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Torture and the Ticking Time Bomb in the Era of Global Terror (February 2018): The Road to Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo

By Julie Beicken

The Road to Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo

When Seymour Hersh’s story “Torture at the Abu Ghraib” hit the public in the May 10, 2004 issue of The New Yorker, Americans were shocked. The event was immediately framed as the work of a few “bad apples” who had resorted to their sadistic tendencies under the stress of war. Since Hersh’s initial publication, many books have been published that claim otherwise, finding instead that Abu Ghraib was the direct result of Bush administration policy. The first such book is Hersh’s own follow-up, Chain of Command: The Road from 9/11 to Abu Ghraib, which explores how the events at Abu Ghraib were made possible by a series of actions taken by US officials. Hersh believes that the presidential decisions which preceded the US military arrival in Iraq paved the way for the abuses at Abu Ghraib, beginning, for example, with Bush declaring that the Geneva Conventions did not apply to Al Qaeda or the conflict in Afghanistan.

Mark Danner’s Torture and Truth: America, Abu Ghraib, and the War on Terror similarly finds that the events at Abu Ghraib are embedded in US military culture and the failure of chain of command. Washington’s approach to the War on Terror and what the military was doing in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Guantánamo are connected to the events at Abu Ghraib. The book includes many of the primary documents involved—the Abu Ghraib photos, the “torture memos,” and some of the reports that sought to make sense of the events after they occurred.

Philip Gourevitch and documentary filmmaker Errol Morris provide details about the events at Abu Ghraib in Standard Operating Procedure: A War Story. The book considers the horrors that occurred at Abu Ghraib through the analysis of interviews with the US military personnel who were there. Errol Morris conducted these interviews for his 2008 documentary of the same name. The title comes from the fact that the military police involved felt that their behavior, which has been described as abhorrent, was basically policy.

Tony Lagouranis and Allen Mikaelian’s book Fear Up Harsh: An Army Interrogator’s Dark Journey through Iraq offers firsthand accounts of Abu Ghraib from Lagouranis, who was an interrogator in the prison. Describing the process by which he was brought to a position where he could torture, Lagouranis feels that this approach did not yield useful intelligence. He was taught that Arabs were backward and incapable of thinking for themselves. Lagouranis was trained in “enhanced” techniques—stress positions, military dogs, loud music, sexual humiliation—that he was told were not torture and that would be effective, which he did not find to be the case.

Journalist Jane Mayer contributed important stories to The New Yorker after 9/11 (e.g., “Whatever It Takes”) regarding the program of torture in the War on Terror launched by the Bush administration. The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned into a War on American Ideals, compiles those stories, documenting the steps taken by the administration to develop a robust torture enterprise. She chronicles how administration lawyers circumvented national and international laws banning torture to enable their use of the practice. Mayer also reveals how the Bush administration maintained the efficacy of torture despite the extensive evidence that exists for its unreliability in eliciting useful information. British barrister Philippe Sands offers a similar analysis in Torture Team: Rumsfeld’s Memo and the Betrayal of American Values, as does Ron Suskind in The One Percent Doctrine: Deep Inside America’s Pursuit of Its Enemies since 9/11, which focuses on the 2001–2004 decisions that resulted in the war in Iraq and circumvention of the Geneva Conventions.

Two books that deal explicitly with Guantánamo are Joseph Margulies’s Guantánamo and the Abuse of Presidential Power and Deborah Colson and Avi Cover’s Tortured Justice: Using Coerced Evidence to Prosecute Terrorist Suspects. Margulies looks at what he considers to be the Bush administration’s abuse of presidential power in creating circumstances of indefinite detention at Guantánamo. Margulies was lead counsel in Rasul v. Bush 542 U.S. 466 (2004), in which the Supreme Court ruled that because of habeas corpus, detainees at Guantánamo had a right to be brought before a court for their supposed crimes.

Colson and Cover, who both work for Human Rights First, discuss the legal complications of indefinitely held detainees at Guantánamo and of utilizing evidence obtained through coercive measures or torture. Their report takes stock of what has occurred with military commissions and makes recommendations for better practices, including criminal trials by court-martial or in civilian criminal courts, and making evidence obtained through coercive means inadmissible in detention hearings.