The terror attack on London is perhaps an appropriate background for an official
report into the detention policies at Guantanamo Bay. We live in a world where
the rules of even guerrilla warfare have shifted towards deeper and deeper levels
of barbarism. It would be highly unlikely that western societies are not changed
in response. Some loss of liberty is inevitable; some fraying of freedom and the
rules of honour in war are unavoidable. The question is not whether this will
happen but simply one of where we will draw new lines.
What rules, for example, should now apply for interrogating alleged or proven
terrorists? Should the Geneva conventions still hold? The Bush administration
has made up its mind in a series of legal and military decisions whose consequences
are only just beginning to sink in. And what Guantanamo Bay represents, as last
Wednesday’s Schmidt report proves, is undeniably a new code of post-Geneva
American military conduct.
Remember Abu Ghraib? I can barely forget it. It struck me as unimaginable that
American soldiers would treat detainees in such a degrading fashion. We were
told the tactics were merely the improvisation of a few “bad apples”
on the night shift. The president declared he was shocked.
But we now know he should not have been shocked. The Schmidt report reveals
that the tactics used in Abu Ghraib had been deployed as official policy by
the most experienced interrogators. Here’s a summary of the techniques
used in Gitmo (Guantanamo) as relayed by Schmidt: interrogators “brought
a military working dog into the interrogation room and directed it to growl,
bark and show teeth”; some prisoners were restrained with “hand
restraints connected directly to an eyebolt in the floor”; one interrogator
“tied a leash to hand chains, led (the detainee) around the room through
a series of dog tricks”; one prisoner was pinned down while a female interrogator
straddled him; another had his entire head duct-taped because he refused to
stop “chanting passages from the Koran”; another had an interrogator
squat over his Koran on a table, while interrogating him; and on and on. Do
these antics sound familiar? Remember the infamous picture of Lynndie England
dragging an inmate around on a leash at Abu Ghraib? It was a technique of humiliation
developed first at Guantanamo Bay.
The report, moreover, insisted that although some of these techniques were
“abusive and degrading”, they were still “humane”. Yes,
you read that Orwellian paradox right. One high-value detainee given “humane”
treatment was isolated for 160 days. For 48 out of 54 consecutive days, he was
kept awake for 20 hours at a time; he was forced to wear bras and thongs on
his head; he was prevented from praying; he was forced to crawl around on a
dog leash to perform dog tricks and “on 17 occasions interrogators poured
water over the subject”.
Poured water? He was not taking a shower. He was being “regularly”
subjected to the sensation of near-drowning, a technique developed by the French
in Algeria. None of this, according to the report’s interpretation of
Bush administration policy, amounted to legally defined “torture”.
When another high-value detainee resisted giving testimony, Donald Rumsfeld
specifically authorised tougher methods. An interrogator posing as a member
of the American navy relayed a message to the prisoner: “Interrogator’s
colleagues are sick of hearing the same lies over and over and are seriously
considering washing their hands of him . . . He told detainee that beatings
and pain are not the worst things in the world. After all, after being beaten
for a while, humans tend to disconnect the mind from the body and make it through.
However, there are worse things than physical pain.
“Interrogators assured detainee that, eventually, he will talk, because
everyone does. But until then he will very soon disappear down a very dark hole.
His very existence will become erased. His electronic files will be deleted
from the computer, his paper files will be packed up and filed away, and his
existence will be forgotten by all. No one will know what happened to him and,
eventually, no one will care.”
The detainee cracked and said he was “not willing to continue to protect
others to the detriment of himself and his family”.
We are told that the interrogation provided good intelligence — a claim
we have no way of measuring. Medics were present to make sure the abuse went
up to the edge — but not beyond — what a human being could withstand.
But even the forgiving Schmidt report found it went beyond what was technically
legal under the American code of military justice. One commander initially lied
about it: the consequences, however, were a few wrist-slaps.
The deeper problem is that allowing such techniques in one or two special cases
is hard to contain. When Gitmo’s commander was sent to Abu Ghraib to “Gitmoise”
it, we saw the results. Worse, the Schmidt report asserts that these techniques
of abuse are now deemed part of the army field manual and apply even to legitimate
prisoners of war under the Geneva conventions. That’s how they came to
be applied in Iraq, against hundreds of people who turned out to be innocent.
The masked interrogator’s threat to “disappear” the detainee
was not an idle one. The existence of “ghost detainees” who are
not recorded or numbered and are hidden from the Red Cross has been documented
in other American government reports. Many suspects have indeed been “disappeared”
or rendered into the tender arms of Egyptian, Syrian or Uzbek regimes.
It is to America’s credit that it has vented this material. But it is
also true that the evidence now shows that 9/11 has indeed changed America —
into a country where brutal treatment of detainees is now legal. And it has
all been done with legal cover and political deflection. Last Thursday, not
a single major conservative website even mentioned the Schmidt report at all.
Better to look away.
This is what the new world of terror can do to a country dedicated to human
dignity and liberty. When President George W Bush said, after Abu Ghraib, that
those images did not represent America, he sadly mis-spoke. Thanks to his own
decisions legalising torture for “military necessity”, those images
do indeed define part of Bush’s new America. Deep in the cages of Guantanamo
Bay lies that saddening, sobering truth.