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March, 2006


Torture By Americans
By John W. Whitehead

During a recent debate in Chicago, former US Justice Department official John Yoo, who wrote the crucial memos justifying President Bush's policies on torture, was asked, "If the president deems that he's got to torture somebody, including by crushing the testicles of the person's child, there is no law that can stop him?"
"No treaty," replied Yoo, now a professor at the University of California law school at Berkeley. He then went on to espouse the notion of the "unitary executive." This is the idea that as commander-in-chief the president is the sole judge of the law, is unbound by the Geneva Conventions against torture and possesses inherent authority to subordinate the entire government to his rule-including Congress and the courts-when he decides to do so.

This concept, the cornerstone of the Bush doctrine on presidential power, was attested to by Attorney General Alberto Gonzales in his testimony before Congress on the Administration's warrantless electronic surveillance of American citizens. This doctrine has also been vigorously championed by the White House, which at some points has even argued in defense of the use of torture.

Moreover, it has been widely reported that American government agents have resorted to outsourcing suspected terrorists for torture through a program know as "extraordinary rendition." The program, apparently condoned by Vice President Dick Cheney, involves the clandestine transfer of suspected terrorists to countries ruled by regimes where it is possible that torture or other forms of cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment occur. Dr. William F. Schulz, executive director of Amnesty International USA, referring to a set of CIA flight logs obtained by the organization, said the logs were "irrefutable proof that the United States is 'disappearing' people into secret facilities where they are held incommunicado without charge, trial, or access to the outside world."

Such reports give rise to a host of moral and ethical questions, such as: Can a country that claims to champion human rights and whose elected officials claim to abide by Judeo-Christian precepts advocate torture of any kind? And if the US is determined to advocate torture, should there be limits to what can and cannot be done in the name of fighting the so-called war on terror?

Various government regimes in numerous countries throughout the world, including the US, employ torture tactics. The following are just a few of the many examples of brutal methods of coercion employed by these regimes:

Uzbekistan (currently an ally of the US), Iraq and Afghanistan all have a long history of subjecting people to torture and ill-treatment in the name of national security. These include stretching limbs apart; burns with cigarettes, heated instruments or a scalding liquid; electric shock; asphyxiation by drowning, smothering, choking or use of chemicals; penetrating injuries such as stab and gunshot wounds and wires under nails; chemical exposures to salt, chili pepper, gasoline, etc., in wounds or body cavities; sexual violence to genitals, molestation, rape; medical amputation of digits or limbs and surgical removal of organs.

Interrogators in western Iraq have stuffed insurgents face-first into sleeping bags with a small hole cut in the bottom for air, which resulted in suffocating to death. An American warrant officer was recently found guilty of a similar act.

In forced labor camps in China, victims have been tortured through a specially designed "death bed." Consisting of a metal board with a hole at hip level, the victim's hands and feet are stretched apart and tied to the sides of the bed, the pants are cut open or taken off and all waste products fall through the hole. China's interrogators also use a method of torturing women with a square-shaped metal cage made of small welded steel bars. The victim is tied with her back to the rear of a chair and the rope crossing between her legs. She is then lifted up against one side of the metal cage until her feet no longer touch the ground, and the horizontal bar of the cage is used for support.

Her arms are spread apart, and each hand is handcuffed or tied to the pipe. One leg is then raised and held up by one of the guards, while another stabs the victim's hands with scissors or beats on her feet with a plank, aiming repeatedly for one spot. Then the other leg is forced in the opposite direction. Variations of this torture include lifting the victim's legs while the guards insert a broomstick into her vagina and poke around vigorously. To muffle the cries and moans of anguish, the interrogators gag her with a dirty rag and tape her mouth with yellow tape. Many victims have suffered massive hemorrhages because of this torture.

In Burma, government agents have devised various techniques of torture against dissidents, whom they label "enemies of the state." One method, in which a rat is placed in a pot that is attached to the prisoner's stomach, appears to have been taken from the pages of George Orwell's futuristic novel 1984. The pot is then heated, forcing the rat to dig into the prisoner's stomach in a desperate attempt to escape, creating a living hell for the so-called enemy of the state.

Torture by American interrogators of detainees in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, has also been documented. An unnamed FBI agent reports:

"On a couple of occasions, I entered interview rooms to find a detainee chained hand and foot in a fetal position to the floor, with no chair, food, or water. Most times they had urinated and defecated on themselves, and had been left there from 18, 24 hours or more. On one occasion, the air conditioning was turned down so far and the temperature was so cold in the room, that the barefooted detainee was shaking with cold. When I asked the MPs what was going on, I was told that interrogators from the day prior had ordered this treatment, and the detainee was not to be moved. On another occasion, the A/C had been turned off, making the temperature in the unventilated room probably well over 100 degrees. The detainee was almost unconscious on the floor, with a pile of hair next to him. He had apparently been literally pulling his own hair out throughout the night."

The FBI report also notes that at least on one occasion an American female guard in charge "had grabbed the detainee's thumbs and bent them backwards and indicated that she also grabbed his genitals." The memo also stated that "her treatment of that detainee was less harsh than her treatment of others." One Marine indicated that "he had seen her treatment of other detainees result in detainees curling into a fetal position on the floor and crying in pain."

Most Americans were shocked by the photos of the contorted bodies of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib as the American guards looked on with ghoulish smiles. Megan Ambuhl, a former guard at Abu Ghraib, said she was stunned the first time she stepped into the prison. There were naked men in dusty cells, male prisoners wearing women's underwear and others hooded and shackled in contorted positions to metal railings. An enlisted officer giving her a tour of the prison in October 2003 pointed to a group of detainees chained to a jail cell. As she told the Washington Post, the officer said the bars had often "been decorated like a Christmas tree," with prisoners as ornaments.

A Jewish prophet once proclaimed, "The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked. Who can know it?" Understanding this about people, another Jewish prophet some 600 years later, who suffered extreme torture himself, taught his followers to "love your enemies, bless those who curse you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you." Indeed, one wonders what Jesus, with his professed love of children, would say to John Yoo about torture that might justify "crushing the testicles" of someone's child.

Constitutional attorney and author John W. Whitehead is founder and president of The Rutherford Institute. He can be contacted at [email protected] Information about The Rutherford Institute is available at

Founded in 1982 by constitutional attorney and author John W. Whitehead, The Rutherford Institute is a civil liberties organization that provides free legal services to people whose constitutional and human rights have been threatened or violated.

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