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Afternoon shadows, Monument Valley

Monday, December 8, 2014

Torture Redux


On the eve of the national bloodletting, it is interesting to watch the back and forth regarding the Senate torture report. John Kerry calls Feinstein and asks her to consider the timing of the release, not wanting to enrage those provincials outside the United States who don't grasp the essential nuance and difference between what we did and real torture.

The retiring head of the House Intelligence committee, ex flatfoot Mike Rogers, says that the report shouldn't be released at all, since no one involved has been indicted for criminal conduct. I have to ask myself, is this the threshold by which we judge our conduct these days? What has happened to the America which once was a moral beacon to the world, and a signatory to the Geneva Convention?

Is there a double standard to be applied when we are applying this type of physical coercion and when others reply in kind? This also applies to the forced feeding of Guantanamo prisoners. If what we do is copacetic, shouldn't it stand scrutiny in the light of day? Supposedly the underlying narrative in the report is that the CIA wasn't being completely forthright with the Bush Administration, something being sort of weakly denied by ex Bushies this week.

I used to write quite a bit about this subject, don't tackle it so much now. I was trying to remember the name of the Iraqi general that we smothered in his sleeping bag and did a search and found a very good article written on this very subject by one Robert Sommers in 2009. It is titled Unholy Parsing. Guy is good and very prescient.  I think I will reprint it for you here.
Angry charges and countercharges are flying back and forth in the debate over CIA torture or "enhanced interrogation" practices. The right is seething right now that the most recent disclosure of the torture memos will damage the ability of our government to successfully protect us and interrogate in the future because terrorists will know how far we are prepared to go.  

The left feels that Obama, in apparently deciding not to prosecute the past administration figures for illegal torture violations, is turning his back on those who demand accountability from a rogue Pentagon and CIA. I am trying to understand the issues more clearly and would like to offer a few of my own partisan views on the matter.

I downloaded the Geneva Conventions, international rules on the regulations concerning prisoners of war, which were adopted August 12, 1949, and started reading them yesterday.  You can find a link to them here.

These Conventions were ratified partially as a reaction to Japanese barbarity during World War II.  We were signatories because we did not want our captured servicemen to experience the type of torture and cruel treatment that occurred in places like Baatan.

All nations that are signatory to the United Nations Convention Against Torture have agreed they are subject to the explicit prohibition on torture under any condition. This was affirmed by Saadi v. Italy in which the European Court of Human Rights, on February 28, 2008, upheld the absolute nature of the torture ban by ruling that international law permits no exceptions to it. The treaty states "No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture". Additionally, signatories of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are bound to Article 5, which states, "No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment".

Now that we are wearing the velvet glove and bearing the iron fist, things start to get disingenuous.  After the clamor erupted after the revelations of Abu  Ghraib and Guantanamo, the past administration made it a point to change the Army Field Manual to prohibit these actions by the members of our armed forces.  But they squirmed around and apparently never curtailed the power of the CIA to engage in the same nefarious deeds replete with sexual humiliation, attack dogs, waterboarding, beatings, suffocation, etc.  The administration lawyers went so far as to say that it wasn't torture if there wasn't severe organ damage.

The United States's Office of Legal Counsel stated the CIA's definition of waterboarding in a Top Secret 2002 memorandum as follows:

    In this procedure, the individual is bound securely to an inclined bench, which is approximately four feet by seven feet. The individual's feet are generally elevated. A cloth is placed over the forehead and eyes. Water is then applied to the cloth in a controlled manner. As this is done, the cloth is lowered until it covers both the nose and mouth. Once the cloth is saturated and completely covers the mouth and nose, air flow is slightly restricted for 20 to 40 seconds due to the presence of the cloth… During those 20 to 40 seconds, water is continuously applied from a height of twelve to twenty-four inches. After this period, the cloth is lifted, and the individual is allowed to breathe unimpeded for three or four full breaths… The procedure may then be repeated. The water is usually applied from a canteen cup or small watering can with a spout… You have… informed us that it is likely that this procedure would not last more than twenty minutes in any one application."

Waterboarding was originally used by Chinese Communists against American prisoners during the Korean War.  Ironically, the United States protested the use of the technique vigorously at the time as a violation of the Geneva Convention.

You can't have it both ways and a responsible administration would realize that you either accept the Geneva Convention or you don't.  And if you don't, you lose any moral high ground in the unfortunate event that our men are captured and tortured in the future.  The rules don't suddenly change when the Americans in their white hats ride into the scene.  How will we feel and what will our reaction be if we get a taste of our enhanced interrogation medicine in the future?

Dick Cheney says that terrorist acts have been averted by the information that we received from Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Zubaida. I do not know if this is accurate but will for the sake of conversation take him at his word.  Now it is one thing to rough a guy up when he has just set the wheels in motion to blow up the eastern seaboard. Save America, god and family, you would have to have your head in the sand to think that an occasional asskicking shouldn't occur. But to inflict 183 waterboarding sessions on one guy (Mohmammed), over a long sustained period is medieval and yes, torture.  And as bad as these apples are, when the lines have gotten all fuzzy and blurry, our own cries will not be heeded and we will have surrendered our right to be indignant.

According to ABC News, CIA officers who subjected themselves to the water boarding technique lasted an average of 14 seconds before caving in. They said al Qaeda's toughest prisoner, Khalid Sheik Mohammed, won the admiration of interrogators when he was able to last between two and two-and-a-half minutes before begging to confess.

"The person believes they are being killed, and as such, it really amounts to a mock execution, which is illegal under international law," said John Sifton of Human Rights Watch.

The techniques are controversial among experienced intelligence agency and military interrogators. Many feel that a confession obtained this way is an unreliable tool. Two experienced officers have told ABC that there is little to be gained by these techniques that could not be more effectively gained by a methodical, careful, psychologically based interrogation. According to a classified report prepared by the CIA Inspector General John Helgerwon and issued in 2004, the techniques "appeared to constitute cruel, and degrading treatment under the (Geneva) convention," the New York Times reported on Nov. 9, 2005. 

It is interesting that the one country that is truly on the front line of terrorism, Israel, refuses to torture it's prisoners and will not allow the information gleaned from torture at trial.  I think that we need to show some moral courage and follow their lead.

The United Nations' Report of the Committee Against Torture: Thirty-fifth Session of November 2006, stated that state parties should rescind any interrogation techniques, such as waterboarding, that constitutes torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment.  It is interesting that while Cheney, Bybee, Yoo, Addington and the other torture enablers of the Bush Administration deny that waterboarding is torture, the CIA operatives who performed the technique on the prisoners say that it definitely is.  Here is the 2002 Office of Legal Counsel memorandum that authorized the practice:

    As we understand it, when the waterboard is used, the subject's body responds as if the subject were drowning -- even though the subject may be well aware that he is in fact not drowning. You have informed us that this procedure does not inflict actual physical harm. Thus, although the subject may experience the fear or panic associated with the feeling of drowning, the waterboard does not inflict physical pain. as we explained in the Section 2340A Memorandum, "pain and suffering" as used in Section 2340 is best understood as a single concept, not distinct concepts of "pain" as distinguished from "suffering"… The waterboard, which inflicts no pain or actual harm whatsoever, does not, in our view, inflict "severe pain and suffering". Even if one were to parse the stature more "finely" to attempt to treat suffering as a distinct concept, the waterboard could not be said to inflict severe suffering. The waterboard is simply a controlled acute episode, lacking the connotation of a protracted period of time generally given to suffering… We find the use of the waterboard constitutes a threat of imminent death… Although the procedure will be monitored by personnel with medical training and extensive SERE school experience with this procedure who will ensure the subject's mental and physical safety, the subject is not aware of any of these precautions. From the vantage point of any reasonable person undergoing this procedure in such circumstances, he would feel as if he is drowning at the very moment of the procedure due to the uncontrollable physiological sensation he is experiencing. Thus, this procedure cannot be viewed as too uncertain to satisfy the imminence requirement. Accordingly, it constitutes a threat of imminent death and fulfills the predicate act requirement under the statute. Although the waterboard constitutes the real threat of imminent death, prolonged mental harm must nonetheless result to violate the statutory prohibition on infliction of severe mental pain or suffering… We have previously concluded that prolonged mental harm is mental harm of some lasting duration, eg, mental harm lasting months or years.Based on your research into the use of these methods at the SERE school and consultation with others with expertise in the field of psychology and interrogation, you do not anticipate that any prolonged mental harm would result from the use of the waterboard… In the absense of prolonged mental harm,no severe mental pain or suffering would have been inflicted, and the use of these procedures would not constitute torture within the meaning of the statute.

Larry Johnson, a former CIA officer and a deputy director of the State Department's office of counterterrorism,  wrote in the Los Angeles Times, "What real CIA field officers know firsthand is that it is better to build a relationship of trust … than to extract quick confessions through tactics such as those used by the Nazis and the Soviets." 

The journalist Christopher Hitchens voluntarily allowed himself to be waterboarded in May of last year.  "There is a common misconception that waterboarding simulates the sensation of drowning, but you are to all intents and purposes actually drowning". He said that although he was somewhat prepared for his ordeal, he had not been prepared for what came later: "I have been waking up with sensations of being smothered" Hitchens concluded, "if waterboarding does not constitute torture, then there is no such thing as torture. Believe me. It's torture."

John Kiriakou is the first CIA agent to publically admit to engaging in waterboarding and says that he now has mixed feelings about the practice. He said that he thinks the technique provided a crucial break to the CIA and probably helped prevent attacks, but that he is now convinced that waterboarding is torture, and "Americans are better than that." So we now have Rivkin, Hayden, Theissen, Cheney, Mukasey all carrying water in recent editorials endorsing the practice and the genuine operatives calling it for what it is, torture.  Talk about consistency.

New disclosures today appear to show torture taking place months  before Bush Admin memos authorized it to take place.

Of course, there are plenty of torture stories that don't involve waterboarding.  Such as the case  of Major General Abed Hamed Mowhoush, who died during an interrogation at a base near Qaim, in western Iraq. Mowhoush was smothered to death. The four soldiers involved were  Chief Warrant Officers Jefferson L. Williams and Lewis E. Welshofer, Jr., Sergeant First Class William J. Sommer, and Specialist Jerry L. Loper. All were charged with murder and dereliction of duty. Williams, Welshofer, and Sommer were members of the 66th Military Company, a unit of the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment. Loper was a member of the regiment’s Support Squadron, and assigned to helicopter maintenance. Only Welshofer has training in interrogation practices. Mowhoush, allegedly a high-ranking member of the anti-American insurgency, surrendered to US forces two weeks before his death.

 The Pentagon initially reported his death as due to “natural causes,” but now admits Mowhoush was tortured to death. “General Mowhoush was allegedly placed in a sleeping bag and then bound to prevent his movement,” a Pentagon report says. “One of the warrant officers [Welshofer] reportedly sat on his chest and continued the interrogation. General Mowhoush was then rolled over, and the warrant officer sat on his back.” Mowhoush died in that position. A medical examination proved that he had died of asphyxiation. Other documents later show that Mowhoush had a bag pulled over his head, the bag was wrapped tightly with electrical cords, and he was beaten and kicked by a crowd of interrogators and officials.  Charges were dropped against everyone but Welshofer, who was given a reprimand but neither incarcerated or discharged by the military.

Brigadier General David Irvine, a retired intelligence officer who taught prisoner interrogation and military law for 18 years, and human rights activist David Danzig, will call Welshofer’s sentence a “slap on the wrist,” and write that the verdict “spared the defendant, indicted the prosecutor, and found the law irrelevant."

Another torture victim was Manadel al Jamadi who was beaten to death while hanging with his wrists suspended behind his back. Link to his story at NPR here.

We live in a brutal world and our enemies are not choir boys, but murderous thugs who engage in the most loathsome behavior imaginable.  The people who paraded around with Daniel Pearl's head.  In war, terrible things often happen and many innocent people unfortunately suffer.  But the strength of our country is our commitment to the constitution and the rule of law. We have to stop playing semantical games and thinking that our actions are always beyond reproach.  In war, people get killed, but they don't have to suffer torture or cruel behavior.  Here's to the quick bullet.  America doesn't have to torture because we are better than that.

The Bush Administration had many abettors in their crimes.  "Nazi" doctors and psychiatrists were more than willing to cover for them as were their accomplices in the Office of Legal Counsel who would split infinite hairs in order to provide legal reasoning that would allow any action, no matter how brutish, no matter how morally repugnant.  To Dick Cheney, the end has always justified the means.

We can't pick and choose what treaties and moral obligations apply or don't apply to us without putting undue risks on our own military and citizenship in the future.  I fear that the consequences of our arrogance and myopia regarding torture are destined to prove tragic in the years ahead.

Let's get it out there, all of it. We did it, we own it, we should be proud of it. No redemption without the requisite full confession. I have no truck with the foot soldiers. It is the aiders and abettors, Yoo, Bybee, Eatinger, Darth Cheney and Addington, whose heads belong on a rusty pike.

More Blue Heron Blasts about torture:

http://www.blueheronblast.com/2013/01/obysmal.html
http://www.blueheronblast.com/2010/11/conventional-wisdom.html
http://www.blueheronblast.com/2008/12/bush-paradigm.html
http://www.blueheronblast.com/2010/09/spy-vs-spy.html
http://www.blueheronblast.com/2014/08/q.html
http://www.blueheronblast.com/2010/02/david-petraeus-meet-press-22110.html

1 comment:

Sanoguy said...

You indicated that water boarding was originally used by the Chinese Communists during the Korean War and that we objected. Your quote:

Waterboarding was originally used by Chinese Communists against American prisoners during the Korean War. Ironically, the United States protested the use of the technique vigorously at the time as a violation of the Geneva Convention.

In fact, waterboarding goes back many hundreds of years. … to the Spanish Inquisition, I believe.

During WW II, Japanese soldiers used water boarding on some of our own GIs. Following the war, we executed several Japanese for their water boarding. During the Viet Nam war, we court martialed some of our own military folks for water boarding Vietnamese.

I think that it is important that we reveal the truth about our treatment of prisoners. If we want to show that we are a moral nation, we should not be afraid to air our laundry, even if it is a bit soiled.