Edition 25 Volume 2 - July 01, 2024

Interrogation and torture

One American's view of Abu Ghraib - by  John L. Moore

The Abu Ghraib issue clearly demonstrates the Bush administration's modus operandi.

Israeli prisons are factories of pain - by  Mahmud Sehwail

In the Israeli occupation context, torture and interrogation are synonymous.

An almost impossible dilemma - by  Orit Adato

Democracies confront the fine line between effective interrogation and the extreme violation of human rights.

The evolving culture of violence - a conversation with  Ghassan Attiyah

Future Iraqi governments will have the tendency to justify torture in the name of eradicating terrorism.

One American's view of Abu Ghraib
by John L. Moore

In reflecting on the physical and psychological abuse at Abu Ghraib and the fallout since, I have come to the conclusion that no thoughtful observer should have been surprised by it. The only real issue was not when the public would find out, but what Americans would do in reaction. Isn’t it ironic, however, that the Bush administration which first justified the war in Iraq on the threat from weapons of mass destruction but now says that "it was right to remove the evil dictator" Saddam Hussein, could fall from power because of events at Abu Ghraib? This notorious prison was where Saddam’s henchmen tortured and murdered fellow Iraqis for decades.

One thing the Abu Ghraib issue clearly demonstrates is the Bush administration’s modus operandi. First, there is the administration’s go-it-alone approach. The emphasis on unilateral action as a key element in US national strategy was enhanced by the war on terror after 9/11. International norms for dealing with prisoners of war and enemy combatants, established in the 1949 Geneva Conventions and the subsequent UN Convention against Torture, were thrown out by Defense and Justice Department lawyers.

Second, actions taken during and after the war in Afghanistan against Al Qaeda and the Taliban became the model for Iraq. Lessons learned at the isolated detention facility at Guantanamo, Cuba on how to coerce information out of detainees were designed to obtain "actionable intelligence" in the war against terrorism. If it worked in Afghanistan and Guantanamo, why shouldn’t it be used in Iraq against the "terrorists" there? After all, in the minds of key players in the Bush administration the two "wars" (Afghanistan and Iraq) were really just separate campaigns in the overall war on terror. Yet since late April I have not seen any news reports justifying the humiliation, psychological, and physical abuse at Abu Ghraib as having resulted in "actionable intelligence" successes in the ongoing insurgency in Iraq.

Third, when confronted with bad news, the administration takes no action unless forced. It will never admit wrongdoing or that the abuses were the result of policy decisions made at the highest levels in the Defense or Justice Departments. The US military must be commended for undertaking the first investigation; General Taguba’s report of abuses certainly catalogued more than the International Committee of the Red Cross had quietly reported to US authorities.

However, it was not until the US media broadcast the awful images photographed at Abu Ghraib that a public outcry led to the administration's widening a narrow inquiry on military police abuses into a broader, though not complete, investigation into the role of military intelligence in the scandal. Its scope is now being widened further, will be headed by a full general, and will look into the orders commanders in Iraq gave on interrogation.

The only investigation not led by a military officer was ordered recently by Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld, who asked former Secretary of Defense Schlesinger to lead a panel to review and summarize all the military investigations. There could be as many as ten. One hopes that Schlesinger will conclude that a complete accounting requires an investigation into the role senior civilian Defense Department policymakers had in this scandal.

Fourth, the administration placates but, in reality, ignores Congress. The Senate Armed Services Committee, headed by Virginia Republican John Warner, was the only congressional committee to hold meaningful hearings, for two short days in late May. The House of Representatives chose not to look closely into the matter at all. Senator Warner now prefers to wait until the investigations by the Defense Department are completed. They may stretch well into the summer, and Congress traditionally shuts down for August. In September the US starts the final and crucial phase of national elections. A Republican-led Congress, many of whose members hope to ride President Bush’s coattails back into office, will be very reluctant to issue any critical report on the conduct of the war in Iraq before the November 4th vote.

Finally and fortunately, the one sector keeping the heat on the administration over Abu Ghraib is the American press. The major national newspapers (New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal) and other media outlets (print and broadcast) will follow this story’s trail until the end. All the facts will eventually come out, but it will take time.

The most important result will be what the American people decide about Abu Ghraib and its aftermath. John C. Yoo, the former Justice Department lawyer who drafted the 2024 Justice Department report that the Geneva Conventions did not apply to the war on terror, established the bottom line on this issue for Americans. In a June 11th column in the Los Angeles Times, Yoo, now a professor of law at the University of California at Berkeley, claimed, "Ultimately, the administration’s policy is consistent with the law." He further wrote, "If the American people disagree with that policy, they have options. Congress can change the law, or the electorate can change the administration." We shall see!-Published 1/7/2004©bitterlemons-international.org

John L. Moore is a retired intelligence officer who worked on Middle East issues for more than three decades at the Defense Intelligence Agency. He also served in military intelligence with US Army Special Forces in Vietnam.

Israeli prisons are factories of pain
by Mahmud Sehwail

Torture under interrogation in Israeli prisons is never accidental. Personal reports, eyewitness media, and human rights reports and case documentations all indicate that torture is widely and steadily practiced. It is precisely planned to inflict unbearable pain and leave few or no visible signs so that it can rarely be proven.

The groundwork for torture--which is systematic in the Israeli prison system--is laid from the first minute of arrest, when many soldiers aggressively surround the house and attack the house in a brutal way, usually after midnight. They spread fear, threats, and vague accusations on the spot.

The soldiers take the arrested person, whose eyes are covered, to a place he does not know. They detach him from his world, family, compatriots, and work, and expose him to violence and humiliation. They normally keep him on the ground in handcuffs and leg shackles. They keep kicking him and insulting him en route to the prison. The prisoner is usually made to spend his first night in a toilet and kept awake all night. Interrogation and torture then begin hand in hand.

The Treatment and Rehabilitation Center for Victims of Torture and Organized Violence (TRC) in Ramallah was established to meet the huge demand of this neglected section of Palestinian society. Its main goal is to fight torture, treat its victims, and generate a culture that rejects all kinds of human rights abuse. TRC’s main operational fields of work for achieving these goals are training, treatment, research, and public awareness.

TRC carried out a study on a random sample of 188 former detainees (177 men and 11 women) who spent various periods in Israeli detention compounds. The average age of the participants was 29.6 years old, but ages ranged from 14.5 to 55 years old. Number of arrests was as follows: 49.5% arrested once, 21.8% arrested twice, and 28.2% arrested three or more times. All 188 were exposed to certain methods and levels of torture.

Common methods of torture were beating (89.4%), exposure to cold (68.3%), pressure on head and body parts (61.1%), exposure to poisonous gasses (56.4%), violent shaking (48.4%), exposure to blaring noise (46.8%), sleep deprivation (87.2%), denial or restriction of food (87.2%), solitary confinement (84%), falanga--beating the soles of the feet (35.6%), and rape or threatening/attempting rape (11.7%). In addition, prisoners normally are exposed to a wide range of maltreatment.

For Palestinian former prisoners, torture is a cognitive dissonance (a mental and somatic echo) of the word interrogation. In the Israeli occupation context, torture and interrogation are synonymous. During the first 18 days of interrogation (which can easily be extended), the prisoner is denied the right to contact a lawyer, the Red Cross, his family and, in fact, the entire external world. Palestinian prisoners complain of neglect of their health requirements, such as medication, proper medical or psychiatric assessment, ventilation, and healthful nourishment. Everything inside the prison leads to suffering and pain.

I believe that torture is an ugly face of human rights abuse and that combating torture is an important international obligation. Worldwide, little is known about what goes on in Israeli prisons, because the torture takes place where human rights activists and concerned individuals cannot reach. Israeli prisons are factories of pain shrouded in darkness.-Published 1/7/2004©bitterlemons-international.org

Dr. Mahmud Sehwail is a consultant psychiatrist and the general director of the Treatment and Rehabilitation Center for Victims of Torture and Organized Violence in Ramallah, West Bank.

An almost impossible dilemma
by Orit Adato

The interrogation of detainees suspected of serious offenses, and particularly of terrorist activity, has generally been accompanied--for reasons of danger and urgency--by a variety of actions designed to shorten the process and obtain maximum preventive intelligence. One very significant aspect of the war against terrorism is the generation of maximum information in the course of minimal interrogation time.

Sadly, the state of Israel has accumulated many years' experience in dealing with terrorism and terrorists. Democracies are constantly confronting the fine line that has to be drawn between the need for rapid and effective interrogation to facilitate prevention and contravention, and the extreme violation of human rights and human dignity of the suspect, culminating in torture. Where is the line that separates the permitted and the forbidden in accordance with international conventions, national laws, orders, and internal directives? How do we deal with the exceptions?

How does a situation evolve, as reported in the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, whereby there emerges a norm, or at least an accumulation of irregular events in terms of both numbers and severity, that constitutes damage of a critical physical, emotional, and religious nature? More importantly, how do we deal with and prevent these events or at least reduce them to a minimum?

Having administered the Israel Prison Service during the years 2024-2003, a time when anti-Israel terrorism increased in scope and ferocity and a thousand civilians and soldiers were killed and thousands of terrorists arrested, interrogated, tried, and imprisoned, I shall attempt to deal with these questions.

First, one issue is a lack of knowledge bordering on ignorance regarding the mentality, language, and religious principles of Muslim detainees and prisoners. This lack of knowledge enables the perpetration of acts that would almost certainly have been avoided had there been a greater awareness of their effect on a Muslim man--certainly a religious Muslim man. Al ard (personal dignity), a man's dignity in particular, the significance of stripping a Muslim man (particularly if he is religious and especially in the presence of a woman), the status of women in Islam, and the meaning of injury to a woman's dignity and modesty--all these acts seriously affect the violated individual. Worse, they affect the Muslim public, and generate profound and uncontrollable hatred, a desire for vengeance and restoration of dignity, and an irretrievable desperation.

Second, due to this lack of knowledge, the Muslim automatically becomes--in the eyes of the American soldier--a potential enemy who directly endangers fellow soldiers and indirectly threatens western society, values, and security. Lack of acquaintance with a different culture turns into lack of esteem, disrespect, arrogance, and the legitimization of injury to and humiliation of those who are basically different and seemingly impenetrable.

Third, misinformed interpretation of the behavior of a prisoner/detainee (often behavior that is innocent in nature, but foreign and threatening because it is different) by a soldier/jailer can lead to overreaction, at times irrational and exaggerated, that in turn generates escalation in the reaction of the victim and deteriorates into an endless circle of violence and humiliation.

Fourth, incomplete training of the forces dispatched to control and prevent criminal events among the prisoners/detainees regarding what they are encountering and what is expected of them generates discomfort and fear of the different and dangerous foreigner. This in turn creates fertile ground for the unacceptable behavior we witnessed at Abu Ghraib.

The last point of relevance for explaining what happened is the situation on the ground: as terrorism increases in Iraq, and foreign and Iraqi citizens are murdered and American soldiers killed almost daily, the situation becomes painful, frightening, and very frustrating for the soldier. This in turn generates aggression that is directed toward those considered responsible for these events: prisoners and detainees.

A number of preventive measures could reduce the severity of the situation we have described:

  • In-depth study of the population, its characteristics, mentality, and relevant religious customs by experts who then refine this into basic information needed by the soldier
  • Advance preparation of case studies and analysis of possible reactions
  • Definition of a clear, uniform, and consistent policy, devoid of any possibility of "creative" initiative or interpretation, regarding the primary task of holding prisoners
  • Solid preparation of the staff needed for this task, in terms of policy, the requisite operational approach, and work norms, including reporting to superiors upwards throughout the chain of command
  • Preparation of an ethical code based on international conventions, laws, norms, and orders that emphasizes the universal importance of human dignity and particularly the danger that power corrupts
  • Finally, binding control procedures at all echelons, with emphasis on the involvement of senior ranks in constant supervision. This must include uncompromising disciplinary action against any violation of norms, and the publicizing among all relevant forces of incidents and disciplinary measures invoked.

Beyond the command structure in a democratic state, the political echelon must formulate relevant policies and ensure they are properly enforced. In Israel's case, the executive branch is subject to review by the legislative (Knesset) and judicial branches, including the High Court of Justice, which interprets legislation and instills norms for ethical behavior within government and society.

Interrogation methods and techniques considered legitimate in the 1980s were reviewed by the Landau Commission in 1987, which then established rules regarding permissible and forbidden techniques. These were eventually reviewed by the High Court, which ruled in September 1999 that "violence directed at a suspect's body or spirit does not constitute a reasonable investigation practice."

This is not to say that there are no exceptions to the rules in Israel, particularly among young and inexperienced soldiers. Israel is a small country where everybody knows everybody, and there is hardly a single home where a relative or acquaintance has not been affected by terrorism. Some soldiers are aware that those they are detaining are directly responsible for the deaths of their relatives or friends.

But there is also a clear and tough policy of dealing with violators, including interrogation and trial of those who attack prisoners and detainees under interrogation. Some of these cases emerge from complaints by the victim, others from reports by soldiers who are not prepared to tolerate deviant behavior because they have internalized the relevant ethical code.

In conclusion, there are ways of preventing such deviant incidents. It takes a constant, sometimes Sisyphean investment in training, supervision, and control, and the inculcation of an ethical code. Above all, we confront an almost impossible dilemma between maintaining security and preventing human losses on the one hand, and maintaining our humanity in the face of a hard and destructive terrorist reality on the other.-Published 1/7/2004©bitterlemons-international.org

Lieutenant General (Ret.) Orit Adato is a former commissioner of the Israel Prison Service.

The evolving culture of violence
a conversation with Ghassan Attiyah

BI: Torture was widespread in Iraqi prisons under Saddam Hussein. How do you expect the situation to evolve under the new government?

Attiyah: The new government is no doubt an improvement on the past, though it is too soon to judge it. The Iraqi traditions under Saddam Hussein will not be easily overcome. I am afraid that future Iraqi governments will have the tendency to justify torture in the name of eradicating terrorism, and we in civil society and the political elite will have to fight that tendency. Torture is not justifiable for any reason, and we have to start a new culture in our society.

My fear is that many Iraqis will say "Saddam used to do this" or "the Arab governments do this; why don't we do this?" I am afraid that Iraqis will not be tough with themselves in refusing these policies, especially since Iraqis now fear for their security and feel that they are being tortured by insecurity. And if anyone justifies torture of prisoners who might be responsible for that insecurity, the public will go along with it. This is a dilemma.

BI: How do you view torture and mistreatment of Iraqi prisoners by American forces in Iraq?

Attiyah: I did not expect the Americans could do such a thing as Abu Ghraib. It was a shock to see those photos and videos. It was a blow to American prestige, and it will take a long time for the Iraqis to forget. While it does not absolve them of responsibility, at least the Americans have announced the abuse to the public and have taken steps to bring the perpetrators to justice. A successful outcome of the trials could alleviate some of the damage.

BI: Are you in favor of raids by U.S. military personnel to stop torture of prisoners under interrogation by the new Iraqi government?

Attiyah: Here you have a big problem. Such force by itself is not a solution to the problem. There should be a clear political vision, and then any force that is used should fit within that vision. The Iraqi problem is more a political problem than a security one. We need to approach our problems in a comprehensive way, and the Americans can help the different Iraqi groups to reach this compromise.

BI: What do you think about efforts by some governments to codify the limits of permissible interrogation techniques?

Attiyah: Each country has its own rules. Western countries have their own rules, and hopefully we in the Arab world will try to emulate them. The fact that the American media and judiciary condemn the atrocities committed by some Americans [in Abu Ghraib] is positive. Unfortunately, we haven't yet heard any official condemnation by Arab states of the use of torture in their prisons. Before we talk about codification, we have to talk about preventing torture to begin with, and then we can consider the proper means of interrogating a prisoner. This is quite a long process.

BI: How useful are international instruments like the 1949 Geneva Conventions and the UN Convention against Torture?

Attiyah: Western countries initiated these protocols because they learned from their experience in the world wars. The Arab countries adopted the conventions out of diplomatic necessity but do not implement them in spirit. Without having open societies, it is unlikely that human rights conventions will be implemented. Oppressive regimes can get away with murder, not only torture.

In Iraq, there is a new culture of violence: not only regimes resort to violence, but even political parties justify the use of excessive force and torture to fight governments, rulers, materialism, or in the name of Islam. We are seeing the taking of innocent hostages and their beheading--a symptom of this new culture of violence.-Published 1/7/2004©bitterlemons-international.org

Ghassan Attiyah is the director of the Baghdad-based Iraqi Foundation for Development and Democracy, which he founded in August 2024.

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