Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs
Costs of War


Scenes from Abu Ghraib prison, Iraq, 2003 and 2004
View the entire photograph file: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Abu_Ghraib_prisoner_abuse   

As the War on Terror began, the Bush Administration labeled detained persons as “unlawful enemy combatants”—rather than “prisoners of war”—in an attempt to circumvent United States legal obligations under the Geneva Conventions and other international treaties, as well as US domestic law. In a series of memos, Bush Administration lawyers crafted legal arguments reinterpreting the meaning of torture to rationalize changes to interrogation methods. While the so-called “torture memos” only officially approved “enhanced interrogation techniques” for use by the CIA on select detainees, the techniques otherwise considered to be torture quickly migrated, and persons around the world seized by the US were tortured or mistreated by the CIA, military forces, contractors, and US allies.

The US also outsourced torture by modifying and expanding “extraordinary rendition” practices, transferring detainees abroad for torture at the hands of foreign governments with more lax human rights standards.

In December 2014, a Senate Committee report on the CIA’s use of torture following the 9/11 attacks found that the agency, aided by two private contracting firms, initiated “a program of indefinite secret detention and the use of brutal interrogation techniques in violation of U.S. law, treaty obligations, and our values.” The Chair of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence also found that the CIA routinely misled democratically elected officials and engaged in patterns of torture and mistreatment that constitute “a stain on our values and our history.”

Key Findings 

  • New interrogation methods developed by US policymakers quickly migrated around the world, leading to torture and mistreatment by the US and some of its allies.

  • In part as a result of torture, an undocumented number of persons have died while being detained and/or interrogated by the US.

  • Physicians for Human Rights has recognized psychological torture as “systematic and central” to US interrogations in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Guantánamo.


  • Follow the recommendation of Human Rights Watch and the New York Times editorial board in their request for a federal criminal investigation of George Bush, Dick Cheney, and other high-ranking officials for conspiracy to commit torture on War on Terror detainees.

(Page updated as of March 2015)