Torture Nation

If you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face…forever.

George Orwell

Nearly a year has passed since the lurid photographs of Abu Ghraib first surfaced, briefly capturing the attention of the nation. Even to a public saturated by every imaginable form of transgression, the bizarre images of “Hooded Man,” the piles of naked bodies and sordid sexual domination stood out, whether because they seemed like demons lurching from the Puritan unconscious, or just because they were so baldly at variance with the fairy tales through which much of the nation had been sleepwalking since September 11. But in no time, the opinion managers mounted the ramparts. Medallioned four-star generals were duly paraded before Congressional committees, hat in hand. Sober-minded Establishment figures were dispatched to contain the damage, fronting the various committees of investigation of the appalling practices that had been unveiled. It was all the fault of a few low-ranking reservists, lasting only a few weeks, we were assured.

By now the official reports have all been completed, a number of important books have been published, and the release of a great number of internal documents has been compelled by the federal courts. We are an open society, for the time being at least, and the raw, unvarnished reality of the military’s interrogation system is there for anyone to see.

That is both the good news and the bad news.

Good, because the fact of public exposure is ultimately the only real limitation to criminal violence by the state. And bad, if the public either chooses not to know about the crimes, or comes to accept them, and goes back to the Shopping Channel.

Now the public, it is true, has a lot on its plate these days, what with the SpongeBob controversy, and with JLo’s new fashion line coming out, so perhaps a short overview is in order.

The first paving blocks on the road to Abu Ghraib were laid on November 13, 2001 with President Bush’s declaration of a Military Order. This order, signaling the extent to which the Administration would feel encumbered by international law or by archaic constitutional notions like the separation of powers, authorized unlimited secret detention of any non-citizen (arrested either abroad or on U.S. soil) based only on the President’s declaration of grounds for suspicion. “Trial” would be without the right to counsel, using secret evidence, and would be held by military tribunal, i.e., by agents under Bush’s chain of command. Secret execution would be possible, and no right of appeal to civilian court would be recognized (see Secret Trials and Executions by Barbara Olshansky.)

As attorney David Cole argues in his book Enemy Aliens, such infringements of liberty are customarily first test-fitted on “aliens”, then ultimately extended to citizens, as, for example, many elderly Japanese-Americans could explain. But in the present case, only five months passed before the order was extended to U.S. citizens, in the case of Yasser Hamdi. (One can only imagine what Bush might have done if he hadn’t sworn to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution”).

This bold assertion of what should be frankly called totalitarian powers was met with little opposition, or even much public awareness, and was promptly followed by a declaration in January 2002 that captured prisoners in Afghanistan and elsewhere were to be transferred to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and classed as “unprivileged combatants”. As David Cole explains, the wartime power to detain “enemy combatants’ is well established, but the Geneva Conventions, he writes,

“require that all combatants be treated presumptively as ‘privileged’, and held as ‘prisoners of war.’ The underlying rationale is that it is not illegal to fight a war, and therefore enemy soldiers are ‘privileged combatants’ and should not be tried for their combat actions. Those who violate the laws of war-by, for example, targeting civilians, or failing to wear a uniform that distinguishes them from civilians-may be classified as ‘unprivileged’ combatants.Where there is any doubt about an individual’s statusthe Geneva Conventions requirea hearing before a ‘competent tribunal’ to determine the individual’s status.”

Where this gets sticky is in Bush’s declaration of war, not on any particular nation or its soldiers, in or out of uniform, but rather on the noun “Terror.” Thus anyone on earth potentially becomes an “enemy combatant”, and faces a possible life sentence without charge or trial, without recourse to the Geneva Convention’s protections, which our new Attorney General has described as “quaint.”

For soldiers and military interrogators, the distinction between captured al-Qaeda operatives and the unlucky prisoner who happens to be in your prison cell at the moment is one that is quickly elided.

Human Rights Watch has detailed the sense of impunity among U.S. interrogators that began with the Afghan war. At least six detainees are known to have died in American custody there, although only two people have ever been charged in the killings, and the inquiries have stalled. In one of these cases, Jamal Naseer, a soldier in the U.S.-backed Afghan Army, was mistakenly arrested by U.S. forces, severely beaten, and killed in March 2003. The deaths of two Afghan men in 2002 were ruled homicides by American investigators. Internal Pentagon documents report the 2002 killing of another Afghani prisoner by four American soldiers, in which there was no prosecution.

With the extension of war to Iraq, the scope of prisoner abuse had become endemic throughout the network of military prisons, and was descending to bizarre forms of cruelty and sadism. The best starting point for anyone who wants to explore this inspiring period of U.S. history is Mark Danner’s new book, Torture and Truth. He includes 500 pages of documents at the core of the dispute: from the Alberto Gonzales and Jay Bybee memos on torture to the final reports of the Schlesinger, Taguba, and Fay/Jones investigations. He includes the affidavits of the Abu Ghraib prisoners, who describe the much-publicized cruelties imposed on them by Spc. Charles Graner and his crew. But he also provides context that usually gets ignored or downplayed. In Iraq, a big part of why people are willing to look the other way on torture is the assumption that the victims were trying to harm “our side’s” troops. But Danner emphasizes that by the estimates of military intelligence officers themselves, between 70% and 90% of the thousands of people rounded up in Iraq are arrested by mistake. The prisons in Iraq are mostly full of ordinary people who did nothing.

Danner also includes the full February 2004 report from the International Committee of the Red Cross, detailing torture and abuse and given to the U.S. government, please note, well before the scandal broke. Danner notes that torture was employed even “under the gaze of Red Cross investigators, whose confidential reportswere handed over to American military and government authorities and then mysteriously “became lost in the Army’s bureaucracy and weren’t adequately addressed.” Or so three of the highest-ranking military officers in the land blandly explained to senators of the Armed Services Committee on May 18, 2004. On that same day, as it happened, an unnamed “senior Army officer who served in Iraq” told reporters for The New York Times that in fact the Army had addressed the Red Cross report-“by trying to curtail the international organization’s spot inspections of the prison.” (emphasis added)

The meaning of this is that military and civilian commanders were perfectly well aware of the use of torture, and had every intention of continuing its use.

Just as they do today.

Danner’s book went to print before the release in December (delayed, that is, until after the election) of nearly 10,000 more pages of documents obtained under court order through a Freedom of Information Act request by the ACLU, the Center for Constitutional Rights, and others. In their totality, they are an astonishing revelation of war crime, from prisons in Cuba, Afghanistan and Iraq, with plenty more still to come.

In one report, a Marine said he and two others were ordered to kill three Iraqis in early April 2003. He said he was threatened with death if he did not carry out the order, which they did then carry out, dumping the bodies of the dead Iraqis in a hole. In another report, an Army specialist shot to death an Iraqi prisoner who had been “verbally harassing guards” in August 2003. Although an investigation found probable cause to charge him with murder, he was instead demoted to private, and discharged.

In addition to murder, a great many other atrocities are detailed. Prisoners are tortured with electric transformers. They are shackled in painful positions for days without food and water. Iraqi children are subjected to mock execution. One marine used a flame to severely burn a detainee’s hands. Prisoners are “water-boarded”-strapped to a board and submerged until they believe they will drown. Doctors are employed to tailor a prisoner’s torture to specific medical conditions.

One of the surprises in the huge document release was that agents from the CIA and the Defense Intelligence Agency and especially the FBI had been complaining about the prisoner abuse, beginning in 2002 and continuing through 2004. “You won’t believe it!” wrote one FBI agent to a colleague. Agents assigned to Guantanamo complained of “strangulation, beatings, placement of lit cigarettes into the detainees’ ear openings and unauthorized interrogations.” One FBI official complained “I saw a detainee sitting on the floor of the interview room with an Israeli flag draped around him, loud music being played and a strobe flashing.” Another reported soldiers were “beating (a prisoner) and grabbed his head and beat it into the cell floor” until he was unconscious. Another one wrote in July 2004 “on a couple of occasions, I entered interview rooms to find a detainee chained hand and foot in a fetal position to the floor, with no chair, food or water. Most times they had urinated or defecated on themselves, and had been left for 18-24 hours or more.” “On another occasion, the A/C had been turned off, making the temperature in the unventilated room probably well over 100 degrees. The detainee was almost unconscious on the floor, with a pile of hair next to him. He had apparently been literally pulling his own hair out throughout the night.”

These are complaints coming from multiple government agencies, spanning a 3 year period, in some cases going so far as to urge war crimes prosecutions. As the New York Times pointed out, these documents make clear that “such activities were known to a wide circle of government officials.” But White House spokesman Scott McClellan could say only that “we’re becoming aware of more information as it becomes public, as you are.” The Pentagon, he assured us, takes any abuse allegations “very seriously.”

This is nonsense. Of 137 people who have faced disciplinary action, only 14 have been convicted by courts-martial. 46 faced only demotion or fines. A Marine that performed torture with electricity was sentenced to one year’s confinement, and the mock execution of children earned only 30 days’ hard labor. Even in the Abu Ghraib scandal, while one investigation named the two top officers at the prison and 34 military intelligence soldiers, only three faced punishment, and the two officers weren’t charged.

Apparently none of this was really torture. Now, the 1987 Convention Against Torture bars the U.S. government from “any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession” But thanks to Bush’s top law enforcement officer, we now understand that pain is actually not “severe” unless it is “of an intensity akin to that which accompanies serious physical injury such as death or organ failure.”

Sure, Gonzales had to publicly repudiate this language at his confirmation hearing, but no one at all believed it. Michael Chertoff will take over “Homeland Security” even though he abetted the torture of a U.S. citizen, John Walker Lindh. Jay Bybee, the Torture Memo author, has been nominated to the liberal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals (new motto: “Give me organ failure, or give me death!”) And most recently, John Negroponte, who will be remembered by any attentive citizen older than 40 as the Mafia don of the 1980s atrocities in Central America, will now serve his country as the first Director of National Intelligence.

Welcome to the Torture State.

Of course, the U.S. government has supported, financed and directed torture for a long time. It has propped up torture states in Iran, Iraq, Israel and Indonesia, and that’s just the I’s. But it used to have to keep it at arm’s length, to keep the U.S. public in the dark. What’s new is that it has become normalized.

And there’s no retreat here to the comfy feeling that all will be fine again when we get the Dems back in power. John Kerry and his party are guilty too. As Naomi Klein said, Kerry gave Bush the gift of impunity. If it had mattered to the Democrats, they could have run a campaign that impeded the apparatus of torture and the growing violence and lawlessness of the American state. But that was not as important as their desire to “win,” so they kept silent about the atrocities, and vowed an expansion of the war. As H.L. Mencken once observed, “the saddest life is that of a political aspirant under democracy. His failure is ignominious and his success is disgraceful.”

Meanwhile, we live under one-party domination with an enfeebled “opposition” party trying to appeal to the snake-handling and clinic-burning crowd before the next election. And the U.S. military is in Iraq, not to spread the virtues of punch-card voting or high-fructose corn syrup, but to dominate the planet’s central energy supplies. This it will do by any means necessary, employing torture, leveling more Fallujahs, or whichever atrocities people will accept back in the “homeland.”

In the coming years, world resources such as oil, natural gas and fresh water will decline amidst over-consumption and environmental despoliation. As competition for these resources intensifies, the technological means of surveillance, control and physical domination will increase in sophistication, and will be employed by those sectors of society able to use them. These changes we accept by degrees. And we have just passed through one of them. We can only hope that there will be a corresponding evolution along a moral dimension in the complex world we are bequeathing to our children.

TOM WRIGHT lives in Olympia, Washington. He can be reached at: