The Bush administration may have abused or tortured many more detainees at secret CIA prisons than the 14 “high-value” terror suspects already known, the International Committee of the Red Cross said in a confidential report.
The 43-page ICRC report, dated Feb. 14, 2007, and published in full this week at the Web site for the New York Review of Books, cited a Sept. 6, 2006, speech by President George W. Bush saying “many” suspected terrorists held at secret CIA prisons “have been returned to their home countries for prosecution or detention by their governments” after it was determined they lacked intelligence value.
But the ICRC said the U.S. government had not disclosed where the detainees were sent, so the organization, which monitors international compliance with the Geneva Conventions and other human rights laws, could not determine the detainees’ fate or investigate their treatment in CIA custody.
Due to the “inhuman” treatment of the 14 known detainees, the ICRC said it “remains gravely concerned by the fact that a significant number of other persons have passed through this detention program and may have been subjected to similar, if not the same, conditions and treatment.”
Because the ICRC’s report is more than two years old – and because the ICRC still considers its contents confidential – it is not clear if the CIA has since provided more information on the whereabouts of those transferred detainees. The ICRC report noted that the organization – as of February 2007 – “has been able to begin discussions with the CIA on this question.”
However, documents that were released in other investigations reveal that the Bush administration conducted a kind of shell game with ICRC representatives to conceal the treatment and even the existence of some detainees.
Last year, the Senate Armed Services Committee released dozens of pages of internal government documents related to the treatment of detainees and the conversations that preceded the implementation of “enhanced interrogation techniques” at the Guantanamo Bay prison, which was under the control of the Department of Defense.
One document was a copy of the minutes of an Oct. 2, 2002, meeting at which Lt. Col. Diane Beaver, then the chief military lawyer at Guantanamo whose responsibilities included working with the ICRC, discussed concealing abusive interrogation tactics when ICRC officials visited.
“We may need to curb the harsher operations while ICRC is around,” Beaver said, according to the minutes. “It is better not to expose them to any controversial techniques.”
“We have had many reports from Bagram [detention center in Afghanistan] about sleep deprivation being used,” responded Dave Becker of the Defense Intelligence Agency.
“True, but officially it is not happening,” Beaver said. “It is not being reported officially. The ICRC is a serious concern. They will be in and out, scrutinizing our operations, unless they are displeased and decide to protest and leave. This would draw a lot of negative attention.”
Jonathan Fredman, who was the chief counsel for the CIA's Counterterrorism Center, noted that the “the CIA is not held to the same rules as the military” when it comes to using aggressive techniques to interrogate detainees.
“In the past when the ICRC has made a big deal about certain detainees, the DOD has ‘moved’ them away from the attention of the ICRC,” Fredman said. “The Torture Convention prohibits torture and cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment. The US did not sign up on the second part, because of the 8th amendment (cruel and unusual punishment), but we did sign the part about torture. This gives us more license to use more controversial techniques.”
Beaver interjected: “We will need documentation to protect us.”
“Yes, if someone dies while aggressive techniques are being used, regardless of cause of death, the backlash of attention would be extremely detrimental. Everything must be approved and documented,” Fredman said.
Last year, during testimony before the Armed Services Committee, Beaver said she didn't recall her comments about stopping the harsh treatment of detainees when ICRC officials were present. In its legal arguments, the Bush administration insisted that the Geneva Conventions did not apply to suspected terrorists.
Another disclosure from the ICRC report, which was obtained by journalist Mark Danner, was the participation of medical officers in monitoring the torture of the “high-value” detainees, presumably to make sure they didn’t die before the interrogations were completed.
“The alleged participation of health personnel in the interrogation process and, either directly or indirectly, in the infliction of ill-treatment constituted a gross breach of medical ethics and, in some cases, amounted to participation in torture and/or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment,” the ICRC report said.
According to the minutes of the Oct. 2, 2002, discussion, the Bush administration also involved psychologists in the preparation of the “enhanced interrogation techniques.”
Psychologists Maj. John Leso and Maj. Burney of the Behavioral Science Consultation Team discussed use of the Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape (SERE) program for interrogating detainees. SERE was meant to prepare U.S. soldiers for abuse they might suffer if captured by an outlaw regime. Instead, it was reverse-engineered to provide interrogation tactics for the Bush administration.
Burney and Leso led a presentation on “SERE Psych Training,” the minutes showed.
When Beaver asked whether SERE employs the “wet towel technique,” otherwise known as waterboarding, Fredman, the CIA attorney, responded with a meticulous description of how the human body would react.
“If a well-trained individual is used to perform [sic] this technique it can feel like you're drowning,” Fredman said. “The lymphatic system will react as if you're suffocating, but your body will not cease to function. It is very effective to identify phobias and use them (i.e., insects, snakes, claustrophobia). The level of resistance is directly related to person's experience.”
Burney, the psychologist, then weighed in with a brief analysis of the psychological impact to the person subjected to the torture techniques. “Whether or not significant stress occurs lies in the eye of the beholder,” Burney said.
When the minutes were sent to Mark Fallon, Deputy Commander at the Criminal Investigation Task Force (CITF), he remarked to a colleague that the Beaver-Fredman discussion "looks like the kinds of stuff Congressional hearings are made of."
“Quotes from LTC Beaver regarding things that are not being reported give the appearance of impropriety,” Fallon wrote in an e-mail obtained by the Senate Armed Services Committee. “Talk of ‘wet towel treatments’ which results in the lymphatic gland reacting as if you are suffocating, would in my opinion shock the conscience of any legal body looking at using the results of the interrogations or possibly even the interrogators. Someone needs to be considering how history will look back at this.”
The ICRC report essentially vindicates Fallon’s concern, depicting an ugly process in which the Bush administration subjected detainees to both pain and humiliation, from the waterboarding that created the panicked gag reflex of drowning to keeping the prisoners naked for long periods of time and causing them to soil themselves.
After questioning the "high-value" detainees separately, the ICRC wrote that “the allegations of the fourteen include descriptions of treatment and interrogation techniques — singly or in combination — that amounted to torture and/or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.”
The ICRC recommended that “U.S. authorities investigate all allegations of ill-treatment and take steps to punish the perpetrators, where appropriate, and to prevent such abuses from happening again.”
The publication of the ICRC’s report led to renewed demands by human rights and civil liberties organizations that Attorney General Eric Holder appoint a special prosecutor with the mandate to launch a criminal inquiry.
“It's imperative that the Justice Department appoint an independent prosecutor to conduct a criminal investigation,” said Jameel Jaffer, Director of the ACLU National Security Project. “Government officials who violated the law should not be shielded from investigation. Transparency and accountability are critical to the restoration of the rule of law."
Other calls were made for professional organizations to enforce their own ethical standards.
"It is time for the American Medical Association, the American Psychological Association, and others to demand a nonpartisan commission to investigate these crimes," said Frank Donaghue, Chief Executive Officer of Physicians for Human Rights (PHR). "The associations must sanction any of their membership found to have violated their professional ethics.”
Last year, PHR published a report, “Broken Laws, Broken Lives,” that concluded that 11 former detainees held in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantánamo Bay were systematically tortured. The prisoners were later released and were never charged with any crimes. PHR’s medical representatives evaluated the detainees and found instances of “medical complicity in torture.”
One former Abu Ghraib detainee known only as Hafez told PHR that his arm was dislocated during an abusive interrogation. He said an individual whom he believed was a doctor, put his arm back in place and told the interrogators to "continue."
In February, at a conference for medical professionals, PHR officials presented Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-Rhode Island, with a petition signed by attendees calling on Congress to form a committee to probe the torture of prisoners detained in the “war on terror.”
"The Bush Administration weaponized medicine by using health professionals to break the bodies and minds of detainees," John Bradshaw, PHR's Washington director, said about the new evidence of medical personnel collaborating in torture. "Congress must act to restore medical ethics by finally authorizing a non-partisan commission to probe these crimes."
Similar concerns have been raised about the Bush administration’s twisting of legal standards in securing clearance from the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel to abuse detainees.
Sen. Whitehouse has been leading the charge for the release of a Justice Department watchdog report that is said to be highly critical of attorneys John Yoo, Jay Bybee and Steven Bradbury, who helped create the legal framework for the Bush administration’s torture policies.
Jason Leopold has launched his own Web site, The Public Record, at www.pubrecord.org.
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This story was published on April 8, 2009.