Torture and Cruelty

As the “war on terror” began, the George W. Bush administration was careful to label persons captured and detained as “unlawful enemy combatants” (rather than “prisoners of war”) to try circumventing U.S. legal obligations under the Geneva Conventions and other international treaties, as well as U.S. domestic law. In a series of memos, Bush Administration lawyers crafted legal arguments reinterpreting the meaning of torture to rationalize changes to interrogation methods.[1] While the so-called “torture memos” only officially approved “enhanced interrogation techniques” for use by the CIA on select detainees, the techniques otherwise considered to be torture quickly migrated, and persons around the world seized by America were tortured or mistreated by the CIA, military forces, contractors, and allies.  The U.S. also outsourced torture by modifying and expanding “extraordinary rendition” practices, transferring detainees abroad for torture at the hands of foreign governments.  All this undermines the Bush claim that the 2004 Abu Ghraib abuses documented in photos seen round the world were isolated incidents at the hands of a few “bad apples,” and that the “U.S. does not torture.” 

In Iraq, over 100,000 prisoners have passed through the American-run detention system, with many of those detained in the first years of the war processed through the Abu Ghraib prison.  In 2004, accounts of physical, psychological, and sexual abuse, including the torture, rape, sodomy, and death of Abu Ghraib prisoners came to public attention.[2]  Iraqi security chiefs allege that the existence of, and conditions in, U.S. prisons actually strengthened Al Qaeda, and they blamed the detention system for increased violence in 2010.[3]

In Afghanistan, many sites, such as the infamous “Salt Pit” located north of Kabul’s business district, are designated by the United States as “host-nation facilities” but are reportedly financed largely by CIA funds. It was at the “Salt Pit” where a CIA officer in 2002 ordered guards to strip an Afghan prisoner naked and chain him to the concrete floor, then leave him overnight in sub-zero temperatures, killing him.[4] Here also, the CIA detained and reportedly tortured and sodomized innocent German citizen Khalid El-Masri for four months before recognizing they had mistaken him for another person, then held him for an additional five months before releasing him at night on a desolate road in Albania, without apology, or funds to return home.[5] [6]  

Internationally, suspects have been passed to foreign countries with more lax human rights standards in the process known as “extraordinary rendition.” While the practice of “rendition,” seizing a person to render him to justice, was conducted in the Clinton Administration, it expanded dramatically under Bush, sweeping up many innocent people. For example, The New York Times reported in January 2011 that Gulet Mohamed, a 19-year old Somali-American teenager from Virginia, was placed on a U.S. government no-fly list and detained, interrogated, and tortured in Kuwait while traveling with a valid U.S. passport. At one point during the interrogation three FBI agents arrived and asked similar questions, agreeing to “facilitate” his release if he provided information, but stating they could offer no help if he did not.[7]


[1] The so-called "torture memos" include at least three documents, the "Standards of Conduct for Interrogation under 18 U.S.C. sections 2340-2340A" and "Interrogation of al Qaeda" drafted by then Assistant Attorney General Jay Bybee, and an untitled letter from Deputy Assistant Attorney General John Yoo to Alberto Gonzales (Bush’s friend who was then White House Counsel).
 Dana Priest & Joe Stephens, Secret World of U.S. Interrogation; Long History of Tactics in Overseas Prisons Is Coming to Light, Washington Post, May 11, 2004.
 Martin Chulov, Iraq Prison System Blamed for Big Rise in Al Qaida Violence, The Guardian, May 23, 2010, available at
 Dana Priest, CIA Holds Terror Suspects in Secret Prisons, Washington Post, Nov. 2, 2005
 Lisa Myers, Aram Roston, & the NBC Investigative Unit, CIA Accussed of Detaining Innocent Man, NBC Nightly News, Apr. 21, 2005, available at
 See, e.g. Matthias Gebauer and John Goetz, Cables Show Germany Caved to Pressure from Washington, Der Spiegel, Dec. 9, 2010, available at,1518,733860,00.html (also noting how cables released by Wikileaks have revealed how much pressure US officials put on Germany to keep them from prosecuting the agents involved in El-Masri’s abduction).
 Mark Mazzetti, Detained American Says He Was Beaten in Kuwait, The New York Times, Jan. 5, 2011, available at  The FBI has indicated that it declined to participate in CIA torture or enhanced interrogation.
 U.S. has Detained 83,000 in Anti-Terror Effort, MSNBC, Nov. 16, 2005.