human rights Jessica Corbett Military

“20 Years of US Torture and Counting”: Report Details Post-9/11 Abuse at Gitmo and Beyond

Biden administration actions raise sobering questions about its commitment to ending the so-called 'War on Terror.'
Amnesty International activists dressed in orange jumpsuits and hoods, representing the 39 men still held in the Guantanamo Bay detention camp, marched from London’s Parliament Square to Trafalgar Square on January 8, 2022. (Photo: Thomas Krych/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

By Jessica Corbett / Common Dreams

A report released Sunday, nearly 20 years after the first prisoners arrived at Naval Station Guantánamo Bay, details “systematic abuses carried out by the United States Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and U.S. military” since the 2001 terrorist attacks.

Entitled Legacy of the “Dark Side”: The Costs of Unlawful U.S. Detentions and Interrogations Post-9/11, the new paper was published by Human Rights Watch (HRW) and the Costs of War Project at Brown University’s Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs.

“This report lays out a comprehensive assessment of the many unconscionable costs of U.S. torture and illegal detentions and renditions of Muslims over the past 20 years since 9/11,” said Stephanie Savell, co-director of the Costs of War Project, in a statement. “This is a moral failure of epic proportions, a stain on the nation’s human rights record, a strategic blunder, and an abhorrent perpetuation of Islamophobia and racism.”

The authors assess the “massive costs of U.S. extraordinary renditions, unlawful detentions, and torture after September 11—including to the victims and suspects, to U.S. taxpayers, and to U.S. moral authority and counterterrorism efforts worldwide, ultimately jeopardizing universal human rights protections for everyone.”

They argue that “significant counterterrorism reforms, including closing the prison at Guantánamo, strengthening measures to protect civilians from death and harm, increasing transparency and accountability for the crimes the U.S. has committed, and addressing religious and racial biases, are critical steps toward mitigating the damage.”

The assessment comes ahead of Tuesday, which will mark two decades since “the first 20 men to be imprisoned at Guantánamo were flown to the base aboard a U.S. military plane.” There are now 39 men detained there; 27 of them have not been charged with a crime.

“Many lack adequate medical care and even access to their medical records, making the prison a living legacy of the rights violations spawned by 9/11,” the report explains. “The military commission system created to prosecute suspects at Guantánamo is fundamentally flawed. As a result, the five prisoners accused of plotting the 9/11 attacks have yet to be brought to trial, depriving them of due process and the survivors and the families of the nearly 3,000 people who died in the attacks of their right to justice.”

As Common Dreams reported late last month, the Pentagon is supposedly building a new $4 million courtroom, to be assembled at Guantánamo by next year, that will enable prosecutors to hold two simultaneous trials. 

At least 780 men and boys have been held at the prison since it opened in 2002, after then-President George W. Bush declared a “war on terrorism,” and at least 119 people were subjected to the CIA’s rendition, detention, and interrogation (RDI) program, the HRW and Costs of War report notes. No U.S. officials have been held accountable for that torture.

The military prison has remained open—costing U.S. taxpayers $540 million per year—under former Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump, and now President Joe Biden, who has signaled that he intends to close Guantánamo.

“Around the world, Guantánamo remains one of the most enduring symbols of the injustice, abuse, and disregard for the rule of law that the U.S. unleashed in response to the 9/11 attacks,” report co-author Letta Tayler, an associate director in HRW’s Crisis and Conflict Division, said in a statement.

Tayler and co-author Elisa Epstein, a University of Chicago Law School student who was previously an advocacy officer at HRW, pressure Biden to finally shut down the prison, and more.

“Biden should take bold steps to repair the damage from abusive U.S. interrogations and detentions, starting with the closure of the U.S. prison at Guantánamo,” Tayler and Epstein write. They also urge him to release the 2014 “torture report” from the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee, noting all but a heavily redacted summary remains classified.

The authors point out that Biden, like Obama and Trump, “has shown no appetite for releasing the torture report, much less criminally investigating the architects” of the RDI program, and that the president “also opposes allowing the International Criminal Court to include abuses by U.S. nationals in its investigation on grave human rights crimes in Afghanistan.”

As the paper details:

The Taliban’s return to power and the U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan in August 2021 will test the U.S. government’s legal rationale for indefinite law-of-war detentions at Guantánamo, as well as the Biden administration’s commitment to adopting a more rights-respecting approach to counterterrorism. Thus far, Biden administration actions raise sobering questions about its commitment to ending the so-called “War on Terror.” Measures of concern… include the Justice Department’s willingness to side-step critical legal questions on habeas rights for the men held at Guantánamo and to block certain testimony related to CIA torture, and Biden’s apparent intent to continue using lethal force outside recognized war zones with drone strikes and special forces raids euphemistically rebranded as “over the horizon” operations.

The authors highlight that “abroad, the U.S. has continued abusive practices against terrorism suspects including transferring them to countries that torture, and, in at least some cases, unlawfully detaining them at U.S.-run sites abroad or at sea.”

“Although such U.S. detention-related counterterrorism violations have dramatically decreased, Washington has replaced capture with kill, conducting airstrikes—often with armed drones that have killed thousands of civilians, including outside recognized battlefields,” they note. “Its counterterrorism campaign has spread to 85 countries with scant transparency or oversight.”

Tayler and Epstein recommend that Biden “increase transparency and accountability for other crimes and violations perpetrated in the name of countering terrorism, including unlawful airstrikes and raids that kill and injure civilians both in and out of recognized war zones.”

The president “should officially apologize and provide redress to victims,” they add, asserting that “anything less not only inadequately addresses the suffering and death wrought by the U.S., but also risks perpetuating cycles of violence by fueling the narrative of groups like the Islamic State and al-Qaeda that the West is at war with Islam.”

Jessica Corbett

Jessica Corbett is a staff writer for Common Dreams.


  1. Oh. So the NSA, CIA, DoD, special black ops, the entire military murdering engines, somehow we are advocating an end to Guantanamo, and yet, US prisons deluxe treatment —

    The federal Justice Department report April 3 on prison conditions in Alabama told of “a high level of violence that is too common, cruel, of an unusual nature and pervasive.” Among the findings, none of which were ever tracked by the state: 15 prison suicides in the past 15 months, a prison homicide rate well above the national average, and sexual assaults in “dormitories, cells, recreation areas, the infirmary, bathrooms, and showers at all hours of the day and night.”

    The investigation began after a series of lawsuits earlier in the decade and published reports describing brutality, violence — and torture — in state prisons.

    While states are rarely subject to the kind of federal scrutiny Alabama received, U.S. prisons have rarely been held up as models for rehabilitation. Even some tactics used in prison meant to rehabilitate prisoners now qualify as torture.

    One such tactic is solitary confinement.

    Benjamin Franklin and several Quaker leaders first instituted solitary confinement in Philadelphia in the late 18th century, believing that total isolation and silence would lead to penitence — from which we get the name “penitentiary.”

    Instead, enforced solitary confinement led to severe mental health problems for prisoners, including insanity. “I believe it … to be cruel and wrong,” said novelist Charles Dickens after a visit to a Pennsylvania penitentiary that had nothing but solitary confinement cells. “I hold this slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain, to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body.” The Quakers later apologized for their advocacy of long-term solitary confinement.

    Solitary Confinement in U.S. prisons qualifies today as torture


    Mainstream media, the outside public, and the average layperson have no idea what goes on in the prison system that they support. America’s prisons are strategically placed in desolate, uninhabitable, and rural parts of the U.S., which makes it hard for the abused prisoner to effectively reach out to a community that cares. Even then, if one was to draw attention, a prisoner’s integrity is so hoodwinked that the guard’s story of what may have happened reigns primacy and never favors the prisoner. Due to this, you have prisons all over America that are getting away with allowing their captives to rot and wither, particularly in solitary confinement.

    If the system ever got confronted, they could just simply provide a report of policies, rules, and data on how prison is supposedly operated, but this is usually contrary to what’s actually going on. Juan Mendez knows this first hand. Once being a victim of prison torture himself, he’s destined to get down to the nitty-gritty and unearth the truth about what’s actually going on in solitary confinement in America. Once exposed, taxpayers will see how their hard-earned money is being used to endorse unjust practices that measure up to, if not surpass, those captured on camera at the Abu Gharib and Guantanamo Bay Prison death camps!

    In a report concerning CIA torture, an expert on sensory deprivation, Dr. Albert Biderman, reported: “The effect of isolation on the brain function of the prisoner is much like that which occurs if he is beaten, starved, or deprived of sleep.” Also, noted in Biderman’s full report is how the effects of sensory deprivation were similar to, if not worse than, physical torture. Dr. Biderman is not the only one who has taken the time to research the effects of solitary confinement. There have been many others including, but not limited to, the CIA and the United Nations (U.N.).

    Dr. Craig Haney at the University of California – Santa Cruz also did a research study where he concluded: “To summarize, there is not a single published study of solitary or superman-like confinement in which non-voluntary confinement lasting for longer than 10 days where participants were unable to terminate their isolation at will, failed to result in negative psychological effects.” These effects included, but weren’t limited to: hypertension, uncontrollable anger, hallucinations, emotional breakdowns, chronic breakdowns, and suicidal thoughts and behavior. It’s also been discovered that symptoms can begin within as little as 48 hours after the individual has been cut off from external sensory stimulation, which is, in effect, what solitary confinement does.

    In a 1951 study, Dr. Donald Hebb at McGill University tested his theory that sensory deprivation could break a person in a matter of days. He used paid male university students who were supposed to take part in a six-week, simulated solitary confinement experiment, but the majority quit after the first few days and none lasted longer than a week. An excerpt from the results of Dr. Hebb’s study shows: “Prolonged exposure to a monotonous environment definitely has deleterious effects. The individual’s thinking is impaired; he shows childish emotional response; his visual perception becomes disturbed; he suffers from hallucinations; his brain-wave pattern changes.”

    More precisely, the torturous effects of solitary confinement were given scientific study by the CIA and military in efforts to refine its application as a deliberate torture technique. This was exposed by Alfred McCoy in an exhaustive exposé following and in response to the 2004 military CIA torture scandal. McCoy revealed that this method of torture was studied and refined as part of a one-billion-a-year CIA torture research and development project spanning from 1950 to 1962.

    In fact, if you were to look inside the CIA’s 1963 torture manual “Kubrick Counter Intelligence Interrogation,” it has a specific four-step approach as to what solitary confinement-like settings should do to its captives as noted here:

    The deprivation of sensory stimuli induces stress,
    *the stress becomes unbearable for most subjects,
    *the subject has a growing need for physical and social stimuli, and
    *some subjects progressively lose touch with reality, focus inwardly, and produce delusions, hallucinations, and other pathological effects.

    One torture technique that was used and very similar to the Texas prison system’s Gang Renunciation and Dissociation (GRAD) program is what the CIA calls “self-inflicted pain.” This torture-style method forces the captive to be held in psychologically, mentally, and often demoralizing painful poses called “stress positions.” Its design is to attack the cultural sensitivities and phobias of the captive while giving the option to terminate at will, but only at the cost of contradicting his religion, beliefs, morals, social affiliation, and self-respect (ultimately making him the master of his own fate). Like forcing a Muslim to burn his Quran, prayer rug, and kufi or he will be fed nothing but pork, or have a nun sexually stimulate herself at length or be forced to hear and watch hardcore adult films until she complies.

  2. “the state always reflects the values and desires of its people”. e Durkheim
    most recent Reuters/IPSOS study: only 15% Americans moral enough to believe torture never justified….2/3 fully support only exceeded in 1 African nation in the midst of a civil war

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