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Phi Beta Interrogator

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Message Jayne Stahl

While their numbers may be alarmingly small, there are more interrogators who witnessed investigation techniques that they found reprehensible, indeed, and some who even refused to participate, than we know about. In some cases, their statement of resistance to what they considered egregious, immoral acts came in the suicide notes they left behind.

We may never know the exact number of those whose euphemistic “non-hostile weapons discharge,” death by their own hand, had to do with what they witnessed, or what they were forced to engage in, while in combat in Iraq, but we do know that suicides, as a result of service in Iraq, have reached their highest level since the military started keeping records twenty years ago. And, the number of those soldiers who attempt suicide, but don’t succeed, is now almost as great as the number of U.S. war casualties.

We question, too, why those who acquiesce, remain neutral, and go along with these practices can flick lit cigarettes at prisoners, then look themselves in the mirror the next day.

Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., who was murdered 40 years ago Friday, once said: “The hottest place in Hell is reserved for those who remain neutral in times of great moral conflict.” But, what part of Hell is reserved for those who force us into times of great moral conflict? If nothing else, this administration’s decision to bomb Baghdad, invade and occupy Iraq, has put us into one of those times.

What a horrific statement that some have opted to take their own lives rather than participate in practices that go against their principles and that, as an ineluctable consequence of an illegal war, there is now an honor society of interrogators, and career officers, whose disgust with the way their government has chosen to run this war has come to be known posthumously.

While there are only a handful of cases where we know that the decision to end one’s life can be directly correlated with what was witnessed on the battlefield during this so-called war on terror, there are doubtless many more we will never hear about.  One wasted, gifted life that is documented is that of Alyssa Peterson, trained Army interrogator, who, in 2003, found the interrogation techniques being used at her prison, in northeastern Iraq, so disturbing that “She refused to participate after only two nights working in the unit.” (E & P)

So, in mid-September, 2003, this 27 year old devout Mormon, psychology major, career intelligence officer, put a gun to her head and pulled the trigger.

Coincidentally, that same year, 2003, the Justice Department was busy drafting a memo, classified until last week. John Yoo, a deputy in the department who wrote the memo, argued that military interrogators should be granted immunity from federal prosecution when using “aggressive” techniques. His reasoni: whatever happens to the detainee, interrogators must be protected by “a national and international version of self-defense.” But, it really boils down to the Nuremberg defense–namely, that they were just following orders, and that, in times of war, the president’s ubiquitous powers allows him to even defy Geneva, and international law.

According to Yoo’s memo, the only time acts by an interrogator can be considered criminal is when they “shock the conscience,” and/or are inspired by “malice or sadism.” A few prominent senators, Carl Levin and Patrick Leahy among them, pointed out that Abu Ghraib is a shining example of interrogation techniques that fall into that category. Right they are, but there are many more Abu Ghraibs, and worse, that we never hear about, cases like that of Gitmo inmate, Binyam Mohamed, a British citizen, and one of the only British detainees left at the naval base in Cuba, who states that interrogators where he was held in Morocco “sliced his chest with a razor and then made cuts in his genitals.”

Mohamed was initially held in Pakistan for a few months, where he was routinely tortured, then transferred to Morocco for more of the same, and then on to the detention camp at Guantanamo Bay. One wonders if slicing one’s chest with a razor, and then one’s genitals would “shock the conscience” of someone in the Justice Department today, or if we have become so desensitized by reports of brutality, of Web decapitation, of primetime hangings of former world leaders, that like so much water, it would roll off their back? 

 Moreover, one also wonders how the definition of what “shocks” has changed, over the past half dozen years or so, and what that says about our society. Indeed, if we were “waiting for the barbarians,” they are here and they are waving American flags.

Even more scary, we may not know, in our lifetimes, if more horrible punishment was inflicted by our military interrogators as a method of coercing confessions if the Pentagon gets its way. Now that the war crimes tribunals are in session, at Gitmo, our first military tribunals since World War II, journalists are under orders, from the Pentagon, not to divulge any comments, names, or proceedings that the Pentagon assigns a “protected,” or classified status.

Perhaps as a way to preclude future war crimes charges for interrogators, the Department of Defense has put a silencer on 9/11 mastermind, Khalid Sheik Mohammed’s testimony about whether or not he was waterboarded, a practice which is prohibited by the Army Fields Manual. Members of the jury, at these kangaroo courts, are military officers, and they are the only ones who have access to evidence withheld from the press, and American taxpayers.

What’s more, transcripts from military hearings in which Mohammed and others may provide evidence they were tortured remain sealed, something the American Civil Liberties Union is currently fighting in federal court. After all, if we have to wait another five years for the contents of these transcripts to be revealed, as we did with the Yoo memo, those at the top who were responsible for giving the command to execute torture will no longer be in power.

Even the proceedings, in court, of the military commissions are being withheld from the public. Press members must agree not to repeat anything said in court, or they will be in violation of Pentagon rules. Think about this, for a moment, it is the Pentagon, not the Judge, who is issuing a gag order here. As staff attorney for the ACLU, Ben Wizen, points out “governments don’t censor information to conceal lies. They censor information to conceal the truth.”

We’re waiting for members of Congress, and candidates for the presidency to ask– why all the secrecy if what the government is doing is aboveboard, honorable, and legal?

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Widely published, poet, playwright, essayist, and screenwriter; member of PEN American Center, and PEN USA. Jayne Lyn Stahl is a Huffington Post blogger.
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