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Torture: Obama opens the box

interior-tortureThis article was published in the Sunday Herald on August 30, 2009.

It is no accident that an investigation into the CIA’s brutal interrogation techniques has been announced while Barack Obama is on holiday. The summer break is, to use an unfortunately apposite phrase, a good week to bury bad news, although only a hardened cynic would suggest the White House had prior knowledge that Teddy Kennedy was slipping away. Obama will interrupt his vacation to deliver the liberal lion’s eulogy, but his sandals will be back on before anyone can start asking awkward questions about torture.

While the President played golf, his Deputy Press Secretary, Bill Burton, confirmed that he “supports the Attorney General making the decisions on who gets prosecuted and investigated,” presenting it as a simple case of the government’s top lawyer assembling the facts in a non-partisan manner. No-one believes this, of course. Obama has more chance of winning the Open than convincing his critics that the investigation will be free from political interference.

Of all the hot potatoes left on the White House barbecue by his predecessor, this has the most potential to burn his fingers, so he can be forgiven for handling it with extreme care. Obama has declared that he is “more interested in looking forward than in looking backwards” so many times it has begun to sound like a prayer.

Attorney General Eric Holder’s decision to conduct “a preliminary review into whether federal laws were violated” during interrogations was immediately attacked from both sides. House Minority Leader John Boehner called it “more of a witch hunt designed to satisfy political allies than a strategy to keep the American people safe.” Human Rights Watch Director Tom Malinowski wrote that “an investigation that focuses only on low-ranking operators would be, I think, worse than doing nothing at all.”

Holder has been planning this review for months, despite the protests of Agency director Leon Panetta that it will drive a wedge between the Department of Justice and the intelligence services. It was announced on an extraordinary day of national security developments, in which the administration confirmed that it will continue the policy of “rendition” – whereby suspected terrorists are shipped to secret overseas prisons for interrogation – and was compelled to release the CIA Inspector General’s report from 2004, following legal action by the American Civil Liberties Union.

Many of the techniques have been documented before, but the report still contained plenty of shocking details: death threats, mock executions, prolonged sleep deprivation, keeping detainees chained in nappies in freezing cells, hanging them by the arms until their shoulders became dislocated, and so on.

In one incident “the debriefer entered the detainee’s cell and revved the drill while the detainee stood naked and hooded.” If there was any doubt as to whether the USA tortured prisoners in the waterboarding era, it has been dispelled. All that remains to be assessed is who was to blame and what can be done to prevent it happening again.

Holder limited special prosecutor John Durham’s remit from the outset, stating that “the Department of Justice will not prosecute anyone who acted in good faith and within the scope of the legal guidance given by the Office of Legal Counsel regarding the interrogation of detainees.” Taken at face value, this means that only rogue interrogators who went further than the techniques authorised by OLC lawyers Jay Bybee and John Yoo are at risk, rather than the attorneys themselves, even though it was their written instructions that created an institutional environment in which torture was permissible.

Allegations of detainee abuse were a drag on the whole of George Bush’s second term, once the first photos from Abu Ghraib prison surfaced in April 2004. The likeliest outcome of the DOJ review is that a few more sacrificial thugs will join Charles Graner and Lynddie England in the hall of shame.

The left will not be satisfied with scapegoats. ACLU lawyer Amrit Singh said: “More than 100,000 pages of documents that we have received as a result of our investigation prove that the torture of prisoners was not aberrational. It was in fact systemic and endemic and not the work of a few bad apples. To move forward it is essential for the administration to hold high-level individuals accountable for this dark period in American history.”

To Republicans, the Inspector General’s report shows how effective ‘Enhanced Interrogation Techniques’ were in preventing further terrorist attacks, including plots to detonate a dirty bomb, blow up the US Consulate in Karachi, derail trains and pull down the Brooklyn Bridge. The Wall Street Journal expressed its outrage that “our politicians would punish the men and women who did their best to protect Americans in a time of peril.”

A group of Senators wrote an open letter worrying that the review would be a “long, arduous, and unpredictable process for the intelligence community.” Dick Cheney called it “a reminder, if any were needed, of why so many Americans have doubts about this Administration’s ability to be responsible for our nation’s security.” Despite the fact that interrogators clearly disregarded the War Crimes Act, the Geneva Conventions and the Convention Against Torture, as signed by Ronald Reagan, many on the right wondered whether their actions constituted torture at all.

“When you go back over all the protections that were built in, I think we were actually very restrained,” Congressman Peter King told me. “Remember these are terrorists, not soldiers. I don’t believe these people are entitled to Geneva Convention protection. What happened in Abu Ghraib was unconscionable sadism and none of it can be justified. But this is different. I was hearing talk of guns and power drills, so I thought they drilled into someone’s knee or shot him in the thigh. To find out that they just threatened to use them, well, if we know that thousands of people are going to be killed and we can save those lives, to me it’s immoral not to use those threats.”

This ticking time bomb argument has radically altered perceptions of torture, to the point at which some Americans regard it as a necessary evil. The message has been reinforced by popular entertainment, in particular the hugely popular television series 24, starring Kiefer Sutherland as a government agent trying to prevent a terrorist atrocity. The Parents Television Council counted 67 depictions of torture in the first five seasons alone, many of them perpetrated by the ‘good’ guys.

Sutherland’s character stages a mock execution, stabs a suspect in the shoulder and breaks another man’s fingers during interrogations. In one scene, the President himself is shown watching his treacherous national security advisor being subjected to electric shocks. The terrorists always talk, and the information they give up is always vital.

To Ruth Barrett-Rendler, Deputy Director of the Center for Victims of Torture, this is a dangerous misrepresentation of what really happens when prisoners are put under unbearable physical and psychological stress. “Torture needs to be unacceptable for a whole range of reasons, but to pick one that’s not from the moral or philosophical area, it’s just not effective at getting accurate information,” she said.

“Television tends to show one person who has critical information that can save lives, if he can be forced to talk. That scenario presupposes not only that someone under torture will give accurate information, but also that the right person is being tortured.” The Inspector General’s report admits that many innocent people whose capture was “unsupported by credible intelligence” were questioned.

A recent CBS/New York Times poll found that 71% of Americans considered waterboarding to be torture. Only 37% of respondents said its use was ever justified. More importantly, though, fewer than a third thought Congress should investigate the Bush administration’s treatment of detainees.

The review will be, at best, a major distraction, at a critical moment in Obama’s presidency, when he is trying to reform the health system and overseeing the biggest government intervention in the economy since the New Deal. Republican opposition to his agenda has been monolithic, but prosecuting CIA operatives will inevitably expend political capital on both sides of the aisle. Plus, the higher up the investigation goes, the more it will look like a partisan settling of scores.

“Perhaps it requires an understanding that we’re not going for convictions, we’re going for some kind of truth commission,” said Matthew Duss, from the left-leaning Center for American Progress. “I don’t want to compare this to apartheid in South Africa, but that sort of idea, that we’re not out for political retribution, we’re protecting the interests of the United States in a bipartisan way, is possible.”

In 1975, prompted by revelations of CIA activity against anti-war dissidents at home and involvement in assassinations overseas, Senator Frank Church set up the Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations With Respect to Intelligence Activities. Over the next two years, it uncovered evidence that the government had hired a mafia hit man to kill Fidel Castro, run an LSD testing programme, blackmailed Martin Luther King, placed peaceful anti-war protesters under surveillance and sponsored numerous coups against democratically elected regimes.

The Church Commission also paved the way for most of the checks against unrestrained executive power that were bypassed by the Bush Department of Justice, including the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and the Senate Select Committee On Intelligence. It is usually invoked by conservatives as an overreaction that hampered Cold War spying efforts. In the National Review, former spy Peter Brookes claimed the current investigation “will likely have a chilling effect on CIA officers in the field, who will wonder if they should be getting the terrorist or getting lawyers.”

The Inspector General’s report reveals that interrogators knew they were operating at the margins of legality. One section notes that “during the course of this review, a number of Agency officers expressed unsolicited concern about the possibility of recrimination or legal action.” Depending on one’s political standpoint, this is either a recognition that they were engaged in morally dubious activities, or a foreboding that some day a politically-motivated Attorney General would conduct a show trial.

The report was heavily redacted: 122 of the document’s 266 numbered paragraphs were blacked out entirely. An ACLU lawsuit aims to force the government to publish more details. It has been widely reported that several of the missing portions describe deaths in custody as a result of torture. There are guaranteed to be more disturbing disclosures and how the administration handles them will determine Obama’s room for manoeuvre in the coming debates over where to house the remaining Guantanamo detainees and how to reauthorise the Patriot Act.

“Even though Obama keeps saying he wants to look forward, the steady release of these revelations week after week forces him to look backward,” Duss said. “He can either take the initiative and go for a sweeping investigation or he can continue to be the victim of circumstance. The latter is the better choice. There will be costs, but that accounting is the best way to go.”