The Secret Red Cross Torture Report

03/17/2009 11:26 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

by Faiz Shakir, Amanda Terkel, Satyam Khanna, Matt Corley, Benjamin Armbruster, Ali Frick, Ryan Powers, and Igor Volsky

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A leaked International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) report concludes that "the Bush administration's treatment of al-Qaeda captives 'constituted torture,' a finding that strongly implied that CIA interrogation methods violated international law." The once-confidential report, which captures the accounts of 14 "high value detainees" after they were transferred from overseas CIA 'black sites' to Guantanamo, was obtained by journalist Mark Danner and is the subject of a detailed expose in the upcoming issue of the New York Review of Books. The ICRC report concluded that "the ill-treatment to which they were subjected while held in the CIA program, either singly or in combination, constituted torture," conflicting sharply with President Bush's repeated assertion that "we do not torture." During a press conference in August 2007 after details of the report were revealed by the New Yorker, a reporter asked Bush if he "had read" the highly confidential report. "Haven't seen it; we don't torture," Bush answered, quickly moving on to another question. Danner writes that all of the torture techniques "had to have the approval of the deputy director for operations." In fact, CIA officers "briefed high-level officials" in the National Security Council's Principals Committee,' including Vice President Dick Cheney, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, and Attorney General John Ashcroft, 'who then signed off on the interrogation plan.'" The briefings about these techniques were so "detailed and frequent that some of the interrogation sessions were almost choreographed."

DETAILS OF TORTURE: The classified report, Danner wrote, "tells a certain kind of story, a narrative of what happened at the 'the black sites' and a detailed description, by those on whom they were practiced, of what the President of the United States described to Americans as an 'alternative set of procedures.'" The accounts -- which the report concludes are so strikingly similar as to make fabrication extremely unlikely, if not impossible -- offer "a harrowing view of conditions at the secret prisons, where prisoners were told they were being taken 'to the verge of death and back.'" As the Washington Post described, "during interrogations, the captives were routinely beaten, doused with cold water and slammed head-first into walls. Between sessions, they were stripped of clothing, bombarded with loud music, exposed to cold temperatures, and deprived of sleep and solid food for days on end. Some detainees described being forced to stand for days, with their arms shackled above them, wearing only diapers." "A clear method emerges from these accounts," Danner wrote. Based initially "on forced nudity, isolation, bombardment with noise, and light, deprivation of sleep and food, and repeated beatings and smashings," the methods evolved "from forced sitting to forced standing, for example, and acquired new elements like immersion in cold water."

CONSEQUENCES OF TORTURE: In reading the torture accounts, "one becomes eventually somewhat inured to the 'alternative set of procedures' as they are described," Danner observed. "The cold and repeated violence grows numbing" and "interrogation seems merely a periodic heightening of consistently imposed brutality." The consequences of torture are as such that it "deprives the society whose laws have been so egregiously violated of the possibility of rendering justice." In fact, documents released by the Senate Armed Services Committee suggest that the Bush administration had attempted to conceal harsh treatment from the Red Cross and "overrode or ignored objections from all four military services and from criminal investigators, who warned that the practices would imperil their ability to prosecute the suspects." Danner further suggested that "pain and ill-treatment" motivated some detainees "to say something, anything, to make the pain stop." As one of the detainees admitted, "I gave a lot of false information in order to satisfy what I believed the interrogators wished to hear in order to make the ill treatment stop." Thus, despite the widespread perception that harsh interrogations techniques enable the government to prevent attacks, "very rarely, if ever, have officials been able to point to information gained by interrogating prisoners with 'enhanced techniques.' As Danner pointed out, the decision to torture, in a political war with militant Islam, harmed American interests by destroying the democratic and constitutional reputation of the United States, undermining its liberal sympathizers in the Muslim world and helping materially in the recruitment of young Muslims to the extremist cause." "The United States' decision to use torture has resulted in an enormous self-administered defeat. ... By choosing to torture, we freely chose to become the caricature they made of us," Danner wrote.

Within hours of taking office, President Obama "bound the CIA to interrogation methods described in the Army Field Manual," issued an Executive Order to shut down Guantanamo Bay within a year and "provided for task forces to study US government's polices on rendition, detention, and interrogation." But as the American Prospect points out, the administration "has also blocked any and all attempts at civil litigation from the victims of these practices," invoking the state-secrets doctrine in two torture cases to avoid disclosing government information in the torture programs. One U.S. official quoted by the Washington Post also sought to downplay the report. "It is important to bear in mind that the report lays out claims made by the terrorists themselves," the source said. In February, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) has called for the establishment of a truth and reconciliation committee to investigate "our detention polices and practices, from Guantanamo to Abu Ghraib" Leahy's committee may grant immunity to "public officials in exchange for their truthful testimony." "We must acknowledge what was done in our name...we cannot turn the page until we have read the page," Leahy said.