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Closing the Book on Torture

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John Rizzo's memoir, Company Man: Thirty Years of Controversy and Crisis in the CIA, joins the ranks of other books by officials who had a hand in the U.S. government's illegal, ineffective, and immoral detention, interrogation, and rendition policies after September 11, 2001.

Many have tried to justify their actions in words that are sadly too predictable. Theirs is an unconvincing attempt to rewrite history which denies their own culpability and failures in authorizing and implementing widespread and systematic torture and cruel treatment at Guantanamo, in Iraq, Afghanistan, and at secret "black sites" around the world.

However, Rizzo's book is particularly egregious because he admits that he could have stopped the CIA's former torture program but didn't. His decision was, and remains, a tragic and colossal mistake.

While recounting the origins of the CIA's torture program, Rizzo, who served as the agency's acting general counsel, writes, "It had a deceptively bland name: 'Enhanced Interrogations Techniques,' or EITs for short" (Rizzo 183).

"Deceptively bland"? Now, that's a gross understatement.

The interrogation methods euphemistically called "enhanced interrogation techniques" are not uncommon and many of them have been used on survivors the Center for Victims of Torture (CVT) has seen, including mock executions, sleep deprivation, sensory overload or deprivation, forced nakedness and sexual humiliation, stress positions, blindfolding, beatings, and exposure to extreme heat or cold.

CVT and other torture survivor rehabilitation professionals who are familiar with the physical and psychological trauma caused by "enhanced interrogation" know these methods of abuse, from a medical, scientific, and clinical perspective, constitute torture and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment.

We also know they are commonly used because they leave no marks.

Rizzo, in a most underwhelming way possible, goes on to describe the interrogation methods proposed by the CIA, including stress positions, sleep deprivation, and waterboarding (Rizzo 184-185).

Here are the facts.

Forced Stress Positions
Stress positions are commonly used by repressive regimes. These positions force a prisoner into a painful physical position, such as forced standing, awkward sitting positions or suspending the body for a prolonged period of time. Stress positions can lead to long-term or even permanent damage, including nerve, joint and circulatory damage, and muscle and joint pain.

Sleep Deprivation
Depriving a prisoner of normal sleep for prolonged periods is often done by using stress positions, sensory overload (bright lights or strobe lights, loud noises or music) or other techniques. The effects of sleep deprivation include taking longer to respond to stimuli, attention deficits, decreases in short-term memory, speech impairments, uncontrolled repetition of words or actions, and inflexible thinking. These symptoms may appear after one night of total sleep deprivation or after only a few nights of sleep restriction (5 hours of sleep per night). Sleep deprivation also can result in hypertension and other cardiovascular disease.

Memoranda from the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel authorized the CIA to use sleep deprivation for up to 180 hours.

Mock Executions (including waterboarding)
Survivors say mock executions left them feeling as if they were already dead. Many relive these near-death experiences in their nightmares or flashbacks. Survivors have told us they pleaded with their torturers to kill them, preferring real death over the constant threat and intolerable pain caused by mock executions.

When prisoners are waterboarded, they are strapped down and immobilized and water is poured over their faces causing asphyxiation. Waterboarding is a method of torture that goes beyond the fear of suffocation. Waterboarding is a form of slow, controlled drowning tantamount to a mock execution that can result in the victim suffering psychological trauma for years.

Sadly, the CIA's descent into torture and cruel treatment could have been avoided as Rizzo freely, and almost boastfully, writes: "I have no doubt that if I had said the word, much if not all of the EIT initiative would have quietly died before it was born. It would have been a relatively easy thing to do, actually." (Rizzo 186).

It's a mistake of staggering proportions not to have acted to end the torture program right then and there.

Did he not understand that torture is a calculated, systematic, and intentional dismantling of a person's humanity through physical and psychological pain, and not only about inflicting acute pain?

Did he not understand the legal memoranda he sought from the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel were drafted by lawyers with a flagrant disregard for the medical, scientific, and clinical evidence of the harmful physical and psychological effects of abusive interrogations?

Either he didn't know, or he knew and didn't care. Both explanations reflect a terrible disservice.

Fortunately, the United States has taken significant steps to undo the damage inflicted by the poor judgment authorizing unlawful policies and practices of torture and cruel treatment.

It was just over five years ago when President Obama, on his second day in office, issued an Executive Order ending the use of torture in U.S. counterterrorism operations and ensuring legal and humane interrogations. His decisive action signaled to the world that we are committed to turning the page on a dark chapter in U.S. policy.

However, important work remains to be done.

To start, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence report on CIA torture must be released. It has been over a year since the committee adopted the report; the time is now to uncover the truth. Only when all the facts are known can we understand what went wrong and prevent such abuses from happening again in the future.

The American people are entitled to a complete reporting of the facts, detailing how and why the CIA's policies of torture and cruel treatment came to be used. They should not have to rely on the hindsight and biases included in memoirs of those behind these illegal and reprehensible policies.

Our country is not one of secret detention cells, abusive interrogations, or worldwide torture networks. At all times, even in times of crisis, individuals and government alike must respect the rule of law, human rights, and human dignity.

We must also show the world we are ready to live up to our own high standards by thoroughly investigating all reports of torture and cruel treatment and by holding those responsible for the abuse accountable.