This article originally appeared in Journal of Political Inquiry on June 14, 2017.
On September 17, 2001, the United States took its first steps into a global War on Terror. President George W. Bush signed a memorandum authorizing the capture and detention of individuals they believed were linked to terrorist attacks against the United States or its interests. In pursuing a program that was, CIA officials assured, vital to protecting the country from potential attacks, Bush set the United States on a path of moral compromise that has led to abuses at Abu Ghraib prison and drone strikes in Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen. This transnational war has defined two presidencies and will undoubtedly define a third.
Abu Zubaydah was captured during a Pakistani raid in March 2002, the first individual detained following the issuance of a memo stating that al-Qa’ida and Taliban detainees were not entitled to humane treatment as prisoners of war. Zubaydah spent the next four years at Detention Site Green, a CIA black site believed to have been in Thailand. Despite cooperating with FBI special agents and providing the identity of “the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks,” CIA officials believed interrogators needed to overcome Zubaydah’s “resistance to interrogation.”
This was the beginning of the CIA program that would, over the course of five years, capture and detain 119 men, and torture at least 39 of them. In their latest graphic novel, comic authors Sid Jacobson and Ernie Colón take on one of the darkest corners of the War on Terror. The Torture Report depicts the Senate Intelligence Committee’s investigation into CIA use of enhanced interrogation techniques (EITs). Closely following the structure of the 576-page executive summary, Jacobson and Colón chronicle the treatment of six men, the lies and misrepresentations of the CIA and the committee’s findings.
The War on Terror has morphed and swollen in response to the persistent threat of terrorism domestically and abroad, with drastic consequences for US citizens and noncitizens alike. The Patriot Act—enacted by Bush and extended by Barack Obama—has led to the expansion of surveillance within and outside the state, and the greatest number of leak prosecutions in US history. Drone strikes and private military contractors have become regular features in US operations abroad, despite questionable legality and numerous missions resulting in civilian casualties. Opening the door for techniques that amounted to torture has sent the United States spiraling into ever-increasing anti-terror measures which have threatened freedoms and protections domestically, while diminishing the state’s moral standing abroad.
Zubaydah was the first US detainee to be subjected to the innocuously named techniques after they were approved by Attorney General John Ashcroft in July 2002. That year, between August 4 and 23, “the CIA subjected Abu Zubaydah to EITs, including waterboarding, nearly 24 hours a day.” Broadly described as “simulated drowning,” during waterboarding detainees are strapped to a table with their feet angled above their head while water is poured on a towel covering, or pooled around, their nose and mouth. Zubaydah was waterboarded 83 times in August 2002 alone.
With stoic exactness, Jacobson and Colón depict each turn of Zubaydah’s first day after more than a month of solitary isolation: Shackled, hooded and wearing only a towel, two CIA interrogators brought him into a cell. They then removed the towel, wrapped it around his neck, and slammed him into the wall: a technique called “walling.” Later, showing him a large containment box resembling a coffin, they demanded information on terrorist activities. Each of Zubaydah’s denials was met with a “facial slap or facial hold.” Then, he was waterboarded.
Other detainees faced similar marathons of torture, which lasted days or weeks on end. Ridha al-Najjar was subjected to almost a month and a half of isolation, disrupted sleep, constant loud music and inedible food. Many of these techniques were unapproved variations on authorized techniques or entirely the creations of untrained interrogators who had been “left to their own devices.” The CIA did not begin an interrogation training program until November 2002; by this time, nine detainees had already been subjected to enhanced interrogation techniques.
CIA officials testified that the health of detainees was taken into consideration and that medical treatment was not withheld. This was not the case, as the use of enhanced interrogation techniques resulted in permanent physical and psychological damage for many detainees. During Zubaydah’s detention, CIA headquarters instructed interrogators that “the interrogation process will take precedence over preventing Zubaydah’s wounds from becoming infected.” He ultimately lost his left eye. Two other detainees who had broken their legs while trying to escape “faced repeated wallings and standing sleep deprivation,” despite their injuries. Many, including Zubaydah, have since been diagnosed with psychological disorders, including post-traumatic stress disorder, psychosis, hallucinations and split-personality syndrome.
Throughout the program, CIA officers worked to protect the program from outside review or litigation. On multiple occasions, the CIA reused, fabricated or misrepresented information received through the use of the enhanced interrogation techniques, including publishing more than 15 reports allegedly on information gained from Zubaydah from a period when he was in isolation with no human contact. During the course of the program, officers working in the facilities expressed concerns over their lack of preparedness and linguistic or cultural knowledge, as well as the continued use of the techniques on detainees not believed to be withholding information. Even some internal reviews of the program—revealed through the Panetta Review—found that there were numerous inaccuracies and misrepresentations in CIA reports.
The Torture Report closely mirrors the Senate Intelligence Committee’s executive summary, progressing from the history and operation of the program, CIA representations on the effectiveness of the program, CIA destruction of tapes, and examples of inaccurate testimony. Through their extensive use of quotes and adoption of a dispassionate and clinical tone, the authors allow the report—and the horrors it details—to speak for itself. This format, however, struggles to merge with the graphic medium. The book is text heavy—which, at times, comes as a welcome reprieve from graphic depictions—but the panels and dialog boxes are inconsistently arranged, leading to an often-confusing read. Unlike their adaption of The 9/11 Report, the graphics in The Torture Report lack a consistent and unifying visual style. The book remains accessible and engaging, however, even when one would prefer to look away.
On January 22, 2009—two days into his presidency—Barack Obama signed an executive order effectively ending the program by limiting CIA interrogations to the 19 methods detailed in the US Army Field Manual and permanently closing all CIA detention facilities. Yet this did not restrain the beast the War on Terror had become. Instead, the focus shifted from raids and detentions to drone strikes that caught civilians in the crosshairs: at least 380 civilians (and possibly twice as many) were killed in the 563 strikes carried out during Obama’s presidency.
This chapter of US history is far from finished. President Donald Trump has abandoned euphemism and instead spoken directly in favor of both black sites and torture. He has claimed that detainees would “talk a lot faster with torture,” and that he would not only resume waterboarding but a “hell of a lot worse.” Yet, even without the renewal of these programs, he has inherited the surveillance and strike programs of the Obama administration. US Special Operations forces are currently deployed in more than 80 countries, and now have looser restraints in both their rules of engagement and in preventing civilian casualties from airstrikes and raids. Zubaydah, and 40 others, remain in detention at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The Trump administration’s recent decision to return the full Senate report, where it could remain indefinitely in Senate vaults inaccessible to the public, raises concerning questions for the future of both the detainees and the War on Terror generally. It is in light of this that the release of The Torture Report is all the timelier, as its accessibility makes it an invaluable tool for dispelling misleading myths about the (in)efficacy of torture and for preventing a return to these abuses.