Monday, December 17, 2007

Out of the Depths: CIA Torture Victim Speaks

Blogger Deep Harm over at Daily Kos did a nice job of writing up a review on Mark Benjamin's recent article at, Inside the CIA's notorious "black sites". Benjamin's article details the case of CIA Yemeni prisoner (now released), Mohamed Farag Ahmad Bashmilah.

Mr. Bashmilah was held for 19 months in a succession of prisons, trapped inside the CIA's secret worldwide gulag. Now the one-time CIA torture victim has filed a declaration as part of a lawsuit brought by the ACLU against Jeppesen Dataplan Inc., a subsidiary of Boeing Company, and implicated in secret CIA rendition flights.

According to Mark Benjamin, Mr. Bashmilah -- a businessman who had travelled from his home in Indonesia to Jordan to help arrange a surgery for his mother -- was subjected to extreme psychological torture and physical maltreatment, first by the Jordanians:

After his arrest, the Jordanians brutally beat him, peppering him with questions about al-Qaida. He was forced to jog around in a yard until he collapsed. Officers hung him upside down with a leather strap and his hands tied. They beat the soles of his feet and his sides. They threatened to electrocute him with wires. They told him they would rape his wife and mother.

It was too much. Bashmilah signed a confession multiple pages long, but he was disoriented and afraid even to read it.

Psychological Torture in Action

Apparently the confession wasn't enough for the Americans, and the Jordanian interrogators dumped Bashmilah into the CIA gulag in October 2003. And, it was not waterboarding that the CIA in its black sites practiced upon their new prisoner, but, as I've been warning, severe psychological torture:

Flight records show Bashmilah was flown to Kabul....

He was then placed in a windowless, freezing-cold cell, roughly 6.5 feet by 10 feet. There was a foam mattress, one blanket, and a bucket for a toilet that was emptied once a day. A bare light bulb stayed on constantly. A camera was mounted above a solid metal door. For the first month, loud rap and Arabic music was piped into his cell, 24 hours a day, through a hole opposite the door. His leg shackles were chained to the wall. The guards would not let him sleep, forcing Bashmilah to raise his hand every half hour to prove he was still awake....

"During the entire period of my detention there, I was held in solitary confinement and saw no one other than my guards, interrogators and other prison personnel," he wrote in his declaration.

The loud music, the isolation, the temperature extremes... all these are hallmarks of CIA psychological torture, and meant to break down prisoners' will and psyche. At some point Mr. Bashmilah was moved to another cell. This time there were two video cameras, another stock staple of CIA torture, as photography of prisoners was mentioned as far back as the early 1960s in CIA interrogation manuals. Think of that while you follow the ongoing controversy over CIA destruction of videos of interrogations of two of their more famous prisoners. No congressional committee to my knowledge is calling for the release of Mr. Bashmilah's tapes.

At the new prison, it was more of the same:

It was another tiny cell, new or refurbished with a stainless steel sink and toilet. Until clothes arrived several days later, Bashmilah huddled in a blanket. In this cell there were two video cameras, one mounted above the door and the other in a wall. Also above the door was a speaker. White noise, like static, was pumped in constantly, day and night. He spent the first month in handcuffs. In this cell his ankle was attached to a 110-link chain attached to a bolt on the floor.

The door had a small opening in the bottom through which food would appear: boiled rice, sliced meat and bread, triangles of cheese, boiled potato, slices of tomato and olives, served on a plastic plate.

Guards wore black pants with pockets, long-sleeved black shirts, rubber gloves or black gloves, and masks that covered the head and neck. The masks had tinted yellow plastic over the eyes. "I never heard the guards speak to each other and they never spoke to me," Bashmilah wrote in his declaration.

One of the more revealing aspects of the Bashmilah case is the appearance of mental health professionals, either psychologists or psychiatrists, or both, in the CIA prisons. Their job appeared to be one of patching up the psyche/emotional state of the prisoner so they didn't break down too much. Or conversely, it was part of a perverse good cop/bad cop regime that contributed to the prisoner's despair and confusion.

Here's what Benjamin reports:

It may seem bizarre for the agency to provide counseling to a prisoner while simultaneously cracking him mentally -- as if revealing a humanitarian aspect to a program otherwise calibrated to exploit systematic psychological abuse. But it could also be that mental healthcare professionals were enlisted to help bring back from the edge prisoners who seemed precariously damaged, whose frayed minds were no longer as pliable for interrogation. "My understanding is that the purpose of having psychiatrists there is that if the prisoner feels better, then he would be able to talk more to the interrogators," said Bashmilah....

He said the doctors told him to "hope that one day you will prove your innocence or that you will one day return to your family." The psychiatrists also gave him some pills, likely tranquilizers. They analyzed his dreams. But there wasn't much else they could do. "They also gave me a Rubik's Cube so I could pass the time, and some jigsaw puzzles," Bashmilah recalled.

PHR Noodges APA

Stephen Soldz reports that Physicians for Human Rights has recently circulated an email highlighting a renewed call for the American Psychological Association to call for a moratorium of psychologists working at national security interrogation sites like Guantanamo's Camp Delta, or CIA "black sites". Signed by Frank Donaghue, PHR's new Chief Executive Officer, it reads in part:

You have probably seen recent news reports about the CIA’s destruction of video recordings of interrogations allegedly showing the use of waterboarding and other “enhanced” interrogation techniques. Last week, PHR released a statement, calling on the Attorney General and Congress to immediately launch independent investigations into both the alleged destruction of evidence of torture and the “enhanced” interrogation program itself. As PHR noted in our report Leave No Marks, waterboarding and other techniques can constitute war crimes.

Recent statements on ABC News and the Today Show by former CIA operative John Kiriakou allege that doctors were present during the interrogation of Abu Zubaydah, which involved the use of sleep deprivation and waterboarding. PHR is calling for the Department of Justice, Congress and major health professional associations to conduct legal and ethical investigations. Those investigations must determine how physicians and psychologists participated in harsh interrogations as monitors and interrogators.

We continue to urge the American Psychological Association (APA) to place a moratorium on the participation of its members in all national security interrogations. Though PHR applauded the APA’s passage of a resolution this August stating that the tactics used by the CIA are unethical, the APA can take more steps to protect detainees from harm and US personnel from engaging in illegal abuse. PHR is asking the APA to follow the examples of the American Medical Association and the American Psychiatric Association in refusing to allow its members to engage in abusive interrogations.

Finally, the House yesterday passed a bill which would make the Army Field Manual the unified standard for detainee treatment, prohibiting the CIA’s “enhanced” interrogation program. Now it must go before the full Senate.

Reformism and Nihilism in the Fight Against Torture

Well, the House bill passed, but then was blocked on a procedural motion by GOP representatives. But, I've been leery about the whole House bill, and any "reform" that outlaws waterboarding and other atrocities, but leaves intact the kind of psychological torture performed on Mr. Bashmilah -- like sensory deprivation and sensory overload, sleep deprivation, and solitary confinement, not to mention other kinds of psychological manipulations. The Army Field Manual allows manipulation of fear in prisoners, along with isolation, sleep deprivation, and forms of sensory deprivation. And that's what's "legal".

Additionallly, it is a truism by now that all actors and organizations involved in these by now multitudinous stories on torture deny they torture. While the American Psychiatric Association and American Medical Association have enacted their own kind of moratorium of doctor participation in interrogations, it's not clear this ever really stopped. The situation with the American Psycological Association is, if anything, even murkier.

What's left for us critics of U.S. use of torture amounts to a kind of activist nihilism. It's not clear to me that anything has changed in U.S. prisons and GWOT interrogation centers. The recent revelations over the Standard Operation Procedure manuals for Guantanamo got a little play in the press, before dropping like a stone out of sight into the dark pond that is U.S. media coverage (and that includes the bloggers).

Fifty years or more of torture, human rights abuses, covert wars, and hidden histories, have amounted to very little change. There was the UN Convention Against Torture. But then, there was were the Geneva Conventions, too. And the Magna Carta. And this country has chosen to abrogate them all.

It seems to me that only serious political change will bring about an end to the practice of torture. Lawyers will not do it. Doctors and psychologists will not do it. Even Congress will not do it. Only when humanity seizes the reins of history again and steers it back onto the road of progress will we see again appreciable movement against the evils that confront us in the form of torture, repression, and inequality.

This doesn't mean it's not worth fighting. The ACLU, PHR, Amnesty International, the Electronic Freedom Foundation, Human Rights First, etc., all are holding the line against the barbarism of untrammelled militarism and political repression. All of them deserve your support.

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