Watching Torture

I think I know why Jose Rodriguez, then head of the CIA's clandestine service, destroyed those two videos of the interrogations of a pair of suspected Al Qaeda operatives. They were disgusting.

We have taken refuge in euphemisms. "Enhanced," sometimes "aggressive" interrogation techniques—or, the latest offering of a CIA spokesman, "special methods of questioning"—are, deliberately, verbal anesthetic. In the wake of the last great war to save civilization, George Orwell taught us to distrust euphemisms. Always and without exception, they are designed to dull us to the truth. Those CIA videos would have stripped anyone who saw them of that comfortable distancing—confronted everyone who viewed them with the unimaginable reality of what the U.S. government has authorized in our name.

Why do I suspect this? Because I've seen two films of torture sessions. Years ago, both of them. Even now, on bad nights, images surface. The unerasable pornography of calculated violence.

One film came from Tehran. The shah's secret police, the Savak, were notoriously savage. (My first instruction in this came in Amman, Jordan, in the early 1970s. A British consular official told me about an Iranian exile who had gone from Jordan into Iran to try to organize unions. Savak caught him, surgically amputated his arms and legs, and sent his living trunk back to his family in Amman as a warning. I looked for the man, but his family had fled with him from Jordan. The consul knew him, though, and had talked with him.) After the Shah fell in 1979 and Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini took over, one of his early appointees to a top job, Sadegh Ghotbzadeh, decided to delve into the Savak archives. He found neatly filed certificates recording the demise of everyone who had died under torture—hundreds and hundreds of forms. "How Ottoman we are," Ghotbzadeh marveled. "Even in this, there is a procedure to be followed." He also found a shelf of reels of film. He smuggled a couple out to Cairo, and it was there that, under an oath of secrecy, I viewed one in the Nile-side apartment of an Egyptian friend and ally of Ghotbzadeh's. (Ghotbzadeh was terrified, trembling. He suspected, correctly as it turned out, that Khomeini's regime would turn to just these measures, so anyone who knew of them would be at risk. His fear proved prescient; he was executed in 1982.)

I recall the reel unspooling with a clatter through the 16mm projector in that apartment with its curtains drawn. The film lasted, I think, for close to an hour, though my memory may be at fault. It seemed endless. I have no words to convey the horror. The film showed sequences of torture on living victims, men and women, all naked and shackled to what looked like a bed frame. A variety of techniques were demonstrated: cigarette burns to sensitive parts of the body, the effects of electricity, and then on into other savageries I shy from recalling. One technique shown on the film used water. The film was clearly professionally made. There was a commentary, which Ghotbzadeh translated—explaining, among other things, the varying sensitivities of men and women to different techniques, with a filmed example to illustrate each lesson. This was an instructional film. These torture sessions were not even designed to elicit information. The film was intended to teach Savak recruits.

The other film I saw in, of all places, Copenhagen. After a military junta took power in Greece in a coup in 1967, allegations of torture spread swiftly. The Council of Europe decided to have its human rights commission investigate the rumors. Proof was hard to come by. But a film of what was alleged to be a torture session in Athens surfaced in Denmark. (By what route I never could find out.) With a member of the Commission's inquiry team, a longtime friend, I flew to Copenhagen to view the film.

It is part of the mythology of torture—an element, surely, in the self-esteem of torturers—that the dark art is practiced in clinical, white-tiled chambers, equipped with the latest technology. Not so in Greece—or, I suspect, anywhere else. Auden, as usual, had it right: "…even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course/anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot." The colonels' second-busiest torture chamber was a squalid shack on the roof of a military headquarters in central Athens. That was where this film had been shot.

Who had filmed the footage, and why and when, was never clear. That was one reason why the council's final report made no mention of it. The film's value was that it showed that rooftop shack, validating all the rumors about what was going on there.

The footage was blurry, shot with a handheld 8mm camera in the poor light filtering through the shack's small windows. There was no sound—which lent merciful distance to what it showed: the interrogation of some unidentified middle-aged man, undergoing falanga, mostly (beatings to pulp the feet), though the session culminated in anal rape with a stick. What remains as a true horror in the memory is less those activities than the demeanor of the inquisitors. A couple of men in shirts were administering the torture. But a pair of interrogators stood off to one side, mostly out of the frame. They came to the victim before and after each bout, evidently asking questions. Then they'd go back out of frame, to let the next round of beatings commence. Two men in neat dark suits, professionals, just doing a job—unpleasant, perhaps, but necessary, as they saw it, for the safety of the state.

That no doubt is the true horror of the tapes the CIA destroyed—worse, even, than the sight of the torture procedures themselves. We assume it shows waterboarding, the near-drowning of someone strapped to a cruciform plank. Memories of that Savak instructional film tell me, indelibly, what the videos would have looked like: the torturers calmly pouring water over the cloth covering the victims' faces, the frenzied chest-heavings as the bodies went into shock, the gasping and retching as each session ended. More horrifying still would have been the actions, or inactions, of all those standing around. There must have been interrogators, and an interpreter. Certainly a doctor, watching the victims' vital signs on a monitor to gauge how long each session could last. This being America, there may have even been a lawyer on hand. All professionals, doing something unpleasant, but—you understand—necessary for the safety of the state. And at the end of the day, one assumes, they drove home to their families.

This is where 9/11 has brought us. No wonder Rodriguez destroyed those tapes.