“A stain on our history that must never be allowed to happen again,” is how Diane Feinstein, chairman of the US Senate Intelligence Committee, summed up the CIA’s programme of ‘enhanced interrogations’ in the Committee’s recently-released report. The press has seized on some of the details – of deaths by freezing, of ‘rectal feeding’, of prisoners threatened with power tools and subjected to multiple waterboarding sessions – but misconceptions and myths still abound. I’ve spent the past two years researching and writing a thriller based on the enhanced interrogation program, and it’s taken me much of that time to sort out the hype from the reality.

The first misconception is that ‘enhanced interrogation’ is what happens to a detainee after an ‘extraordinary rendition.’ Not so: ‘extraordinary rendition’ means outsourcing the interrogation to a foreign regime, which then uses whatever techniques it chooses on the unfortunate suspect. Each country has, or had, their own specialities. In Egypt they liked to slash the prisoner’s penis with hundreds of tiny razor-blade cuts that then became infected. In Syria, they favoured electric shocks. In Thailand, they developed an effective but simple technique of lashing detainees into an old bed frame so that their own bodyweight stretched their spines to breaking point. For these services, the CIA paid the regimes in question handsomely.        

The CIA ‘black sites’ described in the Committee’s report, on the other hand, were for victims of ‘ordinary rendition’; that is, rendition into US custody on foreign soil. One such site was ‘Quartz,’ a secluded compound near Szymany in Poland, which the CIA purchased for $15 million. At least three high-value detainees were interrogated there, including Khalid Sheik Mohammed, who was waterboarded, according to one previously-classified US memo, 183 times during a single month.

The second misconception is that this information has only recently come to light. In fact, the CIA were scrupulously careful to standardise and document the process of interrogation, and to submit those documents to legal counsel for approval to ensure its interrogators weren’t breaking the law; or at least, the law as it was interpreted by the Bush administration. There were a whole series of such memos between 2001 and 2005, which were subsequently released after Freedom-of-Information requests. In chilling, bureaucratic prose, they show how the administration, aware that it was sailing perilously close to the statute that prohibits ‘severe pain or suffering’, tried to micromanage the interrogations so as to stay just the right side of the law. Every detail was carefully choreographed, from the blacked-out goggles, thick felt hoods and plastic handcuffs  that “prolong the shock of capture,” to the liquid diet of 1,000 calories a day – no worse, one legal opinion breezily notes, “than several commercial weight-loss programs in the United States which involve similar or even greater reductions in calorific intake.”

The first set of procedures, done to every prisoner irrespective of how co-operative they appeared, was intended to “reduce the detainee to a baseline state,” dependent on his captors “for all his basic human needs.” To this end he would be stripped naked, shaved of all his hair with electric clippers, given a body cavity search and photographed. Nudity, the lawyers were told, “is used to cause psychological discomfort, particularly if a detainee, for cultural or other reasons, is especially modest.” The good news for the detainee, however, is that “for this technique to be employed, ambient temperatures must be at least 68 degrees.”
After this he would be “vertically shackled” – usually, hung up by the arms in a variety of stressful positions. According to a Defense Department study from the 1950s, shackling causes subjects “to develop a delirious state, characterized by disorientation, fear, delusions, and visual hallucinations. As urea and other metabolites accumulate in the blood, the prisoner experiences agonising thirst” To add to the fun, loud music might be played – the selection dictated by whatever happened to be on the interrogator’s iPod: several detainees have reported that The Sesame Street Song was a popular choice.

The object of all this was simply to make the detainee tired. “The maximum allowable duration for sleep deprivation authorized by the CIA is 180 hours, after which the detainee must be permitted to sleep without interruption for at least eight hours,” reports a memo of May 2005. In other words, over a week without sleep – and this was just the softening-up process: the actual interrogation hasn’t even started yet. 

Just how much thought has gone into the process is evidenced by the detail that adult diapers would be on hand, to ensure that the detainee needn’t be untied for toilet breaks. The diapers would be removed, however, for the regular sessions of “temperature modification,” otherwise known as water dousing. “The minimum permissible temperature of the water used in water dousing is 41°F,” one memo writer warns, “though you have informed us that in practice the water temperature is generally not below 50°F, since tap water rather than refrigerated water is generally used.”

The prisoner remains nude for the first interrogation session, which, the lawyers claim, can be “relatively benign” – a statement somewhat at odds with the suggestion that it may also involve “religious and sexual humiliation.” An uncooperative prisoner – that is, one who doesn’t say what his interrogators want to hear – quickly encounters more ‘corrective techniques’, such as the “insult slap.” “With this technique, the interrogator slaps the individual’s face with fingers slightly spread. The hand makes contact with the area directly between the tip of the individual’s chin and the bottom of the corresponding earlobe.”

This is distinct from the “abdominal slap,” in which the interrogator strikes the abdomen of the naked detainee with the back of his hand. This, one of the legal memos goes on to explain, will “condition a detainee to pay attention to the interrogator's questions, and dislodge expectations that the detainee will not be touched.”

By now, one imagines, the detainee has very few expectations of the kind, particularly as “the abdominal slap may be simultaneously combined with water dousing, stress positions, and wall standing.” ‘Wall standing’ is another of those gentle-sounding euphemisms the lawyers favoured: the detainee is made to lean against a wall about four feet away, supporting his weight with his hands, and informed that he will be thrown against the wall if he moves. The process, the memo-writer notes, “is usually self-limiting” in that “temporary muscle fatigue leads to the detainee being unable to maintain the position”.

Being thrown against the wall, or ‘walling’,  is done with a towel or collar wrapped around the neck to prevent it from being broken. Lest there be any disquiet about the use of this technique up to 30 times in any one session, the CIA’s legal counsel provides reassurance: “We understand that this technique is not designed to, and does not, cause severe pain, even when used repeatedly as you have described. Rather, it is designed… to contribute to the shock and drama of the experience, to dispel a detainee’s expectations that interrogators will not use increasing levels of force, and to wear down his resistance.”

They have a harder time arguing that the waterboard is a similarly congenial experience, but rise manfully to the occasion. “We understand that the waterboard is not physically painful,” they write – a statement somewhat contradicted by the instruction to “closely replicate” the experience of drowning, and to “cup [your] hands around the detainee’s nose and mouth to dam the runoff.” Nor, apparently, does waterboarding cause the “prolonged mental agony denoted by the word ‘suffering.’” Despite this, the interrogator is warned to be on his or her guard against “death by psychological resignation” – that is, allowing the victim to use the waterboarding session as an opportunity to end it all.

Even though all this has been known for some time, the Committee’s report has shone a welcome light on a previously hidden aspect of the enhanced interrogation programme: whether or not it produced any worthwhile results. As far as the report’s Democrat authors are concerned, it didn’t. A suspect called Abu Zubaydah, for example, was waterboarded 83 times during August 2002, at which point he was already starting to confess. He confessed details of imminent bomb plots against shopping malls, against banks, water systems, nuclear plants, the Brooklyn Bridge, and even the Statue of Liberty. Thousands of uniformed men and women raced in a panic to each target… only to find that there was no plot, and no bombs. If there were any atrocities that were foiled by information gleaned under torture, the CIA have been unable to provide any details of them.

Meanwhile, new myths are busily being created. The two psychologists who devised the programme for the CIA have pointed out in their defence that waterboarding was a standard part of the SERE – that is, Search, Evade, Resist, Escape – training given to all US Special Forces. But that slightly misses the point: the brief taste of waterboarding undergone by those troops was done precisely to illustrate the lengths to which the KGB’s torturers, in particular, would go to get information out of captured soldiers. (The KGB only developed those techniques in the first place, incidentally, because of the need to keep their victims’ bodies intact for the show trials that might follow.)

But mostly the debate rages around whether torture can ever be ethically justified. If harsh treatment might, just might, stop a terrorist’s bomb, the argument runs, then don’t we have a moral imperative to put aside our own squeamishness and use it? Such an argument – effectively, that the ends justify the means – overlooks one very important consequence of torture: the effect it has on the allies and associates of the tortured. The CIA tried to keep the enhanced interrogation programme secret precisely because of the reprisals it would prompt against American targets around the world. Those who say that the Committee are doing the jihadists’ work for them are overlooking that it was the CIA themselves who started the process.              

And that conundrum, in fact, is where my book takes its inspiration. A group of activists in Italy, frustrated by their failure to stop the expansion of a US Army base by legal means, kidnap the daughter of a US officer and threaten to subject her to all the barbaric techniques of enhanced interrogation until their demands are met. After all, they point out, these techniques aren’t really torture, are they… until it’s one of your own they’re being used on. 

Do you have what it takes to find the kidnapped girl? Play the game and run your own interrogation.

The Abduction by Jonathan Holt is out now in paperback and ebook.