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Getting Away With Torture


When you hear about the sick, twisted things that America’s torturers have been doing, courtesy of President George W. Bush and Vice President Darth Cheney, you have to remember that the US military and the CIA were not really all that reliable when it came to picking up the real terrorists. In fact, their batting average was pretty lousy.

According to even the Pentagon’s own reckoning, for example, probably 85 per cent of the captives being held at Guantanamo over the past eight years were not terrorists at all, and a fair number–probably the majority–weren’t even fighting anyone when they were captured. I’m sure that the averages at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, or at the secret prison in Iraq are no better. The military was offering bounties in Iraq and Afghanistan for alleged terrorists, you see, and probably still is, but in both of those lawless, tribal countries, many people have used the offer to settle old feuds, turning in people they wanted to punish or dispose of, and many others just turned in random people to get the reward money.

Remember this when you hear about torture tactics that we are learning were used by our side–things that make waterboarding sound like a walk in the park. We’re now getting confirmation of things that we journalists were hearing rumors of earlier: faked executions using blanks, faked executions in neighboring rooms, followed by threats of the same to a person who had just heard the screams and a shot in the cell next to him, threats with an electric drill, and now perhaps the worst yet–the threat to kill a captive’s children. And of course there is the already disclosed case of a captive who had his genitals cut with a razor, and generous use of tasers in places on the body designed to cause maximum pain. That, and of course there are a lot raped captives (including young boys), and a lot of bodies yet to be dug up of captives who were simply killed during torture.

We’ve got a litany of horror and abuse here that sounds like the worst kind of stories that used to come out of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, or the Argentine Junta or Idi Amin’s Uganda. About the only thing missing is word that the military and CIA torturers were eating their victims, or feeding them their own genitals, but who knows? Maybe we’ll get there yet. It’s hard at this point to rule anything out.

What has become of the US? We started out the victims of an attack in 2001, with the whole world rallying to our side, and within a matter of weeks, our government, acting in our name, had secretly embarked on a wholly unnecessary and totally criminal descent
into barbarism.

And now? The new administration has claimed to have put a stop to the atrocities, but it remains adamant that it is not going to root out the evil that was already done to hundreds, perhaps thousands of people.

President Barack Obama says he does not want to look back at any crimes that were committed. He wants to go “forward.” This is not the voice of justice, though. This is the voice of political gutlessness and of big power exceptionalism. The same America that demands the prosecution of war criminals in little countries like Cambodia or Serbia or Sudan, considers itself exempt from criminal liability for its own crimes.

Attorney General Eric Holder is appointing a special prosecutor, John Durham, to investigate cases where CIA or private contract torturers “overstepped” the rules set by the White House and Justice Department, but he has said he will not allow the investigation to go beyond that to pursue the people who enabled those acts of torture–people like Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld who personally instructed torturers in Afghanistan to “take the gloves off” in one case, or Assistant Attorney Generals John Yoo and Jay Baybee (now a federal judge), who ruled that anything short of the destruction of bodily organs or of a pain level equivalent to death was okay. Nor will he allow any investigation to look at acts of torture that were authorized, like waterboarding, if they had the sanction of the Bush/Cheney White House.

This position taken by the new administration should sicken us all. Worse, it should be broadly condemned, because if the descent into barbarity which occurred with the highest White House sanction is not investigated thoroughly, and punished fully, there is no way we can say it will not happen again. In fact, it’s safe to say that it will happen again, the next time another charlatan gets into office and uses fear to blind the American people to all that is right and decent, and to the importance of maintaining the rule of law.

I know there are terrible things happening right now which demand our attention and action–an escalating, endless war in Afghanistan that increasingly resembles Vietnam in 1966 or 1967, a presidential cave-on on health care reform, but this particular crime–the crime of failing to act to punish violations of the Geneva Conventions on treatment of prisoners of war, which is being committed today by the Obama administration–is so obscene, so directly in our faces, and is such a stain on the whole nation, that it demands action.

We will probably never know how many innocent lives have been destroyed by America’s eight years of officially sanctioned torture, but we can at least see to it that the people who sanctioned it, and not just those who engaged in it (and that goes right up through the chain of command to the Commander in Chief and to the real power behind the throne, Dick Cheney), are put in the dock like the criminals at Nuremberg, to face the charge of war crimes. and crimes against humanity.

As the citizens of what we call a democracy, we can demand nothing less.

DAVE LINDORFF is a Philadelphia-based journalist and columnist. His latest book is “The Case for Impeachment” (St. Martin’s Press, 2006 and now available in paperback). He can be reached at










Dave Lindorff is a founding member of ThisCantBeHappening!, an online newspaper collective, and is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).

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