On U.S. and torture: A look back, and a route forward

Then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, center, and Vice President Dick Cheney listen as President Bush speaks before signing the Military Commissions Act of 2006.
REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
Then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, center, and Vice President Dick Cheney listen as President Bush speaks before signing the Military Commissions Act of 2006.

As Jane Mayer’s “The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned Into a War on American Ideals” goes on sale today, the Internet is already abuzz from advance reports of the book’s content — and its import.

To those who’ve been following Mayer’s writing in the New Yorker, the book’s thrust will likely come as no surprise. It surely won’t for the Minneapolis-based Center for Victims of Torture — which, with the National Religious Campaign Against Torture and Evangelicals for Human Rights, late last month unveiled its Campaign to Ban Torture with a powerful Declaration of Principles as its centerpiece. The declaration, already signed by a host of legal, defense, diplomatic and religious luminaries, calls for an executive order against the use of torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment of prisoners by the United States.

For most Americans, Los Angeles Times writer Tim Rutten suggests in his “Dark Side” review, it’s time for a serious reality check:

“[I]f you intend to vote in November and read only one book between now and then, this should be it.

‘A single compelling narrative’

“By and large, Mayer does not add any strikingly new information to what attentive readers already will know about Bush/Cheney’s adoption of torture as an instrument of American state power and of how the Central Intelligence Agency, its international accomplices and the U.S. military constructed what amounts to an American gulag to further that end. Mayer’s singular accomplishment is to fuse the years of events that have brought us to this pass into a single compelling narrative and to use her own considerable reportorial powers to fill in important connective and contextual events.”

According to the Washington Post’s report on the book, those events include the following:

“A CIA analyst warned the Bush administration in 2002 that up to a third of the detainees at Guantanamo Bay may have been imprisoned by mistake, but White House officials ignored the finding and insisted that all were ‘enemy combatants’ subject to indefinite incarceration, according to a new book critical of the administration’s terrorism policies.

“The CIA assessment directly challenged the administration’s claim that the detainees were all hardened terrorists — the ‘worst of the worst,’ as then-Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said at the time. But a top aide to Vice President Cheney shrugged off the report …, Jane Mayer writes in ‘The Dark Side’…. 

” ‘There will be no review,’ the book quotes Cheney staff director David Addington as saying. ‘The president has determined that they are ALL enemy combatants. We are not going to revisit it.’ ”

Sophisticated doublespeak

One can hope that most Americans, once they fully know what Mayer and others have reported, would join efforts like the Campaign to Ban Torture. But the public has also been subjected to sophisticated doublespeak on the issue, effectively clouding the issues at stake.

As Louis Bayard writes in today’s Salon.com, “administration lawyers were especially adept at the neutering of language. Interrogations were merely ‘special’ or ‘enhanced’ or ‘robust’ and were always consistent with the Bush administration’s ‘new paradigm.’ Under duress, these euphemisms morphed into denials. ‘We don’t torture,’ announced Vice President Cheney. ‘Torture is never acceptable,’ Bush told the New York Times in January 2005. ‘Nor do we hand over people to countries that do torture.’ “

Yet, as the Post explains in its story about “The Dark Side,” “The book also offers new detail on the findings of officials from the International Committee of the Red Cross who investigated the CIA’s treatment of suspected al-Qaeda leaders in secret prisons overseas.

“In 2007, the ICRC produced a secret report, based on extensive interviews with the detainees, and shared the document with the CIA and the White House. It was the first independent accounting of CIA detention practices, and the findings were never publicly released, in keeping with long-standing ICRC rules intended to ensure continued access to prison sites worldwide. ICRC declined to comment on the specifics of the report.

“Mayer, citing officials familiar with the report, said the ICRC described the CIA’s treatment of the detainees ‘categorically as torture.’ “

Fewer reasons for public denial
The burden on American citizens, who have fewer and fewer reasons to deny the existence of actions and policies that are clearly against long-held American values, becomes this: What can you do when you see, to use Mayer’s subtitle, “a war on American ideals” conducted by American leaders? Was it necessary because of the extraordinary circumstances of 9/11?

Seeking further insight is a start, and the Center for Victims of Torture offers knowledgeable support:

“Based on CVT’s experience with torture survivors and understanding the systems in which they have been abused,” its website says, “CVT believes it is important that discussions about the U.S. use of torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment not be shaped by speculation but rather through an understanding of how torture is actually used in the world.” It then lists eight broad lessons the treatment and advocacy organization has learned from working with torture survivors. Among them: Torture does not yield reliable information; it will not be used only against the guilty; it has a corrupting effect on the perpetrator; it has never been confined to narrow conditions; we cannot use it and maintain the moral high ground.

Those who’ve become signatories of the Declaration of Principles — including George Shultz, President Reagan’s secretary of state; ambassadors Richard Armitage and Thomas Pickering; former Navy general counsel Alberto Mora, dozens of religious leaders and many others — assert the following:

“Though we come from a variety of backgrounds and walks of life, we agree that the use of torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment against prisoners is immoral, unwise, and un-American. In our effort to secure ourselves, we have resorted to tactics which do not work, which endanger US personnel abroad, which discourage political, military, and intelligence cooperation from our allies, and which ultimately do not enhance our security.

“Our President must lead us by our core principles. We must be better than our enemies, and our treatment of prisoners captured in the battle against terrorism must reflect our character and values as Americans.”

‘Golden Rule’ standard
The document then calls for an executive order providing for one national standard for all U.S. personnel on the treatment of prisoners — a “Golden Rule” standard that asserts: “We will not authorize or use any methods of interrogation that we would not find acceptable if used against Americans, be they civilians or soldiers.” Such a standard would be unlike the ambiguous Military Commissions Act of 2006 and would, of course, not allow the current exception for the CIA. The declaration includes six features envisioned in such an executive order.

Will the Bush administration administer such an order in its waning days? Not likely. But the groups’ ongoing effort provides the antithesis of ignorance, denial and/or complacency. It is a clear, nonpartisan vehicle for the expression of long-held American values, and offers a straightforward route — whenever it is taken — back to long-held U.S. policy.

Susan Albright, a MinnPost managing editor, writes about national and foreign developments. She can be reached at salbright [at] minnpost [dot] com.

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Comments (2)

  1. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 07/15/2008 - 07:08 pm.

    I don’t care what the Dems in Congress say, it is NOT too late to impeach the criminals now inhabiting the White House AND/OR to refer them to the International Criminal Court to receive the justice they deserve if we cannot do so because they CONTROL the Justice Department.

    Has America ever faced such a dark moment?

  2. Submitted by Dan Vogel on 07/15/2008 - 10:08 pm.

    Let’s not forget that the Democratic leadership in congress was briefied on the torture and did not object. Perhaps that explains Obama’s flip on FISA. He had to protect Pelosi and Daschle!

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