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Should there be hearings, investigations into torture? U forum explores the issues

Most Americans who participated in a new CBS/New York Times poll don’t want Congress to hold hearings on U.S. interrogation tactics since 9/11. But if the United States doesn’t find out what happened, someone else will, said panelists at the U of M.

Demonstrator Maboud Ebrahimzadeh
REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
Demonstrator Maboud Ebrahimzadeh is held down during a simulation of waterboarding outside the Justice Department in Washington, D.C., in 2007.

Do you want an investigation into the Bush administration’s alleged torture of men captured in the course of its war on terror?

No, answered most Americans who participated in a CBS News/New York Times poll reported this week. Even though 71 percent of those polled said aggressive interrogation tactics are torture, 62 percent said Congress should not hold hearings to investigate.

But one way or another, this country must confront its responsibility for tactics that we now know included water-boarding, banging detainees’ heads against walls, forced nudity and other treatments that, by several measures, are illegal as well as immoral. If we don’t investigate, other countries will do it.

That was the gist of a provocative forum at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs this week.

‘The American public needs to know’
Whether or not we want to face what our government did in secret, the truth is irrepressible at this point, said Jane Mayer, the New Yorker writer who has pushed hard to shed light on the secret interrogations. Her book, “The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned into a War on American Ideals,” won this year’s Goldsmith Book Prize at Harvard University.

“I understand the desire to turn the page on this particularly dark chapter of American history,” Mayer said. “But the American public needs to know what was done in its name. It needs to know the truth, and it needs to learn from it.”

Indeed, there is no way to keep the truth bottled up at this point, she said. The American Civil Liberties Union and human-rights groups are demanding the release of more CIA documents, including photographs and transcripts of interrogation sessions. Courts are probing into the details not only in this country but in Spain and other countries whose citizens were interrogated in U.S. lockups. And Congress is looking into several aspects.

“There are so many different levels on which this is not going to be going away that I think they would be much smarter in this administration to set up a mechanism to deal with it,” Mayer said. “They need to get in front of it, and they seem to be uncertain about how to handle this.”

Our system ‘simply disappeared in secret’
The truth should come out, said former Vice President Walter Mondale. He spoke along with Mayer at the forum and at an earlier U of M class on Tuesday.

A bipartisan body of respected leaders with the authority to compel release of information should investigate, Mondale said — not looking for vengeance, but “to try to understand how on Earth we let this happen to us and how our system of constitutional law and tradition simply disappeared in secret.”

“A lot of people are thinking that if we are really in trouble you’ve got to shove the laws aside and otherwise America is weak,” Mondale said. “A lot of people think that questions from the dark side of American life should never be answered, there shouldn’t be accountability. We’ve got to get those things out of our system, and we have to do it in a way the public trusts.”

The process could take years, judging from the experience of Argentina and other countries that have brought former government officials to justice, Douglas A. Johnson, executive director of the Center for Victims of Torture, said in an interview with MinnPost.

Walter Mondale, Jane Mayer, Larry Jacobs
Courtesy of the University of Minnesota
On the panel were Walter Mondale, left, Jane Mayer and Lawrence Jacobs.

“History suggests that these kinds of abuses can’t be laid aside, and the political will does develop over time to address them,” Johnson said. “The issues are so important that accountability has to be secured at some point. And it will happen. … I have great faith in the United States as a nation with a rule of law.”    

Here is a sampling of Mayer’s and Mondale’s responses to questions posed by Humphrey Institute professor Lawrence Jacobs and audience members. Almost no disagreements were expressed among those at the forum.

Has the Obama administration effectively stopped the abuse?

Mayer: We have mostly turned the page. Great progress has been made. There is a group that Obama set up that is studying interrogation techniques. For the time being they have ruled out any kind of coercion that is beyond what the military does, which is basically nothing problematical. They still are studying whether the CIA has to do other things. So they haven’t really closed the doors on that.

What I worry about is if there is another attack will there be backsliding on all of this, which is why I think it is so important to get some sort of public understanding of whether or not this was necessary. Then we will be in a better place when there is another attack.

Will Obama launch an investigation?

Mayer: I’m kind of confused about it, and I think that maybe they are confused, too, because they have given many different answers over the past two weeks about what they think is the right way to go from here. It was quite a big heated debate inside the administration about whether to let out these memos (secret Bush administration memos authorizing the interrogation tactics).

Obama decided to let them out. I think maybe they thought that putting out the memos would be the end of it. But in some ways it poured gasoline on the fire. The more people see the details, the more upset many people become. That’s true about the left. But on the right there was an equally inflamed reaction saying this is weakening America to put these things out.

So suddenly they had this political problem on their hands and it’s a problem they don’t want. They’ve got so much else that they want to do. And they see this as leftover nightmares from the Bush administration.  

Former Vice President Cheney insists that the interrogations prevented acts of terror. He’s called for releasing even more documents. What do you make of that?

Mayer: I really welcome him to the side of truth and light and full disclosure. It’s been a long evolution, but I’m glad he’s here. There were memos put together along the way when this program was challenged internally that justified it. I imagine that is what he is going for. They put together some material saying that great revelations came out of coercion, and I’d be surprised if they didn’t get something out of this program. It ran for five or six years and it had sole custody of the most important suspects in the war on terror. So it would unbelievable if they didn’t get something out of it.

One of the people in the Obama administration said to me, “Every time Dick Cheney opens his mouth, he begs for a further investigation of some sort, because what he is saying is dangerous. He is saying, ‘If we don’t torture we can’t be safe.’ He is saying, ‘Our constitution makes us weak, and we are going to have to abandon it in order to be a safe country.’ ” That’s a very, very dangerous thing to say. If he really feels that is true, then they need to open up the books and let us take a look at the record.

Mondale: Across the board it was as though we did have an emperor, and we had a government within a government. That’s why I pick on Cheney all of the time — because he’s ruined my office. He only goes on Fox News because he probably prepares the questions and then answers them. It’s unaccountable. It’s his government as he defines it regardless of anyone else. All of these abuses, all of these excess, he seems to be proud of them. Now that he is out of office, almost every week he comes off the couch and hits it again. … It is a change for him. For eight years he covered up everything. His idea was that the president was beyond any response to the rest of the government, to the Congress, to the courts.

At what level were the decisions taken?

Mayer: One of the myths perpetuated in the last few years is that this was just a few people on the bottom of the barrel. And one thing that’s very clear now is that this was an authorized program of cruelty and abuse — and maybe torture, depending on your definitions — that came right from the top.

The Senate Armed Services Committee (PDF) has done a terrific job of connecting the dots. You can’t read its report without understanding how untrue it was to say that abuse of inmates at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq was the work of a few rotten apples at the bottom of the barrel. That report shows there were policy decisions made at the very top that resulted in abuse at the bottom.

It wasn’t ever just about torture to me. This is a story about abuse of power. Up and down the line it shows a misunderstanding of what power really is. Cheney and others in the White House thought power was the absence of restraint. … What they didn’t understand was that real power in a democracy comes from legitimacy, from the consent of the governed and the support of Congress and the courts.   

What about the claim that we are more secure because of the information we gained from the interrogations?

Mayer: The FBI and the military, which have the greatest experience in interrogating, say you shouldn’t use torture because you are going to get unreliable information. And you are not going to know which is true or which is not. What really works to fight terrorism is getting great intelligence, infiltrating and getting informants. You don’t get informants in a community when you use torture. People are so repelled that they become much more radicalized against you.

I have spent several years looking at these cases. I have yet to see a single one where they really needed to do these things. Take the case of Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi. He was a trainer of al-Qaida terrorists, captured in Pakistan and turned over to Americans shortly after 9/11.

First he was interrogated by the FBI, which has some of the most knowledgeable interrogators, including people who speak Arabic. They learned a lot from him and felt they were making headway when the CIA barged in and said they weren’t getting information fast enough. The CIA slapped duct tape over his mouth, threw him on a plane, flew him to Egypt and basically brutalized him. The Senate Intelligence Committee discovered that al-Libi was asked a lot of questions about links between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaida. He said later he didn’t even know what they were asking about. He didn’t understand the term weapons of mass destruction. So he made up a lot of things to stop the torture.

That information was handed over to Colin Powell and put into the most important speech he ever made as secretary of state, the United Nations speech justifying war in Iraq. Later, when inspectors couldn’t find the weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, they asked al-Libi what gives. He recanted.

It’s the perfect cautionary tale about torture. You can make people talk, but you can’t necessarily make them tell the truth.

If it doesn’t work, why did anyone do it?

Mayer: There was a panic inside the top levels of our government in the first year after 9/11. They were so sure there would be another attack and they would be blamed for it. So they were doing what they thought they needed to do. … By 2005, the justifications had become very sophisticated. All kinds of legal arguments were being made in secret rooms in Washington, and there was a program by then that was huge. There were prisons all around the world, there were fleets of private jets moving people around the world. There were doctors and scientists monitoring the prisoners.

What’s happened to people who spoke out against this?

Mayer: It’s very important to explain in our country that there were a bunch of people who did the right thing. Military lawyers were among the first. They saw things like the early executive orders on military commissions and they were horrified. Alberto Mora, the general counsel of the U.S. Navy, couldn’t believe what was going on at first, and when he got more documentary information, he went to the top lawyers and then Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and said, “You need to know about this.” They already knew about it. So Mora said, “If you don’t do something about it, I’m going public.”

One thing becoming clearer as more documents come out is that there were warnings almost from the start from very credible people who told top people in the Bush administration that these policies were ineffective, counterproductive and probably criminal.  … When you say let’s let bygones be bygones, you are not honoring the courage of people who stood up.

What should we do now with detainees who have been tortured?

Mayer: It’s a mess that Obama has inherited because they’ve got these people, many of whom are serious criminals and terrorists, who can claim that their rights were violated, which will be an obstacle for their prosecution. The bias of the Obama administration is to try to treat as many of these cases as they can in criminal courts. What they’ve been trying to do is build clean cases where they try to reassemble all of the evidence without using the confessions.

How are we likely to hold people accountable? Prosecutions?

Mondale: That’s a tough question and not completely answerable at this point. But holding people responsible in some way for what happened is very important. If the verdict here is that you can do these kinds of things and there are no consequences, then that leaves a precedent. I’ve been around the federal government long enough to know that if there is a bad precedent it’s like leaving a loaded pistol on the kitchen table. You don’t know who is going to pick it up and pull the trigger. There need to be consequences for violating the law.

Mayer: It’s much more a political question than a legal question. Obviously there were crimes committed here, so the question is whether to prosecute people or not. Is there political will to prosecute people who ran the government for the past few years? That’s a very touchy, difficult question for many people. And I think in a way it’s premature. For me the question, as a reporter, is let’s just find out what happened.

What are the prospects for international investigations?

Mayer: There is an interplay between what happens abroad and what happens at home. Under the international conventions against torture, if there are violations any signatory has an obligation to investigate. The Spaniards would much prefer to have the United States do this. But there is this obligation, a requirement to investigate. So if the United States drops the ball, there is a fear the rest of the world will pick it up.

Mondale: Better we handle it ourselves and handle it properly than get embarrassed like that. The American people demand that they be protected from foreign court systems that may not give us a fair shake. If you start sorting this out in other courts in other lands, the reaction here could be horrid.  

Sharon Schmickle covers international affairs, science and other topics for MinnPost.