The history of CIA torture

The law, lawyers, and the court.
March 17 2009 5:23 PM

Ice Water and Sweatboxes

The long and sadistic history behind the CIA's torture techniques.

Torture.
"Clean torture" doesn't leave marks

In the 20th century, there were two main traditions of clean torture—the kind that doesn't leave marks, as modern torturers prefer. The first is French modern, a combination of water- and electro-torture. The second is Anglo-Saxon modern, a classic list of sleep deprivation, positional and restraint tortures, extremes of temperature, noise, and beatings.

All the techniques in the accounts of torture by the International Committee of the Red Cross, as reported Monday, collected from 14 detainees held in CIA custody, fit a long historical pattern of Anglo-Saxon modern. The ICRC report apparently includes details of CIA practices unknown until now, details that point to practices with names, histories, and political influences. In torture, hell is always in the details.

The ice-water cure. "On a daily basis during the first two weeks I was made to lie on a plastic sheet placed on the floor which would then be lifted at the edges. Cold water was then poured onto my body with buckets. ... I would be kept wrapped inside the sheet with the cold water for several minutes. I would then be taken for interrogation," detainee Walid bin Attash told the Red Cross.

In the 1920s, the Chicago police used to extract confessions from prisoners by chilling them in freezing water baths. This was called the "ice-water cure." That's not its first use. During World War I, American military prisons subjected conscientious objectors to ice-water showers and baths until they fainted. The technique appeared in some British penal colonies as well; occasionally in Soviet interrogation in the 1930s; and more commonly in fascist Spain, Vichy France, and Gestapo-occupied Belgium. The Allies also used it against people they regarded as war criminals and terrorists. Between 1940 and 1948, British interrogators used "cold-water showers" as part of a brutal interrogation regimen in a clandestine London prison for German POWs accused of war crimes. French Paras also used cold showers occasionally in Algeria in the 1950s. In the 1970s, Greek, Chilean, Israeli, and Syrian interrogators made prisoners stand under cold showers or in cold pools for long periods. And American soldiers in Vietnam called it the "old cold-water-hot-water treatment" in the 1960s.

Cold cell. Abu Zubaydah, another detainee, says, "I woke up, naked, strapped to a bed, in a very white room. … [T]he cell and room were air-conditioned and were very cold." There, he was shackled to a chair for two to three weeks. "Cold cell" is one of six known authorized CIA interrogation techniques.

Since the 1960s, torturers have adapted air vents to put "the air in a state of war with me," in the words of one prisoner. In the first recorded case in 1961, guards at Parchman, Mississippi's state penitentiary, blasted civil rights detainees with a fire hose and then turned "the air-conditioning system on full blast" for three days. In 1965, detainees in Aden reported that British guards kept them "undressed in very cold cells with air conditioners and fans running at full speed." In other countries, interrogators have forced prisoners to stand or squat for long periods in front of blasting air-conditioning units or fans, as in South Vietnam (1970s), Singapore (1970s), the Philippines (1976), Taiwan (1980), South Africa (1980s), and Israel (1991 to present).

In a scene eerily similar to the CIA interrogation of Abu Zubaydah, South Vietnamese torturers held Vhuen Van Tai, the highest-ranking Viet Cong officer captured, in a windowless white room outfitted with heavy-duty air conditioners for four years. Frank Snepp, a CIA interrogator who interviewed him in 1972 in the room regularly, described Tai as "thoroughly chilled."

Water-boarding. Abu Zubaydah says that after he was strapped to a bed, "[a] black cloth was then placed over my face and the interrogators used a mineral water bottle to pour water on the cloth so that I could not breathe." If the contents of the mineral-water bottle were carbonated, this would be a well-known Mexican police technique (tehuacanazo), documented since the 1980s. * The Mexican signature mark is to mix in a little chili pepper before forcing the water down the nasal passage.

Water-boarding is not a technical term in torture, and reports have described several different water tortures under this name. The ICRC report puts to rest which kind the CIA used. It turns out to be the traditional "water cure," an antique Dutch technique invented in the East Indies in the 17th century. It migrated here after American troops returned from the Philippine insurgency in the early 20th century. By the 1930s, the water cure was favored by the Southern police. Interrogators tie or hold down a victim on his back. Then they pour water down his nostrils "so as to strangle him, thus causing pain and horror for the purpose of forcing a confession." Sometimes torturers cover the face with a napkin, making it difficult for the prisoner to breathe, as the ICRC report describes.

Sweatboxes and coubarils. Abu Zubaydah says, "Two black wooden boxes were brought into the room outside my cell. One was tall, slightly higher than me and narrow. … The other was shorter, perhaps only [3 feet 6 inches] in height." The large box, which Abu Zubaydah says he was held in for up to two hours, is a classic sweatbox. Sweatboxes are old, and they came into modern torture from traditional Asian penal practices. If you've seen Bridge on the River Kwai, you know the Japanese used them in POW camps in World War II. They are still common in East Asia. The Chinese used them during the Korean War, and Chinese prisoners today relate accounts of squeeze cells (xiaohao, literally "small number"), dark cells (heiwu), and extremely hot or cold cells. In Vietnam, they are dubbed variously "dark cells," "tiger cages," or "connex boxes," which are metal and heat up rapidly in the tropical sun.

Abu Zubaydah was also placed into the smaller box, in which he was forced to crouch for hours, until "the stress on my legs held in this position meant my wounds both in the leg and stomach became very painful." This smaller type of box was once called a coubaril. Coubarils often bent the body in an uncomfortable position. They were standard in French penal colonies in New Guinea in the 19th century, where some prisoners were held in them for 16 days at a stretch.

Both kinds of boxes entered American prison and military practice in the 19th century. They were a standard part of naval discipline, and the word sweatbox comes from the Civil War era. In the 1970s, prisoners described sweatboxes in South Vietnam, Iran (tabout, or "coffin"), Israel, and Turkey ("tortoise cell"). In the last three decades, prisoners have reported the use of sweatboxes in Brazil (cofrinho), Honduras (cajones), and Paraguay (guardia). And after 2002, Iraqi prisoners held in U.S. detention centers describe "cells so small that they could neither stand nor lie down," as well as a box known as "the coffin" at the U.S. detention center at Qaim near Syria.

Standing cells.WalidBin Attash says, "I was put in a cell measuring approximately [3 feet 6 inches-by-6 feet 6 inches]. I was kept in a standing position, feet flat on the floor, but with my arms above my head and fixed with handcuffs and a chain to a metal bar running across the width of the cell." Over the last century, many prisons had built-in, tall, narrow, coffin-size cells, in which prisoners were forced to stand for hours, their hands chained to the ceiling. In the early 20th century, the women's prison in Gainesville, Texas, had a standing cell in the dining room so that prisoners could smell the food.

High-cuffing. Detainees routinely describe having their hands cuffed high above their heads while they stand with their feet on the ground. This is less damaging than full suspension by the wrists, which causes permanent nerve damage in 15 minutes to an average-size man. High-cuffing increases the time prisoners may be suspended, elongates the pain, and delays permanent injury. It is a restraint torture, as opposed to a positional torture, which requires prisoners to assume a normal human position (standing or sitting), but for a prolonged period of time.

High-cuffing is an old slave punishment of the Americas, once called "hanging from the rafters." John Brown, a free slave, said of it, "Some tie them up in a very uneasy posture, where they must stand all night, and they will then work them hard all day." American military prisons adopted the practice in World War I. High-cuffing was the standard prescribed military punishment for desertion, insubordination, and conscientious objection. Prisoners were handcuffed to their cell door eight to nine hours a day, in one case for up to 50 days. They described high-cuffing as excruciatingly painful, and the American public, otherwise unsympathetic with these prisoners, found the practice appalling, sparking a newspaper debate over "manacling" in November 1918. A month later, the War Department rescinded high-cuffing as a mode of punishment.

Towels, collars, and plywood. Sometimes torturers come up with something entirely new. "Also," says Abu Zubaydah, "on a daily basis during the first two weeks a collar was looped around my neck and then used to slam me against the walls of the interrogation room. It was also placed around my neck when being taken out of my cell for interrogation and was used to lead me along the corridor. It was also used to slam me against the walls of the corridor during such movements."

This is a novel approach to beating someone in a way that leaves few marks. For 30 years, I've studied a long and remorseless two centuries of torture around the world, and I can find only one instance of an account resembling the collars and plywood technique described in the ICRC report. It's American. During World War I, conscientious objectors in military prisons report that their guards dragged them like animals with a rope around the neck, across rough floors, slamming them into walls. This one, as far as I can tell, is entirely homegrown.

Correction, March 20, 2009: The original sentence misspelled, and thus changed the meaning, of tehuacanazo. (Return  to the corrected sentence.)

Darius Rejali is a professor of political science and the author of Torture and Democracy, the winner of the 2007 Human Rights Best Book Award of the American Political Science Association.

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