The Talking Dog

July 11, 2007, TD Blog Interview with Michael Otterman

Michael Otterman is a journalist and the author of "American Torture: From the Cold War to Abu Ghraib and Beyond", documenting the institutionalized use of torture by the United States intelligence services and military from World War II and the early Cold War through the extensive use of torture by the United States in the Global War on Terror. Mr. Otterman will be on a speaking tour of the United States in September and October, and regularly updates of his schedule and other information is available at his website, "American Torture". On July 11, 2007, I had the privilege of interviewing Mr. Otterman by e-mail exchange.

The Talking Dog: Where were you on 11 September 2001? To the extent that you can tell me, how significant do you believe that day has been toward getting the public to accept what amounts to seemingly greater
American use of and greater American openness with what Vice President
Cheney called "the dark side" and some of us here in the US (and most
of the rest of the world) views as torture and barbarity?

Michael Otterman: My 9/11 story ranks about 3 out of 10 for interesting. On 9/11 I was in my apartment in Allston, Massachusetts-- at the time I was a journalism student at Boston University. I was awoke that morning to the sounds of my roommate in the living room. He was shouting: "A second plane! A second plane hit the building!" I got out of bed and saw the countless replays of the second plane hitting the tower, then both collapses. F-16s soon began circling over Boston and shrieking over our house. "Dude", I remember my roommate saying, "everyone is gonna ask us where we were on this day for the rest of our lives". He was too right.

Of course, 9/11 did lay the groundwork for the unashamed, officially sanctioned American use of torture. Now, first off, I don't use the word "torture" lightly. The UN defines torture in the Convention Against Torture as the intentional infliction of severe pain or
suffering, whether physical or mental. Acts like waterboarding are indeed torture. That's not just my opinion, but it's been the official US government opinion for decades. The act was considered a war crime during the post WWII Tokyo Trials. One Japanese general was sentenced to 15 years for authorizing it. Marines caught waterboarding in Vietnam were kicked out of the Army. This torture—like sensory deprivation, forced standing, hypothermia, sleep deprivation—were all labeled during the Cold War as tortures by US agencies studying Soviet use of these methods. The State Department, still to this day, calls these acts in its yearly Country Reports on Human Rights by their right name: torture.

That said, before 9/11 tortures were used by the US at home and abroad—but it was always behind closed doors. They were taught to CIA and special forces as "what the enemy does" and though condoned, the formal approval was never written down. 9/11 brought the American use of torture out of the shadows. On September 17, Bush authorized the CIA to kill, capture, or detain anyone they deemed to be al Qaeda. The Geneva Conventions were then nullified (to void the War Crimes Act), then official approvals for tortures like waterboarding were granted
to the CIA by the Department of Justice. CIA interrogators were trained by SERE staff in use of these methods. Torture—as it always does—then spread. By late 2002, the same tortures approved for the CIA for use in black sites were then granted by Rumsfeld for use in GTMO. SERE trainers were sent to Cuba in late 2002 to train interrogators there. The techniques quickly jumped to Afghanistan, then Iraq.

From the beginning, phrases like "new war" and "new paradigm" have been used to justify these authorizations. Cheney's comments to Tim Russert days after 9/11 that the US was now to "work the dark side" weren't simply rhetoric. The Bush administration made a conscious decision to fight dirty— to fight inhumanity with inhumanity. The approval was sought, and granted, at the highest levels in the context of the post 9/11 GWOT.

The Talking Dog: Your book identifies you as a New York City resident, though I now find you in Australia, where your book and your work appears to have achieved greater public notice. Why do you think that the subject of your book- American torture- resonates so much more with the
Australian public than the American public, and why (or am I wrong on that)? Can you comment on the America's media coverage of torture-related issues?

Michael Otterman: You're quite right, the Australian media and public have taken to my work to a greater degree than in the US. On one level, it's simply a numbers game. I believe I am the only "American torture expert" (funny title, for sure) out here in Australia at the moment. When news breaks
on the issue, lately I've been the media's go-to guy.

That aside, I do believe that Australians are seemingly more interested and aware about the topic than the US public. This comes down to one main reason, well, a person actually: David Hicks.

David Hicks is an Australian that trained with al Qaeda prior to 9/11 who was sold to American forces by the Northern Alliance in late 2001. He wasn't picked up in the battlefield or anything, he was arrested by the Northern Alliance at a taxi stand while trying to flee Afghanistan. He—along with another Australian named Mamdou Habib, like all other GTMO detainees—were held without charge in Cuba beginning in 2002. While it took some time to build momentum, by late 2004 various "Free David Hicks" movements began to spring up. (Habib was released without charge in early 2005). By mid 2005, Hicks had become front-page, lead story, op-ed material day after day. Rallies were held, often led by his father Terry Hicks, around Australian cities to bring awareness to David's situation. Hick's military lawyer, Major Michael Mori, also became a public figure here, appearing on talk shows and the radio to describe the injustice of the military tribunals that his client would eventually face. By early 2007, the movement to "Free Hicks" had grown to a fevered pitch. The issue grew political, as Australian Prime Minister John Howard—who supported Guantanamo, the tribunals, and Hicks detention there— was lambasted by opponents for not caring about the rights of an Australian citizen. To quell the controversy, in March 2007 Howard met privately with Dick Cheney in Sydney to sort out a solution. Behind the backs of Colonel Moe Davis—the chief military prosecutor in the Hicks' GMTO tribunal— a deal was arranged: Hicks would be sent home to Adelaide if he plead guilty to "material support for terrorism". Hicks signed his name to that charge and was returned to Australia in May to serve a 9-month sentence here. He is to be released on Dec 31, 2007.

The David Hicks saga raised enormous awareness of Guantanamo, plus
related issues like US use of torture, here in Australia to levels that do not exist in the US. That said, Australians by-and-large are familiar with the injustice that is Guantanamo Bay.

The Talking Dog: Can you comment on the recently disclosed to the public revelations that, in direct contravention of international (and
American) law, so-called "SERE" techniques from the military have been
"reverse engineered" on prisoners of the American military at Guantanamo, Afghanistan and elsewhere?

Michael Otterman: SERE, or Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape, is key to the American use of torture today. The aim of SERE, a military program started soon after the Korean War, is to prepare US soldiers for the torture they may face if captured by an enemy that does not abide by
the Geneva Conventions. Given the USSR and Communist China were our
main Cold War enemies at the time, Soviet and Chinese tortures like sensory deprivation, forced standing, waterboarding, and hypothermia were adopted into the program. Again, the idea was that soldiers would be better prepared to resist such tortures if they were first exposed to them in controlled settings.

After "the gloves came off" post 9/11, the CIA, then US military, turned to SERE for expertise on torture. In late May 2007, the Pentagon declassified an Inspector General report titled: Review of DoD-Related Investigations of Detainee Abuse. This report reveals that SERE psychologists and trainers worked with military interrogators in the US, at Guantanamo, and even Iraq to train them to use Soviet tortures. The irony, of course, is that SERE was created to prepare soldiers to deal with an enemy that didn't abide by Geneva. It was the
US now that was violating Geneva, and using the very techniques of our Cold War enemies in the GWOT.

The Talking Dog: Your book performs the critically important service of documenting American forays into torture from the post-World War II
days of Project Paper Clip on into the CIA drug testing of "MKUltra" where the American government incorporated among other things Nazi-era torture-chamber-acquired data and technology, through torture training programs used in Latin American dictatorships by the CIA against "communists" and "insurgents", up to the so-called Global War on Terror. As far as you can tell, the practice of slavery in the United States until 1865 notwithstanding-- do you believe that torture had a significant place in American policy prior to World War II, or was that when it got going? Is there a reason for that? Loaded and
leading question-- but do you believe that the response to "keeping up with the Communists" (i.e.the seemingly amazing confessions obtained by the Soviets and their allies) of trying to out-Soviet them (in some sense) ultimately proved counter-productive?

Michael Otterman: Of course US use of torture is not simply a Cold War, or GWOT phenomenon. Slavery, as an official state-sponsored institution, was intrinsically linked to torture. The same applies to the genocide of Native Americans. America's war in the Philippines in the early 20th century was marked by systematic torture as well. My book picks up the story beginning in 1945— this is when the US began to spend hundreds of millions of dollars studying, refining, then teaching torture. Before this time, torture was used, but it took the notion of "keeping up with the Communists" as you say, to really bring it into official US research institutions, official CIA interrogation manuals, and into Latin American military advisory programs.

Was US Cold War adoption of torture counter-productive? Yes— torture is always counterproductive. At its face, torture does not elicit accurate information. Non-violent methods of interrogation that aim to build trust by offering incentives— methods favored by the FBI for example— have been proven to yield more accurate and reliable information. The problem is that under torture, people will make up anything to stop the sensation of pain, and say things they believe their interrogator wants to hear— not necessarily the truth. Look, a torture victim my spurt out a grain of truth in between shrieks, but
this intel is tainted by the way it was obtained. The wider effects out way any hypothetical gains. Torture puts US soldiers at greater risk of torture if captured, it undercuts our country's founding, oft-touted principles, and alienates our current and potential allies. Torture degrades America as a nation by blurring the line between our enemies and ourselves. The stated aim of the GWOT is to spread democracy throughout the world. I can't think of anything less democratic than torture.

The Talking Dog: Let me ask you if you find it somewhat encouraging in some sense that at least until September 11th the American government felt the need for extraordinary secrecy about its use of torture... that somehow, only the CIA and top secret intelligence agencies rather than
the military itself could engage in it prior to 9-11... perhaps to paraphrase I.F. Stone, "All governments torture"... but it was understood that the American people would (at least until 9-11 and "24", I suppose) be outraged. Or is it simply that the government would prefer it remained secret and simply the extent of it has grown so widely it can't keep it secret? Do you have a comment on that?

Michael Otterman: Is it encouraging that official authorization for torture and tight secrecy only occurred after 9/11? Not really, torture should never have been condoned in the first place— neither before 9/11 nor after.

I should note that while Cheney hinted about going "to the dark side" and the CIA's Cofer Black said after 9/11 "the gloves come off"— I don't think anyone in the Bush Administration wanted what is now known about American use of torture post 9/11 to leak out. I don't think the authors of the torture memos— namely Addington, Bybee, Gonzales—ever thought they'd be featured in a book called American Torture, or in countless other books and articles, not to mention pending War Crimes suits in Europe for their role in authorizing tortures like waterboarding or hypothermia, or redefining torture in such a way that it only included acts causing pain equivalent to "death" or "organ failure". From 2001-2003, the US torture policies were drafted in secret, but it took outrage surrounding the Abu Ghraib photos for much of this torture literature to leak.

The Talking Dog: What do you believe were the most significant American legal changes (either since WWII, or ever) that have helped to expedite the use of state-sponsored torture... and please tell me where in the
spectrum you'd put the 2006 Military Commissions Act? Are there other nations that legally condone torture (I understand at least Israel for a time had a legal regimen, though it has since been outlawed by its Supreme Court... or am I right on that)?

Michael Otterman: To my knowledge, torture is not explicitly legalized in any country. Most commonly— such as in the US-- it is banned in such a way to allow methods that fall outside its definition to prosper.

The official, though covert, legalization of torture occurred relatively recently in US history: starting in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Legalization was attained by narrowly defining torture in the law to exclude acts that fell outside the confines of the new definition. When the US was to ratify the UN Convention Against Torture, the Department of Justice modified the straightforward
definition of torture from the treaty. For an act of torture to indeed be torture, they opined, it must be specifically intended to cause severe harm. Thus, if an interrogator's specific intent is to get information, not cause severe harm, the act arguably is not torture. The DOJ also added a caveat to mental torture. For an act to classify as mental torture in the US it must cause "prolonged mental harm". Thus, any act that arguably caused temporary mental harm wasn't torture either. Thus acts like sensory deprivation can fall outside the definition of torture in the US. These skewed definitions of torture were adopted into the US understanding of the Convention Against Torture and into domestic statutes on torture like the Federal Torture Statute (§ 2340). Today, US law banning torture is incredibly weak and full of holes.

The Military Commission Act destroyed the only law that broadly banned
the use of torture by US nationals: The War Crimes Act. The War Crimes
Act originally banned Americans from violating the Geneva Conventions,
in particular from committing "grave breaches" and violating Common Article Three (prohibiting torture and humiliating and degrading treatment). It was due to the strength of the War Crimes Act that the US nullified support for the Geneva Conventions in late 2001. Alberto Gonzales and David Addington opined that if the Geneva Conventions didn't apply towards the Taliban or al Qaeda, neither would the War Crimes Act. Things changed in 2006 when the Supreme Court ruled in the Hamdan decision that America must abide by Common Article Three of Geneva. After this important ruling, the Washington Post reported CIA officers began buying legal insurance in case they were sued for violating the WCA. As a remedy, the Bush Administration crafted the
Military Commissions Act. The MCA (in addition to stripping habeas
from unlawful enemy combatants) gutted the language of the War Crimes
Act. First, it said only the president can decide what is and what is not a "grave breach" of Geneva. Secondly, the MCA removed the strong language of the WCA banning "humiliating and degrading treatment" and replaced it with legalese including the insidious "specific intent" clause. I point out in American Torture that the modified War Crimes Act now arguably protects—not bans— tortures like waterboarding, sensory deprivation, and hypothermia.

The Talking Dog: Throughout the history of American involvement with torture, there seems to be a heavy connection to the American upper classes and especially to the Ivy League (especially Yale University, from Wild Bill Donovan through John Yoo and the Bushes and Dick Cheney). I'm also reminded of accounts I've read of corporal punishment received by George W. Bush himself during his upper class schooling, and of
course, that corporal punishment was an integral part of English upper class boarding schools where future colonial rulers and taskmasters were first taught the ways of the world... This leads me to a number of questions (and stop me if I'm drifting into "crazy talk"). First, I firmly believe that the United States's most sinister forays into torture were dominated by our Upper Classes, including in the present, as the Upper Classes are the most disconnected and insensitive group we have (and possibly the most racist... see Bush, Barbara)... George
W. Bush and Dick Cheney represent an almost perfect storm for this...
Secondly, when the Rush Limbaughs of the world blithely dismiss Abu Ghraib abuses as "no worse than fraternity pranks"-- there is something to that, insofar as the very inhumanness of the whole thing is actually learned, and indeed, this brutal hazing is a form of upper class training... Do these observations have any factual support?

Michael Otterman: Yes and no. I wouldn't peg the desensitizing nature of hazing only to upper classes though. Hazing also goes on in public high schools across the US everyday— or at least at the start of most Varsity
football, lacrosse, basketball seasons. In 2003, I did a series of articles for the weekly Merrick Herald newspaper about a hazing scandal that occurred on Long Island. The victims and perpetrators were just kids from lower-middle income families. I think the hazing was a product of television violence emulation, teenage angst, and the normal human propensity for violence that is unleashed in "atrocity-producing situations". In this case, it was a poorly supervised football training camp where the kids essentially had free reign to do what they liked to each other with little oversight.

Further, look at the people who carried out the Abu Ghraib tortures. While there is clear evidence the attacks were directed by leadership like General Miller and by Military Intelligence, the MPs who carried them out were just normal folks from lower class and middle-class backgrounds with normal jobs back in the states. I believe—informed by Milgram and Zimbardo— all humans have a latent potential for doing evil regardless of their socio-economic background.

The Talking Dog: Can you comment on the troubling recent comment attributed to Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia concerning his apparent belief that the actions of fictional character Jack Bauer of "24" justify the legal condoning of torture?

Michael Otterman: Scalia's comments are symptomatic of the larger background forces misinforming the torture debate right now. Scalia is basing his views on a popular ratings-driven television show— not reality. In all my
years of research for American Torture, I haven't come across one example of a true "ticking time bomb" case: where a bomb is planted in a busy downtown area, the person who set it is captured, the authorities know they have the right person, the authorities know that the suspect knows where the bomb is, the suspect refuses to talk and is tortured, then the tortured suspect truthfully reveals the vital information. This is a fanciful and highly dramatic scenario that
makes for good television, but it simply doesn't occur like this in real life.

The Talking Dog: In a number of my prior interviews (Steven Miles, Trevor Paglen, and Stephen Grey, for example) it was noted that torture effects far more than just the victiml it also effects those engaged in it and
those who obsere, and the entire society involved (and not for the better). Can you comment on that?

Michael Otterman: Very true. It is a misconception that torture leaves only one victim. The actual torturers often suffer crippling psychological
complications— namely depression, nightmares and suicidal tendencies—
after their "work" is finished. Further, the fact that torture is condoned by the Bush administration and even by society at large (some polls show up to 60% of Americans believe torture is justified) degrades us all as a nation. I strongly believe that in the case of national security, the ends do not justify the means. Good ends are corrupted by bad means.

The Talking Dog: Your book begins- and ends- with a discussion of Australian national Mamdouh Habib and the abuses and undeniable tortures he suffered both directly at American hands in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba and
Afghanistan and at American direction or connivance in Egypt. Can you briefly tell me your impressions of Mr. Habib? Can you briefly tell me your impressions of others you have interviewed who have themselves been subject to similar torture?

Michael Otterman: Though he is Australian, when Mamdou Habib was arrested in Pakistan in October 2001 he was turned over to the CIA, rendered to Egypt for six months of brutal torture, then given back to the US and shipped to GTMO for stints of psychological torture, namely extreme sensory deprivation. He was released back to Australia in early 2005 after the
Washington Post ran a front-page story describing his rendition and torture.

Mamdou, as I describe in the book, is truly a "broken man". He suffers many of the common psychological after-effects of torture: panic attacks, post-traumatic stress disorders, and nervous ticks. He also suffers from an array of physical ailments— some which he was too embarrassed to share with me.

Meeting with Habib really humanized the entire American Torture project for me. He was the first victim of American torture I sat down with. Before I met him, I was researching the topic of torture as a somewhat removed journalist, tracking facts, causes and effects. My first meeting with Habib—where he described in detail the various tortures employed upon him in Egypt, Bagram, Kandahar, and GTMO—was a truly shattering experience for me. I was filled with array of emotions: namely sadness, remorse, and embarrassment— the United States was solely responsible for his treatment. Mamdou made the book
more of a personal project— after meeting him I aimed to give voice to people like Habib, and countless other victims.

I've since met other torture victims, most recently Moazzam Begg, but it was my time with Habib that affected me the most.

The Talking Dog: The Bush Administration has gone to great pains to assert that what you and I and the rest of the planet considers torture isn't torture at all, but merely "abuse" or "enhanced interrogation techniques" or some other euphemism. Can you comment on how this linguistic parsing has effected the legalities of torture, and how it has effected popular belief (both internal and external to the United States) as to whether the American government and military engage in torture?

Michael Otterman: The corruption of the word "torture", plus its replacement with euphemisms like "enhanced techniques", does subvert rational debate on the issue. The Wall Street Journal, to take one example from the book, once described Soviet use of hypothermia, forced standing and sleep
deprivation as "psychological torture". Today these methods, according
to WSJ editors, are neither "torture" nor even "abuse". They are merely enhanced methods that "make life uncomfortable". Or take for instance the recent Republican debates. Mitt Romney, after pledging to "double Guantanamo" said: "enhanced interrogation techniques have to be used". Euphemisms like "enhanced interrogation"—which incidentally was a Nazi term for torture coined in 1937— allow politicians to peddle and gain support for pro-torture agendas under an aura of humane restraint. The fact is, enhanced interrogation and torture are simply one and the same.

The Talking Dog: Where do you see the "end-game" or "exit strategy" for the United States' current open embrace of torture (by whatever name we call it)? Do you see saner heads and the ruule of law asserting
itself... or do you see something rotten in the American national soul setting in even deeper and acceptance of torture in our "clash of civilizations" (or GWOT) going on for generations? What do you see as necessary for the most expeditious way out of this and back to American embrace of civilized norms? Can you comment on the Republican presidential candidates at recent debates competing as to who could be the nastiest, most brutal treater of detainees?

Michael Otterman: The future of American torture— namely approval of "enhanced interrogation"/torture, Guantanamo, black sites, CIA rendition—
depends largely on who becomes our next president. If someone like Mitt Romney, or Rudy Giuliani, or Tom Tancredo become President, American torture will continue unchecked. I know this because this is indeed what the candidates themselves have already said. See the May
2007 South Carolina debate transcript
— it's quite explicit. Meanwhile
there are candidates firmly against state-sanctioned torture, namely John McCain, Barack Obama, and John Edwards. I do believe that if any of these candidates were elected, they'd shut down secret prisons, close GTMO, and institute tribunals that would pass muster of world opinion.

Torture, as it has throughout human history, will always exist in the shadows and behind closed doors. What I'm concerned with is legalized torture authorized at the highest levels of US government. That is what we have today, but my hope is that a new administration will change this self-defeating policy.

The Talking Dog: Is there anything else I should have asked you but didn't, or anything else my readers and the public needs to know about these subjects?

Michael Otterman: I think that pretty much covers it, though if your readers have any questions they should feel free to email me at americantorture [at] gmail [dot] com.

The Talking Dog: On behalf of all my readers, I thank Mr. Otterman for that thorough and informative interview, and encourage interested readers to take a look at both the American Torture web-site and the book.

Readers interested in legal issues and related matters associated with the "war on terror" may also find talking dog blog interviews with attorneys Gaillard Hunt, Robert Rachlin, Tina Foster, Brent Mickum, Marc Falkoff H. Candace Gorman, Eric Freedman, Michael Ratner, Thomas Wilner, Jonathan Hafetz, Joshua Denbeaux, Rick Wilson,
Neal Katyal, Joshua Colangelo Bryan, Baher Azmy, and Joshua Dratel (representing Guantanamo detainees and others held in "the war on terror"), with attorneys Donna Newman and Andrew Patel (representing "unlawful combatant" Jose Padilila), with Dr. David Nicholl, who spearheaded an effort among international physicians protesting force-feeding of detainees at Guantanamo Bay, with physician and bioethicist Dr. Steven Miles on medical complicity in torture, with law professor and former Clinton Administration Ambassador-at-large for war crimes matters David Scheffer, with former Guantanamo detainees Moazzam Begg and Shafiq Rasul , with former Guantanamo Bay Chaplain James Yee, with former Guantanamo Army Arabic linguist Erik Saar, with law professor and former Army J.A.G. officer Jeffrey Addicott, with law professor and Coast Guard officer Glenn Sulmasy, with author and geographer Trevor Paglen and with author and journalist Stephen Grey on the subject of the CIA's extraordinary rendition program, and with journalist and author David Rose on Guantanamo related issues to be of interest.