How far should 'torture-lite' go?

by
02 November 2006

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Paul Vallely considers claims that the US exported suspects to be tortured

So that's all right then. The United States wouldn't dream of sending terrorist suspects abroad to be tortured. No less a person than George Bush's Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, says so. She is travelling across Europe this week just to assure us that torture is a crime in the United States, as is conspiracy to torture, wherever in the world it happens.

Why, then, is Washington sending abroad hundreds and possibly thousands of suspected terrorists - in what Amnesty International claims has involved 800 flights across EU airspace - to be interrogated in countries where methods are, shall we say, less kid-gloved than are allowed in the US?

Ah well, that is, she says, a process called rendition. Defenders of this process say that prisoners are sent to these third countries not because they practise torture, but because their "cultural affinity" with the captives gets more out of them.

Unfortunately, that's not quite how those involved in these coercive interrogation techniques see it. Those with memories going back more than a couple of years might recall a report in that dangerously anti-establishment journal The Washington Post, based on the testimony of ten serving US national security officials - including several who were party to the handling of prisoners at Guantánamo Bay and Bagram air base in Afghanistan.

They talked of al-Qaeda and Taliban suspects' being blindfolded and thrown into walls, bound in painful positions, subjected to loud noises, and deprived of sleep, with a 24-hour bombardment of lights. "Stress and duress" techniques the proponents called it, though one of them went so far as to coin the phrase "torture-lite".

"We don't kick the [expletive] out of them," one practitioner was quoted as saying. "We send them to other countries so they can kick the [expletive] out of them." Or use mind-altering drugs such as sodium pentathol, said other officials.

Next came the disclosure by Human Rights Watch that Pentagon lawyers had compiled a 72-point "matrix" of types of stress to which detainees can be subjected. It included: stripping them naked; subjecting them to bright lights or blaring noise; hooding them and exposing them to heat and cold; and binding them in uncomfortable positions. Drawn up in association with the CIA, it was kept secret.

Then there was the New York Times article that reported that the matrix permitted a practice known as "water boarding", in which a prisoner is strapped down, forcibly pushed under water, and made to think he is drowning. The paper claimed it had been authorised for use against Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, a high-level detainee whom the CIA believed planned the attack on the Twin Towers, and who knew the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden.

What was most striking about all this was that the disclosures did not come from whistle-blowers. Rather, they were the boasts of US officials who were leaking the information to make clear to their countrymen that they were doing everything possible to avenge 11 September, and to ensure that it could not happened again.

"If you don't violate someone's human rights some of the time," one official was quoted as saying, "you probably aren't doing your job."

They wanted their fellow Americans to know how far they were prepared to go on their behalf. Which is why Dr Rice is having to travel such a long way to deny it.

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