As with the evidence that Bush, Cheney, and gang intentionally lied us into a war, or the evidence of illegal and unconstitutional spying, each time a major new piece of evidence of torture emerges, it is impossible not to hope that this is the one that will compel the Justice Department or Congress or the courts or the American people to act decisively. Certainly I hope that, right now, the day after Mark Danner reported on a report from the International Committee of the Red Cross.
But let's not kid ourselves. Everyone has known that the United States was torturing for years. Congress has known it so well that it has both attempted to legislate immunity for the torturers (through the McCain Amendment to the Detainee Treatment Act and through the Military Commissions Act) and put on a show of attempting to "ban" torture, despite its having already been illegal under U.S. law and treaties to which the United States is a party. We've witnessed high profile lobbying competitions over whether or not Congress should "ban" torture again. We've seen President Bush declare his right to torture in signing statements. And we've seen Congress respond to those with renewed proposals to yet again "ban" torture. President Obama was elected promising to stop the torturing, and has announced that he is doing so, as well as that he will someday close one of the many places we illegally detain people without charge. But torture in that place (Guantanamo) has reportedly worsened, and Obama is not letting independent groups in to observe.
There are publicly available videotapes of Bush (April 11, 2008; Jan. 11, 2009) and Cheney (Dec. 15, 2008) confessing to authorizing torture. There are reports and photographs and videotapes from Abu Ghraib, some of which certain members of Congress have seen but the public has not. There are reports from dozens and dozens of victims, and from torturers and jailers. There are dozens of dead bodies, victims of torture, identified, and the torture techniques used to kill them identified. (This is separate from Cheney's assassination squad recently reported on by Seymour Hersh, which may not have used torture as its murder technique.) There are full-blown public scandals in nearby and allied nations like Canada, Britain, and Germany, over our torture of their citizens. Italy is trying members of our secret government in absentia for kidnapping a man in their country and having him tortured. Victims from around the world are suing former members of our government and corporations involved in the crimes, and Eric Holder's Justice Department is opposing those efforts, seeking to keep information secret and prevent accountability for crimes. Obama's administration is threatening the British government in order to do the same.
"Five Years of My Life: An Innocent Man in Guantanamo," by Murat Kurnaz resulted in this one victim of torture speaking to a largely empty U.S. Congressional committee hearing via satellite. After he'd told part of his story, Congressman Dana Rohrabacher told him that the United States was at war and needed to protect itself even at the price of making some errors.
Publicly available are numerous memos, orders, and directives through which President Bush authorized torture and obtained "legal" views that illegality was now legal. Here are two collections: One, Two. Many more such documents are already known and identified, but not yet released by Bush or Obama. We have reports from torturers and participants on the US side. We have reports that draw on the testimony of both participants and victims. We have books that draw on the testimony of participants and the findings of secret government reports, books like Jane Mayer's "The Dark Side", Philippe Sands' "The Torture Team", Jack Goldsmith's "The Terror Presidency", Steven Wax's "Kafka Comes To America", and Andy Worthington's "The Guantanamo Files". We have reports that organize and summarize the information in these books. We have a report from the Senate Armed Services Committee detailing the authorization of torture by Bush and his subordinates, and rumors that a stronger report has been kept secret. We have reports that a Department of Justice report that is being kept secret contains Emails in which the White House asked the Department of Justice for its illegal "legal" opinions. (Activists are demanding a special prosecutor investigation, while just releasing that report would hammer home the fact that no investigation is needed prior to indictments.) We know that the CIA destroyed 92 "interrogation" tapes, and we have a good idea from Danner's report on the Red Cross report what's on most of the tapes.
Danner reports in the New York Times and the New York Review of Books on the accounts given to the Red Cross by 14 victims of US torture in secret foreign sites who were later transferred to Guantanamo. Each use of torture was approved from Washington by such people as Dick Cheney, Condoleezza Rice, and John Ashcroft, who were briefed almost daily by George Tenet. Danner draws some obvious conclusions, none of which are new:
"1. Beginning in the spring of 2002 the United States government began to torture prisoners. This torture, approved by the President of the United States and monitored in its daily unfolding by senior officials, including the nation's highest law enforcement officer, clearly violated major treaty obligations of the United States, including the Geneva Conventions and the Convention Against Torture, as well as US law.
"2. The most senior officers of the US government, President George W. Bush first among them, repeatedly and explicitly lied about this, both in reports to international institutions and directly to the public. The President lied about it in news conferences, interviews, and, most explicitly, in speeches expressly intended to set out the administration's policy on interrogation before the people who had elected him.
"3. The US Congress, already in possession of a great deal of information about the torture conducted by the administration—which had been covered widely in the press, and had been briefed, at least in part, from the outset to a select few of its members—passed the Military Commissions Act of 2006 and in so doing attempted to protect those responsible from criminal penalty under the War Crimes Act.
"4. Democrats, who could have filibustered the bill, declined to do so—a decision that had much to do with the proximity of the midterm elections, in the run-up to which, they feared, the President and his Republican allies might gain advantage by accusing them of 'coddling terrorists.' One senator summarized the politics of the Military Commissions Act with admirable forthrightness:
"' Soon, we will adjourn for the fall, and the campaigning will begin in earnest. And there will be 30-second attack ads and negative mail pieces, and we will be criticized as caring more about the rights of terrorists than the protection of Americans. And I know that the vote before us was specifically designed and timed to add more fuel to that fire.'
"Senator Barack Obama was only saying aloud what every other legislator knew: that for all the horrified and gruesome exposés, for all the leaked photographs and documents and horrific testimony, when it came to torture in the September 11 era, the raw politics cut in the other direction. Most politicians remain convinced that still fearful Americans—given the choice between the image of 24 's Jack Bauer, a latter-day Dirty Harry, fantasy symbol of untrammeled power doing "everything it takes" to protect them from that ticking bomb, and the image of weak liberals "reading Miranda rights to terrorists"—will choose Bauer every time. As Senator Obama said, after the bill he voted against had passed, "politics won today."
"5. The political damage to the United States' reputation, and to the 'soft power' of its constitutional and democratic ideals, has been, though difficult to quantify, vast and enduring. In a war that is essentially an insurgency fought on a worldwide scale—which is to say, a political war, in which the attitudes and allegiances of young Muslims are the critical target of opportunity—the United States' decision to use torture has resulted in an enormous self-administered defeat, undermining liberal sympathizers of the United States and convincing others that the country is exactly as its enemies paint it: a ruthless imperial power determined to suppress and abuse Muslims. By choosing to torture, we freely chose to become the caricature they made of us."
Point #4 above has a certain weakness as framed by Danner. He does not note the role of the news media in shaping public opinion. Nor does he note the stunning resistance of the public to that shaping, as found in a recent USA Today / Gallup poll showing that Americans favor holding accountable those who authorized torture. Nor does he sufficiently point out that Obama is evidence against his own claim: he voted No on the Military Commissions Act and was elected president. Nor does Danner mention that Democrats in the House could have voted No as well as filibustering in the Senate. It would be interesting to know how long the New York Times has sat on this story, as well as how long it took the Red Cross to leak the report (over two years?).
Another important point that this misses is that many of those who have been tortured were not terrorists, at least prior to being tortured. Andy Worthington has documented that "[A]t least 93 percent of the 779 men and boys in [Guantanamo]-- were either completely innocent people, seized as a result of dubious intelligence or sold for bounty payments, or Taliban foot soldiers, recruited to fight an inter-Muslim civil war that began long before the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and that had nothing to do with al-Qaeda, Osama bin Laden or international terrorism.”
Danner points out that there is no evidence that useful information has been obtained by torture. He leaves open the possibility that some has, but I find this highly dubious. If such evidence of the utility of torture existed, it would have been trumpeted from the rooftops by now. The important point is #5 above. Whether or not any torturer has learned anything accurate and useful, huge damage has been done that certainly outweighs whatever it was -- even as calculated from a moral standpoint in which only American lives have value. But Danner fails to fully expand on his point. Not only has U.S. torture been the single biggest recruiting tool for anti-U.S. terrorist groups, but U.S. abuse of human rights has encouraged other nations to follow suit. And this blatant disregard for the law has encouraged other leaders at home and abroad to feel more comfortable disregarding other laws as well.