The U.S. Senate findings on torture released Tuesday reveal brutal acts committed by intelligence agents under the watch of former President George W. Bush, but activists and lawyers say human rights violations, including torture, continue under President Barack Obama, either directly or by proxy.
Force-feeding techniques practiced by the army at Guantanamo Bay account for the most glaring example of torture, according to J. Wells Dixon, an attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights.
“They have the force-feeding tube that goes up their nose and down their throat. It is especially large, and it’s forcibly inserted and removed,” he said.
Force-feeding puts extreme stress on the human body, with a tube going through the esophagus and down to the gut. A liquid nutritional supplement then flows, rapidly filling the stomach, often causing intense abdominal pain, severe throat irritation and diarrhea.
Force-feeding can prove fatal. The feeding tube pushed down the throat can go down the wrong way and into the lungs, letting fluid fill them and drown the victim. Irish Republicans say such a force-feeding mishap killed an Irish hunger striker in 1974.
When it comes to interrogation methods employed directly by the CIA, Obama has scrapped many of the cruelest techniques outlined in the report — such as rectal feeding and waterboarding. But lawyers say that countries could still conduct inhumane interrogations on behalf of the United States.
“The United States would supply money, material and training to friendly states that would detain people, ostensibly for their own purposes but with free access to U.S. interrogators,” said Joseph Margulies, an attorney for Zain Abidin Mohammed Husain Abu Zubaydah, a Saudi man languishing under U.S. guard at Guantánamo Bay without charges, adding that this is “going on now around East Africa, the Horn of Africa, the Philippines, Indonesia,” citing reports by national security journalist Jeremy Scahill.
Margulies said that it is difficult to prove, much less prosecute, torture conducted by another country on the United States behalf. Even if a CIA officer is in the room as it happens, the legal responsibility of the United States is ambiguous.
“When the a foreign state is mistreating someone, nominally for their own purposes, and he’s not a U.S. citizen — that’s a very important qualification. It’s unclear what sort of legal responsibilities, not moral responsibilities, that would impose on a U.S. agent,” he said, describing it as unexplored legal territory.
‘State of psychosis’
Despite the legal murkiness of what some fear is happening abroad, human rights advocates and the United Nations have found definite fault in post-9/11 policies laid out in the U.S. Army Field Manual (AFM) for anyone to see.
“The Army Field Manual on interrogation permits techniques that may amount to torture or ill treatment, including prolonged isolation and sensory deprivation,” said Zeke Johnson, director of the individuals at risk program at Amnesty International USA, a human rights group.
The AFM makes a distinction between prisoners of war, who are covered by the Geneva Conventions, and enemy combatants, who do not receive the same rights. Human Rights Watch has called this distinction a “dangerous loophole that threatens basic criminal justice guarantees."
The Army document provides guidelines for separating detainees from one another. The purpose of this isolation is to enhance the “shock” of capture and hammer home the “futility” of resistance, suggesting what the manual calls a “fear up” approach.
“Physical separation is the best and preferred method of separation,” the AFM reads. “As a last resort, when physical separation of detainees is not feasible, goggles or blindfolds and earmuffs may be utilized as a field expedient method to generate a perception of separation.”
The U.N. called for an end to isolation and sensory deprivation in November, saying these methods could amount to torture. The goggle technique, the U.N. said, “will create a state of psychosis with the detainee.”
The AFM reads that prisoners must receive at least four hours of continuous sleep every 24 hours. Critics say this negligible amount constitutes sleep deprivation, a technique the U.N. and Amnesty International recognize as torture.
A Pentagon press officer referred questions on the matter to the CIA. Although the agency disputes many findings of the report, it acknowledged that it “did not always live up to the high standards that we set for ourselves and that the American people expect of us.”
‘Always a choice’
To one former Army interrogator, who spoke under condition of anonymity, the interrogation policies of today’s Army are far different from what he knew while serving during the Persian Gulf War.
The veteran said he questioned thousands of captured Iraqi soldiers during his time in the Army, finding that most were conscripts who were reluctant to fight in the first place. “Those kinds of practices, like sleep deprivation ... Those were never part of the Army interrogation manual that I had,” he said, stressing that at all times he abided by the Geneva Conventions.
During his training, he said the Army taught him to use both direct and subtle tricks to guide a captive into revealing information. “You’re asking someone to be a traitor, so you have to step delicately. We were taught all kinds of psychological tricks,” he explained.
He said that torture was never an effective way to solve the so-called ticking bomb problem, or getting information out of a prisoner who knows about an impending attack.
In addition to being illegal and immoral, torture, he said, doesn’t provide reliable information, because people will say anything to make the pain stop.
“The moment you think you have no choice but to do something unthinkable, you’ve crossed a line. There’s always a choice,” he said. “I would do this by doing my job and trying to find things out the best I could without turning into a monster.”