According to human rights lawyer John Sifton, the CIA tortured some of its detainees in the War on Terror so severely that it had to take measures to keep them alive so they could continue being tortured.
Sifton, who is the executive director of One World Research, told an interviewer for Russia Today that there was both a CIA detention program and a military detention program and that “The CIA program was by far the most secretive. … That’s the one that only had a few dozen detainees at any given time — but it’s the one that saw the biggest abuses, the most serious forms of torture.”
“In the military, there was actually a larger number of deaths than with the CIA,” Sifton continued. “The CIA engaged in some horrendous abuses, but they appear to have taken precautions to have actually prevented people from dying — which might sound humanitarian, but in fact was kind of sickening.”
“The military wasn’t so careful,” Sifton added. “The military subjected a lot of people to the same techniques, but without the precautions, and as a result a large number of detainees in military custody died. … While they didn’t use the worst forms of torture, like waterboarding, they often used sleep deprivation, forced standing, stress positions. … When you combine these techniques … they cause excruciating pain … and the military used them on thousands and thousands of detainees.”
Sifton commented that what he found most shocking was “the cold, clinical fashion in which they went about designing the program. They didn’t want to commit outright physical torture … so they went to psychologists and lawyers and they tried to design a program which was, in their minds, legal. … They tried to make it legal and safe, but they just made it even more grotesque.”
Claims of detainee deaths under torture have been public knowledge for some time, although perhaps not amounting to “a large number” as alleged by Sifton. Last month, however, the Washington Independent reported that in the last few years the military has simply stopped reporting detainee deaths in Afghanistan and Iraq altogether, even those from natural causes.
According to the Independent, “Human Rights First’s report, Command’s Responsibility, based on its study of autopsy reports and interviews with military personnel, witnesses and physicians, found that between August 2002 and February 2006 nearly 100 detainees had died ‘while in the hands of U.S. officials in the global ‘war on terror.’ Although the military had deemed 34 of those deaths suspected or confirmed homicides, Human Rights First counted a total of 45 cases where the facts suggested ‘death as a result of physical abuse or harsh conditions of detention.’ What’s more, in almost half the cases surveyed, ‘the cause of death remains officially undetermined or unannounced.’ Overall, the group found, by the beginning of 2006, ‘eight people in U.S. custody were tortured to death.’”
There are also documented allegations of CIA involvement in detainee deaths, though it is unclear whether any of those deaths occurred within the CIA’s own system of secret prisons, as Sifton charges.
Last year, when Scott Horton interviewed Jane Mayer, author of The Dark Side, about the CIA program, he asked, “One of the lingering mysteries in Washington has been what happened to the CIA internal probe into homicides involving the program. You note that CIA Inspector General (IG) John Helgerson undertook a study and initially concluded, just as the Red Cross and most legal authorities in the United States and around the world, that the program was illegal and raised serious war crimes issues. Helgerson was summoned repeatedly to meet privately with Vice President Cheney, the man who provided the impetus for the program, and it appears as a result of these meetings the IG’s report was simply shut down.”
“Helgerson’s 2004 report had been described to me as very disturbing,” Mayer replied, “the size of two Manhattan phone books, and full of terrible descriptions of mistreatment. … We know that in addition, the IG investigated several alleged homicides involving CIA detainees, and that Helgerson’s office forwarded several to the Justice Department for further consideration and potential prosecution. … Why have there been no charges filed? It’s a question to which one would expect that Congress and the public would like some answers.”
More recently, however, the McClatchy Newspapers ran a story titled “Assessing CIA culpability in detainee deaths will be tricky.” The story indicated that “there are at least five known cases in which agency personnel potentially were implicated in the deaths of detainees in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to a 2005 letter from Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., to the CIA,” but also indicated that “those deaths took place under wartime conditions, not in the CIA’s once-secret program for interrogating top al Qaida suspects by using techniques such as waterboarding, or simulated drowning.”
According to Sifton, “Our information is that the Obama administration essentially put the CIA out of business with respect to detaining people. They no longer have their own secret prison program.” In January of this year, as one of his first acts as president, Barack Obama ordered the CIA’s detention centers shut down, and this past summer, Attorney General Eric Holder announced the appointment of a special prosecutor to investigate abuses in the CIA detention program.
Because nobody has been held accountable, however, and much of what went on is still being concealed, Sifton is concerned that it “causes a moral culpability issue worldwide. President Obama may have closed the prisons and ended the programs, but … it creates a stain that has yet to be cleansed.”
The following video was broadcast on Russia Today, October 28, 2009.