The American Way of Torture

Local physician and author Steve Miles examines the forensic record of U.S. abuses in Iraqi prisons

The other thing that Rumsfeld did that was new, and that Miller was enthusiastic about, was that previously, the guard force [in military prisons] had been passive with regard to the interrogation process. That is, the guards were maintaining the security of the prison, and they would escort prisoners to interrogation and back. That was the extent of it. What Miller and Rumsfeld did was, they said the prison cellblock environment will be part of the process of breaking the prisoners down. And so this interrogation plan--which included stress deprivation, humiliation, bags over the head, being nude, sleep deprivation, all that jazz--was implemented in the cellblock areas. So there was no area of the prison, really, that was outside the interrogation process. The other thing that did was, it wound up totally disintegrating the command of the prisons, because now you had so many people with roles in interrogation. Intelligence people had a role, guards had a role, the independent contractor intelligence agencies like CACI had some role. The facility command structure itself didn't include any overarching command for these interrogation centers. That meant nobody was in charge. This goes for all the prisons where they were doing interrogations, which was most of them. The major ones were Guantánamo, Abu Ghraib, and Bagram in Afghanistan.

CP: What's the official number of prisoners who have died in custody now? In your book manuscript, you allude to 20 such cases.

Miles: I allude to 20, but you'll also notice that I list a whole lot of exclusions.

Dr. Steve Miles's inquiry into military medical records started with a 2004 article in 'The Lancet'
Craig Lassig
Dr. Steve Miles's inquiry into military medical records started with a 2004 article in 'The Lancet'

[Editor's note: In Oaths Betrayed, Miles elaborates that this figure "does not include criminal homicides on the battlefield or during the time between capture and imprisonment. It does not include murders of prisoners by Afghan or Iraqi forces who were working with U.S. forces. It does not include homicides of ghost prisoners in U.S. custody. It does not include homicides among the deaths that were incompletely or inaccurately investigated. It does not include homicides among persons who disappeared after U.S. authorities sent them to be interrogated in countries that practice torture. It does not include prisoners who died of medical neglect, those who were needlessly and illegally exposed to mortar attacks on prisons, or at least 20 justifiable homicides of 'rioting' prisoners."]

One of the things is, the military won't provide a listing. They throw out various numbers from time to time, but they always throw out partial lists of names. So it's impossible to get a firm bead [on the numbers]. One of the things they're obliged to do under the Geneva Conventions--which, by our own admission, do apply to Iraq--is to supply a list of every prisoner who died. They won't do that. So I don't know. Certainly one could say that my number is the absolute, impossibly low end. How high it goes, I don't know. Much higher.

CP: The official excuse for Abu Ghraib was that some grunt soldiers got overzealous, but you're describing a system in which virtually everyone who deals with these prisoners is a party to either devising or executing an "interrogation" plan.

Miles: Well, there are different kinds of prisons. For example, Abu Ghraib had its intelligence area. It also had an area for common criminals--car thieves and that kind of thing. But it's clear that there was an essentially unified system of interrogational abuse, and deprivation of fundamental prisoners' rights, which varied in quality from site to site. For example, the hospital at Guantánamo is actually a pretty good hospital if you have a ruptured appendix. But the approach is fundamentally the same across the prisons at Guantánamo and inside Iraq and Afghanistan, in terms of interrogational abuses. So, for at least the various units at Guantánamo, with the possible exception of the CIA facility there, and for at least 30 prisons in Iraq and at least nine in Afghanistan, the policies are the same.

It's not a gulag. Amnesty [International] is wrong on that. But it is an archipelago. The gulag was the Stalin labor camp system, and the scale of it was absolutely gargantuan. This is an archipelago of prisons in the sense that all these prisons were operating under the same set of policies. This is not a few bad apples. The policy poster for Abu Ghraib came from Bagram. The Biscuit concept at Abu Ghraib came from Guantánamo.

But it wasn't a gulag, because dissent [by facility staff] was possible. Dissent was not possible in the [Soviet] gulags. If you worked in the gulag and dissented, you were put into the gulag yourself. Whereas here, there was a smothering of dissent, or occasionally dissent would lead to very local disciplinary actions. But none of the people who dissented were ever at risk of dropping into the system itself. That's an important difference, because it raises the question of how we got so far off the beam. It was not because we terrorized our own staff. They just went along.

The other thing the public has missed in this story is that there's a huge body of literature showing not only that torture doesn't work, but that it's counterproductive. Torture radicalizes people. In fact, the Israeli torture of Palestinians was actually seen by some as redemptive, in terms of validating the evil of the Israeli side and the rightness of the Palestinian cause. It validated their own importance as torture survivors, and it validated their membership in the group. The CIA did about 200 studies of torture from 1953 to 1974, under two successive projects, one called MK Ultra and one called MK Search. That collective body of work found that torture didn't work. The Brits found the same thing when they were using interrogational torture on the IRA.

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