The Torture Report: Why Are We Acting So Surprised?

Posted on December 15, 2014


On Veterans Day, we wrote about how un-engaged and unaware many Americans are concerning the use of our military. This extends to the larger picture of US actions in the world. So now the so-called “Torture Report” is out, and we’re acting all surprised and horrified, as if there was never any awareness of this before, or any debate. Puh-leeze. We – the public – have known about this for years, and either didn’t care enough to sustain any opposition to it, or worse, we thought it was somehow justified under the rubric of the “War on Terror.”

We are intellectually and morally wrong, wrong, wrong. And allowing ourselves to have the attention span of an average four-year-old is outright immoral when it leads to an ostensibly democratic people abdicating our responsibility to speak out on our government’s participation in such grave misdeeds.

So here’s a very short refresher course for anyone who might have missed the last fourteen years because they were busy watching reality TV or whatever:

Here’s a 2004 Washington Post article detailing the Department of Justice’s 2002 memo justifying “cruel, or degrading treatment or punishment,” and even torture, on the basis of “self-defense” in the post-9/11 war against Al-Qaeda (see p. 46 of the memo). The article also details a 2003 Department of Defense review that aimed to “provide a legal basis for what the group’s report called ‘exceptional interrogations.'”

You may recall an extended silly debate over whether waterboarding constitutes torture. Well, here’s John McCain – himself a POW and victim of torture during the Vietnam War – reminding us, back in 2007, that the US prosecuted even low-ranking Japanese soldiers who had waterboarded US POWs during World War II.

In 2009, an Italian court convicted Americans of illegally kidnapping an Egyptian suspect. The conviction was upheld in 2012 and again in 2014.

For anyone willing to read the news, the US’s involvement in torture – and exactly what that means – has been apparent all along.

Today, Dick Cheney (who seems proud to have earned the moniker “Darth Vader” for his policies) is unrepentant: “I’d do it again in a minute,” trumpets the NPR headline.

Anyone else feel that way? That the evil, bad terrorists are less than human, that their crimes are so awful that it justifies the US using any means necessary to prevent another attack?

If you think that way, think again. When we allow our fear to somehow justify these inhuman (yes, I spelled that right – they are not just inhumane with an e, they’re inhuman) actions, then we have really lost it.

First off, the Geneva Conventions DO apply. We are a signatory, and we signed because we believed them worth adhering to – that even in war there must be rules to protect the defenseless, whether those are civilians, or captured and disarmed enemy combatants.

There’s also the pesky detail that we signed the UN’s Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment back in 1988, and ratified it in 1994.

We used to see things with clear eyes. We knew that not only is torture morally wrong, but it is also ineffective and indeed, counter-productive.

We knew this back in the 1950s, when my father – then a CIA man helping to create the new West German Intelligence Service – witnessed a West German interrogation of an East German spy. He recalled it as “all very civilized,” which surprised him. His West German colleague later explained that information gained from torture is all but useless, as the victim will tell you anything just to make it stop.

We knew this in the 1990s, too: check out the 1992 Army Field Manual on interrogations. Pay attention to page 1-8, which details what constitutes torture… that list includes a lot of what the US has been doing under the aegis of the CIA since 2002, including sleep deprivation, stress positions, beatings, and threats of death, among other things. Soldiers are advised that they are subject to punishment for specific acts they commit. “Use of torture and other illegal methods is a poor technique that yields unreliable results, may damage subsequent collection efforts, and can induce the source to say what he thinks the interrogator wants to hear.”

We still knew it in the post-9/11 years. In 2003, The Guardian published articles detailing how Egypt’s use of torture only served to harden the stance of Islamic extremists and to create a culture of revenge.

In 2006, a new Army interrogation manual was published. I was dismayed that many references to the Geneva Conventions were removed , but the manual still explicitly prohibits torture and mistreatment of detainees. See page 5-21. At the top of the page is a near-verbatim repeat of the paragraph from the 1992 manual describing torture as a poor and unreliable technique, with this addition: “Use of torture can also have many possible negative consequences at national and international levels.” (Duh!) Then there is a big ol’ box labeled “Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment Prohibited,” and a paragraph just below it that specifically prohibits stress positions, hypo- or hyperthermia, waterboarding, placing hoods over detainees’ heads, and using dogs, among other things that seem to have gotten a bit too familiar lately. This list is, I believe, a direct refutation of specific techniques that some in the military had actually used, until they were court-martialed for their actions (haven’t we seen the Abu Ghraib photos?); and which the CIA continued to use. The prohibition against torture and degrading treatment is repeated often throughout the Army manual, and rightly so.

War is high-stress and emotional. Attacks on our country are high-stress and emotional. Under such influences, we can and do fail; US soldiers have engaged in abuses in every war. But in general, historically, those abuses are not condoned by the US government, and in fact they can be, and are, prosecuted – like the Abu Ghraib abuses (US soldiers were also disciplined for waterboarding enemies in the 1898 Spanish-American War and in 1968, during the Vietnam War). And yet, even as we were prosecuting and jailing soldiers for the Abu Ghraib fiasco, our government was simultaneously justifying… condoning… prescribing torture under the euphemism “enhanced interrogation.”

Fast-forward to today, and we find the UN demanding the prosecution of US officials who authorized or participated in torture. The US is not generally on the receiving end of such demands, but this is where we have arrived.  It’s a pretty shameful state of affairs.

In the past, when our government has historically failed in its moral duty by codifying and supporting atrocities – like slavery, say, or the internment of Asian-Americans during WWII – those episodes, seen through the perspective of hindsight, are rightly judged as dark chapters in our national history, a source of shame, and not to be repeated.

Let’s hope that the Senate’s release of the “Torture Report” is the beginning of the end of our most recent dark chapter, and let’s not repeat it.