Commentary on The Torture “Compromise”

September 22, 2006 at 8:22 pm | Posted in American politics, Torture, War on Terror | 3 Comments

I’ve said enough on the issue. But there are a good number of sources that provide good commentary on how bad torture is for America. If I would have known ten years ago that today America was going to legalize torture….well I don’t know what I would have done. I was in Romania on my mission for the LDS church. Maybe I would have found some way to stay there. I am appalled that America backs this, and wants to legalize it. What has happened America?

please read on……

The Abuse Can Continue

The bad news is that Mr. Bush, as he made clear yesterday, intends to continue using the CIA to secretly detain and abuse certain terrorist suspects. He will do so by issuing his own interpretation of the Geneva Conventions in an executive order and by relying on questionable Justice Department opinions that authorize such practices as exposing prisoners to hypothermia and prolonged sleep deprivation. Under the compromise agreed to yesterday, Congress would recognize his authority to take these steps and prevent prisoners from appealing them to U.S. courts. The bill would also immunize CIA personnel from prosecution for all but the most serious abuses and protect those who in the past violated U.S. law against war crimes.

Basically, the CIA has already broken the law, the Geneva Conventions and the War Crimes Act, and now Bush wants to immunize them from prosecution.

Mr. Bush wanted Congress to formally approve these practices and to declare them consistent with the Geneva Conventions. It will not. But it will not stop him either, if the legislation is passed in the form agreed on yesterday. Mr. Bush will go down in history for his embrace of torture and bear responsibility for the enormous damage that has caused.

A Bad Bargain

Here is a way to measure how seriously President Bush was willing to compromise on the military tribunals bill: Less than an hour after an agreement was announced yesterday with three leading Republican senators, the White House was already laying a path to wiggle out of its one real concession.

There is no compromise here. The Republican “mavericks” have been had……or, my cynical self, this was a ploy to show that Republican Senators are not lackeys for the White House…..

Senators Snatch Defeat From Jaws of Victory

As I explain here, on closer inspection the more serious problem is not so much the delegation of some unreviewable interpretive authority to the President (troubling though that is), but instead that the legislation itself would define “cruel treatment” far too narrowly, so as apparently to exclude the CIA’s “alternative” techniques, no matter how cruel they are in fact. I hear word that Senator McCain thinks the bill’s definition of “grave breaches” of Common Article 3 covers the “alternative” CIA techniques. I hope he can make that interpretation stick somehow, but on my quick [first two] readings of the language, it still seems to me as if it’s carefully crafted to exclude the CIA techniques. See, most importantly, the limiting language defining “serious physical pain or suffering,” which is carefully drafted to exclude the CIA techniques such as Cold Cell and Long Time Standing.]

And then, for good measure — and this is perhaps the worst part of the bill, for purposes going far beyond the questions of torture and interrogation — section 7 would preclude courts altogether from ever interpreting the Geneva Conventions — any part of them — by providing that “no person may invoke the Geneva Conventions or any protocols thereto in any habeas or civil action or proceeding to which the United States, or a current or former officer, employee, member of the Armed Forces, or other agent of the United States, is a party as a source of rights, in any court of the United States or its States or territories.” [UPDATE: I’ve heard some people argue that this language would retain the power of courts to construe Geneva in a criminal proceeding. That remains to be seen (the language is not clear). But even if that’s so, it’s not at all obvious how or why the question of the meaning and application of Common Article 3 would ever be one that a court would have occasion to resolve in a criminal proceeding.]

If I’m right, and if this is enacted, the only hope would be the prospect of the Supreme Court holding that both the habeas cut-off, and the “no person may invoke Geneva” provision, are unconstitutional.

Unlikely, though, with Bush putting conservatives on the court who can be influenced to ensure a Republican majority remains in power for the foreseeable future. Weep for the future, America!

The Deal

Andrew Sullivan quotes George Orwell who says:

“In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness…

A mass of Latin words falls upon the facts like soft snow, blurring the outline and covering up all the details. The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink. In our age there is no such thing as “keeping out of politics.” All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred, and schizophrenia. When the general atmosphere is bad, language must suffer…

But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought. A bad usage can spread by tradition and imitation even among people who should and do know better. The debased language that I have been discussing is in some ways very convenient.”

Torturer in Chief

If in doubt, take any of the “alternative” methods that Bush wants to use on U.S. detainees and imagine someone using those methods on your son or daughter. If the bad guys captured your son and tossed him, naked, into a cell kept at a temperature just slightly higher than an average refrigerator, then repeatedly doused him with ice water to induce hypothermia, would that be OK? What if they shackled him to a wall for days so he couldn’t sit or lie down without hanging his whole body weight on his arms? What if they threatened to rape and kill his wife, or pretended they were burying him alive? What if they did all these things by turns? Would you have any problem deciding that these methods are cruel?

Behind the antiseptic talk of “alternatives,” “dietary modification” and “stress positions” lie methods designed to break human bodies and human minds. Legally and morally, many of the alternative interrogation methods championed by our president are torture, plain and simple. And there is no doubt at all that they’re cruel, inhuman and degrading.

Great use of the word antiseptic. Another good word is sterilized.

That’s what the president is so worried about. He knows, too well, that the practices he authorized or ordered violate Common Article 3 of the Geneva Convention. The recent Supreme Court decision in Hamdan vs. Rumsfeld made that explicit, but the court’s holding shouldn’t have come as a surprise. It only confirmed what most legal scholars (and military lawyers) have been telling the White House for years.

After all, Common Article 3 is not exactly a recent innovation in international law. It’s been around, with the very same language, since 1949, and the U.S. has never seen any problem with it before. We signed and ratified the Geneva Convention in 1949; in fact, American diplomats helped draft the language. And the War Crimes Act was passed overwhelmingly by a Republican-controlled Congress in 1996. There’s nothing unexpected or vague about any of this. We know the article prohibits torture and the “torture lite” favored by the White House.

Today, the chickens are coming home to roost. But though the word “accountability” isn’t in the White House dictionary, there’s a long entry under “CYA — covering your ass.”

Bush isn’t stupid. He understands that it’s far too late for him to leave a legacy that won’t be a source of shame to future generations. So he’s going for second best: a congressionally delivered “get-out-of-jail-free” card.

Torture’s Long Shadow

Vladimir Bukovsky spent nearly 12 years in Soviet prisons. He might know a thing or two about torture. This is the one I most highly recommend. I’m going to quote a large portion of it, but please read the entire piece. He knows what he is talking about.

This is a new debate for Americans, but there is no need for you to reinvent the wheel. Most nations can provide you with volumes on the subject. Indeed, with the exception of the Black Death, torture is the oldest scourge on our planet (hence there are so many conventions against it). Every Russian czar after Peter the Great solemnly abolished torture upon being enthroned, and every time his successor had to abolish it all over again. These czars were hardly bleeding-heart liberals, but long experience in the use of these “interrogation” practices in Russia had taught them that once condoned, torture will destroy their security apparatus. They understood that torture is the professional disease of any investigative machinery.

Apart from sheer frustration and other adrenaline-related emotions, investigators and detectives in hot pursuit have enormous temptation to use force to break the will of their prey because they believe that, metaphorically speaking, they have a “ticking bomb” case on their hands. But, much as a good hunter trains his hounds to bring the game to him rather than eating it, a good ruler has to restrain his henchmen from devouring the prey lest he be left empty-handed. Investigation is a subtle process, requiring patience and fine analytical ability, as well as a skill in cultivating one’s sources. When torture is condoned, these rare talented people leave the service, having been outstripped by less gifted colleagues with their quick-fix methods, and the service itself degenerates into a playground for sadists. Thus, in its heyday, Joseph Stalin’s notorious NKVD (the Soviet secret police) became nothing more than an army of butchers terrorizing the whole country but incapable of solving the simplest of crimes. And once the NKVD went into high gear, not even Stalin could stop it at will. He finally succeeded only by turning the fury of the NKVD against itself; he ordered his chief NKVD henchman, Nikolai Yezhov (Beria’s predecessor), to be arrested together with his closest aides.

So, why would democratically elected leaders of the United States ever want to legalize what a succession of Russian monarchs strove to abolish? Why run the risk of unleashing a fury that even Stalin had problems controlling? Why would anyone try to “improve intelligence-gathering capability” by destroying what was left of it? Frustration? Ineptitude? Ignorance? Or, has their friendship with a certain former KGB lieutenant colonel, V. Putin, rubbed off on the American leaders? I have no answer to these questions, but I do know that if Vice President Cheney is right and that some “cruel, inhumane or degrading” (CID) treatment of captives is a necessary tool for winning the war on terrorism, then the war is lost already.

Even talking about the possibility of using CID treatment sends wrong signals and encourages base instincts in those who should be consistently delivered from temptation by their superiors. As someone who has been on the receiving end of the “treatment” under discussion, let me tell you that trying to make a distinction between torture and CID techniques is ridiculous.

I think this is probably his most important point. There is no difference. It is not a sanitized version where all is well.

Long gone are the days when a torturer needed the nasty-looking tools displayed in the Tower of London. A simple prison bed is deadly if you remove the mattress and force a prisoner to sleep on the iron frame night after night after night. Or how about the “Chekist’s handshake” so widely practiced under Stalin — a firm squeeze of the victim’s palm with a simple pencil inserted between his fingers? Very convenient, very simple. And how would you define leaving 2,000 inmates of a labor camp without dental service for months on end? Is it CID not to treat an excruciatingly painful toothache, or is it torture?

Now it appears that sleep deprivation is “only” CID and used on Guantanamo Bay captives. Well, congratulations, comrades! It was exactly this method that the NKVD used to produce those spectacular confessions in Stalin’s “show trials” of the 1930s. The henchmen called it “conveyer,” when a prisoner was interrogated nonstop for a week or 10 days without a wink of sleep. At the end, the victim would sign any confession without even understanding what he had signed.

Do Americans really think that not getting sleep for several days is not torture? I don’t think most backers of torture in America realize just how horrible it is to not get sleep for a long time.

I know from my own experience that interrogation is an intensely personal confrontation, a duel of wills. It is not about revealing some secrets or making confessions, it is about self-respect and human dignity. If I break, I will not be able to look into a mirror. But if I don’t, my interrogator will suffer equally. Just try to control your emotions in the heat of that battle. This is precisely why torture occurs even when it is explicitly forbidden. Now, who is going to guarantee that even the most exact definition of CID is observed under such circumstances?

But if we cannot guarantee this, then how can you force your officers and your young people in the CIA to commit acts that will scar them forever? For scarred they will be, take my word for it.

Is anyone under the illusion that torture does not affect the one applying it to a detainee?

In 1971, while in Lefortovo prison in Moscow (the central KGB interrogation jail), I went on a hunger strike demanding a defense lawyer of my choice (the KGB wanted its trusted lawyer to be assigned instead). The moment was most inconvenient for my captors because my case was due in court, and they had no time to spare. So, to break me down, they started force-feeding me in a very unusual manner — through my nostrils. About a dozen guards led me from my cell to the medical unit. There they straitjacketed me, tied me to a bed, and sat on my legs so that I would not jerk. The others held my shoulders and my head while a doctor was pushing the feeding tube into my nostril.

The feeding pipe was thick, thicker than my nostril, and would not go in. Blood came gushing out of my nose and tears down my cheeks, but they kept pushing until the cartilages cracked. I guess I would have screamed if I could, but I could not with the pipe in my throat. I could breathe neither in nor out at first; I wheezed like a drowning man — my lungs felt ready to burst. The doctor also seemed ready to burst into tears, but she kept shoving the pipe farther and farther down. Only when it reached my stomach could I resume breathing, carefully. Then she poured some slop through a funnel into the pipe that would choke me if it came back up. They held me down for another half-hour so that the liquid was absorbed by my stomach and could not be vomited back, and then began to pull the pipe out bit by bit. . . . Grrrr. There had just been time for everything to start healing during the night when they came back in the morning and did it all over again, for 10 days, when the guards could stand it no longer. As it happened, it was a Sunday and no bosses were around. They surrounded the doctor: “Hey, listen, let him drink it straight from the bowl, let him sip it. It’ll be quicker for you, too, you silly old fool.” The doctor was in tears: “Do you think I want to go to jail because of you lot? No, I can’t do that. . . . ” And so they stood over my body, cursing each other, with bloody bubbles coming out of my nose. On the 12th day, the authorities surrendered; they had run out of time. I had gotten my lawyer, but neither the doctor nor those guards could ever look me in the eye again.

Maybe American interrogators have hardened their hearts enough not to be troubled by such psychological effects…..maybe. But that means that American interrogators are worse than Russian ones who hated what they were doing…..

Today, when the White House lawyers seem preoccupied with contriving a way to stem the flow of possible lawsuits from former detainees, I strongly recommend that they think about another flood of suits, from the men and women in your armed services or the CIA agents who have been or will be engaged in CID practices. Our rich experience in Russia has shown that many will become alcoholics or drug addicts, violent criminals or, at the very least, despotic and abusive fathers and mothers.

If America’s leaders want to hunt terrorists while transforming dictatorships into democracies, they must recognize that torture, which includes CID, has historically been an instrument of oppression — not an instrument of investigation or of intelligence gathering. No country needs to invent how to “legalize” torture; the problem is rather how to stop it from happening. If it isn’t stopped, torture will destroy your nation’s important strategy to develop democracy in the Middle East. And if you cynically outsource torture to contractors and foreign agents, how can you possibly be surprised if an 18-year-old in the Middle East casts a jaundiced eye toward your reform efforts there?

Finally, my mom was thrown in prison in Romania during Ceausescu’s totalitarian reign. She was thrown in prison by the Secret Police because my father escaped Romania. They had her there for six months. At the end of that six months, she considered suicide. The only thing that held her back was us, my sister and I. Today, my mother still has to deal with the post-traumatic stress disorder that inevitably comes from the torture she experienced there.

Don’t do this, America. Don’t make this deal with the devil.

3 Comments »

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  1. It would be nice if we could divert a few billion bucks from the war and put it into scientific research and come up with a Truth Serum that really works (without any bad side effects).

    But more seriously, since one man’s torture is another man’s CID, are there *any* interrogation techniques that are acceptable to everyone but are still effective ?

  2. Yeah, ones that take a lot of time. Ones that build a rapport between the interrogator and the detainee. One that shows the detainee that life is better with his captors than with his terrorist compatriots.

    instead of diverting money from the war, I’d rather see Americans be called upon to make an actual sacrifice towards this war. Right now, the wars America is in is being put on a credit card for future generations to pay. Let’s see this generation pay for something.

    Any professional will tell you, you get far higher quality and more credible information from a detainee who willingly speaks to you. To get him to willingly speak to you takes more effort and patience on your part. But in the end, this is the best, and only way America should act.

  3. […] Bukovsky talked about this guilty conscience that bedevils interrogators who use these tactics: I know from my own experience […]


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