Michael Otterman is an award-winning freelance journalist and documentary filmmaker. He was a recent visiting scholar at the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Sydney. He has covered crime and culture for an array of publications, including Boston's Weekly Dig. He lives in New York.
Mark Thwaite: What gave you the idea for American Torture Mike?
Michael Otterman: The book arose organically — it actually started first as a small 2,000-word paper, then grew to a Masters thesis, then finally I expanded it into a book. The project started in April 2004, when the torture photos from Abu Ghraib were first leaked. The graphic, horrifying images left a deep impression on me and I began researching the scandal at Abu Ghraib as part of my Masters in Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Sydney. I quickly discovered that the torture used there was in no way unique — the United States military and CIA have used similar methods during the Cold War within the US itself, in Vietnam, Latin America and elsewhere. Material that I came across — CIA torture manuals, US government LSD experimentation reports, School of the Americas training material, etc — were so compelling that I just kept writing and writing. What started as a small paper just kept growing.
MT: How long did it take you to write it?
MO: All up, it took two and half years to complete. Interestingly, the day I was to turn in the manuscript to my publisher, the US Congress passed the Military Commission Act (MCA). This is an atrocious law that— in addition to stripping the wit of habeas corpus from anyone the US deems an 'unlawful enemy combatant'— legalizes the very tortures I had been writing about in the book. Further, it allows tortured confessions to be used in war crimes tribunals at Guantanamo. The passage of this law enraged me, and I channeled this into the conclusion of the book.
MT: Does it surprise you how readily sections of the public seem to be in accepting state-sponsored torture?
MO: It is disheartening that an estimated 60 percent of Americans believe torture can be justified. The fallacy that torture elicits good information and saves lives is a myth fueled by shallow politicians, popular media and an uncritical press. TV shows like 24 — where torture is used repeatedly to "save the day" — have done enormous damage. Experienced interrogators know that torture is actually the worst way to get reliable information that could help save lives. Under torture, people are willing to sign anything, or say anything to please their inquisitors. Non-violent methods of interrogation hinged on building trust between the subject and questioner using non-violent incentives have been proven to yield better and more reliable information. The FBI, for example, favors these techniques. They have proven successful not only with traditional criminals, but with terrorists as well. FBI interrogators used non-violent methods to gather information and secure convictions against the perpetrators of the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993 and the US East Africa Embassy Bombings in 1998. Their methods were sidelined in favor of torture, officially dubbed "enhanced methods", after 9/11.
MT: Can very brutal interrogation methods ever be supported?
MO: I have not see evidence in all my years of research of a single case where torture worked to save lives. Proponents of torture typically revert to a hypothetical "ticking time bomb" case to justify its use, or even legalization. In this scenario, a suspect is captured right after he plants a bomb, but before it goes off. The authorities know they have the right person, they know the suspect knows where the bomb is, and are sure that only under torture this person will reveal vital information. This scenario might make for high-drama in 24, but it simply does not exist in real life. The variables are too extreme, too farfetched. I have not seen one true example — in the US, UK, anywhere — of a "ticking time bomb" defused because torture was used.
MT: What can members of the public do to help stop state-sponsored torture?
MO: In addition to becoming aware about what is being done in their name, the best thing to do is to support organizations fighting to expose torture. Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Human Rights First, Citizens for Global Solutions, Physicians for Human Rights are just a few of the NGOs helping to raise awareness about torture and pressuring governments to abandon its use.
MT: Do you read your critics? Have they provided any useful feedback?!
MO: I always read reviews, comments, and criticism of my work. The reviews have all been positive and so far I've only received one piece of hate mail. The hate mail claimed I was disrespecting the US military and making troops less safe. I couldn't disagree more. Some of the most vocal critics of current US torture policy have come from the US military itself —namely former POWs and military lawyers familiar with laws of war. A captured US soldier should expect, at the very least, the same treatment they afford their own prisoners. Today, US soldiers are at greater risk of torture themselves if captured. I have also received many emails supporting what I've done, and thanking me for the work I've put into this project. These emails really keep me going.
MO: What were the principle challenges of writing American Torture and how did you overcome them?
MO: Surprisingly, the greatest challenge was keeping up with the torrent of news about US use of torture today in the war on terror. Since the scandal at Abu Ghraib, almost every day a document is leaked, a new victim is interviewed, an official report is issued, or a dissenting official from the CIA or Pentagon speaks out about US pro-torture policy. Just yesterday, Vanity Fair magazine unearthed yet another torture memo authorizing an array of tortures at Guantanamo. The document, according to Vanity Fair, is divided into four categories: "Degradation," "Physical Debilitation," "Isolation and Monopoliztion [sic] of Perception," and "Demonstrated Omnipotence." The tortures include "slaps," "forceful removal of detainees' clothing," "stress positions," "hooding," "manhandling," and "walling"— hoisting a detainee upon a wall. According to the memo: "it is critical that interrogators do 'cross the line' when utilizing the tactics."
MT: What do you do when you are not writing and teaching?
MO: To be honest, this book — plus my related blog americantorture.com — have really dominated my life lately. Much of my day is spent sifting the news for updates on the topic, updating my website, corresponding with other researchers and journalists, and doing lectures on behalf on groups like Amnesty International. I do maintain an active social life here in Australia where I live at Bondi Beach. Just this weekend I went skiing down south in Victoria. It's winter at the moment and there was actually a blizzard yesterday at the ski resort I was at!
MT: Did you have an idea in your mind of your "ideal" reader Mike? Did you write specifically for them?
MO: I didn't have an "ideal" reader in mind when I wrote the book — I wrote it for anyone interested in the topic of American use of torture, and more generally, for people trying to understand this current war on terror. There are many parallels between the cold war and the war on terror, in both cases inhumanity has been justified in the name of 'national security' and 'freedom'. I should note though, after I started to meet torture victims — people like Australian Mamdouh Habib — I shifted my aims slightly. Habib is an Australian who was arrested in Pakistan in late 2001, send by the CIA for torture in Egypt for six months, transferred back to US custody, then held in Guantanamo Bay. He was released uncharged in early 2005 after the Washington Post ran a front-page story detailing the torture he suffered in American and Egyptian hands. After meeting Habib and others, I was compelled to expose the hypocrisy of this so-called war on terror—a war intended to spread democracy. As I've said elsewhere, I can't think of anything less democratic than torture.
MT: What are you working on now?
MO: Apart from writing and speaking on this topic, I've begun to put some ideas together for my next book. I can't reveal too much right now because it could put the project at risk. It does involve some undercover work.
MT: Who is your favourite writer? What is/are your favourite book(s)?
MO: My favorite author — like my favorite book, band, food, movie — is constantly changing as I experience new things. Deep influences though would have to include an eclectic bunch including George Orwell, Douglas Adams, Kurt Vonnegut and Hunter S Thompson.
I'm currently reading Ghost Wars by Steve Coll. The book is astounding in its detail — it painstakingly charts the rise of Osama Bin Laden and al Qaeda in the wake of the CIA's covert war in Afghanistan in the 1980s. Its incredibly readable, suspenseful and cohesive. No wonder it won a Coll a Pulitzer for his efforts.
MT: Anything else you would like to say?
MO: If readers would like to find out more about myself or my book, check out americantorture.com. I maintain a blog on the site and I've posted online the bulk of the declassified documents I used in my research charting US use of torture from 1945 onward. Please feel free to contact me through the site — I always enjoy engaging with readers.