Monday, March 9, 2009

Torturers Told Binyam: "“We’re going to change your brain"

David Rose at the British paper The Mail got the scoop that was former Guanatanamo prisoner Binyam Mohamed's "world exclusive" post-release interview. Entitled "How MI5 colluded in my torture: Binyam Mohamed claims British agents fed Moroccan torturers their questions", the article presents a brief biography of Mr. Mohamed's troubled life, including the experience of racial prejudice in the United States (Binyam is Ethiopian-born), abandonment by his father, and later the adoption of his mother's religion, Islam.

But the article's most sensational sections describe his torture by Pakistani, Moroccan, and U.S. officials, who all the while were in collaboration with British intelligence services, who not only were feeding them questions, but also withholding exculpatory evidence as well. The torture was horrendous:
Documents obtained by this newspaper - which were disclosed to Mohamed through a court case he filed in America - show that months after he was taken to Morocco aboard an illegal 'extraordinary rendition' flight by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, MI5 twice gave the CIA details of questions they wanted his interrogators to put to him, together with dossiers of photographs.

At the time, in November 2002, Mohamed was being subject to intense, regular beatings and sessions in which his chief Moroccan torturer, a man he knew as Marwan, slashed his chest and genitals with a scalpel....

... Mohamed also described how he was interrogated by an MI5 officer in Pakistan in May 2002, before his rendition to Morocco....

He said the officer knew he had already been tortured numerous times after his capture the previous month, with methods that included days of sleep deprivation, a mock execution and being beaten while being hung by his wrists for hours on end.

He said this torture in Pakistan made him confess to a plan that was never more than fantasy - to build a 'dirty' radioactive bomb.
Over and over, the article presents evidence of U.S. and British collaboration in the interrogation and torture of Binyam Mohamed. Telegrams are sent back and forth, lines of inquiry are proposed, a "case conference" is held between U.S. and British intelligence at MI5 HQ in London.

The full extent of the collaboration and the torture are partly obscured by the fact that the British High Court reluctantly (and with public protest) have acceded to the demands of the British Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, to withhold the publication of secret documentation of Mr. Mohamed's torture -- documents already seen by Mohamed's attorneys, but not the public -- because it would supposedly harm U.S.-British intelligence cooperation.

The Mail article states that Miliband lied about whether or not the Obama administration is threatening the British over revealing these secrets, as the Bush administation had. Thus, it is unclear to what extent the Obama administration is cooperating in the British suppression of the documents. The Obama administration is on record as telling BBC that it is grateful that the British are committed to state secrecy. On the other hand, a letter detailing the contents of the redacted documents sent by Mohamed's attorney to President Obama was itself mysteriously redacted. One thing is clear: we don't yet have the full story here.

In the Dark Prison: Brainwashing & Confessions

The worst part of Mohamed's captivity, by his own account, is the five months he spent at the "dark prison" the CIA ran at an undisclosed location near Kabul, Afghanistan. The Obama administration has by executive order closed all CIA prisons except those "used only to hold people on a short-term, transitory basis." One wonders if five months can be considered "short-term" or "transitory"? Given the torture evidence by Mr. Mohamed, this question is especially apposite.

From Binyam Mohamed's description of the "dark prison":
Kabul's dark prison was just that: a place where inmates spent their days and weeks in total blackness....

'The toilet in the cell was a bucket. Without light, you either find the bucket or you go on your bed,' Mohamed says.

'There were loudspeakers in the cell, pumping out what felt like about 160 watts, a deafening volume, non-stop, 24 hours a day....

'While that was happening, a lot of the time, for hour after hour, they had me shackled....

'The longest was when they chained me for eight days on end, in a position that meant I couldn't stand straight nor sit.

'I couldn't sleep. I had no idea whether it was day or night.

'You got a shower once a week, with your arms chained above you, stripped naked, in the dark, with someone else washing you.

'The water was salty and afterwards you felt dirtier than when you went in. It wasn't a shower for washing: it was for humiliation.'

In Kabul, Mohamed says the food was also contaminated, and he often suffered from sickness and diarrhoea....

'The floor was made of cement dust. Whatever movement you made, the air would be full of cement and I started getting breathing problems.

' My bed was a thin mattress on the floor, surrounded by that dust.'
And what was all this torture for? According to Mr. Mohamed, it was during his stay at the Dark Prison that U.S. interrogators went beyond inducing confessions. They wanted him to finger other individuals, and use him to testify in the military commissions trials they were planning. Later, when Mohamed arrived in Guantanamo in September 2004, interrogators got worried Binyam would testify he only "confessed" or gave information because he was tortured, and tried to conduct "clean" interrogations, so they could say the testimony was uncoerced. They demanded he give his confession "freely". After Obama was elected president and announced Guantanamo would close, Mohamed says his treatment became more brutal.

The entire Mail article goes into much, much more detail, and makes important reading for those trying to understand what kinds of crimes the U.S. and UK governments have committed when they undertook the torturing of individuals in their custody. Andy Worthington has also written an excellent summary and review of Binyam's interview, and furthermore, writes from the standpoint of one who has followed both Mr. Mohamed's case, and that of a myriad of other Guantanamo prisoners for years now.

Andy Worthington's article makes abundantly clear that the torture of prisoners like Binyam Mohamed was not about, or at least not solely about, the collection of information. It was about the manufacture of information, including false confessions and fingering others for prosecution or further torture. In an earlier interview with Binyam Mohamed's attorney, Clive Stafford Smith:
Binyam explained that, between the savage beatings and the razor cuts to his penis, his torturers “would tell me what to say.” He added that even towards the end of his time in Morocco, they were still “training me what to say,” and one of them told him, “We’re going to change your brain.”
This emphasis on brainwashing -- for that is the popular terminology for such an assault on the psyche of a prisoner -- is a key component of the kind of psychological torture that was researched by both the United Kingdom and the United States in the years following World War II. It highlighted the use of isolation, sleep deprivation, fear, stress positions, manipulation of the environment, of food, the use of humiliation and both sensory deprivation and sensory overload upon the prisoner. The idea was to overwhelm the nervous system and make a human being collapse without a blow being made, without scars, without evidence usable in court.

Much to the chagrin of some in the government, I suppose, the Moroccans had some ideas of their own regarding torture, and it included the use of razor blades. According to the Mail account, there are plenty of pictures of Mr. Mohamed's scarred penis in his files. That may be bad news for somebody, if anyone's head is ever going to fall over this monstrosity of a treatment.

Prosecute Those Who Ordered and Operated the Torture Program

But the real criminals sat or still sit in the highest chairs of government. The political will to hold them to account is crippled by the need to save the integrity of the system in the eyes of a scared and cynical populace -- scared by a collapsing economy, and cynical because they too have lost all faith in the integrity of their leaders, and are placing all their hopes now in the charismatic Barack Obama. For his part, Obama has indicated he will be more socially progressive than his predecessor -- he just eliminated the anti-science blockade of funds on stem cell research that Bush had used to hamstring such projects.

But Obama has also indicated that he will go so far on torture and national security reform and no farther. He has no intention of significantly reforming the CIA. He plans to leave a substantial remnant force of up to 50,000 troops or "advisers" in Iraq after a U.S. "withdrawal"... two or more years from now. He is escalating U.S. military presence in Afghanistan, and has taken actions to make prisoners in that theater of operations even less available to review of conditions by any U.S. court than were the prisoners in Guantanamo. All the while, he maintains that the Army Field Manual, with its reliance on isolation, sensory deprivation, sleep deprivation, and fear, along with loose controls on stress positions and drugging of prisoners, is the "gold standard" of U.S. interrogation of "illegal enemy combatants."

The Binyam Mohamed case is one that wakes people up, at least it has in Great Britain. (See Glenn Greenwald's story comparing the U.S. to British coverage of the case.) But damn if I don't know what it will take to unfreeze U.S. society on this topic. Torture remains a little understood and embarrassing subject in U.S. circles. It's dimly recognized that if the lid were totally taken off, much of the establishment leadership in the U.S. would be revealed as culpable, or at least compromised. Hence, mainstream opinion makers are attempting to keep whatever scandals within "reasonable" limits.

Politics can be strange sometimes. The mainstream opinion makers are usually pretty good at what they do, especially the left-wing versions of them. But they don't often have to deal with such incendiary material, and a dedicated coterie of attorneys, bloggers, journalists, and even some politicians and military officers, who don't want to see this issue die before accountability takes place.


Darren Lenard Hutchinson said...

Invictus, I have not seen any media analyze Obama's recent comments on rendition during his interview with the NYT. You might want to check it out on Dissenting Justice. Thanks for all of your essays on torture.

Valtin said...

Darren, I'll go check it out. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

This is about the same time frame that Jose Padilla was being detained and accused of seeking to set off a "dirty bomb," isn't it? I seem to recall that John Ashcroft made that announcement in early June 2002. Padilla, of course, was never charged with that particular crime -- is it likely that the whole plot was simply the product of Mohamed's torture?

Valtin said...

Maybe one of the redacted names in the Mohamed documents is Padilla. The theme of a "dirty bomb" is floated in each case. Your hypothesis, anonymous, makes some sense. I think that KSM is said to have fingered Padilla under torture. Perhaps they thought they could get Binyam to present corroborating evidence. Or perhaps they thought KSM would never publicly testify at all.

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