Regarding Rights

Academic and activist perspectives on human rights

Creating Permanent Memories of Torture

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Image from http://www.mhpbooks.com

Image from http://www.mhpbooks.com

By Cynthia Banham

Centre for International Governance and Justice

Since Christmas 2014, it’s been possible to buy a book version of the US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence report on the CIA’s Detention and Interrogation Program on global book selling websites like Book Depository and Amazon.[1]

The book version of the “torture report,” as it’s commonly known, was published by independent New York publisher Melville House. According to media accounts, it took 72 hours and the services of a dozen employees and a team of volunteers to transform the torture report into a properly formatted manuscript ready to send to the printers for publication as a paperback and ebook. Before it was a book, the torture report was (and still is) available as a PDF document that can be freely downloaded from the Internet.

The decision to publish a book version of the report prompted questions for me about what this move meant for accountability for state torture and, in particular, the different kinds of accountability that are possible.

The torture report is the result of a comprehensive act of political accountability by the US Congress for a post-9.11 program that breached international human rights laws and principles and damaged the US’s reputation in this area. Given this, what – if anything – could the book version of the torture report achieve for accountability that the original Committee report could not?

The book version is easier to read than the poor-quality, low-resolution Internet version released by the Committee. The ebook is also searchable, unlike the original PDF.

But it was a comment in a New Yorker piece about Melville House co-founder and co-publisher Dennis Johnson that I found most interesting. The author of the piece noted Johnson’s faith in the “power of the book as a physical object”.

Johnson described the torture report as “probably the most important government document of our generation”. He said he feared it would “fade quickly from the news cycle,” and that publishing it was an attempt to ensure the torture report reached the widest possible audience.

The act of publishing can thus be seen as an attempt by the citizenry to increase the report’s impact beyond what the Committee could achieve. It is about making the report permanent, by giving it physical form.

Beyond this, I wondered, could publishing the book also be viewed as an attempt by citizens to accept some responsibility for what occurred in their name after 9.11?

The US government released the torture report on 9 December 2014, following a protracted battle to make it public. The Committee’s chairman, Democrats Senator Dianne Feinstein, had to fight both the CIA and the Obama White House for the release of the declassified 528-page document, which is just the executive summary of a report that runs to 6,700 pages. The rest of the report is still classified.

I recently read every page of the executive summary, including the 2,725 footnotes typed in tiny, headache-inducing script. The torture report makes for occasionally horrific, sometimes astonishing, and often mind-numbingly repetitive reading.

The torture of Abu Zubaydah, a “high-value detainee,” is particularly disturbing, and worth singling out as an illustration of the depravity documented in the report.

Zubaydah, who is today being held in indefinite detention at Guantánamo Bay, was subject to the CIA’s enhanced interrogation techniques from 4 to 23 August 2002 on a “near 24-hour-per-day basis”.[2] It began after he had spent 47 days in isolation, a circumstance itself at odds with the “ticking time-bomb” scenario often invoked by liberals after 9.11 to justify torture).

According to the torture report, security personnel entered his cell, shackled and hooded a naked Zubaydah and, without asking him any questions, placed a rolled towel around his neck as a collar, backed him up against a wall, removed his hood and forced him to watch while a coffin-like box was brought into his cell. For the next 17 days Zubaydah was subjected to “walling, attention grasps, slapping, facial hold, stress positions, cramped confinement, white noise and sleep deprivation,” along with waterboarding two to four times a day.[3]

When Zubaydah was left alone, he was “placed in a stress position, left on the waterboard with a cloth over his face or locked in one of two confinement boxes”. In all, Zubaydah spent 266 hours in a large coffin-like box, and 29 hours in a smaller one.

Zubaydah’s utter domination and dehumanisation was laid out graphically in this paragraph:

DETENTION SITE GREEN cables describe Abu Zubaydah as ‘compliant,’ informing CIA Headquarters that when the interrogator ‘raised his eyebrow, without instructions,’ Abu Zubaydah ‘slowly walked on his own to the water table and sat down.’ When the interrogator ‘snapped his fingers twice,’ Abu Zubaydah would lie flat on the waterboard.[4]

The torture report makes clear that Zubaydah never provided the information for which the CIA program was approved. Yet a subsequent cable from his detention site determined his interrogation was a success and should be used as a template for future interrogations of detainees. This was not because the brutal techniques produced useful information, but rather “because their use confirmed that Abu Zubaydah did not possess the intelligence that CIA Headquarters had assessed” him to have.[5]

It is a mind-boggling, medieval justification for the use of torture. By such reasoning, “high-value” detainees should be tortured to prove they don’t possess critical information about terrorist threats.

Most of the torture report is concerned with setting out in great detail the ineffectiveness and mismanagement of the CIA’s program. The report is laden with examples of the CIA’s omissions and misrepresentations about the value of the intelligence it was getting from using “enhanced interrogation techniques” on detainees. “The information provided by the CIA was inaccurate,” is an often-repeated refrain throughout the report.

Some of the CIA’s misrepresentations, for example, formed the basis for claims made by President George W Bush in his 2006 speech defending the agency’s detention and interrogation program.[6] The speech, based on CIA information, included the claim that the brutal CIA interrogation of Zubaydah led to the capture of a key al Qaeda operative, Ramzi bin al-Shibh. This was a claim the Committee found to be completely unsupported by the CIA’s records. The operative in question was actually captured unexpectedly during raids conducted by Pakistani authorities targeting another individual. It is one example of many such fabrications.

Despite the horrors uncovered in the torture report, the Obama Administration has refused, for political reasons, to pursue prosecutions of the officials who ordered the torture or the agents who carried it out. President Barack Obama made his position clear in 2009, saying “nothing will be gained by spending our time and energy laying blame for the past”.

Which brings me back to Melville House’s book.

The torture report is not the first time a US government report has been published as a book. The 9/11 Commission Report was published as a book (by WW Norton) as was the Starr Report on President Bill Clinton’s relationship with Monica Lewinsky (by PublicAffairs Books). The difference in the case of the torture report was that the government did not give preferential treatment to any particular publisher, as previously occurred. This was said to make publication of the torture report less attractive to mainstream publishers.

Melville House did not have to pay for the rights to publish the torture report, since it was a public document. The publisher claimed the decision to publish was a “great” financial risk for the company (though Melville House published an initial 50,000 copies of the paperback version, which sold immediately).

Putting aside financial considerations, Johnson indicated his main purpose for publishing was a civic-minded one: “We are a mission-driven company, and we want people to read this because we think it’s important for our democracy”.

James Booth writes about the work of “memory-justice” and the relationship between doing justice and memory work.[7] In seeking to act on the past by making it present in a morally grounded manner, he argues, citizens are doing the work of justice. Acting on the past “attempts to overcome the void or absence created by the crime by abolishing, after a fashion, the moral indifference inherent in the irreversibility of time, which the passage of time and often human effort seem to seal”.[8]

In the absence of executive accountability, the publication of the torture report as a book is doing socially active memory work. The act of publication can be viewed as performing the work of memory-justice, in creating a permanent memory of past human rights injustices, in a more durable form than a document on the Internet that may become harder to track down in the years to come.

It is putting the past into circulation, building a counter-public sphere to the one whose participants would rather ignore or forget things that are painful.[9]

Civil society’s various members – lawyers, media, and human rights NGOs – have done a great deal in the years since 11 September 2001 to constrain the US government from breaching human rights in its response to the terrorist attacks. Groups like the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York and reporters from The Washington Post have brought litigation in the US Supreme Court and exposed secret illegal detention practices that have forced the US government to reign in its behaviour on a number of fronts.

The torture report as a book can be seen as a conscious act by civil society – by the publishers and those who buy the book – to not allow the report to fade from the community’s consciousness, to fight collective amnesia where official accountability is lacking.[10] The book entrenches the efforts of the Committee to ensure torture – and specifically its use after 9.11 – is not allowed to remain something abstract, something that may have occurred, but is so awful to contemplate that perhaps in decades to come it will be too hard to believe, leaving the door open to recidivism.

Is there also, perhaps, an owning by the citizenry of the crime? Could this represent a moment where the citizenry, in whose names the torture was carried out – to make them safe – restores integrity to itself by, as Booth theorised, condemning a deviation from its own core values?[11] In making sure people do not forget how detainees were treated in the war on terror, is there not some sort of community healing occurring here as well? More than just acknowledging that wrong has occurred, I wonder whether the act of publishing and buying this ‘Book of Torture’ (as The Atlantic dubbed it) represents a kind of restorative act on the part of the public. We let this happen, but we will not let it happen again.


[1] Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, The Senate Intelligence Committee Report on Torture: Committee Study of the Central Intelligence Agency’s Detention and Interrogation Program (Melville House, 2014).

[2] Ibid., 51.

[3] Ibid., 52.

[4] Ibid., 53.

[5] Ibid., 55.

[6] Ibid., 236-237.

[7] W James Booth, Communities of Memory: On Witness, Identity and Justice (Cornell University Press, 2006) 116-117.

[8] Ibid., 115.

[9] Michael Rothberg, Multidirectional Memory: Remembering the Holocaust in the Age of Decolonization (Stanford University Press, 2009) 221.

[10] Joachim J Savelsberg and Ryan D King, ‘Law and Collective Memory’ (2007) 3 Annual Review of Law and Social Science 189, 200.

[11] Booth, above note 17, 127.

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