The Birth of a Torture Program

Jane Mayer reveals how government torture programs come to be.

Alberto Gonzales

There are two ways to think about the Bush administration’s willingness to torture prisoners in the wake of 9/11. One is the story we were sold after we learned about Abu Ghraib: A few “bad apples” at the lowest levels of the military went a little crazy and tortured some prisoners on their own initiative, for which (some) were duly punished. The second is confirmed in a new and devastating piece of investigating by The New Yorker’s Jane Mayer: A systematic and rigorous program of highly abusive interrogation was approved at the highest levels of government at so-called “black sites” around the world. This second version of the national torture story reveals not so much the bad apples as a profoundly diseased tree.

Mayer’s piece is important enough to warrant reading in its entirety. President Bush’s recent executive order purported to lay out the boundaries of legal detention and interrogation but in fact left enormous gaps as to what is defined as permissible, making questions about who can do what to extract information from whom less than academic. What is devastating about Mayer’s report is the sense that everyone along the way was willing to sign off on this program of state-sanctioned abuse, without evidence of its efficacy, either because the White House was bearing down and demanding more information, or because nobody could come up with a better torture system on short notice.

Mayer describes a Red Cross report on the black sites that has been kept quiet (the Red Cross is afraid of forfeiting access to other prisoners). The report evidently characterized the “agency’s detention and interrogation methods as tantamount to torture” and found that “American officials responsible for the abusive treatment could have committed serious crimes.” The most striking aspect of Mayer’s report is the extent to which the interrogators who invented the torture program at these black sites did so almost wholly on the fly: While the abuse itself may have been rigorous and systematic, apparently no rigorous or systematic thought was given to the larger program, which seems to have been cobbled together from the greatest hits albums of torture regimes past and present. According to Mayer, since the CIA had almost no trained interrogators, they simply mined Vietnam-era torture programs; practices borrowed from Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia; and the Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape program that had been created during the Korean War. That the SERE was designed to teach American captives to resist torture, not as a system of interrogation in itself, was apparently immaterial.

Another contrast between the abuse at the black sites and at Abu Ghraib? The cold, precise way in which this rigid system was administered. In one striking passage, Mayer quotes an outside expert familiar with the interrogation protocol saying that “at every stage, there was a rigid attention to detail. Procedure was adhered to almost to the letter. There was top-down quality control, and such a set routine that you get to the point where you know what each detainee is going to say, because you’ve heard it before. It was almost automated. People were utterly dehumanized. People fell apart. It was the intentional and systematic infliction of great suffering masquerading as a legal process.” A system ostensibly designed to elicit information seems to have become a program designed merely to break detainees. Mayer details cavity searches, caging, nakedness, prolonged sensory deprivation, suspension from one’s arms, waterboarding, and sleep deprivation as part of the larger program. One of the most haunting images is of desperate prisoners driven to attempt suicide and repeatedly being stitched up by doctors in order to be abused some more.

The governing CIA objective here, “learned helplessness,” required that prisoners be humiliated and disoriented and broken. As Mayer points out, this was goal of the KGB model. But the purpose of the KGB was to obtain false confessions, she adds, not good intelligence. Where was the evidence that systematically breaking down and degrading prisoners leads to accurate information?

The most damning part of this damning article comes at its conclusion, when Mayer explains that, following years of brutal interrogation of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged architect of the Sept. 11 attacks, it remains entirely unclear which parts of his voluminous confessions are true and which were fabricated—either to end his abuse or to inflate his ego. According to Mayer, “cables carrying Mohammed’s interrogation transcripts back to Washington reportedly were prefaced with the warning that “the detainee has been known to withhold information or deliberately mislead.” In Mayer’s hands, the story of our torture program becomes the story of interrogators driven to do anything to elicit information—be it truthful or not—and the doctors, lawyers, and scientists who signed off without question on the banal day-to-day abuses that were put into practice to achieve that end.

In the aftermath of the Abu Ghraib scandal, President Bush expressed horror at what he characterized as the “abhorrent” practices there; promising the world that, “those mistakes will be investigated and people will be brought to justice.” The question Bush, Cheney, CIA Director Gen. Michael Hayden, and others must now be pressed to answer is how the “abhorrent” practices at Abu Ghraib differed from those that allegedly happened at the black sites and whether the only difference between abusive and permissible interrogation is the existence of a formal government program.