Category Archives: torture

Waterboarding, Sarah Palin and Our Image Abroad as the “Great Satan”

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“Waterboarding is how we baptize terrorists,” Sarah Palin told an audience at the National Rifle Association’s Stand and Fight rally last weekend. She would reinstitute the practice, she told listeners, calling it a valuable technique.

What Sarah Palin perhaps doesn’t know is that when al Qaeda was being formed, the middle eastern extremists who were using terrorism to fight their own corrupt governments had finally given up fighting inside their own governments in the face of overwhelming force. Realizing that they couldn’t stop their own governments they began to look for who was on the outside—funding and propping up torturous and unjust regimes. And that led them to begin to question foreign policies carried out by the U.S. and the EU.   Ideologically it led to the budding AQ terrorists labeling the west as the “Great Satan” and to their new initiatives of attacking us. They called that an attack on the “the head of the snake.”

Sarah Palin, like all of us wants that to stop. But is she right about how to go about it?

Waterboarding, a technique in which water is poured over the angled face of a prisoner—so as to fill his nose, mouth and lungs—terrifyingly creates the feeling of drowning. “When performed on an unsuspecting prisoner, waterboarding is a torture technique—without a doubt,” Malcolm Nance, former master instructor and chief of training at the U.S. Navy Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape School (SERE) in San Diego states. “There is no way to sugarcoat it,” he writes, referring to that he personally witnessed and supervised the waterboarding of hundreds of U.S. military trainees who were drilling to resist torture.

“It does not simulate drowing,” Nance states, “as the lungs are actually filling with water. There is no way to simulate that. The victim is drowning … “Unless you have been strapped down to the board, have endured the agonizing feeling of the water overpowering your gag reflex, and then feel your throat open and allow pint after pint of water to involuntarily fill your lungs, you will not know the meaning of the word.”

“Waterboarding is slow-motion suffocation with enough time to contemplate the inevitability of blackout and expiration” Nance continues. “Usually the person goes into hysterics on the board. For the uninitiated, it is horrifying to watch. If it goes wrong, it can lead straight to terminal hypoxia – meaning, the loss of all oxygen to the cells.”

And horrifyingly, the lack of physical scarring allows the victim to recover and be threatened with its use again and again.

Waterboarding was on the CIA’s list of approved “enhanced interrogation technique’s” for use against high-value terror suspects in 2005, and was included in a 2009 U.S. Department of Justice memo released in April 2009 as an approved torture technique. Waterboarding was carried out under the Bush administration but has now been condemned by President Obama as “torture”.

According to journalist Julia Layton, when waterboarding was used in counter-interrogation training for CIA operatives and Navy SEALs, the trainees could not survive it without breaking. According to her sources, CIA members have lasted an average of fourteen seconds before begging to be released.

Being subjected to drowning and feeling that one is imminently about to die is a powerful psychological torture method and it breaks down both our guys, as well as our enemies. Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the mastermind of 9/11 was water boarded and reportedly managed to last an impressive two minutes. Perhaps his faith kept him steady in the face of overwhelming terror. Yet he too broke and began confessing.

No doubt water boarding works to create terror and an overwhelming sensation of imminent death by drowning. Yet while Palin believes that water boarding is a useful interrogation technique, those who have had it in their arsenal of “torture” tools disagree. CIA officials according to Layton, stated that it is a poor interrogation tool because it scares the prisoner so much you can’t trust anything they tell you as a result.

When Jesse Ventura, the colorful, former Minnesota governor recalls how he was waterboarded as part of his Navy SEAL training to resist torture techniques he states, “It’s drowning. It’s torture,” and that it can kill you. Trying to make the point of how serious waterboarding is and that one will say anything to make it stop, he declared to Larry King, “You give me a waterboard, Dick Cheney and one hour and I’ll have him confess to the Sharon Tate murders!”

In September 2006, Senator John McCain, who had been tortured as a prisoner of war in Vietnam stood up to his party and tried to outlaw torture techniques against all U.S. held prisoners. In 2006, the U.S. military also made it illegal for the any members of the military to use this technique. Shamefully, it took longer for the CIA to catch up.

“The lack of physical scarring allows the victim to recover and be threatened with its use again and again,” Nance writes adding that whoever carries out waterboarding has to move from humanity to hatred and overcome basic human decency to endure causing its torturous effects.

And our use of such methods has now opened Pandora’s box for what may be considered by terrorists as acceptable to be used against our soldiers. Just as now dead, Chechen terrorist leader Shamil Basaev stated that he justified the terrorist use of weapons of mass destruction, because poisons had been used by the Russian government to kill his cadres—terrorists often attempt to justify their acts on the basis of our own.

Nance writes, “Our own missteps have already created a cadre of highly experienced lecturers for Al Qaeda’s own virtual school for terrorists” Indeed, even when we try to keep torture methods classified, convicted AQ members and released captives broadcast widely over the Internet what they were subjected to and how they endured.

While Sarah Palin may believe “soft” torture that leaves no physical marks of harm done is useful, waterboarding is nevertheless psychologically devastating. And that it is a useful tool for interrogating is also not a strongly supported position among those in the know. Just as I learned when I was helping build what became the Detainee Rehabilitation Program for our 20,000 detainees in Iraq, the best approaches to interrogation are to find common ground, rapport and build a relationship where the detainee begins to trust and open up. Terror and pain may make a person “talk” but what they say in order to escape from torture often doesn’t add up.

And the anger in that person over being mistreated and in others—including family members and friends—who learn of it often creates more of a threat than elicits any useful information.

Indeed when the pictures from Abu Ghraib circled the world via the Internet, and now, when burned up corpses of children killed in drone attacks are sent around via YouTube—these powerful images of what the West is all about to those who haven’t yet decided if what the militant jihadi terrorists claim in their anti-Western ideology is correct. And it only takes one or two of these—like the Tsarnaev brothers for example, to jump into the terrorist camp and wreak havoc for all of us.

Images and stories about torture and acts that cross the bounds of human decency can easily be used to push fence sitters into the enemy’s camp ideologically and also to then move them along the terrorist trajectory into finally enacting terrorism.

While Sarah Palin may consider herself a patriot, all we need are more Americans publicly espousing waterboarding, and other unacceptable terror methods, to push even more potential enemies into believing that indeed the West is serving, or is itself, the Great Satan. 

Anne Speckhard, Ph.D. is Adjunct Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Georgetown University in the Medical School and author of Talking to Terrorists. She conducted psychological autopsies of over half of the one hundred and twelve Chechen suicide terrorists, interviewed hostages from Beslan and Nord Ost and has interviewed over four hundred terrorists, their family members and supporters in various parts of the world. 

The Gatekeepers—Voices from Israel Giving Warnings for the Future?

The Gatekeepers a new documentary movie by Dror Moreh, provides haunting one-on-one interviews with each of the six surviving former heads of Shin Bet—who nearly consecutively ran the secretive, counterterrorist Israeli security service from 1980 to 2011.

While these former heads of the Shin Bet all agree that the fight against terrorism is a necessary and righteous one, their interviews in this film are disturbing—yet honest musings.  And they shed light on the morality and potential effectiveness regarding the way the war on terrorism was fought in their country—and they by extension share hard won wisdom that might be useful in thinking about how the U.S. war on terrorism is now being fought the world over.

Collectively these men—Ami Ayalon, Avi Dichter, Yuval Diskin, Carmi Gillon, Yaakov Peri and Avraham Shalom—are powerful dissenting voices to the current Netanyahu government, convinced that Israel is on the wrong track and that the future is “dark,” as Shalom states.  Although disturbed by their country’s responses to terrorism particularly as it broke out in the First and Second Intifadas, they appear to favor a political solution and withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza, with dismantling of what they called “illegal” settlements.

The film opened with the statement being made that “Politicians don’t like being presented with many options but prefer black and white binary options,” whereas the security services “operate in shades of grey”.   Indeed they spoke of recruiting collaborators and taking “someone who doesn’t like you and making him do things he never could believe he could do,” as well as carrying out hundreds of thousands of interrogations—using harsh methods on those they suspected of terrorism including blindfolding, hooding, shaking, sleep deprivation, etc. 

And quoting Clausewitz—that “Victory is creating a better political reality,” these men all appeared to fault their politicians for failing to find a peaceful end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  When asked to comment on the predictions of Israeli intellectual Yeshayahu Leibovitz, who after the 1967 Six-Day War warned that if Israel tried to occupy millions of people it would lead to the decline of Israel’s moral stature and that Israel would become a Shin Bet state—these former security chiefs agreed!

One commented that “making the lives of millions unbearable” and “the prolonged suffering of the Palestinians” had to stop and another saying that serving in the Army changes people’s characters especially when they see they are taking part in a “brutal occupying force”. 

Another stated, “You cannot make peace via military means—you must establish trust.” And that “Overkill—to kill families and children is ineffective and inhumane.”  Although the comment was also made, “In the war of terrorism—forget morality.” 

One even warned that he expects another political assassination (like that of Rabin) if the West Bank settlements are ever dismantled.  And on the topic of the settlements, one states, “They [the Palestinians] wanted a state and got more settlements. We wanted security and got more suicide bombers.”  One security head commented that the “number of settlements around the time of the Second Intifada doubled from 100,000 to 220,000 settlements in a period of six to seven years”

What were referred to as the “Totally illegal settlements” were also credited with having encouraged settlers to other illegal activities—including bomb attacks on Palestinians, thwarted placement of bombs on busses that Palestinians would have boarded and even the know well known plan to blow up the Dome of the Rock with Semtex explosives strategically placed on the Temple Mount.  And the security chiefs were disgusted that after being convicted, the settler underground were shortly thereafter released based on political patronage. 

One of the men also went on to explain that during the Second Intifada, after talking in London to Eyud Sarraj, a psychiatrist who heads the Gaza Mental Health Clinic, that he had the sudden awakening—“that the suicide bomber wants revenge”—and he realized that after terror attacks “the same was true on both sides”. 

And already understanding that both see the other as a terrorist—his side viewed that way because of the collateral damage caused in their counter terrorism attacks—this security chief was amazed when Dr. Sarraj explained to him that the Palestinians understood overwhelming force and didn’t expect to win, but that as Sarraj reportedly put it, “Victory for us is seeing you suffer.  It brings a balance of power.  Your F-16—our suicide bomber.”

Indeed when I spent two years interviewing in the West Bank and Gaza during the Second Intifada, I found this attitude borne out and also found it is often also the view of AQ operatives elsewhere as well—revenge and causing suffering in the other who has caused a high collateral damage has its own distinct pleasure even for those who understand such attacks will not bring about victory.

When Israel first began using targeted assassinations, Martin Indyk the U.S. Ambassador at the time—in July, 2001 (just before 9-11) denounced Israel’s use of targeted killing against Palestinian terrorists stating, “The United States government is very clearly on record as against targeted assassinations . . . They are extrajudicial killings, and we do not support that.”  

Times since 9-11 have changed drastically, but perhaps now when our drone attacks are causing a high civilian casualty rate and we too have engaged in disturbing soft torture methods we need to think over the haunted reminiscing’s of Israel’s security chiefs. 

One who mused over the movement from assassinating bomb makers to also targeting ideologues and inciters of terrorism stated that ‘targeted assassinations become a conveyer belt and you ask yourself less and less when to stop.”  Ominously looking back one commented, “Restraint is actually harder than to act.” 

These disturbing interviews of these clearly hardened men—undisputed patriots that worked hard and sacrificed to protect Israeli lives—are of men who wielded incredible power and yet are bewildered by it.  Each seemed clearly in solemn awe of the power to take life in an instant—feeling it even years afterward as a weighty and haunting responsibility.  Perhaps we should learn from them.

Anne Speckhard, Ph.D. is Adjunct Associate Professor of Psychiatry in the Georgetown University Medical School and author of Talking to Terrorists: Understanding the Psycho-Social Motivations of Militant Jihadi Terrorists, Mass Hostage Takers, Suicide Bombers & “Martyrs”

Zero Dark Thirty – And the Real World of Torture, Enhanced Interrogation, Rendition and Prolonged Detention

The disturbing torture scenes depicted in the recent film Zero Dark Thirty along with President Obama’s signing of the National Defense Authorization Act allowing for Americans on U.S. soil to be subject to indefinite detention and torture have once again brought the questions relating to the usefulness of rendition, indefinite imprisonments and torture (both lite and hard) back into the public consciousness.  With media depictions increasingly glorifying the roles of military and civilian intelligence officers—even those who rely on torture—surveys of U.S. citizens have shown an alarming increase of Americans who embrace the idea of torture.   Of course one must understand that people—on both sides of the “war on terrorism” —are increasingly likely to embrace violent and extremist measures in direct proportion to the more they feel threatened.

That being said, however, the thoughtful individual needs to examine some core questions—the first being—does torture in any of it’s forms, including “torture lite” work?  The answer appears to be a resounding no.  Torture for the most part fails as a tactic because it does not leads to credible information, is problematic later for anyone we wish to prosecute, and may actually contribute far more to terrorism recruitment rather than to curbing terrorism.  When dealing with al Qaeda for instance we must understand that most hardened terrorists who have blood on their hands have committed themselves to the idea of “martyrdom” and may be adept at misleading us when we believe they have cracked under torture. And when we resort to anything that is morally bankrupt they will later use it against us to show their constituents and potential recruits our “true colors”.

By contrast, interrogation that relies on rapport building has shown itself to yield positive results.  When I worked in Iraq helping to build the Detainee Rehabilitation Program for the 20,000+ detainees held there at that time by U.S. forces, three high value AQ operatives had been turned to our side as a result of a skilled and kind interrogator.  The simple act of sensitively inquiring about a head wound that needed treatment versus days of holding a person in stress positions, while denying him the ability to use the toilet as needed, and other abuses was much more effective in getting one of these operatives to switch sides, talk and to offer to assist us in our efforts to fight AQ in Iraq. Former FBI agent Jack Cloonan agrees, stating that we have been very successful in getting even hardened terrorists with blood on their hands to talk by using old fashioned methods of building rapport.  Interrogation and building rapport are actually acutely honed skills that rely on a high level of emotional intelligence and that should be carefully taught and used in place of brute force.

I also found in Iraq that many of the lower value detainees expressed genuine amazement that they had been humanely treated and not tortured while in U.S. detention facilities.  They as a result also became much more positive about the U.S. and had little to go home to tell their families and tribes against us.

Whereas when pictures of our misdeeds in Abu Ghraib circulated, they became a powerful propaganda tool for AQ recruitment, fueling claims we are not who we say we are.  Indeed when I interviewed an Iraqi sheik who had been held in Abu Ghraib he was three years onward still suffering from the shame and humiliation of the way he had been forced to strip naked and be photographed while his genitals were mocked in the presence of female soldiers in the room.  And this Sheik’s outrage did not end with him—it extended to his entire family and tribe who are all responsible to revenge for him.

 And if we combine his outrage with that of our already too high collateral damage tolls from drone attacks, the fear and anger in civilian populations engendered by our drones, our renditions, prolonged detentions and our use of hooding, darkness, cold, loud and disturbing music, small cells, solitary confinement, stress positions, water boarding and all the other permutations of “torture lite” that we have recently resorted to—our actions become profound and powerful recruiting tools for al Qaeda.  And whatever gains made are severely outweighed by the loss of the moral high ground that occurs when we are lowered to the level of our enemies and we ourselves make a mockery of our once highly cherished principles of human rights.

That power corrupts is a well-known adage.  The famous Zimbardo prison experiments demonstrated how role-playing students when placed in positions of prison authority over others quickly transformed into cruel guards.  In real life the UK learned this lesson as well.  When their forces were allowed to use highly coercive interrogation techniques against IRA prisoners they found that it quickly advanced to cruel threats and the actual use of violence.  The progression in Abu Ghraib similarly moved quickly from prisoner physical to sexual abuse. When oversight and limits are missing in prison situations, cruelty can quickly abound with serious repercussions for all. 

And neither the UK or the U.S. claimed any significant actionable Intel as a result of these two shameful situations.

While “torture lite” may leave no lasting physical scars, the psychological scars of arrest, prolonged detention without due process, rendition and “torture lite” all leave long lasting psychological scars.  Indeed, imprisonment itself can be traumatic when it occurs without due process.  Who among us would do well with being put in a cage with little to no outside contact whilst having their records and computers suddenly and completely impounded? Relationships, employment, businesses, marriage plans—entire lives go off track in such instances.

When I made interviews of Palestinians during the second Intifada who had been put in administrative detention I found many youth who emerged from not knowing why or how long they would be held were deeply traumatized.  Even hardened terrorist leader Zakaria Zubeidi, leader of the Al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade in Jenin and sender of suicide terrorists, told me he’d rather “martyr” himself than ever again return to a prison cell.  Chechens who faced serious torture echoed similar sentiments. This tells me that our use of administrative detention and “torture lite” may actually contribute to the hardening of many terrorists who fear imprisonment more than “martyrdom”.

So as we debate once again our methods of choice in the fight against terrorism I suggest we back off of secretive decisions in behalf of proxy torture, secret detentions, coercive interrogations and the use of torture of any type.  Instead we should once again become a society that publically debates these issues and wisely decides to uphold the fundamental human rights of all persons—even those of unlawful enemy combatants.  And when those times come when we have no choice but to detain terrorism suspects we must learn from our mistakes and know that mistreating them nearly always carries too high a price and leads to less positive results than treating humans with the dignity and care that is necessary to build real rapport that can yield real results.

Anne Speckhard, Ph.D. is the author of Talking to Terrorists: Understanding the Psycho-Social Motivations of Militant Jihadi Terrorists, Mass Hostage Takers, Suicide Bombers & “Martyrs”