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The Company We Keep


At one point during the five and a half years John McCain spent as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam, he was tortured and beaten so badly he tried to kill himself. After four days of this brutality, he gave in and agreed to make a false confession, telling lies to end the unbearable pain. Later, he would write, “I had learned what we all learned over there: Every man has his breaking point. I had reached mine.”
Similar techniques were utilized in the Asian war preceding Vietnam – Korea. The Communist Chinese used them to interrogate US POW’s and force them to confess to things they didn’t do, such as germ warfare. A chart of the Chinese methods, compiled in 1957 by an American sociologist, lists the methods, among them, “Sleep Deprivation,” “Semi-Starvation,” “Filthy, Infested Surroundings,” “Prolonged Constraint,” and “Exposure.” The effects are listed, too: “Makes Victim Dependent on Interrogator,” “Weakens Mental and Physical Ability to Resist,” “Reduces Prisoner to ‘Animal Level’ Concerns,” and others.

On July 2, The New York Times reported that the chart had made a surprise return appearance, this time at Guantanamo Bay, where in 2002 it was used in a course to teach our military interrogators “Coercive Management Techniques,” to be used when interrogating detainees held there as prisoners in the war on terror.

In other words, we had adopted the inhumane tactics of enemies past, tactics we once were quick to call torture. Tactics created not to get at the truth but to manufacture lies that we then characterize as credible. How can we expect this to be an effective way to extract real information from terrorists?

Since 2005, Congress has banned the use of such methods by the military but we have no way of knowing whether the CIA continues to use them (For example, The Associated Press reported Thursday that, “CIA Director Michael Hayden banned waterboarding in 2006, but government officials have said it remains a possibility if approved by the attorney general, the CIA chief and the president).”

Such is the secrecy and deliberate obfuscation that have characterized our nation’s descent into lawlessness and duplicity, depicted brilliantly in New Yorker magazine investigative reporter Jane Mayer’s new book, The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned into a War on American Ideals.

Post 9/11, she reports, “For the first time in its history, the United States sanctioned government officials to physically and psychologically torment US-held detainees, making torture the official law of the land in all but name.” The late American historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., she says, told her that “the Bush administration’s extralegal counterterrorism program presented the most dramatic, sustained and radical challenge to the rule of law in American history.” Over lunch in 2006, the year before Schlesinger died, he said, “No position taken had done more damage to the American reputation in the world — ever.”

Read all of this in light of the series of hearings on Capitol Hill over the last weeks in which members of Congress have tried to find out how in the name of protecting us from further terrorist attacks, the Bush White House has twisted or abandoned the law to allow what most of the international community recognizes as torture.

The administration remains in denial. Former Attorney General John Ashcroft told the House Judiciary Committee, “I don’t know of any acts of torture that have been committed by individuals in developing information,” he said. “So I would not certainly make an assumption. I would attribute the absence of an attack [since 9/11] at least in part, because there have been specific attacks that have been disrupted, to the excellent work and the dedication and commitment of people whose lives are dedicated to defending the country. Interrogators have used enhanced interrogation techniques but they haven’t used torture.”

Grim hairsplitting. This week, as the result of a Freedom of Information Act suit, the ACLU received a heavily redacted copy of an infamous August 2, 2002 memo, signed by then-head of the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel Jay Bybee and written with his subordinate, the equally infamous John Yoo. “An individual must have the specific intent to inflict severe pain or suffering,” it reads. “… The absence of specific intent negates the charge of torture… We have further found that if a defendant acts with the good faith belief that his actions will not cause such suffering, he has not acted with specific intent.”

Jameel Jaffer, head of the ACLU’s national security project told Spencer Ackerman of The Washington Independent, “Imagine that in an ordinary criminal prosecution a bank robber tortures a bank manager to get the combination to a vault. He argues that the torture was not to inflict pain, but to get the combination. Every torturer has a reason other than to cause pain. If you’re going to let people off the hook for an intention other than to cause pain, you’re not going to be able to prosecute anyone for torture.”

Deborah Pearlstein, a constitutional scholar and human rights lawyer who has spent time at Guantanamo monitoring conditions there, testified to Congress that, “As of 2006, there had been more than 330 cases in which U.S. military and civilian personnel have, incredibly, alleged to have abused or killed detainees. This figure is based almost entirely on the U.S. government’s own documentation. These cases involved more than 600 U.S. personnel and more than 460 detainees held at U.S. facilities throughout Afghanistan, Iraq, and Guantanamo Bay. They included some l00-plus detainees who died in U.S. custody, including 34 whose deaths the Defense Department reports as homicides. At least eight of these detainees were, by any definition of the term, tortured to death.”

Pearlstein cited a recent British study that discovered that our detainee policies had led to Britain’s withdrawal from joint, covert counterterrorism operations with the CIA “because the U.S. failed to offer adequate assurances against inhumane treatment.” The House of Commons Select Committee on Foreign Affairs has issued a report stating the United States can’t be trusted to tell the truth about how it interrogates detainees. “Given the clear differences in definition,” the report concludes, “the UK can no longer rely on US assurances that it does not use torture, and we recommend that the Government does not rely on such assurances in the future.”

On Monday, the first American war crimes trial in since World War II opened at Guantanamo, the United States presenting its case against Salim Ahmed Hamdan before a jury of US military officers. Hamdan, who at the time of 9/11 was Osama bin Laden’s driver, is charged with conspiracy and providing material support for terrorism. Two surface-to-air missiles were found in a car he was driving – he says it was a borrowed vehicle and that he had no idea what was in the trunk. The judge has thrown out confessions Hamdan made in Afghanistan after his capture. “The interests of justice are not served by admitting these statements,” the judge said, “because of the highly coercive environments and conditions under which they were made.” Hamdan was bound for long periods of time, with a bag over his head.

You will know us by the company we keep. The burners of witches and the medieval masters of thumbscrews and Iron Maidens, the interrogators of the Spanish inquisition, the North Vietnamese soldiers who beat John McCain and his fellow American prisoners of war into false confessions. We have joined their ranks. In the almost seven years since 9/11, we have countered terror not only with vigilance and war but fear, imprisonment without due process and yes, torture.

Torture is no more about learning the truth than rape is about sex. Both are about the violent abuse of power.

MICHAEL WINSHIP is senior writer of the weekly public affairs program
Bill Moyers Journal, which airs Friday night on PBS.






MICHAEL WINSHIP is senior writer of the weekly public affairs program Bill Moyers Journal, which airs Friday night on PBS.

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