As featured on p. 218 of "Bloggers on the Bus," under the name "a MyDD blogger."

Monday, May 04, 2009

This Week In Torture

The fight for justice and accountability for those who tortured in our name refuses to fade. Last week three progressive House members introduced a bill calling for a special committee to investigate torture, wiretapping, and other practices of the Bush regime. One of the sponsors, Robert Wexler, talks about it here:

This committee would have the authority to ask the hard questions – to look close – and deliver the truth about the proper role of our government that protects both our civil liberties and the safety of our citizens. We must do both.

The committee will investigate many of the outrageous policies of the Bush Administration to unearth and expose what happened during the past eight years. Witnesses will be subpoenaed and testify under oath. Based on what we learn, the committee will craft legislative recommendations that will be utilized as the Patriot Act and other critical national security legislation are renewed in the coming months and years.

We can't look forward without fully understanding what occurred. We must take a hard look at what went wrong in the last 8 years. We must continue to peel back the veil of secrecy that the previous Administration used as cover to undermine our system of checks and balances, and establish a clear line between what is necessary for our security and what is unlawful government intrusion and a violation of our civil liberties.

This legislation need only pass the House and therefore we have a terrific chance to enact it.

That's at least a start. And the Senate Judiciary Committee will seek testimony from Ali Soufan and Phillip Zelikow next week. Soufan was the FBI interrogator who got information from Abu Zubaydah through legal means, and Zelikow was the State Department official who wrote an alternative memo, sought by Democrats in the House, that dissented from the Bush regime line about the legality of torture (which Bush officials promptly tried to destroy).

These inside efforts are buttressed by outside efforts at accountability, like the Courage Campaign's action item asking their supporters to call Democratic House Judiciary Committee members from California (all 6 of them) and let them know of the state party's resolution to investigate Jay Bybee. The potential removal of Bybee from the federal bench is just an entryway into a larger accountability for the torture regime. A released FBI memo shows that George Bush himself signed off on interrogation tactics that could plausibly be construed as torture, so obviously this should go all the way up the ladder.

Senior FBI agents stationed in Iraq in 2004 claimed in an e-mail that President George W. Bush signed an executive order approving the use of military dogs, sleep deprivation and other harsh tactics to intimidate Iraqi detainees.

The FBI e-mail -- dated May 22, 2004 -- followed disclosures about abuse of Iraqi detainees at Abu Ghraib prison and sought guidance on whether FBI agents in Iraq were obligated to report the U.S. military’s harsh interrogation of inmates when that treatment violated FBI standards but fit within the guidelines of a presidential executive order.

According to the e-mail, Bush’s executive order authorized interrogators to use military dogs, "stress positions," sleep "management," loud music and "sensory deprivation through the use of hoods, etc." to extract information from detainees in Iraq, which was considered a violation of the Geneva Conventions. Bush has never before been directly linked to authorizing specific interrogation techniques at Guantanamo or Abu Ghraib. Bush has admitted, however, that he personally signed off on the waterboarding of three "high-value" prisoners.

With even staunch conservatives like Ken Adelman backing away from the knee-jerk apologist defense of torture, and with enough experts in the field willing to discuss both the unreliability of evidence gained through torture and the general immorality of the practice, as long as Congress is pushed to action, it will be hard to stop the train once it heads down the tracks.

Phillip Gourevitch, who as a chronicler of the Rwandan genocide knows quite a bit about accountability for war crimes, explains why we could maybe take a different view, away from prosecution and toward a Truth Commission. I don't know that I totally agree, but it's worth noting.

America is now embroiled in a debate about how, or whether, to hold the true masterminds—the former President, the former Vice-President, the former Defense Secretary, and their top lawyers—to account for their criminal policies. Here, we are on uncharted ground. As a rule, the war-crimes prosecutions of the past century were conducted by a group of states, acting collectively, against the (usually defeated) leaders of another state. When states hold their own leaders to account, it tends to happen not after an election but after a revolution, when the very premise of the ancien régime is treated as criminal. Furthermore, prosecution and punishment are not necessarily the best means to eradicate the rot from a political system, because in adjudicating systemic crimes political compromise is inevitable. It is practically impossible, and politically intolerable, to contemplate holding to account every corrupted officer in the chains of command that ran between the White House and the guardhouse at Abu Ghraib or at Bagram Airbase. A full and public reckoning of the historical record might be less cathartic but would ultimately be more valuable than a few sensational trials.

In any event, President Obama, who has taken a courageous lead in bringing the issue of torture to light, and in insisting on recriminalizing it, appears to have no interest in taking any of the policymakers to court—though he has not precluded doing so. Still, to date the only Americans who have been prosecuted and sentenced to imprisonment for the criminal policies that emanated from the highest levels are ten low-ranking servicemen and women—those who took and appeared in the Abu Ghraib photographs, and embarrassed the nation by showing us what we were doing there. Charles Graner is the only one remaining in prison, serving ten years. His superior officers enjoy their freedom, and C.I.A. interrogators, who spent years committing far worse acts against prisoners than Graner did even in the darkest days at Abu Ghraib, have been assured immunity.

But, if full justice remains impossible, surely some injustices can be corrected. Whenever crimes of state are adjudicated—at Nuremberg or The Hague, Phnom Penh or Kigali—the principle of command responsibility, whereby the leaders who give the orders are held to a higher standard of accountability than the foot soldiers who follow, pertains. There can be no restoration of the national honor if we continue to scapegoat those who took the fall for an Administration—and for us all.

The Washington Post covered those Abu Ghraib guards this week as well, noting the absurdity of Charles Graner and his buddies on the night shift, while legally culpable, being the only people held to account for this systematic Administration policy of torture.

Whether you agree with Gourevitch that a public airing of the full architecture of torture is more desirable, or whether you agree with me that accountability necessitates prosecution or else the precedent of no accountability will be set in stone, we can all agree that doing nothing, while still trying to use our moral authority to castigate others who employ torture, makes a mockery of the rule of law. The "torture videos" from a sheikh in the United Arab Emirates are somehow hurting the country's relationship with the United States, as if we have no short-term or long-term memory whatsoever:

The U.S. is a very tolerant nation, but the one thing we simply cannot abide is when a government fails adequately to investigate allegations of torture on the part of key officials and fails to hold them accountable. That's where we draw the line.

The UAE royal family claimed that they had investigated and resolved the matter and made sure that it would not happen again -- but when it comes to torture, we have made clear that such a "look-forward-not-backwards/reflection-not-retribution" mentality is morally outrageous and unacceptable -- from the UAE [...]

What kind of primitive, brutal country knows for years that its own powerful government officials participated in torture and then fails even to investigate what happened, let alone impose meaningful accountability on the torturers? The international community simply cannot tolerate acquiescence to that sort of evil.

Will anyone recognize this unbelievable juxtaposition, and give this country the cleansing they need through real justice?

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