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The "Black Jail": Obama's Afghan Torture Center and the American Psychological Association

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A recent pair of articles by Marc Ambinder of the Atlantic has shed new light upon activities in the secret so-called "black jail" on the Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan. Among other aspects, these new revelations suggest that psychologists may be playing a major role inside the facility, raising questions about the reasons for American Psychological Association (APA) lobbying activities in support of the agency that Ambinder reports is running the detention center.

In recent months the Washington Post, New York Times, and BBC reported on a secret prison on the fringes of the Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan. Referred to by former prisoners as the "black jail," this institution is reportedly a site where prisoner abuse is regular and systematic. The BBC reported that all nine former prisoners they interviewed

"told consistent stories of being held in isolation in cold cells where a light is on all day and night.

"The men said they had been deprived of sleep by US military personnel there."

Thus, we can assume that psychological torture techniques of isolation, sleep deprivation, and hypothermia are routine aspects of treatment inside the facility.

The Washington Post provided additional details through interviews with two youths imprisoned in the black jail. As one young man, Rashid, who is "younger than 16" described:

"At the beginning of his detention, he was forced to strip naked and undergo a medical checkup in front of about a half-dozen American soldiers. He said that his Muslim upbringing made such a display humiliating and that the soldiers made it worse.

"'They touched me all over my body. They took pictures, and they were laughing and laughing,' he said. 'They were doing everything.'

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"He said he lived in a small concrete cell that was slightly longer than the length of his body. Food was tossed in a plastic bag through a slot in the metal door. Both teenagers said that when they tried to sleep, on the floor, their captors shouted at them and hammered on their cells.

"When summoned for daily interrogations, Rashid said, he was made to wear a hood, handcuffs and ear coverings and was marched into the meeting room. He said he was punched by his interrogators while being prodded to admit ties to the Taliban; he denied such ties. During some sessions, he said, his interrogator forced him to look at pornographic movies and magazines while also showing him a photograph of his mother.

"'I was just crying and crying. I was too young,' Rashid said. 'I didn't know what a prison looks like or what a prison is.'"

Ambinder received confirmation from the Defense Department of the existence of this secret detention center at Bagram that the Department had previously consistently denied existed. [Ambinder has a picture of the facility here.] He reports that the center is run, not by the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), as was previously reported, but by the Defense Intelligence Agency's (DIA) Defense Counterintelligence and Human Intelligence Center (DCHC) in the course of its providing intelligence services for Task Force 714. For those with long memories, DCHC is essentially where the Defense Department stuffed the old Counterintelligence Field Activity (CIFA) after the latter was "disbanded" due to several major scandals involving spying on Americans and fraud connected with former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham.

It isn't clear if it really makes a difference if the "black jail" is run by JSOC or DCHC. After all, Task Force 714, which DCHC is serving, is itself a JSOC special ops force:

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"McRaven runs a secretive detachment of Special Forces known as Task Force 714 -- once commanded by McChrystal himself -- that the NSC staffer described as 'direct-action' units conducting 'high-intensity hits.' In an email, Sholtis said that because Task Force 714 was a 'special ops organization' he 'can't go into much detail on authorities, etc.' But the NSC staffer -- who called McRaven 'McChrystal Squared' -- said Task Force 714 was organized into 'small groups of Rangers going wherever the hell they want to go' in Afghanistan and operating under legal authority granted at the end of the Bush administration that President Obama has not revoked."

[Scott Horton has made a similar point here.]

As Ambinder reports, the Defense Department now admits that this secret Afghan prison uses interrogation techniques from the Army Field Manual's infamous Appendix M. This appendix authorizes abusive techniques, including sleep deprivation, sensory deprivation, and "environmental manipulation" [think freezing someone or blinding light] that often amount to torture.

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Stephen Soldz is psychoanalyst, psychologist, public health researcher, and faculty member at the Boston Graduate School of Psychoanalysis. He is co-founder of the Coalition for an Ethical Psychology and is President of Psychologists for Social Responsibility. He was a psychological consultant on two of (more...)

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