No Comment — March 16, 2009, 9:51 am

The Indelible Stain of the Black Sites

It looked bad for Republicans in September 2006, not quite six weeks away from midterm elections. In the White House, President Bush stepped to the podium with a dramatic announcement.

“In addition to the terrorists held at Guantánamo,” the president said, “a small number of suspected terrorist leaders and operatives captured during the war have been held and questioned outside the United States, in a separate program operated by the Central Intelligence Agency.” At these places, Mr. Bush said, “the C.I.A. used an alternative set of procedures.” He added: “These procedures were designed to be safe, to comply with our laws, our Constitution and our treaty obligations. The Department of Justice reviewed the authorized methods extensively and determined them to be lawful.”

These terrorists–with, photos showed, unkempt hair, swarthy complexions, and ferocious stares–were to be transferred to Guantánamo and put on trial, promised Bush. But his announcement was an embarrassment to Condoleezza Rice. She had just completed a trip to Europe in which she worked hard to persuade troubled allies that the black sites simply did not exist—they were a figment of the imagination of overzealous human rights activists, apparently. When a German greengrocer named Khalid el-Masri got stuck in the black site system as a result of a case of mistaken identity, his captors at first didn’t want to turn him loose. They were afraid that he would expose the secrets of the system. But now, with Bush’s announcement and the transfer of the “worst of the worst” to Guantánamo, the International Committee of the Red Cross got a close look at the workings of the black site system, and could interview all the detainees.

The Red Cross prepared and handed the Bush Administration its assessment of the conditions and procedures used in the black sites. The document was highly confidential, and the Bush Administration strenuously resisted requests from Congress and other sources for it to be made public. Now, however, Mark Danner has been able to examine the Red Cross report, which he surveys in a lengthy article published in the New York Review of Books which is itself summarized in an op-ed in the New York Times. Here’s a bit of the description of the treatment of one of the best known black site prisoners:

Two and a half months after Abu Zubaydah woke up strapped to a bed in the white room, the interrogation resumed “with more intensity than before”:

Two black wooden boxes were brought into the room outside my cell. One was tall, slightly higher than me and narrow. Measuring perhaps in area [3 1/2 by 2 1/2 feet by 6 1/2 feet high]. The other was shorter, perhaps only [3 1/2 feet] in height. I was taken out of my cell and one of the interrogators wrapped a towel around my neck, they then used it to swing me around and smash me repeatedly against the hard walls of the room. I was also repeatedly slapped in the face….

I was then put into the tall black box for what I think was about one and a half to two hours. The box was totally black on the inside as well as the outside…. They put a cloth or cover over the outside of the box to cut out the light and restrict my air supply. It was difficult to breathe. When I was let out of the box I saw that one of the walls of the room had been covered with plywood sheeting. From now on it was against this wall that I was then smashed with the towel around my neck. I think that the plywood was put there to provide some absorption of the impact of my body. The interrogators realized that smashing me against the hard wall would probably quickly result in physical injury.

One is reminded here that Abu Zubaydah was not alone with his interrogators, that everyone in that white room—guards, interrogators, doctor—was in fact linked directly, and almost constantly, to senior intelligence officials on the other side of the world. “It wasn’t up to individual interrogators to decide, ‘Well, I’m gonna slap him. Or I’m going to shake him. Or I’m gonna make him stay up for 48 hours,” said John Kiriakou.

Each one of these steps…had to have the approval of the Deputy Director for Operations. So before you laid a hand on him, you had to send in the cable saying, “He’s uncooperative. Request permission to do X.” And that permission would come…. The cable traffic back and forth was extremely specific. And the bottom line was these were very unusual authorities that the agency got after 9/11. No one wanted to mess them up. No one wanted to get in trouble by going overboard.… No one wanted to be the guy who accidentally did lasting damage to a prisoner.

Smashing against hard walls before Zubaydah enters the tall black coffin-like box; sudden appearance of plywood sheeting affixed to the wall for him to be smashed against when he emerges. Perhaps the deputy director of operations, pondering the matter in his Langley, Virginia, office, suggested the plywood?

Or perhaps it was someone higher up? Shortly after Abu Zubaydah was captured, according to ABC News, CIA officers “briefed high-level officials in the National Security Council’s Principals Committee,” including Vice President Dick Cheney, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, and Attorney General John Ashcroft, who “then signed off on the [interrogation] plan.”

Danner quotes the report’s conclusions:

The allegations of ill-treatment of the detainees indicate that, in many cases, the ill-treatment to which they were subjected while held in the CIA program, either singly or in combination, constituted torture. In addition, many other elements of the ill-treatment, either singly or in combination, constituted cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.

And Danner offers a powerful conclusion of his own:

the United States tortured prisoners and that the Bush administration, including the president himself, explicitly and aggressively denied that fact. We can also say that the decision to torture, in a political war with militant Islam, harmed American interests by destroying the democratic and Constitutional reputation of the United States, undermining its liberal sympathizers in the Muslim world and helping materially in the recruitment of young Muslims to the extremist cause. By deciding to torture, we freely chose to embrace the caricature they had made of us. The consequences of this choice, legal, political and moral, now confront us. Time and elections are not enough to make them go away.

The Danner piece merits long and patient study. It contains some of the starkest evidence we have yet seen that the Bush Administration adopted torture as a conscious policy and then lied about it aggressively to Congress, the American people, and the world. Even so, the disclosures in the Red Cross report are but another drop in the bucket. Much remains shrouded in secrecy, and the calls to lay it bare grow steadily louder.

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