Why Torture is Wrong

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

The following speech was delivered by Curt Goering, CVT executive director, in Spokane, Washington, on September 9, 2017. He was invited by the Washington State Religious Campaign Against Torture to speak on the occasion of settlement of an historic lawsuit filed against two psychologists, James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, who designed the CIA torture program after the attacks of 9/11.

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Thank you for the very kind and generous introduction, Liz. And a special thank you to the Washington State Religious Campaign against Torture and all the cosponsors for organizing these really critical series of events on torture. And thank you all for being here this evening. It’s sobering that at this point in the evolution of our species—which we like to believe is a world which is becoming increasingly civilized, and that the U.S. is a major positive force in that direction—it’s really sobering that it has become necessary for a series of events to be organized to remind and educate us all about the evil of torture. The importance of your efforts can hardly be overstated, and I really appreciate the opportunity this evening to be a part of them.

Of course, the developments which gave rise to this and the other events is the lawsuit against James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, psychologists who designed the CIA post-9/11 torture program. The recent settlement is unprecedented, and the plaintiffs, two surviving victims of CIA torture, and the family of one man who died from it, are the only individuals so far to receive some measure of justice from the U.S. for the harm that was intentionally inflicted on them under cover of secrecy in international black site prisons.

With the settlement, the victims (and it is important to mention them by name), Suleiman Abdullah Salim and Mohamed Ahmed Ben Soud, who survived the torture, and Gul Rahman, who did not, were spared a trial. They (and in the case of Rahman, his family) were not forced to revisit, personally and in the global media, the excruciating details of the torture they endured: suspension, stress positions, being slammed into walls, crammed and confined in small locked boxes, dietary manipulation, prolonged sleep deprivation, forced nudity, water dousing in freezing temperatures, being strapped to waterboards, death threats and more. For years.

And so we are grateful that they got some modicum of justice for the torture inflicted on them. But this settlement is hardly a crack in the wall of impunity. Two psychologists were held to at least some form of account, but there were many others. Others who ordered torture. Others who condoned torture. Others who worked to create loopholes for torture.

And today we have a president who openly, repeatedly and aggressively asserts his support for the use of torture. Here’s what he has said: 

“I’m going to bring back waterboarding and a helluva lot worse.”

“We’re going to have to do things that are unthinkable.”

“Torture works. It absolutely works. If it doesn’t work, they deserve it anyway.”

So this evening I want to talk about why torture is such a scourge. Why we must never return to its use. And why we must wipe it from the face of the earth.

I want to share a little background. I’m executive director of the Center for Victims of Torture, CVT. We rebuild the lives and restore the hope of people who have survived torture, who have escaped from the most despicable regimes on the planet. Almost all of our more than 4,600 annual clients are refugees and asylum seekers, trying to put their lives back on track after torture.

My colleagues are psychologists, social workers, physiotherapists, researchers, international program managers, human rights experts and advocates. We work with people who have survived the most extreme cruelty the human mind can devise.

CVT rebuilds the lives of survivors in the U.S., at projects in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis/St. Paul and in Atlanta. We work in Uganda, with former child soldiers and other victims of atrocities committed by the Lord’s Resistance Army. We work in Ethiopia, with survivors of brutality committed by the Eritrean government, one of the most repressive on the planet. We work in Nairobi, with urban refugee survivors from around the region; in the Dadaab refugee camps in northeastern Kenya; and now in the Kakuma refugee camps in northwestern Kenya, where hundreds of thousands have fled and continue to flee the bloodbath in South Sudan. And we work in Jordan, with Iraqis and Syrians who have endured torture and atrocities committed on a scale that is difficult to comprehend. 

We also build the capacity of colleague organizations in the U.S. and abroad, and of human rights defenders globally, through technical assistance and training. We conduct research on effective approaches to healing torture survivors. And through our office in Washington, DC, we generate federal funding to heal survivors while working against torture and for transparency, reform and accountability for the post-9/11 torture committed by the United States in the name of counterterrorism. In this work we’re pleased to partner with the National Religious Campaign Against Torture and other major human rights and civil liberties organizations.

While I’ve been with CVT less than six years, I have been in the human rights or humanitarian field my entire adult life.  Over 35 years now. And I’ve done human rights investigations in many countries around the globe, including into some of the most egregious violations that have occurred in recent years:  in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in Bosnia, in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. I’ve sat down with hundreds of survivors of atrocities: mass killings, survivors of torture, and heard all too often the painful and excruciating details of what they had survived.

I mention that because, as I read the testimonies of the three individuals in the lawsuit filed in the Eastern District of this state who were tortured at the hands of the US, and particularly the systems of torture designed by Mr. Jessen and Mr. Mitchell, it became clear that what their victims endured—the subject of this lawsuit—was every bit as savage; every bit as brutal, as any testimony I had ever taken from victims and survivors.  The torture to death of Gul Rahman at the Salt Pit in Afghanistan was every bit as terrible as the worst details of testimony shared with me by surviving family members who had a father or a son tortured to death in Iraq or Afghanistan or Turkey. Throughout most of my years doing this work I learned, frankly, not to be very surprised to be confronted with deaths in custody as a result of torture, if it happened in Iran or Syria or in Chile under Pinochet or in South Africa under apartheid, but tortured to death at the hands of the U.S. interrogators?   If you haven’t yet read the complaint in the lawsuit, I really urge you to do so.  It is terribly gruesome reading, but we all need to know how horrific the torture was that our government carried out. And reading the details will help us all better understand what was, after all, done in our name.

It is precisely the kinds of torture described in that lawsuit that our staff hear and see evidence of every single day.  Survivors—our clients—come to us bringing horrific stories of torture, imprisonment, rape or other forms of sexual and gender based violence. Many bear physical evidence, such as scars from being lashed with cables; stabbed or burned with cigarettes; head injuries and broken bones from beatings; musculoskeletal disorders from being hung by their arms or put in other stress positions; paralysis or lost limbs. The methods improvised are boundless.

So out of my personal background and the 30-plus years now that CVT has been working every day with survivors of torture comes a profound sense of the devastating impacts of torture. We know the impacts on individuals and families and communities. And we know the profound impacts made on a country’s reputation and standing in the world once leaders make the decision to use torture.

Here are some of the things we know about torture.

Torture is widespread.

Amnesty International has reported that over the past year, nearly 100 countries have engaged in the use of torture—that is, the deliberate infliction of severe physical  or mental suffering, carried out by a public official for a specific purpose—a confession, information, to intimidate.  And in scores of these countries, the practice is not isolated, but widespread and systematic.  It occurs in countries that lean to the right. It occurs in countries that lean to the left.  It occurs in countries with free elections.  It occurs in countries with no elections.  Countries that are dictatorships.  Countries that are democracies.   It occurs every day, in every region of the world. Men, women and even children are subjected to torture.  In the vast majority of cases, there is no investigation of these crimes.  No one is prosecuted for them.  Torture is committed with impunity. 

We also know that torture leaves deep and long-lasting wounds.

Survivors who receive care at CVT endure chronic pain in muscles and joints, from being bound or hung or confined to small spaces like cages. They have balance and mobility issues, often from being beaten on the soles of the feet or lower legs. They have a range of sleep disorders, from sleeplessness to intense and incessant nightmares in which the torturers revisit them night after night after night. They endure deep depression, severe anxiety and frequent thoughts of suicide.

Torture is psychological as well as physical.

Torturers often focus on ways of inflicting grave pain that never leave a mark on the flesh: forced nakedness and sexual humiliation, stress positions, sleep deprivation, sensory overload, sensory deprivation and mock executions are among some of the horrific methods used.

One of the reasons that this fact is important is that it is abused. When people seek to justify torture, they often argue that if an act doesn’t leave scars, it is not torture. You hear this in connection with waterboarding. But we know, and medical experts have proven, that the psychological effects of torture are as devastating and long-lasting as physical effects. Indeed, many survivors we work with say it’s even worse.

Trying to hide torture behind euphemisms like “enhanced interrogation” is manipulation of the facts. These tactics are cruel and debilitating. James Mitchell himself acknowledged that most people would rather have their legs broken than endure waterboarding.

Torture is used to control communities.

At CVT, we work with survivors of torture committed by repressive regimes around the world. Many of our clients were highly successful in their lives, in business, in professional careers and in their communities.

When one person is taken and tortured, the family learns immediately to be afraid, to be silent. When a second person is tortured, the community quickly gets the message: you must do whatever the perpetrators want.

Torture takes control swiftly. Torture creates such a climate of fear and insecurity that it fractures communities, silences dissent and suppresses civic engagement. It creates cultures based on apathy and fear.

Even children are tortured.

This can be difficult to accept, but the fact is CVT clinicians work in many locations with children who have been tortured or survived war atrocities. In some cases, perpetrators capture children to force their parents to turn themselves in. In other cases, children are singled out for torture. Parents describe watching their children being tortured and being powerless to protect them—a pain that they say is even more excruciating than their own torture.

At CVT Ethiopia, where we see Eritrean survivors, over 40 percent of our clients are under 18 years old. One out of every four clients is a minor at CVT Jordan.

The numbers are huge: As many as 1.3 million refugee torture survivors live in the U.S. alone.

As the global refugee crisis grows, with over 65 million persons displaced today, the number of refugees who have survived torture is staggering. According to CVT’s research, up to 44 percent of refugees in the United States have survived torture. This is as many as 1.3 million people, a number almost 2 times the population of Seattle.

We also know that rehabilitative care is critical to rebuild lives of torture survivors.

The long-term effects of torture can last a lifetime without proper care. Many survivors suffer from posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), major depression, anxiety and other severe mental health conditions, in addition to the painful physical symptoms of their torture. Many survivors tell CVT of the intense fear they confronted every day before getting help; this fear causes many to isolate themselves and remove themselves from the community. Rebuilding a life is a journey, but one that results in success for survivors with the proper care.

Here are some of the other things we know about torture.

Torture is illegal.

Torture is a crime under both international and domestic law. There are no exceptions and it is never allowed in a time of war or in the name of national security. The UN Convention Against Torture and U.S. law, ban torture explicitly and without exception.

Torture is immoral.

Torture consists of acts that are intrinsically wrong due to their cruelty and abusiveness. Torture is an extreme abuse of power and control of one person over another. Whether psychological or physical, torture is a calculated and systematic assault on and dismantling of a person’s identity, dignity and humanity.

Torture makes us less safe.

When people claim that torture somehow demonstrates that we are tough, that the U.S. is somehow invincible, they have not looked at the consequences our country has suffered as a result of our use of torture. When we tortured detainees in the past, the United States strengthened the resolve of our adversaries. Indeed, the fact that the CIA used torture after the 9/11 attacks served as a recruiting tool for terrorists. The U.S. use of torture also alienates partners and puts the United States in the company of human rights violators whose actions we deplore and condemn.

And using torture creates serious risks for our military. Some—not all—military leaders understand the consequences to U.S. troops when the U.S. uses torture; some military leaders are among the strongest opponents of torture.  But it’s not universal by any means—remember Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib, Bagram.

Torture is ineffective.

As an interrogation tool, torture is notoriously unreliable. Of course torture will on occasion produce accurate information. But just as often, and perhaps more often, it will produce inaccurate information. We know this from our own work; our clients tell us they said anything they thought the torturers wanted to hear—just to stop the torment and pain. 

Military leaders understand this, too. When accurate information is of the utmost importance, the last thing they need is to be sent on a wild goose chase. That’s why the Army Field Manual, which governs interrogation standards for all U.S. government agencies and contractors, is unequivocal in its opposition to torture.

The “ticking bomb” scenario is fiction.

Perhaps you’ve heard this one: people who defend the use of torture often claim that there are cases when only torture will extract crucial information quickly enough to stop a deadly attack. But this is a myth that’s perpetuated by torture apologists, and also by movies and television.

Never – never – has a real-world “ticking bomb” situation been identified where torture resulted in useful intelligence. In fact, seasoned interrogators such as Secretary of Defense James Mattis forcefully assert that accurate information comes from sophisticated questioning techniques and rapport-building, not torture.

There is some good news: Ending torture has bi-partisan support.

U.S. leadership across party affiliations has long opposed torturethough there have been periods when our nation’s actions did not match its words. President Ronald Reagan in 1988 signed the Convention Against Torture. The president noted then that “Ratification of the Convention by the United States will clearly express United States opposition to torture, an abhorrent practice unfortunately still prevalent in the world today.”

President George H.W. Bush prioritized U.S. ratification of the Convention. The Detainee Treatment Act passed the Congress in 2005 with broad bipartisan support. In 2009, President Barack Obama signed an executive order ending the CIA’s use of torture and cruel treatment. In 2015, led by Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona and Democrat Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, Congress enshrined key elements of that executive order into U.S. law, solidifying the ban on torture. 

That bipartisan consensus still largely holds today, even in the fact of President Trump’s aggressive promotion of torture. When a draft executive order was leaked early in the Trump presidency that called for a review of the CIA’s detention and interrogation program, which could have brought back the global network of secret prisons at which the CIA committed systematic torture, the condemnation was swift, strong and firmly bipartisan.

And CVT’s staff met earlier this year with nearly 30 Republican Senate offices. We found no support for a return to torture as an instrument of U.S. policy.

Yet Gina Haspel, deputy director of the CIA, oversaw the torture of two prisoners at a secret prison in Thailand, and later took part in the destruction of videotapes of that torture.

And I think it’s pretty clear to many that when there is another terrorist attack in the U.S., President Trump will be back at it with his aggressive calls to bring back "waterboarding and a helluva lot worse.”

So we must be vigilant, and we must fight back against any and every effort to restart a torture program.

And we must be prepared to take action when more progress becomes possible. We need to know the whole truth about the torture program that James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen designed. We need the Senate to release the Intelligence Committee’s full report on the post-9/11 torture program, not just the Executive Summary.

We need those who authorized and ordered the torture program to finally be held fully accountable. No one—no one is above the law.

And we need to ensure that victims of the torture that was committed in our name receive reparations and access to rehabilitative care. We need the United States to live up to the full promise of the Convention against Torture, which guarantees to survivors “fair and adequate compensation, including as full rehabilitation as possible.”

I know many of you here have been a part of the effort to win transparency, reform and accountability for the post-9/11 torture program. I thank you. The prisoners at Guantanamo who are still suffering from the physical and psychological abuses they endured, and on whose cases we’ve consulted, they thank you. Survivors at CVT project sites in the U.S. and abroad, and the survivors at the world’s other torture survivor programs, they thank you.

At a time when we gather to reflect upon some of humanity’s darkest days, it is people like you who represent the best of humanity. Thank you again for being here.  Thank you again for caring. 

Photo credit: Todd Donery

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