American torture: From the CIA to Guantanamo

On April 3, when the Senate Intelligence Committee votes on whether to declassify its report on the CIA’s post-9/11 torture practices, the members of the committee should keep in mind that torture is happening even today, on President Obama’s watch, at Guantánamo Bay.

Earlier this month, a team of lawyers for two hunger-striking detainees at Guantánamo Bay commenced legal proceedings challenging recent force-feeding practices there as a variation on a form of torture colloquially known as “the water cure.” The water cure dates back to the Spanish Inquisition and was used by the Imperial Japanese Army against U.S. and allied prisoners of war during World War II.  It is formally called “pumping,” and is inflicted by forcing copious amounts of water down the victim’s throat, which causes the stomach and intestines to stretch and convulse, resulting in some of the most intense pain that visceral tissues can experience.

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At Guantánamo Bay, military doctors and nurses have medicalized the water cure.  They are now using excessively thick nasogastric feeding tubes to force as much as two-thirds of a gallon of fluid into hunger-striking detainees in as little as 20 minutes, twice each day, while they are tightly strapped to a specially-made restraint chair.   If a detainee vomits during the process—which is common—it starts all over again. Adding humiliation to the ordeal, the doctors frequently give the detainee a laxative, which can cause him to defecate during the process—after which he may be held in the restraint chair for as long as two hours, sitting in his own filth. One detainee has even reported that often, when he is brought back to his cell, the guards lay him on his stomach and cause him to vomit by pressing forcefully on his back.

Pumping is not the same as waterboarding—pouring water through a cloth placed over the victim’s mouth—which is formally called “choking” and prevents breathing.  Some people, like President George W. Bush’s former speechwriter Marc Thiessen, insist that waterboarding does not rise to the level of torture.  But even Thiessen admits (in his 2009 book Courting Disaster) that techniques like pumping and the subsequent application of force to cause vomiting—descriptions of which feature prominently in the archives of the 1946 Tokyo War Crimes Trial—are “clearly torture.”

Adding further suffering to the process at Guantánamo Bay, feeding tubes are routinely withdrawn after each force-feeding and reinserted for the next feeding—twice daily—instead of being left in place for a month or more at a time, which is the customary medical practice for long-term nasogastric tube feeding. This is not only unnecessarily painful, it increases the risk that force-fed fluids will be misdirected into the lungs and aspirated.

Previously, all of the written protocols governing force-feeding at Guantánamo Bay were publicly available.  In December 2013, however, the Department of Defense revised the Guantánamo Bay force-feeding protocols and is now withholding from public view large portions of the protocols, including those pertaining to the quantity and speed of force-feeding.  Just as the CIA has been resisting public disclosure of its torture practices after the 9/11 terrorist attacks—evidently going so far as to hack the computers of staff for the Senate Intelligence Committee—the Department of Defense is now resisting public disclosure of abusive force-feeding practices at Guantánamo Bay.

Last week, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-=Calif.), who heads the Senate Intelligence Committee, told Agence France-Presse that “I think it’s very important” to declassify portions of the committee’s report on the CIA’s post-9/11 torture practices so that these brutal techniques “will never happen again.”   But they are happening again right now at Guantánamo Bay—which exemplifies why the committee should vote to declassify.

By openly addressing instances of torture in America’s recent history, we can help to prevent their recurrence at places like Guantánamo Bay.  As France’s President Francois Hollande has said in seeking to shed light on instances of brutality by French soldiers during the Algerian War of 1954-1962:  “The truth does not damage.  It repairs.”

Eisenberg is an attorney in Oakland, California who is working with the non-profit Reprieve US on the Guantanamo Bay force-feeding litigation. Kadidal is senior managing attorney representing detainees for the Guantanamo Project at the Center for Constitutional Rights.