Bill Totten's Weblog

Thursday, November 10, 2005

What We've Lost

George W Bush and the price of torture

by William Pfaff

Harper's Magazine (November 2005)

The most important reason for the tension that exists between the United States and most of the rest of the democratic world is that American claims about the threat of terrorism seem grossly exaggerated. The extravagance of its reaction seems disproportionate and unrealistic, even suggestive of the sweeping and Utopian political fantasies that convulsed the mid-twentieth century, meant in their day to bring "an end to history". America's current Utopian vision, global, free-market democracy under American leadership, is a very unlikely prospect.

American policy on Iraq is condemned abroad by most of the democracies, in part for the practical reason that this policy has manufactured terrorism and nationalist resistance to the United States and its allies inside Iraq and so far has succeeded only in escalating the crisis between the Western powers and Islamic society.

The American insistence that September 11 2001, was the defining event of the age, after which "nothing could be the same", is regarded as simply untrue. The only thing that really changed was the United States. That it may never again be the same is profoundly depressing. Foreign observers are disturbed that American elites seem unable to understand this.

To them, and certainly to an American, the most dismaying aspect of the Bush Administration's conduct has been its installation of torture as integral to American military and clandestine operations, a part of the administration's repudiation of those portions of international law and American treaty obligations that it considers irreconcilable with absolute US national sovereignty, or as obstacles to national policy. This was displayed from the beginning.

The administration's hostility to the UN and to other international institutions, as well as to the constraints of international law, reflects a long tradition on the right wing of the Republican Party, going back to the Republican isolationism of the years between the two world wars. It may be deplorable, but it is no great surprise.

There are, however, few if any antecedents in American public policy and debate for the American government's present commitment to torture. In recent years there was a hint of a break with accepted norms, in the Pentagon's adamant hostility to proposals for an International Criminal Court, and to the 1998 Rome Statute that established such a court, which, ratified by ninety-nine countries, has now come into being. It was difficult at the time to understand the government's position other than as an implicit declaration that existing military doctrine included options that could invite condemnation as war crimes.

The Clinton Administration signed the International Criminal Court treaty despite Defense Department opposition, but President George W Bush formally withdrew the American signature on May 6 2002.

For many years the US Army has been accused of running a "torture school" as part of its training of Latin American officers at its School of the Americas (lately renamed the "Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation"), located first in Panama and later, after Panama's full independence, at Fort Benning in Georgia. This accusation was denied, and most Americans, including this one, were inclined to doubt that it was really so. But the routine use during the war on terror of techniques that according to international law (and common-sense judgment, here and abroad) are clearly torturesuggests that it may have been true after all.

Following the terrorist attacks in September 2001, explicit proposals to authorize torture circulated in the administration and in the Pentagon and CIA, even though there was no one yet to torture. Memoranda soon were drafted by the Justice Department on how to protect American military and intelligence officers from eventual prosecution under existing US law for how they treated prisoners.

When the war in Afghanistan began, the Bush Administration shipped prisoners outside Afghanistan, mainly to the newly established prison facility at the US naval base in Guantanamo, Cuba, a location technically (or at least arguably so) outside the jurisdiction of US laws and courts. It did so without serious examination of the prisoners' individual cases, again in disregard of Geneva Conventions concerning prisoners taken in war.

On January 9 2002, a memorandum co-written by John Yoo of the University of California Law School, who was serving temporarily in the Justice Department, provided arguments to support a claim that with respect to prisoners taken in Afghanistan, the United States was not bound by the Geneva Conventions. The prisoners were to be declared "enemy combatants", not prisoners of war, a legal distinction previously unrecognized but considered necessary to prevent American officials from being exposed to the US federal War Crimes Act of 1996, which carries the death penalty.

There was early consideration of the legal consequences of what the President, members of his cabinet, and other high officials were doing. In effect, the question put to government lawyers was how the President and the others could commit war crimes and not be held accountable. The January 25 2002, opinion Bush received from the White House legal counsel, Alberto R Gonzales, now United States attorney general, held that the President was not bound by US laws or by international engagements prohibiting torture, nor were Americans committing torture under his authority open to prosecution by the Justice Department. This opinion rested on the argument that the nature of the war on terror made existing laws and international agreements irrelevant. Gonzales called the Geneva Conventions "quaint" and "obsolete".

A year later, in March 2003, a memorandum from a Defense Department legal task force held that national-security considerations alone freed the President from adherence to any international treaty or federal law. The Wall Street Journal of June 7 2004, quoted one of the military lawyers who took part in these discussions as saying it was an assertion of "presidential power at its absolute apex".

US Army regulations on dealing with prisoners of war were similarly bypassed, despite objections within the military services and from Secretary of State (and former General) Colin Powell, who said such a policy reversed "over a century of US policy and practice in supporting the Geneva Conventions" and would undermine both the protection of US troops in the future and allied support for American operations. In February, CIA lawyers prudently asked for and obtained from the administration a formal exemption from President Bush's pledge to abide by "the spirit" of the Geneva Conventions. The CIA was aware, if no one else seemed to be, that the new White House policy authorized American officers to commit acts for which the Second World War Allies had hanged Gestapo and SS officers and Japanese prison-camp commanders.

Our government also adopted a system for holding persons in secret prisons and "holding facilities" in foreign locations (denying them legal recourse even if American citizens), interrogating them there, and imprisoning them indefinitely when it suited American purposes. The resemblance to Nazi practice during the totalitarian decades, particularly in the deliberate denial of any legal recourse to such prisoners, presumably permanently, was obvious and dismaying. In contrast, Russian prisoners were always subjected to a form of trial and condemnation, however spurious and arbitrary. People were discharged from the gulag.

America's prisoners considered of particular interest were routinely transferred to third countries, a practice known as "extraordinary rendition". When this first became known, in late 2002, Washington reporters were informed - with a smile and a wink - that its purpose was to have them tortured outside American legal jurisdiction and therefore without American legal accountability. This was confirmed some two and a half years later, when the practice was officially conceded. The US government says that upon rendition, it demands and receives verbal assurance that the person will not be tortured. This is a formality among professionals, since there is no other reason for the rendition.

According to the Washington Post of March 17 2005, more than 100 people have been "rendered" to foreign countries without legal proceedings or access to the International Committee of the Red Cross, as nominally guaranteed to all prisoners held by the US military. The Post quotes a diplomat from an Arab country that cooperates with the United States: "It would be stupid to keep track of them because then you would know what's going on". An Australian citizen named Mamdouh Habib, sent to Egypt for interrogation, said after release that during his six months in Egypt he had been hung from hooks, repeatedly shocked, beaten, and nearly drowned. When he eventually arrived at Guantanamo, most of his fingernails were missing. Prisoners have also been rendered to the peculiarly brutal regime in Uzbekistan, an American "ally" in the war on terror that recently closed American access to an airfield being used in Afghan operations because the State Department had made a formal protest against the ferocity of official Uzbek repression of political protest in that country.

In the summer of 2002, Mr Gonzales commissioned a memo from the Justice Department that defended the President's right to order treatment of "detainees" that inflicted pain up to the limit of causing organ failure, death, or long-term psychological damage. According to a June 2004 report in Newsweek magazine, the memo was written after a meeting convened by Mr Gonzales during which specific torture practices were discussed and approved. In December 2002, Donald Rumsfeld authorized stripping Guantanamo prisoners, partially suffocating them, threatening them with dogs, and leading them to believe that they or their families were going to be killed, among other practices.

An investigation conducted by former Secretary of Defense James R Schlesinger in 2004 determined that some US interrogators who tortured Iraqi detainees at the Abu Ghraib prison believed that their actions had been authorized by a memorandum from the headquarters of Lieutenant General Ricardo S Sanchez approving such techniques as hooding, imposing "stress positions", and using dogs to inspire fear, all violations of the Geneva Conventions. General Sanchez's legal staff sanctioned these practices, reasoning from the memoranda cited above and precedent practices that this treatment was to be applied to "unlawful combatants".

An operational problem subsequently encountered in the field was what to do when things went wrong and the torturers found themselves with a dead man or woman on their hands (it seems that women have also been tortured). In at least one case in the Abu Ghraib prison, this was left to improvisation, which meant removal of the cadaver, which the interrogators kept from putrefying with ice filched from the mess hall, to be dumped elsewhere. In this as in other cases, witnesses say some military doctors were complicit in the application of torture and the cover-up of its consequences, in violation of their professional ethical commitments.

In November 2003 an Iraqi general, Abid Mowhoush, prisoner of the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment in Qaim, died of beating and suffocation after having been stuffed into a sleeping bag and wound around with electrical wire - part of a regularly used "claustrophobic technique" for interrogation.

The incident followed email exchanges in August between the taskforce headquarters in Baghdad and interrogators in the field, in which the former asserted that "the gloves are coming off" because better intelligence was wanted. "Wish lists" were solicited from interrogators on what they wanted to do to prisoners. The 4th Infantry Division in Tikrit replied on August 17 with the suggestion of claustrophobic techniques and low voltage electrocution.

The Amnesty International report called "Guantanamo and Beyond", issued in May 2005, claims that there have been at least 100 deaths of detainees and "27 confirmed or suspected detainee homicides for Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom". The selection of prisoners for torture seems often to have been haphazard. The most horrendous official account thus published, after the New York Times obtained the report of a secret army investigation, is probably that of the man tortured to death at Bagram Collection Point in Afghanistan in 2002 by interrogators who actually believed him to be innocent. The man had simply driven his taxi by a military base "at the wrong time".

What explains this deliberate and dramatic American departure from national as well as international norms of civil and military justice, previously respected, and indeed defended, by the United States government? It has not gone totally unquestioned. The FBI, the armed forces' own legal officers, bar associations, and public-interest groups have all protested, as have retired intelligence officers. But there has been relatively little effective protest in the American press or challenge from Democratic Party leaders. Among them, only former Vice President Al Gore has condemned the American use of torture: eloquently, passionately, and to no effect whatever, finding no public endorsement from other leaders of his party. Thus bipartisan responsibility exists for what has happened, and it continues today.

The Bush Administration simply denies that it authorizes torture, even when issuing the State Department's annual Human Rights report criticizing torture in other countries, including Egypt, Syria, and others to which the United States has rendered prisoners. Michael Kozak, acting assistant secretary of the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, said at the time of that report's publication that President Bush "has been very clear on the issue of torture, which is we are against it - and torture by anyone's common-sense definition of it, not some fancy definition".

The United States in the past has always denounced torture , recognizing that its indirect costs are enormous in its effect on the national reputation, its alienation of allied and international opinion, and its corruption of the morale and morality of the military and intelligence services. Why then has it been adopted by the Bush Administration? The semiofficial rationale is expedience, but this is unconvincing. The nearly universal judgment in police, intelligence, and special-warfare circles is that torture is all but useless in obtaining true and timely information. Even if one tortures a key figure in possession of potentially valuable intelligence, and eventually forces him (or her) to say what the interrogator wants to hear, what actual value does the information have? Is it really true, or merely the answer the torturer has implicitly conveyed to the victim that he wishes to hear? Even if true, is it any longer useful? Every resistance or underground organization works with a system of cutouts that limits what any individual knows, and requires a general cancellation of any plans, rendezvous, and operational arrangements that the prisoner might know and disclose.

FBI officials visiting Guantanamo have argued that the torture practiced there by the Department of Defense is gratuitous and useless. Porter Goss himself, director of the CIA, told the Senate Intelligence Committee on February 16 2005, that torture "doesn't work. There are better ways to deal with captives."

The Bush Administration, the CIA, and the US Army now seem addicted to torture, useful or otherwise. People are tortured because this has become the practice. Generalized abuse of captives seems to be thought useful to spread dismay, disorientation, and apprehension among those resisting occupation by foreign troops. There probably is also an influence in this of Cold War experiments with psychological disorientation, demoralization of prisoners through humiliation and degradation, and seemingly random physical abuse.

Confirmation of all these practices has come from dozens of reports, witnesses, participants, and from leaked Red Cross, FBI, US Army, and other official documents. A compilation of documents from official US sources and the International Red Cross describing torture by American agents, soldiers, and private contractors, assembled by Mark Danner, numbers more than 600 pages. {1} The reports are so numerous, consistent, and mutually supportive as to put the existence of these practices beyond doubt. The administration's perfunctory denials have sometimes been of such insolent hypocrisy as to suggest that it considers the American reputation for torture an asset in intimidating terrorists, and possibly others as well. In response to an Amnesty International demand for an independent inquiry into abuse at US detention centers, White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan said: "The United States is leading the way when it comes to protecting human rights and promoting human dignity".

Terrorism and guerrilla warfare demoralize because they are unpredictable and without rules. There is no reliable way to recognize enemies, no structure to determine what is and is not allowable, and so reciprocal atrocities, indiscriminate violence, and the collateral killing of civilians are invited. The psychological defense against all this among our own soldiers is to dehumanize enemy civilians as well as enemy combatants.

The generalization of torture in the so-called war on terror has been facilitated because the President and other American authorities have repeatedly used dehumanizing rhetoric in describing the enemy. The message soldiers (and civilians) have received from the American civilian as well as the military command chain, all the way to the Pentagon and White House, has been that those who oppose the United States' war against terror deserve to be killed. Neither the President nor Donald Rumsfeld speaks in terms of mere defeat of the enemy, much less (in contrast with the British in southern Iraq) of negotiating with him.

The cumulative effect of this dehumanization of the enemy has been to convey to American troops that not only are international and national norms of lawful conduct suspended (or crucially limited) in the war against terror but commonly accepted religious and secular norms of civilized conduct no longer apply. The enemy is evil itself or, as a July 2004 Defense Department threat study put it, the "Universal Adversary".

In some evangelical Protestant religious circles - even inside the US military (scandalously so, it seems, at the Air Force Academy) - there has been implicit or explicit identification of the war in Iraq and against "terror" with the conflict between God and the Devil, this in the context of currently popular American fictional interpretations of the supposedly impending biblical Last Days and the apocalyptic End of Time.

The Bush Administration has created a state of expectation and a mode of conduct hostile to traditional norms of military behavior, and it has inspired an attitude of contempt and fear toward Iraqi, Afghan, and other Islamic enemies that has opened the way to atrocities, licensing sadism and gratuitous cruelty - always near the surface in war. War is awful, but guerrilla and terrorist war is the worst war of all. The people who fight against it can keep their bearings only if the moral structure of their own army is intact. You might think Americans had learned that in Vietnam.

If one seeks a plausible utilitarian explanation for all this, the most reasonable is that the Bush Administration tortures prisoners because of its symbolism. Torture is intended to produce what, in the military assault on Iraq, was called "shock and awe". It is meant as intimidation. We will do these terrible things to demonstrate that nothing will stop us from conquering our enemies. We are indifferent to world opinion. We will stop at nothing.

In that respect, torture has come to resemble the display of armored destruction and indiscriminate firepower put on the night Baghdad was taken, and again, a year and a half later, in the attack on insurgent-held Fallujah.

Both operations were fundamentally symbolic. The fall of Baghdad did not end the war, and the well-advertised assaults on Fallujah and, more recently, on Tal Afar near the Syrian frontier, allowed many insurgents to escape. The real purpose was intimidation of the population: a message to all Iraqis that this is what the United States can do to you if you continue to resist, and, in the case of Fallujah, a collective punishment of the city's residents for having allowed terrorists to operate there.

The administration's obsession with shock and awe is a result of its fatal misunderstanding of the war it is fighting, which is political and not military.

This still is an inadequate explanation for the persistent, continuing, and pervasive use of torture. Moral and even theological judgment on what the Bush Administration has been doing becomes inevitable. The President has invited this judgment by repeatedly justifying his conduct of the war on terror in religious terms, declaring the prisoners held by the US "evil" when resisting the extension to them of legal protection and basic human rights.

The most appropriate public response to this declaration was the one made by former Vice President Al Gore. He said that "one of the clearest indications of the impending loss of intimacy with one's own soul is the failure to recognize the existence of a soul in those over whom power is exercised, especially if the helpless come to be treated as animals, and degraded". I must agree with Gore's conclusion, that those who so degrade others reveal their own - and their nation's - degradation. Unfortunately, he found little support for his position among either Democrats or Republicans.

In the whole affair, the real if unavowed appeal of sadism and nihilism is at work; this cannot be ignored, and it functions not only at the individual level. Certainly the pathetic army reservists whose souvenir photos of torture in the Abu Ghraib prison were early evidence of these practices found themselves unexpectedly in circumstances that evoked or even licensed perverse impulses that otherwise would have remained suppressed. Yet these individuals are the only ones in the entire scandal who have been put on trial; commissioned officers with command responsibility were given letters of reprimand or placed on half-pay for brief periods.

Sadism functions through institutions as well as through individuals, and the determination of this administration to treat its enemies in this manner represents moral perversion in its use of national power: not only to impose an American policy on its enemies but to degrade and humiliate them. This clearly is the will of this government with respect to those who stand in its way. Enemies are not simply to be defeated; they are to be annihilated morally as well as physically.

To destroy is to affirm one's own power: he dies, I am enhanced by his death. It is not a coincidence that all but one of the leading figures in the Bush Administration's conception and conduct of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, nearly all of whom were of military age at the time of the Vietnam War, managed by one contrivance or another to avoid service in that war. They now do by proxy what they were afraid to do in person. No doubt at a level within themselves they cannot afford to contemplate, they search a retroactive validation.

Many of this war's theorists share a current of political thought ascribed to Leo Strauss, in which the superior person, capable of seeing beyond the parochial concerns of ordinary citizens, is held obliged to impose on a nation actions the citizenry would not understand or approve. Neoconservatism, as represented in the Bush Administration, certainly includes fascism among its influences. The eminent political scholar Stanley Hoffmann has noted that although "we are accustomed to the rhetoric of black and white", it is "this cult of power which is radically new. After 1947, it was the Soviet Union which incarnated the cult of power; today it exists among certain Americans, as if they had re-read [the rightist philosopher Carl Schmitt, who taught in the 1930s that the state should dominate society, and that certain states have a right to hegemonic power], or certain Italian fascist theoreticians ... It's very serious."

A similar ideological ruthlessness is derived from Marxist argument as well, that "objective" knowledge about history's dialectical progression authorizes - indeed demands, in mankind's own interest - ruthless exploitation of the human material at the leader's disposal. Bertolt Brecht expressed this "higher realism" when he demanded "what vileness would you not commit to exterminate violence ...?" Today we must add to that, "or to exterminate terror and spread America's version of democracy".

International illegality, the deliberate repudiation of international law, and torture, gratuitously employed in defiance of the moral intuitions of ordinary people, all show that the Bush Administration has chosen to place itself outside the moral community of modern Western democratic civilization. This is not an unwarranted or outrageous judgment; it logically follows from the evidence. It seems a strange choice to have been made by an American government that more than any other in history identifies itself with righteousness and with Christianity.

In that respect, if one is to invoke religious judgments, I would cite Andre Malraux's remark to the novelist Georges Bernanos, who had returned to France from wartime exile and asked what judgment Malraux made on Europe in 1945. Malraux replied, "With the camps, Satan has visibly reappeared over the world".


{1} "Torture and Terror: America, Abu Ghraib and the War on Terror", New York Review of Books, 2004.

William Pfaff's most recent book is The Bullet's Song: Romantic Violence and Utopia (Simon & Schuster, 2004).

Bill Totten


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