a citizen’s journal by Thomas Nephew

Room 101

Posted by Thomas Nephew on April 18th, 2009

Justice Department documents released yesterday offer the fullest account to date of Bush administration interrogation tactics, including previously unacknowledged strategies of slamming a prisoner into a wall and placing an insect near a detainee terrified of bugs.

“New Interrogation Details Emerge” (Johnson, Tate, Washington Post, Thursday April 16)

Jay Bybee, Assistant Attorney General (OLC)
Jay Bybee, Assistant Attorney General
(OLC) in 2002; now a federal judge on
the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth

You would like to place Zubaydah in a cramped confinement box with an insect. You have informed us that he appears to have a fear of insects. In particular, you would like to tell Zubaydah that you intend to place a stinging insect into the box with him. You would however, place a harmless insect in the box. You have orally informed us that you would in fact place a harmless insect such as a caterpillar in the box with him. […]

In addition to using the confinement boxes alone, you also would like to introduce an insect into one of the boxes with Zubaydah.  As we understand it, you plan to inform Zubaydah that you are going to place a stinging insect into the box, but you will actually place a harmless insect in the box, such as a caterpillar. If you do so, to ensure that you are outside the predicate act requirement, you must inform him that the insects will not have a sting that would produce death or severe pain.  If, however, you were to place the insect in the box without informing that you are doing so, then, in order to not commit a predicate act, you should not affirmatively lead him to believe that any insect is present which has a sting that could produce sever pain or suffering or even cause his death.  [ABOUT 20 WORDS REDACTED] …so long as you take either of the approaches we have described, the insect’s placement in the box would not constitute a threat of severe physical pain or suffering to a reasonable person in his position.  An individual placed in a box, even an individual with a fear of insects, would not reasonably feel threatened with severe pain or suffering if a caterpillar was placed in the box.  Further, you have informed us that you are not aware that Zubaydah has any allergies to insects, and you have not informed us of any other factors that would cause a reasonable person in that same situation to believe that an unknown insect would cause him sever physical pain or death.  Thus we conclude that the placement of the insect in the confinement box with Zubaydah would not constitute a predicate act. […]

Please let us know if we can be of further assistance.

(signed) Jay Bybee, Assistant Attorney General (Office of Legal Counsel)

August 1, 2002 Memorandum for John Rizzo, Acting General Counsel of the Central Intelligence Agency: Interrogation of al Qaeda Operative

You asked me once,” said O’Brien, “what was in Room 101. I told you that you knew the answer already. Everyone knows it. The thing that is in Room 101 is the worst thing in the world.

John Rizzo, Acting General Counsel, CIA (2002)
John Rizzo, Acting General Counsel
to the CIA in 2002

The door opened again. A guard came in, carrying something made of wire, a box or basket of some kind. He set it down on the further table. Because of the position in which O’Brien was standing, Winston could not see what the thing was.

“The worst thing in the world,” said O’Brien, “varies from individual to individual. It may be burial alive, or death by fire, or by drowning, or by impalement, or fifty other deaths. There are cases where it is some quite trivial thing, not even fatal.”

He had moved a little to one side, so that Winston had a better view of the thing on the table. It was an oblong wire cage with a handle on top for carrying it by. Fixed to the front of it was something that looked like a fencing mask, with the concave side outwards. Although it was three or four meters from him, he could see that the cage was divided lengthways into two compartments, and that there was some kind of creature in each. They were rats.

“In your case,” said O’Brien, “the worst thing in the world happens to be rats.”

A sort of premonitory tremor, a fear of he was not certain what, had passed through Winston as soon as he caught his first glimpse of the cage. But at this moment the meaning of the masklike attachment in front of it suddenly sank into him. His bowels seemed to turn to water. […]

Outgoing CIA director George Tenet
receives Medal of Freedom from
President George W. Bush in 2004

“O’Brien!” said Winston, making an effort to control his voice. “You know this is not necessary. What is it that you want me to do?”

O’Brien made no direct answer. When he spoke it was in the schoolmasterish manner that he sometimes affected. He looked thoughtfully into the distance, as though he were addressing an audience somewhere behind Winston’s back.

“By itself,” he said, “pain is not always enough. There are occasions when a human being will stand out against pain, even to the point of death. But for everyone there is something unendurable — something that cannot be contemplated. Courage and cowardice are not involved. If you are falling from a height it is not cowardly to clutch at a rope. If you have come up from deep water it is not cowardly to fill your lungs with air. It is merely an instinct which cannot be disobeyed. It is the same with the rats. For you, they are unendurable. They are a form of pressure that you cannot withstand, even if you wish to. You will do what is required of you.”

— “1984,” George Orwell

Some might object that in the event, the “bug and a box” technique was not used on Zubaydah. But it occurs to me that the rats weren’t used on Winston either — he broke at the threat of it, not the use of it.

It’s the thought that counts.
UPDATES, 4/20: Via Joan Walsh at (also worth reading), I learned of this New York Times editorial, “The Torturer’s Manifesto“:

These memos make it clear that Mr. Bybee is unfit for a job that requires legal judgment and a respect for the Constitution. Congress should impeach him. And if the administration will not conduct a thorough investigation of these issues, then Congress has a constitutional duty to hold the executive branch accountable. If that means putting Donald Rumsfeld and Alberto Gonzales on the stand, even Dick Cheney, we are sure Americans can handle it.

Also, I really just noticed that hilzoy (“Obsidian Wings”) beat me to the Orwell reference on the 16th: “The Obvious Comparison.”

2 Responses to “Room 101”

  1. Nell Says:

    Seven was too young to read that book, but I did. I wonder if Jay Bybee ever did?

  2. Thomas Nephew Says:

    I hope not, which gives me the sinking feeling he did.

    Wow, seven *does* seem a little soon for 1984 — though there were obviously no seriously ill effects. Thinking of the above, I told Maddie there are some scary parts, but that as I recall they mainly come at the end. So she started reading the book a little bit, but I don’t know whether she’ll continue with it.

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