Torture: it's a byzantine tale that unraveled over the course of eight
years, and is only reaching its denouement this week. There are two strands,
both vitally important, to follow. One's the story of what happened and when (for that, see FP's
timeline). The other is the story of when
we knew it.
Indeed, this week, it seems like the torture story's just breaking through. But,
allegations of abuse and even prisoner death started emerging as soon as the United States had
prisoners in custody. And reporters have doggedly covered it since then.
One of the first Washington Post stories on the treatment of
detainees from the War on Terror arrived in January 2002, just months after
9/11 and the subsequent U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. Already, there were 158
detainees from 25 different countries held in Guantanamo Bay, and two congressional
delegations had traveled there to review conditions. The detainees were getting
2,400 calories a day, the Post story reported. "Some of them are
getting medical attention for the first time in their lives," Senator Bill
Nelson proudly noted.
There were also already allegations of prisoner abuse. Photos showing bound,
blindfolded, and shackled detainees on their knees appeared as soon as
prisoners arrived in Gitmo -- the International Committee of the Red Cross
censured the U.S. for the photos, which violated the Geneva Conventions.
The following month, in February, President George W. Bush issued an
executive order denying detainees the privileges and protections of the Geneva
Conventions. The United States started down the road that culminated in Abu
Ghraib, Guantanamo, Bagram, and the black sites -- secret overseas prisons, in
countries like Egypt, where prisoners were sent via "extraordinary
rendition" and the worst detainee abuse
may have happened.
Reports of U.S. soldiers abusing persons they detained in Afghanistan
emerged that winter as well -- kicking and beating them after they'd already
been shackled. The military went on the defensive. "I don't believe that
any of the detainees...were subject to beatings or rough treatment after they
were taken into custody," General Richard B. Myers told the New
York Times. "All 27 detainees were medically screened upon arrival in
Kandahar, and there were no issues of beatings or kickings or anything of that
Over the next year, the trickle became a stream. The military admitted using
harsh techniques on Abu Zubayda and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, high-ranking al Qaeda operatives we now know were repeatedly waterboarded.
At the time, officials told the New York Times
"physical torture would not be used against Mr. Mohammed...They said his
interrogation would rely on what they consider acceptable techniques like sleep
and light deprivation and the temporary withholding of food, water, access to
sunlight and medical attention."
It took the prisoner abuse scandal at Abu Ghraib, broken by veteran reporter
Seymour Hersh and CBS News, to blow the door open -- that happened in April
It spawned a glut of media attention, as well as congressional hearings
and a series of governmental reports: the Taguba report (on the Abu Ghraib
scandal), the Schlesinger report (which described how harsh techniques from
Afghanistan crept into Iraq), the Fay Jones report (on the Army personnel
responsible for prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib), the Church report (71 cases of
abuse, six deaths). Over the next years came
the Schmidt report (which said treatment at Guantanamo was
humane, in 2005, after the waterboarding of Abu Zubayda and Khalid Sheikh
Mohammed), as well as the Senate Armed Services Committee Report released this week.
So, most of the foundational reporting on torture happened in late 2003,
2004, and 2005 -- by reporters like Dana Priest of the Washington Post and Jane Mayer of the New Yorker, describing extraordinary rendition and the black site
But it's crucial to remember that a small group of reporters -- at the New
York Times, McClatchy, the Washington Post, Time magazine, Newsweek
magazine, and the New Yorker -- had the story before it was a story. They worked with a slight and growing handful of congressional, White House, military,
Justice Department, legal, and other sources. They used a list-serv started by
lawyers working on detainee cases to learn information. And they opened the
door for Abu Ghraib to open the door further.
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