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Seven steps to learning to love US torture and detention policies, via "Zero Dark Thirty"

A waterboarding scene from the film "Zero Dark Thirty."

Karen J. Greenberg, executive director of the New York University Center on Law and Security and author of The Least Worst Place: Guantanamo's First One Hundred Days, explains seven simple steps to making US torture and detention policies once again acceptable to the American public, as illustrated in "Zero Dark Thirty."

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"Zero Dark Thirty" not good enough to justify torture fantasies

"Zero Dark Thirty," director Kathryn Bigelow's truthy-but-not-a-documentary-but-maybe-it-kinda-is thriller about the hunt for Osama bin Laden, opened in New York and Los Angeles this week. I watched a screener last night. I thought it kind of sucked. There's a lot of buzz about what a great work of art ZDT is. I don't get it. In reviews of ZDT, fawning critics reflexively note that she directed Oscar-winning "Hurt Locker." Guys, she directed "Point Break," too.

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CIA 'tortured, sodomized' terror suspect, European human rights court rules

09kidnap.xlarge1.jpg In a landmark ruling for human rights in the war on terror, the European court of human rights this week found that CIA agents tortured German citizen, Khaled el-Masri. The agents sodomized, shackled, and beat him, as Macedonian state police observed.

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Is the new Osama bin Laden snuff flick "Zero Dark Thirty" pro-torture?

Jessica Chastain as CIA agent “Maya” in Zero Dark Thirty. Photo: Sony/Columbia Pictures

Glenn Greenwald at the Guardian on the new Kathryn Bigelow film about the capture and assassination of Osama Bin Laden: "With its release imminent, [Zero Dark Thirty] is now garnering a pile of top awards and virtually uniform rave reviews. What makes this so remarkable is that, by most accounts, the film glorifies torture by claiming - falsely - that waterboarding and other forms of coercive interrogation tactics were crucial, even indispensable in finding bin Laden."

Spencer Ackerman in Wired News: "Bigelow is being presented as a torture apologist, and it’s a bum rap. David Edelstein of New York says her movie borders on the “morally reprehensible” for presenting “a case for the efficacy of torture.” The New York Times’ Frank Bruni suspects that Dick Cheney will give the film two thumbs up. Bruni is probably right, since defenders of torture have been known to latch onto any evidence they suspect will vindicate them as American heroes. But that’s not Zero Dark Thirty."

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Obedience and fear: What makes people hurt other people?

Stanley Milgram's "Obedience to Authority" experiments are infamous classics of psychology and social behavior. Back in the 1960s, Milgram set up a series of tests that showed seemingly normal people would be totally willing to torture another human being if prodded into it by an authority figure.

The basic set-up is probably familiar to you. Milgram told his test subjects that they were part of a study on learning. They were tasked with asking questions to another person, who was rigged up to an electric shock generator. When the other person got the questions wrong, the subject was supposed to zap them and then turn up the voltage. The catch was that the person getting "zapped" was actually an actor. So was the authority figure, whose job it was to tell the test subject that they must continue the experiment, no matter how much the other person pleaded for them to stop. In Milgram's original study, 65% of the subjects continued to the end of the session, eventually "administering" 450-volt shocks.

But they weren't doing it calmly. If you read Milgram's paper, you find that these people were trembling, and digging nails into their own flesh. Some of them even had seizure-like fits. Which is interesting to know when you sit down to read about Michael Shermer's recent attempt to replicate the Milgram experiments for a Dateline segment. Told they were trying out for a new reality show, the six subjects were set up to "shock" an actor, just like in Milgram's experiments. One walked out before the test even started. The others participated, but had some interesting rationales for why they did it — and a simple ingrained sense of obedience wasn't always what was going on.

Our third subject, Lateefah, became visibly upset at 120 volts and squirmed uncomfortably to 180 volts. When Tyler screamed, “Ah! Ah! Get me out of here! I refuse to go on! Let me out!” Lateefah made this moral plea to Jeremy: “I know I'm not the one feeling the pain, but I hear him screaming and asking to get out, and it's almost like my instinct and gut is like, ‘Stop,’ because you're hurting somebody and you don't even know why you're hurting them outside of the fact that it's for a TV show.” Jeremy icily commanded her to “please continue.” As she moved into the 300-volt range, Lateefah was noticeably shaken, so Hansen stepped in to stop the experiment, asking, “What was it about Jeremy that convinced you that you should keep going here?” Lateefah gave us this glance into the psychology of obedience: “I didn't know what was going to happen to me if I stopped. He just—he had no emotion. I was afraid of him.”

Read the rest in Michael Shermer's column at Scientific American

Guatemala: Former police chief convicted in 1980s disappearance

Justice at last, in one case from the US-backed 36-year civil war in Guatemala where some of the "harsh techniques" our military now uses in Iraq and Afghanistan and Gitmo were first perfected.

Three decades after Pedro Garcia Arredondo ordered the torture and "disappearance" of an agronomy student, the former chief detective of Guatemala's now-defunct National Police has been convicted and sentenced to 70 years in prison. From Amnesty International today:

Witnesses testified how [Édgar Enrique Sáenz Calito] was taken to “the little room” (“el cuartito”) where the Sixth Command typically interrogated guerrilla suspects.

The victim’s wife Violeta Ramírez Estrada told the court how she visited her husband in a prison hospital following his arrest and he bore signs of having been tortured – he had been subjected to beatings, water-boarding and cigarette burns, and electric shocks had been applied to his genitals.


(via @wolfe321)

Scientology's "Hole" - alleged torture-camp for high-ranking execs who fell out of favor

The Village Voice has a haunting, well-sourced account of "The Hole," where upper echelon Scientologists who have fallen into bad odor with the group's leader are imprisoned under inhumane conditions and tortured.

Debbie Cook was in for only 7 weeks in 2007, but her experience was brutal. She testified that Miscavige had two hulking guards climb into her office through a window as she was talking to him on the phone. "Goodbye" he told her as she was hauled off to the gulag. Like Rinder, she described a place where dozens of men and women were confined to what had been a set of offices. Cook testified that the place was ant-infested, and during one two-week stretch in the summer with temperatures over 100 degrees, Miscavige had the air conditioning turned off as punishment. Food was brought up in a vat riding on a golf cart. Cook described it as a barely edible "slop" that was fed to them morning, noon, and night. Longtime residents of the Hole began to look gaunt.

They had to find places on the floor or on desks to sleep at night. Rinder said there were so many of them they slept only inches from each other, and having to get up in the middle of the night was a nightmare of stepping over sleeping figures in the dark.

In the morning, they were marched out of the offices and through a tunnel under Gilman Springs Road to a large building with communal showers. They were then marched back to the Hole, and during the day would be compelled to take part in mass confessions.

During these, Rinder says people he had considered friends would put on a show for the officials overseeing them, trying to outdo each other with vile accusations against each other. Cook testified that Miscavige wanted Marc Yager and Guillaume Lesevre, two of his longest-serving and highest-ranking officials, to confess to having a homosexual affair. The men were beaten until they made some forced admissions. When Cook objected to what was happening, she herself was made to stand in a trash can for twelve hours while insults were hurled at her, she was called a lesbian, and water was dumped on her head.

Scientology's Concentration Camp for Its Executives: The Prisoners, Past and Present

Stuff that isn't obviously torture if you're a US gov't official

Courtesy of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, a list of "things that government officials could do to an American citizen and still claim later that they didn't know they were "torturing" that citizen."

Prolonged isolation; Deprivation of light; Exposure to prolonged periods of light and/or darkness; Extreme variations in temperature; Sleep adjustment; Threats of severe physical abuse; Death threats; Administration of psychotropic drugs; Shackling and manacling for hours at a time; Use of "stress" positions; Noxious fumes that caused pain to eyes and nose; Withholding of any mattress, pillow, sheet or blanket; Forced grooming; Suspension of showers; Removal of religious items; Constant surveillance; Incommunicado detention, including denial of all contact with family and legal counsel for a 21-month period; Interference with religious observance; and Denial of medical care for serious and potentially life-threatening ailments, including chest pain and difficulty breathing, as well as for treatment of the chronic, extreme pain caused by being forced to endure stress positions, resulting in severe and continuing mental and physical harm, pain, and profound disruption of the senses and personality.

Lowering the Bar explains:

The legal issue was whether John Yoo should be entitled to "qualified immunity" in a case brought by Jose Padilla, a U.S. citizen detained as an "enemy combatant." "Qualified immunity" is a doctrine that bars claims against government officials if, at the time they acted, it was not "sufficiently clear that every reasonable official would have understood that what he or she was doing violated the plaintiff's rights." The idea is to try to preserve some freedom of action for officials who have to act in areas where the law may not always be clear. If it applies, no lawsuit.

So, next question: do you think a "reasonable official" in 2001-03, when John Yoo was in the government, should have understood that doing those things to an American citizen -- one who, by the way, had not been convicted of or even charged with a crime -- violated that citizen's rights?

Would the Last Civil Right in America Please Remember to Close the Door on Its Way Out?

Brian Wood's DMZ: a critical look back


As the final volume of Brian Wood's brilliant anti-war graphic novel DMZ nears publication, Dominic Umile looks back on the series' 72 issue run of political allegory and all the ways that it used the device of fiction to make trenchant comic on the real world. DMZ is a story about the "State of Exception" that the American establishment declared after 9/11, a period when human rights, civil liberty, economic sanity, and the constitution all play second-fiddle to the all-consuming war on terror. Like the best allegories, it works first and best as a story in its own right, but it is also an important comment on the world we live in.

In DMZ #8, Matty Roth reviews a series of New York Times newspapers to reconstruct a timeline of the book’s war. Burchielli’s panels are nearly blacked-out. It’s as if Roth is squatting on a darkened stage: Nothing behind him is discernible outside of more yellowed newspapers, each slugged with copy that’s painfully close to our own real-life headlines. Brian Wood’s chief character is despondent and sounds like many of us do today in the era of Occupy Wall Street, hostilities in Afghanistan, the Obama administration’s drone campaign, and rampant corruption plaguing state and federal government, all amid an ever-theatric run-up to another presidential election.

Even as DMZ had another 64 issues and more than five years to go, Roth’s thoughts are rendered with an undeniable degree of both prescience and finality: “I never paid attention to politics. Never seemed to be a point. Politics happened the way it happened regardless of what anyone thought or did. So why bother?”

A "System" of Torture?: 'DMZ's' Argument Through Comment, and Comics

Evidence of Britain's colonial crimes revealed, including orders to cover up evidence of further atrocities


After 50 years of secrecy, the British archive of papers related to colonial handovers have been made public. The trove of papers document (among other things), the brutal torture of Kenyans who participated in the Mau Mau uprising, a vicious purge of "enemies" in colonial Malaya, and the forced relocation of indigenous people from the island of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean, followed by a coverup that included lies to the UN. Also in the documents is an order requiring colonial governments to destroy evidence of wrongdoing, against a disclosure such as this, which suggests that the 8,800 documents being released are only a tiny fraction of the evidence of Britain's crimes.

The papers at Hanslope Park include monthly intelligence reports on the "elimination" of the colonial authority's enemies in 1950s Malaya; records showing ministers in London were aware of the torture and murder of Mau Mau insurgents in Kenya, including a case of aman said to have been "roasted alive"; and papers detailing the lengths to which the UK went to forcibly remove islanders from Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean.

However, among the documents are a handful which show that many of the most sensitive papers from Britain's late colonial era were not hidden away, but simply destroyed. These papers give the instructions for systematic destruction issued in 1961 after Iain Macleod, secretary of state for the colonies, directed that post-independence governments should not get any material that "might embarrass Her Majesty's government", that could "embarrass members of the police, military forces, public servants or others eg police informers", that might compromise intelligence sources, or that might "be used unethically by ministers in the successor government".

Among the documents that appear to have been destroyed were: records of the abuse of Mau Mau insurgents detained by British colonial authorities, who were tortured and sometimes murdered; reports that may have detailed the alleged massacre of 24 unarmed villagers in Malaya by soldiers of the Scots Guards in 1948; most of the sensitive documents kept by colonial authorities in Aden, where the army's Intelligence Corps operated a secret torture centre for several years in the 1960s; and every sensitive document kept by the authorities in British Guiana, a colony whose policies were heavily influenced by successive US governments and whose post-independence leader was toppled in a coup orchestrated by the CIA...

Some idea of the scale of the operation and the amount of documents that were erased from history can be gleaned from a handful of instruction documents that survived the purge. In certain circumstances, colonial officials in Kenya were informed, "it is permissible, as an alternative to destruction by fire, for documents to be packed in weighted crates and dumped in very deep and current-free water at maximum practicable distance from the coast".

The release was precipitated by a civil suit over torture in the Mau Mau uprising.

Britain destroyed records of colonial crimes

Tony Blair channels Ronald Reagan, "doesn't remember" sending dissidents to Libya for torture

When the Qaddafi regime fell in Libya, the headquarters of the secret police were occupied by the rebel forces, who retrieved a large quantity of memos and documents detailing the cooperation between western governments and the Qaddafi regime, including the sale and maintenance of network surveillance equipment, and, notoriously, the use of Qaddafi's torturers on suspected terrorists who were secretly rendered to Libya by western intelligence agencies.

One set of documents show that the UK intelligence service worked to kidnap and render Libyan dissident Abdel Hakim Belhaj and his pregnant wife, Fatima Bouchar, for a horrific round of torture that was directly overseen by UK intelligence agents, with the knowledge of the CIA.

Now Tony Blair, who was prime minister of Britain at the time of the illegal kidnapping and torture, denies having any recollection of the programme, and insists that Libya was a fine partner in the war on terror.

A UK parliamentary committee is attempting to investigate the matter, and filed a freedom of information request with the US government for documents on UK participation in illegal rendition programmes. The CIA objected to the request, and a US judge denied it on the grounds that it had been made by a "foreign government entity" (the UK's all-party parliamentary group on extraordinary rendition). Deputy committee chair Tony Lloyd called the ruling "odd" and "an abuse of the spirit of freedom of information." He noted that the judge had not rejected the proposal on the grounds of national security, but because "a parliamentary body that was part of the British state was 'not acceptable.'" Richard Norton-Taylor has more in the Guardian.

The CIA's approach echoes that adopted by MI6 and MI5, which have fought to prevent the disclosure in British courts of evidence relating to the US practice of extraordinary rendition.

The parliamentary group, meanwhile, is fighting a refusal by the British government to disclose papers that, it says, would reveal UK complicity in the secret flights and subsequent abuse of individual suspects. The information tribunal in London is expected to give a ruling on the request soon.

Tony Blair has 'no recollection' of Libyan dissident's rendition

(Image: Tony Blair interviewed by Fortune, a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike (2.0) image from thenickster's photostream)

Maher Arar on Canada's pro-torture policy

Maher Arar, a Canadian who was rendered to Syria for years of brutal torture on the basis of bad information from Canada's intelligence agencies, writes in Prism about the revelation that Canadian public safety minister Vic Toews has given Canadian intelligence agencies and police the green light to use information derived from torture in their work. Arar cites examples of rendition and torture based on the "Hollywood fantasy that underlines the 'ticking bomb' scenario that minister Toews was apparently contemplating when he wrote this directive."

What makes this direction even more alarming is that the fat annual budgets devoted to enhancing national security have not been balanced by a similar increase in oversight. In fact, the government chose to ignore the most important recommendation of Justice O’Connor which is to establish a credible oversight agency that has the required powers to monitor and investigate the activities of the RCMP and those of other agencies involved in the gathering and dissemination of national security information. Unlike the powerless Commission for Public Complaints Against the RCMP (CPC) or the Security Intelligence Review Committee (SIRC) this agency would also be granted subpoena power to compel all agencies to produce the required documents.

Coming back to the directive one can only cite two examples here which I believe are sufficient to illustrate the hollowness of the argument presented in the directive. The first relates to the invasion of Iraq which we now know was based on false intelligence (see this video) that was extracted from Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi while he was being tortured in Egypt. Al-Libi was later found dead inside his prison cell. Some human rights activists believe the Gaddafi regime liquidated him three years after he was rendered to Libya by the CIA.

Torture Directive 2.0 (Thanks, Richard!)

(Image: Rothenburg Germany Torture Museum, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from nanpalmero's photostream) (Thanks, Richard!)

Meet more western companies that arm dictators and torturers with network spyware

Last week, the Electronic Frontier Foundation profiled FinFisher and Amesys, two of the companies that had been caught selling network spying tools to despotic regimes around the world, including Hosni Mubarak's Egypt and Muammar Qaddafi's Libya. This week, EFF continues the series with profiles of Italy's Area SpA (which sells electronic tracking software to Bashar al-Assad's regime in Syria) and Germany's Trovicor (which sells spyware to a dozen countries in the Middle East and North Africa).

In 2011, at the same time that news of Syria’s violent crackdown on democratic protests graced the pages of the world’s newspapers, an Italian company called Area SpA was busy helping the Syrian’s dictator Bashar al-Assad electronically track the dissidents his army was firing upon in the streets. Area SpA had begun installing “monitoring centers” that would give the Syrian government the ability “to intercept, scan and catalog virtually every e-mail that flows through the country” as well as “follow targets on flat-screen workstations that display communications and Web use in near-real time alongside graphics that map citizens’ networks of electronic contacts.”

Worse, as the violence in Syria escalated in mid-2011, “Area employees [were] flown into Damascus in shifts” in the government’s push to finish the project, according to a report from Bloomberg News.

Spy Tech Companies & Their Authoritarian Customers, Part II: Trovicor and Area SpA

UK gov't: yes, we kidnapped people and sent them to be tortured by Qaddafi, but you can't sue us

After the fall of the Qaddafi regime, secret police documents were discovered linking the UK spy agency MI6 with the kidnap of two leading Libyan dissidents and their families, in order to deliver them to Qaddafi's torturers. The UK government has admitted that its spies are guilty of this crime, but point to a law that says that British spies can't be held liable for their crimes, provided that the secretary of state signs off on them, and the secretary did.

The "acts" can take place only overseas and remain illegal both under the laws of the country where they are committed and possibly under international law. But, section 7 says, with the stroke of a pen a secretary of state can rule that no UK law can be brought to bear.

The act had been drafted as a consequence of a series of European court judgments in the 1980s that forced Britain's ultra-secretive intelligence agencies to emerge into the daylight of the public domain.

How secret renditions shed light on MI6's licence to kill and torture (via Warren Ellis)

North Carolina town still protesting CIA rendition program, ten years later

Moms, priests, and peace-minded activists in a small North Carolina town haven't forgotten that a local aviation contractor was a key player in the CIA's “torture taxi” business. “I don’t want to live in a country that acts this way,” said Julia Elsee, 87, protesting at the Johnston County Airport. Xeni