While the focus on the torture program under President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney remains fixed on the failure to come clean to Congress, it should be noted that those who carried out these terrible deeds spent a decade erasing evidence of their war crimes and destroying the lives of suspects who could testify against them, or to even acknowledge how many black sites were being run or how many people died under torture while in the custody of its operatives, medical professionals and contractors.
As far back as 2006, the United States advocacy group Human Rights First produced a report stating that over 100 suspects died “while in the hands of U.S. officials in the global war on terror.”
That figure did not tell the whole story nor did it speak to the organized and widespread torture that saw an unknown number of prisoners moved through black sites as far afield as Lithuania, Morocco, Poland and Thailand, to name but a few countries that cooperated with the U.S.
One of the critical pieces of the torture strategy was to fold up a site and destroy the evidence of its existence, including video evidence, once its existence had been compromised. But that was not the only reason detainees were flown at a moment’s notice to far-flung, secret facilities. The aim was to transform them into so-called “ghost detainees,” who did not exist on paper.
A primary reason for hiding prisoners was to ensure they would not be available to testify against their torturers. Evidence was often fabricated to keep them in custody, beyond the reach of the media and the Red Cross. Eventually, some were moved to Guantanamo Bay; torture was used there, too.
It has been overlooked that in 2004, Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Inspector General John Helgerson shockingly admitted the following: “The agency has, like the military, an interest in the disposition of detainees, and a particular interest in those who, if not kept in isolation, would likely divulge information about the circumstances of their detention.”
In other words, it was better to keep detainees in isolation than apply the accepted rules of law for prisoners of war.
The CIA went one step further. A detainee in Afghanistan who died under torture was buried in an unmarked grave near the site where he was murdered. To this day, his name is not known, and he may not have been the only detainee disposed of in that way because there was no oversight. The failure of the U.S. to prosecute its torturers means we may never know how many people were brutally murdered through torture.
U.S. government officials have never been asked to account for the massive sums of money that were spent on the torture program. For example, prisoners were transported on more than 11,000 flights on a total of 122 U.S. registered aircraft. All of these were reportedly paid for in cash that was moved through U.S. embassies in diplomatic pouches in order to hide the source of the money. In the winter of 2003, two CIA officers carried $15 million in cash out of the U.S. embassy in Warsaw to use in setting up a torture site there, after one had been compromised and shut down in Thailand.
When that Polish site closed, its prisoners were moved to at least five other sites in Eastern Europe and the Middle East. No one knows how much cash was used in the torture program and whether some of it, like the massive amounts of taxpayer dollars that vanished after being flown into Iraq, found its way into the pockets of CIA operatives and contractors. Certainly a lot of it was used to bribe corrupt officials in countries where torture took place.
Missing in the congressional debate about the CIA is the true ugliness of the torture program and the human tragedy it generated.
According to one shocking report, Iraqi General Abed Hamed Mowhoush’s young son was dragged before him while he was being tortured. The general was told they were prepared to kill the boy. The boy was then taken to another room and subjected to a mock execution. He was hit and he bled. An interrogator showed his father the blood and told him, “I have just killed your son.”
Two of Mowhoush’s other sons were being held in custody at that time.
Over several days, Mowhoush was beaten with sledgehammer handles and rubber hoses until his heart gave out. Soldiers involved in his death were given what amounted to a slap on the wrist, and his CIA interrogators walked free.