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Steve Weissman: Torturing Mr. Bush

Torturing Mr. Bush

By Steve Weissman
t r u t h o u t | Perspective
Wednesday 16 June 2004

Should George W. Bush lose his bid for re-election this November, historians will find a major cause in the flood of pornographic photographs that show American soldiers torturing and sexually humiliating naked Iraqis. How will publishers of sanitized schoolbooks ever tell the story to future generations?

Nor will serious historians stop there. How will they deal with those of us who knew, or should have known, the way American forces have used - and taught other nations to use - the same degrading torture techniques at least as far back as President John F. Kennedy? Will our grandchildren and theirs see us as we see "the Good Germans" who callously turned their eyes away from what Hitler did to the Jews?

As bad as the torture was and continues to be in America's global gulag, it is not the Holocaust. But it is bad enough, and the moral dilemma it poses feels painfully similar.

Consider the role - no, the criminal complicity - of President Bush. For a Harvard MBA who usually delegates details, he played a remarkably hands-on role pushing his torture package through Washington's bureaucratic maze. Not only did he know what his underlings planned to do, he told them to do it. His fingerprints show up all over the smoking documents.

When after 9/11 the CIA and Special Forces began quietly "lifting" suspected al-Qaeda operatives and "disappearing" them into secret torture centers around the world, the American spooks acted on direct orders from their commander-in-chief.

When Justice Department lawyers rationalized the president's right to order abuse of enemy non-combatants, they sent their reading of the law to White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales, the President's consigliore. Gonzales coordinated the CYA, argued back and forth, especially with Secretary of State Colin Powell, and summed up the case for Mr. Bush, who gave it his go-ahead. Everyone in the loop knew that POTUS, the President of the United States, wanted harsh interrogations.

Publicly, Mr. Bush took the lead in arguing that he would not grant POW status to suspected Taliban and al-Qaeda captives, either in Afghanistan or at Guantanamo Bay, leaving them subject to what insiders called "torture lite." America would follow "the spirit" of the Geneva Conventions, the president promised, adding hypocrisy to the crimes that followed.

Bush also took the lead in walking away from the International Criminal Court, which - he argued - would charge American soldiers and political leaders with war crimes, not to do justice, but to satisfy political motivations. Now the world knows what that was all about.

Given the mounting evidence, no one can escape the question: Did Mr. Bush commit war crimes, for which he should face prosecution?

If, as Americans, we truly lived under the rule of law, we would have no need to ask. Nor would Mr. Bush stand in the dock alone. Unlike the U.S. Army in its legal pursuit of Pvt. Lynndie England and her fellow prison guards, any serious prosecutor, investigator, or historian would not ask how high up the crimes go, but how far down from the president it seemed worthwhile to pursue them.

One obvious thread starts with Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who joined Mr. Bush in demanding, justifying, and publicly delighting in harsh interrogations. How he loved to tell reporters that America's latest captive would not have a good time.

Next comes Dr. Stephen A. Cambone. Rumsfeld's protégé, Dr. Cambone now serves as Deputy Secretary of Defense for Intelligence, and publicly takes credit for sending Major General Geoffrey Miller, the Guantanamo Bay camp commander, to Iraq to "Gitmoize" interrogations at Abu Ghraib and other American prisons.

"At Guantanamo Bay we learned that the prisoners have to earn every single thing that they have," Miller told Brig. General Janis Karpinski, as she recalled on BBC's Radio 4 this week.

"He said they are like dogs and if you allow them to believe at any point that they are more than a dog then you've lost control of them."

A reserve officer, Karpinski ran Abu Ghraib until the Army relieved her of command following earlier investigations of misconduct at the facility. Gen. Miller now runs Abu Ghraib, where the scandal has forced him to eliminate many of the abuses he had earlier recommended.

Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, supported Miller's efforts to toughen the treatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib in hopes of producing better information during interrogations. According to secret documents leaked to the Washinton Post, Gen. Sanchez specifically approved the use of dogs, extreme temperatures, sleep interruption, sensory deprivation, enforced stress positions, and longterm solitary confinement.

Apparently, Miller's techniques also had the support of Maj. Gen. Barbara Fast, the Army intelligence chief in Iraq.

From Dr. Cambone and Gen. Miller, the thread also extends to "civilian contractors," who likely worked as undercover agents for Military Intelligence.

These are just a handful of the people who ran - and still run - Washington's worldwide network of mostly secret detention facilities, which reportedly engage in even worse forms of torture. As the scandal snowballs in the coming weeks, we will likely hear new names and learn more about human depravity than we ever wanted to know. But it will all trace back through the CIA and Dr. Cambone's Pentagon office to George W. Bush.

For those who oppose his presidency, this might seem a great stick with which to beat him. I hope we take it more seriously.

When the Abu Ghraib story first broke, I wrote that the abuse and humiliation looked exactly like the "stress and duress" that the CIA pioneered in their KUBARK Counter-intelligence Interrogation Manual, published in 1963, and their updated Human Resource Exploitation Training Manual, published in 1983.

Just this week, the Washington Post described the 1963 manual in great detail, confirming that the current torture techniques date back to CIA efforts during the Vietnam War. Did President Kennedy know? I would bet he did, but historians will now ask.

No one in my lifetime or his will bring George W. Bush to account in a war crimes trial, while John F. Kennedy has moved beyond the province of human law. There's nothing we can do about either. But, if enough people got mad enough, we could create a bi-partisan Truth Commission to open the books on American torture and close a dreadful chapter in our nation's history.

If we want to remove the scourge from our midst, dismantle our global gulag, and regain our moral standing in the world, we can do no less.


A veteran of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement and the New Left monthly Ramparts, Steve Weissman lived for many years in London, working as a magazine writer and television producer. He now lives and works in France, where he writes for t r u t h o u t.

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