Saturday, April 25, 2009

Torture Apologists Demolition Derby

Detail from the right ("Hell") panel of Hieronymous Bosch's "The Garden of Earthly Delights" (c. 1500)

Ever since the photos from Abu Ghraib prison were revealed to the world, Bush administration officials repeated the mantra “the U.S. does not torture.”

Then President Obama released the Bush administration’s Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) memos rationalizing the use of torture on alleged al Qaeda prisoners. Thursday, the Senate Armed Services Committee released its report on the torture memos. Its unanimous opinion was that the U.S. has indeed engaged in torture, and that those practices were initiated at the highest levels of the Bush administration—in other words, contra the claims of the Bush administration and its apologists, not as the result of misbehavior by a few low-level bad apples. We now have enough evidence to construct a detailed chronology of the events leading to the officially approved use of torture by the U.S. government and the reactions to that practice to present. (Note: The Foreign Policy chronology includes numerous links to various reports relating to the torture issue. The Senate Armed Services Committee report can be found here.)

Faced with an increasing body of detailed evidence, official Washington has responded in with various evasive strategies.

The congressional GOP has responded largely by trying to deflect attention from the issue of torture.

Chris Matthews interviews (I almost said "interrogates") Mac Thornberry (R, Outer Obstructia) about accountability for torture in light of the release of the Senate Armed Services Committee's report about torture.

Notice Thornberry's rhetorical defenses:
  1. Refusal to use or acknowledge the word "torture."

  2. Claim that investigating the issue will distract from the "war on terror."

  3. Claim that prosecuting illegal acts relating to torture of detainees "changes the rules" and will demoralize the CIA in its pursuit of terrorists.

  4. Claim it was the work of a few bad apples.

  5. Refusal to acknowledge the obvious--that directions to use torture, embodied in the torture memos, are the responsibility of those at the top, including Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rice et al. Refuse to acknowledge it even after Matthews reads to you (twice) the explicitly stated conclusion in the Senate Armed Services Committee report that the orders, and hence, responsibility for the use of torture came from the top of the chain of command.

  6. The dog ate my homework.

Meanwhile Ta-Nahisi Coates has a video of an interview on MSNBC by O'Donnell O’Donnell with Liz Cheney which indicates clearly that Cheney is preparing to mount a very aggressive defense of his record in the White House, particularly with reference to torture.

It's interesting to note Liz Cheney's approach to the evidence revealed thus far:

  • O'Donnell: Are you prepared to admit that the OVP was the prime mover in the decision to use torture?

  • Cheney: Obama never investigated “effectiveness” of “harsh interrogation techniques” before forbidding them. (Note that the response, whether true or not, is irrelevant to the question.)

  • Cheney: The techniques did not constitute torture because they were used by SERE (ignoring the fact that SERE was set up to train U.S. military personnel to withstand techniques used by North Korea to exact FALSE CONFESSIONS from prisoners).

  • O'Donnell: U.S. prosecuted people after WW II for waterboarding—it’s torture.

  • Cheney: Waterboarding gave us valuable info. [She references Michael Hayden/Mukasey op-eds in favor of the use of torture (described euphemistically, of course). Note again that the response is irrelevant to the question.]

  • O'Donnell: Dennis Blair op-ed stated that there's no way to know if other techniques could have gotten us the info.

  • Cheney: Blair stated in an internal memo that "harsh interrogation techniques" were “effective”; the Obama White House censored the statement. Four former CIA directors approved the use of these methods. [Note shifting of blame again to Obama and use of simultaneous appeal to authority (former CIA directors) and appeal to the majority (four former CIA directors)

  • O'Donnell: What was the role of the OVP in torture memos?

  • Cheney: The CIA began the process, not the OVP; the OLC memos were very careful about what could be done & for how long. She claims that O'Donnell has been reading from AP headlines—not what the memo says, and stonewalls on the issue of the OVP as prime mover. Cheney then repeats that the interrogation approach was "a good program" which was widely supported. [Cheney's claim that the CIA initiated the process conflicts with evidence that the impetus for use of torture came from Dick Cheney. Moreover, there's evidence that the true motive for use of torture was to "find" evidence of a link between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda in the leadup to the invasion of Iraq. See Alice in Wonderland for reference. There is also substantial evidence that Dick Cheney weilded tremendous influence within the Bush administration from behind the scenes. See Barton Gellman's Angler for details.]

  • O'Donnell: Use of torture by the US portends the future use of torture against US military personnel.

  • Cheney: It's not torture. [This is the "La la la--I can't hear you" defense.]

  • Cheney: Revealing our interrogation techniques gives info to our enemies. [A repetition of the McCarthyite insinuation used during the Bush administration that criticism equates to treason.]

  • Cheney: Info gained via use of "harsh interrogation techniques" saved American lives. [This is contradicted in an op-ed article by a former FBI interrogator in the NY Times this week. ]

In short, Liz Cheney's defense amounts to:
  1. Repeated denials that “harsh interrogation techniques” outlined in the torture memos and the Senate Armed Services Committee report are torture.

  2. Claims that the techniques were effective.

  3. Use of appeals to the majority (four former CIA directors, widespread support for the program).

  4. Use of appeals to authority (former CIA directors support the program; accusations that the interviewer has been getting her information from “AP headlines” implicitly makes an appeal to authority—you don’t know what you’re talking about, but we do).

  5. McCarthyite insinuations that those who criticize the program, especially Obama, are either foolish or unpatriotic, and in either case, are weakening America’s security.
A few points:

1. The claim that torture is effective, whether true or not, is irrelevant to the question of the legality of such practices, as noted by Anonymous Liberal.

2. As noted above, a former FBI interrogator who broke Abu Zubaydah using standard, non-violent interrogation methods, has contradicted that assertion in the NY Times this week. Other interrogators have given similar testimony.

3. The choice to use torture was made based on mistaken notions of the SERE program, which, contrary to Liz Cheney, was designed to help U.S. service personnel withstand torture at the hands of the Chinese and North Koreans designed to elicit false confessions. In no way did use of torture techniques in the SERE program legitimize such methods; rather, the purpose of their use was to harden U.S. military personnel in the expectation that they would be subjected to such techniques, which our government--like all other signatories to the Geneva Conventions--considered illegal and immoral, as the United States did consistently until the administration of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney.

4. The extent to which former Bush administration officials and their apologists are willing to go to avoid use of the word "torture" is striking. It would be comical if the consequences of their sophistry were not so serious. As has been noted by a number of other observers, the United States prosecuted Nazis at the Nuremberg trials for waterboarding. It was considered torture by us then; how can it be that the same practice has been magically transformed into something benign by a handful of absurdly reasoned OLC memos?

5. Nor should we allow the torture mongers and their apologists to confuse the issue by considering any given torture practice in isolation. We now know that in practice, the various torture techniques approved by the Bush administration were performed in combination over an extended period of time--as they were intended to be. In fact, thanks to stellar work by Marcy Wheeler, we now know that Abu Zubaydah was waterboarded 183 times (and someone else 83 times), apparently due to intense pressure from the Bush administration to find evidence linking Saddam Hussein to al Qaeda.

6. The net effect of these practices? Over 25 people died in U.S. custody, some others committed suicide, and some were reduced to a vegetative state. Who were these people? As it happens, due to reliance on bounty hunters and lack of familiarity with the local languages, the U.S. military didn't know who was an al Qaeda member and who was not. The award-winning documentary, Taxi to the Dark Side, focuses on the beating death of a young Afghan cab driver at the hands of American interrogators using the practices approved by the Bush administration. There have been a number of other such cases. In addition to the direct physical effects of such brutality, our international reputation has been badly damaged due to our use of such techniques. We have lost the moral authority we used to rely on when condemning the use of cruel treatment by foreign governments. Who will take us seriously now when we make such complaints? What other country will be able to play such a role in our absence?

7. Given the above considerations, it is curious that the mainstream media continue, by and large, to avoid use of the term "torture." One might think they were adhering once again to that artificial, process-based formula for supposed absence of bias whereby the reporter, confronted with free use of a term by one party to a dispute, and strenuous objections to its use by the other, refrains from using the term in an attempt to avoid picking sides--regardless what the term is, what its widely accepted use is, or what its relation to a given context or topic may be. Thus the GOP objects (obviously, on purely tactical grounds) to use of the word "torture' to describe the SERE interrogation techniques adopted by the Bush administration, and in response, our toothless news media obligingly refrain--thereby enacting (however inadvertently) a consensual attitude of denial with reference to the issue of torture. One of the most shameful episodes in our country's history is treated by the mainstream media as The Unpleasantness That Shall Not Be Named at precisely the time when we have an opportunity to embark on an honest national conversation about what our values are and should be with reference to treatment of prisoners in particular, and human rights in general. See Glenn Greenwald for more on this.

8. Nor are many Democrats eager to take on the issue of torture--largely because of their own complicity in it. In fact, Obama himself has been rather tentative about the whole issue himself, delivering several seemingly contradictory statements about investigations of the authors of the torture memos.

9. All of which, it seems to me, indicates the need for a vigorous effort on the part of those of us who believe this issue is far too important for the United States to neglect, to pressure the Obama administration and Congress to conduct a thorough investigation via an independent prosecutor to ascertain responsibility for our government's adoption of torture techniques and to bring the guilty to justice. If we don't, we can be sure that this or something even worse will happen again in the future.

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