Torture on Trial

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The Guardian/UK

Torture on Trial

The timing of the Pentagon's announcement it will prosecute six Guantánamo inmates is notable: is it changing its definition of torture?

Andy Worthington

The Pentagon's decision to press charges against six Guantánamo detainees in connection with the 9/11 attacks has provided the US administration with its first positive publicity, in connection with the prison, for many long years.

In many ways, this is as it should be. Since October 2002, when the first prisoners were freed, the steady release of hundreds of innocent men, captured by mistake or sold to the US military for bounty payments, and of Taliban foot soldiers, recruited to fight an inter-Muslim civil war in Afghanistan that began long before 9/11, has served only to create the impression that the prison has been a miscarriage of justice on a colossal scale, with little, if any relation to the events of 9/11.

However, as Victoria Brittain pointed out in these pages yesterday, there are doubts that any of these men will receive a fair trial. One of them, Mohammed al-Qahtani, was subjected to brutal interrogations in Guantánamo, which were made public in 2005, and the other five - including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who confessed in a military tribunal last year that he was "responsible for the 9/11 operation, from A to Z" - were held for three to four years in secret prisons run by the CIA, where coercive interrogations were widely practiced.

According to CIA operatives interviewed by ABC News in November 2005, 12 "high-value" detainees - including KSM and almost certainly some of the others charged on Monday - were subjected to an array of "enhanced interrogation techniques," including waterboarding, which produces the perception of drowning, "long time standing," in which prisoners "are forced to stand, handcuffed and with their feet shackled to an eye bolt in the floor for more than 40 hours," and "the cold cell," in which the prisoner "is left to stand naked in a cell kept near 50 degrees," and is "doused with cold water" throughout his ordeal.

Since August 2002, when its notorious "torture memo" was issued, the administration has claimed that "enhanced interrogations" constituted torture only if the pain endured was "of an intensity akin to that which accompanies serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death". As numerous legal experts have pointed out, however, the memo's attempts to rewrite the law are worthless. The United States is a signatory to the UN convention against torture, which makes it a crime for its officials to torture people outside the US, and the techniques mentioned above are clearly torture.

In light of the issues relating to the torture of the detainees charged on Monday, it's worth looking closely at the timing of the announcement. In a Washington Post article, the Pentagon claimed that it chose this particular time to press charges, because it was satisfied that the intelligence yielded by "clean teams" of FBI agents, who have been interrogating the men since their arrival at Guantánamo in 2006, and who eschew torture in favour of the old-school techniques of building a rapport with the accused, and offering rewards in exchange for information, is sufficient to replace the previous confessions extracted through torture.

This is an extraordinary admission for three reasons; first, because it indicates the administration's desperation to banish all references to torture, in an attempt to secure successful prosecutions; and second, because it suggests that the administration is also desperate to protect itself from criminal charges. It is surely no coincidence that the charges were announced just six days after Michael Hayden, the director of the CIA, publicly admitted that three "high-value" detainees had been waterboarded in CIA custody, an admission that immediately prompted calls from pro-impeachment activists for the prosecution of senior government officials for war crimes.

The third reason for astonishment at the news of the "clean team" interrogations is, however, the saddest, as it validates complaints made by other government agencies over the last five years, and indicates how the entire process of interrogation could have been conducted differently. In late 2002, Alberto J Mora, the head of the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, was so appalled by reports of "enhanced interrogation" that he went so far as to challenge Donald Rumsfeld over its use (in a battle that he ultimately lost), and the FBI also withdrew its agents from coercive interrogations.

Both agencies knew that torture is not only morally repugnant, but also counterproductive, because the "confessions" it produces are inherently unreliable. They also foresaw the legal problems now faced by the administration. As David Brant of the NCIS explained to the New Yorker's Jane Mayer in 2006, he "doubted the reliability of forced confessions," and feared that the use of brutal methods would "taint the cases his agents needed to make against the detainees, undermining any attempts to prosecute them in a court of law". Moreover, he added, "It just ain't right".

Andy Worthington is a historian and journalist, based in London. He is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America's Illegal Prison (Pluto Press) and two books on modern British social history.

Guardian Unlimited © Guardian News and Media Limited 2008

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