The Davis Enterprise, May 7, 2006
Panel: Speak Out Against Torture
By Cory Golden
Enterprise staff writer
Just hours after the State Department's top legal adviser called allegations of U.S. personnel mistreating prisoners "absurd" on Friday, three critics appearing at UC Davis urged a public outcry against what they believe is the systematic use of torture.
Speaking in Geneva before the U.N. Committee Against Torture as the head of a U.S. delegation, John B. Bellinger III said there have been "relatively few actual cases of abuse and wrongdoing" and that those were isolated." Allegations about U.S. military or intelligence activities have become so hyperbolic as to be absurd," he said. "Critics will now accept virtually any speculation and rumor and circulate them as fact."
But in front of about 700 people at Freeborn Hall, Michael Ratner, president of the Center for Constitutional Rights; James Yee, former U.S. Army chaplain at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba; and Alfred McCoy, author of "A Question of Torture: CIA Interrogation From the Cold War to the War on Terror"; said they believed U.S. personnel regularly use sensory depravation, self-inflicted pain and cultural or religious manipulation in interrogations.
They appeared together in a talk centering on the Guantánamo Bay detention center led by Amy Goodman of the radio show "Democracy Now!" UCD's Center for the Study of Human Rights in the Americas sponsored the event.
McCoy, a University of Wisconsin history professor, said the CIA helped lead a "Manhattan Project of the mind" during the Cold War, developing torture tactics it still uses today.
When the Abu Ghraib prison scandal broke, the leaked photos like that of a hooded prisoner standing, arms spread, on a box holding fake electrical wires showed long-used CIA tactics, McCoy said, not the actions of what one columnist called a few "creeps."
"This is the manifestation of a uniquely American doctrine of torture," McCoy said.
"The question is, are we going to prohibit torture or make torture a legitimate weapon in the arsenal of American power?" he said. "The Bush Administration has ... decided to make torture a legitimate, permanent weapon in the arsenal of American power."
Passed by Congress with bipartisan support, last year's Detainee Treatment Act did not end torture, he said. Instead, it enshrined it allowing for controversial interrogation practices like "waterboarding," during which a bound prisoner has water poured over his thinly covered face, inducing the gag reflex and fear of drowning.
McCoy said such practices rarely yield answers, only desperate stories that muddy the pool of intelligence. Torture can be used to drum ideas in the minds of prisoners, however casting information gleaned that way into doubt.
"What it means is that when we're practicing torture, we're corrupting the entire process of national intelligence," he said. "We are weakening our national security."
U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Charles Stimson told the U.N. committee that 120 detainees have died in Iraq and Afghanistan; none at Guantánamo. Most died from natural causes, battlefield injuries or attacks by other detainees, he said.
U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights Barry Lowenkron said the U.S. conducted more than 600 criminal investigations into allegations of mistreatment, and more than 250 people had been held accountable for abusing detainees.
But Ratner and McCoy described Guantánamo as a torture laboratory.
The interrogation facility on the southeastern edge of Cuba were created so that "the president and his administration can have absolute authority over human beings, to do whatever they want to them" away from prying journalists, foreign governments and the administration has argued the jurisdiction of the courts, Ratner said.
Four hundred and ninety detainees from 40 countries remain there. None have been added since September 2004. All are Muslim.
A Seton Hall study of Defense Department data about 507 prisoners found 55 percent were not determined to have committed hostile acts against the United States.
Ratner noted that the study said only 5 percent were taken into custody by U.S. forces. The rest were turned over by groups like the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan, seeking reward money offered for members of the Taliban or al-Qaida.
"We're not talking about the worst of the worst," he said.
In 2003, before the Supreme Court, Ratner successfully argued that Guantánamo Bay prisoners are entitled access to civilian courts. So far, no cases have made it that far.
"The demands are not really saying that everybody in Guantánamo is innocent," Ratner said. "The demands are that if they're not going to be charged and tried, you have to release them."
Yee, a West Point graduate, said that after assuming his role as the chaplain at Guantánamo, he listened as prisoners some as young as 12 or 14 described interrogators kicking the Quran, being forced to bow to Satanic symbols and having female interrogators disrobe before them or touch their genitals.
"Gitmo's secret weapon was the use of religion against the prisoners," Yee said.
He also reported a guard beating a prisoner and saw detainees force fed after they stopped eating.
Yee said that he was successful in having arrows painted in the open-air cells, so that Muslims knew which way to face when praying, and the call to prayer broadcast over a loud speaker. He authored guidelines for how to handle the Quran, and earned commendations for his work.
Then, in September 2003, Yee was arrested. When news of the arrest was leaked to the media, his family learned he'd been accused of spying.
Charges of mishandling classified documents were later dropped but not before he endured some of the same treatment he'd seen at Guantánamo. He was shackled, his eyes and ears covered, then taken to a military prison in Charleston, S.C. There, he remained in solitary confinement for 76 days.
Yee was later given an honorable discharge and another commendation.
He said he remained convinced he was arrested because he practiced the same religion as prisoners, advocated for humane treatment and is a Chinese-American.
"I believe that by speaking out and making people aware of what's going on in Guantánamo, and letting others know what happened to me as a U.S. citizen held in this so-called war on terrorism, that one day all of this will lead to a well-deserved apology," Yee said.
Human rights groups and the media have reported alleged secret CIA prisons and the transfer of terror suspects to other countries where they could face torture.
Ratner said he believes "Guantánamo is the tip of the iceberg" and that Republicans and Democrats alike should be held accountable.
Said McCoy, "Unless we as a people make our Congress and president do otherwise, this will be U.S. policy for the next 50 years, just as it has been U.S. practice for the past 50 years."
Information about ordering a DVD of Friday's talk will soon be available at humanrights.ucdavis.edu. Archived interviews with Ratner, Yee and McCoy can be found at democracynow.org.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Reach Cory Golden at email@example.com or 747-8046.
Copyright, 2006, The Davis Enterprise. All Rights Reserved.