Death by Torture, Ghost Detainees and the Disappeared
The global assault on decency & the rule of law
By Ernest A. Canning on 8/13/2009, 8:34am PT  

Guest Blogged by Ernest A. Canning
Part V of a Five-Part Special Series
(Part I is here. Part II is here. Part III is here. Part IV is here.)

"This report tells the largely untold human story of what happened to detainees in our custody when the Commander-in-Chief and those under him authorized a systematic regime of torture. This story is not only written in words: It is scrawled for the rest of these individuals’ lives on their bodies and minds. Our national honor is stained by the indignity and inhumane treatment these men received from their captors...

"After years of disclosures by government investigations, media accounts, and reports from human rights organizations, there is no longer any doubt as to whether the...administration...committed war crimes. The only question that remains to be answered is whether those who ordered the use of torture will be held to account." Retired Maj. Gen. Anthony Tuguba, "Preface" to Report by Physicians for Human Rights.

In Part I of this five-part series, I took care to distinguish the post-9/11 application of torture techniques by the U.S. military from the role played by the CIA and demonstrated how the Bush/Cheney decision to torture predated the quasi-legal Justice Department memos. In Part II, I covered the CIA's dark beginnings, including links not only to former Nazi war criminals but to those Americans who provided financial support to Hitler's Germany, including the late Senator Prescott Bush, George W's paternal grandfather. I also demonstrated how academic studies, performed as part of the CIA's maniacal quest to crack the code of human consciousness, culminated in KUBARK, the CIA's 1963 torture manual. In Part III, I showed how the KUBARK torture techniques, applied by US-trained foreign surrogates, became an essential component of the covert dimension of a US-led corporate Empire --- a means for exerting control over populations resistant to the injustice of a system that values the obscene wealth of a few over the needs of the many. Part IV covered “extraordinary rendition.”

Here we will deal with the direct application of KUBARK techniques at CIA “black sites,” why we cannot rely on the government as a source of truth, death by torture and the disturbing yet unresolved question as to how many have joined the ranks of the “disappeared”...

Why US Officials are a Poor Source for Assessing the Scope of the CIA’s Extraordinary Rendition and Torture Programs.

“Governments lie.” I.F. Stone

The accounts of innocent victims like Maher Arar and Khalid El Masri were bolstered by the work of investigative journalist, Stephen Grey, who tracked thousands of flight plans of private executive jets from a North Carolina-based company, Aero Contractors, including the flight which flew Arar from Dulles to Jordan with a stop-over in Rome before the CIA transported Arar to Syria. The European Parliament discovered that, with the cooperation of eleven European countries, more than 1200 CIA flights either passed through European airspace or landed on European soil.

Yet on Sept. 7, 2007 Gen. Michael Hayden, then the Director of the CIA, addressing the Council for Foreign Relations, took exception to the European Parliament’s determination that "at least 1,245 flights operated by the CIA flew into European airspace and stopped over at European airports between the end of 2001 and the end of 2005." Hayden claimed “the actual number of rendition flights ever flown by CIA is a tiny fraction of that.” He asserted that the total number transferred to CIA prisons was less than 100 and that the numbers subjected to extraordinary rendition was in the mid-two-figure range.

During that same news conference, Hayden was asked by Michael Posner of Human Rights First why the CIA needed to have the ability to use “enhanced interrogation techniques…like stress positions, use of dogs, hypothermia, mock drowning, waterboarding.”

Hayden replied: “First let me make comment on your listing of techniques and just frankly add that it's a pretty good example of taking something to the darkest corner of the room and not reflective of what my agency does.”

Hayden lied! The OLC torture memos reveal that this is precisely what his “agency does.” Fear that the truth about CIA torture would be revealed to the American people, and not a purported concern for the safety of the nation, explains why Hayden and other former Directors of the CIA --- Porter Goss, George Tenet and John Deutch --- opposed declassification of the OLC torture memos.

In contrast to Hayden’s numbers --- less than 100 “ghost detainees” who languished in the CIA’s secret prisons and mid-two digits subject to extraordinary rendition, on March 19, 2005 the UK’s Guardian said that [PDF] the US & UK officials they interviewed spoke of a “floating population” of some 10,000 “ghost detainees.”

The Guardian’s investigative reporters interviewed the directors of human rights organizations in Afghanistan and Egypt. Their vibrant, and believable, accounts provide a marked contrast to Hayden’s sterile mendacity.

While it is difficult to pin point how much was the result of actions by the CIA vs. US military, the human rights directors tell an horrific tale of thousands who were arbitrarily arrested and then disappeared into a global network of secret prisons. Those who were released claimed they were “brutalized” and “subjected to tactics that were beyond belief.”

Their accounts confirm the idiocy of those who think torture provides a viable means for acquiring useful information. “Former prisoners claim they were released only after naming names, coerced into making false confessions that led to the arrests of more people unconnected to terrorism…”

Per The Guardian, on Dec. 18, 2001 Ahmed Agiza, an Egyptian asylum seeker, was “arrested by Swedish intelligence acting upon a request from the US.” US agents drove Agiza and another man “shackled and blindfolded” to an airport; sliced off their clothes. “Suppositories were inserted into both men's anuses. They were wrapped in plastic nappies, dressed in jumpsuits and handed over to an American aircrew who flew them out of Sweden on a private executive jet.”

“Mohammed Zarai, former director of the Cairo-based Human Rights Center” told The Guardian “that Agiza,” kept in solitary confinement, “was repeatedly electrocuted, hung upside down, whipped with an electrical flex and hospitalized after being made to lick his cell floor clean.”

“Ghost Detainees” and the Ultra-Secret CIA Black Sites

There is a great deal of work that must be done before the light of truth shines on all the dark recesses of the CIA torture program. The ACLU has taken a step in the right direction by filing a F.O.I.A. request seeking records pertaining to the individuals held at Bagram, but Bagram is a publicly known site. At this date, both the total number of secret CIA prisons and their locations remain a closely guarded secret.

During his Sept. 7, 2007 remarks, Hayden admitted that President Bush did not so much as acknowledge the existence of the CIA "ghost detainee" program until Sept. 7, 2006—at least four and one half years after the program, per Hayden, began with the capture of Abu Zubaydah.

As revealed by the Feb. 14, 2007 International Committee of the Red Cross [ICRC] report [PDF], Sept. 7, 2006 was the date “President Bush announced that 14 detainees ["the 14"] were being transferred from the CIA High Value Detainee program” to Guantanamo. Despite prior ICRC requests, this was the first time the US so much as acknowledged custody of the 14 --- a violation of international law which mandates disclosure to the ICRC of who is being detained and where.

The ICRC interviewed each detainee individually. The consistency of their stories and the independence of the ICRC as the institution designated by international law to insure that prisoners of war are humanely treated makes the ICRC an incredibly reliable source.

The 14 were seized in four different countries between Mar. 28, 2002 and May 2, 2005.* Most were interrogated in the country of arrest; then flown to Afghanistan. Each was transferred between three to ten times** prior to Sept. 7, 2006. The ICRC’s account confirms Dana Priest’s description of extraordinary rendition methodology and reflects the embodiment of the KUBARK torture techniques.

The 14 were stripped of their clothes. Sensory deprivation designed to induce infantile regression was immediately applied for their transfers—black out goggles, ear muffs, diapers, the shackling of hands and feet, strapped to stretchers, a denial of toilet access resulting in defecation and urination into the diapers.

The ICRC reported these techniques resulted in an “increasing sense of disorientation and isolation. The ability…to transfer [the 14] significant distances* to secret locations in foreign countries acutely increased [their] feelings of futility and helplessness, making them more vulnerable to methods of ill treatment….” (An Aug. 13, 2009 New York Times article reveals that three CIA sites, constructed under the direction of Kyle "Dusty" Foggo, "were designed to appear identical, so prisoners would be disoriented and not know where they were if they were shuttled back and forth.")

The degree of isolation described in the ICRC report calls to mind the Oct. 2, 1959 episode of The Twightlight Zone entitled "Where is Everybody?"*** in which actor Earl Holliman, dressed in U.S. Air Force fatigues, wanders about a town, unable to locate anyone despite signs that they should be there --- "food is cooking on the stoves, water is still dripping in the sinks, and cigarettes are still burning in the ashtrays." It's as if a neutron bomb hit, and Holliman is somehow left behind, the last man on earth. Increasingly lonely and desperate for human contact, Holliman collapses next to a traffic signal, repeatedly pressing a "walk" button while pleading, "Where is everybody?" We then learn that Holliman is an astronaut subjected to a sensory deprivation experiment in which he is left in an isolation room for 484 hours. The "walk" button is actually a panic button.

The ICRC report reveals that, throughout their detention, the 14 [emphasis added] “were kept in continuous solitary confinement…They had no knowledge where they were being held, no contact with persons other than their interrogators…Even their guards were usually masked, and, other than the absolute minimum, did not communicate in any way with the detainees.” All were subjected to forced nudity, sleep deprivation through forced stress positions and extreme cold, some by having “cold water poured all over their bodies” --- three undergoing repetition of the early KUBARK experiment of having all but their heads immersed in water. Eight were deprived of solid foods for a period of three days to one month.

Keep in mind that the ICRC report is limited to the 14 who are known survivors of torture. In its March 19, 2005 report, The Guardian recounts an allegation made by an Afghan human rights director that "a man from Gardez died of hypothermia in a US military jail." His family was then "called to collect the body," handed "a $100 note for the taxi ride and [given] no explanation. In scores more cases, people have simply disappeared."

The CIA’s application of the second KUBARK torture technique, self-inflicted pain, was not merely cruel, but medieval, to wit: “Prolonged stress standing position, naked, held with arms extended and chained above their heads….for periods of two to three days continuously….” Per Darius Rejali, author of Torture and Democracy (2007), this technique, which he describes as "high cuffing" or “manacling” "is an old slave punishment of the Americas" which, following revelations of its use during World War I, was banned by what was then more aptly named the War Department.

Three of the 14 were waterboarded.

This is the record for the 14, but how many more were captured and either tortured directly by the CIA or by surrogates inside dungeons under the control of foreign nations? Citing Stephen Bradbury’s May 30, 2005 torture memo [PDF], which established the CIA had at least 94 in custody, Pro Publica asserted there were at least “three dozen still missing.”

Death By Torture

The whereabouts of least one of the missing, Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, is now known. As Brad Friedman reported on May 10, 2009, after al-Libi recanted his tortured tale about al Qaeda/Saddam links when he was returned to CIA custody in 2004, al-Libi "disappeared" only to turn up dead five years later inside a Libyan prison, allegedly by suicide.

Andy Worthington has cited reports in which two experts challenge the al-Libi suicide claim, including a Newsweek article which recounts the claim made by Hafed al-Ghwell, a Libyan-American, who says Libya often makes the claim that political prisoners committed suicide; “then the families get the bodies back and discover the prisoners had been shot in the back or tortured to death.”

Attorney John Sifton, executive director of One World Research, estimates that some 100 detainees have suffered "death by torture." If the previously cited report from The Guardian is anywhere near accurate, the missing, perhaps the deceased, could run into the tens of thousands --- evidence in the form of torture's victims conveniently buried, just as they were during the CIA's infamous Phoenix Program in Vietnam.

Placed within this context, al-Libi's death underscores a disturbing reality. We cannot say that the US has moved away from torture if "ghost detainees" are still languishing and dying in foreign prisons. Absent a complete and unfettered criminal probe into the darkest recesses of CIA torture and full accountability, we cannot claim that the election of Barack Obama has led to a restoration of our nation's honor.

What has been hailed as a “global war on terror” has in fact been a global assault on human decency and the rule of law.

Accountability does not mean prosecuting a "few bad apples."

As reflected by Brad Friedman's recent articles "DoJ's 'Trial Balloon' Over Torture Prosecution Wafts Through the Weekend Media" and "LA Times: Holder 'All but Certain' to Launch 'Narrow' Probe into Bush Administration Torture," and by the salient critique offered by Keith Olbermann and Jonathan Turley on Countdown, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder's mumblings about the appointment of a special prosecutor**** is a scam.

As I noted in Part I, the now much discredited OLC torture memos were nothing more than legal fig-leaves designed to provide legal cover for a decision made at the highest level to engage in criminal violations of both international and domestic laws which make torture a crime. The memos should serve as prima facie evidence sufficient to warrant a criminal probe of the attorneys who drafted them; not an excuse to absolve those who ordered subordinates to "take the gloves off;" then directed the OLC to prepare these monstrous memos.

Holder's promise to limit the appointment for the purpose of going only after those CIA officers who exceeded the OLC guidelines simply repeats the Bush regime's injustice of going after a "few bad apples" in the wake of the Abu Ghraib scandal.

Disturbingly, this chiseling response to demands for accountability comes on the heels of recent reports, which confirm Seymour Hersh's claim that the Bush regime had created a highly secretive "executive assassination wing" which reported only to Dick Cheney's office and which had "been going into countries, not talking to the ambassador or the CIA station chief, and finding people and executing them and leaving." Olbermann, quoting the American Conservative magazine and James Risen, reported that “the secret CIA assassination program involving a Dick Cheney cover-up…consisted of dispatching several assassination teams to various countries to kill individuals who are known to be al Qaeda supporters…” This included killing a man outside a bar in Latin America.

(The history of CIA involvement in assassinations, like its history of torture, is both long and sordid. In his Los Angeles Times piece, “The CIA --- licensed to kill for decades”, David Wise notes that the agency’s involvement in assassinations dates at least to the 1954 U.S.-led coup which toppled the democratically elected President of Guatamala, Jacobo Arbenz, and to a 1954 CIA assassination manual. In Prelude to Terror, Joseph Trento exposes a botched attempt by a “special White House/CIA team” to “assassinate Chinese Premier Chou En-Lai” at an April 1955 international conference with a bowl of poisoned rice. Senator Prescott Bush, George W. Bush's paternal grandfather, acting as President Eisenhower's "adviser on the most secret covert operations" debriefed William Corson, a CIA officer wounded in the botched attempt, according to Trento.)

In Part IV we covered how innocents like Khalid El-Masri and Maher Arar were ensnared by the CIA's "extraordinary rendition" web, and then brutally tortured.

The ramifications of an "assassination wing," concealed from all members of Congress, are truly frightening. There is no guarantee that only those representing an imminent threat to national security would be targeted. Indeed, at this point there is no way to know whether Darth Cheney's teams of assassins were assembled simply to advance the interests of corporate wealth, under cover of the al Qaeda threat, just as we saw when that sociopath advanced the WMD and al Qaeda/Saddam links canards to justify the imperial conquest of Iraq.

While Professor Turley was correct when he noted Holder's chiseling special prosecutor offer negates the principles our nation followed at Nuremberg, the failure to hold those who ordered these war crimes accountable, especially Cheney, has far more sinister implications. It amounts to nothing less than to establish a precedent that a President or Vice President can get away with cold blooded murder. It renders hollow any claim our current President and Attorney General can make that we are a nation of laws. It reinstates a long discarded principle that "the King can do not wrong," and it betrays the core principle of equal justice under the law, which generations of Americans have fought and died to preserve.

A petition for Congress to investigate the torture scandal and for the Attorney General to prosecute Dick Cheney can be signed right here. You can also add your name to a petition by the Center for Constitutional Rights to impeach Jay Bybee by linking right here. The Center for Constitutional Rights has drafted a letter to Attorney General Holder seeking the appointment of a special prosecutor whose task will not be restricted to the relatively rare instances in which CIA employees exceeded the infamous OLC torture memos. You can sign that here.


*Col. Wilkerson erroneously asserted that "no torture or harsh interrogation techniques were employed by any U.S. interrogator for the entire second term of Cheney-Bush, 2005-2009." The ICRC report reveals that the last of the 14 "high-value detainees," Mustapha Faraj Al-Azibi, was captured on May 2, 2005. All of the 14 were subjected to KUBARK techniques. Whatever its impact on the military, CIA torture did not end with the publication of the Abu Ghraib photos.

Moreover, Col. Wilkerson's focus is too narrow. Given a history of surrogate torture and extraordinary rendition, our focus should not be limited to techniques applied by "US interrogators." Under the Bush/Cheney regime, the US spent years training Iraqi security forces. The question arises as to precisely what training they received, especially in light of recent reports that hundreds of prisoners have been tortured inside Iraqi prisons this past year.

**The ICRC's description of multiple-transfers adds credence to The Guardian's description of a "floating population" of some 10,000 "ghost detainees."

***The Twightlight Zone's 1959 episode, "Where is Everybody?" was curiously produced at a time when sensory deprivation studies referenced in KUBARK concluded that the subjects of sensory deprivation experience "unbearable" stress and "progressively lose touch with reality." The Levin report [PDF] noted that the Survival Evasion Resistance and Escape (SERE) training techniques are [emphasis added] “based, in part, on Chinese Communist techniques used during the Korean war to elicit false confessions.”

Media focus on Chinese Communist techniques misses the "in part" which was clearly KUBARK's sensory deprivation. The Levin report reveals that when the Joint Personnel Recovery Agency (JPRA) (the agency responsible for SERE) provided SERE materials on sensory deprivation "to Department of Defense lawyers in July 2002, JPRA explained that '[w]hen a subject is deprived of sensory input for...approximately 6-8 hours, it is not uncommon for them to experience visual, auditory and/or tactile hallucinations. If deprived of input, the brain will make it up.'"

The effort to elicit "false" confessions gets to one of the core reasons why torture is applied. Because people will say anything to make it stop, torture is worthless as a tool for extracting actionable intelligence. But a "false" confession, like al-Libi's al-Qaeda/Saddam connection, is seen as a valuable tool when placed in the hands of an unscrupulous sociopath like Dick Cheney.

****The House Intelligence Committee announced it intends to investigate the CIA role in the assassination wing, including the impropriety of any Cheney directives to conceal the program from Congress.

UPDATE to Part III, 08/13/09: In Part III, I referenced the ordeal of Sister Diana Ortiz, a victim of CIA surrogate torture in Central America who was repeatedly raped and burned by lit cigarettes. She said "they were always filming." I observed that British attorney Phillippe Sands contends there were hundreds of photos taken at Abu Ghraib, Bagram Air Force base in Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay that will show that torture was not the work of "a few bad apples." Phillipe's assertion received off-hand confirmation when the Obama administration asked a federal appeals court to block publication of hundreds of photos. I noted in Part III "it's broader than that. What Ortiz's remarks reveal is that filming is a standard CIA technique used to heighten the impact of psychological torture."

The UK's Telegraph, after interviewing retired Gen. Anthony Tuguba, has now reported that the photos Obama refused to release depict rapes and sexual assaults, including the rape of a female prisoner by an American soldier, the rape of a young Iraqi male prisoner by a translator, and "sexual assaults on prisoners with objects including a truncheon, wire and a phosphorescent tube."

In response, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said “I think the Pentagon has been very clear in a statement saying that the story is not true."

This would be the same Pentagon which staged and carefully filmed the April 9, 2003 toppling of the statue of Saddam Hussein in Firdos Square as a spontaneous event by the Iraqis. As Norman Soloman pointed out in War Made Easy, a Reuters aerial photo revealed "there were just a few hundred Iraqis clustered at the pedestal in Firdos Square, while, all around, the lone and level grounds stretched far away without a soul in sight….’ That seeming multitude of everyday Iraqis was in fact the entourage, or private army, of Ahmed Chalabi….The Marines had organized the whole faux-revolutionary spectacle. The perimeter had been sealed off with razor wire.”

This is the same Pentagon which staged the phony rescue of Jessica Lynch, concocting a false tale about a blond-haired, blue-eyed girl-next-door hero who went down shooting. As revealed by Mark Crispin Miller in Cruel & Unusual, and as confirmed by Lynch herself, Lynch had not been wounded in combat; had not gone down shooting, but instead was injured when her jeep crashed. She was well-treated by Iraqi doctors, who had sought themselves to take her back to the Americans only to turn back when U.S. soldiers fired on their approaching ambulance. The Americans did not face a hail of gunfire. It was a staged event in which the Americans brought their cameras along.

This was the same Pentagon, which, as also revealed by Solomon in War Made Easy, faced with the prospect that the western media could acquire access to high resolution satellite images of Afghan civilians slaughtered by so-called “smart bombs,” spent millions of dollars to purchase from Space Imaging, the company which operates the Ikonos satellite, the exclusive right to all satellite photos that had been taken since the beginning of the bombing campaign.

As between the Pentagon and the retired Major General Taguba, whom do you believe?


Ernest A. Canning has been an active member of the California State Bar since 1977 and has practiced in the fields of civil litigation and workers' compensation at both the trial and appellate levels. He graduated cum laude from Southwestern University School of Law where he served as a student director of the clinical studies department and authored the Law Review Article, Executive Privilege: Myths & Realities. He received an MA in political science at Cal State University Northridge and a BA in political science from UCLA. He is also a Vietnam vet (4th Infantry, Central Highlands 1968).

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