FEATURES & EDITOR’S COMMENT: Torture and propaganda

Behind TV analysts, Pentagon’s hidden hand

In the summer of 2005, the Bush administration confronted a fresh wave of criticism over Guantánamo Bay. The detention center had just been branded “the gulag of our times” by Amnesty International, there were new allegations of abuse from United Nations human rights experts and calls were mounting for its closure.

The administration’s communications experts responded swiftly. Early one Friday morning, they put a group of retired military officers on one of the jets normally used by Vice President Dick Cheney and flew them to Cuba for a carefully orchestrated tour of Guantánamo.

To the public, these men are members of a familiar fraternity, presented tens of thousands of times on television and radio as “military analysts” whose long service has equipped them to give authoritative and unfettered judgments about the most pressing issues of the post-Sept. 11 world.

Hidden behind that appearance of objectivity, though, is a Pentagon information apparatus that has used those analysts in a campaign to generate favorable news coverage of the administration’s wartime performance, an examination by The New York Times has found.

The effort, which began with the buildup to the Iraq war and continues to this day, has sought to exploit ideological and military allegiances, and also a powerful financial dynamic: Most of the analysts have ties to military contractors vested in the very war policies they are asked to assess on air. [complete article]

Editor’s Comment — This article describes a triangle of complicity comprising Pentagon officials, retired military leaders, and television news networks. The New York Times essentially gives the networks a free pass. The final paragraphs of the article summarize the perfunctory answers the paper received in response to questions about conflicts of interest, yet the mere fact that the networks might have been unaware about the Pentagon briefings their analysts were receiving or the way these generals were cashing in on their connections, does not explain away what was always glaringly obvious: the chasm separating war news reporting on the one hand, and the military analysis being presented by the networks’ prize generals on the other hand. The networks had no interest in closing this gap. That fact in and of itself merits another investigative report but that will only happen if mainstream journalism opens itself up to some critical self-examination — and what are the chances of that happening?!

Stress hooding noise nudity dogs

When the Haynes memo reached Guantánamo on December 2 [2002], Detainee 063 was in an isolated, plywood interrogation booth at Camp X-Ray. He was bolted to the floor and secured to a chair, his hands and legs cuffed. He had been held in isolation since August 8, nearly four months earlier. He was dehydrated and in need of regular hook-ups to an intravenous drip. His feet were swollen. He was urinating on himself.

amazon-tortureteam.jpgDuring Detainee 063’s first few months at Guantánamo, the interrogators had followed established practices for military and law enforcement interrogations. Building rapport is the overriding aim of the US Army Field Manual 34-52, the rule book for military interrogators, colloquially referred to as “FM 34-52”. Legality was also essential, which meant operating in accordance with the rules set out in the US military’s Uniform Code of Military Justice and international law, in particular the four Geneva conventions.

At the heart of them lies “Common Article 3”, which expressly prohibits cruel treatment and torture, as well as “outrages upon personal dignity, in particular, humiliating and degrading treatment”. Tactics that had conformed to these principles changed dramatically. The interrogation log describes what happened immediately after Rumsfeld signed the Haynes memo.

The pattern was always the same: 20-hour interrogation sessions, followed by four hours of sleep. Sleep deprivation appears as a central theme, along with stress positions and constant humiliation, including sexual humiliation. These techniques were supplemented by the use of water, regular bouts of dehydration, the use of IV tubes, loud noise (the music of Christina Aguilera was blasted out in the first days of the new regime), nudity, female contact, pin-ups. An interrogator even tied a leash to him, led him around the room and forced him to perform a series of dog tricks. He was forced to wear a woman’s bra and a thong was placed on his head.

Rumsfeld led the charge for war in Iraq; in part he did so because of Saddam Hussein’s contempt for human life. “Torture is systematic in Iraq, and the most senior officials in the regime are involved,” Rumsfeld said, a few months before Saddam was overthrown. “Electric shock, eye gouging, acid baths, lengthy confinement in small metal boxes are only some of the crimes committed by this regime.” He spoke those words one day after secretly signing the Haynes memo and approving his own techniques of aggressive interrogation at Guantánamo.

Ironically, it was the Iraq war – in particular, events at Abu Ghraib prison – that brought the Haynes memo into the open two years later. By the autumn of 2003, Abu Ghraib was being run by the US as a detention facility. On April 28 2004, a CBS television report revealed the nature and scale of abuse being inflicted upon Iraqi prisoners. Photographs taken by US military participants were published, including one, now notorious, showing a prisoner standing on a box with his head covered and wires attached to his fingers. Another showed Private Lynndie England holding a leash tied to the neck of a naked man on the floor.

Was there a connection between the abuses at Abu Ghraib and the Bush administration’s secret interrogation policies at other places, including Guantánamo? In June 2004, President Bush, hosting the G8 summit in Savannah, Georgia, was asked by the media if he had authorised any kind of interrogation techniques necessary to pursue the “war on terror”? No, he said, his authorisation was that anything the US did would conform to US law and be consistent with international treaty obligations. “We’re a nation of law. We adhere to laws. We have laws on the books.”

Four days later, the administration unexpectedly declassified and released a number of documents relating to interrogation in the belief that this would reflect the thorough process of deliberation that, it was claimed, took place, and demonstrate a commitment to the rule of law. At the briefing, conducted by three lawyers from Bush’s inner circle, Alberto Gonzales, the president’s counsel, Jim Haynes from the Defence Department, and his deputy, Dan Dell’Orto, it was made clear that particular documents were crucial: the Haynes memo, and a decision taken a few months previously by the president, on February 7 2002, that none of the detainees at Guantánamo, whether Taliban or al-Qaida, could rely on any of the protections granted by the Geneva conventions, not even Common Article 3.

The second set of documents were legal opinions issued on August 1 2002. One of these, by two senior lawyers at the Justice Department, concluded that physical torture occurred only when the pain was “equivalent in intensity to the pain accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily functions, or even death”. Mental torture required “lasting psychological harm”. The memo concluded that torture of suspected terrorists under interrogation would not be unlawful if it could be justified on grounds of necessity or self-defence.

On October 11 2002, Guantánamo had request that additional techniques beyond those in FM 34-52 be approved for use against high-value detainees, in particular a Saudi Arabian, Mohammed al-Qahtani – otherwise known as Detainee 063. The underlying message of the briefing was spelled out: Rumsfeld had merely responded to a request from Guantánamo, and in doing so had acted reasonably. By contrast, the abuses at Abu Ghraib were unauthorised and unconnected to actual policies.

Much later, in March 2006, Time magazine published on its website the interrogation log of Detainee 063. Some of the Abu Ghraib images bore a resemblance to what Detainee 063 had been through: humiliation, stress, hooding, nudity, female interrogators, shackles, dogs. Was this just a coincidence? [complete article]

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