Bagram Blues

Max Fisher at The Atlantic on November 30, 2009:

Reports of a second, “black” prison attached to the notorious detention facility at Bagram Air Force Base in Afghanistan is drawing fire from critics of President Obama’s continuation of Bush-era detention practices. The New York Times reports that detainees are held at the site for extended periods without access to basic services or the International Red Cross. Both the Times and The Washington Post provide extensive interviews with former detainees at the site. The facility is run not by the CIA but by JSOC, the Joint Special Operations Command, a part of the military.

Max Fisher at The Atlantic on May 11, 2010:

Now the BBC reports that the International Committee of the Red Cross has confirmed the site’s existence with the military. The U.S. official in charge of Afghanistan detention, Vice Admiral Robert Harward has denied that the prison, reportedly called the Tor Jail after the Urdu word for “black,” exists. What do we know?

Hilary Andersson at BBC:

The US airbase at Bagram in Afghanistan contains a facility for detainees that is distinct from its main prison, the Red Cross has confirmed to the BBC.

Mirwais was watering his plants one night when American soldiers came to get him.

He is still missing half a row of teeth from the beating he says he got that night and he says he cannot hear properly in one ear.

US troops accused him of making bombs and giving the Taliban money.

Mirwais says he was taken to the ‘black jail’.

In response to the allegations, Vice Admiral Robert Harward, in charge of US detentions in Afghanistan, denied the existence of such a facility or abuses.

He told the BBC that the Parwan Detention Facility was the only US detention centre in the country.

Spencer Ackerman at The Washington Independent:

The BBC further reports that it’s got accounts from nine former inmates who say they were abused at Tor. Months ago, I asked Vice Adm. Robert Harward, the chief U.S. military officer responsible for detentions operations in Afghanistan if all detainees had access to the Red Cross, and he answered, “All detainees under my command have access to the International [Committee of the] Red Cross.” According to the ICRC, that’s been the case since August 2009 (which precedes Harward’s November arrival in Afghanistan). But how long was Tor open before detainees had ICRC access?

Marc Ambinder:

Called the “black jail” by some of those who have transited through it, it is a way-point for detainees who are thought to possess actionable information about the Taliban or Al Qaeda.

Intelligence gleaned from these interrogations has often led to some of the military’s highest profile captures. Usually, captives are first detained at one of at least six classified Field Interrogation Sites in Afghanistan, and then dropped off at the DIA facility — and, when the interrogators are finished, transferred to the main prison population at the Bagram Theater Internment Facility.

“DoD does operate some temporary screening detention facilities which are classified to preserve operational security; however, both the [Red Cross] and the host nation have knowledge of these facilities,” said Bryan Whitman, a Pentagon spokesperson. “Screening facilities help military officials determine if an individual should be detained further and assists military forces with timely information vital to ongoing operations.” Whitman would not say who ran the facility or provide any details. A DIA spokesperson declined to comment, as did the White House, which referred questions to the Pentagon.

Under a directive issued by the commander of coalition forces in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, those captured on the battlefield can be detained for only 96 hours unless they are deemed to possess intelligence value. In practice, military units can unofficially transfer detainees they pick up to other field  units before they arrive at interrogation sites, giving American and Afghan interrogators more time to ferret out useful information.

According to other officials, personnel at the facility are supposed to follow the Army Field Manual’s guidelines for interrogations. When he took office, President Obama signed an executive order banning the Central Intelligence Agency and the military from using techniques not listed in the manual. But he has a task force studying whether the expressly manual-approved tactics are sufficient.

However, under secret authorization, the DIA interrogators use methods detailed in an appendix to the Field Manual, Appendix M, which spells out “restricted” interrogation techniques.

Under certain circumstances, interrogators can deprive prisoners of sleep (four hours at a time, for up to 30 days), to confuse their senses, and to keep them separate from the rest of the prison population. The Red Cross is now notified if the captives are kept at the facility for longer than two weeks.

When interrogators are using Appendix M measures, the Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence, Gen.James Clapper (Ret.) is the man on the hook. Detainees designated as prisoners of war cannot be subjected to Appendix M measures.

The DCHC is a relatively new organization. It has several branches and has absorbed staff from the the now largely disbanded Strategic Support Branch, which provided CIA-like intelligence services to ground combat units. The DCHC also performs some of the work that the Counterintelligence Field Activity (CIFA), which was accused of spying on American political groups, used to do. Many of the staff, civilian and military, as well as many contractors, previously worked with CIFA.

Defense officials said that the White House is kept appraised of the methods used by interrogators at the site. The reason why the Red Cross hasn’t been invited to tour it, officials said, was because the U.S. does not believe it to be a detention facility, classifying it instead as an intelligence gathering facility.

A Defense official said that the agency’s inspector general had launched an internal investigation into reports in the Washington Post that several teenagers were beaten by the interrogators, but Whitman disputes this.

When the Obama Administration took over, it forbade the DIA from keeping prisoners in the facility longer than 30 days, although it is not clear how that dictum is enforced.  It is also not clear how much Congress knows about the DIA’s interrogation procedures, which have largely escaped public scrutiny.

Nathan Hodge at Danger Room at Wired:

In a bloggers’ roundtable earlier this year, Navy Vice Adm. Robert Harward emphasized that there were “no black jails” at Bagram, but he did clarify that there was a short period of detention at undisclosed “field-detention sites,” where Afghan and U.S. authorities hold individuals to determine who they are and whether they have any actionable intelligence.

“We don’t disclose where those field-detention sites are, because of operation security,” Harward said. “They would be targeted. They’d be at great risk. At those field-detention sites, they’re held for a very short period, to determine who they are, their classification, immediately actionable intelligence. And then, from that point, they’re moved to our detention facility in Parwan.”

It’s worth emphasizing here that humane treatment of prisoners is considered a cornerstone of effective counterinsurgency. The idea is to prevent further radicalization of detainees, and turning detention facilities into recruiting centers for the insurgency.

In the roundtable, Harward borrowed a phrase from counterinsurgency guru David Kilcullen. The goal is to prevent the “accidental guerrillas” from filling up the facility.

“If that village says, yeah, he’s a bad guy, we’ve just gotten additional intelligence on him and better understanding of the individual,” said Harward. “The village may say, hey, he’s a bad kid but he could be good. Well, then maybe he does need a program where we teach him to read or write, and a short incarceration would benefit him and convince him not to be the jihadist, that he was the accidental guerrilla; that there’s options and purpose for him in Afghan society outside of that, and maybe we can give him some skills that will help him.”

Jeff Kaye at Firedoglake:

Together with the BBC investigation and the ICRC confirmation, we can see that the military is lying through their teeth when they claim there is no second Bagram facility, or that no abuse takes place at Bagram. (For more on Bagram and the issue of indefinite detention, see this recent diary by Jim White.)

The presence of sleep deprivation, sensory deprivation, brutality, isolation and the like at the U.S. prison complex has not been a matter of protest among U.S. progressives, many of whom still support the administration of President Barack Obama. Many liberals have been in denial over the poor record of President Obama on the issue of torture and detention policies. The President began his administration with a big series of presidential orders that supposedly ended the Bush administration’s policy of torturing prisoners, and shut down the CIA’s black site prisons.

But as we know now, not all the black site prisons were shut down. Nor was the torture ended. Whether it’s beatings and forced-feedings at Guantanamo, or the kinds of torture described at Bagram, it’s obvious that torture has not been rooted out of U.S. military-intelligence operations. In fact, by way of the Obama administration’s recent approval of the Bush-era Army Field Manual on interrogations, with its infamous Appendix M, which allows for much of the kind of torture practiced at Bagram, the White House has institutionalized a level of torture that was introduced by the previous administration, but which has been studied and devised over the last fifty or sixty years.

Furthermore, in a June 2009 Air Force document reported on last July, it was noted that the personnel responsible for some of the torture program deriving from the SERE schools were still allowed “psychological oversight of battlefield interrogation and detention.” Are SERE psychologists involved in the Special Operations at torture at Tor and Parwan? Given the close relationship between SERE’s parent group, the Joint Personnel Recovery Agency, and JSOC, I think there’s a high possibility of just such involvement.

A question hangs heavily over the U.S. political scene: how long will denial exist among liberals and progressives over the persistence of an aggressive military policy and the concomitant crimes against humanity that come with it? How long will the supporters of Barack Obama maintain their studied indifference to the crimes against humanity done in their name? The shine is off this new president, and underneath it all we can discern the same old game of lies covering for crimes. Enough is enough.

Adam Serwer at Tapped:

The administration says that the Red Cross is given access to detainees and that they are not abused, but this is false on its face, in two ways. The BBC has previously reported that as many as nine detainees have reported being subject to abuse at Bagram’s “black jail.”

The second is that the use of sleep deprivation is torture. As former Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin wrote of his time in the custody of the KGB:

In the head of the interrogated prisoner, a haze begins to form. His spirit is wearied to death, his legs are unsteady, and he has one sole desire: to sleep… Anyone who has experienced this desire knows that not even hunger and thirst are comparable with it.Reducing people’s minds to mush also has the downside of making it difficult for them to answer questions coherently.

Let’s also not let “confuse the senses” slip by. This is possibly a euphemism for sensory deprivation, which can be among the most excruciating forms of torture imaginable. Here’s an excerpt from an account on early experimentation with sensory deprivation that Hilzoy flagged last year:

Dr Donald O. Hebb at McGill University found that he could induce a state akin to psychosis in a subject within 48 hours. Now, what had the doctor done? Hypnosis, electroshock, LSD, drugs? No. None of the above. All Dr Hebb did was take student volunteers at McGill University where he was head of Psychology, put them in comfortable airconditioned cubicles and put goggles, gloves and ear muffs on them. In 24 hours the hallucinations started. In 48 hours they suffered a complete breakdown.II don’t know if this is what “confuse the senses” means in the context of Bagram, but it’s worth more looking into.

Whatever credibility the Obama administration had remaining on the subject of breaking continuity with the Bush administration on issues of human rights is fast eroding. The irony is that the torture wing of the Republican Party will both feel vindicated and argue that the Obama administration represents a radical departure from the policies of the last administration.

Josh Rogin at Foreign Policy

Harry Shearer at Huffington Post:

I’ve been writing about Bagram because it stands as a rebuke to the president’s pledge to close Gitmo. What’s happened at Bagram — and you can Google it — is perhaps worse than our history at Guantanamo, and Bagram detainees are not covered by the Supreme Court’s habeas corpus decision re: Gitmo detainees. In other words, they remain in a lawless black hole where their captors can do literally anything.

And their captors are us.

UPDATE: Charlie Savage at NYT

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1 Comment

Filed under Af/Pak, GWOT, Political Figures

One response to “Bagram Blues

  1. Pingback: What We’ve Build This Weekend « Around The Sphere

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