being lauded on book tours for their self-serving memoirs.

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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 and We Stand With Shaker. Also, photo-journalist (The State of London), and singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers).
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