What I learned at Chicago Teach-in to End Torture and Human Rights Abuses

The site for the Teach-in was at the Frank Lloyd Wright Unity Temple in Oak Park IL. The architectural masterpiece is now used by a Unitarian Universalist Congregation that gives its entire collection away each week to those who need it more. They believe in Margaret Mead’s counsel when she wrote, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that has.” After the release of the “torture memos”drafted by John Yoo and Jay Bybee and reading the horror they contained, a small group was moved to organize and hold events such as the “Teach-in to End Torture and Human Rights Abuses” that I attended on September 13.

This small group of Chicago friends convened weekly viewing film videos such as the 3-part series, Judgment at Nuremberg, Rendition, and Missing. After learning that Pew polling showed that close to 50% of Americans believe that use of torture against suspected terrorists is often (15%) or sometimes (34%) justified, the group wanted to do their small part to educate and motivate concerned citizens to speak out against these despicable practices, so that “we demand of our government leaders an independent inquiry and changes in government policy to ensure that this will never again happen in our name. For, if we abandon this nation’s adherence to the rule of law, we’re abandoning our core values.”

The Sunday event featured these prominent panel participants:
Dr. Quentin Young, Chicago-based physician and long-time civil rights and social activist (who served as panel moderator)
Prof. Douglass Cassel of the University of Notre Dame Law School and an international expert on human rights abuses
Dr. George Hunsinger, a professor of theology at Princeton University and founder of the National Religious Campaign Against Torture (NRCAT)
Terrence Karney, a former US Army Interrogator and Instructor

We started out viewing Link TV’s Torture on Trial a 30-minute video that investigates the history of interrogations in the “war on terrorism,” and the growing movement calling for accountability. The speakers followed. I am going to relate what they said without using traditional journalism quotation marks and “he saids” to save time and get this posted faster because I am using notes not a recording.

George Hunsinger: Hunsinger started four years ago as one man who wanted to use the power of religion and religious organizations to do something about American torture. He is amazed at how fast the organization he founded National Religious Campaign Against Torture has grown into what he believes is the most diverse religious group in America. The prestige it garnered resulted in a meeting in January with the Obama Transition Team and meetings continue with them to this day.

Hunsinger sees his group’s mission as a David vs. Goliath and sees similarities in its mission with what William Wilberforce accomplished in his campaign for the complete abolition of slavery. That campaign led to the Slavery Abolition Act 1833, which abolished slavery in most of the British Empire. “If NRCAT does what it is called to do like Wilberforce, it can prevail against all odds.

He sees in the writings of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Solzhenitsyn’s conclusion that violence always finds its refuge in falsehoods, the key to what happened to the Bush Administration regarding “enhanced interrogation techniques.” President Bush said over and over the lie, “We do not torture,” when torture under our name started in 2002. His administration wanted to inflict cruel and inhuman treatment through technical justifications to have get out of jail cards for all participants. They knew they were breaking the law or they would not have spent so much time trying to prove they weren’t.

Their biggest ruse was to use torture “light” techniques that left no permanent physical scars. The psychological scars they created with these insidious techniques are far worse because they leave self-inflicted psychological scars on the victims that last a lifetime. Take just one example of the picture you have seen from the Abu Ghraib of the man standing on a rectangular pedestal hooded with his arms outstretched with wires hanging down from his wrists. He was led to believe that if the wires touched the ground he would be electrocuted. People who have been subjected to sleep and sensory deprivation and have survived have said that it is far worse and leaves much greater damage than any physical torture. Lawyers who have worked with American citizen Jose Padilla who was subjected to American psychological torture told Hunsinger that Pedilla is a piece of furniture destroyed for life. Torture doesn’t stop when the sessions end, it remains the rest of the victim’s life.

Torture corrupts our entire society. Our media has shown no moral courage by not insisting on a full investigation and prosecutions. Anyone who fails to speak out is complicit in the crime. The real crimes were not done in Abu Ghraib, Bagram and Gitmo, but in Washington. We must investigate and prosecute these criminals.

Terrence Karney: He left the Army in January 2009 after serving 16 years as an interrogator instructor. Half of that time was before 9/11 and half after.

Torture doesn’t work. The Army taught me it doesn’t work. As an interrogator, I have to decide what I would do and not do. I did not have to and would not follow an illegal order.

I had two purposes when I interrogated a war prisoner. First, to get intelligence to win the war. Second, to keep my fellow soldiers from being killed or to reduce deaths and injuries as much as possible. Waterboarding is not simulated drowning, it is drowning interrupted. I was taught to treat prisoners/detainees as you would want your fellow soldiers to be treated. In WWII, German prisoners were not provided rationed food because American soldiers were not being provided rationed food.

There are some real challenges when questioning a detainee. I don’t know the secret, so how do I know when the secret comes out. I don’t know what you don’t know especially if I am convinced you do know. The detainee only knows what he knows, he doesn’t know what I want to know. If I am going to insist that you give me the answer I want to know even though you don’t have the answer and I use torture, you are going to keep lying and tell me what you think I want to hear to make the torture stop. As you can see, information received that way has little chance of being valid or useful.

People want to talk because being a combat detainee is very stressful. My goal is to get you to talk. So I separate you from all other prisoners and have no one talk to you for 1-24 hours. With your stress, you want to talk to relieve that stress. Your goal is to get information slowly trying to keep the stress down. Once the talking stops it won’t stop. For example if I want to know how well supplies are getting to the enemy, I can start a conversation that leads to what the prisoner was eating and how well he was eating. That becomes useful and valid information.

With war prisoners, we do not violate the Geneva Conventions and we strictly follow Army regulations which the Obama Administration is using in an Executive Order signed by our President. For example, we can’t take out a knife and put in on a table in front of the prisoner because that implies that we may injure or kill him with the knife. In the days of Inquisition torture, their first and most effective technique was not using their hideous implements of torture, but displaying them and then sending the prisoner back to his cell to think about what will happen during his next session.

Using what was decided during the Nuremberg trials, the degree of punishment for our American criminals should be done in the same hierarchy. The lowest level had the least amount of responsibility, the middle participants were more guilty and the most guilty were at the top level. That is why the top generals and leaders were executed. That same principal should apply to the Bush Administration.

(Note: this is getting too long so I am going to stop here and will conclude tomorrow.)


  1. Jim White says:

    Thanks for a great summary, RMP. I wish I could have been there. Did Karney leave any clues as to whether he took part in any interrogations of high value detainees whose names we might recognize?

    • rmp says:

      He didn’t, but I doubt that he did. He said that through his teaching and acting as an interrogator, he knows 3-4% of the interrogators personally and has seen 10%. I think his knowledge on that is from those he knows who did participate.

      • cocktailhag says:

        Great reporting, RMP. I can’t wait to hear the rest. Is there more from the guy speaking?
        I’d be interested to hear how and whether he resisted, for all these years, what was going on, and if there were any repercussions. Seems like he’d have been in a tough spot.

        • rmp says:

          I don’t have any more notes on him. Terry left the Army so he would never be in that spot. The stuff tomorrow is the legal stuff from Cassel that ondelette has already provided a lot of info on.

          Check out the link on Terry’s name and you will hear a ten minute YouTube talk from him where he explains why he left and that neither he nor, as far as he knows, any of the about 300 interrogators he taught have crossed the line into torture and partly whey he left the Army was the fun went out of it because he doesn’t know what is in the top secret annex and what he could be forced to do. Here is another site that has a video from another Army interrogator and former CIA analyst Ray McGovern.
          Reach and Teach: Saying No 2 Torture

  2. Karen M says:

    I’m looking forward to reading the rest of this, RMP, when you have time to post it. Thanks for attending and sharing the experience with us.

    • cocktailhag says:

      Karen… If you follow RMP’s link, there are a few pictures of the church, under “our building.” Nice historical perspective, but not enough pictures. Dang.

  3. ondelette says:

    Thanks for the write-up, RMP. What a great panel. As to George Hunsinger’s cite of the lawyers for Jose Padilla, Aafia Siddiqui made the comment in court the other day that “they tortured me and now I’m senile.” She’s 37.

  4. sysprog says:

    Dahlia Lithwick:

    Halfway There
    Is half a torture investigation better than none at all?
    By Dahlia Lithwick
    Tuesday, Aug. 25, 2009

    [...] The American legal system isn’t just about crime and punishment.

    It’s a set of guideposts to direct us in the future and to send a message about our values to the rest of the world.

    This proposed Holder-Durham regime of semi-accountability — we’re sorry for that whole torture thing but not sorry enough to investigate seriously how it happened in the first place — serves the dangerous dual purpose of allowing us to reinstate the Bush-era torture rationales, should they be necessary again in the future, and advising our allies and enemies that under desperate circumstances, they can plausibly do the same.

    Opting to be only halfway responsible means that torture is, going forward, only halfway reprehensible. Ta-Nehisi Coates says,

    “I really have no doubt that we could — indeed would — start torturing again, in the event of another terrorist attack.”

    If we don’t dismantle the foundations of the torture regime, he’ll be right.

    Attorney General Holder is smart enough to know that special prosecutors tend to uncover dirt and that even the limited mandate he has given Durham will almost immediately run into the brick wall that is the torture memos. Virtually any probe into whether a prisoner was water-boarded “properly” will have to tackle the absurd question of why America started water-boarding in the first place. Either Dunham will swallow the Holder line that anything approved by the OLC’s torture memos was per se legal or his probe will lead him to ask the same questions that will eventually be answered by the OPR report—how did eliciting any information at any cost become the legal answer instead of the legal question?

    It’s hard to imagine who’s more demoralized and embarrassed today — the CIA, the Justice Department, the president, or the Office of Legal Counsel. But transparency and accountability are embarrassing. This may not be a process anyone will feel good about, but feeling good isn’t the only objective.

    President Obama is embarrassed at having to call out his own employees. Eric Holder is embarrassed at having to embarrass his boss. The CIA is embarrassed that a few of its agents and contractors mindlessly followed Dick Cheney over to the dark side. And most Americans are embarrassed to read that in the darkest days after 9/11, the government threatened prisoners with power drills and the rape of their families in order to elicit bad information. It’s all shameful. But somehow, America is going to have to make its peace with its flirtation with prisoner abuse. That may mean doing what we’re doing: airing our dirty laundry one sweat sock at a time or appointing a commission or special prosecutor to do the job right. Or perhaps it just means joining Dick Cheney in his conviction that the laws against torture are now obsolete.

    Pretending we are investigating and curtailing a torture program isn’t all that different from pretending we didn’t torture in the first place.
    - – Dahlia Lithwick, August 25, 2009

    • cocktailhag says:

      That’s the problem, isn’t it, sysprog? Legal for me but not for thee? Greenwald brings up this double standard all the time; newspapers huffing about “cultures of impunity,” and on the same page saying that anything but impunity would “tear this country apart.” Which is it?
      Kind of like my favorite, “we don’t torture, and they deserve it anyway.”

  5. heru-ur says:


    When you post, the post is all in bold. It is hard for me to read, and I do like to read your stuff. Could you please not use bold on the next post?

  6. Thank you for this very fine report. Just one clarification. What I said was that NRCAT is the most religiously diverse progressive movement in American history. We have Evangelicals and Catholics working together with Jews and Muslims, along with mainline Protestants like myself, and representatives from many other religious groupings. All the best. –GH

  7. Gordon says:

    Thank you for reporting this, RMP. I look forward to the next installment.