The Torture Report

December 16, 2008

Last week the Senate Armed Services Committee released an executive summary of its “Inquiry Into The Treatment of Detainees In Custody.” The report was issued by a 25-member panel that included 12 Senate Republicans. All 25 members, including all 12 Republicans, approved the report unanimously (this has, not surprisingly, not inoculated the report from accusations of left-wing partisanship from certain TV and radio geniuses). None of the information revealed in this report is novel – in fact, you could get all of this information from Jane Mayer’s The Dark Side, which I HIGHLY recommend reading. What is remarkable is that all of this information is now contained in a bipartisan report from the US Senate, and that the report’s conclusions are in remarkable agreement with what people like Mayer have been saying.

You can read the entire executive summary (which isn’t long, and which I also HIGHLY recommend) HERE.

The narrative is highly familiar at this point. The Bush administration decided to use torture against detainees in US custody: at Guantanamo Bay, in Iraq and Afghanistan at places such as Abu Ghraib, and in secret CIA detention facilities around the world. Unfortunately for the Bush administration, torture is illegal according to many of our laws, including the Geneva Conventions to which we are signatories. I quote Common Article III here in its entirely to avoid any confusion on this matter:

“In the case of armed conflict not of an international character occurring in the territory of one of the High Contracting Parties, each Party to the conflict shall be bound to apply, as a minimum, the following provisions:

(1) Persons taking no active part in the hostilities, including members of armed forces who have laid down their arms and those placed ‘ hors de combat ‘ by sickness, wounds, detention, or any other cause, shall in all circumstances be treated humanely, without any adverse distinction founded on race, colour, religion or faith, sex, birth or wealth, or any other similar criteria.
To this end, the following acts are and shall remain prohibited at any time and in any place whatsoever with respect to the above-mentioned persons:

(a) violence to life and person, in particular murder of all kinds, mutilation, cruel treatment and torture;

(b) taking of hostages;

(c) outrages upon personal dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment;

(d) the passing of sentences and the carrying out of executions without previous judgment pronounced by a regularly constituted court, affording all the judicial guarantees which are recognized as indispensable by civilized peoples.

(2) The wounded and sick shall be collected and cared for.

An impartial humanitarian body, such as the International Committee of the Red Cross, may offer its services to the Parties to the conflict.
The Parties to the conflict should further endeavour to bring into force, by means of special agreements, all or part of the other provisions of the present Convention.
The application of the preceding provisions shall not affect the legal status of the Parties to the conflict.”

So as can be seen, even in cases in which one is fighting against irregular enemies that don’t qualify for many of the other protections of the Conventions, there is still a minimum standard for treatment.
The Geneva Conventions is far from the only law that bars torture and degrading treatment – the US is a signatory to numerous international agreements that carry the weight of domestic law, and has passed a number of independent domestic laws to that effect as well.
To circumnavigate these laws, the Office of Legal Counsel (OLC), with input from David Addington and Alberto Gonzalez, wrote two key memos that sought to legally justify torture and expand the power of the presidency to give to the president the ability to transgress US laws with impunity. These memos, kept secret from the public for years, were on very poor legal grounds and flew in the face of established law and legal precedent. The report’s conclusions on these memos is not kind:

“Those OLC opinions distorted the meaning and intent of anti-torture laws,
rationalized the abuse of detainees in U.S. custody and influenced Department of Defense
determinations as to what interrogation techniques were legal for use during interrogations
conducted by U.S. military personnel. ”

All of this was done with the acceptance and knowledge of the highest ranking officials in the Bush administration, including the president and his cabinet. In spite of contrary statements by high officials, specific torture techniques were discussed in this context at cabinet-level meetings:

“Members of the President’s Cabinet and other senior officials participated in
meetings inside the White House in 2002 and 2003 where specific interrogation techniques were
discussed. National Security Council Principals reviewed the CIA’s interrogation program
during that period.”

The torture programs were based on a program called Survival Evasion Resistance And Escape (SERE), which is designed to train US troops to withstand torture when in the custody of other countries. The techniques used in SERE for training purposes are borrowed from enemies, such as the Communist Chinese in the Korean War. It was these techniques, borrowed from our worst enemies, enemies that we branded as war criminals for using them, that were then used by the CIA and the Department of Defense against detainees, some of whom were innocent people. The SERE techniques were not developed to elicit accurate information but to train our troops to withstand torture. The report concludes that not only was their use unethical, but was detrimental to the national security of the United States.

“The use of techniques similar to those used in SERE resistance training – such
as stripping students of their clothing, placing them in stress positions, putting hoods over their
heads, and treating them like animals – was at odds with the commitment to humane treatment of
detainees in U.S. custody. Using those techniques for interrogating detainees was also
inconsistent with the goal of collecting accurate intelligence information, as the purpose of SERE
resistance training is to increase the ability of U.S. personnel to resist abusive interrogations and
the techniques used were based, in part, on Chinese Communist techniques used during the
Korean War to elicit false confessions.

The impact of those abuses has been significant. In a 2007 international BBC poll,
only 29 percent of people around the world said the United States is a generally positive
influence in the world. Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo have a lot to do with that perception. The
fact that America is seen in a negative light by so many complicates our ability to attract allies to
our side, strengthens the hand of our enemies, and reduces our ability to collect intelligence that can save lives. ”

I urge you to read the entire report. These are the people who tried to portray Abu Ghraib as something caused by a few bad, low-level apples. This is the president who said, countless times, that the US does not torture. They lied and they broke the law. And most importantly, they are war criminals UNDER OUR OWN LAWS. Even NIXON didn’t do that.

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