Standard Operating Procedure: People Behind the Abu Ghraib Abuse

Standard Operating Procedure: The People Behind the Abu Ghraib Abuse

Academy Award winner and documentary filmmaker Errol Morris’s Standard Operating Procedure is an inquiry into the prisoner torture and abuse scandal at Abu Ghraib prison. It is, predictably, a very bleak and depressing movie. But the very scale of Standard Operating Procedure, which in its expensive-looking production values, special effects and elaborately choreographed re-enactments, shows that Errol Morris has grown weary of working in the dimly lit outer fringes of motion picture productions, to which documentary filmmakers are still too often relegated.

Standard Operating Procedure is a big, provocative and disturbing work, although what makes it most provocative is that its greatest ambitions are for its own visual style. In sweeping strokes, the documentary addresses many of the issues that abound when government-authorized torture is accompanied by that very government’s public denial of responsibility, leaving young male and female soldiers bereft of anything except their own poorly-informed tactics.

Morris explains that a major force driving the project was the profusion of photographs that were taken by the American soldiers at the Abu Ghraib prison that document, in horrifyingly graphic detail, the prisoner abuse that those very soldiers helped to perpetuate. Morris and his documentary crew “set out to examine the context of these photographs,” attempting to uncover what had happened within the accepted narrative about the torture. For him the photographs functioned as both an exposé and a cover-up because while they revealed the horror, they also “convinced journalists and readers they had seen everything.”

Morris wasn’t convinced that he had seen everything. He made this movie, which at its finest and most focussed, tries to investigate how seeing both does and does not evolve into understanding. To that end, Morris employed two familiar documentary strategies: direct-address interviews and re-enactments in which actors re-enact actual historical events. As a tactic, the interviews with some of the soldiers who actually carried out the torture and abuse at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison could have enabled the documentary’s subjects to speak for themselves, to raise their own voices.

Unfortunately, as the film progresses, it becomes clear that even when those subjects are able to speak from the vantage point of looking back in retrospect, they are only capable of providing, or willing to provide, anything more than defensive testimonies on their own behalves.

It is testimony to a government’s pervasive moral vacuum.

Standard Operating Procedure: The People Behind the Abuse

Abu Ghraib Iraq Prison Abuses, 2003

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Waterboarded: You Are Being Watered and Drowned

Vanity Fair magazine describes how the author Christopher Hitchens underwent the controversial drowning technique, at the hands of men who once trained American soldiers to resist, not inflict it. What more can be added to the debate over U.S. interrogation methods and whether waterboarding is torture? Try firsthand experience. Here an abstract of Christopher Hitchens’ description of his experience:

“This is the most chilling way I can find of stating the matter. Until recently, “waterboarding” was something that Americans did to other Americans. It was inflicted, and endured, by those members of the Special Forces who underwent the advanced form of training known as sere (Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape). In these harsh exercises, brave men and women were introduced to the sorts of barbarism that they might expect to meet at the hands of a lawless foe who disregarded the Geneva Conventions. But it was something that Americans were being trained to resist, not to inflict.

You may have read by now the official lie about this treatment, which is that it “simulates” the feeling of drowning. This is not the case. You feel that you are drowning because you are drowning, or, rather, being drowned, albeit slowly and under controlled conditions and at the mercy (or otherwise) of those who are applying the pressure. The “board” is the instrument, not the method. You are not being boarded. You are being watered. This was very rapidly brought home to me when, on top of the hood, which still admitted a few flashes of random and worrying strobe light to my vision, three layers of enveloping towel were added. In this pregnant darkness, head downward, I waited for a while until I abruptly felt a slow cascade of water going up my nose. Determined to resist if only for the honor of my navy ancestors who had so often been in peril on the sea, I held my breath for a while and then had to exhale and-as you might expect-inhale in turn.

The inhalation brought the damp cloths tight against my nostrils, as if a huge, wet paw had been suddenly and annihilatingly clamped over my face. Unable to determine whether I was breathing in or out, and flooded more with sheer panic than with mere water, I triggered the pre-arranged signal and felt the unbelievable relief of being pulled upright and having the soaking and stifling layers pulled off me. I find I don’t want to tell you how little time I lasted.”

Last March, after President Bush announced that he had vetoed legislation that would have banned the use of waterboarding, I wrote this:

Let Us Call It by Its Proper Name: Tortur

Let us not forget that on Saturday, March 8, 2008, President Bush announced that he had vetoed legislation that would have banned the CIA from using harsh interrogation methods, such as waterboarding, to break suspected terrorists because it would end practices that he said have prevented attacks. The bill that he rejected would have provided guidelines for intelligence activities and has the interrogation requirement as one provision. The bill would have limited CIA interrogators to the 19 techniques that are allowed for use by military questioners. In 2006, the Army Field Manual banned the use of methods such as waterboarding or sensory deprivation on uncooperative prisoners.

Therefore, at this moment in history, let us not forget what is still being executed by our government. Rather than simply describing it as an “advanced” or “enhanced” interrogation technique, let us call it by its proper name: Torture.

Let Us Call It by Its Proper Name: Torture

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President Bush Vetoes Legislation Banning Waterboarding

Update:

On Saturday, March 8, 2008, President Bush announced that he had vetoed legislation that would have banned the CIA from using harsh interrogation methods, such as waterboarding, to break suspected terrorists because it would end practices that he said have prevented attacks.

The bill he rejected provides guidelines for intelligence activities and has the interrogation requirement as one provision. It cleared the House in December and the Senate last month. Supporters of the legislation say it would preserve the United States’ ability to collect critical intelligence, while also providing a much-needed boost to country’s moral standing abroad. The bill would have limited CIA interrogators to the 19 techniques allowed for use by military questioners. In 2006, the Army field manual in 2006 banned using methods such as waterboarding or sensory deprivation on uncooperative prisoners.

President Bush’s veto will be one of the most shameful acts of his presidency,” Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Massachusetts, said in a statement on Friday. “Unless Congress overrides the veto, it will go down in history as a flagrant insult to the rule of law and a serious stain on the good name of America in the eyes of the world.”

“ENHANCED” INTERROGATION

The Origins

In the medieval form of waterboarding, a victim was strapped to a board and tipped back or lowered into a body of water until he or she believed that drowning was imminent. The subject was then removed from the water and revived. If necessary the process was repeated.

Although in a technical sense there are actually several other forms of water-based interrogation, all variants have in common that the victim reliably almost drowns but is rescued or re-animated by his captor just before death occurs. The technique is designed to be both psychological and physical. The psychological effect is inherent in the fact that the victim is given to understand that he shall be killed outright by dint of enforced drowning unless his cooperation as demanded is indeed produced promptly. This perception reinforces the interrogator’s control and gives the victim sound cause to experience mortal fear.

The physical effects are extreme pain and damage to the lungs, brain damage caused by oxygen deprivation and sometimes broken bones because of the restraints applied to the struggling victim. The psychological effects can be long-lasting.

Modern Waterboarding

The modern practice of waterboarding, characterized in 2005 by former CIA director Porter J. Goss as a “professional interrogation technique“, involves tying the victim to a board with the head lower than the feet so that he or she is unable to move. A piece of cloth is held tightly over the face, and water is poured onto the cloth. Breathing is extremely difficult and the victim will be in fear of imminent death by asphyxiation. However, it is relatively difficult to aspirate a large amount of water since the lungs are higher than the mouth, and the victim is unlikely to actually die if this is done by skilled practitioners. Waterboarding may be used by captors who wish to impose anguish without leaving marks on their victims as evidence. Journalists Brian Ross and Richard Esposito described the CIA‘s waterboarding technique as follows:

The prisoner is bound to an inclined board, feet raised and head slightly below the feet. Cellophane is wrapped over the prisoner’s face and water is poured over him. Unavoidably, the gag reflex kicks in and a terrifying fear of drowning leads to almost instant pleas to bring the treatment to a halt. According to the sources, CIA officers who subjected themselves to the water boarding technique lasted an average of 14 seconds before caving in. They said al Qaeda’s toughest prisoner, Khalid Sheik Mohammed, won the admiration of interrogators when he was able to last over two minutes before begging to confess. “The person believes they are being killed, and as such, it really amounts to a mock execution, which is illegal under international law,” said John Sifton of Human Rights Watch.

In the United States, military personnel are taught this technique, ostensibly to demonstrate how to resist enemy interrogations in the event of capture. According to Salon.com, SERE instructors shared their torture techniques with interrogators at the Guantanamo Bay detainment camp. According to the CIA’s own description of the waterboarding torture technique, the prisoner is bound to an inclined board, feet raised and head slightly below the feet. Cellophane is wrapped over the prisoner’s face and water is poured over him. Unavoidably, the gag reflex kicks in and a terrifying fear of drowning leads to almost instant pleas to bring the treatment to a halt.

Waterboarding has often been described in the media in a “matter-of-fact” manner. In the past, The Washington Post has simply referred to waterboarding as an interrogation measure that “simulates drowning.” But what does waterboarding look like? Below is a photograph taken by Jonah Blank last month at Tuol Sleng Prison in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. The prison is now a museum that documents Khymer Rouge atrocities. Blank, an anthropologist and former Senior Editor of US News & World Report, is the author of the books Arrow of the Blue-Skinned God and Mullahs on the Mainframe. He is a professorial lecturer at The Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and has taught at Harvard and Georgetown universities

This photo shows one of the actual waterboards used by the Khymer Rouge:

What follows below is a demonstration of a “waterboarding.” It certainly captures the essence of this technique that is now directly authorized by the president, and used by the CIA at the behest of the president and vice-president. If you believe that what you are watching is “severe mental or physical pain,” then it is torture under U.S. law, and the U.N. Treaty. It is undeniably a violation of the Geneva Convention. If it is torture, according to the president himself, then it be should stopped. At this moment in history, let us at least look at what is being done by the government and call it by its proper name.

Waterboarding: A Live Demonstration

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