Where does the truth lie with regard to the use of torture on detainees at Gitmo and other sites around the world?
Is it really as widespread as many people claim? Who is responsible for it? Are the techniques being used on prisoners really torture? Is it legal? If it isn’t, should we prosecute everyone – on up to the president – who could be held legally responsible?
For myself, most of those questions have already been answered. Yes, torture has been used on many hundreds and probably thousands of detainees in our custody. Yes, orders to inflict torture on the detainees came from the highest levels of our government. Yes, by any definition, both domestic law and international law was violated when torture was carried out. And yes, the techniques used by interrogators would be considered “torture” under both domestic and international law.
You can argue that it was “justified” from here until doomsday and it won’t change any of the facts given above. It’s not a question of operating in a “gray” area. The techniques went far beyond water boarding and “stress” techniques and included beatings, electric shock, and other barbaric practices. And the beating heart of this monstrous policy was not the president or Secretary of Defense but rather Dick Cheney and a small group of like minded government enthusiasts who can only be termed torture fanatics and who despite evidence that torture didn’t work, continued to order it meted out to detainees.
Later, these same torture cabalists sought to hide their activities – even going so far as refusing to release innocent detainees for fear that they would talk and perhaps lead to their own day in front of a judge.
Much of this information is available through the Freedom of Information Act, ferreted out by journalists and rights groups. Much more of it has been reported by many of the top national security reporters in the business. Another reporter, Jane Mayer who is a staff writer for The New Yorker, has written a book that details the who, the how, and the why in our government responsible for this black stain on our history.
Called THE DARK SIDE: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned Into a War on American Ideals, Mayer has culled reports from responsible journalists as well as FOIA documents to come up with what is nothing less than an indictment of officials at the highest levels of our government for crimes related to the torture of prisoners in our custody.
While I have not read the book yet, I have read several excerpts at Shaun Mullen’s blog as he has been serializing parts of the narrative. Rarely have I been so devastated. The book is meticulously researched and footnoted (as are several other anti-Administration books on the Iraq War that my fellow conservatives dismissed at the time as “hit pieces” or products of “liberal media bias” but are now generally accepted as accurate historical references to the bumbling stupidity of the Bushies) and takes a raw, unflinching look at the entire, rotten mess; Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, rendition, and the war between the Cheneyites and a few brave lawyers and aides who thought what was going on was wrong.
The New York Times book review, written by liberal historian Alan Brinkley, highlights the role of Dick Cheney and how his aides and sycophants rode roughshod over the law, the government, and those who opposed them. I have been a Dick Cheney defender in the past – especially since I believe his major critique that the executive branch was hurt badly by the Congressional power grab following Viet Nam and Watergate is basically correct. However, even before reading excerpts of this book I had come to the conclusion that Cheney went far beyond trying to redress the Constitutional balance and was engaged in a little kingdom building himself.
At the same time, I reject the view of Cheney (or any of the others involved in the torture regime) as being dark lords of the underworld. They were, in their minds, patriots out to protect the country from a very real threat (something with which both Brinkley in his review and Mayer in her book agree). But good intentions don’t excuse immoral and criminal actions. Nor do they obviate the need to air out the truth of what has gone on in the dark places where just because no one hears the screaming it doesn’t mean the law breaking didn’t take place.
Brinkley’s review – overly and unnecessarily dramatic at times – nevertheless traces the beginnings of torture from the aftermath of 9/11:
But as Jane Mayer, a staff writer for The New Yorker, makes clear in “The Dark Side,” a powerful, brilliantly researched and deeply unsettling book, what almost immediately came to be called the “war on terror” led quickly and inexorably to some of the most harrowing tactics ever contemplated by the United States government. The war in Iraq is the most obvious and familiar result of the heedless “toughness” of the new administration. But Mayer recounts a different, if at least equally chilling, story: the emergence of the widespread use of torture as a central tool in the battle against terrorism; and the fierce, stubborn defense of torture against powerful opposition from within the administration and beyond. It is the story of how a small group of determined men and women thwarted international and American law; fought off powerful challenges from colleagues within the Justice Department, the State Department, the National Security Council and the C.I.A.; ignored or circumvented Supreme Court rulings and Congressional resolutions; and blithely dismissed a growing clamor of outrage and contempt from much of the world — all in the service of preserving their ability to use extreme forms of torture in the search for usable intelligence.
At times, it seems almost as if by recklessly and mindlessly defending actions that clearly violated the law, Cheney and his acolytes seemed unable to face what they had brought into being; that by continuing to order the torture of detainees, they might have to face the monstrously upsetting fact that they were wrong all along.
What is perhaps most disturbing is that not only are some of the people we are currently holding almost assuredly innocent of any wrongdoing, it is that no one has any idea of the numbers of people who are in our custody:
No one knows how many people were rounded up and spirited away into these secret locations, although the number is very likely in the thousands. No one knows either how many detainees have died once in custody. Nor is there any solid information about the many detainees who have been the victims of what the United States government calls “extraordinary rendition,” the handing over of detainees to other governments, mostly in the Middle East, whose secret police have no qualms about torturing their prisoners and face no legal consequences for doing so.
Then there is the age old argument about torture. Is it really an effective means of getting information from suspects? Or is it self defeating and will prisoners give false information just to stop the torture?
This vast regime of pain and terror, inflicted in the name of a war on terror, rests in large part on the untested belief of a few high-ranking leaders in Washington that torture is an effective tool for eliciting valuable information. But there is, Mayer persuasively argues, little available evidence that this assumption is true, and a great deal of evidence from numerous sources (including the United States military and the F.B.I.) that torture is, in fact, one of the least effective methods of gathering information and a likely source of false confessions. Among the many cases Mayer and other journalists have chronicled — including the case of the most notable Al Qaeda operative yet captured, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed — the information gleaned from tortured detainees has produced unreliable and often entirely unusable information. That many of the interrogations were conducted by American servicemen and -women with scant training made the likelihood of success even lower. (Some of the interrogators had no qualms about what they were doing and welcomed being unconstrained by any laws or rules. “It was the Camelot of counterterrorism,” one officer later told a journalist. “We didn’t have to mess with others and it was fun.” Others were traumatized by what they had done and seen, and suffered psychologically as a result.)
If common sense were applied to the matter, one would think that there is at least some efficacy to torture else it would not have been a regular part of interrogating prisoners for thousands of years. But one can see with such mixed results why even the argument that torture was “necessary” in order to get vital information falls flat. And even more telling was that even after being told that torture wasn’t working any better – or worse – than legal interrogation methods, the torture crowd continued to order it performed on detainees while defending the practice against a determined group of Administration insiders – including many conservatives I am happy to say – who wanted it stopped:
From the very beginning, there was strong resistance to the regime of torture. Those who challenged it included journalists like The New York Times’s James Risen and Scott Shane, The Washington Post’s Dana Priest, Ron Suskind (the author of “The One Percent Doctrine”), The New Yorker’s Seymour Hersh and Mayer herself (who scrupulously credits the work of her many colleagues). Other opponents were officials in the State Department, the F.B.I., the C.I.A., members of Congress of both parties and many career military officers, including former chiefs of staff. But as Mayer notes, few of them “had the temerity to confront Cheney, who clearly was the true source of these policies.” Among the most courageous opponents of the use of torture was a small group of lawyers working within the Bush administration — conservative men, loyal Republicans, who in the face of enormous pressure to go along attempted to use the law to stop what they considered a series of policies that were both illegal and immoral: Alberto Mora, the Navy general counsel, who tried to work within the system to stop what he believed were renegade actions; Jack Goldsmith, who became the head of the Office of Legal Counsel in 2003 and sought to revoke the Yoo memo of 2002, convinced that it had violated the law in authorizing what he believed was clearly torture; and Matthew Waxman, a Defense Department lawyer overseeing detainee issues, who sought ways to stop what he believed to be illegal and dangerous policies. Waxman summoned a meeting of high-ranking military officers and Defense Department officials (including the secretaries of the Army, Navy and Air Force), all of whom supported the restoration of Geneva Convention protections. Waxman was quickly hauled up before Addington and told that his efforts constituted “an abomination.” All of these lawyers, and others, soon left the government after being deceived, bullied, thwarted and marginalized by the Cheney loyalists.
So what is to be done? The torture continues to this day even though there are indications that the Cheneyites are nervously looking over their shoulders in anticipation that some legal jeopardy will be attached to their actions. Dare we trust the Democrats to hold impartial hearings on the matter? The joke answers itself. How about a “bi-partisan” commission a la the 9/11 group? Better idea but the personnel would all have to be painfully apolitical – if there is such an animal. Even then, it would be impossible to keep politics out of the investigation.
There are no easy answers nor should their be. Some on the left would love to hand the entire crew over to the International Criminal Court which would be an abominable surrender of sovereignty. Rather, I think if ever a situation cried out for a special prosecutor, this would be it. Forget a Congressional select committee or any blue ribbon commission. Law breaking demands a prosecutor given broad leeway to look into the dark recesses of government to ferret out the truth, no matter where it leads.
I’m used to being on the opposite side of my conservative friends on this issue. Why this is so pains me a great deal. Reading the excerpts from Mayer’s book, I was heartened by the opposition to torture from some conservatives in the Administration, reassuring me that I was not completely nuts. But on the internet, it is at least 5 to 1 in favor of torture thus making me a persona non grata among most of the right on this issue.
What’s my main justification for opposing this horror? An FBI Agent told his CIA counterpart in withdrawing from the program, ““We don’t do that. It’s what our enemies do!”
And that sums it up. Anyone who believes in American exceptionalism must accept that torture makes us much less than that as I pointed out in this post l a few months ago:
It vexes me that conservatives believe such nonsense – believe it and use it as a justification for the violation of international and domestic law not to mention destroying our long standing and proud tradition of simply being better than that. Why this aspect of American exceptionalism escapes my friends on the right who don’t hesitate to use the argument that we are a different nation than all others when it comes to rightly boasting about our vast freedoms and brilliantly constructed Constitution is beyond me.
But for me and many others on the right, the issue of torture defines America in a way that does not weigh comfortably on our consciences or on our self image as citizens of this country. I am saddened beyond words to be associated with a country that willingly gives up its traditions and adherence to the rule of law for the easy way, the short cut around the law, while giving in to the basest instincts we posses because we are afraid.
All the excuses mustered over the years by conservatives fall flat in the face of cold hard reality itemized and catalogued by Mayer in Dark Side. Parsing what is or is not torture doesn’t cut it. Defending the unilateral abrogation of the Geneva Convention doesn’t hold water. Saying “They deserve it” or “They deserve worse” or “It really doesn’t hurt that much” are laughable sophistries that reveal a dead spot in the conscience of the person uttering them. Attacking the source won’t work either; the evidence is just too overwhelming to deny.
I am beyond hoping I can convince any of my fellow conservatives that these horrendous practices must be stopped and the perpetrators exposed, our dirty laundry aired for the world to see. But perhaps some of you might open your minds to the possibility that something very bad has been carried out in our name these last few years. And to have it done by supposed conservatives besmirches them and the rest of us who expect much more from people who identify themselves as men and women of the right.