Sherry Jones is the producer of the 2008 documentary film, Torturing Democracy, which told the inside story of how the US government adopted torture as official policy in the aftermath of 9/11. The film, and the clips excerpted below, includes graphic depictions of torture employed in the CIA interrogation program.
Seven years ago, I interviewed Moazzam Begg, a British citizen who had been held by the United States in prisons in Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay – without charge – for almost three years. His words described brutal torture inflicted by his American captors. But his tone was eerily matter-of-fact, delivered without apparent pain or anger. As I interviewed other former prisoners, it was the same – calm descriptions of horrific abuse. When I remarked on this to one of their attorneys, he told me what I should have figured out myself – this was the only way any of these men could repeatedly describe their torture and also protect their fragile sanity.
That revelation led to one of the most difficult decisions I made as a documentary filmmaker – to include dramatizations of the so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques,” from “stress positions,” to “sleep deprivation” and “solitary confinement,” even water boarding in “Torturing Democracy.” Those scenes are the scenes that make you want to cover your eyes.
But now, with the damning conclusions of the Executive Summary of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s investigation, clearly and repeatedly describing torture, none of us can any longer cover our eyes.
Five days ago, Moazzam Begg was asked if he was surprised at the revelations in the Senate’s report. “Every torture technique they described, we’ve been talking about till we were blue in the face,” he said of himself and other former prisoners. “The only thing that surprised me was that they released it.”
Investigative journalists, authors, documentary filmmakers — along with many former officials, military officers and interrogators — have been telling versions of what happened in the torture chambers dotted across the globe until they, too, were “blue in the face.” Now, from a Senate investigation that relies almost entirely on the CIA’s own internal documents –what CIA officers themselves were reporting at the time — we know that the abuses were far more shocking, systematic and widespread than we had reported.
We knew that in the chaotic days after 9/11, the CIA – ordered by President Bush to capture or kill Al Qaeda operatives – had hired outside contractors. We learned that their names were James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen. We knew they had interrogated Abu Zubaydah, considered the first major Al Qaeda prisoner, at a secret CIA black site in Thailand. We did not know that the two, who had no experience in interrogation, would become the prime advocates of harsh methods, fueled with contracts that essentially provided financial incentives to repeatedly use the most brutal techniques. By the time President Obama shut the program down in 2009, Mitchell and Jessen had been paid an astonishing $81 million.
We knew that the harsh interrogation tactics were lifted from those Mitchell and Jessen used as trainers in the military’s secret Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE) program to prepare Americans at risk of capture by torture regimes. In “Torturing Democracy,” Richard Armitage, former deputy Secretary of State and Colonel Stuart Couch, both SERE trainees as Marines, recognized the “enhanced interrogation techniques” for what they were: torture. “I’m ashamed that we’re even having this conversation,” Armitage told me.
But the Senate Intelligence Committee did not investigate, and so did not include in its report, how the reverse-engineered SERE methods quickly migrated from the CIA’s secret prisons first to Guantanamo and on to Iraq. In September 2002, lawyers from the White House, the Pentagon and the CIA arrived at the Guantanamo prison camp, focused on one “high value” detainee there. Nine days later, the Gitmo commander requested the authority to use the CIA’s harsh interrogations. In December, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld signed off on the SERE-based torture tactics.
Eight months later, in August of 2003, the Guantanamo commander in charge of interrogations traveled to Iraq to carry out orders to “gitmo-ize” the interrogations there. Eight days after his visit, “enhanced interrogation techniques” were authorized for Iraq. And eight months after that, the first shocking photos from Abu Ghraib were leaked.
Where did the orders originate? Torture was not only the work of a rogue agency. Vice President Dick Cheney was a powerful sponsor of brutal interrogations. The Department of Justice memos that provided legal cover for torture were demanded by the CIA in the face of unrelenting White House pressure to produce intelligence on the “next attack.” The agency wore those legal opinions as its “golden shield” against prosecution.
The torture chambers operated in the dark while Washington gave them cover. Torture was not the work of a few “bad apples” – in the CIA or the military – but the result of official policy set at the government’s highest levels.
The views expressed in this post are the author’s alone, and presented here to offer a variety of perspectives to our readers.