Q&A: Torture and enhanced interrogation

Q&A: Torture and enhanced interrogation

The US uses pain and force against terror prisoners, and argues it is all perfectly legal. Mark Tran explains

Does the US torture people?

The Bush administration insists it does not torture people, but says it uses “enhanced interrogation techniques”, which, according to critics, for all intents and purposes include torture.

When pressed on the issue, George Bush has repeatedly denied subjecting people to torture. At a press conference in Panama in 2005, the US president told reporters: “We do not torture people.” He said the US would aggressively pursue terrorists, but it would do so under the law.

In an interview with CBS in 2006, Bush again denied the use of torture when asked about secret CIA prisons or “black” sites around the world. “We have to have the capacity to interrogate – not torture – but interrogate people to learn information,” he said.

What constitutes torture?

Under a 1994 UN convention, torture means “any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted” to obtain information.

The convention has been ratified by 136 countries including the US. The UN explicitly banned torture after the second world war, when its general assembly included a prohibition against torture in the landmark universal declaration of human rights. Article 5 states: “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.”

Because it has signed up to treaties banning torture, the US goes to extreme lengths to deny it tortures prisoners, while getting into legal contortions as to what constitutes torture or not.

What has been documented?

There is plenty of documentation on what US interrogators have done. The FBI released a report last year in which FBI officials reported 26 cases of possible mistreatment by law enforcement or military personnel at Guant?namo Bay.

The report revealed captives were chained hand and foot in a foetal position to the floor for 18 hours or more, where they urinated and defecated on themselves. Besides being shackled to the floor, they were subjected to extreme temperatures, with the air conditioning either turned close to freezing or turned off so that room temperatures topped 38C (100F).

In 2006, the vice-president, Dick Cheney, told a radio interviewer that waterboarding – the near-drowning of a captive – was used on the alleged September 11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed at Guant?namo. Cheney said the use of waterboarding on Mohammed was “a no-brainer for me. But for a while there, I was criticised as being the vice-president for torture. We don”t torture. That”s not what we”re involved in.”

The mistreatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq has also been well documented.

How does the US justify it legally?

Between 2002 and 2003, the US justice department issued several memos from its office of legal counsel seeking to justify interrogation tactics that are deemed by critics to be torture.

The notorious March 2003 memo, written by John Yoo, who was then deputy assistant attorney general for the office of legal counsel, said Bush”s wartime authority had priority over any international ban on torture.

“Our previous opinions make clear that customary international law is not federal law and that the president is free to override it at his discretion,” Yoo wrote.

The 81-page memo was rescinded nine months after it was sent to the Pentagon”s top lawyer, William Haynes. The memo had to be withdrawn as it was so shaky legally, critics contend.

Who approved the interrogation techniques?

The decisions went right up to the White House.

Bush recently told ABC News in the US that he knew his top national security advisers in 2003 discussed and approved specific details of the CIA”s methods.

“Well, we started to connect the dots in order to protect the American people,” Bush said. “And yes, I”m aware our national security team met on this issue. And I approved.”

According to ABC News, the national security team discussed in detail what methods should be used, down to the number of times CIA agents could employ a specific tactic. The senior officials signed off on how the CIA would interrogate top al-Qaida suspects – whether they would be slapped, pushed, deprived of sleep or subjected to waterboarding.

Who were these officials?

They included Cheney; the former national security adviser Condoleezza Rice; the former defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld; the former secretary of state Colin Powell; the former CIA director George Tenet; and the former attorney general John Ashcroft.

Members of the national security council”s principals committee, they met frequently to advise Bush on national security. Rice, who is now secretary of state, chaired the meetings, which took place in the White House situation room.

Who was tortured?

The CIA has confirmed that a top al-Qaida operative – Abu Zubaydah – captured in early 2002 in Faisalabad, Pakistan, was waterboarded.

The agency said he yielded information that led to the capture of the 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammad and fellow 9/11 plotter Ramzi bin al-Shibh.

Where does the administration stand now on interrogation techniques?

In March, Bush vetoed a bill that would have stopped the CIA using methods such as waterboarding, a technique the military and law enforcement agencies are not allowed to employ.

The bill would have limited all US interrogators – including the CIA – to techniques allowed in the army field manual on interrogation, which prohibits physical force against prisoners.

The CIA, which is at odds with the FBI and other agencies on this score, insists the army field manual does not “exhaust the universe of lawful interrogation techniques”.

Has the US interrogated suspects on foreign soil?

Long before Guant?namo was used to detain suspects, the US had secretly transferred prisoners to other countries – where torture is allowed – in what is known as “extraordinary rendition”. Human rights groups such as Amnesty International say the CIA, often using covert airplanes leased by front companies, has flown hundreds of suspects to countries including Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Syria.

David Miliband, the British foreign secretary, recently had to apologise to MPs, admitting that contrary to “earlier explicit assurances” two CIA flights had landed at Diego Garcia, the British Indian Ocean territory where the US has a large airbase.

According to the Guardian, the CIA has used almost 20 airports across the UK during the period when its agents have snatched terror suspects and transferred them to countries where they may be tortured.

As well as RAF bases, the agency has been flying in and out of civilian airports across the UK, including Heathrow and Gatwick, and smaller regional airports