The CIA took photographs of detainees naked, bound, and blindfolded—some with visible bruises—before extraditing them to other countries to be tortured, an investigation by the Guardian's Spencer Ackerman revealed on Monday.
"The naked imagery of CIA captives raises new questions about the seeming willingness of the U.S. to use what one medical and human rights expert called 'sexual humiliation' in its post-9/11 captivity of terrorism suspects," Ackerman wrote. "Some human rights campaigners described the act of naked photography on unwilling detainees as a potential war crime."
Ackerman also reported that "a former U.S. official who had seen some of the photographs described them as 'very gruesome.'" The photos in question remain classified.
The detainees were photographed before being extradited to nations known to use more brutal forms of torture than that used in the U.S., Ackerman said, as part of the CIA's so-called "extraordinary rendition" program.
The writer V. Noah Gimbel characterized that program in 2011 as "the outsourcing of interrogations to countries where torture could be employed without the legal barriers that exist within the U.S. military and civilian justice systems."
Extraordinary rendition has been used by the CIA going back to Bill Clinton's administration, and President Obama allowed the practice to continue after he was elected despite an earlier vow to end it. The European Human Rights Court found the program to be illegal under international law in 2012.
Details about the rendition program remain intensely protected by the U.S. government, and little is known about "how many people, overwhelmingly but not exclusively men, were caught in the CIA's web,'" as Ackerman wrote. "It is also unclear how many of those rendition targets the CIA photographed naked."
Ackerman went into detail regarding the secretive nature of the photographs:
In 2015, attorneys for the former black-site detainees now charged with war crimes at Guantánamo Bay learned of the existence of up to 14,000 photographs the CIA took and maintains of their former detainees. That cache is not believed to contain photographs of people the agency rendered to allied intelligence services. All of those photos remain undisclosed to the public.
The 500-page portion of the Senate’s landmark investigation into George W. Bush-era CIA torture that the government released in 2014 dealt overwhelmingly with the CIA’s detentions and interrogations, keeping the rendition program a secret. But the report’s 318th footnote reveals that the CIA photographed the people it captured and sent to other countries.
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The Senate footnote reads: "There are also few CIA records detailing the rendition process for detainees and their transportation to or between detention sites. CIA records do include detainee comments on their rendition experiences and photographs of detainees in the process of being transported." However, the Senate footnote does not go on to acknowledge that some of the subjects were naked when they were photographed.
This particular cache of photos is distinct from the detainee photos released by the Pentagon in February in response to a Freedom of Information Act request and nearly 12 years of litigation by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) seeking disclosures about the CIA's detainee torture program, as Common Dreams reported. None of these photos have been made public.
Ackerman observed that international human rights law forbids the photographing of prisoners "except in extremely limited circumstances related to their detention, to include anything that might compromise their dignity."
In fact, none other than Bush's Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld once stated that "the Geneva Convention indicates that it's not permitted to photograph and embarrass or humiliate prisoners of war" when he condemned Iraqi forces for filming U.S. prisoners in 2003.
Nathaniel Raymond, a researcher at the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative and an expert on detainee abuse, told Ackerman, "Any evidence that the CIA or any other U.S. government agency intentionally photographed naked detainees should be investigated by law enforcement as a potential violation of domestic and international law."
The revelation of forced, photographed nudity "is a stark reminder that the US continues to keep secret, to this day, some of the worst actions of the Bush administration," wrote Guardian columnist Trevor Timm in response to the investigation. "And it's all the more relevant given that after the tragic terrorist attack in Brussels, torture has once again become central to the U.S. political debate."
Indeed, some GOP presidential contenders have made advocacy for torture a pillar of their campaigns. Ted Cruz has promised to reintroduce waterboarding, and Donald Trump vows to "bring back a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding."
And yet, Timm argued, it's important to keep in mind that because "the Obama administration shamefully refused to prosecute the architects of the torture program—and the Justice Department lawyers who gave them legal cover—war crimes are now merely portrayed as a policy dispute between the two political parties."
"Stripping suspects, taking humiliating photographs of them, sending them around the world into the hands of torturers: these sound like the actions of a crazed dictatorship," Timm observed. "They should be the stuff of nightmares. In fact, they’re the stuff of American policy in the 21st century."