Torture timeline: when did we know it?

Torture: it’s a byzantine tale that unraveled over the course of eight years, and is only reaching its denouement this week. There are two strands, both vitally important, to follow. One’s the story of what happened and when (for that, see FP’s torture timeline). The other is the story of when we knew it. Indeed, ...

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586434_090424_bagram5.jpg
BAGRAM AIR BASE, AFGHANISTAN - MARCH 3: Afghan nationals who work on the base enter a walkway March 3, 2009 at Bagram Air Base, Afghanistan. Following U.S. President Barack Obama`s executive order closing the Guantanamo Bay Prison Camp, Bagram Air Base is slated for a $60 million expansion, nearly doubling the size of the prison at Bagram. Currently the base north of the Afghan capital Kabul holds over 600 prisoners classified as enemy combatants. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Torture: it's a byzantine tale that unraveled over the course of eight years, and is only reaching its denouement this week. There are two strands, both vitally important, to follow. One's the story of what happened and when (for that, see FP's torture timeline). The other is the story of when we knew it.

Indeed, this week, it seems like the torture story's just breaking through. But, allegations of abuse and even prisoner death started emerging as soon as the United States had prisoners in custody. And reporters have doggedly covered it since then.

Torture: it’s a byzantine tale that unraveled over the course of eight years, and is only reaching its denouement this week. There are two strands, both vitally important, to follow. One’s the story of what happened and when (for that, see FP’s torture timeline). The other is the story of when we knew it.

Indeed, this week, it seems like the torture story’s just breaking through. But, allegations of abuse and even prisoner death started emerging as soon as the United States had prisoners in custody. And reporters have doggedly covered it since then.

One of the first Washington Post stories on the treatment of detainees from the War on Terror arrived in January 2002, just months after 9/11 and the subsequent U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. Already, there were 158 detainees from 25 different countries held in Guantanamo Bay, and two congressional delegations had traveled there to review conditions. The detainees were getting 2,400 calories a day, the Post story reported. “Some of them are getting medical attention for the first time in their lives,” Senator Bill Nelson proudly noted.

There were also already allegations of prisoner abuse. Photos showing bound, blindfolded, and shackled detainees on their knees appeared as soon as prisoners arrived in Gitmo — the International Committee of the Red Cross censured the U.S. for the photos, which violated the Geneva Conventions.

The following month, in February, President George W. Bush issued an executive order denying detainees the privileges and protections of the Geneva Conventions. The United States started down the road that culminated in Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, Bagram, and the black sites — secret overseas prisons, in countries like Egypt, where prisoners were sent via “extraordinary rendition” and the worst detainee abuse may have happened.

Reports of U.S. soldiers abusing persons they detained in Afghanistan emerged that winter as well — kicking and beating them after they’d already been shackled. The military went on the defensive. “I don’t believe that any of the detainees…were subject to beatings or rough treatment after they were taken into custody,” General  Richard B. Myers told the New York Times. “All 27 detainees were medically screened upon arrival in Kandahar, and there were no issues of beatings or kickings or anything of that sort.”

Over the next year, the trickle became a stream. The military admitted using harsh techniques on Abu Zubayda and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, high-ranking al Qaeda operatives we now know were repeatedly waterboarded.

At the time, officials told the New York Times “physical torture would not be used against Mr. Mohammed…They said his interrogation would rely on what they consider acceptable techniques like sleep and light deprivation and the temporary withholding of food, water, access to sunlight and medical attention.”

It took the prisoner abuse scandal at Abu Ghraib, broken by veteran reporter Seymour Hersh and CBS News, to blow the door open — that happened in April 2004.

It spawned a glut of media attention, as well as congressional hearings and a series of governmental reports: the Taguba report (on the Abu Ghraib scandal), the Schlesinger report (which described how harsh techniques from Afghanistan crept into Iraq), the Fay Jones report (on the Army personnel responsible for prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib), the Church report (71 cases of abuse, six deaths). Over the next years came the Schmidt report (which said treatment at Guantanamo was humane, in 2005, after the waterboarding of Abu Zubayda and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed), as well as the Senate Armed Services Committee Report released this week. 

So, most of the foundational reporting on torture happened in late 2003, 2004, and 2005 — by reporters like Dana Priest of the Washington Post and Jane Mayer of the New Yorker, describing extraordinary rendition and the black site prisons.

But it’s crucial to remember that a small group of reporters — at the New York Times, McClatchy, the Washington Post, Time magazine, Newsweek magazine, and the New Yorker — had the story before it was a story. They worked with a slight and growing handful of congressional, White House, military, Justice Department, legal, and other sources. They used a list-serv started by lawyers working on detainee cases to learn information. And they opened the door for Abu Ghraib to open the door further.  

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Annie Lowrey is assistant editor at FP.

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