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Steve Weissman: Torture - From J.F.K. to Baby Bush

Torture - From J.F.K. to Baby Bush

By Steve Weissman
t r u t h o u t | Perspective

Friday 31 December 2004

The C.I.A. has the authority to carry out renditions under a presidential directive dating to the Clinton administration, which the Bush administration has reviewed and renewed.

Dana Priest, "Jet Is an Open Secret in Terror War," Washington Post, December 27, 2004.

Only a passing reference in an article describing how the C.I.A. flies prisoners to other countries to be tortured, the mention here of Clinton raises a troubling choice for friends in the Democratic Party: Should they continue to use the issue of torture just to bash Bush? Or do they owe it to themselves - and to the victims of American and allied torture - to root out the entire mess, no matter whose fingerprints they find on it?

Stating the alternatives so baldly, I make my own answer obvious. Others are free to weigh the issues in whatever moral, legal, political, or military terms they want. But, however they weigh it, no decent Democrat can duck the dilemma, and certainly not when the President's lawyer Alberto Gonzalez appears before the Senate Judiciary Committee to defend his qualifications to become Attorney General.

Theater of the Absurd

The hearing, to be held early in the New Year, will provide a good taste of Absurdist Theater. Everyone knows how the play will end. Short of a new Abu Ghraib or a sudden flood of photos showing how the Americans used dogs and pigs to sexually assault Iraqi women, the Senators will confirm Gonzales for his new post.

The drama comes in how thoroughly the Democrats expose him for his role in the American torture machine. At stake is how relevant the party will be to a large number of anti-war activists. Knowing Senator Patrick Leahy, the Judiciary Committee's ranking Democrat, I believe the anti-warriors will like what they see.

Much of the attack will focus on the infamous memo to President Bush, in which Gonzales made his mark on American judicial thinking.

As you have said, the war against terrorism is a new kind of war.... The nature of the new war places a high premium on other factors, such as the ability to quickly obtain information from captured terrorists and their sponsors in order to avoid further atrocities against American civilians, and the need to try terrorists for war crimes such as wantonly killing civilians. In my judgment, this new paradigm renders obsolete Geneva's strict limitations on questioning of enemy prisoners and renders quaint some of its provisions ...

"Geneva" refers to the Geneva Convention on Prisoners of War, which the Bush Administration wanted to avoid applying to captives that American military commanders suspected of belonging to either al-Qaeda or the Taliban. As a signatory to the various Geneva Conventions and the International Convention Against Torture, the United States had made their requirements part of American law. Not to worry, said Gonzalez. Mr. Bush could override the law whenever he believed that some "paradigm" had changed.

It was a bizarre reading of how the American legal system is supposed to work.

Why did Team Bush find it so important to deny captives the most minimal rights? Because, as Gonzalez wrote, the goal was "to quickly obtain information" from them. As Gonzalez no doubt knew at the time, the military and C.I.A. would get the information by applying the techniques we've since seen in Afghanistan and at Guantánamo:

  • Hood and shackle the captives.
  • Disorient them.
  • Stress them psychologically.
  • Subject them to sensory deprivation and extremes of hot and cold.
  • Deny them food and sleep.
  • Withhold medical treatment and needed medication, especially painkillers.
  • Keep them standing or kneeling in painful positions for hours at a time.
  • Force them into other agonizing postures.
  • Strip them naked.
  • Humiliate them non-stop.
  • Threaten them.
  • And kick them around a bit, just to show them who's boss.
  • From his discussions with the military and C.I.A., Gonzales would have known this approach as "Stress and Duress." No thumbscrews. No wheel. No rack. But, no matter. Under whatever paradigm or set of conditions, the International Red Cross, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and an overwhelming list of distinguished military and civilian lawyers call it torture.

    In other words, Mr. Gonzalez bent American and international law to enable war crimes. Who better to head the U.S. Department of Justice?

    No Double Standard

    But let's be fair: Republicans have no monopoly on American torture. In the early 1960s, the Kennedy Administration made Stress and Duress a specialty of J.F.K.'s much-beloved Green Berets, and torture became common during much of the Vietnam War. Just as in Mr. Bush's "War on Terror" - or in colonial wars throughout the ages - the explicit goal was to get information. New paradigms to the contrary, 9/11 did not change the world.

    Kennedy and Johnson also led the way in having U.S. troops teach "Stress and Duress" to client armies throughout the world, notably at the School of the Americas, which has trained some of the hemisphere's worst torturers.

    Nor was Gonzales the first to concoct legal arguments to help American and allied torturers ply their trade. From Camelot on, government lawyers have exhausted themselves trying to explain why Stress and Duress was not really torture, you know, but only Torture-Lite. Their arguments over decades of both Democratic and Republican administrations gave President Bush just the definitional dodge he needed when he declared after Abu Ghraib:

    Let me make very clear the position of my government and our country. We do not condone torture. I have never ordered torture. I will never order torture. The values of this country are such that torture is not a part of our soul and our being.

    Potentially more troubling for my Democratic friends is how the Clinton Administration relied on torture. One story stands out. Sometime after the February 1993 attempt to blow up New York's World Trade Center, three highly ambitious terrorists with roots in Pakistan and Kuwait moved to the Philippines to pursue their life's work. Their names now sound familiar:

  • Ramzi Yousef, convicted in 1997 as the mastermind of the trade center bombing.
  • Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, Ramzi's uncle, captured in 2003, reportedly tortured by the C.I.A., and described in the 9/11 Commission Report as "the principal architect of the 9/11 attacks."
  • Abdul Hakim Murad, Ramzi's old friend, a licensed commercial pilot and accident-prone bomb maker.
  • Following a fire in the group's Manila apartment, the local police captured Murad, while Yousef fled the country, only to be captured a month later in Pakistan. Shaikh Mohammed later showed up in Qatar.

    The Philippine police held Murad incommunicado for 67 days. According to journalists Marites Vitug and Glenda Gloria, authors of Under the Crescent Moon, his captors tortured him with old fashioned brutality, got him to talk, and turned him over to their American allies. Federal prosecutors in New York then used Murad's testimony to help convict Ramzi Yousef in the World Trade Center Bombing, one of the Clinton Administration's most celebrated anti-terrorist successes.

    To Clinton aides, the Murad case helped rationalize the idea of flying captives to other countries to be tortured. How often did they do it? We need to find out. On November 20, 2001, the Wall Street Journal told how the Clinton-era C.I.A. snatched five suspected members of the Egyptian Jihad from Albania and elsewhere in the Balkans and flew them to Egypt. The details are nasty.

    Other stories will emerge. But however often the Clintonistas cooperated in foreign torture, or even allowed the C.I.A. itself to engage in torture, they did it in a limited, carefully controlled way. Out of sight. Out of mind. And nothing they did compared to the way the infantile Bush institutionalized torture on an industrial scale, which led in time to scores of secret C.I.A. detention centers around the world, Guantánamo, Abu Ghraib, and - inevitably - public exposure.

    Brazenly touting their rejection of the Geneva Conventions as a symbol of American resolve in fighting Islamic terrorists, Bush, Rumsfeld, and Gonzales too often acted as if they wanted the world to know. They wanted, it seems, to send "the ragheads" a message: "Don't Step on Superman's Cape."

    Democrats should hammer attorney Gonzalez for his central role in this shameful disgrace. But they need to be straight in doing it. They, too, violated American and international law. They, too, fell into the ethical cesspit. And, worst of all, they left in place people, programs, and precedents on which the Bush Administration built far worse. If Democrats hide from all this, most fair-minded Americans will rightly dismiss them as unprincipled partisans.

    But far more is at stake. Without exposing the whole range of American torture, any reform will leave much of it in place. Is that something most Democrats - or decent Republicans - want to let happen?

    As always, I would love to see your response.


    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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