Among the litany of abuse documented in the War on Terror, the revelations in the US Senate’s recent “torture report” on the treatment of detainees held in CIA “black sites” -secret overseas prisons where detainees could be kept and interrogated with limited (if any) oversight - rank among the worst.
While the sites, along with snapshots of the abuses carried out at them, have been known about for some time, the report has provided new detail of the experience of detainees that is graphic in the extreme.
Consider the case of Abu Ja'far al-Iraqi, who the report says was subject to “nudity, dietary manipulation, insult slaps, abdominal slaps, attention grasps, facial holds, walling, stress positions, and water dousing with 44 degree Fahrenheit water for 18 minutes” during his time in a CIA black site. He was also subjected to 154 hours of sleep deprivation in a 158-hour period and was shackled into a standing position for 54 hours.
Similarly, the report documents how another individual who was detained in Iraq, Hassan Ghul, was the subject of abuse at CIA black sites. Ghul, who was initially captured by Kurdish forces, was held by the US military in Iraq and then “rendered to CIA custody” in January 2004.
He was detained at “Detention Site Cobalt” before being transferred to the CIA’s “Detention Site Black”. He was “shaved and barbered, stripped, and placed in the standing position” and deprived of sleep.
Yet, the treatment of al-Iraqi and Ghul, both of whom were also held in US military sites in Iraq, can only be fully comprehended if one understands the broader operations of the CIA in Iraq. The treatment of these men, and many like them, did not take place at the hands of a rogue agency, but instead reflected abuse that was prevalent across broad areas of the national security apparatus of the US.
H1 & Camp Nama
In April 2003, less than a month after the invasion of Iraq, the secret detention camp known as H1, a facility run by US Special Forces, was already in operation.
This was a “secret prison” that received detainees who had been unlawfully transferred within Iraq. It has long been alleged that the CIA played a role in interrogation operations at the site, and that others present at H1 included the UK’s MI6.
H1 was replaced with Camp Nama, whose name was said to be an acronym for “Nasty-Ass Military Area” and featured interrogations involving sleep deprivation, environmental controls, exposure to hot and cold, and bombardment with loud music and strobe lights.
Despite the fact that, at certain times, the CIA did in fact ban its personnel from taking part in “harsh interrogations” at Nama, it continued to provide “target information and other intelligence”.
The details that have leaked out about operations at H1 and Camp Nama have eerie parallels with the treatment of al-Iraqi and Ghul. They illustrate that, right from the start, the agency was involved – either directly or via collusion – in the torture and abuse of detainees during the Iraq War.
Crucially, though, the presence of the CIA was felt in many places beyond the walls of the secret Special Forces sites.
Forward Operating Base Tiger, in western Iraq, was a US Army facility used to hold and interrogate detainees. Interrogations at FOB Tiger were carried out by civilian contractors and the US Army, along with the CIA. Interrogations involved detainees being subjected to severe sleep deprivation, exposure to dangerously high temperatures, beatings and threats, and jarring noise and lights.
In November 2003, Abed Hamed Mowhoush a former general in the Iraq military who had been captured by “CIA-sponsored […] Iraqi paramilitaries”, died during an interrogation after having been rolled up in a sleeping bag. A member of the CIA, who identified himself to members of the army as Brian, was involved in the interrogation.
According to Army Special Agent Curtis Ryan, who investigated the death, when Mowhoush did not answer Brian’s question, Brian would give Mowhoush “a few slaps” which later turned into “punches”, with the abuse escalating further from that point.
The presence of the CIA at FOB Tiger, along with its involvement in the capture, interrogation and death of Mowhoush, illuminates just how embedded the agency was in the broader military mission in Iraq.
And of course, in April 2004, just over a year after the invasion of Iraq, the Abu Ghraib abuse scandal broke.
Abu Ghraib was a huge US Army detention site to the west of Baghdad. It housed thousands of detainees in a myriad of pre-existing and hastily erected constructions on the site of a Saddam-era jail. The abuse there, which was detailed in horrific pictures seen the world over, included making naked detainees form a human pyramid, forcing them to simulate oral sex and threatening them with dogs.
While the abusers in the pictures that leaked and triggered the scandal were military personnel, according to the Fay-Jones Report into the abuse at Abu Ghraib, among the thousands held at the site were unregistered “ghost detainees” placed there by the CIA. By failing to “follow the established procedures for detainee in-processing”, the CIA and the army were able to camouflage the presence of these detainees at the prison.
As the report put it: “[t]he CIA’s detention and interrogation practices contributed to a loss of accountability and abuse” at Abu Ghraib.
An affront to humanity
Taken together, all these accounts – the treatment of al-Iraqi and Ghul at CIA black sites, the involvement of the CIA at H1, NAMA and FOB Tiger, the role the CIA played in the capture, interrogation and death of Mowhoush, and the CIA’s manipulation of procedures at Abu Ghraib – present a grotesque picture of the agency’s actions in Iraq.
They illustrate that the horrifying abuse and torture documented in the Senate report are reflective of the broader actions of the CIA – and, just as importantly, that such abuse and torture was not solely confined to the CIA, but that it was in fact very probably endemic across large parts of the national security apparatus of the US.
While the CIA and its apologists are attempting to defend the behaviour that’s been revealed, the Senate report and the wider documentary record – though neither is complete – are simply too damning. This was a web of concerted and planned behaviour that extended far beyond the CIA, and it represents an affront to humanity.