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Documents Show Widespread Torture Pentagon Prisons

Between the Lines Q&A
A weekly column featuring progressive viewpoints
on national and international issues
under-reported in mainstream media
for release Jan. 3, 2004

Newly Released Documents Reveal Widespread Torture in Pentagon-Run Prisons Abroad

Interview with Reed Brody, special counsel with Human Rights Watch, conducted by Scott Harris

Listen in RealAudio:

In response to a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union and other human rights groups, the government was forced to release thousands of pages of documents that establish the abuse of detainees held in Pentagon-run prisons abroad was much more widespread than first admitted after news of the Abu Ghraib scandal broke last spring.

The documents contain reports by FBI agents who describe techniques they saw systematically used by U.S. officials to abuse prisoners that included isolation, physical and sensory assault. Accounts describe the use of stress positions, dogs to intimidate detainees and exposure to extreme hot and cold temperatures. In one instance, a prisoner was seen shrouded by an Israeli flag while a strobe light flashed and loud music was blared into his cell.

Some of the newly released documents allege that inhumane interrogation methods employed against prisoners in Iraq, Afghanistan and at the U.S. Guantanamo Naval base were authorized by President Bush and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld -- a charge that the White House denies. Between The Lines' Scott Harris spoke with Reed Brody, special counsel with Human Rights Watch, who assesses the importance of these documents in understanding the use of torture in U.S. military prisons and who should be held accountable.

REED BRODY: These documents -- which I haven't read them all, but I've read many of them -- what we see are really case upon case of abuse. We're seeing different agencies, like the FBI, for instance, in email after email saying, "Hey, you know what's going on in Guantanamo is no good and we've got to stay out of it. We have our rules and we're going to stick by those rules and we're not going to get involved in any of this kind of this abuse that the Defense Department is pulling off in Guantanamo and other places," because the FBI knows that that's not the way you get information from people. And they would go into Guantanamo and into Iraq, and they would see people being humiliated, being beaten, being mistreated. There are cases in which the FBI is complaining that they are finding detainees chained to the chairs, sitting in their own excrement and they're upset about this. And one batch of the memos is all about that.

There are other memos we see that suggest that the president himself may have issued an executive order to allow illegal interrogation techniques and the White House has denied that such an executive order exists. But the FBI, in a very high-level memo, refers to it on 11 different occasions.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Reed Brody, you've assisted in the prosecutions of many human rights abusers, heads of state like Augusto Pinochet of Chile; the president of Chad; many others around the globe. When you look at the complicity of the higher-ups in this administration, the Bush administration, including the president himself, the secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld and others, do you see any vulnerability of these leaders to prosecution -- war crimes prosecution -- in the near to distant future?

Reed Brody: I certainly think that it warrants investigation. After the first pictures of Abu Ghraib came out, Secretary of State Colin Powell was confronted by leaders -- Middle Eastern leaders in particular -- at a conference in Jordan, and he said, "Watch America, watch how we deal with this, watch how America will do the right thing." The problem is that America hasn't done the right thing since then. In fact, the United States is doing what every banana republic and every dictatorship does when abuses are revealed. It's covering up and it's trying to shift the blame downwards. The United States and human rights groups rightly call on countries like the Sudan and Russia to prosecute those who have committed crimes; not just the foot soldiers, but the people who are really behind the policy. And what is happening here is that even though it's clear and it's now incontrovertible that there are hundreds of abuse cases, that the Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld himself approved illegal tactics such as the use of un-muzzled guard dogs to terrorize prisoners; of hooding, keeping detainees in uncomfortable stress positions. Even though these tactics were also approved by Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, who was then the head top U.S. soldier in Iraq, and the people under his command actually carried these out ---- all we've seen so far are very, very low level prosecutions, people like Lynndie England and Charles Graner.

Now these people should be prosecuted, and what they did, even if they were ordered to do it, is inexcusable. But it wasn't Lynndie England who cast aside the Geneva Conventions. It wasn't Lynndie England who approved the use of guard dogs to scare prisoners. It wasn't Lynndie England who counseled the president of the United States that he could get away with torture.

If the United States wants to put the stain of this prisoner abuse behind it, if it wants to make a statement that this is not tolerable, it could be done so swiftly by saying, "Let's have an independent investigation. Whoever was involved in war crimes, whether it was a lower soldier or the Secretary of Defense, we're going to investigate that person and prosecute that person." The United States' reputation in the world would shoot up, because we would be saying, "you know something this is wrong, and not only is it wrong, but we're going to do something about it."

BETWEEN THE LINES: The Congress now controlled by the Republican Party, what has been their response to these allegations of torture, the documents that confirm the use of torture in U.S. run prison facilities in Iraq, Cuba and other places?

REED BRODY: We've seen a very, very tepid and timid response. The Senate Armed Services Committee headed by Sen. John Warner of Virginia held a number of important hearings in the aftermath of Abu Ghraib, but Sen. Warner was under immense pressure from the Republican Party, particularly in the pre-electoral period, not to push it -- and it looks unlikely that he's going to be pushing it now.

Congress has really failed in its oversight here. And I think they've done a disservice to the American military and to human rights by essentially not pursuing this. And what we've been calling for, and other groups -- and many retired generals who are offended by this kind of conduct and the way that it's staining the reputation of the military -- have called for an independent 911-style commission, that wouldn't be beholden to one party or to one person. There have been a number of people who have called for that. I don't see Republicans jumping on to that bandwagon at the moment. And Congress has really failed in its oversight here.

Contact Human Rights Watch by calling (212) 290-4700 or visit their website at

Related links on our website at

* "Did President Bush Order Torture?: White House Must Explain 'Executive Order' Cited in FBI E-Mail," Human Rights News, Dec. 21, 2004

* Center for Constitutional Rights

* American Civil Liberties Union at


Scott Harris is executive producer of Between The Lines, which can be heard on more than 35 radio stations and in RealAudio and MP3 on our website at This interview excerpt was featured on the award-winning, syndicated weekly radio newsmagazine, Between The Lines for the week ending Jan. 7, 2004. This Between The Lines Q&A was compiled by Scott Harris and Anna Manzo.



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