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Interview with Michael Otterman
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The US has successfully been able to exploit huge loopholes in the law and tampered with the definition of torture making it more obscure, wide and ambiguous with every creative refinement of the term. The latest is that pain has to result in either organ failure or death to be constituted as torture. In place of the War Crimes Act, we have now the Military Commissions Act, allowing coerced evidence and stripped away habeus corpus; assigning the authority to define precisely what constitutes torture to the President alone.  Cageprisoners spoke to Michael Otterman, author of American Torture.

CAGEPRISONERS: How long have you been involved in research into torture, what is your own background?

Michael Otterman: I completed my undergraduate studies at the University of Boston studying journalism where I graduated in 2003. From there, I undertook my masters in the Centre for Peace & Conflict Studies at the University of Sydney.

It was actually during this time [April 2004] when I first saw the now infamous images of Abu Ghraib and felt very disturbed. The pictures stuck on my mind and when I was tasked to do my next paper I chose to write about Abu Ghraib. The paper was much bigger than I expected and I found I didn’t have the space within the paper to fit in all the information I wanted. So I then opted to have the thesis published into a book. Roughly 20,000 words were from the original paper, and I put forward an additional 30-40,000 to have the book complete. I finished the thesis in 2005/6.

When it came to actually getting access to the data, I didn’t have to dig very hard. A large chunk of my research came from the CIA torture manuals from the 1960s-1980s.

Over in Australia, the media had already given a lot of coverage to David Hicks (the Australian detained in Guantanamo) and Mamdouh Habib and the Australian publishers were first to pick it up and the book was sold to Pluto and Clearpress Publishers. Since then, I have been touring- the biggest crowds and most concerned remain in Australia.

The case of David Hicks itself had a huge effect in raising awareness amongst the Australian people. To look at him, he is your typical Australian guy- Caucasian, blue eyes etc. This attracted a lot of empathy and struck a chord amongst the ethno-centric sentiments that exist. Once Hicks was held in Guantanamo (Gitmo) without charge, the people spoke out against this. His own lawyer (Michael Morey) also done a great deal to raise awareness on his case and there was the beginnings of a movement. This snowballed into full-on interest and started to become an embarrassment to the Australian government. Australians has something akin to the idea of the ‘American Dream’ which is the “fair go” principle. This means that every person should be given a fair chance to be tried according to whatever they’ve been suspected or charges with. The belief is that this is their fundamental right as an Australian citizen and Hicks was being denied this.

CP: How popular a field has torture become in academic/journalistic circles?

MO: Not very popular. To my knowledge, I am one of the few handful of people who are in this area of study. People are actually interested in hearing about these issues, but unfortunately it is not a major field of interest. Over in the US, there seems to be a more detached sentiment and the issues are ignored by the mainstream press. Alfred McCoy who penned ‘A Question of Torture’ has not received that many reviews so there is not much public awareness. It seems over in the US, most of the people (when questioned) would agree that Guantanamo is a disgrace, but they simply do not know enough about it. A stronger movement is required and has to be built if we are to see Guantanamo closed.

CP: What has your reception in the press been like?

MO: In Australia the book has been received well and has attracted good reviews. The speaking events and tour have also been well attended. In the US however, it has been more problematic. The crowds are smaller (roughly 30/40 people) and the interest is not really there. Actually, the only piece of hate mail I have ever received was from an American who came from a military family. Though I have not been accused of being a ‘terrorist sympathiser’ I have had loaded questions from people who ask me ‘are you not just helping Bin Laden’-? I tell them that the current torture policy is doing more to galvanise support for Bin Laden then my book could ever do. As long as torture continues, we will be subjected to its negative consequences.

CP: What difficulties have you encountered in canvassing support or raising awareness for the detainees?

MO: People generally are ready to listen. There are human rights organisations, others which are pro-UN and a whole ‘Stop Torture Campaign’. Unfortunately, there is a culture of fear that is being cultivated where terror is described as a ‘ticking time bomb’ which is completely inaccurate and quite a reckless description. 

Actually, the TV serious 24 has set back the campaign against torture by years. 24 is one of the most popular shows in the military and on the Right. It is actually produced by a very right-wing individual and the show itself presents a completely unrealistic and highly dramatised spin on torture which embeds the idea in people’s mind that torture is necessary and works. West Point Military Academy actually appealed to the show’s producers to stop showing torture every episode as it has become a real problem.

CP: How difficult is/was it to access information regarding the extent to which many methods of torture are sanctioned officially by governments....and the sensitive/incriminating nature of the data procured?

MO: I actually had no problem is gaining access to the information. It was surprising how easy it was to get all the information using the internet and a good library. We had a very good library at the University of Sydney and over there I was also able to interview Mamdouh Habib. 80% of the data I had access to what already declassified and available on the National Security Archive. The ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) has around 10,000 documents published post 9/11 including Pentagon reports. I requested some from the CIA and these were made available to me through the Freedom of Informations Act. FoI is actually a very powerful law and it means that if anybody wanted to gain access to certain data, they are able to send forward a request for it and have it considered. Official documentation and FBI emails are also available here.

After the Abu Ghraib scandal, there was lots of information leaked within the government concerning anti-torture policies. There was a torture memo which redefined what torture was together with an interrogation log- information like this would usually never be declassified but was made available through leaks.

So, there was much information already available, and anything supplementary that was needed was requested.

CP: Is the only purpose of the torture methods used to extract quick confessions? (Since it has been proven as self-defeating, yielding unreliable intelligence, corruptive & unnecessary?)

MO: Experienced interrogators know that torture is ineffective, as do authors like myself and Alfred McCoy who have done research into this field, however there are many many who do not know (and again are influenced by 24 and the inaccuracies they promote). 

After 9/11 there were actually a very small number of interrogators and the US military had to go on a hiring spree. This means that some of those interrogators inside Abu Ghraib had as little as 10 hours training and were completely inexperienced. 

There are also other implications to think of when it comes to torture, the guards are receiving orders on one ‘level’- none of the subtleties, intricacies or complexities of interrogation are explained or thought of.

Tragically, there are those in the military and the intelligence services who find the current reports of the use of torture as doing them a service: it sends a clear and fear-provoking message regarding the length that the American military/CIA are willing to go to pursue those who cross there path.

CP: Are those who inflict the torture 'just following orders'-? What do they believe about the people detained? Reference to the Zimbardo project: do we all have the potential?

MO: There is definite dehumanisation that goes on when it comes to how guards view detainees. In Guantanamo in particular, dehumanising inmates is very common and widespread. There was even a case where a detainee with cages next to each other.. The dog had pillows, air conditioning and a supply of fresh water whilst he detainee had none.

When he requested that he didn’t care about human rights, he wanted to equivalent of this animal’s rights, he was told that the dog was part of the US military. Often the politicians tout Guantanamo as the ‘front line in the War on Terror’ whereas in reality many of the detainees are simple villagers and Afghan farmers who have never posed a threat to anybody.

What is important to remember is that upon the invasion of Afghanistan, the Taliban were actually the government of the country, so it doesn’t make sense how individuals can be arrested simply for fighting for the government of their country.

The Geneva Convention is clear on who is a prisoner of war (POW) and who is not. Outside of this, these individuals are at the very least covered under the common article 3.

As for following orders, the guards did have officially sanctioned methods they were allowed to use on the detainees. However it is important to remember, what was happening in Abu Ghraib was sadism and that was the choice of the guards. The Stanford Prison Experiment showed us how easy it is to have people take orders for what would otherwise be inconceivable acts simply by putting on a uniform. Nobody actually wrote the orders to stack prisoners up into human pyramids, however there were orders which approved nakedness as a form of humiliation, it’s not a huge jump of the imagination to go from one to the other. 

CP: How much of the evidence regarding the extent & nature of US sponsored torture available in the public domain?

MO: There is much information out there to the public and all of it is freely available. The problem is however, it is rarely put together. There are separate journalist reports for one situation and information elsewhere about another issue. In fact, one the challenges presented to me was not actually finding the information, but going through all of it and trying to put it together to construct a narrative. I had to be very selective about which information to include because there was simply so much, I opted for the ones which had the most compelling evidence and worked on that basis.

CP: What do you think the biggest obstacle to raising awareness of these torture methods are? How can they be overcome?

MO: One of the biggest obstacles is people’s attention spans! It did not take me long to discover that people simply did not know the nature and extent to which the US was sanctioning torture methods, once this was explained to them they were shocked. Getting all the information out is also a problem as many people do not receive it well- torture is a taboo subject.

We are all victims of a media cycle also in that there are many stories that come up and are as easily forgotten by the next news item. Issues of torture are not complicated, but they are numerous and take time to read and digest. People simply don’t have the time or commitment to offer.

CP: How widespread have secret rendition flights become since 9/11?

MO: Stephen Grey actually is the expert when it comes to rendition flights and has penned the book ‘Ghost Plane’. There are not just Canadian victims of these secret rendition flights, the scale of the problem is much greater than that. The number of people detained on these flights spans into the thousands.


CP: Are these primarily affecting just Muslim men & women?

You cannot ignore the fact that every detainee in Guantanamo is a Muslim. The torture methods and psychological abuse also focuses on religion severely and definite racial underpinnings exist. There are terrorists of all religions, but this is often ignored. 


CP: What can the public do? In what direction do you think the use of these practices are heading? Any let up likely?

MO: The public should read books, and read lots! They can go to good websites (www.americantorture.com !!) and join or help organisations committed to human rights and ending torture.  Amnesty International for example have letter writing campaign which everybody could contribute to and we are all able to lobby our local politicians and MPs. Australia is a good example of what can happen when the public are engaged- John Howard is most likely to lose the next election on the back of his terrible handling of the War on Terror. 

There have also been many Australian public figures and celebrities who have come out and raised awareness of these issues which in our celeb-obsessed time has done a lot to further the cause. You cannot underestimate the power of a popular face because when somebody like George Clooney stands up and talks of an issue, it will automatically attract coverage. Unfortunately, there haven’t been any outspoken celebrities on the issue of Guantanamo Bay yet.

CP: In what direction will the use of torture steer the 'War on Terror'? Would a change of leadership or political party in the White House be the catalyst for change?

MO: Democracies tend to use psychological torture methods and the ‘styles’ will probably go through some changes. Since Abu Ghraib and post 9/11 there has been a swinging pendulum on what is deemed as acceptable and what is not. Torture was authorised and after 9/11 the ‘need’ for such methods were presented as having some kind of credibility.

However, at the end of last year, there was a new field manual established which scaled back considerably the kind of methods that were being allowed. Unfortunately, the CIA only needs to get approval from the President and is not affected by these laws. The CIA are however, weary of the tide turning when it comes to public opinion and the lobbying of governments, they do not want to be tried for war crimes. When it comes to the torture laws in the US, we may make progress in having them scaled back but it will only take another (however minor) terrorist attack for them all to be reinstated and re-authorised.

As for the War on Terror, this depends a large part on who is elected next. Rudy Guillani is known for his support of torture-methods and has even suggested that rather than shut Guantanamo down, we need to double the size of it. John McCain on the other hand, though he is Republican- is one of the most well-known anti-torture politicians. This owes largely to the fact he was tortured himself when fighting in Vietnam. Hillary Clinton is also an interesting case as she has given her public approval of ‘enhanced torture methods’ though it seems this may be down to political point scoring as it was an unexpected statement from her. 

CP: Are the end of the current torture practices nigh?

In a word, no! We have to remember torture did not begin in the 1950s, nor did it begin with Abu Ghraib- these practices have been going on since biblical times. What this book is advocating is a change in policy and removing all torture methods from interrogation norms. There are many non-violent negotiation tactics that can be used and which are proven to get the job done better;

CP: Have you been on the CagePrisoners website?

Yes, and I really like it! The news updates are regular and thorough and the articles are well done. There are certain aspects of it that can be more polished like the news feed and this would help it look less cramped but that is a very minor drawback- it’s a fantastic site overall.