The suppressed fact: Deaths by U.S. torture

The unstated premise of every torture debate -- that it was safely applied to a handful of detainees -- is false

Published June 30, 2009 4:31PM (EDT)

(updated below)

After numerous delays sought by the Obama administration, it is expected that a 2004 CIA Inspector General's Report -- aggressively questioning both the efficacy and legality of Bush's interrogation tactics -- will be released tomorrow.  A heavily redacted version of that document was already released by the Bush administration in response to an ACLU lawsuit and it remains to be seen how much new information will be included in tomorrow's version.

In anticipation of the release of that report, there is an important effort underway -- as part of the ACLU Accountability Project -- to correct a critically important deficiency in the public debate over torture and accountability.  So often, the premise of media discussions of torture is that "torture" is something that was confined to a single tactic (waterboarding) and used only on three "high-value" detainees accused of being high-level Al Qaeda operatives.  The reality is completely different. 

The interrogation and detention regime implemented by the U.S. resulted in the deaths of over 100 detainees in U.S. custody -- at least.  While some of those deaths were the result of "rogue" interrogators and agents, many were caused by the methods authorized at the highest levels of the Bush White House, including extreme stress positions, hypothermia, sleep deprivation and others.  Aside from the fact that they cause immense pain, that's one reason we've always considered those tactics to be "torture" when used by others -- because they inflict serious harm, and can even kill people.  Those arguing against investigations and prosecutions -- that we Look to the Future, not the Past -- are thus literally advocating that numerous people get away with murder.

The record could not be clearer regarding the fact that we caused numerous detainee deaths, many of which have gone completely uninvestigated and thus unpunished.  Instead, the media and political class have misleadingly caused the debate to consist of the myth that these tactics were limited and confined.  As Gen. Barry McCaffrey recently put it:

We should never, as a policy, maltreat people under our control, detainees. We tortured people unmercifully. We probably murdered dozens of them during the course of that, both the armed forces and the C.I.A.

Journalist and Human Rights Watch researcher John Sifton similarly documented that "approximately 100 detainees, including CIA-held detainees, have died during U.S. interrogations, and some are known to have been tortured to death."

* * * * *

The ACLU has posted online numerous autopsy reports of detainee deaths in U.S. custody.  These are documents prepared by the U.S. military, and they are as chilling as they are reflective of extreme criminality.  Here are just a few illustrative examples (click on images to enlarge):

Autopsy ME-4309 -- 27 y/o male civilian - Mosul:

Autopsy A 03-51 -- 52 y/o male civilian -- Nasiriyah:

Autopsy ME 03-367 -- unknown age, Iraq:

A Daily Kos diarist today has more on these autopsy reports.  Sifton describes numerous other cases of detainees tortured to death in U.S. custody:

  • Jamal Naseer, a soldier in the Afghan Army, died after he and seven other soldiers were mistakenly arrested. Those arrested with Naseer later said that during interrogations U.S. personnel punched and kicked them, hung them upside down, and hit them with sticks or cables. Some said they were doused with cold water and forced to lie in the snow. Nasser collapsed about two weeks after the arrest, complaining of stomach pain, probably an internal hemorrhage.

  • In December 2003, a 44-year-old Iraqi man named Abu Malik Kenami died in a U.S. detention facility in Mosul, Iraq. As reported by Human Rights First, U.S. military personnel who examined Kenami when he first arrived at the facility determined that he had no preexisting medical conditions. Once in custody, as a disciplinary measure for talking, Kenami was forced to perform extreme amounts of exercise—a technique used across Afghanistan and Iraq. Then his hands were bound behind his back with plastic handcuffs, he was hooded, and forced to lie in an overcrowded cell. Kenami was found dead the morning after his arrest, still bound and hooded.

  • There may be other CIA homicides yet uncovered. One case of concern involves a detainee in the CIA’s detention program named Hassan Ghul, a Pakistani who was arrested in northern Iraq in January 2004. . . . I am starting to suspect that Ghul might be dead. After all, his name was redacted from the OLC memo, unlike that of other CIA detainees now at Guantánamo. Why would the CIA be afraid of mentioning Ghul? CIA doctors appear to have determined that Ghul was in poor health when he was captured, in fact, too unhealthy to be waterboarded. Unlike other former CIA detainees, human-rights groups have not confirmed that he was rendered to Pakistan or to a third country. Did the CIA perhaps torture Ghul to death? We do not know. He has now completely disappeared.

And from Human Rights First:

The cases also include that of Abed Hamed Mowhoush, a former Iraqi general beaten over days by U.S. Army, CIA and other non-military forces, stuffed into a sleeping bag, wrapped with electrical cord, and suffocated to death. In the recently concluded trial of a low-level military officer charged in Mowhoush’s death, the officer received a written reprimand, a fine, and 60 days with his movements limited to his work, home, and church.

As many documented cases of detainee deaths as there are, these deaths have almost certainly been under-counted, as the military and CIA have simply failed to investigate many obvious homicides or even falsely characterized them as natural deaths.  As The Medscape Journal of Medicine explained after reviewing all of the available autopsy reports of detainee deaths:

In a well-publicized death of an Iraqi general that resulted from trauma and asphyxiation, the on-site surgeon ruled the death "natural."[11] On review at autopsy, this death was eventually classified as homicide by the Office of the Armed Forces Medical Examiner.[8] According to the Church Investigation Report, in at least 3 deaths, "medical personnel may have attempted to misrepresent the circumstances of abuse, possibly in an effort to disguise detainee abuse."[21]

In the case of Kenami, detailed above by Sifton, this is what happened in the aftermath of his death:

No autopsy was conducted; no official cause of death was determined. After the Abu Ghraib scandal, a review of Kenami’s death was launched, and Army reviewers criticized the initial criminal investigation for failing to conduct an autopsy; interview interrogators, medics, or detainees present at the scene of the death; and collect physical evidence. To date, however, the Army has taken no known action in the case. 

Needless to say, there has been very little accountability even for the deaths which the U.S. military itself acknowledges are homicides, as Human Rights First documented:

Since August 2002, nearly 100 detainees have died while in the hands of U.S. officials in the global “war on terror.” According to the U.S. military’s own classifications, 34 of these cases are suspected or confirmed homicides; Human Rights First has identified another 11 in which the facts suggest death as a result of physical abuse or harsh conditions of detention. . . .

Despite these numbers, four years since the first known death in U.S. custody, only 12 detainee deaths have resulted in punishment of any kind for any U.S. official. Of the 34 homicide cases so far identified by the military, investigators recommended criminal charges in fewer than two thirds, and charges were actually brought (based on decisions made by command) in less than half. While the CIA has been implicated in several deaths, not one CIA agent has faced a criminal charge. Crucially, among the worst cases in this list – those of detainees tortured to death – only half have resulted in punishment; the steepest sentence for anyone involved in a torture-related death: five months in jail.

 * * * * *

It's not uncommon, of course, for our political debates to be distorted.  But discussions over torture and accountability have descended to a new level.  The picture that is most commonly conveyed -- that torture was confined to a small handful of cases, was highly regulated, and resulted in no long-lasting harm -- is pure propaganda, completely false.  The reality -- that our "interrogation tactics" killed numerous detainees, who, by definition, are people confined helplessly in our custody, virtually none of whom has been convicted of anything, and at least some of whom are completely innocent -- is virtually never heard as part of these debates.  It's vital that this changes.  Tomorrow's likely release of a new version of the incriminating CIA IG Report provides an excellent opportunity for that finally to happen.


[Thank you to everyone who particpated in the fund-raiser I held here last week.  The response was very enthusiastic and it was quite successful.  I tried to send personal emails thanking everyone who contributed, but it's possible that Paypal irregularties, email errors or personal oversight may have caused some to fall through the cracks, so I'll take this opportunity to express my sincere appreciation.  I hope and expect that it will enable me to take steps that will improve the impact and efficiency of what I do here in several ways.]


UPDATE:  British journalist Andy Worthington has a superb and richly detailed examination of numerous other detainee deaths, with an emphasis on the clear link between those deaths and the tactics approved by Bush officials.

By Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

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