Monibot: US torture ‘routine and systematic’


Richard Moore

Original source URL:,,1970086,00.html

Routine and systematic torture is at the heart of America's war on terror

In the fight against cruelty, barbarism and extremism, America has embraced the 
very evils it claims to confront

George Monbiot
Tuesday December 12, 2006
The Guardian

After thousands of years of practice, you might have imagined that every 
possible means of inflicting pain had already been devised. But you should never
underestimate the human capacity for invention. United States interrogators, we 
now discover, have found a new way of destroying a human being.

Last week, defence lawyers acting for José Padilla, a US citizen detained as an 
"enemy combatant", released a video showing a mission fraught with deadly risk -
taking him to the prison dentist. A group of masked guards in riot gear shackled
his legs and hands, blindfolded him with black-out goggles and shut off his 
hearing with headphones, then marched him down the prison corridor.

Is Padilla really that dangerous? Far from it: his warders describe him as so 
docile and inactive that he could be mistaken for "a piece of furniture". The 
purpose of these measures appeared to be to sustain the regime under which he 
had lived for more than three years: total sensory deprivation. He had been kept
in a blacked-out cell, unable to see or hear anything beyond it. Most 
importantly, he had had no human contact, except for being bounced off the walls
from time to time by his interrogators. As a result, he appears to have lost his
mind. I don't mean this metaphorically. I mean that his mind is no longer there.

The forensic psychiatrist who examined him says that he "does not appreciate the
nature and consequences of the proceedings against him, is unable to render 
assistance to counsel, and has impairments in reasoning as the result of a 
mental illness, ie, post-traumatic stress disorder, complicated by the 
neuropsychiatric effects of prolonged isolation". José Padilla appears to have 
been lobotomised: not medically, but socially.

If this was an attempt to extract information, it was ineffective: the 
authorities held him without charge for three and half years. Then, threatened 
by a supreme court ruling, they suddenly dropped their claims that he was trying
to detonate a dirty bomb. They have now charged him with some vague and lesser 
offences to do with support for terrorism. He is unlikely to be the only person 
subjected to this regime. Another "enemy combatant", Ali al-Marri, claims to 
have been subject to the same total isolation and sensory deprivation, in the 
same naval prison in South Carolina. God knows what is being done to people who 
have disappeared into the CIA's foreign oubliettes.

That the US tortures, routinely and systematically, while prosecuting its "war 
on terror" can no longer be seriously disputed. The Detainee Abuse and 
Accountability Project (DAA), a coalition of academics and human-rights groups, 
has documented the abuse or killing of 460 inmates of US military prisons in 
Afghanistan, Iraq and at Guantánamo Bay. This, it says, is necessarily a 
conservative figure: many cases will remain unrecorded. The prisoners were 
beaten, raped, forced to abuse themselves, forced to maintain "stress 
positions", and subjected to prolonged sleep deprivation and mock executions.

The New York Times reports that prisoners held by the US military at Bagram 
airbase in Afghanistan were made to stand for up to 13 days with their hands 
chained to the ceiling, naked, hooded and unable to sleep. The Washington Post 
alleges that prisoners at the same airbase were "commonly blindfolded and thrown
into walls, bound in painful positions, subjected to loud noises and deprived of
sleep" while kept, like Padilla and the arrivals at Guantánamo, "in black hoods 
or spray-painted goggles".

Alfred McCoy, professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, 
argues that the photographs released from the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq reflect 
standard CIA torture techniques: "stress positions, sensory deprivation, and 
sexual humiliation". The famous picture of the hooded man standing on a box, 
with wires attached to his fingers, shows two of these techniques being used at 
once. Unable to see, he has no idea how much time has passed or what might be 
coming next. He stands in a classic stress position - maintained for several 
hours, it causes excruciating pain. He appears to have been told that if he 
drops his arms he will be electrocuted. What went wrong at Abu Ghraib is that 
someone took photos. Everything else was done by the book.

Neither the military nor the civilian authorities have broken much sweat in 
investigating these crimes. A few very small fish have been imprisoned; a few 
others have been fined or reduced in rank; in most cases the authorities have 
either failed to investigate or failed to prosecute. The DAA points out that no 
officer has yet been held to account for torture practised by his subordinates. 
US torturers appear to enjoy impunity, until they are stupid enough to take 
pictures of each other.

But Padilla's treatment also reflects another glorious American tradition: 
solitary confinement. Some 25,000 US prisoners are currently held in isolation -
a punishment only rarely used in other democracies. In some places, like the 
federal prison in Florence, Colorado, they are kept in sound-proofed cells and 
might scarcely see another human being for years on end. They may touch or be 
touched by no one. Some people have been kept in solitary confinement in the US 
for more than 20 years.

At Pelican Bay in California, where 1,200 people are held in the isolation wing,
inmates are confined to tiny cells for 22 and a half hours a day, then released 
into an "exercise yard" for "recreation". The yard consists of a concrete well 
about 3.5 metres in length with walls 6 metres high and a metal grille across 
the sky. The recreation consists of pacing back and forth, alone.

The results are much as you would expect. As National Public Radio reveals, more
than 10% of the isolation prisoners at Pelican Bay are now in the psychiatric 
ward, and there's a waiting list. Prisoners in solitary confinement, according 
to Dr Henry Weinstein, a psychiatrist who studies them, suffer from "memory loss
to severe anxiety to hallucinations to delusions ... under the severest cases of
sensory deprivation, people go crazy." People who went in bad and dangerous come
out mad as well. The only two studies conducted so far - in Texas and Washington
state - both show that the recidivism rates for prisoners held in solitary 
confinement are worse than for those who were allowed to mix with other 
prisoners. If we were to judge the US by its penal policies, we would perceive a
strange beast: a Christian society that believes in neither forgiveness nor 

From this delightful experiment, US interrogators appear to have extracted a 
useful lesson: if you want to erase a man's mind, deprive him of contact with 
the rest of the world. This has nothing to do with obtaining information: 
torture of all kinds - physical or mental - produces the result that people will
say anything to make it end. It is about power, and the thrilling discovery that
in the right conditions one man's power over another is unlimited. It is an 
indulgence which turns its perpetrators into everything they claim to be 

President Bush maintains that he is fighting a war against threats to the 
"values of civilised nations": terror, cruelty, barbarism and extremism. He 
asked his nation's interrogators to discover where these evils are hidden. They 
should congratulate themselves. They appear to have succeeded.

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