Human rights groups rush to decry Bush’s ‘Decision Points’ defense of waterboarding

Former President George H.W. Bush, right, watches as his son, former President George W. Bush, throws a ceremonial first pitch prior to the start of Game 4 of the World Series.
REUTERS/Brian Snyder
Former President George H.W. Bush watches as his son, former President George W. Bush, throws a ceremonial pitch before Game 4 of the World Series.

Even before the new memoir of former President George W. Bush comes out on Tuesday, it has roused calls — in Minnesota and around the nation — for a full investigation of what is seen widely as the illegal torture of CIA detainees under Bush’s watch.

In the book, “Decision Points,” Bush recounts being asked by the CIA whether it could proceed with waterboarding Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the 9/11 plotter who was suspected at the time of knowing about other pending terrorist strikes, the Washington Post reported. The Post attributed the information to “someone close to Bush who has read the book.”

“Bush writes that his reply was ‘Damn right’ and states that he would make the same decision again to save lives,” the Post reported.

Critics: ‘Harms American security’
The response from human rights groups and some church leaders was swift and sharp.

“This cavalier attitude by the President who authorized torture in violation of U.S. and international law not only damages our nation’s credibility throughout the world, but also discourages global cooperation to combat terrorism,” said Douglas A. Johnson, executive director of the Center for Victims of Torture in Minneapolis.

Just last week, bombs shipped on airplanes bound for the United States were stopped because of the cooperation of foreign intelligence services, Johnson noted.

That, he said, stands as an urgent reminder that “we need the trust of individuals and governments worldwide.” And we have a better chance of winning that trust if we as a nation reject torture. For a leader to make “such careless and rash remarks” at this point harms American security, Johnson said.

No excuse, campaign says
Bush’s expressed justification — that waterboarding saved lives — was “wholly inadequate and unjustifiable,” said the Rev. Richard Killmer, executive director of the National Religious Campaign Against Torture. The Minnesota Council of Churches is part of the Campaign’s multi-denominational and multi-faith coalition of nearly 300 religious groups from around the nation.

“U.S.-sponsored torture has cost innumerable lives of both American soldiers and civilians, because it has inspired extremists to commit acts of terror against us. It has cost us dearly,” Killmer said. “Torture does not make us safer; it makes us more of a target.”

It’s not torture, Bush says
Bush has never acknowledged that anyone was tortured under his watch — and, apparently, he believes he is not doing so now.

He had declared in 2002 that fighters for al-Qaida and the Taliban were not protected under the Geneva Conventions’ prohibitions against torturing prisoners of war and treating them in cruel, humiliating and degrading ways. Even so, Bush said at the time, detainees would be treated in a manner consistent with the principles of the Geneva Conventions.

Decision Points

But evidence to the contrary mounted through revelations of abuses at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay.

Then, Bush acknowledged that the CIA had maintained secret prisons overseas. Reports surfaced that detainees in those lockups had been subjected to waterboarding (a near-drowning experience) and other tactics that shocked many Americans. Amid a national outcry and investigations on Capitol Hill, the CIA said it had stopped using such “enhanced interrogation” techniques.

Throughout the give and take, Bush steadfastly rejected any use of the word “torture” to describe those tactics. And he reiterates that view in the book, the Post reported.

It is torture, others say
Shortly after Bush left office though, Susan Crawford, his top official in charge of deciding whether to bring Guantanamo detainees to trial, said publicly that the U.S. military had tortured a Saudi national who allegedly planned to participate in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. He was subjected to sustained isolation, sleep deprivation, nudity and prolonged exposure to cold.

Since then, President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. have said that waterboarding amounts to torture as it is defined and also prohibited in international law. Many Congress members —some Republicans included — have expressed the same view.

Still, there was no apparent move to answer the calls by human rights groups for the responsible officials to face legal consequences.
 
Defying critics
Now, in openly acknowledging his lead role, Bush seems to be defying those critics. It is characteristic for him to do so with a bold stroke.

In response, the Center for Victims of Torture renewed its call for an independent nonpartisan commission to examine and report publicly on torture and cruel treatment of prisoners since Sept. 11, 2001. It said the commission should be adequately funded and given subpoena power as well as a mandate to fully examine the facts and circumstances of such abuses and to recommend measures to prevent future abuses.

The National Religious Campaign used stronger language, speaking in terms of criminal wrongdoing.

The religious group released a statement quoting extensively from a pledge the U.S. government made to the United Nations in 1999: “Torture is prohibited by law throughout the United States. It is categorically denounced as a matter of policy and as a tool of state authority. Every act constituting torture under the Convention constitutes a criminal offence under the law of the United States. No official of the Government, federal, state or local, civilian or military, is authorized to commit or to instruct anyone else to commit torture. Nor may any official condone or tolerate torture in any form. No exceptional circumstances may be invoked as a justification of torture.”

In admitting to ordering waterboarding and other harsh treatments of detainees, Bush has admitted he violated U.S. law and international law too, Killmer said.

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

What will other countries do?
Bush has more to watch than the reaction from within the United States. The U.N.’s Convention Against Torture requires that all parties work to enforce its provisions. In other words, foreign nations would have legal grounds under international law to open fresh investigations of those responsible for the U.S. interrogation tactics at issue.

But, in making the bold acknowledgement, Bush must have presumed he would have the government’s backing in any confrontation with others’ courts, the Post reported, citing the views of M. Cherif Boussiani, an emeritus law professor at DePaul University who co-chaired the U.N. experts committee that drafted the torture convention.

Georgetown University law professor David Cole, a long-standing critic of Bush’s interrogation and detention policies, told the Post that any prosecution is unlikely.

“The fact that he did admit it suggests he believes he is politically immune from being held accountable,” Cole said.

“But politics can change,” he added.

Sharon Schmickle covers economics, agriculture, science and other subjects for MinnPost. She can be reached at sschmickle [at] minnpost [dot] com.

Comments (15)

  1. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 11/08/2010 - 08:14 am.

    Douglas A. Johnson, executive director of the Center for Victims of Torture in Minneapolis said “This cavalier attitude by the President who authorized torture in violation of U.S. and international law not only damages our nation’s credibility throughout the world, but also discourages global cooperation to combat terrorism.” But then he contradicts himself by admitting that “Just last week, bombs shipped on airplanes bound for the United States were stopped because of the cooperation of foreign intelligence services.” So it seems to me that Bush’s “torture” of KSM really hasn’t discouraged any foreign cooperation has it?

    During time of war, international law is whatever the United States says it is. Seriously.

    Was the incineration of Japanese soldiers with flame throwers on Iwo Jima against international law?
    Was fire-bombing German civilians in Dresdan against international law?
    Was vaporing Japanese civilians at Hiroshima and Nagasaki against international law?

    Most reasonable people would believe that pouring water on the face of an international terrorist until he talks is not even appraching the acts listed above yet people want to prosecute the President of the United States for approving that action.

    By any reasonable definition, torture should be defined as acts that result in permanent physical damage to the prisoner. John McCain cannot lift his right arm above his shoulder due to the torture that he received at the hands of the communists. Pouring water on the face of an international terrorist until he talks is not torture unless KSM has permanent water marks on his face. I’ve received similar treatment during hazing ceremonies in the submarine service.

  2. Submitted by William Hansen on 11/08/2010 - 10:14 am.

    Torture is wrong.

  3. Submitted by Bruce Hope on 11/08/2010 - 11:07 am.

    Torture is wrong.

  4. Submitted by Gary Thaden on 11/08/2010 - 11:42 am.

    Actually, torture is more broadly defined than just “permanent physical damage”. Torture is defined by US law as ”an act committed by a person acting under the color of law specifically intended to inflict severe physical or mental pain or suffering….” 18 U.S. Code Section 2340.

    Torture is wrong.

  5. Submitted by Bill Schletzer on 11/08/2010 - 11:43 am.

    Since my post was censored I will try to reword it.

    Mr Tester, which of these is not torture: Pulling out fingernails, sodomizing with a broom handle, breaking bones with a baseball bat. Since none of these results in permanent injury they would not meet the definition of what “reasonable” people call torture. Perhaps we should redefine reasonable.

    FYI, waterboarding has a long and glorious history going back to the middle ages when the Catholic church used it during the Inquisition to convert Jews. Every tyranny needs its propoganda.

  6. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 11/08/2010 - 12:07 pm.

    “Just last week, bombs shipped on airplanes bound for the United States were stopped because of the cooperation of foreign intelligence services, Johnson noted.”

    Johnson failed to note that those Saudi foreign intelligence services openly employ the use of torture.

    Torture has been used since the dawn of time; every country uses it as an intelligence tool.

    My heart tells me it’s wrong, but my head tells me it’s necessary…I certainly have no doubt as to my opinion in a situation where the application of harsh interrogation might help save my family.

  7. Submitted by Bill Schletzer on 11/08/2010 - 12:47 pm.

    Mr Swift,

    How would you feel if the goverment decided one of you children was withholding information concerning some bombing plot and wouldn’t believe your child’s denials and decided there was only one way to get the truth.

    I notice that lots of poeple like you who decry moral relativism and claim that there are absolute truths in this world are ok with torture. You just used moral relativism to justify harming another human being. Way to go!

  8. Submitted by Jim Roth on 11/08/2010 - 01:30 pm.

    Torture violates both international and US law. There is no justification. If you believe it is justified under any circumstances you believe it is justifiable across the board. Those who excuse it when we use it remind me of one of the lessons my parents taught me, “Just because a bunch of other people are jumping off a cliff doesn’t mean you should follow.” Deviating from the standard of law weakens and does not strengthen national security. Experienced interrogators also know it does not work.

    As Jesse Ventura says (and no he is not my favorite source on all topics although he is a lot more knowledgeable on this topic than the apologists), “If Dick Cheney was waterboarded he would confess to the Sharon Tate murders”). That is an accurate statement of how much actionable intelligence you get by torturing someone. Those who deny this are engaging in fantasy ala fictional character Jack Bauer on “24”.

  9. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 11/08/2010 - 02:54 pm.

    Bill, a moral relativist would try and convince you that torture is not only necessary, but morally defensible.

    I make no such claim.

    I’m not disagreeing that torture is wrong, but I admit that there are situations in which I’d most probably condone it.

    In this instance, I’m not saying I’m right; just honest.

  10. Submitted by Bill Schletzer on 11/08/2010 - 04:12 pm.

    Swift, you said it was at times necessary, your head tells you it is necessary. So you are saying it is a logical choice. That was your defense. If it is “necessary”, then it would be morally defensible. You are trying to have it both ways: you want to harm others for your personal gain but then pat yourself on the back as a “moral” creature and say, “Gee, I’m only human”.

    Goverments don’t torture because they have some acute momentary need to rescue someone or save a life, they do it to gather “intelligence” in order to gain power over others. If torture “worked” our jails would have torture chambers where we could torture people into confessing to crimes or admitting they hit their spouse or something. They would never torture the kidnapper of your kid like they would some military prisoner. It is about people who worship power and won’t let humanity stand in their way.

    I don’t know if you are or claim to be a Christian but I can imagine no circumstances (although he doesn’t talk to me personally) where he would condone torture, including to save a life. To support a govermennt that tortures because you are personally fallible (as am I) is a mistake that helps evil creep further into the world.

    Torture is wrong.

  11. Submitted by Jim Roth on 11/08/2010 - 05:05 pm.

    Thomas, I don’t agree with you but I admire your honesty.

  12. Submitted by Eric Paul Jacobsen on 11/08/2010 - 06:48 pm.

    Thomas Swift should follow his heart, which rightly opposes torture, not his head, which offers only weak arguments in favor of it. Let’s consider these arguments, one by one.

    “Saudi foreign intelligence services openly employ the use of torture.”

    Why should this make a difference in our moral or pragmatic deliberations? For what reason should our government emulate the Saudi monarchy? We are not a monarchy. Moreover, we have signed the Geneva Conventions, which expressly forbid Saudi interrogation methods.

    “Torture has been used since the dawn of time; every country uses it as an intelligence tool.”

    This is neither a pragmatic argument nor a moral argument in favor of torture. It neither proves that torture works nor that it is morally right. As the philosopher David Hume famously observed, “You cannot derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’.” We should also remind ourselves that the “people have always done it” argument was used to defend slavery. At the time the defenders of slavery used this argument, they were speaking the truth – people HAD always enslaved other people. But that didn’t make it right.

    “I certainly have no doubt as to my opinion in a situation where the application of harsh interrogation might help save my family.”

    If the most that Thomas Swift can say in favor of “harsh interrogation” is that it MIGHT (under unspecified, I believe highly implausible circumstances) help save his family, serious doubt is in order; indeed, his choice of the word “might” here is already an admission of doubt.

    I believe that when we look at the historical record of the use of torture as an interrogation method, we quickly discover how ineffective it really is. The witch trials are a great place to start. Look at the evidence: Tens of thousands of innocent people – mostly poor women – were tortured. They confessed to crimes that we now know they couldn’t possibly have committed (because we no longer believe in magic), and then they were sentenced to death on the basis of those confessions.

    Yes, I know: witches never existed, whereas terrorists do. But the point of interrogation is to distinguish what’s really true from what we merely imagine or assume to be true. There is no evidence in history that torture reliably accomplishes this. Therefore, there is no strong pragmatic reason to favor torture – whereas the moral reason to reject it has always been strong.

    We should all go with our hearts on this one.

  13. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 11/08/2010 - 08:30 pm.

    If we are making the decision of whether or not we should torture based on this information, then it is no longer a moral decision. Because if you’re morally against something, you’re morally against it, even if it at times provides useful information. The debate on torture does not depend on the “conclusions” reached from the last few years, it depends on people’s legal interpretation of the Constitution and Bill of Rights, and, at times, on people’s moral feelings.

  14. Submitted by Tom Anderson on 11/08/2010 - 09:45 pm.

    Totally a tangent but feel free to insert “abortion” for the word torture, especially in sentences including the words “morally”, “to save a life”, or “is wrong”.

  15. Submitted by PHILLIP HANKLAND on 11/10/2010 - 09:48 am.

    Bush was 110% right on the water boarding issue.
    Our enemies chopped off heads etc….what were we to do to defend our democracy? Nothing?
    War is Hell…..but unfortunately that’s the way the world. Is.

Leave a Reply