None of Us Were Like This Before (Part 1)

by Joshua Phillips, Philipp Grote

Joshua Phillips discusses his extensive investigations into the use of torture by the American military in Afghanistan and Iraq.

First published: 09 August, 2011 | Category: Foreign policy, International, Law, Terror/War

Joshua E.S. Phillips is an American investigative journalist who has reported from much of Southern Asia as well as the Middle East. He has written for the Washington Post, Newsweek and The Nation, amongst others, and has broadcast radio features on the BBC and NPR. In 2006 he began investigating the story of Sergeant Adam Gray, who had survived his first tour of Iraq only to be found dead in his barracks just months after his return in 2004. Along the way he discovered the disturbing legacy of torture back home in the US as well as abroad in Afghanistan and Iraq. That research formed the basis of a book, None of Us Were Like This Before: American Soldiers and Torture (Verso, 2010). He spoke to Philipp Grote about his findings.

Part 2 of this interview will follow shortly.

Torture is something that we tend to associate with the CIA, or the names of particular military prisons like Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, so why did you start by travelling to Afghanistan? Was it that widespread?

Unfortunately, yes.  While we associate the CIA with torture, the truth is that they held far fewer detainees than the military. There have been roughly a hundred detainees held in CIA “black sites,” while the US military held tens of thousands of detainees in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Guantanamo Bay. Detainee abuse and torture was fairly widespread during the early part of the war on terror.  We know this from former detainees and soldiers who have come forward to discuss their involvement in abuse and torture throughout Iraq, Afghanistan, and Guantanamo. Also, in 2006, the US Department of Defense announced it had opened 842 criminal inquiries or investigations into allegations of detainee abuse. But those are only the cases that we know about. I recently published an investigative article for The Nation magazine that featured US military agents who were tasked with investigating detainee abuse in Iraq. These investigative agents admitted that there were likely hundreds, if not thousands, of allegations of abuse and torture that never even reached them.

It was important for me to report on the torture that occurred in Afghanistan for a number of reasons. Some of the earliest cases of US prisoner abuse occurred in Afghanistan - including some of the most brutal cases of torture that resulted in detainee deaths.  So, one has to understand what happened on the ground in Afghanistan in order to fully grasp the progression of US torture.

The early cases of abuse in Afghanistan also challenge some standard explanations about how US forces turned to torture. For instance, many critics of US torture policies point to the Bush administration’s creation of so-called “torture memos”; that is, legal memos that authorised certain intelligence and military personnel to use “enhanced interrogation” to question terrorist suspects. But the early cases in Afghanistan show how American troops engaged in prisoner abuse before the Pentagon signed a directive authorising “enhanced interrogation”. Also, US forces weren’t always torturing in response to desperate wartime situations.

Sometimes they abused detainees when there was a drop in lethal attacks. This raises a number of questions.  In the absence of increased attacks and written directives, why did US forces torture their prisoners? Why did they think torture was necessary and permissible? Where did soldiers get the ideas about torture techniques if they weren’t drawing on memos? The answers to these questions are complicated, and can be partly answered by what occurred in Afghanistan in 2002.

So why did some of them think torture would work, and how well prepared were ordinary soldiers for carrying out interrogations in general? You mention several films in your book; what role do you think popular culture played in ideas about the role of torture in effective interrogation?

We first need to parse out what kind of soldiers we’re talking about. There were basically three groups of soldiers: (1) military police (or MPs) who were trained to guard detainees, (2) interrogators, and (3) soldiers who went from fighting conventional warfare to being embroiled in guerrilla combat.

Some MPs engaged in serious detainee abuse, including soldiers in Bagram and Abu Ghraib, for a variety of reasons: e.g. a permissive environment, they were given latitude to discipline detainees, and sometimes they were encouraged to rough up detainees before an interrogation. 

The third category is one that doesn’t often come to mind when we think of US forces who abused detainees, namely, combat soldiers who weren’t MPs or interrogators. Many combat troops transitioned from conventional warfare to counter-insurgency warfare; that is, they went from fighting state armies with tanks to suddenly doing house raids, overseeing detainees in a makeshift jail, and assisting with interrogations. I met many soldiers who said they were untrained and unprepared to do detention and interrogation operations. Like the MPs, some of these soldiers said there were lax attitudes toward detainee treatment, aggressively disciplining detainees was considered acceptable, and sometimes they were ordered or encouraged to abuse detainees before or during interrogations. Unlike MPs or interrogators, they didn’t have a baseline understanding of protocols for detention and interrogation operations.

But lack of experience and preparation can only explain so much: there were inexperienced interrogators and troops who worked in violent conditions in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Guantanamo who did not abuse or torture detainees, and there were experienced interrogators who were in far less dangerous environments (e.g. Guantanamo) who did.

As for the interrogators, this is a complicated story. There were several military interrogators who fanned out into Iraq and Afghanistan working on mobile interrogation units. Some of these units lacked trained interrogators, and sometimes the trained interrogators didn’t have field experience. The mobile interrogation units often worked in confusing situations where they were flooded with detainees who were arrested on flimsy evidence (e.g. a male of military age who possessed a mobile phone ostensibly used for detonating a bomb), they faced unrealistic expectations from their superiors (e.g. producing a confession after 30 minutes of questioning), and they got little feedback from their superiors, who were sometimes equally inexperienced, or support from intelligence analysts who were supposed to review their reports. Many interrogators lacked a true understanding of how interrogations actually work. Collectively, these factors compounded the interrogators’ frustrations, and they grew more desperate to gain intelligence. In the absence of leadership and guidance, they drew on a set of beliefs about successful harsh interrogation techniques, often from anecdotal success stories or folklore.

Various troops, interrogators, and even senior political and military officials voiced the same beliefs about the efficacy of torture.  But the source of those beliefs is troubling, and revealing. In her book, The Dark Side, journalist Jane Mayer writes about the vague and haphazard suppositions that senior officials held about torture. And this is exactly the problem: ideas about the effectiveness of torture are based on assumptions, or hunches, about human behaviour, instead of any serious analysis about the real effects of pain and duress on memory and recall. I found many cases where inexperienced interrogators, officer cadets, and high-level government officials would actually reference dramatic torture scenarios where torture was used to successfully crack detainees. What examples were they referencing? Scenes from television, movies, and fiction.

These “high stakes” and “ticking bomb” justifications for torture – just how substantiated are they? Did torture – as Dick Cheney, for one, has asserted – save lives?

There might have been instances in which torture was used to successfully interrogate suspects.  But you’ve asked exactly the right question. Namely, have these accounts actually been substantiated?  I never found a case where torture advocates have pointed to empirical data or research studies on the efficacy of torture that show how pain and duress produces actionable intelligence. Even the CIA has done studies on this topic and they, too, have found that torture backfires during interrogations. Yet that hasn’t stopped advocates and apologists of torture; they continue to argue that torture has provided timely, accurate, actionable intelligence that has thwarted terrorist attacks without providing any substantiated information. Moreover, torture advocates downplay and ignore the many military and intelligence costs associate with torture.

Of course, all torture advocates insist that torture should only be used in ticking time bomb situations.  But when hasn’t that been the justification for torture? One of the most interesting discoveries I made in researching the book was the true origin of the ticking time bomb story.  According to torture scholar Darius Rejali (author of the incredible book, Torture & Democracy), the first mention of the ticking time bomb scenario was not an actual experience in which torture saves lives, but was a fictionalised account from a French novel that was set in the French-Algerian war.  That is very revealing, indeed.

What about more irrational motives? You mention the desire for revenge for 9/11 and frustration with the lack of progress – even boredom – as factors. Do you think the revenge motive has been blunted by the recent death of Osama bin Laden?

I think there’s plenty of simmering anger and resentment over the 9/11 attacks, and it probably still expresses itself on the battlefield in various ways. I’m sure that the revenge motive, as you put it, was more visceral and pronounced in the first few years after the 9/11 attacks. And yes, some soldiers openly admitted that detainee abuse was an outlet for wartime frustrations they felt. The chaotic and frustrating conditions of guerrilla warfare ate away at many troops, and led their anger to boil over. Sometimes that rage was directed at their captives. The tedium of war also wore on soldiers, and some troops admitted boredom was also an outlet for abuse. But one has to consider the situations that led US forces to believe that they were permitted to act on their emotions and abuse detainees.

Some unit commanders had lenient attitudes about detainee treatment. But the Bush administration also contributed to those attitudes when they lessened some of the protections afforded in the Geneva Conventions (i.e. by refusing to classify detainees as prisoners of war). Undoing the doctrinal ramparts had a huge impact on how US forces treated their prisoners: it sowed confusion among ordinary troops, military police, interrogators, as well as high-ranking officers, and it indicated to some military forces that they were allowed to “take the gloves off”. That sense of permissiveness is key to understanding how abuse and torture took root and spread, and how soldiers acted on their emotions in ways they wouldn’t normally with their prisoners.

You identify certain problems that are specific to the army – how PTSD is dealt with, how complaints about torture are handled and so on. How much do you think this is an institutional problem, compared with the role of legal and political decisions taken by civilian authorities? Was torture an approach encouraged from above, or was it something that inevitably arose from below and was ignored by those higher up?

Both.  As I said I in my previous answer, nearly every US military personnel that I met said that the legal memo that had the greatest impact, and really put the ball in motion with detainee abuse, was the Bush administration’s decision to lessen the protections in the Geneva Conventions that related to detainee treatment.

Even before the Pentagon issued a memo that authorised harsh interrogation, military personnel in Guantanamo and Afghanistan were abusing their detainees. (The CIA’s path to torture is a different story.) In fact, one of my researchers and I found that in 2002 there were 23 documented cases of serious abuse and torture in Guantanamo and 128 cases in Afghanistan before former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld signed the first military memo that authorised “coercive interrogation” - or what were known as “counter-resistance techniques”- on 2 December, 2002. Later on, this “counter-resistance techniques” memo informed other military directives, and led to an increase in detainee abuse and torture in Iraq. But sometimes torture wasn’t necessarily authorised, but encouraged by superior officers, interrogators, and even by soldiers and their peers. That tacit acceptance and encouragement of torture was another way in which prisoner abuse spread. 

In other cases, military personnel tried to report prisoner abuse but were ignored, harassed, and even threatened.  By overlooking abuse, and discouraging reports to go forward, commanders were giving a wink and nod to soldiers that abuse was acceptable.  So, officers and officials didn’t have to issue an order or directive to enable abuse—they could also do so by simply ignoring or discouraging reports of abuse.

I don’t think these problems are necessarily intrinsic to the military’s institutional proclivities.  But I do think that there were decisions made by senior military and political leaders during the early part of the war on terror that changed the way military forces functioned - specifically, how they treated detainees, conducted interrogations, investigated allegations of abuse and torture, and held perpetrators accountable. Clearly, military institutions broke down in each of these levels.

My military sources keep going back to leadership, both for the commanders on the ground as well as the Secretary of Defense (some would go higher).  Sure, Bush administration officials bear responsibility, but there were also junior officers who were aware of official policies that sanctioned “harsh interrogation” but wouldn’t let soldiers under their command get involved.  If superior officers knew or should’ve known about prisoner abuse, could’ve done something to halt it and failed to do so, then they are still liable under the doctrine of command responsibility.

Part two of this interview will appear shortly

Joshua E. S. Phillips has reported from Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and South Asia. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, Newsweek, The Nation, Salon, the San Francisco Chronicle, and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, among other publications, and his radio features have been broadcast on NPR and the BBC.

Philipp Grote is a freelance writer studying for a Masters degree in history at the University of London

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