In April 2004, the American news channel CBS News aired photographs of handcuffed, naked Iraqi prisoners piled on top of each other, a naked prisoner cowering in front of barking attack dogs, and a prisoner draped in black, standing on a cardboard box linked to what appeared to be electrical wires.
The photographs shocked the nation and the world, but the Bush administration brushed the accusations aside by blaming a small group of renegade soldiers who, the White House said, would be punished for the crime.
Burnt city: The book says US soldiers got away without any grave penalty.
In the new book Administration of Torture, Amrit Singh—an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and daughter of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh—argues that the US president’s repeated assurance that the abuse was an aberration is baseless and false. Singh has co-authored the book with Jameel Jaffar, director for ACLU’s National Security Project.
Based on rare government documents and extensive research done over four years, Singh and Jaffar conclude that not only was prisoner abuse far more widespread than the Bush administration claimed, but that senior officials in the Bush administration “endorsed, encouraged and accepted” the abuse. While this revelation has been posited before—and is, therefore, not shocking—the book is important because its findings carry the stamp of rigorous research and, hence, are difficult to dismiss. Ironically, the book has come out at a euphoric moment in Indo-US relations, at the heart of which is the apparent camaraderie between Singh’s father, Manmohan Singh and the Bush administration she accuses of torture.
Administration of Torture: Columbia University Press, 439 pages, $29.95 (approx. Rs1,200).
In 2003, ACLU put out a request for access to thousands of documents under the Freedom of Information Act (Foia). A Foia request, similar to a Right to Information request, can be filed by any US citizen to a government department, asking for emails, memorandums and interviews. The US government delayed the release of the documents until ordered by a judge in September 2004 to do so. Nearly 100,000 pages came into the possession of ACLU and from these, Jaffar and Singh chose 374 pages as part of the book and compiled a narrative to explain the findings.
The documents make for arduous, complicated reading, filled with abbreviations and jargon for interrogation techniques such as “fear up harsh”, “pride and ego down” and “stress positions”. The US prison interrogation rooms had a confluence of different agencies: the Central Intelligence Agency held “ghost detainees”, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) attempted to elicit information about terrorist attacks against the US, and the military sought information about the war abroad.
One of the merits of the book is that the authors do not sensationalize the information, although the occasional exaggeration slips into the narrative: “An autopsy report…describes a death that might as easily have taken place in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.” But for the large part, the information is presented in a manner that enables readers to make up their own minds about the evidence.
Overall, Singh and Jaffar paint a bleak picture of the Bush administration’s stance on abuse. Here’s one of the many shocking examples: A soldier accused of killing a prisoner writes a complaint letter contesting his punishment. The government’s punishment to him, for potentially suffocating and beating a man to death, is a letter of reprimand.