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Jonathan Kim

Jonathan Kim

Posted: August 24, 2009 05:44 PM

ReThinking Standard Operating Procedure: Yes, Virginia, We Really Do Torture


A new report set to be released today from the CIA inspector general has even more details about the tactics the CIA and military intelligence used (and probably still use) to torture confessions out of prisoners. The report describes how at least one prisoner, Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, was threatened with a power drill as well as a pistol if he didn't cooperate. Tapes of al-Nashiri's interrogations were destroyed by the CIA in 2005. In another incident, CIA officers conducted a mock execution in a nearby room to convince a prisoner that he would be killed if he didn't confess. Threatening a prisoner with imminent pain or death is a violation of the federal torture statute.

So I thought I'd take another look at Standard Operating Procedure, Errol Morris' excellent 2008 documentary about daily life and torture at Abu Ghraib. The film features interviews with nearly all of the soldiers who were tried during the investigation. Watch my ReThink Review below.


To see me on Cenk Uygur's XM/Air America show, The Young Turks, discussing Standard Operating Procedure, click here.


While doing research for this post, I came across this interesting bit of info on Wikipedia:

In military terminology [standard operating procedure] is used to describe a procedure or set of procedures to perform a given operation or evolution or in reaction to a given event. There is a popular misconception that SOPs are standardized. However, the very nature of an SOP is that it is not standardized across a large military element (such as a corps or division) but rather describes the unique operating procedure of a smaller unit (such as a battalion or company) within that larger element. That the operating procedure in question is said to be "standing" indicates that it is in effect until further notice, at which time it may be amended or dissolved. Therefore, the military more correctly uses the term "standing operating procedure" in lieu of "standard operating procedure."

In Standard Operating Procedure, it's revealed that the tactics shown in the Abu Ghraib photos -- forced nudity, stress positions, sexual humiliation, etc. -- were already being used at AG when the soldiers interviewed in the film arrived there. That would have made them standing operating procedure, meaning it was simply the way things were done at AG. And with soldiers being told that these techniques were not only legal but effective in saving American lives, there would be no reason to stop using them.


It's also important to note that standing operating procedures often develop as an "evolution or in reaction to a given event." So if slapping a prisoner in the head was deemed legal by the Bush administration to extract information, wouldn't it follow that a punch to the head would be justified in the face of escalating violence? If "walling", where a prisoner is thrown into a fake wall in a "safe" way, is deemed effective, wouldn't throwing a prisoner into a real wall be even more effective? And if threatening a prisoner like al-Nashiri with a power drill is useful during a lull in violence, wouldn't actually drilling a hole in someone be called for during a spike in attacks? It's pretty easy to see how the torture slope can get awfully slippery awfully fast.

Seems like only yesterday that the US was not a nation that tortured. We knew that because, well, everyone in the Bush administration right up to the president kept saying that we didn't torture, often by trying to confuse the definition of what torture is. (Here's a simple, easy-to-remember definition of what torture is: if you think it would be unreasonable and/or harmful (mentally or physically) if it was done to you or a family member, it's probably torture.)

The US is not a nation that "uses techniques that some consider torture", as the media continues to phrase it. The US is a nation that tortures. It can no longer be denied, and we need to think about what that means. And unless we bring to justice those responsible at the highest levels for this tragic transformation, we will continue to suffer the consequences for our horrific new identity.

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