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Torture's Time for Accountability

By       Message Ray McGovern     Permalink
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Reprinted from Consortium News


I trust I was not alone in seeing irony in President Barack Obama's public chiding of Sony on Friday for caving in to hacker demands to cancel distribution of its comedy "The Interview" -- about a fictional CIA plot to assassinate North Korea's real-life leader Kim Jong-Un -- after a retaliatory cyber attack blamed on North Korea.

Rather than questioning Sony's wisdom in producing a film that jokes about something as serious as assassinating a nation's leader, Obama upbraided Sony's producers for the decision to pull the movie from theaters. "I wish they had spoken to me first," said Obama, warning them not to "get into a pattern in which you're intimidated."

The irony that I saw was in Obama's "tough-guy" advice just after he had been so intimidated by the real-life CIA that he could not muster the courage to fire those who managed and carried out a quite-unfunny policy of torture on an industrial scale -- much less try to find some way to hold senior officials of the Bush/Cheney administration accountable. However great the financial loss to Sony's bottom line, the costs attributable to Obama's timidity are incalculably more damaging to the United States.

Of course, the common thread between assassinations and torture is Official Washington's disdain for international law, at least as it pertains to the "exceptional" U.S. government. I suppose it might have been even more ironic if President Obama, who has overseen an actual targeted assassination program for six years, would have voiced concern about a movie making light of a made-up assassination plot.

(There was a time, especially after the 1960s, when Americans didn't find the notion of murdering political leaders very amusing.)

Anyway, veteran UPI editor Arnaud de Borchgrave had it right on Friday when he noted that the CIA torture abuses revealed in the report released by Senate Intelligence Committee chairwoman Dianne Feinstein on Dec. 9 have "given the U.S. a geopolitical black eye of worldwide dimensions. For the average Russian, Chinese, Indian, Pakistani, African, Arab, Iranian, or any other race or nationality, America is now no better or worse than any other global scoundrel."

Not amused by the U.S. government's we're-above-the-law arrogance, North Korea's U.N. ambassador has called on the world body to investigate the CIA for subjecting captured al-Qaeda operatives to "brutal, medieval" forms of torture. (No, that is not a joke. North Korea is lecturing Washington on barbaric behavior.) It seems clear that the damage done by the CIA's officially sanctioned torture and -- equally important -- Obama's decision to hold the torturers harmless, leave an incalculably large, indelible stain on the U.S. reputation for defending human rights.

Crossing Our Delaware

So what happens next, after America now acknowledges having crossed the Rubicon into the practice of torture a decade ago? What to do after these abhorrent "techniques," such as waterboarding and "rectal rehydration," have been exposed in a redacted Senate Intelligence Committee report based on CIA cables, emails and other original documents? (I find myself wondering whether even more sadistic outrages would be detailed in the un-redacted text of the Senate report.)

The question remains: Will the top torture criminals and their obedient lackeys -- from George W. Bush and Dick Cheney down to those CIA personnel and contractors "just following orders" in the CIA's secret prisons -- continue to escape accountability? As things now stand, the sad answer seems to be, "Yes, unless."

At this point, those responsible will continue to enjoy de facto immunity unless (1) they travel abroad and are apprehended and brought to justice under the principle of "universal jurisdiction" by governments more committed to enforcing international law than our own; or (2) unless we citizens summon the kind of courage shown by the "winter soldiers" of George Washington's army who crossed the Delaware and turned the tide of battle at Christmastime 1776, leading -- four cold Christmases later -- to American freedom from British rule.

Worth noting in this connection is that Gen. George Washington imposed strong strictures against abuse of captured British and Hessian prisoners, strictures not observed by the English forces who deemed the American soldiers "traitors" and often confined them to appalling conditions aboard prison ships and in other unsanitary locations where more than 10,000 died of neglect.

Thomas Paine, one of the stalwart soldiers in Washington's army, famously wrote during that difficult winter of 1776-77: "The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of all men and women."

It might well be said of us that "Now is the winter of our discontent," a time when rock-ribbed American ideals have been trampled beneath the boot of thuggish behavior and all that seems left is a swaggering haughtiness more fitting the British officer corps than our courageous "rabble in arms."

Today's question is whether we will be discontented enough to expose ourselves to the elements, as those "winter soldiers" were exposed, albeit "elements" of a different kind, risks to our reputations, impositions on our time, commitment of our talents and resources. But it may be our turn to repay the debt to those soldiers who overcame great odds and great hardships to create a nation based on the rule of law, not the whim of men.

Though the Founders were flawed individuals themselves -- and the early United States should not be idealized as a place without grave injustices -- there was wisdom in many of their principles, including a prohibition against "cruel and unusual punishments" in the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

They also made wise observations about America's proper place in the world -- as a beacon of liberty, not as the world's policeman. Recognizing the dangers and corruption that could come from excessive involvement in foreign conflicts, the first three presidents -- George Washington, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson -- all warned against "entangling alliances." And years later, President John Quincy Adams, who had watched the new nation from its birth, warned that America "goes not abroad seeking monsters to destroy."

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Ray McGovern works with Tell the Word, the publishing arm of the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in inner-city Washington. He was an Army infantry/intelligence officer and then a CIA analyst for 27 years, and is now on the Steering Group of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS). His (more...)
 

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