The False Torture Debate
Paris, December 13, 2007 – It is a strange affair when the CIA's destruction of videos made of its torture of prisoners has created a greater scandal in the U.S. Congress and the press than the fact that the torture itself took place.
The actual scandal is that the United States has been torturing prisoners on orders from the top of the Bush administration, using methods of torture authorized from the top that the administration still refuses to condemn or renounce. The White House says "the United States does not torture," and therefore nothing that it does is torture.
It is equally important that the U.S. Congress has been unable, or unwilling, as a body, to condemn torture in unequivocal terms, nor have Bush presidential nominees to high legal and judicial office been willing in testifying to Congress to identify torture as anything other than what America's enemies do, not us -- since as the president says, we Americans do not torture.
Yet were the smallest child compelled to watch this procedure known as water-boarding, he or she would know that it was torture. He or she would scream in horror at the terrible thing being done to this man (or woman; it seems that the U.S. does not discriminate sexually in either victims nor professional torturers.)
Where does this leave us? Everyone knows that the policy of the United States is to torture, while the policy of the president and his men is cynically to deny it. The CIA dsstroys the evidence of this torture -- which it has conscientiously filmed, just as Nazi torturers and camp officials made careful records of their wartime actions and victims: records which then were used against them in their postwar trials.
This may be significant. It is possible that America's torturers and their superiors have recognized that whatever the administration's efforts, a non-negligible risk exists that individuals responsible for torture could eventually end before some new version of the Nuremberg tribunals that caused Nazi war criminals to be hung, or the new International Criminal Court, or some equivalent war crimes tribunal at The Hague.
Just this week [Dec. 12] the Bosnian Serb general who commanded 44 months of the 1992-1995 siege of Sarajevo was convicted at The Hague of murder, inhumane acts, and orchestrating terror, and was sentenced to 33 years imprisonment, under the same international war crimes accords that include the international ban on torture.
As the Bush administration approaches its end, such thoughts may have arisen in some official minds. The CIA may have less than total faith in the willingness of a new administration to protect it (especially after what happened to the agency after Vietnam). All but the deluded among its leaders know that they have been ordering, facilitating, or committing crimes including torture, which is a felony in U.S. law, illegal in international law, forbidden by U.S. military manuals, and by common international opinion a loathsome practice. They probably have thought of what a prosecutor could do with those videos.
They would be mad to think that George W. Bush or Richard Cheney would ever declare to future international or American tribunals that whatever the CIA did in the war on terror was done on their orders, and that they assume full responsibility.
The presidential and vice-presidential position is that the United States does not torture. If anyone at the CIA or elsewhere committed torture, it must have been a rogue operation. (It was Donald Rumsfeld whose sense of command responsibility led him to say of Abu Ghraib that the problem lay with "a few hillbillies" who would be prosecuted – as indeed they were.)
The American nation has placed itself in an impossible position. The president says we do not torture. Yet everyone knows the president has with transparent euphemisms ordered the use of torture. White House and Justice Department meetings have been reported by participants in which officials lingered salaciously over the various near-death tortures to authorize.
The discussion of recent days in the Congress has concerned who ordered the destruction of the tapes. "Not I," says the new head of the CIA, Gen. Michael Hayden; "I've just arrived." "Not I, says George Tenet, former CIA director, although he is said to have ordered the torture filmed. The tapes reportedly were destroyed under Porter Goss, Tenet's successor. Congress asks: Why weren't we told?
It was not told because it already knew. That is the big secret that is no longer a secret. As early as 2002 CIA officials were briefing members of congressional intelligence committees on these practices. Those briefed included the present Democratic Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi. They had a "virtual tour" of all that was going on, including the renditions, secret facilities abroad, and especially the torture.
The congressional reaction? According to Congressman Porter Goss, later head of the CIA, it was "not just approval, but encouragement." Two of the legislators, according to The Washington Post, asked if what the agency was doing "was tough enough."
No wonder everyone is happy today to call for special investigations of who destroyed the tapes. That changes the subject. The important information is the subject of the videos: state torture. Who in the government was responsible; who knew about it; who went along. And who objected? And to judge from the public reaction to date: who cares? The national consensus seems to be that it is better to have destroyed the evidence.
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