States in general — and the United States government in particular — have always abused and tortured those they have held prisoner. This is a reality that is easily lost in the current debate over the Bush Administration’s effort to redefine the Geneva Convention and amend the War Crimes Act to permit torture and to protect CIA agents from criminal prosecution for torturing alleged terrorists suspects as part of the post-9/11 war on terror.
The US, directly or through puppet armies, has consistently and systematically used torture and mistreatment of prisoners during all of its wars and in numerous counter-insurgency campaigns around the world. The US has actively supported right-wing allies in their use of torture. The School of the Americas (now Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation) in Georgia was created to train military officials from other countries to torture and kill political opponents of US foreign and economic policy. This is to say nothing of the routine use of torture and abuse by US police forces and in US jails.
What is very different about Bush is that ordinarily, governments try to deny or hide their torture and abuse of prisoners. Modern governments tout their civil rights laws protecting citizens from mistreatment to legitimize the government. Most average Americans don’t immediately think of the USA as a purveyor of torture and abuse because in the past when ugly details leaked out, the government didn’t celebrate. Government officials would either deny the allegations or blame the torture and mistreatment on “a few bad apples.”
Bush, to the contrary, doesn’t want to deny that he has used what he calls “tough interrogation methods.” He’s proud to publicly advocate these methods and this rhetorical shift feels scary.
Although Bush denies that these methods amount to torture, most people would call them torture. The Bush administration got its lawyers, lead by now-University of California Berkeley law professor John Yoo, to define torture very narrowly to include only: “serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death.”
CIA sources told ABC News that six “Enhanced Interrogation Techniques” were approved in 2002 and used on at least a dozen alleged al Qaeda members jailed at secret CIA prisons on military bases. They included:
“1. The Attention Grab: The interrogator forcefully grabs the shirt front of the prisoner and shakes him.
2. Attention Slap: An open-handed slap aimed at causing pain and triggering fear.
3. The Belly Slap: A hard open-handed slap to the stomach. The aim is to cause pain, but not internal injury. Doctors consulted advised against using a punch, which could cause lasting internal damage.
4. Long Time Standing: This technique is described as among the most effective. Prisoners are forced to stand, handcuffed and with their feet shackled to an eye bolt in the floor for more than 40 hours. Exhaustion and sleep deprivation are effective in yielding confessions.
5. The Cold Cell: The prisoner is left to stand naked in a cell kept near 50 degrees. Throughout the time in the cell the prisoner is doused with cold water.
6. Water Boarding: The prisoner is bound to an inclined board, feet raised and head slightly below the feet. Cellophane is wrapped over the prisoner’s face and water is poured over him. Unavoidably, the gag reflex kicks in and a terrifying fear of drowning leads to almost instant pleas to bring the treatment to a halt.”
These were official policy — not mistakes made by a few bad apples. CIA interrogators had to receive written permission to use each technique from the deputy director for operations for the CIA. A cable had to be sent and a reply received each time a progressively harsher technique was used.
All of the al Qaeda suspects subject to these methods eventually “broke” and provided information. However, the information wasn’t always correct. Ibn al Shaykh al Libbi, after enduring all of the above methods, finally broke after being water boarded and then left to stand naked in his cold cell overnight where he was doused with cold water at regular intervals. He told his tormentors what he thought they wanted to hear — that Iraq had trained al Qaeda members to use biochemical weapons. Bush used the confession to justify attacking Iraq. It later became clear that al Libbi had no knowledge of such training or weapons and fabricated the statements because he was terrified of further harsh treatment.
At least three prisoners died after being subjected to the Bush torture techniques. One detainee died of hypothermia in Afghanistan at a mud fort dubbed the “salt pit” that was used as a prison. The prisoner was left to stand naked throughout the harsh Afghanistan night after being doused with cold water. Another CIA detainee died in Iraq and a third detainee died following harsh interrogation by Department of Defense personnel and contractors in Iraq.
Bush has argued that it is okay for the USA to use “tough methods” because the world has changed since 9/11. As Professor Yoo put it: “When you’re fighting a new kind of war against an enemy we haven’t faced before, our system needs to give flexibility to people to respond to those challenges.”
Bush asserts that since the USA are the good guys, no matter what the USA does in the name of national security is okay. Bush claims that only terrorists will be abused, but since Bush has reserved the power to unilaterally define who is a terrorist — whereupon they may be imprisoned for long periods without any court hearing — the shift on discussion of torture applies to everyone. The government has labeled activists charged with arsons as “eco-terrorists” — does this mean they will be subjected to torture during interrogation? What about harsh treatment?
Some suspect that Bush’s public and vigorous defense of abusive questioning is more about a power grab and politics than torture. Since torture is (at least publicly) considered so unacceptable by “civilized” societies, Bush can prove that he wields absolute power by getting Congress to pass legislation to re-interpret the Geneva Convention to permit Bush’s activities. The Geneva Convention is an easily recognized, universally accepted legal standard. Bush sends a strong message by proving that such an “old world,” “pre-911” standard is irrelevant in the War on Terror.
Politically, the USA right-wing eats this “tough guy” stuff up. Right-wing talk radio shows are filled with contempt for weak, traitorous liberals who want to invoke silly laws to protect the rights of terrorists. When 2008 Republican presidential candidate John McCain recently opposed the president’s attempt to re-interpret the Geneva Convention, he was attacked as soft on terror by the right wing of the Republican party.
It should be noted that the argument over Article 3 of the Geneva Convention already accepts Bush’s contention that anyone accused of being a member of al Qaeda is not a “prisoner of war” under the Geneva Convention. Article 3 is the lowest standard in the Geneva Convention. Bush doesn’t like Article 3’s prohibition on “outrages upon personal dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment.” Article 4 of the Convention defines “prisoner of war” to whom a higher level of protection applies.
Article 17 of the Geneva Convention provides: “No physical or mental torture, nor any other form of coercion, may be inflicted on prisoners of war to secure from them information of any kind whatever. Prisoners of war who refuse to answer may not be threatened, insulted, or exposed to unpleasant or disadvantageous treatment of any kind.” The whole discussion of torture hasn’t even touched on Article 17 because the mainstream USA political establishment has accepted Bush’s refusal to consider terror suspects as “prisoners of war.” This is a war on terror in which the USA takes no prisoners.
In addition to torture, Bush sought and partially won other legal changes which are also totally contrary to the American legal tradition. For instance, as of this writing, he apparently won legislation to permit military trials of terror suspects that would allow the use of evidence obtained under torture or torture-like coercion. He sought but apparently didn’t obtain legal changes to bar defendants from hearing the evidence against them.
Again, these proposals were attractive to Bush precisely because they are considered barbaric by the international community, the press, the legal community, and liberals. Bush doesn’t need their support, and he wants to rub their noses in their utter powerlessness to protect basic legal standards they thought were beyond his reach. Bush has the NASCAR nation on his side, and who gives a fuck about a bunch of un-armed college professor wimps?
Bush had to seek legislation to overturn the Supreme Court’s ruling in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld in which the court ruled that the Geneva Conventions protected prisoners labeled as terrorists by Bush. The introduction of Bush’s legislation states “the Geneva Conventions are not a source of judicially enforceable individual rights.”
The very definition of a state is that the people running the state have a monopoly on the use of violence. If you are in charge of a state, you aren’t considered a terrorist when you kill, injure or take hostages (prisoners). In fact, if you are at the top of a state hierarchy, you can define your opponents as terrorists or criminals and based on that definition, you can do to the “terrorists” precisely the same acts that you claim makes them terrorists in the first place.
The Bush administration and its allies have exploited the attacks on September 11 to change the boundaries of public debate. Before 9/11, it would have been hard to imagine a US president publicly advocating torture — even though history demonstrates that torture is always on the table for the USA and other governments. As George Lakoff points out, the Bush clan have been masters at framing public debate in the United States. By portraying all of its actions since 9/11 as part of a War on Terrorism, the Bush administration has vastly increased its power and hidden its blunders and weaknesses. By claiming the USA is in a war, terror suspects become the enemy — dehumanized and deserving of any treatment the Bush crew can think up.
Liberals who support the basic idea of government, hierarchy and authority hope they can swing back the pendulum on Bush’s power grab and put torture back in its Pandora’s box. They would rather discussion of torture be taken off the table — but they are happy to maintain the CIA, the army, and police as long as the violence implicit in these structures are kept better hidden.
Radicals understand the debate on torture differently. States and power structures always reserve the ability to torture and kill — that is the vital foundation necessary to maintain the gross power inequality that permits America and a few privileged people to dominate and exploit the rest of the world. The open discussion of torture exposes uncomfortable questions that radicals want to raise: why are some lives worth more than others and why do a few people get to decide what happens to everyone else? How is it that Americans, composing 5 percent of the world’s population, use 25 percent of the world’s resources? Why is it that violence is okay for the rulers, but any resistance is terrorism? If there is a struggle for the survival of the American way of life, is this way of life just or fair? Or is the American way of life based on theft, fear, and murder?
We decry Bush’s torture but torture is just the tip of the iceberg — the most acute expression of a system with bosses and workers, owners and tenants, police and citizens. The ultimate struggle remains to tear down the structures that carry out the everyday, business as usual oppression on which this society is founded.
It is odd that John Yoo, the primary legal architect of the Bush policy of worldwide torture and of Bush’s use of “signing statements” to place himself above the Law, is a law professor at UC Berkeley, only about one mile from where this article is being written. An alliance of Bay Area organizations are sponsoring a weekly “Teach-In And Vigil Against American Torture And The Dictatorial Presidency” in front of Boalt Hall Law school every Tuesday between 12:30 and 1:30 from now until December 21. According to their literature “We do not seek to limit Prof. Yoo’s academic freedom, but we will exercise our own free rights to hold vigils and teach-ins expressing our strong moral objection to the torture and unlimited presidential powers that he advocates.” If you’re in Berkeley, check them out at the corner of College Ave and Bancroft.