American Studies, Race & Society, Student Engagement

The History and Evolution of American Torture and Secret Prisons (1898–2008)


GU-Qatar senior Ritica Ramesh presented her thesis research at a CURA Focused Discussion on April 3, 2019, in a talk entitled “History and Evolution of American Torture and Black Sites (1898–2008).” Ramesh outlined the history of the US government’s use of torture as an official policy in its warfare, going back to the Philippine-American War of 1898. Her initial interest in this topic developed during a semester abroad at Georgetown’s main campus in Washington, DC, when she was researching the criminal justice system, prisons, and punishment in the US.

Ramesh takes the cases of the Philippine-American War (1898–1902), the Vietnam War (1965–1972), and the Global War on Terror (2001–present), to demonstrate how the US government has devoted massive resources to the study and development of torture, and how various techniques have evolved over the last century—including the construction of “the ideal physical space in which to conduct torture,” she said. 

Ramesh explained that although the United Nations Convention against Torture includes the physical and psychological aspects of torture in its definition of the term, it is difficult to find a concrete definition of torture due to the political nature of the practice, and because the definition has changed throughout history. Another important term is “black sites,” which she said are “usually—but not always—classified facilities that operate in an extralegal capacity, where clandestine military or intelligence operations are carried out.” The definition of black sites is contested and does not constitute a legal term; this is important because the US government has used black sites extensively to carry out torture.

“After the abolishment of slavery in 1865, torture against African Americans became more institutionalized, and this continued in the form of convict leasing and chain gangs.”

While Ramesh’s primary thesis was on torture conducted by the US government abroad during wartime, the development of torture in early American history took place on American soil. “American torture is closely linked to the domination of Native Americans as well as African Americans,” she said. As part of a domestic imperial project, American military forces frequently targeted indigenous peoples through reservation policies imposed in the late 1700s. During this time, people were forced into concentration camps, starved for days on end, and torture was used as a form of punishment, she said. 

Slaves, especially Africans, faced horrendous abuses throughout American history. Slavery was a form of torture, along with practices such as branding people with hot metal, brutal beatings, and rape. Ramesh reported, “After the abolishment of slavery in 1865, torture against African Americans became more institutionalized, and this continued in the form of convict leasing and chain gangs.” She pointed out that in the American south, African Americans “were arrested for pretty much just existing,” and were compelled to perform exhaustive labor without pay under the convict lease system. When that practice was banned, another exploitative scheme arose—that of chain gangs. These are examples of how “the use of torture very much existed in America much before the American colonial project moved abroad,” Ramesh said.

“When the American colonial project began in 1898, America brought with it a very punitive system of policing and punishment that it fully exploited in the Philippines,” Ramesh said. During the Philippine-American War, “local Filipinos were seen as savages who needed harsh methods in order to be civilized like the whites. This really drove much of the American ideology during the Philippine-American War,” Ramesh said. 

Interrogators in the Philippines experimented with torture techniques, including stress positions and beatings, and many Filipinos were imprisoned in concentration camps, where overcrowding, starvation, and diseases were very common, according to Ramesh. One of the foremost torture techniques used for the purposes of obtaining confessions in the Philippines was the “water cure,” in which water was forced into a victim’s throat and nose to induce a sensation of drowning. It is extremely painful and known to cause severe psychological trauma. This was a precursor to the torture technique known as waterboarding today, which is illegal under US and international law. However, the Central Intelligence Agency was discovered using waterboarding in secret prisons following the 9/11 attacks, justified as “enhanced interrogation.” 

By the Vietnam War, other torture methods had been developed, particularly psychological control. The US government created a program called MKUltra, which studied the usefulness of LSD and other drugs for the purposes of interrogation and torture. The Phoenix Program marked the first time in American history that the government recognized the importance of conducting torture in a specialized physical space. Additionally, Ramesh reported, the US Army and the CIA created interrogation manuals that were used in military training curricula beginning in the late 1980s, but especially after 9/11 to increase effectiveness of torture in places like Guantanamo Bay. “The practice of torture abroad as well as in the domestic sphere are closely interlinked and cannot be separated,” she said.

After 9/11, the CIA opened black sites all around the world, including in Thailand, Afghanistan, Cuba, and Iraq, Ramesh said. However, when these illegal sites were discovered, public anger over US torture practices drove the government to establish floating prisons, which allowed the military to evade international law as well as domestic law, and the practice of torture was continued.

President Trump was vocal about his positive views on torture during the election campaign and throughout his presidency. Although a US senate investigation found that torture is not actually effective, Ramesh said, Trump has openly said that he would bring back the CIA’s enhanced interrogation program and water boarding, because he believes that it works. The rise of international law and norms has not deterred the use of torture, Ramesh said, but it has only encouraged the US government to come up with new evasive strategies. 

Ritica Ramesh (class of 2019) is a Georgetown University in Qatar senior majoring in International History with a certificate in American Studies. She served as president of the Human Rights Club and was a founding member of the Future is Female Program. Her main research interests are American history, and the US criminal justice system. 


Article by Abdul Rehmaan Qayyum, CURA Research Assistant