How to Get Away With Torture: 6 All Too Easy Steps

April 21, 2015


More than 100 people were “disappeared” by the U.S. government and shuttled to secret detention sites between 2002 and 2008. Many were tortured.

Thanks to a new U.S. Senate report, we know more about how this happened than ever before. We’re calling it “The American Torture Story.” It’s a story that had to be written: and now it’s a story that must be read.

Shockingly, the US Justice Department, charged with investigating violations of the law, is apparently refusing to read to this Senate study—let alone act upon it. And as a new Amnesty International report shows: No one has been brought to justice. The United States is providing de facto amnesty to torturers.

Here’s 6 ways that those responsible have gotten away with torture – and 6 reasons we must act.

1. Don’t Call It Torture – It’s “Enhanced Interrogation”

A man is stripped, beaten, put in diapers, hung from the wall, immersed in ice water baths, shackled into a position where he is forcibly deprived of sleep for days. The interrogators try to simulate death: mock executions, near drownings, mock burials in coffin-shaped boxes.

Yet many individuals at the highest levels of government—including President Obama—continue to use euphemisms like “enhanced interrogation” and “stress positions” to describe torture and other forms of cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. Instead of confronting the truth, they sanitize it.

2. Lawyer Up


The CIA sought and received go-ahead from government lawyers to engage in acts amounting to the crimes under international law of torture and enforced disappearance.  Those responsible knew that they might be found out, sooner or later. The CIA even sought an advance “declination of prosecution” from the Justice Department.

And when someone at a CIA detention site sent a cable voicing concern that an 8-day interrogation that had involved repeatedly slamming a detainee into the wall and placing him in a coffin-shaped box for hours was “approaching the legal limit,” he was admonished to keep “any speculative language as to the legality” offline. “Such language is not helpful,” a senior CIA official wrote back.

3. Check the Boxes

It’s hard to imagine now, but dozens of doctors, psychologists and lawyers were involved in monitoring torture and other abuses in the CIA program. They were there to check the boxes – and ensure that torture and other abuses continued with a veneer of legality and science.

A gruesome example: Muhammad Rahim al Afghani. He was usually “shackled in a standing position, wearing a diaper and a pair of shorts” for sleep deprivation “exercises” that went on for days. Psychologists not only signed off; one decided that after four days of sleep deprivation, Rahim’s visual and auditory hallucinations were fake. And so Rahim was put on sleep deprivation for another 2 and a half days. Justice Department lawyers later gave the go-ahead for even more sleep deprivation.

4. Keep It Secret

Even with so many people involved, the CIA tried to keep its program secret from the public. And that secrecy inevitably led the CIA to go beyond even the kind of torture it had decided to authorize. The Senate torture report provides a window into just how horrific the CIA’s detention sites were:

“[L]iterally, a detainee could go for days or weeks without anyone looking at him,” according to one CIA interrogator. He said that his team found one detainee who “as far as we could determine,” had been chained to a wall in a standing position for 17 days.

Another man, Gul Rahman, literally froze to death overnight. After “48 hours of sleep deprivation, auditory overload, total darkness, isolation, a cold shower and rough treatment,” the CIA decided he was uncooperative and removed all of his clothes except a sweatshirt. Rahman was then shackled to a concrete wall overnight. The next day, guards found Rahman dead. An internal CIA review and autopsy assessed he likely died from hypothermia.

5. Take the Moral High Ground

Photo by David McNew/Getty Images
Former Vice President Dick Cheney said, “I’d do it again in a minute,” (David McNew/Getty Images)

After the release of the Senate torture report in December, proponents of the CIA program came out swinging. “I’d do it again in a minute,” former Vice President Dick Cheney said.  “Critics of our policies are given to lecturing on the theme of being consistent with American values,” he said in 2009. “But no moral value held dear by the American people obliges public servants to sacrifice innocent lives to spare a captured terrorist from unpleasant things.”

Proponents of the CIA program act as though if they repeat something often enough, the public will simply come to believe it.  As Amnesty International wrote in a 2008 report:

“Deny enough times that waterboarding and other ‘enhanced’ interrogation techniques are torture, repeatedly call them ‘lawful,’ reiterate at every possible opportunity that their use has ‘saved innocent lives,’ and perhaps people may be persuaded that their government is on the right side of morality and legality.”

But we can – and must — challenge these attempts to rewrite the history of torture and other abuses.

6. Make Accountability a Dirty Word

Not only did those responsible for these crimes evade prosecution, they succeeded in making accountability a dirty word in U.S. political circles. Even President Obama, who acknowledged last year, “we tortured some folks,” has tried to avoid accountability. “Nothing will be gained,” he wrote in 2009, “by spending our time and energy laying blame for the past.”

Torture and enforced disappearances are crimes under international law. Crimes must have consequences. For any country, let alone one as powerful and influential as the USA to act in a way that says that its officials can at any point distort the law, commit crimes, and be given a get out of jail free card, sets a dangerous example and increases the risk of recurrence.

Join us in urging the Justice Department: It’s time to read the Senate torture report, and act on any evidence of human rights violations.

If the Justice Department won’t read the report, you can send it to them – one page at a time.