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One Year After the Torture Report, a New Law Says “Never Again”

John Brennan at a podium
CIA Director John Brennan takes questions during a press conference on December 11, 2014, soon after the release of key findings from the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence’s report on the CIA’s use of torture. © Jim Watson/Getty

One year ago today, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence released the key findings from its report [PDF] on the CIA’s use of torture. Though the report exposed the brutal truth about “enhanced interrogation,” some critics of the committee’s report continue to believe that the torture perpetrated by the CIA “doesn’t sound very severe.” The following list of the agency’s methods, however, should serve as a reminder of just how harsh the program was. Here are six of the shocking methods used by CIA interrogators:

  1. Waterboarding and Water Dousing

    Waterboarding has a long and ignominious history. First used during the Spanish Inquisition, it was subsequently banned at the turn of the 19th century in several European countries due to its “moral repugnance.” Waterboarding has seen a revival of sorts in the 20th century. Japanese soldiers used it during World War II, as did the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. France used it during the grisly war for Algeria’s independence from 1954 to 1962.

    The CIA claims to have waterboarded only three detainees. In the case of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the technique was used an astounding 183 times. At one point, he had undergone so much waterboarding that the CIA officers administering the torture were worried he would die from drinking too much water. They switched to salt water, and the waterboarding continued.

    Aside from waterboarding, many detainees were subjected to “water dousing.” The two torture techniques differ only in that the latter does not involve the use of a board. Both are used to make someone feel like they are drowning, while water dousing also lowers the victim’s body temperature to near hypothermic levels. CIA interrogators water doused at least a dozen more detainees.

  2. Rectal Feeding/Hydration

    Rectal feeding, a medical technique that doctors have long discredited, involves forcing water and food into detainees’ rectums using a tube. The CIA used this torture technique on five detainees in what amounted to sexual assault according to a recent report by Human Rights Watch. CIA medical officers noted that the technique was employed “as a means of behavior control.”

    In addition to water and saline, CIA interrogators used hard foods—including pureed hummus, pasta, raisins, and nuts—to rectally feed detainees. Agency officials claimed the technique was used on detainees who refused to eat, but CIA cables and records reveal that rectal hydration was employed “without evidence of medical necessity.” In fact, it caused physical harm to those subjected to it. After undergoing rectal feeding, Mustafa al-Hawsawi “was later diagnosed with chronic hemorrhoids, an anal fissure, and symptomaticrectal prolapse.”

  3. Stress Positions

    Detainees were frequently put in “stress positions” that concentrated all their body weight on one or two muscle groups. These positions, such as kneeling for hours without sitting, are meant to cause intense pain and exhaustion.

    The CIA employed a number of different stress positions. One detainee was shackled in a standing position for 72 hours. Two detainees who each had a broken foot were forced into a prolonged standing position. Another detainee, Ridha al-Najjar, was handcuffed—clad only in a diaper—to an overhead bar for 22 hours a day for two consecutive days.

  4. Sleep Deprivation

    The CIA kept detainees awake for more than seven consecutive days without sleep. Interrogators would deprive detainees of sleep by forcing them to take ice baths, playing loud music and white noise, and keeping them naked and cold.

    Sleep deprivation initially caused irritability, fatigue, and an inability to concentrate. Later, detainees would begin to have trouble speaking and reading. After enough time, at least five detainees developed psychosis and hallucinations. According to the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report, “CIA interrogation teams did not always discontinue sleep deprivation after the detainees experienced hallucinations.”

  5. Beatings and Threats

    CIA detainees were routinely threatened and beaten, sometimes until they were bloodied. They were slapped, punched, thrown into walls, banged against pillars, forcefully restrained, and stripped naked.

    The report also found that the interrogators frequently threatened detainees’ families. One detainee was told his mother would be sexually assaulted in front of him. The interrogators told another detainee that they would cut his mother’s throat.

  6. Confinement

    Detainees were locked into boxes for prolonged periods of time, sometimes up to 18 hours. Two boxes were used to torture detainees: a large box about the size of a coffin, and a smaller box that was only big enough for detainees to fit into if they curled up into a ball.

    Over the course of 20 days, Abu Zubaydah spent a combined 266 hours in the large box—a little more than 11 days total. He also spent an additional 29 hours in the smaller box. The CIA interrogators told him, “The only way he would leave the facility was in the coffin-shaped confinement box.”

A program of torture, even one cloaked in legal authority, never adheres to its original intent. Slaps become punches, and punches become slamming heads into walls. Food, water, light, and sleep are first withheld for hours—and later, for days.

In the year since the 500-page executive summary of the torture report was released, President Obama signed into law a defense spending bill that includes a provision requiring the CIA and intelligence agencies only use interrogation techniques from the U.S. Army Field Manual. The law also requires the International Committee of the Red Cross to have access to detainees in U.S. custody.

Yet now, a year after the report detailing these horrific methods was released, torture is back in the news. Some of the presidential candidates have said they would revive the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation” program, even though the Senate report makes clear that the program did not save lives or prevent further attacks. This begs the question: What was the torture for? And if we are willing to consider subjecting human beings to this type of treatment, what does this country stand for?

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