Preventing Torture: The Oberlin Initiative

A. Introduction. A discussion of torture by the U. S. military would have been inconceivable as I was growing up during World War II. It was our enemies who we accused of torture. I remember the disgust that I felt upon hearing that Americans had been tortured. We were fighting to make sure that such cruel behavior would not be tolerated. Even 10 years ago, it would have been inconceivable that our leaders would be trying to convince the American people that torture was in the national interest. Tonight I will be factual, but I will also try to express the horror that is brought upon individuals who are tortured AND on the individuals who conduct or condone torture.

Governments and media prefer to use euphemisms rather than the word “torture”. The word torture comes from the Latin word for “twist”, a word which describes one of the common form of mistreating the human body and also describes the contortion of a body in agony. As you will note from newspaper articles, the governments and the media much prefer to talk about “rough”, “tough”, or “harsh” methods of interrogation, as if it were a football game. And they speak of “detainees” rather than call them “prisoners”. When we realize the reality of what has been done routinely to prisoners of the U.S., it is offensive to use the words “harsh” or “rough’.

B. History of torture. Let’s start out with a little history of torture. For centuries torture has been a technique used by the powerful to try to control those less powerful. In Europe, it was initially used to punish enemies, criminals, and slaves. In the Middle Ages, it was legal. In some European countries, it required certification by a physician. In the 1700s, torture became illegal. The public concluded that it was barbaric, subject to abuse, and an unreliable way to secure evidence. Eloquent arguments for the abolition of torture were written during this period. However, abolition drove the practice underground and that experience led to the conclusion that torture would end only when citizens understood that the practice was both barbaric and ineffective at generating evidence.

In the middle of the 20th century, torture “exploded into sight as a global crime against humanity”, the horror of Nazi Germany and the Nuremberg Trials being the precipitating events. Beginning in 1948, the nations of the world agreed in a series of declarations and agreements to abolish torture. Among the agreements were:
1948- Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UN)
1949- Geneva Convention (World Medical Association)
1966- International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (UN)
1975- Helsinki Accords (World Medical Association)
1982- Declaration of Tokyo (World Medical Association)
These agreements were very explicit, very precise, and not the least bit confusing. For example, after some very moving words, Article 5 of the 1948 Declaration and Article 7 of the 1966 Covenant state that, “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment”.

C. Evidence of torture from news articles. Over the past three years, I have collected and read news and analysis articles that establish that widespread torture of the most appalling kind has been carried out on prisoners by U.S. military The articles have come primarily from the New York Times, The Plain Dealer, Newsweek, Liberal Opinion Week, and articles from around the world which are sent out electronically by the organization, Truthout. Truthout is a wonderful service that has an amazingly accurate track record. With this service I get pertinent news days and often weeks ahead of newspapers and TV news reports. One can subscribe to this service by contacting the organization at the email address shown on the top of the second page of the handout (

Nancy has assembled chronologically the articles that I have collected. They now occupy 9 volumes. Here are the articles from September of this year. Here are the articles so far from October. I am going to pass them out; please circulate them during the presentation. I invite you to open one of the books to an article or two—any articles. Collectively these articles comprise overwhelming evidence that the most awful torture has occurred—many cases of torturing to death. It was not just a few bad apples. It was widespread and the directives came down from the top.

Collecting articles on torture is an unpleasant task. So, why do I collect the articles? I am compelled to do so; I have no choice. We continue to need to see this collection to be reminded just how badly our military has behaved. The impact is strong when you read 10 or 20 articles or even when you see this many articles all at once. In addition, the chronological arrangement allows one to see how the administration changed its story with time. The president said at one point, “We do not condone torture. I have never ordered it. I will never order it.” These words were later replaced with “Its the work of a few bad apples” which changed to “Harsh and rough treatment is appropriate” which changed to “These evil men deserve everything they get” which changed to “It is necessary in order to keep Americans safe”.

D. Evidence of torture from books. However, even more convincing than this collection of news articles are the books that pull all of the evidence together. The books also tell the stories of what was done to individual prisoners. I will comment on just two of these many books.

The first is a 2004 book “Chain of Command: The Road from 9/11 to Abu Ghraib”, written by Seymour Hersh, who is perhaps THE most effective investigative reporter in the country. In 1968, during the war in Vietnam, Hersh single-handedly uncovered and then broke the story of the My Lai (me-li’) massacre in which an infantry brigade went on a killing spree, murdering over 500 unarmed Vietnamese, mainly women, old men, babies, and children. In his terse, unsentimental way, Hersh tells of an encounter (that still haunts him) with the mother of one of the soldiers who had been at My Lai. The mother says to Hersh, “I sent them a good boy, and they sent me back a murderer”.

In his book, Hersh fast-forwards from 1968 to 2004. He had just broken the story of torture in Abu Ghraib Prison. In a modern replay of the story about the soldier involved with My Lai, Hersh talks with a mother whose daughter has returned home after a tour of duty as a soldier at Abu Ghraib. The woman calls Hersh and tells him that her daughter has become despondent, has left her family, and has covered her body with tattoos. In an effort to understand what has gone wrong, the mother looks on the daughter’s computer and finds photos of dogs attacking a prisoner in Abu Ghraib.

The second book that I will mention is “Oath Betrayed: Torture, Medical Complicity, and the War on Terror”, published this past June. The author, Steve Miles is a physician and bioethicist who very carefully and very convincingly builds the case that physicians, nurses, and other medical personnel participated in the torture of a great many prisoners and covered up the evidence, going so far as to change the death certificate of those tortured to death from “homicide” to “death due to natural causes”. Dr. Miles went through 35,000 pages of medical and military records and reports in collecting the evidence against the medical personnel.

E. What kinds of torture has the U.S. conducted? The methods of torture are obscene. Reliable evidence has documented beatings with fist & blunt objects; stress positions, stretching, suspension, dislocation of joints; hitting, kicking, stretching, and electrically shocking the most sensitive body parts or broken and injured body parts; asphyxiation by water immersion, chest compression, obstructing airways, or suspension; burning of flesh; rape; agonizingly painful medical procedures; deprivation of food, water, medical care, sleep, access to toilet; nudity in freezing temperatures and ice water administration; confinement to a tiny space; abuse and torture of loved ones; mock execution; dog bites; denigration of religion; administration of hallucinogens, on and on. The abuse sometimes continued without relief for hour after hour and then was repeated day after day for months or even a year. Many who were tortured were permanently injured, physically and mentally. A smaller number were tortured to death. In his book, Steve Miles relates that after reading hundreds of reports, he would wake up in the night sweating and shaking, having dreamed that he was in Abu Ghraib being tortured.

F. Who has conducted the torture? The evidence is conclusive that torture has been conducted by interrogators who are: military personnel, CIA personnel, FBI personnel, private contractors working for the military, and foreign interrogators in countries to which the U.S. sends prisoners for torture. There are over 100,000 U.S. private contractors in Iraq; in past years, the concept of the military hiring mercenaries was an abhorrent concept. There is strong evidence that more than 1000 flights transferred prisoners to foreign countries where they could be tortured even more secretly.

G. Where did the torture take place? We know the most about torture in Guantanamo Bay Prison in Cuba and in the Abu Ghraib Prison camp in Iraq that held 4500 prisoners. We know something about torture in other prisons that the U.S. uses in Iraq and Afghanistan. We know very little about the many prisons in Eastern Europe, Syria, Egypt, and other countries around the world to which we render prisoners; we do know that in these countries there is no hesitation to conduct torture or to keep secret the secret prisons.

H. Who provided the hard evidence upon which the articles and books were based? An amazing wide range of individuals, reports, and records have been the source of the information. I have summarized these sources on the second page of the handout. As you will see from this sheet, the sources that provided information on U.S. torture include:


1. Released prisoners (those declared not a threat)
2. Countries to which prisoners returned
3. Prisoners who spoke through actions (going on hunger strikes and trying to commit suicide)
4. Lawyers of the few prisoners who were allowed legal support
5. Aids workers
6. Guards and other military whistleblowers who witnessed or participated in torture
7. Families of U.S. military personnel
8. Military chaplains
9. Investigating officers (e.g., Brig. Gen. Janus Karpinsky, former commander of Abu Ghraib)
10. CIA whistleblowers (Ray McGovern, a 27-year veteran of the CIA who returned his medals)
11. FBI records
12. The European Parliament Investigation (uncovering 1000 rendition flights to Europe)
13. The International Red Cross
14. Amnesty International
15. NGOs: human rights org, relief agencies, anti-torture watch groups (Detainee Abuse Project)
16. UN reports (including the blistering report in May of this year)
17. Military records (most important primary source of evidence; used by Steve Miles))
18. Medical records “

Within each of these categories are documented countless horror stories. Collectively, they tell us what we do not want to hear.

I. What are the arguments for and against torture? One can build a strong case against conducting torture on religious/ethical grounds. Likewise many legal experts agree that the U.S is clearly and dramatically breaking international AND U.S. law. Nonetheless, there are plenty of Americans and plenty of leaders in government who argue that we must torture to get the information that will be a benefit to the security of our soldiers and our citizens. So let me say just a few things about these “practical” aspects of these arguments.

(1) The report of an exhaustive CIA study has shown that the quality of information extracted by torture is very poor. Those tortured will say anything to end the agony. There are many examples from the Iraq experience that illustrate just how damaging such false information can be to the nation. (2) John McCain has pointed out very clearly the danger that U.S. torture poses for the security of future soldiers. Our enemies are given an example and a reason for torturing captive U.S. military personnel. (3) Perhaps most important of all is the anger and loss of respect, moral authority, political clout, and security that resulted when the world saw the photos and heard the stories of Abu Ghraib.

What other costs do torturers and their nations pay? 16% of returning U.S. soldiers have post-traumatic stress syndrome (the percentage is actually higher because the military, for the first time, has redeployed soldiers with PTSS back into combat in Iraq). Those who have participated in or observed torture have an even higher rate of PTSS. The country will be paying an awful price in terms of mental health for what they have seen and done; it will require the expenditure of billions of dollars over the years. In addition, the loss of well-being and confidence experienced by many of us in and out of the military is not to be ignored. I do not have the exact quote, but a wise person warned us, “If you want to see how your country is going to treat its citizens in the future, look to see how your country is treating foreigners now”.

J. What is the current situation? The recent rhetoric and legislation coming out of Washington, the trials of low-level military torturers, and the talk of up-coming military tribunals does not give us reason to rejoice or relax on the torture issue. Quite the contrary. (1) The punishment handed out to guilty U.S. soldiers has been extremely light, even for those found to be guilty of torturing to death. (2) The rules in these military tribunals prevent public accounting and absolutely prevent investigation of anyone up the chain of command. (3) Reports from within the military indicate that most of those imprisoned in the war on terror had nothing to do with terrorism or the war; some simply had the same name as a known terrorist; some had weapons in their home; a few were wearing the same kind of watch found on some terrorists. (4) The McCain Bill outlawing torture that passed overwhelmingly in Congress was not vetoed as promised by the president; rather the President quietly added a “signing statement” that stated that he was free to act outside of this law if he decided that national interests required him to do so (the President has signed more than 750 of such signing statements). (5) New army regulations banning torture do not apply to the CIA. (6) The most recent legislation denies to anyone identified as “an enemy of the state” the rights of Habeus Corpus, the right to a trial as we know it; it also retroactively protects against prosecution officials who are later accused of torture.

The current situation perhaps can be best summarized by reading pieces of an article sent by Truthout on Wednesday. “VP Dick Cheney has confirmed that U.S. interrogators subjected …. suspects to “water boarding”. …. Water-boarding means holding a person’s head under water to simulate drowning until the subject agrees to talk or confess…. Republican Lindsey Graham of SC has said ‘Water-boarding … would cause extreme physical and psychological pain and suffering’. A revised U.S. Army Field manual bans water-boarding as ‘cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment’.. However, Mr. Cheney said ‘the Bush administration doesn’t regard water-boarding as torture and allows the CIA to use it. It’s a no-brainer for me’. After the interview, Lee Ann McBride, a spokeswoman for Cheney, denied that Cheney had confirmed that U.S. interrogators used water-boarding, or endorsed the technique.”

K. The Oberlin Initiative. Over the past years, a number of us in Oberlin have been working to influence U.S. policy on the use of torture. Page 1 of your handout gives a brief history of this effort. You will see on the handout that Community Peace Builders has been seriously engaged with this issue over the past three years. Much of the effort has been directed toward influencing our Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur who has considerable clout as the longest serving Congresswoman in Washington and a senior member of the Armed Services Committee. We started out in 2004 with a petition drive, then a Town Meeting with Rep. Kaptur in 2005, and in April of 2006 we sent a delegation of 7 (students and community members) to lobby her on the issue.

Out of that meeting came a request from Rep. Kaptur for the students to conduct non-classified research on torture for her. She asked that the focus be on Abu Ghraib, the role of the 100,000 private contractors who serve military roles in Iraq, and evidence for complicity up the chain of command. The students conducted the research during the summer break, and just yesterday provided Marcy Kaptur with both written and oral summary reports of the research.

Last month, Peace Builders invited author, physician, and bioethicist, Steve Miles, to Oberlin to talk about his book, Oath Betrayed: Torture, Medical Complicity, and the War on Terror”. He gave three talks, each of which was memorable and generated large crowds and a great deal of discussion. The evening presentation was recorded by Cable Coop and hopefully will be shown again on Cable. A VCR recording is available for viewing. The Peace Builders working group that planned the Steve Miles events will be most pleased to have you join our effort and/or provide advice as to how we can best use the momentum generated by the Steve Miles visit.


Robert Taylor
Cecelia Galarraga, Colin Jones, Kathryn Ray, Eric Wilhelm



What should we be doing next to prevent torture?
Handout (Page 1)

Preventing Torture: The Oberlin Initiative

October 27, 2006 Peace Potluck
Don Hultquist



“Chain of Command: The Road from 9/11 to Abu Ghraib”, Seymour M. Hersh, HarperCollins, Publisher, 2004
“Oath Betrayed: Torture, Medical Complicity, and the War on Terror”,
Steven H. Miles, Random House Publishers, 2006

Primary Sources of Evidence

1. Released detainees
2. Countries to which prisoners returned
3. Prisoners who spoke through their actions
4. Lawyers of a few prisoners
5. Aids workers
6. Guards and other military whistleblowers
7. Families of U.S. military personnel
8. Military chaplains
9. Investigating military officers (Capt. Ian Fishback; Brig. Gen. Janus Karpinsky)
10. CIA whistleblowers (Ray McGovern)
11. FBI records
12. The European Parliament Investigation
13. The International Red Cross
14. Amnesty International
15. Other NGOs
16. UN reports
17. Military records
18. Medical records

To help in stopping torture

Contact Rep. Marcy Kaptur (Representative, 9th District, Ohio; One Maritime Plaza, 6th Floor; Toledo, OH 43604) or <>
Join Community Peace Builders <> < >
HANDOUT (page 2)

A Brief History of The Oberlin Initiative to Stop Torture

Pre-2004. Amnesty International, other organizations, and individual Oberlin residents work to stop torture and human rights abuses in general. The efforts include writing to our legislative representatives.

2004. Members and friends of Peace Community Church petition our Congressional Representatives to speak out and stop all torture by the U.S. military.

2005. Community Peace Builders (CPB) and Global Solutions sponsor a Town Meeting at Kendal. A large, engaged crowd interacts with Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur on three issues: Torture by the U.S. Military; the School of the Americas; and the UN and Global Solutions. Rep. Kaptur was unable or unwilling to acknowledge that the U.S. military, their private contractors, or the CIA tortured or practiced rendition of prisoners to foreign countries.

2006. In April, CPB sent a 7-person delegation to meet with Rep. Kaptur for the sole purpose of lobbying her on the issue of torture by the U.S. The delegation included two local ministers, a Vietnam Intelligence Officer, a Quaker peace activist, and three Oberlin College students. The meeting was productive and Rep. Kaptur asked the group to conduct research for her on the issue of torture by the U.S., with particular focus on the non-classified aspects of Abu Ghraib Prison, the role of the private contractors, and the involvement of those up the chain of command. A few weeks after the meeting, the Kaptur Office announced that she had cosponsored for the first time a bill (HR 1217) to close the School of the Americas. During the summer a group of students (with Robert Taylor as a “mentor”) carried out the requested research and on October 26th (yesterday) met with Rep Kaptur to provide her with a written and an oral report. Tonight the students report the results of their research and of their meeting with Rep. Kaptur.

In September, CPB brought Steve Miles to Oberlin. His three talks, with a combined audience of about 400, were co-sponsored by a variety of religious, college, and community organizations and generated a great deal of discussion. The major presentation at First Church was recorded by Cable Coop and hopefully will be shown again on Cable; a VCR recording is available for viewing. Dr. Miles also met with, advised, and motivated the student researchers. The CPB working group that planned Dr. Miles’ visit will be happy to have you join their group and/or provide advice as to the direction of future efforts.

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