Torture Should Be Accounted For

Torture is among the most heinous crimes known to humankind. It should never be excused, it should never go unpunished. It is not about who the tortured are, or what the tortured know. It is not about what they have done, what they believe, or whether they would do the same. It is about who we are, and how human beings should be treated. It is about our humanity, that is all.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Does the United States Torture Women?

In the world as it should be, things are not going well for the U.S., or perhaps the Bush administration, when it comes to keeping the torture thing down. At the end of September, HBO aired Taxi to the Dark Side, finally. I'm not one to follow the Oscars too closely, but I cannot recall a time when there has been a movie that won an Oscar, in this case for best documentary film, and the movie was shown nowhere in the weeks following the Academy Awards. If that has ever happened before, I've never heard of it. Equally mysteriously, the film was not available on DVD at all, either. Neither was the Errol Morris film Standard Operating Procedure until this month. And Scott Horton documents the difficulties with a new documentary prepared for WNET, Torturing Democracy, that should be aired by PBS but whose producer was told "no time slot could be found for the documentary before January 21, 2009." (h/t Anonymust). His piece also sheds light on the long lag for Taxi to the Dark Side. A long time ago, I had written as to whether these documentaries and dramatizations were doing badly at the box office. Scott Horton's piece raises some questions about whether there were more nefarious reasons why.

In a world where the testimony of government law enforcement officers and U.S. soldiers is unimpeachable, the indictment against Aafia Siddiqui should be ironclad. After all, there is an affidavit signed by an FBI agent to back it up, to say that what happened in a room at the Ghazni police station in Afghanistan was that the woman stealthily got a hold of a soldier's gun and came out shooting, was scuffled with and then shot twice in the torso in "approximately 2 shots".

There is no such world, not after Pat Tillman, not after Jessica Lynch, not after repeated attempts to pretend that there was no intention to torture on the part of high government officials, just memos and documents, and written testimony from a sitting Secretary of State and her lawyer, and now a new S.O.P. published on the website accompanying the show that can find no timeslot, all detailing, I suppose, the sincere desire of the American government and military to have the whole truth reach the surface.

So what might have been a 'he said she said', to use the frequent term in the press, between the Afghan National Police and the FBI over what happened at that police station in Ghazni, what might have been a 50-50, 'who you gonna believe', now tips towards the Afghans, who contend that there was a custody and jurisdiction dispute, the Americans were disarming them, and Ms. Siddiqui approached the Americans, who panicked and shot an unarmed woman in police custody twice. That and the question of how the frontal torso of a person struggling over a rifle is a clean target that a revolver can hit twice in two shots.

Mark Benjamin of Salon is writing today of yet another case in which the American military is apparently unable or unwilling to tell the truth, even in the face of evidence on an incident of American soldiers shooting at the wrong time. It's a heartbreaking story, but I combed it for a deep reason that the military would go to such lengths not to tell the truth, and could find none. In the case of Ms. Siddiqui, there is very little, I suspect, that the United States government would not do to keep the truth from coming out, and I believe that the outlines of why are beginning to emerge. I've tried many times to write this post, I have erased it just as many times. If you are reading this, it means I finally didn't delete it anymore.

The existence of female enemy combatants

Yes, it is another post generated from my attempts to collect facts about Aafia Siddiqui, Prisoner 650, and related matters. And what I would like to say is not one hundred percent unimpeachable, since some of it follows from inference, and the chain of inference does not always have to be correct. Nevertheless, I believe it to be as accurate as I can get, given the difficulty getting information.

The main pivot point is this: Between the speculation, started by Moazzam Begg and Yvonne Ridley, principally, about Prisoner 650, a.k.a. The Grey Lady of Bagram, and the response to a letter requesting information by Lord Nazir Ahmed of Britain, a letter that he says he thinks precipitated the arrest and shooting of Aafia Siddiqui, and about which he spoke in a press conference on September 9th, the government of the United States has admitted twice that there have been undisclosed 'female enemy combatant' prisoners at least at Bagram. The second admission (other than the letter written by the U.S. embassy to Lord Nazir Ahmed) was actually the first, a response by Central Command spokeswoman Lt. Col. Rumi Nielson-Green on August 13th.

Both admissions were virtually identical: That Aafia Siddiqui is not "Prisoner 650". Specifically, she is not the prisoner who was at Bagram 2003-2005, whom the statements both say was repatriated to her country, and who they say did not match Siddiqui's name or physical description. Taking the U.S. military at its word, then if Aafia Siddiqui was a prisoner, that makes two female enemy combatants, and begins to look like the tip of a larger iceberg. There may, in fact, be more. There is a claim from CagePrisoners that the ICRC was aware of and visited a female prisoner at Bagram who was registered with them in 2004/5. This may or may not be the same prisoner that the military has admitted to. The dates do not match, and the U.S. military should be asked to explain that, if so. And if the ICRC registered and visited the prisoner, then it was probably not Aafia Siddiqui. When the Red Cross visits, prisoners are allowed to fill out messages, which are subject to censoring but not holding by the country that is detaining the prisoner, in this case the U.S., and are then forwarded through the network of ICRC and IFRC offices and branches, and delivered to usually next of kin. The Siddiqui family has asserted that they heard nothing from Aafia Siddiqui from March of 2003, and that means that she was not a prisoner reported to the ICRC. If Prisoner 650 of Moazzam Begg's description, and the military's detainee, and the prisoner the ICRC is alleged to have visited are the same (Begg was told the ICRC had visited a prisoner between 2003-2005), then someone needs to account for the mental state which Moazzam Begg alleges the prisoner to have been in, and the allegations of himself and others that she had been abused.

Was A Woman Interrogated at a CIA Black Site?

Ms. Siddiqui was assumed by multiple news outlets, as late as 2006, to have been in the custody of the CIA at a "Black Site". WTVJ Miami reported "intelligence officials" as "interrogating" her in 2003, while the FBI disclaimed that they had her. In 2006, when President Bush claimed that he had closed the black sites, many news organizations and human rights groups looked askance, the number of "high-value detainees" he was transferring to Guantanamo from the black sites was 14, and the human rights organizations had counted either 36 or 37 prisoners they believed to be at that point held in those sites. The Christian Science Monitor, in 2006, citing Reprieve, included Aafia Siddiqui as one of those possibly still at a black site after the supposed closing, and Common Dreams echoed this question a few days later.

There are two other facts that make the CIA more likely to have been the organization holding Siddiqui than the military, and further distancing her case from the Prisoner 650 case. The first is that her statement to the Senate delegation from Pakistan that when abducted, she was given an injection and woke up in a cell seems to point there. The CIA is known to have used drugs during extraordinary rendition flights. The only other allegations of drugging as a preliminary to being rendered to another country are from the U.S. DIHS in deportation of immigrants, which is not a possibility going from Pakistan to Afghanistan (if that is where she was held, her description mentions only interrogators whose English was fluent and might have been Afghan).

The other fact is the cohort who was picked up at around the time she disappeared. These included basically all those who were apparently named by Khalid Sheikh Mohammed during the time immediately after his arrest, when he was being tortured at a black site himself (he is widely known to have been waterboarded, and was reportedly subjected to sensory deprivation over an extended period of time, among other techniques). Ms. Siddiqui was among them, in fact, the whole group alleged to have been plotting with Majid Khan, currently on trial at Guantanamo and himself a high-value detainee from a black site, one of the 14, were taken to black sites, and all or most of them have alleged torture. One person, Uzair Paracha, has been found guilty in U.S. court of material aid to al Qaeda for helping Majid Khan pretend he was in the United States. The original contention of the FBI, before she was alleged to have been anything else, was that Ms. Siddiqui opened a post office box in Baltimore as part of the same attempt to pretend Majid Khan was in the U.S. And her gradual transmigration into an al Qaeda mastermind, who did everything from transact blood diamonds to develop anthrax weapons, is also consistent with considering her as high-valued, and with the persons sent to black sites.

Which makes Siddiqui's detention, if it proves to be real, at least the second instance of a female enemy combatant detained, and the first of one who was not reported to the ICRC, or anyone else, and who may have been interrogated at a black site by the CIA under the "golden shield" rules of the Bybee memo, not the Rumsfeld approved interrogation techniques.

So how real is it? I do not believe there is any more doubt that she was detained, that she was subject to at least some of the techniques at the black prisons, which may be what she means when she asserts that she was "brainwashed". Whether or not she was subject to further abuse is a matter for investigation, but given the rules in effect at the time, and the belief that these high-value detainees had to be tortured for the good of the country, I believe it more than a little plausible and will have more to say about it below.

For the time being, as proof of her incarceration, I would be willing to take her mental state, as well as her own assertion and that of several human rights groups, and the assertion in an affidavit by her lawyer in court. Her mental state, given the competing histories, must arise from either of two mechanisms (or perhaps both, but that isn't relevant here): Either her problems arise from brain damage consistent with her severe injuries when she was shot at Ghazni, or they arise from prolonged detention, deprivation and inhumane interrogation techniques. As for the former, it is possible that she suffered brain damage after being shot. There are three immediate reasons why this is possible: loss of blood causing hypovolemic shock or her breathing stopping, tension or hemo- pneumothorax caused by a bullet entering her chest cavity, or cardiac tamponade due to the same mechanism. All three would be forms of anoxia (lack of oxygen to the brain). Anoxia causes a range of symptoms, including memory loss, movement and sensory deficits, seizures, coma, speech or comprehension deficits, depending on which parts of the brain it affects.

The second mechanism, that of prolonged sensory deprivation/bombardment, prolonged severe solitary confinement, prolonged interrogation sessions, and some of the other techniques known to have been practiced at black sites, cause a very different set of symptoms, which Stuart Grassian had put together as a cluster of symptoms in his work on solitary confinement. They include paranoia, heightened reaction to stimuli, perceptual distortions, visual and auditory hallucinations, memory loss, impulse control problems, intrusion of obsessive thoughts and ruminations. Others include depression and many forms of PTSD.

Aafia Siddiqui's evaluation by first a prison psychologist, then a more comprehensive statement by a prison psychiatrist at Brooklyn Metropolitan Detention Center showed paranoia, Axis I depressive psychosis, possible PTSD, visual and auditory hallucinations -- she related that she had seen her daughter in her cell and had problems distinguishing that from reality. The psychiatrist spoke to her while she covered herself in a blanket in the corner, her lawyer reported that she sat in her cell and cried and screamed. Among these symptoms, the visual and auditory hallucinations stand out, since Grassian contends that the combination is rare, excluding schizophrenia that usually manifests itself at adolescence, and old age dementia.

By way of graphic comparison, the following is from Philippe Sands, The Torture Team, a description of prisoner 063, Mohammed al Qahtani, after several months of bombardment by sound and light, sleep deprivation, and total solitary confinement(The Torture Team, p.162): November 2002, FBI Agents observed Detainee [redacted] after he had been subject to intense isolation for over three months. During that time period, [redacted] was totally isolated (with the exception of occasional interrogations) in a cell that was always flooded with light. By late November the detainee was evidencing behavior consistent with extreme psychological trauma (talking to non-existent people, reporting hearing voices, crouching in a corner of the cell covered with a sheet for hours on end).
Consequently, even if other circumstantial evidence weren't already pointing in the direction of her incarceration and prolonged abuse at a CIA black site, her symptoms point towards that, since otherwise the U.S. government is faced with the task of explaining how someone could be an al Qaeda WMD mastermind one minute, and reduced to Axis I depressive psychosis the next, with no intervening cause. Jonathan Hafetz speculated in the Jerusalem Post,
"It could be precedent-setting in terms of transitioning people from extralegal detention into the criminal justice system," said Jonathan Hafetz, director of litigation for the Liberty and National Security Project at New York University's Brennan Center for Justice. "You could have a judicial inquiry into how someone was treated at a black site - it would be incredibly valuable."
Currently, I suspect, the only way her case will blow the lid off anything is if she is allowed to file under the Torture Victims Protection Act, and a full scale investigation ensues. Otherwise, she'll follow Uzair Paracha to prison if she ever goes to trial.

Why is this important?

Aside from any importance attached directly to Ms. Siddiqui's case, and there is much - it is an international human rights incident between Pakistan and the United States, and emblematic in that country of the plight of their "disappeared", the implications of multiple female enemy combatants in U.S. custody, and of one in "high-value" black site incommunicado detention are profound, which may indicate why the U.S. government has gone to such lengths to protect this information above all else: above admissions of waterboarding, above admissions of extraordinary rendition flights through Europe, above admissions of homicide and abuse at Guantanamo, in Afghanistan, and in Iraq.

It means, without any speculation about Ms. Siddiqui's detention whatsoever, that there was a female in custody at Bagram during the period following the time when prisoners were killed there in interrogation, and during the period when all of the "torture memos" those by John Yoo, Jay S. Bybee, and William Haynes/Donald Rumsfeld, were in effect. For a period that spans the entire Abu Ghraib set of photographs, the ensuing scandal, and the reports of that scandal and the homicidal interrogations at Bagram which are the center of "Taxi to the Dark Side", spans the timespan when the Black Sites were reported, spans the time written about in Erik Saar and Viveka Novak's book, Inside the Wire, which details, among other things, sexual humiliation of prisoners at Guantanamo by interrogators of the opposite sex.

In Saar's book (Inside the Wire, pp. 224ff.) he details for several pages an attempt to break a male inmate at Guantanamo, by a female interrogator who first taunted her prisoner with sexual remarks, then rubbed her breasts against him and touched him, then finally unbuttoned and put her hand into her pants, withdrew it, and pretended to smear his face with menstrual blood. Saar comments that afterward the interrogator, "looked at me and began to cry...I knew she hadn't enjoyed this. She had done what she thought was best to get the information her bosses were asking for." (p.228). This is the language of a person who is performing sexual humiliation under orders. A high-value detainee was subject to many things that ordinary prisoners were subject to, and the CIA played by harder rules than the military, and is still permitted to, as far as we know. It is not hard to speculate what those rules permitted against someone known to have a Muslim woman's fear of nudity, cavity searches, or other humiliations, at a sight with no Red Cross oversight, highly classified, and the sense of mission that would put people on a waterboard.

We know as well that prisoners were stripped and placed in stress positions at Guantanamo, at Bagram, and at Abu Ghraib. Stripping was S.O.P. at Guantanamo. We know from the above example that exploiting "Muslim sexual fears" was fair game. We know prisoners were raped anally with rifle barrels. We know some high-value detainees were not only tortured with the approval or memos from the OLC or the defense department, but with the blow by blow approval, if not in real time, by members of the National Security Council, with the approval of the President. We know that high value detainee torture was considered necessary.

It has seemed alright for us to know this, many of these facts have come out of government officials themselves, testifying before Congress, writing written testimony, and in many of the books that have come out about the White House and the players in this high stakes torture game. What has been more confidential than anything, what has been more classified than any other fact, what has been hidden so hard that the stories that have to be concocted to keep it secret begin to make no sense is this: That this was done to women as well. Aafia Siddiqui had 3 children with her when she disappeared, only one has been accounted for. She says she was threatened and made to sign documents by telling her harm would come to her children. One is a girl. One was an infant boy. Is there another shoe to drop?