Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs
Costs of War

Torture

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

After launching the post-9/11 wars, 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 U.S. 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 U.S. were tortured or mistreated by the CIA, military forces, contractors, and U.S. allies.

The U.S. 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.”

A February 2021 United Nations report revealed that the Afghan government still has not implemented basic safeguards against torture. Furthermore, the report found that prolonged incommunicado confinement and hooding were still in use at the infamous Bagram (now Parwan) U.S. detention facility. In July 2021, the last U.S. and NATO forces left the Bagram airbase.


Key Findings 

  • New interrogation methods developed by U.S. policymakers quickly migrated around the world, leading to torture and mistreatment by the U.S. 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 U.S.

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

(Page updated as of July 2021)