Green Lights for Torture

By Cockburn, Alexander | The Nation, May 31, 2004 | Go to article overview
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Green Lights for Torture


Cockburn, Alexander, The Nation


So there were WMDs in Iraq after all. They're called digital cameras. Partly because of them, the United States faces one of the most humiliating defeats in imperial history. But there's also a clear paper trail. Not just the long and copiously documented record of US torture, with many of its refinements acquired by the CIA from the Nazis after World War II, but the more recent lineage of encouragement.

Within a few days of the Trade Towers going down in September 2001, a vacationing FBI agent told an acquaintance of mine in Puerto Vallarta that detainees in the United States were being tortured. On May 3, 2004, two such detainees, a Pakistani called Javaid Iqbal and an Egyptian, Ehab Elmaghraby, filed a civil complaint with a US court describing their beatings in the Brooklyn Detention Center, one of them sodomized with a flashlight and put in a tiny cell lit twenty-four hours a day without blanket, mattress or toilet paper. Both were expelled from the country, pleading guilty to minor charges unrelated to terrorism. The center was harshly criticized in a 2003 Justice Department report for serious maltreatment of inmates.

By October of 2001, public opinion here was being softened up for the use of torture. The Washington Post published a piece by Walter Pincus citing FBI and Justice Department investigators as saying that "traditional civil liberties may have to be cast aside if they are to extract information about the Sept. 11 attacks and terrorist plans." Jonathan Alter, Newsweek's liberal pundit, told readers in November that something was needed to "jump-start the stalled investigation." His tone was facetiously upbeat, in line with the "just hazing" approach now promoted by the pain-averse Rush Limbaugh: "Couldn't we at least subject [detainees] to psychological torture, like tapes of dying rabbits or high-decibel rap?" Alter also made respectful reference to Alan Dershowitz--then running around the country promoting the idea of "torture warrants" issued by judges--and to Israel, where "until 1999 an interrogation technique called 'shaking' was legal."

It was not far into the Afghan war that Defense Secretary Rumsfeld made plain his views on prisoners, after horrifying accounts began to surface of the treatment of Taliban POWs. He first said the United States was "not inclined to negotiate surrenders." He then amended this to say that the Taliban should be let out of the net but that foreign fighters should expect no mercy: "My hope is that they will either be killed or taken prisoner."

It turned out they endured both Rumsfeld's options. A year later, Jamie Doran, a British television producer, aired his documentary establishing beyond a reasonable doubt that hundreds of these prisoners--with no distinction between Taliban and foreign fighters--died either by suffocation in the container trucks used to transport them to prison, or by outright execution.

On the basis of interviews with eyewitnesses, Doran said US soldiers were present when the containers were opened, and that "a mess of urine, blood, faeces, vomit and rotting flesh was all that remained.... As the containers were lined up outside the prison, a [US] soldier accompanying the convoy was present when the prison commanders received orders to dispose of the evidence quickly.

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