Torture's Lasting Effects

A short-form "Sanity Board Evaluation" released this week found that a Guantánamo Bay detainee held at a CIA secret prison and tortured suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and major depression.

Regrettably, this is not surprising. Abd al Rahim al Nashiri, the 48-year-old Saudi national accused of bombing the USS Cole, is one of the three detainees the U.S. government has acknowledged was waterboarded. Nashiri was also threatened with a semi-automatic handgun and power drill while he stood naked and hooded, and implied threats of rape and sexual assault were made against his mother, according to a 2009 CIA Inspector General report.

While it's unclear whether the torture and cruelty visited upon al Nashiri at the hands of the U.S. government is the cause of his PTSD and major depression, it certainly is a plausible assumption.

At the Center for Victims of Torture, we understand from our clinicians who work worldwide to heal the psychological wounds of torture and war trauma that the coercive interrogation techniques employed by the U.S. government in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks -- euphemistically coined as "enhanced interrogation techniques" -- cause physical and psychological pain that may amount to torture. The psychological effects of many of these techniques include PTSD and depression.

Waterboarding, for example, is a form of slow, controlled drowning, which creates the sensation of asphyxiation or suffocation. It is equivalent to a mock execution that leaves survivors feeling dead. Many will relive these near-death experiences in nightmares or flashbacks.

Forced-nakedness, which is also often relived in flashbacks and nightmares, creates a power differential, stripping the victims of their identity, inducing immediate shame and creating an environment where the threat of sexual and physical assault is always present.

Other methods including sexual humiliation, stress positions, sleep deprivation, sensory overload, and sensory deprivation also cause serious psychological pain.

From a clinical and legal perspective, these methods constitute torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. They are unlawful and immoral. They can also have lasting effects on the individual as well as society if not treated.

Through executive order, President Obama made a break from past unlawful policies and practices of torture and cruel treatment. But significant work remains. The once bi-partisan national consensus against torture has been eroded. In the name of national security, the need for, efficacy of and moral justifications for torture and cruelty were seriously distorted. And supporters of past abusive policies continue to argue that torture and cruelty are necessary to save lives and keep the U.S. safe.

In order to ensure the United States does not repeat the mistakes of the past, a full and public accounting of how U.S. government policies and practices failed to conform to our legal and moral obligations is required. The public release of the 6,000-page Senate Intelligence report of the former CIA detention and interrogation program will be a significant step in achieving this.