Detainee Being Held as “Enemy Combatant” in Floating Prison Is Losing His Sanity

Yesterday, matttbastard wrote an important piece about a federal judge’s decision ordering the Bush administration to immediately transfer to the United States and release 17 Chinese Uighur detainees who have been held illegally at Guantanamo for seven years.

Now, Pamela Hess at the Associated Press writes about a detainee who is on the edge of insanity after being held for months in total isolation and subjected to torture by sensory deprivation on a naval ship anchored off the U.S. coast near Charleston, South Carolina. The detainee’s name is Yaser Esam Hamdi; he is one of two Americans who are being held on this military brig, which is basically being used as a floating legal black hole for detainees who are U.S. citizens and therefore cannot be kept at Guantanamo. Because the ships are in U.S. waters off the coast of a U.S. city, the Bush administration can say that they are being held in the United States, while still continuing to hold Hamdi and al-Marri (the second detainee) outside of the U.S. legal system — or any legal system:

A U.S. military officer warned Pentagon officials that an American detainee was being driven nearly insane by months of punishing isolation and sensory deprivation in a U.S. military brig, according to documents obtained by The Associated Press.
The men were interrogated by the CIA and Defense Intelligence Agency, repeatedly denied access to attorneys and mail from home and contact with anyone other than guards and their interrogators. They were deprived of natural light for months and for years were forbidden even minor distractions such as a soccer ball or a dictionary.

“I will continue to do what I can to help this individual maintain his sanity, but in my opinion we’re working with borrowed time,” an unidentified Navy brig official wrote of prisoner Yaser Esam Hamdi in 2002. “I would like to have some form of an incentive program in place to reward him for his continued good behavior, but more so, to keep him from whacking out on me.”
An officer was still raising alarms about Hamdi’s mental state after 14 months of jail with no contact with lawyers, his family or even other prisoners.

“I told him the last thing that I wanted to have happen was to send him anywhere from here as a ‘basket case,’ of use to no one, to include himself,” the officer wrote in an e-mail to undisclosed government officials in June 2003. “I fear the rubber band is nearing its breaking point here and not totally confident I can keep his head in the game much longer.”

The frustrated officer wrote that he had “to have the ability to exercise some discretion when I believe it best for the health and welfare of those assigned to my facility … Know … we are to remain consistent with the procedures that were/are in place at Camp X-Ray” a reference to the Guantanamo jail. He pointed out that imposing those conditions in the brig had a far harsher effect on his prisoners because they had no contact with any other detainees, which was allowed at Guantanamo.

The sensory deprivation techniques — and other forms of torture, such as the partial drowning and asphyxiation torture popularly known as “waterboarding” — have been reverse engineered by the Bush administration from the SERE program — a U.S. military program begun after the Korean War, the goal of which was to train U.S. military personnel to Survive, Evade, Resist, and Escape torture if captured by the enemy. The idea behind the program was that if American military personnel could experience, in a controlled way, the specific tortures to which they could expect to be subjected if they ever found themselves in enemy hands, they could desensitize themselves to the extent where they could avoid being mentally broken and giving either false confessions, or actual intelligence information. However, as mentioned above, the designers of the U.S. official torture program and its legal enablers — Dick Cheney, David Addington, John Yoo, William Haynes, and others — have seized on these techniques, developed and used by former and present-day enemies such as North Korea, North Vietnam, Cambodia under Pol Pot, and the Soviet Union — because of their proven effectiveness in destroying human minds.

The use of SERE-tested torture tactics on U.S.-held detainees in the so-called “war on terror” is one of the war crimes that Jane Mayer describes in her superb book, The Dark Side, which I happen to be reading right now.

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