The Central Intelligence Agency allegedly took—and still has—naked photographs of detained terrorism suspects before sending them to be tortured by foreign partners.
The Guardian reports the classified photos, described by one former US official who saw them as “very gruesome,” show bruised, bound and blindfolded CIA prisoners, some with agency operatives or contractors standing beside them.
Knowledgeable sources said detainees may have been photographed naked in a bid to shield the CIA from legal or political repercussions resulting from their torture at the hands of foreign intelligence agencies. However, under international law including the Geneva Conventions, photography unrelated to prisoner processing is prohibited, as is anything that might violate a detainee’s dignity.
The secret and extralegal abduction, imprisonment and transportation of terrorism suspects from the foreign nations where they were captured to third countries for interrogation that often included torture is known as extraordinary rendition. More than 50 nations cooperated with the United States, with some, including Lithuania, Poland, Romania Thailand, hosting clandestine CIA torture prisons known as “black sites.” CIA operatives were well aware of the fate that awaited detainees shipped away for interrogation.
“If you want a serious interrogation, you send a prisoner to Jordan. If you want them to be tortured, you send them to Syria. If you want someone to disappear—never to see them again—you send them to Egypt,” said former CIA agent Robert Baer.
One possible motive for the naked photography of detainees is sexual humiliation, which was used throughout the war against terrorism in efforts to break male Muslim detainees, to whom modesty and chastity are fundamental religious values. Former personnel at the US military prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba and elsewhere have described in detail some of the sexual abuse of detainees, which ranges from rape and forced public masturbation to seductive teasing by female interrogators and even smearing fake menstrual blood on one man’s face in a bid to render him spiritually unclean. The use of sexual humiliation to disorient and “soften” prisoners is covered in “Human Resource Exploitation Training Manual,” a 1983 kidnapping, interrogation and torture guide used by American trainers in Central America and developed from notes from a CIA interrogation course in Honduras, according to a declassified 1989 Senate report.
The practice of photographing detainees before rendering them is mentioned as a footnote in the nearly 500-page summary of the 2014 Senate Intelligence Committee report on CIA torture.
“There are also few CIA records detailing the rendition process for detainees and their transportation to or between detention sites,” the report’s 318th footnote states. “CIA records do include detainee comments on their rendition experiences and photographs of detainees in the process of being transported.”
One of those rendered detainees was Khaled el-Masri, a German citizen of Lebanese origin who was abducted in Macedonia in December 2003 in a case of mistaken identity. El-Masri endured 23 days of torture before being handed over to CIA agents, who abused and drugged him before shackling him painfully and sending him to the notorious Salt Pit torture prison in Afghanistan, where suspected Afghan militant Gul Rahman was beaten, stripped naked and left to freeze to death by his American captors. After four months of repeated interrogation, el-Masri’s captors realized he was innocent. He was then transported to Albania and left on the side of a road. In 2012, the European Court of Human Rights unanimously ruled that CIA agents shackled, beat, tortured and sodomized the innocent man and ordered Macedonia to pay restitution.
The Senate torture report states that in addition to legitimate terrorism suspects, dozens of innocent individuals were wrongfully detained due to mistaken identity and faulty intelligence, that these and other detainees were subjected to horrific and even deadly torture and abuse and that the brutality and scope of the program were hidden from the Justice Department and even high-ranking members of the Bush administration, including the president himself. Furthermore, the report concluded that contrary to claims by top Bush officials, the CIA torture program was ineffective at producing terror-thwarting intelligence. At no time did torture lead to any information about an imminent threat, the so-called “ticking time bomb” scenario that torture apologists said justified the use of brutally illegal tactics.
Among the most damning information released in the report were revelations of extreme—and in at least one case, deadly—torture perpetrated by agency operatives. Detainees were interrogated for days on end, kept awake for up to 180 hours, forced to stand on broken legs and feet, had objects forced up their rectums and were exposed to lethally extreme cold. CIA torturers also used extreme fear and humiliation during interrogations, threatening to rape detainees’ mothers in front of them, “cut their [mothers’] throats,” harm their children or kill the prisoners. Some were led to believe they would die in US custody, as some 100 detainees held by the military did. In Iraq, US forces imprisoned female relatives of wanted men as bargaining chips and sexual abuse and humiliation of detainees was allegedly widespread and captured in both released and still-classified photographs.
CIA Director John Brennan has repeatedly defended the agency’s torture program, claiming it produced life-saving intelligence. His assertion is backed by other agency operatives, including Jose A. Rodriguez Jr., who oversaw the interrogation program.
”We did what we were asked to do,” Rodriguez wrote in the Washington Post. “We did what we were assured was legal, and we know our actions were effective.”
Although high-ranking officials in the George W. Bush administration authorized and executed a torture regimen in violation of domestic and international law, and although Barack Obama made a campaign promise to investigate allegations of torture if elected president, he reversed course once in office and actively protected Bush officials, CIA operatives and military personnel from prosecution—which is also illegal under domestic and international law.