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Since 2008 – Progress Through Politics

Gitmo, Room 101

I’m writing this in part because of a slight disagreement I just had with a fellow liberal over what constitutes torture, and I’m really hoping this will open up a productive discussion.

The Department of Justice released four memos yesterday detailing the use of waterboarding and other drastic interrogation techniques. President Obama has called this “a time for reflection, not retribution,” and has stated that the CIA officials involved will not be punished.

The memos consist of previously undisclosed opinions written by the Office of Legal Counsel(OLC) from 2002-2005. In releasing the memos, Mr. Obama said that he hoped to set the record straight about what techniques were employed. The president stated that in general he believes that national security information must remain classified, but these memos presented unique challenges.


The Times has written up detailed descriptions for each interrogation technique, but the short list is as follows:

1. Dietary manipulation

2. Nudity

3. Attention grasp

4. Walling

5. Facial hold

6. Facial slap or insult slap

7. Abdominal slap

8. Cramped confinement

9. Wall standing

10. Stress positions

11. Water dousing

12. Sleep deprivation (more than 48 hours)

13. The Waterboard

When I think of a list of torture methods, this honestly isn’t what comes to mind. I think of the stuff these images are portraying.

But that tendency is likely a product of an overactive imagination and possibly too much time spent reading about such things as a child. I bet the CIA hasn’t made use of a single iron maiden since this war started. Still… even though I don’t see that list in my head when I think “torture”, I DO think “torture” when I read that list. No, it’s not my preconceived notion of torture — it isn’t the Inquisition — but several of those interrogation techniques (though perhaps not all) still very much constitute “torture” in my mind.

But here’s the issue which prompted me to write this diary: Apparently the Bush administration approved the use of insects for the purpose of torturing a prisoner back in 2002. Specifically, the use of “insects placed in a confined box” was approved during the interrogation of Al Qaeda official Abu Zubaydah. I should note before continuing that, “for reasons unrelated to any concerns that it might violate the [criminal] statute,” the CIA never used the technique and removed it from the list of authorized interrogation methods.

The CIA desire to use insects during interrogations has not previously been disclosed, according to two civil liberties experts contacted by TIME. The Bybee memorandum, which was written on August 1, 2002, described the CIA’s plans for using insects this way:

“You [the CIA] would like to place Zubaydah in a cramped confinement box with an insect. You have informed us [the Department of Justice] that he appears to have a fear of insects. In particular, you would like to tell Zubaydah that you intend to place a stinging insect into the box with him. You would, however, place a harmless insect in the box. You have orally informed us that you would in fact place a harmless insect such as a catapiller in the box with him.”

Time, emphasis mine

I initially missed the information in the second declassified memo released yesterday about the insect interrogation technique not actually being used, so I entered into the disagreement with my friend under the mistaken impression that it had. I don’t think the fact that the CIA ultimately decided against the use of the technique means that my point is moot though. At the crux of the discussion was a general disagreement on where to draw lines. Can we call the use of a technique that exploits an individual’s irrational fear of something harmless (or relatively harmless) torture? Can we call something torture when it causes no measurable physical harm or distress? Can psychological torture be just as wrong as physical torture?

When I heard about the insect interrogation technique on the news yesterday afternoon, the first thing that popped into my head was a scene from 1984:

For a moment [Winston] was alone, then the door opened and O’Brien came in.

“You asked me once,” said O’Brien, “what was in Room 101. I told you that you knew the answer already. Everyone knows it. The thing that is in Room 101 is the worst thing in the world.”

The door opened again. A guard came in, carrying something made of wire, a box or a basket of some kind. He set it down on the further table. Because of the position in which O’Brien was standing, Winston could not see what the thing was.

“The worst thing in the world,” said O’Brien, “varies from individual to individual. It may be burial alive, or death by fire, or by drowning, or by impalement, or fifty other deaths. There are cases where it is some quite trivial thing, not even fatal.”

He had moved a little to one side, so that Winston had a better view of the thing on the table. It was an oblong wire cage with a handle on top for carrying it by. Fixed to the front of it was something that looked like a fencing mask, with the concave side outwards. Although it was three or four meters away from him, he could see that the cage was divided lengthways into two compartments, and that there was some kind of creature in each. They were rats.

“In your case,” said O’Brien, “the worst thing in the world happens to be rats.”

A sort of premonitory tremor, a fear of he was not certain what, had passed through Winston as soon as he caught his first glimpse of the cage. But at this moment the meaning of the masklike attachment in front of it suddenly sank into him. His bowels seemed to turn to water.

“You can’t do that!” he cried out in a high cracked voice. “You couldn’t, you couldn’t! It’s impossible.”

– George Orwell; 1984

Granted, 1984 is a work of fiction, but I still think it makes an important point about the power of psychological torture. The main character endures weeks upon weeks of extreme forms of physical torture, but he doesn’t fully reach his final breaking point until the end, when the worst of the psychological torture is introduced. My friend knows that the insect would cause no physical harm, feels that the psychological harm is minimal, and thus believes that the technique isn’t torture. I contend that the psychological trauma, both immediate and potentially longterm, of such tactics is severe enough to place them firmly in the “torture” category.

My friend wanted to know whether that meant that turning the lights out on a prisoner who was afraid of the dark was torturous. And, he asked, what about prisoners who are frightened of enclosed spaces? I don’t think special rules should necessarily be made for individuals who suffer from irrational fears, but nor do I think that we should go out of our way to exploit them when interrogating such persons. No, someone who is scared of the dark doesn’t deserve a special cell which stays lit all th
e time, but on the flip side, I don’t think we should perpetually keep that person in the dark as a means coercing him/her into giving us information. Obviously there’s nothing that can be done for detainees who are afraid of confined spaces, but that doesn’t mean we should lock them in coffin-sized boxes either. There are a lot of ways of looking at this and perhaps a lot of fine lines to be drawn.

So which of the techniques approved by the Bush administration do you consider to be “torture”? All of them? Just a couple? Where do YOU draw the line?


  1. nrafter530

    is anything to results in physical pain that borders to the extent a human being can stand.

    Funny thing about torture though, I’m beginning to find, it’s part of human nature. Even here in Europe, a lot of people still think torturing is ok.

    Back home, I heard Democrats say they were embarassed by their party because of complaints about torture.

    Meanwhile, some of the left have gone as far as call for Obama’s impeachment if he does not prosecute Bush, Cheney and other administration officials.

  2. psychodrew

    I looked at that list and asked myself, “If I were an innocent person–as so many of the Gitmo detainees are–where would I want them to draw the line?”  I wouldn’t want any of those things done to me.

    What gets lost in all of this is that torture doesn’t work.  

  3. It’s not only basically illegal, it’s also (as Drew points out) nearly completely ineffective.

    Prison is a restraint of liberty as punishment, and provides a protection for society against further attacks.

    Of course, we all get the 24 scenario. Captive terrorist holds key to massive attack which will harm or kill dozens/hundreds/thousands of innocent people. Do we side with Jack Bauer when he beats up his captive terrorist, breaks his fingers, or shoots him in the knee?

    Of course. It’s Jack Bauer. And we know he will get the truth, get Chloe to download the schematics, and then ‘go in alone’ to defuse the bomb.

    But this is pure fiction. There have been no recorded instances of this happening. ‘Pain compliance’ works well with to get someone to move where you want them to move, but for ‘intelligence purposes’ it’s unreliable, and easily defended against. Just tell your terrorist operatives the minimum.  

    Despite all that, there may be instances where torture was used to save lives under the principle of harm reduction. Fine. Let it come to court. Let an operative say, just as someone who injured an assailant in self defence, there reasoning and mitigation for breaking the law.

    Because let’s be clear about the offence caused. It’s not about the damage done to someone by having stinging insects introduced into a confined space. This didn’t actually go ahead, but it was approved. And that’s the really damaging thing. Torture was officially sanctioned and legalised  . This act alone has done untold damage to the US constitution, America’s reputation and soft power abroad, and will be seen historically as one of the most damning legacies of the Bush administration.  

  4. creamer

    Once I start rationalizing why it might be ok to do this or that, I can see it being hard to stop the progression.

    If my only goal saving other lives at the cost of my prisoners life or sanity, and my soul, would I stop at slapping? waterboarding? burning?

     Part of the problem with the Bush approach, being between POW status and criminal status, leaving detainees with neither the Geneva convention or the rights of an accused criminal.

    I think we need to go back to treating people with the dignity with wich we expect ourselves to be treated.

  5. Neef

    is the one that jumps out at me.

    There are nudist camps. So objectively speaking, nudity isn’t torture. The torture is subjecting a prurient person to nudity. The same logic holds for the insect case – it’s clearly subjective.

    What becomes obvious then, is that torture isn’t about the method, it’s about the goal – to break a person’s will. If we assume that exercising free will is a human right, then by virtue of subverting that right, torture becomes immoral.

    The big problem here is that we subvert people’s wills all the time, we just call it deterrence. Suppose you are a kleptomanic, and I decide to break you of that by sticking you in a cell with rapists and murderers. It’s very difficult to argue that isn’t torture.

    Now suppose I merely threaten to stick you in such a cell, if you steal. That’s our penal system.

    Frankly, I think it is highly inaccurate to say “we don’t torture”. Our legal system is based on it.

  6. My son and I were talking about this last night. I argued that it was morally wrong, harmful to the people authorized to torture, and produced bad intelligence. He couldn’t bring himself to condemn it. That bothered me, because my son is a very caring and empathic person. If he can’t see the wrong evil here how can a majority of Americans be brought to see it?

    I think the people who condoned and performed these acts realized that there was one way people would turn against it. The average person would realize the wrongness of these acts if they were given a chance to watch them instead of hypothesizing about them. That is why the video tapes of the torture sessions were destroyed. It wasn’t only to protect those responsible. It was to keep the public from seeing the real thing.

    Seeing the approved actions in a list like that doesn’t really tell us enough. The pictures you added to the diary are actually more illustrative. Of course, they didn’t use the rack or the iron maiden, but they did use waterboarding, which is what the first image shows in action. They also used bondage and lengthy stress positions, which is what is shown in the fourth image.

    The bit about the insect seems harmless enough. After all, it would only be a harmless caterpillar. Putting it like that totally ignores the idea of striping someone naked and forcing them into a small box. To put this in perspective, think of all of the movies about Vietnam prisoners. Remember when you watched prisoners being locked in the small metal boxes or forced into the holes in the ground? Did you think that was benign or did you think it was part of a torture program?

    Try to visualize this:

    You are surrounded by large, muscular men who fail to show the slightest sign of human compassion. They strip you naked, shackle your wrists and ankles and then pick you up and hold you over a box that is barely large enough to hold you with your body curled into a fetal position. As they lower you towards the opening in the box the interrogator tells you that they’ve already placed a poisonous spider in the box. The lid is slowly closed, cutting off all light and you hear a voice saying, “Have fun with your little friend.” The only other sound you hear is laughter as the men walk away. Now imagine being closed up in that box for hours at a time. Every little sensation would send a jolt of fear through you. Your senses would be hyper-alert. Your body would be flooded with adrenalin. Your joints would stiffen painfully. Most of us would start screaming shortly after being put into the box and probably not stop until our voices gave out.

    Now imagine you were innocent.

  7. then anal rape with a nightstick or broomstick is not torture. Physical rape of women would not be torture under that definition, since it doesn’t cause permanent or obvious physical damage. Isn’t the reason rape is illegal because of the psychological damage it does to the victim?

  8. rfahey22

    I guess the only definition that I can think of would be overwhelming physical or psychological pain, to the point that a person ceases to be rational.  In either case, whatever information is obtained would probably be untrustworthy because the person may just be trying to end the pain.  In order to have a working definition, though, I might err on defining torture as what would cause pain to a person of average physical and mental ability (unless the person at issue had a proven, significant physical or mental handicap).  

    The debate about whether torture is limited to physical injury, or permanent/visible injury, is not new.  Roman officials occasionally beat early Christians in such a way as to leave no visible marks on the body; this may have been due to a belief among some early Christians that only those with visible injuries had been “martyred” (assuming they died afterward).  

  9. HappyinVT

    over this.  And I have to say that the logic and reasoning used to justify the techniques are almost as bad as the actual torture.  Steven Bradbury wrote in the May 10, 2005 memo (I think) that when other countries used some of the techniques he was approving the U.S. condemned that country for its actions.  But, he said, that was purely for diplomatic reasons.  So, we really didn’t mean it.  Huh?!

    It’s clear from my brief reading of the memos that the authors were going to make the techniques legal no matter how much he had to suspend reality and logic.  That, to me, is disgusting.

    I am also amazed at how little coverage the memos have received outside the blogosphere.  I watched Keith and Rachel last night.  No surprised there, except I think Keith put words/meaning into Obama’s statement that went beyond what the president actually wrote.  I flipped to Anderson Cooper 360.  It was not the lead story and the reporter, Tom Foreman, spent more time defending the techniques (some Army personnel exposed to such things, therefore not a big deal) and was quite dismissive.  Anderson then had Jeffrey Toobin and David Gergen on to discuss.  Jeffrey was at least horrified at what was in the memos and the “legal” justifications used.  David said, yes the stuff was bad, but remember this was after 9/11 (forgetting that the memos were written after Abu Ghraib and a few years after 9/11) and therefore somehow that made everything okay.  Neither man thought prosecutions were appropriate but, as long as it wasn’t a witch hunt, investigations are okay.

    It’s like either we aren’t surprised, we just don’t care, we think it works, or we’ve become immune.

    I can live with the CIA interrogators escaping prosecution as long as 1) they tell EVERYTHING they know and 2) they are fired.  I’m e-mailing Sen. Leahy to tell him that, given this information, I don’t care how many Republicans sign on to his truth commission (which I don’t think is enough).  People need to go on the record and tell what they know, when they knew it, and why they allowed it to continue.  Federal Judge Bybee needs to be impeached/removed (whatever the appropriate procedure is). A guy who could seriously write such crap has no business rendering legal opinions on anyone else.

    Finally, sorry I deviated so badly from the original purpose of your diary, intent is the key to me.  I would rather be beaten than stuck in a completely dark room (or box).  I am terrified of the dark; ten minutes would have me screaming whatever would get me some light.  These people found out their prisoners’ weaknesses and used them against them in some cases.  That’s why they thought to use the bug.  These techniques are also more insidious than many of the old fashioned ones.  We don’t have to debate whether those you’ve pictured are torture.  Most people would agree (although why folks don’t agree re: waterboarding I don’t understand.)  But forced facial slaps are harder to define without more information.  Limbaugh today, apparently mocking the claim that abdominal slaps are torture, slapped himself on-air.  That’s the mentality we are fighting against.

    The End

  10. vcalzone

    Defining what torture is is silly. The reason we are where we are is because some very smart people (smart like the very well-educated eugenicists of the past) figured out how to create the same sorts of suffering and panic in people without creating too much blood or physical scarring. They didn’t use iron maidens now because were they to do so, they know that would be be over the line of what they could get away with. Why else would they take such pains to obtain legal clearance?

    Torture is the act of hurting someone or making them suffer until they give you a piece of information or do something you want them to do. It could be absolutely anything from plucking someone’s chest hairs out to making them live with 25 stray cats in a tiny jail cell and no litterbox. If you’re doing it to deliberately make someone suffer as much as you can without giving them any ability to defend themselves, you are torturing them. The method is not what defines the act itself. But the act itself is what is useless. And it IS useless.

    What have we learned from Iraq? Nothing? You don’t get information and assistance by taking people and throwing them in prison and hurting them, you get it by buying them off. Greed is more powerful than suffering. Because only greed can appeal to the most powerful value humanity has. Hope.  

  11. vcalzone

    I’m glad Obama is not pursuing prosecutions. That would endanger CIA agents and would actually lead to some of the mistakes we saw in the past regarding intelligence-gathering. If others push for punishing CIA agents, I hope he stops them.

    People keep saying Obama is tying hands. And he is. He is removing the ability for the US to use these techniques or scare people into thinking we’ll do worse. But prosecutions would only turn those people into martyrs, not punish them. If it means we can know more about what happened, then fine, let’s let history be their judge.

  12. louisprandtl

    prosecuted for the torture policies of Bush Administration. CIA was very explicit in getting legal counsel from the administration.

    On the other hand the question is how do one actually breakdown the resistance of the likes of Abu Zubaydah and extract the necessary information out of them? I don’t have any answer but surely feel that experts in the interrogation techniques know which one to apply to whom.

    But I wholeheartedly agree that no matter who it is, we should not be in the business of breaking our own laws and international treaties like Geneva convention that we are signatory to.


  13. It boils down to what do we want, as a nation, to embody?

    In the Bad Old Days of the Cold War, my father was a trainer. He helped mold young men that at the time were considered by a great many folks across the world as some of the Meanest Motherfuckers in the Goddamn Valley.  Part of that came from his experiences with training with Israelis.  

    The Israelis are feared. They are respected even by their enemies.

    They also have little moral high ground to stand upon in regards to their own policies towards Palestine and the neighboring region, and most of the country seems good with that.

    During the days of Realpolitik, we were quite content with being a damn sight scarier than anyone else in the room, or at least projecting that, with a big beaming smile on our faces, and big ass sticks behind our backs.  The Russians and Soviet Bloc nations may not have entirely believed it–and having had maneuvers with the Polish Special Forces during that thawing period, my father realized that the Russian programs, and programs based upon them, turned out some hard SOBs too.  And that affected our training programs as well.

    Things are not quite the same as those days. Things have changed, and our perception of our role, and how we want nations to see us and our troops has changed a bit.  

    In the end, we need clear and consistent policy. What do we want to project?  Do we want to have that moral high ground?

    Ultimately, it is impossible to take the moral high ground, without actually occupying that territory first.  

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