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Torture in the United States

A Short History

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In October 2006, President George W. Bush said that the United States "doesn't torture, and isn't going to torture." Three and a half years earlier, in March 2003, the Bush administration had secretly tortured Khalid Sheikh Mohammed 183 times in a single month.

But critics of the Bush administration who describe torture as unprecedented are also in the wrong. Torture is, sadly, an established part of U.S. history dating back to pre-Revolutionary times. The terms "tarring and feathering" and "run out of town on a rail," for example, both refer to torture methods that were practiced by Anglo-American colonists.

1692

Although 19 people were executed by hanging during the Salem Witch Trials, one victim met a more torturous punishment: 81-year-old Giles Corey, who refused to enter a plea (as this would have placed his estate in the hands of the government rather than his wife and children). In an effort to force him to plea, local officials piled boulders on his chest for two days until he suffocated.

1789

The Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution states that defendants have the right to remain silent and may not be forced to testify against themselves, while the Eighth Amendment prohibits the use of cruel and unusual punishment. Neither of these amendments were applied to the states until the twentieth century, and their application at the federal level was, for most of their history, vague at best.

1847

The Narrative of William W. Brown calls national attention to the torture of slaves in the antebellum South. Among the more common methods used were whipping, prolonged restraint, and "smoking," or the prolonged imprisonment of a slave inside a sealed shed with an aromatic burning substance (usually tobacco).

1903

President Theodore Roosevelt defends U.S. military use of water torture against Filipino detainees, arguing that "nobody was seriously damaged."

1931

The Wickersham Commission reveals widespread police use of the "third degree," extreme interrogation methods that were often tantamount to torture.

1963

The CIA distributes the KUBARK Interrogation Manual, an 128-page guide to interrogation that includes multiple references to torture techniques. The manual was used internally by the CIA for decades, and was used as part of the curriculum to train U.S.-supported Latin American militia at the School of the Americas between 1987 and 1991.

1992

An internal investigation leads to the firing of Chicago police detective Jon Burge on torture charges. Burge has been accused of torturing over 200 inmates between 1972 and 1991 in order to generate confessions.

1995

President Bill Clinton issues Presidential Decision Directive 39 (PDD-39), which authorizes the "extraordinary rendition," or transfer, of non-citizen prisoners to Egypt for interrogation and trial. Egypt is known to practice torture, and statements obtained by torture in Egypt have been put to use by U.S. intelligence agencies. Human rights activists have argued that this is often the whole point of extraordinary rendition--it allows U.S. intelligence agencies to have prisoners tortured without breaking U.S. anti-torture laws.

2004

A CBS News 60 Minutes II report releases images and testimony pertaining to the abuse of prisoners by U.S. military personnel at Abu Ghraib Detention Facility in Baghdad, Iraq. The scandal, documented by graphic photographs, calls attention to the widespread problem of post-9/11 torture.

2005

A BBC Channel 4 documentary, Torture, Inc.: America's Brutal Prisons, reveals widespread torture in U.S. prisons.

2009

Documents released by the Obama administration reveal that the Bush administration had ordered the use of torture against two al-Qaeda suspects an estimated 266 times during a short period in 2003. It is likely that this represents only a small fraction of authorized uses of torture in the post-9/11 era.
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