The Quest to Expose US Torture

With each passing year, more details emerge about Washington’s torture programs, writes Karen J. Greenberg. But much remains hidden as Congress and U.S. policymakers refuse to address the wrongdoing.

Des Moines, Iowa, in June 2011, a nearby man explained to his daughter what the protesters calling for the closure of Guantanamo Bay prison were doing. “See, now you’re aware of it, because you asked,” he told her. (Elton Lloyd Davis via Justin Norman/ Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

By  Karen J. Greenberg

In the Blindman’s Buff variation of tag, a child designated as “It” is tasked with tapping another child while wearing a blindfold. The sightless child knows the other children, all able to see, are there, but is left to stumble around, using sounds and knowledge of the space they’re in as guides. Finally, that child does succeed, either by bumping into someone, peeking, or thanks to sheer dumb luck.

Think of the American public as that blindfolded child when it comes to the U.S. government’s torture program that followed the 9/11 disaster and the launching of the ill-fated war on terror. Americans have been left to search in the dark for what so many sensed was there.

The public has been groping for the facts surrounding the torture program created and implemented by the administration of President George W. Bush. For 20 years now, the hunt for its perpetrators, the places where they brutalized detainees, and the techniques they used has been underway. And for 20 years, attempts to keep that blindfold in place in the name of “national security” have helped sustain darkness over light.

From the beginning, the torture program was enveloped in a language of darkness with its secret “black sites” where savage interrogations took place and the endless blacked-out pages of documents that might have revealed more about the horrors being committed in our name. In addition, the destruction of evidence and the squelching of internal reports only expanded that seemingly bottomless abyss that still, in part, confronts us.

Meanwhile, the courts and the justice system consistently supported those who insisted on keeping that blindfold in place, claiming, for example, that were defense attorneys to be given details about the interrogations of their clients, national security would somehow be compromised.

[Related: Biden Tells Supreme Court Torture Is a State Secret]

Finally, however, more than two decades after it all began, the tide may truly be turning.

Despite fervid attempts to keep that blindfold in place, the search has not been in vain. On the contrary, over these last two decades, its layers have slowly worn away, thread by thread, revealing, if not the full picture of those medieval-style practices, then a damning set of facts and images relating to torture, American-style, in this century.

Cumulatively, investigative journalism, government reports, and the testimony of witnesses have revealed a fuller picture of the places, people, nightmarish techniques, and results of that program.

First Findings

U.S. sergeant interrogates a detainee at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq who is chained to his cell wall in a distressing position. (U.S. government)

The fraying of that blindfold took endless years, starting in December 2002, when Washington Post writers Dana Priest and Barton Gellman reported on the existence of secret detention and interrogation centers in countries around the planet where cruel, unlawful techniques were being used against war-on-terror captives in American custody.

Quoting from a 2001 State Department report on the treatment of captives, they wrote, “The most frequently alleged methods of torture include sleep deprivation, beatings on the soles of the feet, prolonged suspension with ropes in contorted positions and extended solitary confinement.”

Less than a year later, the American Civil Liberties Union, along with other groups, filed a Freedom of Information Act request (the first of many) for records pertaining to detention and interrogation in the war on terror. Their goal was to follow the trail leading to “numerous credible reports recounting the torture and rendition of detainees” and our government’s efforts (or the lack thereof) to comply “with its legal obligations with respect to the infliction of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment.”

Then, in 2004, the blindfold began to show some initial signs of wear. That spring, CBS News’s 60 Minutes II showed the first photographs of men held at Abu Ghraib, an American-controlled prison in Iraq. They were, among other things, visibly naked, hooded, shackled, and threatened by dogs. Those pictures sent journalists and legal advocates into a frenzied search for answers to how such a thing had happened in the wake of the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq.

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By that fall, they had obtained internal government documents exempting any war on terror captives from the usual legal protections from cruelty, abuse, and torture. Documents also appeared in which specific techniques of torture, renamed “enhanced interrogation techniques” (EITs), were authorized by top officials of the Bush administration. They would be used on prisoners in secret C.I.A. locations around the world (119 men in 38 or more countries).

None of this, however, yet added up to “Tag! I found you!”

Feinstein’s Investigation

Before George Bush left office, Sen. Dianne Feinstein began a congressional investigation into the C.I.A. interrogation program. In the Obama years, she would battle to mount a full-scale one into the torture program, defying most of her colleagues, who preferred to follow Obama’s advice to “look forward as opposed to looking backwards.”

But Feinstein refused to back down (and we should honor her courage and dedication, even as we witness the present drama of her insistence on remaining in the Senate despite a devastating process of aging).  Instead of retreating, Feinstein only doubled down and, as chair of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, launched an in-depth investigation into the torture program’s evolution and the grim treatment of those prisoners at what came to be known as “C.I.A. black sites.”

[Related: US Media Ignores CIA Cover-up on Torture]

Feinstein’s investigator, Daniel Jones, spent years reading through 6 million pages of documents. Finally, in December 2014, her committee issued a 525-page “executive summary” of his findings.

Yet his full report — 6,700 pages with 35,300 footnotes — remained classified on the grounds that, were the public to see it, national security might be harmed.

Still, that summary convincingly laid out not just the widespread use of torture but how it “proved not to be an effective means of obtaining accurate information.” In doing so, it dismantled the C.I.A.’s justification for its EITs which rested on “claims of their effectiveness.”

[Related: Clashing Face-to-Face on Torture]

C.I,A. Director Leon Panetta, left, as President Barack Obama addresses C.I.A. employees in Langley, Virginia, April 20, 2009. (Lawrence Jackson, Public domain, Wikimedia Commons)

Meanwhile, Leon Panetta, Obama’s director of the C.I.A., conducted an internal investigation into torture. Never declassified, the Panetta Review, as it came to be known, reportedly found that the C.I.A. had inflated the value of the information it had gotten with the use of torture techniques.

For example, in the brutal interrogation of the alleged mastermind of 9/11, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the agency claimed that those techniques had elicited information from him that helped thwart further terrorist plots. In fact, the information had been obtained from other sources. The review reportedly acknowledged that EITs were in no way as effective as the C.I.A. had claimed.

The Cultural Sphere

In those years, bits of light from the cultural world began to illuminate the dark horror of those enhanced interrogation techniques. In 2007, after Bush had acknowledged the use of just such “techniques” and had moved 14 detainees from the C.I.A.’s black sites to Guantánamo, his infamous offshore prison of injustice in Cuba, documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney directed Taxi to the Dark Side.

It told the story of Dilawar, a taxi driver in Afghanistan who died in American custody after severe mistreatment. That film would be one of the earliest public exposés of cruelty and mistreatment in the war on terror.

But such films didn’t always yield doses of light. In 2012, for instance, Zero Dark Thirty, a movie heavily influenced by C.I.A. advisers, argued that those harsh interrogations had helped keep America safer — specifically by leading U.S. authorities to bin Laden, a meme often repeated by government officials. In fact, reliable information leading to bin Laden had been obtained without those techniques.

[Related: The Dark Side of ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ and The Depressing ‘Zero Dark Thirty’]

Increasingly, however, films began to highlight the voices of those who had been tortured. The Mauritanian, for example, was based on Guantánamo Diary, a memoir by Mohamedou Ould Slahi, a tortured Mauritanian held at that prison for 14 years. Slahi, never charged, was finally released and returned to Mauritania.

As New York Times reporter Carol Rosenberg summed up his experience, “The confessions he made under duress [were] recanted [and] a proposed case against him [was] deemed by the prosecutor to be worthless in court because of the brutality of the interrogation.”

Abu Zubaydah

Abu Zubaydah, pre-2008. (DoD, Wikimedia Commons)

Last year, award-winning documentary filmmaker Gibney once again gave us a film on torture, The Forever Prisoner, focused on a Guantánamo detainee, Abu Zubaydah, whose real name is Zayn al-Abidin Muhammed Husayn.

On him, the C.I.A. first tested its harsh interrogation techniques, claiming he was a leading member of Al-Qaeda, an assumption later disproved. He remains one of only three Gitmo detainees neither charged by the military commissions at that prison, nor cleared for release.

[Related: Abu Zubaydah: Torture’s ‘Poster Child’]

Nothing captures the futility of the blindfold — or sometimes even the futility of lifting it — more than Zubaydah’s story, which was at the heart of the story of torture in these years. The Senate Select Committee’s 525-page executive summary referred to him no less than 1,343 times.

Captured in Pakistan in 2002 and first taken to a series of black sites for interrogation, Zubaydah was initially believed to be the third highest-ranking member of Al-Qaeda, a claim later abandoned, along with the allegation that he had even been a member of that terrorist organization.

He was the detainee for whom enhanced interrogation techniques were first authorized by National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, relying in part on the Justice Department’s greenlighting of such techniques as “lawful” rather than as torture (legally forbidden under both domestic and international law).

April 27, 2006: U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld during a press conference at the U.S. embassy in Baghdad. (U.S. Navy/Chad J. McNeeley)

Joe Margulies, Zubaydah’s lawyer, summarized the horrific techniques used on him this way:

“His captors hurled him into walls and crammed him into boxes and suspended him from hooks and twisted him into shapes that no human body can occupy. They kept him awake for seven consecutive days and nights. They locked him, for months, in a freezing room. They left him in a pool of his own urine. They strapped his hands, feet, arms, legs, torso, and head tightly to an inclined board, with his head lower than his feet.

They covered his face and poured water up his nose and down his throat until he began to breathe the water, so that he choked and gagged as it filled his lungs. His torturers then left him to strain against the straps as he began to drown. Repeatedly.

Until, just when he believed he was about to die, they raised the board long enough for him to vomit the water and retch. Then they lowered the board and did it again. The torturers subjected him to this treatment at least eighty-three times in August 2002 alone. On at least one such occasion, they waited too long and Abu Zubaydah nearly died on the board.”

In addition, as Dexter Filkins reported in The New Yorker in 2016, Zubaydah lost his left eye while in C.I.A. custody.

As the Feinstein committee’s torture report makes clear, C.I.A. personnel present at that black site cabled back to Washington the importance of erasing any information about the nature of Zubaydah’s interrogation, implicitly acknowledging just how wrongful his treatment had been. 

The July 2002 cable asked for “reasonable assurance that [Abu Zubaydah] will remain in isolation and incommunicado for the remainder of his life.” C.I.A. higher-ups assured the agents that “all major players are in concurrence that [Abu Zubaydah] should remain incommunicado for the remainder of his life.”

Sadly enough, that promise has been kept to this very day. In 2005, C.I.A. officials authorized the destruction of the tapes of Zubaydah’s questioning and, never charged with a crime, he is still in Guantánamo.

[Related: JOHN KIRIAKOU: Those Torture Drawings in the NYT]

And yet, despite the promise that he would remain incommunicado, with each passing year we learn more about what was done to him. In October 2021, in fact, in the United States v. Zubaydah, the justices of the Supreme Court for the first time openly discussed his treatment and Justices Sonia Sotomayer, Neil Gorsuch, and Elena Kagan publicly used the word “torture” to describe what was done to him.

Elsewhere as well, the blindfold has been shredded when it comes to the horror of torture, as ever more of Zubaydah’s story continues to see the light of day.

This May, The Guardian published a story about a report done by the Center for Policy and Research at Seton Hall University Law School that included a series of 40 drawings Zubaydah had made and annotated at Guantánamo. In them, he graphically depicted his torture at C.I.A. black sites and at that prison.

[Related: Guantánamo Prisoner’s Graphic Details of US Torture]

The images are beyond grotesque and, like a cacophonous symphony you can’t turn off, it’s hard to witness them without closing your eyes. They show beating, shackling from the ceiling, sexual abuse, waterboarding, confinement in a coffin, and so much more.

In one picture that he titled “The Vortex,” the techniques were combined as Zubaydah — in a self-portrait — cries out in agony. Attesting to the accuracy of the scenes he drew, the faces of his torturers have been blacked out by the authorities to protect their identities.

As the The Guardian‘s Ed Pilkington reported, Helen Duffy, Mr. Zubaydah’s international legal representative, highlighted how “remarkable” it was that his drawings had ever seen the light of day even though he hasn’t “been able to communicate directly with the outside world” in all these endless years.

Calls for Action

Witness Against Torture activists fast on Thanksgiving Day 2015 outside Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, in solidarity with with hunger striking prisoners. (Justin Norman, Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0)

In the years of the Biden presidency, the international community has focused on Guantánamo in unprecedented ways. In January 2022, “after 20 years and well over 100 visits,” the International Committee of the Red Cross (the ICRC) called for the release of as many of the remaining prisoners there as possible and, more recently, raised alarm over the failing health and premature aging of its 30 aging inmates.  

Recently, the United Nations carved out new ground as well. In April, the U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention issued an opinion condemning the brutality long used against Zubaydah and called for his immediate release. That group further noted that the continued detention of the prisoners at Guantánamo could potentially “constitute crimes against humanity.”

With each passing year, ever more details about Washington’s torture programs have come to light. Yet, even now, ferocious attempts are still being made to keep the blindfold in place. 

As a result, to this day we’re left searching, arms extended, while those who have crucial information about America’s nightmarish commitment to torture do their best to avoid the U.S., hoping that the endless passage of time will keep them out of reach until the pursuers finally run out of energy.

To this day, much still remains in darkness, while Congress and American policymakers continue to refuse to address the legacy of such wrongdoing.

But as the constant dribble of information suggests, the story simply won’t go away until, someday, the United States officially acknowledges what it did — what — if other nations were now doing it — would be instantly denounced by the same lawmakers and policymakers.

That history of torture won’t go away, in fact, until the U.S. apologizes for it, declassifies as much of the Feinstein report as possible, and provides for the rehabilitation of Abu Zubaydah and others whose physical and psychological health was savaged by their mistreatment at American hands. [CN Editor’s Note: And U.S. torturers and officials responsible for it are brought to justice.]

It’s one thing to say, as Obama told Congress a month into his presidency, that the United States “does not torture.” It’s another to expose the misdeeds of the war on terror and accept the costs as deterrence against it ever happening again.

Karen J. Greenberg, a TomDispatch regular, is the director of the Center on National Security at Fordham Law. Her most recent book is Subtle Tools: The Dismantling of American Democracy from the War on Terror to Donald Trump, now out in paperback. Kevin Ruane and Claudia Bennett contributed research for this article.

This article is from

The views expressed are solely those of the authors and may or may not reflect those of Consortium News.


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20 comments for “The Quest to Expose US Torture

  1. Larry McGovern
    May 29, 2023 at 12:05

    Interesting fact not mentioned by Ms. Greenburg: John Brennan, whose CIA spied on the Senate staffers doing their investigation as they poured over CIA documents, violating a firewall that was supposed to keep the CIA nose out it, lied about it, and had to apologize after the CIA inspector general proved the Feinstein criticism to be true.( See movie “The Report” which covers the Senate investigation.) Yes, that John Brennan, who criticized the Torture Summary, has never apologized for the CIA’s torture program, who had no problem bringing the Drone target list to Obama, (I could go on) – now sits as “Distinguished Fellow” at Fordham University Law School’s Center on National Security. And who is the founding director of the Center on National Security (2011) and still serving director – why Karen Greenburg. Like Harvard, with former Senator Richard Burr now in place at that esteemed institution, as pointed out in another comment here, this is just another example of the corruption of some of our places of hight learning.

  2. May 28, 2023 at 22:36

    You are wrong about nearly everything in this article. Al Qaeda members are trained how to lie about treatment in captivity. You and the rest of the progressive left MSM completely ignore the truth and constantly side with Islamists and apologize for them at every turn. Not one mention of the murder of nearly 3,000 innocent men, women, children and unborn babies on 9/11/2001, but lamentations over a handful of detainees being waterboarded in order to obtain valuable information that saved many lives. Over 745 detainees have been RELEASED from Gitmo, and NONE beheaded, executed, blown up, hacked to death, dragged naked and lifeless through the streets, drowned or burned alive. All things our enemies have done to US and/or our allies. There is no moral comparison between Gitmo and how our enemies treat their captives. Gitmo is a small piece to a big puzzle of how we win the Global War on Terror, and your lies just make it more difficult to do it the right way. Sincerely, MAJ (RET) Montgomery J. Granger, former ranking US Army Medical Department officer with the Joint Detainee Operations Group, Joint Task Force 160, Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

  3. Bazarov
    May 28, 2023 at 20:19

    “just as amerikan society and the amerikan national character differ profoundly from those of Europa so do European values differ from those of amerikans …the amerikan liberal (now described progressive) wants to preserve the essence of the past, the conservative wants more progress; the European radical wants to hasten the transformation of the future, the European conservative wants to preserve the essence of the past””. Geoffrey Gorer…..”amerikans are mean bitter over conformist semi automatons that cannot provide each other sexual pleasure”. David Riesman. “amerikans love big because they feel so small. amerikans have always been genocidal enjoying killing from afar….the artificial sexual scarcity in USA derives from the amerikan money neurosis”. Philip Slater

  4. Michael Keppler
    May 27, 2023 at 18:39

    Why would Feinstein keep these important news classified. They should be available to everybody

  5. CaseyG
    May 27, 2023 at 15:44

    My country tis I see, Land of Hypocrisy——–this makes me cry.

    You show me Military , that inhumanity is your goal—you show me that my country has no soul. And that while HOPE is supposed to exist ——it early does not exist at all. Thank you Diane Feinstein for the truth of us
    America is no different than any other lying and thieving nation on the planet. It does not have to be this way—-but how do we change that horror—starting right now?

  6. Jeff Harrison
    May 27, 2023 at 11:04

    Yes, this is disgusting. Yes, this is not what we would like to think that we are. The problem is that that IS what we are.

  7. Robert Emmett
    May 27, 2023 at 10:09

    “Yet his full report — 6,700 pages with 35,300 footnotes — remained classified on the grounds that, were the public to see it, national security might be harmed.” (official reaction to Feinstein staffer Jones’ investigation)

    Prime example of legalistic hoodoo Woo-woo logic. It’s perfectly harmless to “legalize” then employ torturous methods willy-nilly, justified by claims of protecting national security. (Yeah, when national security means securing a protective covering over the government’s own ass) But public knowledge of those methods, that’s the real threat of harm to national security. (Yeah, in a totalitarian society)

    And let’s not forget how many workaday Americans copped their OKness with torture at the time from the TV series “24”. Disgusting.

    After so many years of teaching such methods as spread during the bloodfest in Central America of the 80’s through the then named School of the Americas, it must have been a satisfying release of delayed gratification finally for the Pentagon to practice what it preached in Iraq.

    More disinfectant, please.

  8. HelenB
    May 27, 2023 at 09:29

    Torture. Guantanamo, yes. Abu Gharib, yes. American prisons, yes.
    Um, why avoid mentioning what is happening everywhere else?
    Electronic Torture. Done simply by overexcitement of electrical current.

  9. Charles E. Carroll
    May 27, 2023 at 08:34

    And the beat goes on! One generation of politicians after the other. No one will be held accountable. All the polits and generals will be dead and gone before realization gets to the public and we will start all over.

  10. WillD
    May 26, 2023 at 22:36

    The US is just the latest and largest country to use such foul and despicable methods to suppress and punish opposition. The only way to stop it is for the people of that country to take over and put a stop to it.

    But to do that would cost a lot of lives and cause immense suffering to many. Equally, NOT do do it will also continue to cost a lot of lives and cause immense suffering to many!

  11. Jerry Markatos
    May 26, 2023 at 21:34

    I hope there is an active human rights group Harvard ready to do more than chat about this.
    Former Senator Richard Burr, current Spring 2023 Fellow at Harvard preserved torture by hiding the Senate report from the public, guaranteeing continuation and repeat of these deeply criminal practices. His action regarding the torture program has earned him some serious visits calling on him to, at long last, help release the prisoners who are manifestly mere tokens of a pretense that our government is protecting us from “the worst.”
    The treatment of “Abu Zubaydah” demonstrates who “the worst” actually is (are).
    Harvard’s laudatory article says “Richard is a former Chairman and senior member of the Senate’s Select Committee on Intelligence.

  12. Jerry Markatos
    May 26, 2023 at 17:33

    Is there any human rights group, student or otherwise, at Harvard?
    Former Senator Richard Burr helped with the torturers, hiding the Senate report from the public, guaranteeing continuation and repeat of these deeply criminal practices.
    He is listed as a Spring 2023 Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School (see hxxps:// His action regarding the torture program has earned him some serious visits calling on him to, at long last, help release the prisoners who are manifestly mere tokens of a pretense the government is protecting us from “the worst.”
    The treatment of “Abu Zubaydah” demonstrates who “the worst” actually are.
    The article says “Richard is a former Chairman and senior member of the Senate’s Select Committee on Intelligence, and he served as an influential member of the Finance Committee for twelve years. As a member of the Intelligence Committee, and ultimately its Chairman, Richard helped drive the shift of the intelligence community towards current threats and advised banking, manufacturing and academic sectors of the threats posed by malign actors around the world. As Chairman, he led the committee to act as the de facto technology committee, informing others in the Senate about threats and opportunities of 5G modernization, supply chain vulnerabilities related to semiconductors and other emerging technologies.”

  13. Lois Gagnon
    May 26, 2023 at 17:30

    The US is long overdue for a Nuremberg style tribunal. It’s really the only way to bring this out of control hegemon to heel. The sooner the better.

  14. Andrew Thomas
    May 26, 2023 at 15:34

    1. No one in the US cares except people who read Consortium News and the tiny number of other media outlets that cover this issue and others related to it.
    2. We already know the broad outlines of what went on and undoubtedly continues.
    3. Even if the effort to bring every single instance of it to light was 100% successful, the only result would be the criminal convictions and torture of everyone who has a role in doing so.
    4. We do not need any more martyrs. The lost cause of the polity known as the USA is not worth one more drop of decent honest blood.

    • Valerie
      May 26, 2023 at 18:51

      No. 3

      You mean like kill the messenger. Probably Andrew, that’s what would happen.

      • Andrew Thomas
        May 29, 2023 at 11:09

        Valerie, that is, sadly, exactly what I mean.

  15. Barbara Marrs
    May 26, 2023 at 15:31

    Go back to Vietnam. LBJ and the government looked the other way. A small number of our soldiers torture and killed innocent civilians. From the top down it was known and encouraged. KILL ANYTHING THAT MOVES, explains how the high-ups knew what was happening and did nothing to stop the killing. The killing came to an end when other soldiers got in the way and had it known putting a stop the deaths.
    LEGACY OF ASHES documents how the CIA has gotten way with breaking the law. How they do not answer to anyone, not even the president. They are the fourth branch of the US government.

    • Mike
      May 27, 2023 at 01:22

      I couldn’t agree more with what you posted. None of the higher ups will ever face any of sort consequences for for their illegal/reprehensible actions. The worst part of it all is that nobody cares. I was absolutely disgusted by Obama when he told the American people to look forward and not back. Bush jr, Cheney Rumsfield and the the rest of the merry band of lunatics should all face charges as war criminals. The book kill Anything that moves should be required reading by all of our Senators and Congressmen/Women Maybe then someone with a spine and some courage will move to close the Guantanamo concentration camp.

  16. lester
    May 26, 2023 at 13:55

    The excuses ordinary Americans make for war crimes are amazing and fantastic! Evangelicals cite phony Hebrew grammar in “thou shalt n kill”. Cradle Republicans tells me “they’d torture us!!!” or “everyone else does it!!!”, sounding like teens caught shoplifting. We may not learn much history in school, but we are all thoroughly brainwashed with “American Exceptionalism”, which mainly mears we are perfect and can do no wrong. :-(

    • Valerie
      May 26, 2023 at 18:42

      Unfortunately lester, religion and ego are two of mankind’s worst enemies.

Comments are closed.