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Techniques of terror—the truth about state torture

This article is over 9 years, 6 months old
Simon Basketter looks at how the US uses torture to punish those who challenge its power—and how the British state has backed it all the way
Issue 2434
CIA renditions flight
Prisoners on a rendition flight

Gul Rahman was naked from the waist down and chained to a concrete floor. He froze to death.

His case is one of 119 in the heavily censored US Senate report into CIA torture released last week. 

Even the CIA admits 26 of the people they tortured were entirely innocent.

Gul had been held inside a secret prison in Afghanistan code-named Cobalt, known to interrogators as the Salt Pit.

He died in November 2002—the day after the manager of the jail had ordered him to be chained hand and foot in a sitting position. 

The CIA’s station chief in Afghanistan recommended that the officer get a £1,600 cash award for his “consistently superior work”.

A footnote to the report says that Gul was later recorded as a case of mistaken identity.

According to the report, waterboarding—the notorious simulated drowning technique—“was physically harmful, inducing convulsions and vomiting”. 

It left CIA detainee, Abu Zubaydah, “completely unresponsive, with bubbles rising through his open, full mouth”. 

In what was described as the “aggressive phase of interrogation”, Abu Zubaydah was locked in a coffin sized box for 11 days. 

He was then shut in a box measuring just 21 inches by two and a half feet for 29 hours.

CIA records showed that the 183 waterboardings of prisoner Khalid Sheikh Mohammed evolved into a “series of near drownings”.

He was waterboarded for not confirming a “nuclear suitcase” plot that the CIA later deemed a scam. On another occasion, his waterboarding produced a fabricated confession about recruiting black Muslims in the US state of Montana.

Torture is not intended to produce information. The US and British have long used torture to terrorise those who challenge their power.

This is seen in how at least another five detainees were subjected to “rectal rehydration”, or rectal feeding. 

All this was a coordinated plan to humiliate and punish.

At the Cobalt facility, prisoners were often kept in complete darkness. 

At other times they were subjected to a “rough takedown”, in which about five CIA officers would scream at a detainee, drag him out of his cell, cut his clothes off and tie him up. 

The detainee would then be hooded and dragged up and down a long corridor while being slapped and punched. 

One detainee, “as far as we could determine, had been chained to the wall in standing position for 17 days”, the report said. Another was subjected to Russian roulette, and one was threatened with a power drill.

President Barack Obama said this year that the US had “tortured some folks”.

Entire family rounded up 

Khadija al Saadi was just 12 years old when she was “rendered” along with her entire family to Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya, in a joint CIA and MI6 operation.

Clare Algar, from charity Reprieve pointed out, “Those responsible for signing off on Khadija’s abuse are feted on book tours and chat shows. 

“Britain was up to its neck in the CIA’s rendition and torture programme.”

Khadija al Saadi said, “I was bundled onto a dark plane, separated from my parents, and told to keep my two younger brothers and younger sister quiet and calm.”

They were 11, nine and six years old. 

“All we could hear was our mother crying, saying that we were being taken back to Libya to be executed.”

Her father is Sami al Saadi, who was a leading opponent of Gaddafi’s regime.

Khadija said, “When we landed, I was told to go and say goodbye to my father, who was bound up and had a needle in his arm. 

“I fainted, because I was sure we were going to be killed.”

British spies were complicit

The report contains no reference to M15, M16 or Diego Garcia, a British territory known to have been used for rendition flights. Downing Street have confirmed that British spy agencies asked for British links to torture to be redacted in the report.

There is a battle going on between the intelligence services and politicians about who knew the most. Spooks in the US and Britain have been keen to point out that politicians knew and authorised the rendition and torture programme.

It’s clear Britain was up to its eyes in the programme.

The High Court has found that British security services helped the US to interrogate Binyam Mohamed in Guantanamo Bay. This was despite the fact that they knew that he was tortured. 

George W Bush’s administration pointed to Britain’s use of “deep interrogation” techniques against detainees in Northern Ireland to justify its torture.

But the links are far closer. The report doesn’t include sites where the CIA outsourced the torture—these include in Syria and Egypt.

Meanwhile Shaker Aamer, a Londoner, was tortured by US forces in Afghanistan in 2001 before his rendition to Guantanamo Bay in 2002. He is still there.

Psychologists devised plans

Two former army psychologists were paid more than £52 million by the CIA to devise the agency’s torture programme.

John “Bruce” Jessen and James Elmer Mitchell (above) are not named in the report.

But the CIA entered into a £115 million contract with them in 2005. Some 85 percent of the programme was carried out by contractors overseen by the two men.

Spies lie about foiling plots 

Counter-terror officers claimed at least three major bombing plots in Britain were halted due to torture.

But according to the report, the planned attack “had already been effectively abandoned by the time the interrogations were under way”.

Big cash in secret prisons

The CIA spent over £191 million on secret prisons across Europe and Asia. 

Huge sums were handed over to governments to get them to host the “black” prisons. One official was paid £630,000.

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