Though I have written extensively about torture by the Bush administration, the recent release of new memos and President Obama’s changing stance on prosecution, raises the issue once again and demands action.
To begin with, I think several things have always been clear: that the Bush administration resorted to torture to get specific information; that the lawyers issuing the “torture memos” were seeking to provide cover for the torturers and the higher-ups to avoid prosecution; and that torture became commonplace not so much to get information needed to protect Americans from attack as to “kick some ass” to avenge the 9/11 attacks.
Consider the last one first. As I noted in “Concentration of Evil,” long ago, George W. Bush, from the very first moment of his administration’s response to 9/11, adopted the macho pose that he apparently needed to convince himself that he had the “right stuff.” In response to a comment by his Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, that retaliatory action against terrorists might pose legal obstacles, the President lashed out:
“I don’t care what the international lawyers say. We are going to kick some ass.”
It is easy to see how thumbing his nose at sissy international lawyers in this way could lead to browbeating his own lawyers—John Yoo, Jay Bybee, Alberto Gonzalez, David Addington, Jim Haynes—into providing him and his interrogators legal cover for the crimes they might commit.
That is exactly what his lawyers did. Rather than providing dispassionate legal advice to a president that would alert him to the dangers of brutal methods, Yoo and Bybee and Gonzalez wrote memos that were meant to legally circumvent international conventions against torture. This is evident in the language used. The Geneva Conventions were “quaint,” according to these mob lawyers. The President was not bound by the 5th and 8th Amendment due process clauses to the Constitution. The President had “unlimited authority” to order war crimes against enemy combatants captured on foreign soil, so long as he decided that such orders were “necessary to the nation’s defense.” Yoo also openly argued for the immunity of all those who followed his memos and broke international laws:
“If a government defendant were to harm an enemy combatant during an interrogation in a manner that might arguably violate a criminal prohibition, he would be doing so in order to prevent further attacks on the United States by the al Qaeda terrorist network. In that case, we believe that he could argue that the executive branch’s constitutional authority to protect the nation from attack justified his actions.”
The relevant words are “we believe that he could argue…” Here is where Yoo is caught by his own language. He has argued, as many others like ex-VP Cheney now desperate to cover their asses have argued, that they cannot be judged now, in 2009, with the comfort and safety of hindsight, but rather must be judged in light of the terrible crisis they faced right after 9/11 when interrogators were begging them for permission to use harsher methods. But here, in his own words, are the real reasons Yoo wrote those memos: because higher-ups wanted more coercive measures, and needed to protect themselves and everyone else involved from culpability for war crimes.
But a recent news report has also provided another reason that the Bushies insisted on more coercive techniques. On April 22, 2009, Jonathan Landay of the McClatchy newspapers wrote a column based on testimony from a former U.S. intelligence official and a former army psychiatrist exposing that reason: to find an Iraqi link with al-Quaida. That’s right. Bush and his henchmen were eager to shore up one of the main rationales to invade Iraq—presumed operational ties between Osama bin Laden’s terror network and Saddam Hussein. According to the former senior intelligence official, VP Cheney and Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld were especially insistent in this regard:
“There were two reasons why these interrogations were so persistent, and why extreme methods were used," the former senior intelligence official said on condition of anonymity because of the issue's sensitivity. “The main one is that everyone was worried about some kind of follow-up attack (after 9/11). But for most of 2002 and into 2003, Cheney and Rumsfeld, especially, were also demanding proof of the links between al Qaida and Iraq that (former Iraqi exile leader Ahmed) Chalabi and others had told them were there.”
And, Landay points out, it was during this very 2002-2003 period that CIA interrogators waterboarded their top al Quaida prisoners so often—Abu Zubaydah some 83 times, Khaled Sheikh Mohammed some 183 times. The cause behind such an astonishing number of torture sessions? Not fear of another attack, but the unrelenting pressure from Cheney and Rumsfeld to find that presumptive al Quaida-Saddam link:
“There was constant pressure on the intelligence agencies and the interrogators to do whatever it took to get that information out of the detainees, especially the few high-value ones we had, and when people kept coming up empty, they were told by Cheney’s and Rumsfeld’s people to push harder.”
The former Army psychiatrist, Major Charles Burney, agreed. His testimony, included in the recently released Senate Armed Services investigation released last week, confirmed that, while he was at Guantanamo, a main focus was “trying to establish a link between al Quaida and Iraq” which was not successful. “The more frustrated people got in not being able to establish that link…there was more and more pressure to resort to measures that might produce more immediate results.”
So much for the excuse for torture we are constantly bludgeoned with: the fear that unless information was obtained, by any means, America could be attacked again. The real reason for increasing the severity of the “alternative techniques” was the same as always: finding a justification to commence a war that had already been decided upon. And we can infer the rest: that the torture that spread from Guantanamo to Abu Ghraib in Iraq had the same impetus: to find al Quaida figures who could be blamed for the insurgency, and to find someone who would point out where those still-missing Weapons of Mass Destruction were hidden. Always remembering that underlying it all was the racist contempt for hajjis or Arabs or Muslims, all of whom “deserved” the ass-kicking that the President from the beginning had promised.
In short, amid all the excuses about “protecting the homeland,” the truth is that the Bush administration was desperate to resort to any brutality to coerce out of its prisoners the information it needed to justify its ongoing crimes. It is in this sense only that torture works: anyone waterboarded 183 times will say anything to stop the horror. The Nuremberg precedent leaves no doubt about what should happen to those who resort to such methods: all involved—from the highest officials ordering them to the lawyers who wrote the memos to the interrogators who carried out the orders—must face the bar of justice. Neither “I was just following orders” or “we were facing a terrible crisis” constitutes a legal defense.