< A Torture Narrative


Friday, October 02, 2009

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Also on Wednesday, a New York judge ruled against the American Civil Liberties Union in their lawsuit to obtain roughly 580 documents about the CIA’s interrogation tactics, including memos concerning now-destroyed videotapes depicting possible illegal practices. This isn't the first time the ACLU has been party to a case like this. Since September 11th, it’s successfully forced thousands of pages of formally classified documents about interrogations, secret prisons and rendition policies into the public’s eye. But the public can sometimes find the mountain of data, documents, interviews, press accounts and books about what some call “enhanced interrogation,” but most call torture, simply overwhelming. Enter the ACLU’s new project, The Torture Report, an attempt to synthesize all of that information into a simple narrative. Part advocacy, part storytelling, it aims to make America’s interrogation policies post-September 11th accessible. Larry Siems is the principal authority of The Torture Report. He started scaling that mountain himself six weeks ago, and what he found surprised him. Siems hopes that, despite the intimidating volume of information, he can persuade the public to join him.

LARRY SIEMS: I think people should care about it. I think people do care about it. I think deep down most people are troubled by the little bits and pieces that they've heard, and now the problem is that there’s just simply so much evidence out there and so much material that, you know, it requires an enormous investment to sift through it.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: So you want that part of the brain that contains the conscience to light up?

LARRY SIEMS: Yeah, I think so, or, or let's say mine has lit up.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: And when you began working on this six weeks ago, you confronted a massive amount of information about the Bush administration’s policies, also some about the new Obama administration’s policies. You started sifting through it. What was the first thing you did?

LARRY SIEMS: The first thing I did was I started randomly typing in dates into that Freedom of Information Act document database that the ACLU has, just to see what would come up.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: You threw some darts at a dartboard.

LARRY SIEMS: Exactly. You know, I would type in “November, 2001” and you would get maybe a hundred documents. I'll give you an example. I'd pulled up a handwritten sworn statement by an interpreter in Kandahar Detention Facility in Afghanistan. She says, I'm writing this in response to events that I witnessed while performing my duties as an interrogator. So-and-so and I were conducting an interrogation on 3 January, 2002. I took a break to regroup and check our notes. While we were out of the booth, several Special Forces members entered the booth. So-and-so and I finished our break and we went back to continue the interrogation. When we entered the booth, we found the Special Forces members all crouched around the prisoner. They were blowing cigarette smoke in his face. The prisoner was visibly shaken and crying. So-and-so immediately told them to get out and not to come back anywhere near anyone that we were talking to. The prisoner was extremely upset. He said that they had hit him, told him that he was going to die, blew smoke in his face and had shocked him with some kind of device. And she ends by saying I was very upset that such a thing could happen. I take my jobs and my responsibilities as an interrogator and as a human being very seriously. I understood the importance of the Geneva Conventions and what it represents, and if I don't honor it, what right do I have to expect any other military to do so? Now, that was written a month before President Bush signed his order stating that the Geneva Conventions will not apply to al Qaeda and Taliban prisoners. One of my big jobs in this is try to keep moving back into these mountains of documents and find things like this, where you have the big story as it’s played out on the ground level. There are an abundance of characters who exhibit extraordinary courage and conscience all along the way in this story, more than we ever knew.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: That was the biggest news flash for you, wasn't it, that these policies were contested every step of the way within the chain of command?

LARRY SIEMS: Absolutely, and I think that’s the question for all of us, is what would we have done in her situation. That’s our way into this story, you know?

BROOKE GLADSTONE: So you've only written the first chapter.


BROOKE GLADSTONE: But you decided to begin the story on September 17th, 2001; that was six days after the attacks of 9/11. How come?

LARRY SIEMS: Well, on September 17th, then-President Bush signed a secret directive that would authorize the CIA to set up secret interrogation facilities, and in doing so, he created a space for torture to happen. Secret prisons are absolutely illegal because they are breeding grounds for abuse. At the same time, Congress passed the authorization for the use of force in Afghanistan, but Congress balked at giving the Bush administration some extraordinary powers that it was seeking, including the power to use the military on U.S. territory. And immediately the administration lawyers sat down and wrote a memorandum in which they said the President can use the military in the United States. And so, those two things, you have the secretiveness, including the creation of secret sites which put, you know, literally people off of the legal map, and then you have the contempt for the law.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: So how’s it going? Is it what you expected it to be?

LARRY SIEMS: It’s more--enthralling than I had expected it to be, I have to say, and the information is more varied and more surprising. It’s more inspiring than I thought, in the sense that there are so many people who looked at the same set of facts about the threats that we face and never moved in this direction, and when others moved in this direction, they objected. I think we as a country owe it to those people to look at the whole story and to honor what they've done.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Larry, thank you very much.

LARRY SIEMS: Thank you.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Larry Siems is the Director of International Programs at the PEN American Center and principal author of the ACLU’s Torture Report. We'll link to his report from our site, Onthemedia.org.