Friday, April 24, 2009

Waterboarding seeks its own level

In the past eight days, Attorney General Eric Holder has released four of the Justice Department torture memos dating to August 2002, documents thought to be the blueprint for a legal rationale for torturing terrorist suspects under the grand pretext of national security.

In the last week, a tidal wave of a report from the Senate Armed Services Committee, a 232-page document, reveals in greater detail the chain of command responsible for that circumvention of national and international law.

Here’s a link to the summary.

And today, the American Civil Liberties Union announced that the Defense Department will by May 28 release photographs showing prisoner abuse in sites in Iraq and Afghanistan, torture of suspects at the hands of the U.S. military and intelligence personnel. The photos will be released in response to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit filed by the ACLU in 2004.

Waterboarding seeks its own level. There’s an inexorable drip-drip-drip to these disclosures; revelation by revelation they spell further political problems for a Republican party already beleaguered by an utter smackdown in November, a paucity of new ideas and an absence of philosophical leadership. And they thoroughly complicate the desperate attempts to sanitize the historical record of the Bush administration.

But these disclosures also present new geopolitical challenges for the Obama administration just hitting its stride. Even as President Obama makes his own mark on American diplomacy with an accessible, open-door approach at odds with the Bush White House, he discovers there’s more damage by his predecessor to be undone.

By necessity, Obama’s first term will be defined historically as much by what he inherits as what he initiates.

◊ ◊ ◊

For days now the Republican Party has defended the torturing of suspects at Bagram Air Base, the Guantanamo Bay facility and the infamous Abu Ghraib prison with a tautological rationale: The ends thoroughly justified the means. It was necessary to protect the nation. They were Keeping the Homeland Safe.

That’s been the kernel of the justification mounted by Republicans, various GOP lawmakers and thought leaders in the right-hand drawer of the punditburo, and especially by former Vice President Dick Cheney, a man who looks more and more like the soldier who won’t leave the battlefield, long after the war he lost was over.

Cheney and other conservatives have been clamoring for release of other Justice Department memos that Holder hasn’t released yet; they claim that those other memos will reveal that torture works, that such practices as sleep deprivation, use of phobias such as fear of insects and dogs, forced nudity, physical assaults and the use of waterboarding — flooding the nose and mouth with a controlled but steady amount of water in a way that induces a sense of drowning — yielded results crucial to fighting the war in Iraq and … Keeping the Homeland Safe.

And they miss the point. In their eyes, if torture works, it justifies its use despite the act that a range of former intelligence operatives, military scholars and analysts and others have established that it doesn’t. Their insistence that torture works is itself the problem. It points to a willingness to circumvent national and international law to suit the narrow dictates of national politics.

It also ignores the findings of the U.S. military itself. Maj. Paul Burney, an Army psychiatrist, told investigators in June 2002 that “[w]hile we were there [Guantanamo Bay], a large part of the time we were focused on trying to establish a link between al-Qaida and Iraq, and we were not successful in establishing a link between al-Qaida and Iraq.

“The more frustrated people got in not being able to establish that link … there was more pressure to resort to measures that might produce more immediate results,” Burney said.

It was that frustration that ultimately led to Cheney, then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and their enablers in the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel to rationalize and authorize the use of torture.

Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the reputed mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks, had to undergo waterboarding 183 times. Abu Zubaydah, said to be a high-ranking member of al-Qaida, endured the procedure 83 times.

◊ ◊ ◊

For the Bushies, the worst thing about the gathering storm of revelations of torture on their watch may be the systematic nature to these abuses. This wasn’t something done every now and then.

“The abuse of detainees in U.S. custody cannot simply be attributed to the actions of ‘a few bad apples’ acting on their own,” the Senate committee report said. “The fact is that senior officials in the United States government solicited information on how to use aggressive techniques, redefined the law to create the appearance of their legality, and authorized their use against detainees. Those efforts damaged our ability to collect accurate intelligence that could save lives, strengthened the hand of our enemies, and compromised our moral authority.”

For the Obama administration, this is the damage to be undone. And the best way to do that is to let justice take its course. President Obama has separated himself from the process of an investigation of Bush White House torture going forward, though he’s on the record as being opposed to such an inquiry.

Apparently, the decision to press ahead rests largely in the hands of Attorney General Holder. The fact that the president and the attorney general may be at odds over this issue is itself a cause for calm, maybe even celebration. Think of it: a Justice Department unafraid to assert its independence from the White House in pursuit of truth and the rule of law. It’s been a while since we had that.

It’s that kind of a country that Gen. David Petraeus wants to represent. He said as much in a letter he wrote to his troops in May 2007:

“Our values and the laws governing warfare teach us to respect human dignity, maintain our integrity, and do what is right,” the general wrote. “Adherence to our values distinguishes us from our enemy. This fight depends on securing the population, which must understand that we — not our enemies — occupy the moral high ground.”

That’s the high ground that Obama must work hard to recapture, the moral high ground the Bush administration conceded to the expediencies of the moment. It begins with a clear understanding that there‘s no way to chart a path to the potential of the future without first coming to grips with the crimes of the past.
Image credit: Waterboarded man: Still from Amnesty International video. Holder: Justice Department photo.


  1. Let's go surfin' now
    Everybody's learnin' how
    Do so waterbordin' with me!

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