Guantanamo: Torture or No Torture?

The Washington Post‘s Josh White and Neil Lewis of the New York Times covered yesterday’s hearings before the Senate Armed Services Committee on the prison abuse scandals at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib. They had rather different takes on what transpired–although not as different as their headline writers.

Abu Ghraib Tactics Were First Used at Guantanamo (WaPo, A1)

Interrogators at the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, forced a stubborn detainee to wear women’s underwear on his head, confronted him with snarling military working dogs and attached a leash to his chains, according to a newly released military investigation that shows the tactics were employed there months before military police used them on detainees at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.

The techniques, approved by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld for use in interrogating Mohamed Qahtani — the alleged “20th hijacker” in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks — were used at Guantanamo Bay in late 2002 as part of a special interrogation plan aimed at breaking down the silent detainee. Military investigators who briefed the Senate Armed Services Committee yesterday on the three-month probe, called the tactics “creative” and “aggressive” but said they did not cross the line into torture.

The report’s findings are the strongest indication yet that the abusive practices seen in photographs at Abu Ghraib were not the invention of a small group of thrill-seeking military police officers. The report shows that they were used on Qahtani several months before the United States invaded Iraq. The investigation also supports the idea that soldiers believed that placing hoods on detainees, forcing them to appear nude in front of women and sexually humiliating them were approved interrogation techniques for use on detainees.

Report Discredits F.B.I. Claims of Abuse at Guantánamo Bay

A high-level military investigation into complaints by F.B.I. agents about the abuse of detainees at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, concluded in a report released Wednesday that their treatment was sometimes degrading but did not qualify as inhumane or as torture.

The report was presented to the Senate Armed Services Committee by Lt. Gen. Randall M. Schmidt of the Air Force, who conducted the investigation after e-mail messages between Federal Bureau of Investigation agents at Guantánamo and their superiors in Washington were disclosed in a lawsuit.

In the messages, the agents complained that they had seen abusive, possibly illegal behavior by military interrogators. They spoke of “torture techniques” and described detainees forced into uncomfortable positions for 18 to 24 hours at a time or left to soil themselves. General Schmidt told the committee that his investigation could not substantiate some of the F.B.I. accusations. His report said that some of the practices that evoked criticism among the F.B.I. agents were approved interrogation techniques, like stripping detainees, forcing one to wear women’s lingerie and wiping red ink on a detainee and telling him it was menstrual blood.

The unclassified version of the report, which was distributed publicly, provided the military’s first acknowledgement that it had used dogs to intimidate prisoners at Guantánamo on a few occasions, as was done later at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.

While I disagree with Bob Owens‘ take on this–the report clearly acknowledges that many of the abuses we saw at Abu Ghraib were derivatives of approved interrogation techniques–it does seem to indicate that they were short of what could reasonably be called “torture.”

Update (0702): The Chicago Tribune adds more
Military report cites humiliation of U.S. prisoners

The Guantanamo detainee suspected of being the would-be “20th hijacker” for the Sept. 11 attacks was subjected to abusive treatment, including being forced to wear a bra and perform a series of “dog tricks” during interrogation, according to an official report made public during a Senate hearing Wednesday. [….] The report said Mohamed al-Qahtani–labeled by U.S. officials as the “20th hijacker”–was forced to stand naked before a woman interrogator for at least five minutes and was made to wear thong underwear on his head and a bra. Qahtani also was told by interrogators that “his mother and sister were whores,” according to the report, and he was led by a dog leash attached to his hand chains and made to do a “series of dog tricks” as part of the interrogation. Female interrogators also massaged Qahtani’s neck and back, and one ran her fingers through his hair and told him that resisting the questioning was futile.


Despite the harshness of these tactics, it is not clear that they violated any law. The Geneva Conventions prohibit sexually degrading tactics, but the Bush administration has said the Geneva Conventions don’t apply to the Guantanamo detainees, saying they are suspected terrorists rather than prisoners of war.

In addition, some military interrogators impersonated FBI agents and other officials, including one who posed as a naval aide to the White House. The practice, known as “false flag,” was stopped after FBI agents complained.

In one instance, a female interrogator put red ink on her arm and then smeared it on a detainee, telling him it was menstrual blood. As a result, the detainee “threw himself on the floor and started banging his head,” the report said. The interrogator, the investigation found, smeared the ink on herself to “get back at” the detainee after he spit on her.

The investigation also confirmed an FBI complaint that some prisoners were shackled to the ground in a fetal position for hours. The FBI complaint said that detainees had urinated and defecated on themselves while shackled.


Despite finding specific instances of harsh treatment of some detainees, Air Force Lt. Gen. Randall Schmidt, who led the investigation, told senators that “no torture occurred. Detention and interrogation operations across the board, and again, looking through all the evidence that we could, were safe, secure and humane.” Schmidt did say, however, that other questionable activities raised by the FBI were confirmed, particularly with regard to the treatment of Qahtani. The use of interrogation techniques authorized by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Schmidt said, had a “cumulative effect” that had an “abusive and degrading impact on the detainee.”

While this treatment was quite likely legal, I would stop well short of calling it “humane.”

Moreover, these tactics are counterproductive, not only because of the propaganda value they provide to our enemies but because they violate the basic tenets of effective interrogation: “Know their language, know their culture, and treat the captured enemy as a human being.”

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. DC Loser says:

    Is this examination of the definition of torture the kind of hair splitting of legal definitions that’s not going to do us much good in the end. I will go with Justice Stewart’s definition of pornography and apply it in this case: I know it when I see it.

  2. McGehee says:

    Maybe so, DCL — but just try prosecuting a soldier based on that definition.

  3. Anderson says:

    Good post, JJ. (Since I haven’t often said that when OTB’s touched this topic, I thought it worthwhile to say it now.)

    While outright torture should be prosecuted, we shouldn’t let legal distinctions preempt the question “what should American soldiers do?” Because that bars a lot more conduct than just torture.

  4. Brian Kelley says:

    Cited WaPo story, paragraph 17-18:

    Military commanders have said the techniques prompted Qahtani to talk.

    The military achieved “solid intelligence gains,” by interrogating Qahtani, Craddock said yesterday, and other military officials have said he revealed details on how the terrorist network operates.


    Moreover, these tactics are counterproductive, not only because of the propaganda value they provide to our enemies but because they violate the basic tenets of effective interrogation …

    It appears we define productivity differently. It’s getting a bit tiresome to keep reading the generalization that “torture doesn’t work” (Anne Applebaum trots it out often too).

    Torture sometimes works, some people have forfeited the right to avoid it by their murderous acts, and preventing further loss of life may require employing it to get them to talk. Leave the rest up to the professionals.

  5. mike says:

    Once you give up the high ground, you can never get it back. If one of our guys is captured (in this conflict or some other conflict down the road) we would not want it to happen to him.

    Even though these guys are technically not POWs/EPWs, torture should never be allowed – making life difficult, uncomfortable and everything short of torture is fine but we have come to far to regress back to beating out confessions.

  6. Anderson says:

    Torture “works” so we can use it?

    The ends justify the means?

    I don’t recall Machiavelli’s being incorporated into the U.S. Constitution by any activist judges lately.

    The question is “does America really have any pride in itself, or is that only in country-music videos?”

  7. McGehee says:


    If one of our guys is captured (in this conflict or some other conflict down the road) we would not want it to happen to him.

    This reciprocity argument would hold more water if our troops had ever been treated as well as we treat enemy soldiers we’ve captured. It’s never happened. “Hogan’s Heroes” was a TV show, not a documentary.

  8. McGehee says:


    While outright torture should be prosecuted, we shouldn’t let legal distinctions preempt the question “what should American soldiers do?”

    The way you answer the question “What should American soldiers do?” is by writing rules. Basing those rules on “I know it when I see it” is bad for discipline.

    You have to establish legal distinctions or you can’t enforce the rules you write. And if you can’t enforce the rules, then for all intents and purposes there are no rules.

  9. mike says:

    I agree w/ you 100% that our guys are never treated as well as they should be nor as we treat POWs/EPWs, but that still is no excuse for torture. The rationale that “hey they do it so we should be justified in doing it” is not something that a country like ours should condone. Should we lop off some heads to show the terrorists that we mean business b/c they do it?

  10. Anderson says:

    McGehee, I didn’t mean there shouldn’t be rules–quite the opposite.

    I meant that the rules should forbid a wider range of conduct than the torture statutes do, and that the rules should forbid any conduct unbecoming of a U.S. soldier (but not in so many words–as you say, more detail’s needed, but I do not have time or credibility to compose the rulebook).

  11. DC Loser says:

    “You have to establish legal distinctions or you can’t enforce the rules you write. And if you can’t enforce the rules, then for all intents and purposes there are no rules.”

    Read article 133 of the UCMJ – Conduct Unbecoming of an Officer and a Gentleman. It’s so loosely defined as to be a catch-all for anything the UCMJ doesn’t cover.

  12. Herb says:

    I was just watching the news on FOX and saw some of the lefty senators at a hearing on this subject. Kennedy made a comment, “If we mistreat the GITMO prisoners, what do you think would happen if the terrorist took some prisoners”


    Everyone knows that the taliban and the Iraqis treat their prisoners with understanding and care.

    Kennedy and his Democrat chicken friends should become prisoners of the Taliban

  13. LJD says:

    Being forced to wear women’s underpants on one’s head IS torture- just ask Ron Reagan.