The United Nations Committee Against Torture (UNCAT) has released their “Concluding observations on the third to fifth periodic reports of United States of America” in regards to US adherence to the prohibitions against torture and cruel, inhumane, and degrading forms of treatment of prisoners.
Within the context of the world of diplomacy, the UNCAT findings belie the US insistence that it abides by the Convention Against Torture treaty (CAT), or that it is an adequate model for humane treatment of prisoners.
In particular, the committee took aim at the presence of ill-treatment and torture within the Army Field Manual’s Appendix M, which purports to describe a “restricted interrogation technique” called “Separation.” In a victory for those who oppose government-sanctioned torture and abuse of prisoners, the UNCAT called for the US “to review Appendix M of the Army Field Manual (AFM) in light of its obligations under the Convention.”
More specifically, UNCAT identified the “minimal” sleep regulations in the manual as actually a form of sleep deprivation — “a form of ill-treatment” — and called for adherence to humane norms. In addition, the committee called for the elimination of sensory deprivation in the “field expedient” section of Appendix M, as such sensory deprivation can “create a state of psychosis with the detainee.”
The UNCAT findings should be a wake-up call to the US press, which has repeatedly reported as true the assertion by the Bush and Obama administrations that the AFM allowed only humane interrogations. (The findings also validate my years-long campaign against the use of torture and abuse in the AFM, which has also been the focus at times of most of the human rights and legal groups who have made torture an issue, and bloggers such as Marcy Wheeler.)
While I want to concentrate here on what UNCAT said about the Appendix M and the Army Field Manual, which President Obama by executive order made the primary interrogation tool for forces in “armed conflict,” the committee’s other findings also are worth noting. The relative effectiveness of the UNCAT review process, or lack of same, is something that deserves its own analysis, but for the purposes of this article we’ll put that off for now.
The UNCAT found fault with the US’s federal definition of torture — the way it implements its torture laws — not to mention the very way the US interprets the CAT treaty. It called for the US to consider withdrawing its “interpretive understandings and reservations” with which it ratified the CAT treaty. The UNCAT did the same thing in its May 2000 review of US practices. (For more on this, see this ACLU report.) The US “reservations” to the CAT treaty in particular eviscerate the protections against torture by replacing adherence to international norms on cruel treatment to less stringent US judiciary interpretations.
UNCAT also called for the US to criminalize “the specific offense of torture” at the federal level, and to remove the caveat in other statutes that says psychological torture requires evidence of “prolonged mental harm”. The UN officials warn that the presence of “serious discrepancies between the Convention’s definitions and those incorporated into domestic law create actual or potential loopholes for impunity.”
In other notable, though not exhaustive, findings in the US review, the UNCAT told the US it had “concern over the ongoing failure to fully investigate allegations of torture and ill-treatment of suspects held in U.S. custody abroad, evidenced by the limited number of criminal prosecutions and convictions.” It called for “prompt, impartial and effective investigations,” noting in addition that “alleged perpetrators and accomplices are duly prosecuted, including persons in positions of command and those who provided legal cover to torture…”
In particular, the UNCAT noted that the US had supplied “minimal statistics on the number of investigations, prosecutions, disciplinary proceedings and corresponding reparations” from the US military.
In regards to the military’s regime at Guantanamo, the UNCAT forcefully pronounced that “force-feeding of prisoners on hunger strike constitutes ill-treatment in violation of the Convention.” The committee called for the immediate release of all uncharged or cleared detainees, an end to force-feeding and indefinite detention, and investigation of all torture, abuse or ill-treatment charges, including prosecution of those responsible and redress to victims.
The UNCAT and Appendix M
The back and forth between US and UN officials over whether certain practices used in the Army Field Manual constitute torture or other forms of abuse sounded like a diplomatic version of “he said, she said.” But readers may not be aware what all the shouting was about.
In 2006, the US rewrote the Army Field Manual (AFM) on interrogation (formally known as FM 2-22.3, “Human Intelligence Collector Operations”). In 2009, in Executive Order 13491, “Ensuring Lawful Interrogations,” President Obama declared that US officials could not use “any interrogation technique or approach, or any treatment related to interrogation, that is not authorized by and listed in Army Field Manual 2-22.3.”
The 2006 AFM banned certain practices associated with the CIA and/or DoD’s harsh interrogation and torture programs implemented under the Bush Administration, including forced nakedness, hooding, use of military dogs to threaten, and “waterboarding.” But at the same time, the AFM removed restrictions against “abnormal sleep deprivation,” use of stress positions, and “chemically induced psychosis.”
The question of what constitutes sleep deprivation arose in the argument back-and-forth between the US and UNCAT on Appendix M.
In 2006, Appendix M was one of the new portions of the rewritten Army Field Manual. It involved the use of certain techniques, collected under the amalgam “Separation,” which were not allowed for use on prisoners protected under the Geneva Conventions rules for POWs. So-called “unprivileged combatants” (or “unprivileged belligerents,” as the Obama administration likes to call them) were subject, after approval, to the use of isolation (solitary confinement), sleep deprivation, adjustments in environmental and dietary rules, and, in the case of a special “field expedient” application of “separation,” subjected to use of blindfolds or goggles, and earmuffs to shutoff both vision and hearing.
The UNCAT was specific in pointing out that the field expedient form of “separation” was in fact sensory deprivation, and that “based on recent scientific findings with high probability will create a state of psychosis with the detainee (Daniel C., Lovatt A., Manson OJ. Psychotic-like experiences and their cognitive appraisal under short-term sensory deprivation. Frontiers in Psychiatry; Vol. 5, Art 106:1), raising concerns of torture and ill-treatment.”
As the UNCAT and the press have pointed out, Appendix M’s stated purpose is to prevent communication among detainees, the better to prevent learning “counter-resistence techniques”. But it is also, as Appendix M states, about “decreasing the detainee’s resistance to interrogation.” Indeed, both physical and so-called field expedient forms of “separation,” are specifically described in Appendix M as meant to “foster a feeling of futility.”
“A feeling of hopelessness and helplessness”
Appendix M does not describe what is meant by “futility,” but the term is defined elsewhere in the AFM. When describing a technique known as “Emotional-Futility,” the DoD-authored manual notes that the purpose of “futility” is to convince “the source that resistance to questioning is futile. This engenders a feeling of hopelessness and helplessness on the part of the source.”
The manual clearly states that the use of futility is not enough to assure a prisoner’s cooperation. Hence it strongly recommends the combination of Appendix M “separation” (which, remember, includes both isolation, sleep deprivation, and at times application of psychotic-inducing sensory deprivation) with other AFM “approaches.” Indeed, Appendix M itself suggests combining “separation” with the use of the “futility” technique (actually, a natural extension of the purpose of Appendix M), “incentive,” and “fear up.”
In other words, shorn of all the bureaucratic mumbo-jumbo, an Appendix M interrogation means keeping a detainee isolated for up to 30 days, or even months longer, exposed to noise (as long as it is not “excessive”) or other environmental changes (again, so long as they are not “excessive”), and allowed no more than 4 hours sleep per day for weeks and perhaps months on end. The detainee is meant to feel both hopeless and helpless about their condition. Psychological and sociological weaknesses are exploited to increase the sense of despair. Incentives are offered to entice the prisoner to cooperate and end the solitary confinement and sleep deprivation or sensory deprivation. If the prisoner should still refuse to divulge information or otherwise cooperate (such as to turn informant), then the level of fear a prisoner feels is to be increased, playing off fears the prisoner may feel, including phobias.
While the US representatives responding to UNCAT’s review — and one of these was Tom Malinowski, who as a representative for Human Rights Watch back in 2006 applauded the then-new version of the Army Field Manual — have offered only boiler-plate defenses to the depredations of Appendix M, the AFM itself calls for the presence of medical personnel, including, optionally, a “behavioral health consultant,” whenever an Appendix M interrogation takes place. To my knowledge, the presence of medical personnel is not required for any other kind of interrogation in existence — with the sole exception of the CIA’s use of “enhanced interrogation” torture.
The use of certain “approaches” in the main body of the AFM, such as Fear Up, Ego-Down, and Futility, demonstrate that use of cruel treatment is not limited to Appendix M, but exists within the main body of the AFM itself. As an example of the kind of warnings such “approaches” generate, the instructions regarding Fear Up warn the interrogator not to induce so much fear the prisoner becomes unresponsive.
Drugs and the Army Field Manual
Another area of abuse that exists in the main body of the AMF concerns the use of drugs. A close examination of the current AFM with its predecessor shows that the wording regarding restriction of the use of drugs changed in 2006. As noted above, the prohibition against use of drugs that cause psychotic-like symptoms was removed from the current AFM. The prohibition now is only against drugs that cause “lasting or permanent mental alteration or damage,” a significantly lowered bar for use of drugs in interrogations.
In September 2009, a Department of Defense Inspector General report concluded that drugs had not been used in DoD interrogations. Even so, the report did reveal that detainees who were drugged for ostensible non-interrogation reasons were interrogated while drugged. There was also at least one case — that of Jose Padilla — where DoD used deception to make a prisoner believe he had been give “truth serum.”
Still the IG report was seriously flawed, particularly in that it did not interview any of the released detainees who had alleged use of drugs. One of who made such a charge was Murnat Kurnaz, who was in Geneva for the UNCAT review. Kurnat has charged that he was subjected to repeated beatings, had his head dunked in water, was given electric shock to his feed, suspended by his arms, humiliated, and placed in solitary confinement by US forces. He has also said in the past he was forcibly administered drugs. But when he gave a statement to the UNCAT, unfortunately it did not mention the forcible use of drugs.
When Kurnaz gave, with the parents of Michael Brown, a teleconference in Geneva on November 12, I asked him about his drugging charges. Kurnaz stated, “I was forced to take medication. I didn’t know what it was. When I refused they came afterwards… five to ten people held me down and tie me and give as injection.” Kurnaz also charged that he was forced to take an “antimalaria medication,” while, as Kurnaz added, “the whole world knows in Guantanamo there is no malaria.” He further charged the drug was given “for its side effects, which include hallucinations.”
Last year, a report by the Institute on Medicine as a Profession and the Open Society Foundation called for an investigation into the use wide-spread use of the anti-malaria drug mefloquine (Lariam) at Guantanamo.
None of the press reported Kurnaz’s charges in relation to drugs. UNCAT never referred to the issue of drugging at all (see even the full transcript of the UNCAT review). As an article in the Jurist noted, “legislation implementing the Convention Against Torture defines torture to include ‘the administration or application, or threatened administration or application, of mind-altering substances or other procedures calculated to disrupt profoundly the senses or the personality.’ 18 U.S.C. 2340. (In fact, under federal law, committing such acts outside of the United States is a very serious crime punishable by up to 20 years in prison. 18 USC 2340A).”
The UNCAT is to be praised for bringing to the fore some of the worst aspects of the current use of torture and abuse by the US government, and in particular for calling out the endemic abuse in the practices of forced-feeding and Appendix M techniques in the Army Field Manual. But the full story is still not out there, and the investigations called for by UNCAT are not on anyone’s agenda. (There is a supposed “independent review” concerning collaboration of leading figures of the American Psychological Association with the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation program, but that will be the subject of a future article.)
In addition, the release of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence report on the CIA torture program — or at least it’s Executive Summary — keeps being delayed. The latest word is that it might be out by the end of the year, lost in the news wasteland that is the Christmas and New Years’ holidays.
It’s good to take some time to reflect upon the progress made in the fight against torture, but there’s still a long, long way to go before such crimes are truly eliminated, and the perpetrators of such crimes prosecuted.