President Barack Obama is to be commended for
his planned closure of Guantanamo and covert CIA prisons as well as his instructions
that no United States agency will exceed the U.S. military's guidelines on
interrogation, but he does not go far enough. Transparency and accountability
are necessary to clear the air over the issue of torture and the egregious
human rights violations committed by the Bush administration, if only to ensure
that nothing similar will ever happen again.
The issue of torture itself has become an ideological abstraction, with the
neoconservatives and their claque reflexively supporting it. It is also often
discussed in the intelligence community, particularly when CIA case officers
who served in the pre-torture 1980s and 1990s gather. There are undeniably
some who believe that all terrorist suspects should be tortured even unto death
to tell what they know, but most former officers wonder at the cultural metamorphosis
that has turned the CIA into some kind of global police force that is bound
neither by ethics nor by conventions. "Where did these people come from?"
is frequently heard, referring to that intrepid band that is willing and able
to waterboard a helpless suspect. But even if the rank and file are not convinced
by arguments in favor of torture, prominent figures in the intelligence business
are sending out a different message. Soon-to-be-replaced CIA Director Michael
Hayden and departing Director of National Intelligence Michael McConnell both
support "enhanced interrogation methods," including waterboarding,
giving the impression that intelligence experts who truly know the facts believe
that torture somehow serves the national interest.
The media has its own agendas, of course, such as supporting and justifying
the idiotic and ineffective war on terror. A prime example of the agitprop
that continues to appear supporting torture is a contrived front-page article
in the Jan. 10 Washington Post titled "Obama
Under Pressure on Interrogation Policy," which claimed that many in
the government support the CIA's continuing to do whatever it takes to
get information out of terrorist suspects. It cited the single case
of Abu Zubaydah, where it has been alleged that important intelligence
was obtained after waterboarding, an account that has been questioned by Ron
Suskind, among others, because Zubaydah was apparently mentally retarded and
provided no information of any value. One should also note that in spite
of the headline suggesting widespread support, only a single individual was
cited by name in the article as advocating the Bush interrogation policy:
Vice President Dick Cheney.
Even the Post's particularly obtuse editors should have realized that
if one case is all that can be cited after seven years of thuggishness, the
practice of torture should be ended because of the damage it has done to America's
civil liberties and reputation. There are also other good reasons to oppose
torture and torture by proxy through CIA rendition. Torture is immoral and
is a war crime, a view that is generally accepted around the world and which
is shared by most Americans. In practical terms, torture also opens up a door
that should never be opened by anyone who genuinely cares about U.S. soldiers,
diplomats, and intelligence officers stationed at their peril around the world.
To put it succinctly, if we do it to them, they will do it to us.
It has also been frequently noted that torture does not always work, that
some will be able to resist it and, more frequently, the victim will say what
he thinks his tormentors want to hear. Professional interrogators largely agree
that much more good information is obtained by treating detainees humanely
than by subjecting them to torture. Israeli officers working for the internal
security service Shin Bet discovered, to their surprise, that they were able
to get better and more reliable information by treating their Arab prisoners
decently after that country's Supreme Court banned all forms of physical coercion.
Given the shift in policy by Obama, why then do torture advocates continue
to be featured prominently in the media? Torture proponents have assiduously
cultivated a number of myths, most prominent of which is the "ticking
time bomb." This is a particular favorite of the redoubtable Alan Dershowitz
and a number of leading neocons. It goes like this: a captured terrorist has
knowledge of an impending attack on a major civilian target, but he won't cooperate.
How to get the information? Simple. Set up a legal procedure that enables you
to torture him until he talks, thereby saving the lives of innocent civilians.
The only problem with the Dershowitz narrative is that there has never been
such a scenario. No terrorist has ever been captured, subjected to torture,
and provided information that foiled an attack, not even in Israel where routine
torture of suspected terrorists captured in flagrante used to be the
case. Advocating a policy of torture, with all that entails, based on a "what
if" is fighting evil with more evil, not a solution.
A second myth propagated by torture advocates like McConnell and Hayden is
that judicious use of "enhanced interrogation methods" has, in the
past, provided information that has led to the capture of militants and the
disruption of terrorist plots. They maintain that the CIA should be free to
torture in situations where the circumstances appear to warrant such an approach.
One problem with that line of reasoning is that using physical abuse is a slippery
slope, always leading to more abuse, not less. Abu Ghraib was not an isolated
instance of gratuitous behavior. It was part of a system where abuse became
the norm and was accepted as such. Recent revelations that torture has been
widespread at Guantanamo prison should be seen in the same light.
Hayden and McConnell's assertion that torture produces valuable information
generally fails to pass the smell test based on evidence of enhanced interrogations
that have wound up in the media. The frequently cited example of Khalid Sheikh
Mohammed, who was waterboarded, provides little actual evidence that the torture
produced information that might not have been obtained more conventionally.
Indeed, under torture Mohammed confessed to crimes that he could not possibly
have committed. If the heads of America's intelligence services cannot provide
convincing details of just how torture produced otherwise unobtainable benefits
they should cease and desist in their promotion of the practice. They will
undoubtedly claim that the information supporting their advocacy is classified,
but every intelligence officer knows how to edit and sanitize information to
make it comprehensible to the public without revealing any secrets. That they
have not done so indicates that their argument is 90 percent hokum, intended
to deceive rather than convince.
To be sure, the principal objective of the McConnells and Haydens of this
world might be to legally protect themselves and their associates who have
been engaged in war crimes, as President Obama is surely aware. They would
like to see the incoming administration accept the principle that enhanced
interrogation is an acceptable "intelligence" technique so that there
will be no show trials or other punishment of officers who have engaged in
the practice. One commiserates with the mid-level officer eager for promotion
who, when ordered to torture, did so. Or the Office of Medical Services CIA
doctor who violated his Hippocratic Oath while standing by to monitor the pouring
of water up a suspect's nose. Nevertheless, even CIA interrogators and doctors
have free will. If they were bothered by what they did, they should have refused
or resigned. If they tortured willingly, they should face the consequences
and stand trial, together with whoever issued the orders, just as Hitler's
minions did at Nuremberg. That they have tortured and now intend to write their
books and collect their pensions is an abomination. Once Obama's administration
has settled in, there should be some kind of accountability, whether it be
in the form of actual prosecutions or a commission of inquiry, and it should
not shrink at indicting officials at the most senior levels. George Tenet,
are you listening? No one should be allowed to carry out or order torture of
another human being and walk away from it.
Inhabiting an odd halfway house are the supporters of torture-lite by proxy
who wish to have physical abuse without legal consequences, through rendition.
Neocon Reuel Marc Gerecht recently wrote an op-ed for the New York Times
suggesting that President Obama will likely see the light and eventually support
continued rendition. Rendition is letting someone else do the torturing in
order to avoid any unpleasant legal consequences, but like torture carried
out by Americans, its track record is largely anecdotal. Some self-described
intelligence experts have claimed it has produced critical information that
has saved lives and thwarted terrorist attacks, but they hide behind a secrecy
barrier to avoid having to tell the public who, what, when, and where. Lacking
that and given the track record of the Bush administration, only a fool would
believe that rendition is anything more than another bestiality that has entered
the lexicon in the post 9/11 years. One well-documented rendition case, of
Canadian citizen Maher Arar, consigned an innocent man to torture in Syria.
Another rendition, of Milan-based Muslim cleric Abu Omar, appears to have been
designed by Monty Python, employing a cast of hundreds at a cost of many millions
of dollars. It is still playing out in the Italian courts. Omar was tortured
in Egypt and eventually released when it turned out that he had no information
So what does it all mean? President Obama has said no to torture, but the
beat goes on. It appears that some in the media and the government want to
preserve the option of being able to physically harm a helpless prisoner to
obtain intelligence. If they truly believe that torture is an essential tool
to defeat terrorists, they should make their case honestly and openly citing
irrefutable evidence, something that they have failed to do. Not surprisingly,
most torture advocates are neocons, the same names that have brought us the
bizarre "global war on terror," war in Iraq, and an impending war
with Iran. Their passion on the subject suggests that the issue is basically
ideological, a willingness to go all the way to defeat the dreaded Islamofascists.
For most neocons the "us" and "them" struggle is to the
death, with the collateral damage to a few tortured and maimed Muslims along
the way a small price to pay to remake the Middle East.