American Torture on Trial

April 27, 2007

“Arrested in May 2002 at Chicago’s O’Hare airport, Padilla, a Brooklyn-born former gang member, was classified as an “enemy combatant” and taken to a Navy prison in Charleston, South Carolina. He was kept in a 9-by-7-foot cell with no natural light, no clock and no calendar. Whenever Padilla left the cell, he was shackled and suited in heavy goggles and headphones. Padilla was kept under these conditions for 1,307 days. He was forbidden contact with anyone but his interrogators, who punctured the extreme sensory deprivation with sensory overload, blasting him with harsh lights and pounding sounds. Padilla also says he was injected with a “truth serum,” a substance his lawyers believe was LSD or PCP.

According to his lawyers and two mental health specialists who examined him, Padilla has been so shattered that he lacks the ability to assist in his own defense. He is convinced that his lawyers are “part of a continuing interrogation program” and sees his captors as protectors. In order to prove that “the extended torture visited upon Mr. Padilla has left him damaged,” his lawyers want to tell the court what happened during those years in the Navy brig. The prosecution strenuously objects, maintaining that “Padilla is competent,” that his treatment is irrelevant.

US District Judge Marcia Cooke disagrees. “It’s not like Mr. Padilla was living in a box. He was at a place. Things happened to him at that place.” The judge has ordered several prison employees to testify at the hearings on Padilla’s mental state, which begin February 22. They will be asked how a man alleged to have engaged in elaborate antigovernment plots now acts, in the words of brig staff, “like a piece of furniture.”

It’s difficult to overstate the significance of these hearings. The techniques used to break Padilla have been standard operating procedure atGuantánamo Bay since the first prisoners arrived five years ago. They wore blackout goggles and sound-blocking headphones and were placed in extended isolation, interrupted by strobe lights and heavy metal music. These same practices have been documented in dozens of cases of CIA “extraordinary rendition” as well as in prisons in Iraq and
Afghanistan.

Many have suffered the same symptoms as Padilla. According to James Yee, former Army Muslim chaplain at Guantánamo, there is an entire section of the prison called Delta Block for detainees who have been reduced to a delusional state. “They would respond to me in a childlike voice, talking complete nonsense. Many of them would loudly sing childish songs, repeating the song over and over.” All of Delta Block was on twenty-four-hour suicide watch. “

This type of torture has been standard practice for theUS military since the start of the ‘War on Terror.’  There is only one reason Padilla’s case stands out: he is an American citizen and will now receive a public trial.  But now that Padilla’s mental state is at issue, the prosecution faces a serious problem.

“The CIA and the military have known since the early 1960s that extreme sensory deprivation and sensory overload cause personality disintegration–that’s the whole point.”The deprivation of stimuli induces regression by depriving the subject’s mind of contact with an outer world and thus forcing it in upon itself. At the same time, the calculated provision of stimuli during interrogation tends to make the regressed subject view the interrogator as a father-figure.” That comes from Kubark Counterintelligence Interrogation, a 1963 declassified CIA manual for interrogating “resistant sources.”

But it isn’t necessary to look at counterintelligence manuals from the 1960’s to prove that the military knew what it was doing to inmates.  The US military field manual, which was reissued last year states: “Sensory deprivation may result in extreme anxiety, hallucinations, bizarre thoughts, depression, and anti-social behavior,” as well as “significant psychological distress.” 

If the US military really did drive Padilla insane, this means that thousands of ‘illegal combatants’ are suffering the same fate from all over the world.  As Naomi Klein notes in this article, “What is on trial in Florida is not one man’s mental state.  It is the whole system of US psychological torture.” 

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