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The Torture Question
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frequently asked questions

soldiers with prisoner

Soldiers with a prisoner

Who are the interrogators being used in the war on terror and in Iraq?

A mix of military personnel, FBI, CIA, and private contractors have been involved in interrogating prisoners. The Fay-Jones investigation suggests that private contractors were involved in some of the worst incidents at Abu Ghraib.


How reliable is information obtained under "coercive interrogation"?

There is no clear-cut answer. Studies of interrogation and torture have found that fear motivates people to talk. Interrogators may sometimes get good information: According to press accounts, after being tortured by Philippine authorities, Abdul Hakim Murad, a co-conspirator of 1993 World Trade Center bomber Ramzi Yousef, revealed details about the Bojinka plot to crash 11 commercial airliners into the Pacific Ocean. As another example, many point to the ruthless 1957 French counterinsurgency campaign in Algeria in which using torture helped the French to brutally suppress the uprising in seven months.

However, studies have also shown that people will say anything when subjected to intense pain, and there have been several examples of people detained in the war on terror who have given false information under duress. Ibn al-Sheikh al-Libi, who ran Al Qaeda's Khalden training camp in Afghanistan, told authorities that Iraq provided chemical and biological weapons training to Al Qaeda operatives, and that information wound up in Secretary of State Colin Powell's Feb. 7, 2003 speech to the U.N. making the case for war in Iraq. Al-Libi later recanted, saying he made it all up under coercive interrogation. And, as human rights lawyer Michael Ratner told FRONTLINE, after undergoing a year and a half of coercive interrogation at Guantanamo, his clients known as the "Tipton Three" admitted to being present at a speech by Osama bin Laden at an Al Qaeda training camp. British authorities later uncovered evidence that the men were in the U.K. at the time they had admitted to meeting bin Laden.

In the end, it may depend on what kind of information the torturer is trying to elicit. As journalist Fred Kaplan wrote in Slate: "Torture to produce a confession ('Yes, I am a terrorist') almost certainly is useless; at some point of pain, many people would confess to anything. But torture to elicit specific information (Who told you to do this? Where did the meeting take place? Who else is in your cell? What are they planning to blow up tomorrow?) sometimes will do -- clearly, has done -- the job."


After four years, what has come out of the interrogations at Guantanamo?

The Pentagon says it is receiving good intelligence from Guantanamo. According to its March 2005 fact sheet on the detainees: "The Joint Task Force, Guantanamo Bay, Cuba (JTF-GTMO) remains the single best repository of al-Qaida information in the Department of Defense." But former FBI Agent Jack Cloonan told FRONTLINE, "[Everything] that I was told was that there was nothing coming out of there of any value, nothing." No one really knows the answer; the Defense Department has not revealed any specific detailed information on what the detainees are providing. But that information, if it exists, is likely highly classified.


What interrogation tactics are authorized in the Army Field Manual?

The most recent version of Field Manual 34-52, Intelligence Interrogation was published in September 1992. Its guidelines cover battlefield capture and screening logistics and the third chapter details the planning, approach, questioning, and termination phases of an interrogation. According to the FM 34-52, the interrogator's goal during the approach phase is to establish rapport with the detainee, which can be done via 17 different methods, including:

  • "Emotional": taking advantage of a source's strong feelings;

  • "Fear-up": exploiting a source's fears, real or imagined;

  • "Pride and ego": flattering a source or attacking his pride, both to serve the purpose of putting him in a frame of mind to reveal information;

  • "Futility": using facts to prove to the source that his or her current situation is hopeless.

These methods each have several sub-categories, such as "fear-up (harsh)" or "ego-down," and are recommended to be used in combination with each other for the best effect.

However, the use of force, mental torture, threats, insults, or exposure to unpleasant and inhumane treatment of any kind is prohibited by law and is neither authorized nor condoned by the U.S. government. And the manual states, "The psychological techniques and principles in this manual should neither be confused with, nor construed to be synonymous with, unauthorized techniques such as brainwashing, physical or mental torture, or any other form of mental coercion to include drugs that may induce lasting and permanent mental alteration and damage." For reference, the Manual includes excerpts from the Geneva Convention Relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War, and under "Interrogator Capabilities and Limitations," it states that the Convention sets "definite limits on measures which can be taken to induce an EPW [Enemy Prisoner of War] to cooperate."


What international treaties govern torture?

The United States is a signatory to the Geneva Conventions. Geneva Convention III, adopted Aug. 12, 1949, prohibits mistreatment of prisoners of war, and Geneva Convention IV, also adopted Aug. 12, 1949, protects civilian populations in times of war.

In 1994, the U.S. also adopted the U.N. Convention against Torture, which defines torture as "any act by which severe pain, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted" to gain information, extract a confession, or as punishment. In addition, it requires state signatories to prevent acts of "cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment which do not amount to torture."


What do the Geneva Conventions say about the treatment of prisoners of war?

It states that prisoners of war must be "treated humanely," and acts such as "violence to life and person," "mutilation, cruel treatment," and "outrages upon personal dignity" are prohibited at all times. (Article 3) They are not to be held in close confinement unless they are being disciplined or it is necessary for their safety; the detaining power is also required to protect prisoners of war from the dangers of the war. (Articles 21 and 23) If they are interrogated, POWs are only required to disclose their name, rank, date of birth, and serial number. (Article 17)

The conventions stipulate that POWs should be housed in barracks similar to those of their soldier captors, and they should be provided adequate clothing and food, along with the means to prepare their own food. (Articles 25-28) They are also permitted to send and receive mail and elect representatives to communicate with other organizations such as the detaining authority or the International Red Cross.


Why has the U.S. determined Al Qaeda and the Taliban are not covered under Geneva?

prisoners with hands up, bound

Prisoners with hands up, bound

The Bush administration had an intense internal battle in January and February 2002 over how to handle Al Qaeda and Taliban prisoners captured on the battlefield in Afghanistan. The most famous memo on the subject was written on Jan. 25 by Alberto Gonzales, the chief counsel to President Bush. He reiterated arguments expressed in an earlier memo by Assistant Attorney General John Yoo that the Geneva Conventions should not apply to Al Qaeda because it is a non-state actor and therefore not a party to international treaties of war. Yoo and Gonzales argued that the Taliban should be denied Geneva protections because Afghanistan was a "failed state" with no functioning government and because, in Yoo's words, the Taliban had become "so intertwined with al Qaeda as to be functionally indistinguishable from it."

Describing the war on terror as a "new paradigm," Gonzales laid out for the president the costs and benefits of applying Geneva, and concluded the costs outweighed the benefits. He wrote:

As you have said, the war against terrorism is a new kind of war. It is not the traditional clash between nations adhering to the laws of war that formed the backdrop for [Geneva Convention III on the Treatment of Prisoners of War]. The nature of the new war places a high premium on other factors, such as the ability to quickly obtain information from captured terrorists and their sponsors in order to avoid further atrocities against American civilians, and the need to try terrorists for war crimes such as wantonly killing civilians. In my judgment, this new paradigm renders obsolete Geneva's strict limitations on questioning of enemy prisoners and renders quaint some of its provisions requiring that captured enemy be afforded such things as commissary privileges, scrip (i.e., advances of monthly pay), athletic uniforms, and scientific instruments.

These arguments set off a furious response from the State Department and the military's uniformed lawyers, known as Judge Advocate Generals (JAGs). They argued that not applying Geneva protections could harm U.S. troops in this and future conflicts. Secretary Powell also argued in a memo to Gonzales and National Security Adviser Condoleeza Rice that applying Geneva would allow the U.S. to take the moral high ground and would "present a positive international posture."

On Feb. 7, the president announced his decision: The Geneva Conventions would apply to the conflict, but neither Al Qaeda nor the Taliban would be entitled to prisoner-of-war status under Geneva Convention III. However, he wrote, the U.S. would treat detainees humanely, and in the spirit of the Geneva principles "to the extent appropriate and consistent with military necessity." Critics, including some of the military's uniformed lawyers, have argued that the latter part of the president's statement provides a loophole allowing the administration to sidestep its pledge to treat detainees humanely.


What have the investigations into the prisoner abuse scandal revealed?

The Pentagon says it has conducted 12 official investigations into prison abuse allegations at DoD facilities and abuse has been documented at Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, and elsewhere in Afghanistan and Iraq. Former Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger's investigation -- considered the most independent of the 12 inquiries -- concluded that the abuse was the result of confusing policies coming from the military and civilian leadership concerning the treatment and interrogation of prisoners. Defense Dept. officials continue to insist that the abuse was the result of a few bad apples. As recently as Aug. 26, 2005, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Richard Myers said, "If it was only the night shift at Abu Ghraib -- which it was; it was only a small section of the guards that participated in this -- it's a pretty good clue that it wasn't a more widespread problem."

But critics argue that the Pentagon investigations have amounted to nothing more than damage control and have called for an independent inquiry. "Anyone who wants to read these investigations can learn an enormous amount about what happened at Abu Ghraib, about what happened in Guantanamo, about the abuse of prisoners," says Mark Danner, the author of Torture and Truth. "One can read the statement of detainees, how they were abused. One can read descriptions in the Fay-Jones report and the Schlesinger [report] as well, very intricate descriptions of the kind of tortures that were applied. And then one can look at the actual conclusions and find to one's surprise that actually this stuff wasn't terribly serious and it's been taken care of. In other words, the investigations themselves have a lot of very useful information in them, but the conclusions, as so often in government reports, tend to be political conclusions."


Who has been disciplined or court-martialed in the Abu Ghraib abuse scandal?

Seven MPs and two military intelligence soldiers were charged and found guilty under the Uniform Code of Military Justice of charges stemming from the photographs at Abu Ghraib:

  • Staff Sgt. Ivan Frederick of the 372nd MP Company pleaded guilty in October 2004 to five charges of abuse. He was sentenced to eight years in prison, demoted, and dishonorably discharged.

  • Sgt. Jalal Davis of the 372nd MP Company pleaded guilty in February 2005 to charges of lying, assault, and dereliction of duty. He was sentenced to six months in prison and dishonorably discharged.

  • In May 2004, Spc. Jeremy Sivits of the 372nd MP Company pleaded guilty to three counts of abuse and was sentenced to a year in prison. He was demoted to private and discharged from the Army.

  • Spc. Megan Ambuhl of the 372nd MP Company pleaded guilty to dereliction of duty in November 2004. She was demoted to private, and fined a half-month's pay.

  • In January 2005, Spc. Charles Graner of the 372nd MP Company, sometimes referred to the ringleader of the group carrying out the abuse, was convicted on charges of assault, maltreatment, committing indecent acts, dereliction of duty, and conspiracy and sentenced to 10 years in prison. He was also demoted to the rank of private and dishonorably discharged.

  • Spc. Sabrina Harman of the 372nd MP Company was convicted in May 2005 of conspiracy, dereliction of duty and maltreatment. She was sentenced to six months in prison, demoted to private, and discharged.

  • In September 2005, Pvt. Lyndie England of the 372nd MP Company was convicted on six counts of abuse and sentenced to three years in prison and a dishonorable discharge. An earlier plea bargain by England had fallen through when the judge found the testimony of Spc. Charles Graner contradicted her guilty plea.

  • In September 2004, Spc. Armin Cruz Jr. of the 325th MI Battalion pleaded guilty to two charges of abuse and sentenced to eight months in prison, demoted to private, and discharged from the Army.

  • Spc. Roman Krol, also of the 325th MI Battalion, pleaded guilty in February 2005 to conspiracy and maltreatment. He was sentenced to 10 months in prison, demoted to private, and discharged.

Brig. Gen. Janis Karpinski, commander of the 800th Military Police Brigade (which includes the 372nd MP Company) was found guilty of dereliction of duty and an unrelated personal matter. In May 2005, she was given a letter of reprimand and demoted to Colonel.

Also in May, Col. Thomas Pappas, commander of the 205th Military Intelligence Brigade and commander of Abu Ghraib from November 2003 to February 2004, received a letter of reprimand and a fine of $8,000 as a punishment for two counts of dereliction of duty.

Lt. Col. Steven Jordan, who was director of the interrogation center at Abu Ghraib, is still under military investigation.


What are the allegations of abuse elsewhere in Iraq?

Recent headlines told the story of three former members of the Army's 82nd Airborne Division, who say members of their battalion in Iraq beat and abused prisoners to help gather intelligence and to amuse themselves. These allegations were included in a Human Rights Watch report released Sept. 24, 2005. The report did not identify the soldiers, but one is Capt. Ian Fishback, who presented his allegations in letters to Congress. One unnamed sergeant, a guard, said he beat prisoners at the direction of military intelligence personnel. The soldiers alleged that systematic abuses of prisoners took place at Camp Mercury, near Fallujah between September 2003 and April 2004 and included beatings, exposure to extremes of hot and cold, stacking them in human pyramids and sleep deprivation.

Several U.S. soldiers have told FRONTLINE that the abuse is more widespread than has been previously reported. "It's all over Iraq," Spc. Tony Lagouranis (Ret.), a former Army interrogator at Abu Ghraib told FRONTLINE. "The infantry units are torturing people in their homes. They would smash people's feet with the back of an axe-head. They would break bones, ribs. That was serious stuff."

"Most of the abuses around Iraq are not photographed," a soldier who requested anonymity told FRONTLINE. "And this makes it even harsher, because around Iraq, in the back of a Humvee or in a shipping container, there's no camera, and there's no one looking over your shoulder, so you can do anything you want."


How has Congress addressed the torture question?

Defying the White House, the Senate, on Oct. 5, 2005, voted 90-9 to set new limits on interrogating detainees. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Republican of Arizona, introduced the measure in June 2005 as an amendment to the defense appropriations bill. For those in the custody of the Defense Department, it would limit interrogation tactics to those authorized in the Army Field Manual. It would also prohibit "cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment" for punishing detainees in the custody of the United States. The bill still has to go through conference and a House vote and President Bush has threatened a veto, arguing it constrains his power to conduct the war on terror.

Legal experts who have studied the torture question say there's a loophole in the McCain amendment because it doesn't address interrogation techniques employed by the CIA.


Why was Guantanamo chosen to house detainees?

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba was the "least worst place" to send the Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters picked up on the battlefield in Afghanistan. The administration wanted to move the detainees out of the war theater to a secure location for questioning as quickly as possible. Guantanamo had the dual advantage of being controlled by the United States, yet not on domestic soil. The president's advisers believed a facility within the United States could become a terrorist target. They also didn't want the federal courts to interfere with their management of the prison, or take up due-process challenges from the detainees.

The remote island of Guantanamo, called "Gitmo" by the generations of marines who served there, had a long and bizarre history: The oldest American base outside the continental U.S., Gitmo is also the only base to sit on the soil of a country that maintains no diplomatic relations with the United States.

"We thought the fact that Guantanamo was outside the territory of the United States would eliminate an important legal ambiguity," says Bradford Berenson, associate White House counsel from 2001 to 2003. "As it turns out, we were wrong."

In June 2004, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 6-3 in Rasul v. Bush that Guantanamo detainees have the right to challenge their detentions in federal court. To date, 100 habeas corpus petitions have been filed on behalf of 225 detainees.


What about other countries who have had to confront the issue of torture in recent years?

Great Britain and Israel are the most well known examples of countries that have used -- and repudiated -- torture. In 1987, an Israel commission known as the Landau commission issued a report allowing "moderate physical pressure" to be used in interrogations. Many believe that attached to the commission's report was a secret list of permissible techniques. As Joseph Lelyveld wrote in his June 2005 New York Times Magazine article, "Interrogating Ourselves," the commission "inadvertently [gave] the interrogators a provisional license for a list of humiliating and brutal coercive techniques…"

Twelve years later, the Israeli Supreme Court outlawed all types of highly coercive interrogation. Human rights groups suggest that the practice remains, particularly since the start of the second Palestinian intifada, but that interrogators are using less severe methods on fewer prisoners.

The British used highly coercive interrogation techniques -- or what they euphemistically referred to as "interrogation in depth" -- during the conflict in Northern Ireland in the 1970s. According to Tom Parker, a legal expert, the tactics used by British interrogators included hooding, forcing a prisoner to stand against a cell wall in a stress position for hours at a time, subjection to noise, "relative" food and water deprivation and sleep deprivation. Ireland brought a case in front of the European Commission on Human Rights, and in December 1977, the court found these five techniques "cruel, inhuman, and degrading," and breaches of the European Convention on Human Rights. The British were embarrassed by the ruling and pledged to stop using the techniques on British soil.


What is rendition?

Developed in the mid-1990s during the Clinton administration, the CIA's rendition program allowed the agency to capture high-value targets anywhere in the world and bring them to a third country for interrogation. Critics argue that rendition is "outsourcing torture"; suspects are believed to have been taken to countries including Egypt, Morocco, Syria and Jordan, which have all been accused by the U.S. State Department and human rights organizations of torture.

Michael Scheuer was one of the architects of the rendition program. He told FRONTLINE that it is a legal process: "First, we had to identify a person who was worth incarcerating," he explains. "Second, that person had to be in a country that was willing to help us arrest him. Third, that person had to be wanted in a third country in a legal process. Either a warrant had to be issued for him, or he had been tried in absentia. … It wasn't just reaching out and grabbing someone. Lord knows there are hundreds of Al Qaeda people we would have liked to take off the street, but we couldn't do it because we couldn't make them fit into the mold of acceptable operations."

One suspect believed to have been rendered is Ibn al-Sheikh al-Libi, who ran Al Qaeda's Khalden training camp in Afghanistan and who was captured in Pakistan in late 2001. Al-Libi was the subject of a bitter dispute between the FBI, which wanted to interrogate him using its practiced methods designed to elicit information that would hold up in court, and the CIA, which wanted to get as much information out of him as quickly as possible. The battle reached the White House and the CIA was ultimately awarded custody of the suspect. Al-Libi was reportedly taken to Egypt.

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posted oct. 18, 2005

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