Military Judge Rejects CIA's 'Rectal Feeding' Narrative for Post-9/11 Sexual Assault

No previous judge has challenged the agency's line about what it did to 9/11-era detainees. PLUS: The absence of the U.S. military for the relief of Maui.

Military Judge Rejects CIA's 'Rectal Feeding' Narrative for Post-9/11 Sexual Assault
"Nebuchadnezzar," William Blake. Monotype print, 1795. 

Edited by Sam Thielman

CW: Torture, sexual assault. 

EVER SINCE THE SENATE INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE revealed in 2014 that CIA interrogators and medical personnel would insert pureed food into the anuses of their post-9/11 detainees, the agency has insisted that it was simply feeding those helpless men and definitely not sexually assaulting them. But at Guantanamo Bay on Aug. 18, an Army colonel appointed to judge the military commission of Abdul Rahim al-Nashiri called that nonsense. 

As FOREVER WARS noted last week, Col. Lanny Acosta Jr. recently ruled as inadmissible al-Nashiri's 2007 Guantanamo statements about his role in the 2000 U.S.S. Cole bombing. Acknowledging a long-denied truth that threatens the viability of what remains of the military commissions, Acosta found that there is no way for al-Nashiri to have made his statement voluntarily after four years in which he was "subjected by the CIA to physical coercion and abuse amounting to torture as well as living conditions which constituted cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment."

If that was all Acosta did, dayenu. But in the course of his highly significant ruling, Acosta turned briefly to one of the most horrific aspects of what the agency did to al-Nashiri (and that's saying something, since the agency revved a power drill next to his head): something the CIA calls his "rectal feeding," which is more properly understood as the sexual assault of a helpless man. 

THE CIA FIRST SEXUALLY ASSAULTED al-Nashiri in this manner during his initial stint at Guantanamo, at the black site the CIA maintained there. That site was operationally outside of the military's control, and al-Nashiri was held there late 2003 to early 2004. (The CIA formally transferred al-Nashiri to military custody at Guantanamo in 2006, but he remained under what the Senate torture report called "the operational control of the CIA.") Acosta doesn't use the term sexual assault. But he makes it clear that the point of the "feeding" was to punish al-Nashiri for going on a hunger strike—something that would be a recurring theme in both the black sites and the military detention center at Guantanamo. 

At [the CIA's Guantanamo] black site, the CIA responded to a hunger strike by "force feeding" him rectally. As described in the context of his rectal feeding, "[protein drink] Ensure was infused into al-Nashiri 'in a forward-facing position' (Trendlenberg) with head lower than torso." 

So, they violated al-Nashiri's anus while putting him in the same position they used to waterboard him. I wasn’t familiar with the Trendlenberg Position, but that's apparently what it is: "supine on the table with their head declined below their feet at an angle of roughly 16 degrees." The CIA, remember, contends that this was a mercy. What, you want al-Nashiri to die?

Acosta, appropriately, does not take the agency's cover story seriously. With understatement but impatience, he briefly explains why you shouldn't either: 

Since the early twentieth century, medical knowledge has concluded that there is no medical reason to conduct so-called "rectal feeding." While fluids [his emphasis] can be absorbed through the rectum in emergencies, food or nutrition cannot. 

Simple as that. No pause for argument. Just a straightforward statement that the cover story the agency chose for a certain superficial plausibility shatters on impact from a cursory inspection. 

As well, a footnote in Acosta's ruling gestures at how routinely the CIA sexually assaulted detainees. "Unlubricated rectal examinations were part of the rendition intake process," he writes. We'll never know, but it's likely the number of those whom the CIA rendered for torture is significantly greater than the at-least-119 people the CIA tortured directly. Many whom it tortured directly were also rendered, as with al-Nashiri. "Unlubricated rectal examinations" was not the only sexual-assault feature of the rendition process. 

Sexual assault recurs frequently throughout the U.S. post-9/11 experience with torture. It's there in official policy, like the CIA using enforced nudity as an approved "interrogation" technique. And it's there in improvisation, like how the Abu Ghraib guards stacked naked Iraqis into pyramids. As I first reported in 2016 for The Guardian, the CIA took nudes of the people it rendered. It raped Majid Khan. At the risk of straying outside my professional expertise, it should surprise no one that when granted conditions of total impunity over people subject to total dehumanization, the powerful will consider themselves licensed to commit the most violative physical transgressions possible, and justify it to themselves and the world. I thought about that post-9/11 legacy when I read last week's blockbuster AP report about the sexual assaults the agency commits—and conceals—against its own women colleagues

Acosta is a military judge. He has no power to bring consequences upon anyone at the CIA who sexually assaulted al-Nashiri. There will be no consequences for them at all. Years before John Durham was running interference for Trump, he made sure of that. But while Acosta may not be able to provide accountability, he forthrightly presented the truth, and refused to be made complicit in an ongoing lie that dehumanizes al-Nashiri all over again. 

A FALLBACK POSITION THE CIA took about its torture program was that it may have been ugly at first, but the professionals of the agency sorted out its excesses early on, and certainly by 2004. Meanwhile, here's a footnote from Acosta's ruling: "The Accused continued to be subjected to confinement conditions and treatment that qualify as inhuman and degrading up until 2006, long after the use of EITs ['enhanced interrogation' techniques, i.e., torture] was terminated."

THE U.S. MILITARY PRESENCE ON HAWAII is massive and deeply rooted. No fewer than a dozen bases and other installations, including Pearl Harbor and the massive missile test range Barking Sands, are in its possession. Hawaii is the headquarters of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command (INDOPACOM), and along with it the U.S. Pacific Fleet, the world's largest. The Army's 25th Infantry Division is at Schofield Barracks. According to a military website called Hawaii's Defense Economy, the 295,000-strong military community on Hawaii represents about 21 percent of Hawaii's 1.4 million people, including nearly 43,000 active-duty personnel supported by another 20,000 civilians. The site further says that the Navy is the largest contractor in Hawaii, followed by the Air Force and the Army.

And after the devastation of Maui that began on Aug. 8 and killed at least 111 people, Hawaiians are asking why the military didn't do much to combat the wildfire, and isn't doing much more to help survivors. 

With the fires underway, INDOPACOM on Aug. 9 announced the deployment of three helicopters, two of them Blackhawks and one a cargo-hauling Chinook, to support fire suppression; as well as an unspecified number of Seahawk helicopters to help with search and rescue. It didn't take long for social media to circulate the insufficiency of that response. Mel Thompson, a Marine veteran who participated in the robust response to the 1992 Hurricane 'Iniki, angrily pointed out on Aug. 14 everything the military wasn't doing: using its unparalleled logistical might to bring and construct housing, provide emergency power, establish field hospitals and distribute clean water. 

On Aug. 22, Honolulu magazine's Don Wallace published an excellent piece of journalism that addressed with precision—generosity, even—the minimal U.S. military response to the destruction of Maui. As detailed in his story, Maui residents bootstrapped their own rescue operations and pooled their own resources for the survivors. Three sailors who run boat tours, Captain Chrissy Lovitt, Lovitt's wife/first mate Emma Jean Nelson, and their colleague Captain Lashawna Garnier, used a 10-foot inflatable skiff to ferry people safely away from a massive, deadly cloud of smoke advancing horizontally from the burning forest toward the harbor. Doing so required them to sail their skiff in minimal-visibility conditions out to a 120-foot yacht anchored at a safe distance. 

The three sailors, now known as the Fire Sisters, performed this extremely dangerous operation five times and saved 57 people. On their sixth voyage, a six-foot wave of water destroyed their skiff's motor, and they feared they would drift out into the open ocean to die. Providence instead granted the Fire Sisters a wind current that pushed them toward the safety of the yacht. 

The Fire Sisters began what amounted to emergency harbor operations before the Coast Guard, their eventual partners, showed up. The question animating Wallace's piece is why they had to. "There are 12 military bases in the Hawaiian Islands, including a Coast Guard station on Maui. Wheels up to wheels down, Maui’s airport is a 23-minute flight away from Honolulu," Wallace noted. 

ON AUG. 17—"almost as if sensing the heat," Wallace wrote—the Pentagon announced that some 700 active and reserve personnel and 140 Coast Guardsmen were part of the response. Yet the eight lines of operation of Task Force 5-0 (get it?) were heavier on recovering the dead and transporting supplies for the responders than they were on addressing the compounding needs of the survivors. 

Task Force 5-0's deputy commander, Col. David Fielder, took questions from reporters on Aug. 24. Luckily, one of them was Jennifer Hlad of Defense One. I've known her for over a decade, back when we were Pentagon press corps reporters together, and her knowledge of the military, especially as the troops live it, is second to none. Hlad, who lives and works on Oahu, asked Col. Fielder the essential question: "I was wondering if you could just talk a little bit about [the contrast with the 'Iniki response] and maybe a little bit about why the military so far is not doing a lot on the other side with helping the survivors get water and medical supplies and those kinds of things? Or if they are, and I'm unaware, please let me know." 

His response sounds to me like he's blaming the Hawaiian authorities for not "programming" military support, and then suggesting that actually the military response has been going fast when you think about it. But you decide:

[L]isten, I would tell you that the DOD response, just me personally, when I got word that we were going to stand up this taskforce, I was in Guam. And within the timeframe I could get over here, I left on Friday, got here on Friday, we stood up this Joint Taskforce within 72 hours. And we are ready to respond to anything that the mayor had asked for. And it's extremely complicated when you look at, it was immediate action on the ground down there. They had to assess some of that. And then we came in and provided the mayor and the governor a list of capabilities. But it's got to be programmed out to some extent. I'll tell you that the National Guard had people on site within hours to help with the response. We had helicopters on standby to help with the firefighting. And, in fact, we've stood up those assets up and just by coincidence we needed to use them on another island as the Guard was dropping water over here. And then as soon as a request has been given to us, we haven’t been waiting for all of the paperwork to go as long as there's been a request that we could fulfill, we've started. And I'll go back to - we just received Navy divers. And within 24 hours of that request they were on the ground and they'll be in the water today that help look for remains and help salvage. They do some underwater surveying for salvaging and they're responding to it. There's a capacity issue. You can't send everybody at one time, it's got to be kind of layered out. But thank you for that question. And it's important. It may seem slow from the outside but it's been going very quickly - as needed, as requested by the local and state who are ultimately in-charge of the entire operation. 

I'm not in a position to parse blame. It certainly seems like the (Democratic) power structure on Hawaii filed away the warnings about Maui's fire vulnerability as Tomorrow's Problem. At the same time, this is right on the heels of the military's enormous fuel depot at Red Hill on Pearl Harbor leaking tens of thousands of liters of fuel into the base's water supply, poisoning thousands of people. And that came on the heels of a 2014 spill of 27,000 gallons of jet fuel from Red Hill—a depot that the military says it can't shutter until 2024.

Wallace's piece is as thorough as it is, again, generous to the military. He ends by asking if "perhaps we need to shake off the attitude that assumes that in crisis, the government will be there in an hour with a whisk broom and a clean hotel room with hot running water." I acknowledge that I am not affected by the wildfire. But it strikes me as entirely fair for Hawaiians, like the people of Guam, to ask what benefits they get for hosting a military apparatus that primarily treats Hawaii as a staging point for securing the U.S.' position in the Pacific.

ANOTHER EXCELLENT ANTI-MATTER ESSAY from Norman Brannon. Do I ever relate to this when pricing out this newsletter!