Long-term Harm From U.S. Torture
Image has not been found. URL: /wp-content/uploads/2008/10/antonio_m_taguba.jpgRetired Army Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba (army.mil)
Following Tuesday’s revelations about the origins of torture within the Pentagon, a report released yesterday by a human-rights organization documents 11 cases of lives damaged by torture at the hands of the U.S. military in Guantanamo Bay, Iraq and Afghanistan.
The report, conducted by internists and psychologists for the group Physicians for Human Rights, is the first to present publicly available medical assessments of the U.S.’s torture victims. Among the report’s findings: the physical and mental effects of the ex-detainees’ torture continues for years after their release from custody.
Image has not been found. URL: http://www.washingtonindependent.com/wp-content/uploads/2008/09/nationalsecurity1-150x150.jpgIllustration by: Matt Mahurin
“Most of the men were subjected to the methods authorized at various times at various facilities by the U.S. government,” said Leonard Rubenstein, president of Physicians for Human Rights. “These include prolonged isolation, stress positions, temperature extremes, severe humiliation — including sexual and religious humiliation — sensory bombardment through the use of loud noise and use of dogs to instill fear. They were all subject to sleep deprivation and they were all threatened — threatened with death [and] threatened with the rape of their wives and sisters.”
Seven of the 11 torture survivors — none of whom were ever charged with any crime — have considered suicide, he said, “despite its prohibition by the Muslim religion.”
On Tuesday, the Senate Armed Services Committee documented how senior Pentagon officials in 2002 had derived many of the interrogation techniques used on the men highlighted in the report from a program designed to teach Special Forces troops to withstand torture if captured. While some ex-administration officials said that they meant for the interrogation regimens to be strictly limited, the report shows how, once the boundaries for acceptable interrogation standards were relaxed, they “begat additional forms of torture,” Rubenstein said. Some detainees were administered electric shocks, suspended by their arms from great heights and one showed “anal scars consistent with sexual trauma,” according to one physician who examined the detainees, Dr. Sondra Crosby of Boston Medical Center.
The report’s preface features a scathing indictment of the Bush administration from retired Army Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba, whose 2003-4 report into detainee abuse at Abu Ghraib was the first expose of the administration’s embrace of torture. “After years of disclosures by government investigations,” Taguba writes, “media accounts and reports from human-rights organizations, there is no longer any doubt as to whether the current administration has committed war crimes.”
One detainee, “Youssef” — all 11 men are referred to by their first names to protect their anonymity — was arrested by Pakistani forces after trying to cross the Afghanistan border without a passport in late 2001. He was, for unexplained reasons, visited by U.S. interrogators in a Pakistani prison before being transferred to U.S. custody in Kandahar, Afghanistan, and then Guantanamo Bay. At Kandahar, the report states, “Youssef endured forced nakedness, intimidation by dogs, hooding and repeated assaults by being thrown against a wall. He was subjected to electric shock from a generator, feeling ‘as if my veins were being pulled out.’”
At Guantanamo Bay, his interrogators forced him repeatedly to look at pornography; desecrated a Koran in front of him; and a female detainee smeared him with what he believed was menstrual blood — all acts designed to offend his religious sensibilities. “He was chained and forced to assume stressful positions; at times, ice-water was poured on him and, at other times, loud music was played,” the report states. He was never charged with any crime, and officials at Guantanamo Bay released him in 2003.
Following a physical and psychological exam to corroborate his account, the report states, doctors associated with Physicians for Human Rights diagnosed him with a moderate form of post-traumatic stress disorder. “Many of his physical symptoms, including shortness of breath and ‘heart problems,’ are consistent with a panic disorder,” the report states. “Youssef acknowledged difficulty functioning and has not found steady employment since his detention.”
Another detainee, “Amir,” was arrested in Iraq in August 2003 by U.S. troops. He endured a month of “being kept in a small, dark room” before transfer to Abu Ghraib. At the infamous prison — around the time it was “Gitmo-ized” by Guantanamo commander Gen. Geoffrey Miller — Amir was “sodomized with a broomstick and forced to howl like a dog while a soldier urinated on him,” the report said. Similarly released without charge, he told Physicians for Human Rights that “no sorrow can be compared to my torture experience in jail.”
Rubenstein said that the organization had not shared the report with the Bush administration before its release, but would seek to present it to administration officials. A spokeswoman for the National Security Council, Katherine Starr, referred comment on the report to the Pentagon.
“It adds little to the public discourse to draw sweeping conclusions based upon dubious allegations regarding remote medical assessments of former detainees, now far removed from detention,” said Navy Cmdr. Jeffrey Gordon, a Pentagon spokesman. “All credible allegations of abuse are thoroughly investigated and, if substantiated, those responsible are held accountable.”
No flag officer or policy official in the Pentagon has faced any charges for abuse. The highest-ranking U.S. officer punished in connection with detainee abuse was a colonel at Abu Ghraib, Thomas Pappas, who was relieved of his command and given an $8,000 fine. The general who specifically ordered the use of stress positions and “exploiting Arab fears of dogs” at the prison, Ricardo Sanchez, went on to command the Army’s prestigious V Corps in Germany before retiring and publishing a well-received memoir.
“What is most striking is that the alleged torture and abuse extended to people who were released for lack of evidence,” said Jonathan Turley, a professor at the George Washington University Law School. “Given the extremely low standard of proof that this administration applies to such cases, it is chilling to think that these men were held for so long in such abusive conditions — only to be released for lack of evidence. These cases strongly suggest that abuse was not limited to two or three detainees but as a comprehensive program applied to most, if not all, detainees.”
Rubenstein said that Physicians for Human Rights found the detainees through their lawyers. Each former detainee was checked out by a team of doctors experienced with torture victims. Two of the doctors, Crosby and Allen Keller of New York University and Manhattan’s Bellevue Hospital, said they found the ex-detainees’ accounts to be credible — they were forthcoming about injuries not associated with their confinement, as well as those of uncertain origin — and well-supported by the results of physical examination. Crosby, who said she has years of experience with treating torture survivors, called the effects of the torture on the ex-detainees she examined among “the worst I’ve ever seen.”
In some cases, the report found, physicians and psychologists at Guantanamo Bay and other U.S. detention facilities either declined to help detainees in need of medical assistance or actively assisted U.S. interrogators by passing along psychological profiles of the detainees. Vincent Iacopino, a co-author of the report, called such activity a clear violation of professional ethics and Pentagon standards. “According to U.S. Dept. of Defense guidelines, psychologists have a clear duty to document” perceived abuse, he said.
“The quality of medical care we provide detainees is similar to that which our troops serving in the same locations receive,” said Gordon, of the Pentagon. “We have robust psychological and mental health care available to detainees in [Defense Dept.] custody.”
Rubenstein said one goal of the report was to demonstrate that effects of torture linger for years — if they heal at all. “The suffering endures after their release,” he said. “They can’t sleep, or have nightmares. Almost all of them experienced severe depression or anxiety. [Post-traumatic stress disorder] was almost universal.
He added that the report is necessarily incomplete, since much about the Bush administration’s detention and interrogation activities remains classified. For example, detainees held by the Central Intelligence Agency — which administered some of the most severe torture — were not examined by the organization, since little about them is publicly known. Nor does the organization have much visibility into detainees held after 2006. “The bottom line,” Rubenstein said, “is we don’t know what’s going on now, because we don’t have enough information.”