Archive for the ‘Torture’ Category
The CIA seems to have been corrupted by the toxic combination of great power and no accountability. Alex Pasternack reports at Motherboard:
With his broad smile and easygoing nature, John Kiriakou looks and sounds more like a high school baseball coach than a veteran CIA officer who was on the front lines in the early days of the war on terror. He also doesn’t seem like a person who’s just emerged from a federal penitentiary as punishment for disclosing classified information—an experience he says has turned him into “a dissident.”
Inside the prison at Loretto, Pennsylvania, where he spent nearly two years, Kiriakou says his training as a spy came in handy, helping him navigate a minefield of gang affiliations.
“The Italians took me in first,” he tells Kaj Larsen in a new video interview for Vice News. “I don’t mean people with Italian names. I mean the Italians. All five families were represented there.” As for Muslim gangs, a supportive statement from Louis Farrakhan “guaranteed no problems for me on that front.” And “because I was not a rat or a child molester, I was embraced by the Aryans.”
Kiriakou counts the current Secretary of State as one of his former employers, but now that he’s out of prison, he says half-jokingly, he might end up finding work at a Dunkin Donuts.
Like many details in the heavily-redacted story of the war on terror, this was not how things were supposed to go. After retiring from the CIA in 2004, Kiriakou became the first CIA official to acknowledge, in a 2007 ABC News interview, that the government had used waterboarding on a high-value detainee. That disclosure was one of thousands of leaks estimated to be made by government officials each year, but it earned Kiriakou special scrutiny by his former CIA superiors, and eventually the Justice Dept.
In 2012, Kiriakou would be charged with disclosing to a journalist the names of two CIA officers who had been involved in the torture program. After a plea deal to lessen his sentence, Kiriakou would be sent to prison for nearly two years, making him the first CIA agent to be imprisoned for disclosing classified information to a reporter.
The government contends that Kiriakou violated the Intelligence Identities Protection Act; Kiriakou has called the government’s actions against him vindictive and unjust, a selective effort not only to punish those who expose its wrongdoings but to shield its agents from criminal probes.
“I’ve never believed my case was about a leak,” Kiriakou told Motherboard’s Tyler Bass after his sentencing. “I’ve always believed my case was about torture.”
How do you prove what you don’t know?
Kiriakou’s saga is intertwined with that of Abu Zubaydah, a Saudi Arabian citizen who was the US’s first “high value” detainee in the terror wars. Kiriakou was present in Pakistan for Zubaydah’s capture, in March 2002, and was later informed of his subsequent interrogations.
Zubaydah would become a central character in the Senate’s report on torture, with his name appearing over 1,000 times in 6,000 pages. (Many prominent figures in the early days of the war on terror have dismissed the report; Dick Cheney says it’s “full of crap.”)
Upon capture, Zubaydah’s FBI interrogators believed that traditional interrogation methods would be more productive than “enhanced interrogation techniques” like stress positions and waterboarding.
Their more traditional approach has been borne out by research, and it proved to be productive: Zubaydah revealed some useful information, including the fact that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was the mastermind behind the September 11 attacks and that a man later revealed to be Jose Padilla was plotting a “dirty bomb” attack.
But Zubaydah was soon wrestled away by the CIA and, against the protestations of some in the CIA and FBI, moved to a “black site” in Thailand, where he spent 47 days in isolation, despite needing medical care for his wounds. There he would be waterboarded a total of 83 times. Despite vehement concerns by his captors, top officials in Washington insisted on continuing the waterboarding because they were certain he had more secrets to spill.
He didn’t: Zubaydah wasn’t as important as he was made out to be, CIA officials would acknowledge later—he allegedly helped manage a training camp for the group—and the information he provided to them was mostly provisional, and foiled no plots.
That he had no more secrets and that the CIA was convinced that he did points to an epistemological paradox that surrounds torture: You don’t know what your detainee does or doesn’t know, but to get closer to that theoretical unknown known, you could make them think they’re drowning as a way to get them to say something—provided of course you don’t completely incapacitate them. As the journalist Mark Danner saidafter the publication of the Senate report on torture,
How do you prove what you don’t know? And from this open question comes this anxiety-ridden conviction that he must know, he must know, he must know. So even though the interrogators are saying he’s compliant, he’s telling us everything he knows—even though the waterboarding is nearly killing him, rendering him “completely non-responsive,” as the report says—officials at headquarters [were] saying he has to be waterboarded again, and again, because he still hadn’t given up information about the attacks they were convinced had to be coming… It had nothing to do with him giving more information as he was waterboarded. The use of these techniques let them alleviate their own anxiety. And their anxiety was based on complete misinformation. Complete ignorance about who this man actually was.
Zubaydah’s harsh treatment would last through the summer of 2002, and like a number of detainees, would severely deteriorate in US captivity. So harsh was his “enhanced interrogation” that even his captors were appalled by his suffering, according to one official who spoke to the Times in 2009. He remains at Guantanamo, still not charged with a crime, unable to submit habeas corpus claims to US courts, and missing his left eye, which he lost, according to the Senate torture report, “in CIA custody.” . . .
What the CIA did is criminal, and yet they have been protected from any accountability for their criminal acts. President Obama is chiefly responsible for that decision, just as he has been responsible for the vicious persecution of whistleblowers. Later in the article:
But more generally, there are lessons to be drawn about the perils of speaking out. Like the Jeffrey Sterling and Thomas Drake cases before it and the Steven Kim case afterwards, Kiriakou’s prosecution demonstrates that the pressure on government employees and reporters seeking to expose wrongdoing through leaks has never been stronger.
This in spite of an administration that pledged transparency and reform of secret institutions, and that has declined to prosecute higher ranking officials suspected to have leaked even more sensitive information, like Generals James Cartwright and David Petreaus. (After Kiriakou’s sentencing, and weeks before his own leaking came to light, Petreaus, then CIA director, said in a statement, “Oaths do matter. And there are indeed consequences for those who believe they are above the laws that protect our fellow officers and enable American intelligence agencies to operate with the requisite degree of secrecy.”)
“I think the Justice Dept. has been incredibly hypocritical in leak cases,” Kiriakou said in the Vice News interview. “Washington operates on leaks. The truth of the matter is that, if it’s a supporter of the president leaking, or your leak makes the government look good, you’re good to go. If the leak is critical of the government or if the government wants to prosecute you in some way, then they prosecute you.
“The last three directors of the CIA have leaked prolifically,” he continued. “Leon Panetta outed the Navy Seal that led the Bin Laden raid. But he said, ‘Oh, my bad. It was an accident.’ and he’s free to cash his 6 million dollar book advance while I’m prosecuted and go to prison and lose my pension and everything.”
The Obama Administration is responsible for some grievous wrongs, but they will skate.
The blundering interference of the US moves closer to home. From TomDistach.com:
One of the mysteries of our era is why there seems to be no learning curve in Washington. Over the last 13 years, American wars and conflicts have repeatedly helped create disaster zones, encouraging the fragmentation of whole countries and societies in the Greater Middle East and Northern Africa. In the process, such American wars, drone assassination campaigns, raids, and conflicts have acted as recruitment posters for and aided and abetted the growth of terror outfits. And here’s where the genuine strangeness begins to enter the picture: after all of this is absorbed and assessed in Washington, the response is regularly more of what hasn’t worked and a clamoring for yet more of it.
It turns out, as TomDispatch regular Rebecca Gordon reports today, that the same kind of process has been going on so much closer to home — right across the border in Mexico, in fact, resulting in the kind of blowback that Chalmers Johnson would have appreciated. Yet while hysteria and panic reign over the barbaric acts of the faraway Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, U.S. involvement in the “war on drugs” in a neighboring country gets just passing attention here. Curiouser and curiouser, hysteria and panic over Mexico only seem to rise when ISIS is reputed to be involved (at least in the fantasy worlds of various right-wingers). Consider it all part of the true mysteries of our strange American age of repetitive war. Tom
Can You Say “Blowback” in Spanish?
The Failed War on Drugs in Mexico (and the United States)
By Rebecca Gordon
They behead people by the hundreds. They heap headless, handless bodies along roadsides as warnings to those who would resist their power. They havepenetrated the local, state, and national governments and control entire sections of the country. They provide employment and services to an impoverished public, which distrusts their actual government with its bitter record of corruption, repression, and torture. They seduce young people from several countries, including the United States, into their murderous activities.
Is this a description of the heinous practices of the Islamic State (IS) in Iraq and Syria? It could be, but as a matter of fact it’s not. These particular thugs exist a lot closer to home. They are part of the multi-billion-dollar industry known as the drug cartels of Mexico. Like the Islamic State, the cartels’ power has increased as the result of disastrous policies born in the U.S.A.
There are other parallels between IS and groups like Mexico’s Zetas and its Sinaloa cartel. Just as the U.S. wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya fertilizedthe field for IS, another U.S. war, the so-called War on Drugs, opened new horizons for the drug cartels. Just as Washington has worked hand-in-hand with and also behind the backs of corrupt rulers in Central Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa, so it has done with the Mexican government. Both kinds of war have resulted in blowback — violent consequences felt in our own cities, whether at the finish line of the Boston Marathon or in communities of color across the country.
In Mexico, the U.S. military is directly involved in the War on Drugs. In this country, that “war” has provided the pretext for the militarization of local police forces and increased routine surveillance of ordinary people going about their ordinary lives.
And just as both the national security state and the right wing have used the specter of IS to create an atmosphere of panic and hysteria in this country, so both have used the drug cartels’ grotesque theater of violence to justify their demonization of immigrants from Latin America and the massive militarization of America’s borderlands.
The War in Mexico
If there was an official beginning to Mexico’s war on drugs, it would have to be considered the election of Felipe Calderón as the country’s president in 2006. The candidate of the right-wing Partido Acción Nacional, the National Action Party (PAN), Calderón was only the second Mexican president in 70 years who did not come from the Partido Revolucionario Institucional, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). His predecessor, Vicente Fox, had been the first.
It was Calderón who, with encouragement and assistance from the United States, changed Mexico’s war on drugs from a metaphor into the real thing, in which guns and grenades would fuel the deaths of more than 60,000 Mexicans through 2012.
The current president, Enrique Peña Nieto of the PRI, admits that another 27,000 Mexicans were murdered in the first year of his presidency. At least another 25,000 have been disappeared since 2007. It was Calderón who brought the Mexican military fully into the fight against drugs, transforming an ineffective policing policy into a full-scale shooting war with the cartels. At least 50,000 military personnel have been deployed.
In addition to ordinary citizens, journalists and politicians have been particular targets in this war. The Committee to Protect Journalists reports that murders of Mexican reporters have increased dramatically since 2006. Among those whose killers have been positively identified, 69% died at the hands of the drug cartels, and at least 22% were killed by government or military personnel.
Wikipedia lists over 100 politicians who have lost their lives in Mexico’s war on drugs. That list does not include a woman named Aide Nava González, whose headless body was dumped this month on a road in Guerrero state. Nava was contending for the Partido Revolución Democrática, the Democratic Revolution Party, slot on the ballot in the town of Ahuacuotzingo. Her husband, the former mayor, had been murdered there last year. A note from Los Rojos, a local drug gang, was left with Nava’s body. “This is what will happen,” it read, “to anyone who does not fall in line, fucking turncoats.”
Guerrero is the home of Ayotzinapa, a town where 43 teachers-in-training once attended a rural teachers college. All 43 “disappeared” last September during a demonstration in the neighboring town of Iguala. Their arrest by police, and apparent subsequent murder at the hands of a local drug gang, Guerreros Unidos, was one of the few stories of Mexican suffering to break into the U.S. mainstream media last year. The mayor of Iguala has since admitted that he instructed the police to hand the students over to the gang and has been arrested, along with his wife. The town’s police chief is still on the run.
Like the “war on terror” globally, Mexico’s war on drugs has created endless new pretexts for government repression, which has its own lengthy history in that country. That history includes the long-remembered police murders of some 300 students, among the thousands protesting in Mexico City’s Plaza de las Tres Culturas a couple of weeks before the Summer Olympics began in 1968. Juan Méndez, the U.N.’s Special Rapporteur on Torture, wrote in his 2014 mission report on Mexico: . . .
Cora Currier reports in The Intercept:
In rare remarks about a sensitive issue, the director of the CIA confirmed today that the U.S. government works with foreign intelligence agencies to capture and jointly interrogate suspected terrorists.
“There are places throughout the world where CIA has worked with other intelligence services and has been able to bring people into custody and engage in the debriefings of these individuals…through our liaison partners, and sometimes there are joint debriefings that take place as well,” said John Brennan, the CIA director, speaking at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.
Brennan’s remarks confirm what journalists have long reported: that the Obama administration sometimes helps other countries do the dirty work of snatching and interrogating terror suspects–keeping the U.S. at arm’s length from operations that are ethically and legally dubious.
During a question-and-answer session, it was Fox News’ Megyn Kelley who questioned Brennan about “capturing terrorists.”
“Are we still doing that?” she asked. “And where are we keeping them and how are we interrogating them?”
Brennan responded that the U.S. is able to work with “partners” to “identify individuals and to have them captured… although there are not a lot of public pieces on Fox News about somebody that might be picked up in different parts of the world.”
In one of his first moves after taking office in 2009, President Obama famously shut down the CIA’s Black Site program, which was begun under President George W. Bush. After 9/11, more than 100 alleged terrorists were captured and sent to secret CIA-run detention centers where they were tortured and interrogated by agency operatives.
Although the Black Sites have been shut down and no new prisoners sent to Guantanamo Bay, detentions of terrorists—and attacks against them–remain a murky issue. The administration has brought several alleged terrorists to face trial in the United States, and it has killed thousands more in drone strikes, along with hundreds of civilians. Obama has alsomaintained the authority (as President Bill Clinton did in the 1990s) to render people to third countries, where laws are looser.
The Intercept’s Jeremy Scahill and others have detailed cases during the Obama administration in which terror suspects were held in foreign custody at the behest of the U.S. In 2011, Scahill reported for The Nation on a secret prison in Somalia’s capital, Mogadishu. Though officially run by the Somali government, Scahill wrote, “US intelligence personnel pay the salaries of intelligence agents and also directly interrogate prisoners” at the facility.
Brennan’s comments today are a rare confirmation . . .
Given the profound psychological harm pedophiles wreak on children, there really should be some serious punishment handed out. Nico Hines reports at The Daily Beast:
A newspaper editor was handed startling evidence that Britain’s top law enforcement official knew there was a VIP pedophile network in Westminster, at the heart of the British government. What happened next in the summer of 1984 helps to explain how shocking allegations of rape and murder against some of the country’s most powerful men went unchecked for decades.
Less than 24 hours after starting to inquire about the dossier presented to him by a senior Labour Party politician, the editor was confronted in his office by a furious member of parliament who threatened him and demanded the documents. “He was frothing at the mouth and really shouting and spitting in my face,” Don Hale told The Daily Beast. “He was straight at me like a raging lion; he was ready to knock me through the wall.”
Despite the MP’s explosive intervention, Hale refused to hand over the papers which appeared to show that Leon Brittan, Margaret Thatcher’s Home Secretary, was fully aware of a pedophile network that included top politicians.
The editor’s resistance was futile; the following morning, police officers from the counter-terror and intelligence unit known as Special Branch burst into the newspaper office, seized the material and threatened to have Hale arrested if he ever reported what had been found.
More than 30 years later, an inquiry into allegations of child sex abuse rings, murder, and cover-ups has been launched by the British government after Scotland Yard detectives said they believed statements by victims who claimed they were systematically abused as young boys at sex abuse parties attended by judges, politicians, intelligence officers, and staff at the royal palaces.
In 1983, a controversial MP, Geoffrey Dickens, had made a series of incendiary claims about active pedophiles in the corridors of power. He handed a file containing the names of alleged perpetrators to Leon Brittan; publicly the authorities shrugged off the claims and no trial or prosecution would follow. The dossier mysteriously disappeared.
Decades later, Brittan claimed he had simply handed the papers to his subordinates to investigate and heard no more about it. Last year, he was forced to clarify his statement when it emerged that he had later written to Dickens to say the initial investigation had been deemed “worth pursuing” by investigators.
It is now claimed that confidential Home Office papers collated by Baroness Castle of Blackburn and passed to Don Hale, editor of her local newspaper, the Bury Messenger, claimed that Brittan had played an active role in overseeing the investigation into the pedophile network. “Leon Brittan was mentioned in everything you picked up, his fingerprints were over everything, he was the instigator,” Hale said. “He really had his finger on the pulse, he wanted to know everything about it; all the documents were cc’d back to Leon Brittan or it was an instruction directly from Leon Brittan.”
Brittan, a protégé of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, had been promoted to Home Secretary at the age of 43, making him the youngest person to preside over Britain’s domestic law enforcement and national security apparatus since Winston Churchill before the First World War.
Brittan, who died in January, has been accused of raping a woman and sexually abusing boys. He denied the allegations and was never charged, although police investigations have continued after his death. . .
David Cole has a good column in the NY Review of Books:
Who bears ultimate responsibility for the US torture program? The report by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, released in December, told us much about how the program was implemented and carried out: it was fundamentally ill-conceived, poorly managed, and led to grievous abuses of basic human rights with little or no accountability. Yet the Senate report focused almost exclusively on the CIA, and despite intense debate about it in Washington and in the press, remarkably little was said about the responsibility of the Bush administration itself. In this regard, a separate, largely overlooked trove of newly declassified documents, mostly internal CIA records of correspondence with White House officials and lawyers, is particularly revealing.
The documents, which were uploaded to a mysterious website by the name of ciasavedlives.com, provide dramatic new details about the direct involvement of senior Bush administration officials in the CIA’s wrongs. They were apparently declassified by the CIA at the request of former director George Tenet, who presumably hoped they would help defend his record as director during the agency’s descent into torture. But they hardly exculpate the agency. Rather, they show an extended conspiracy between the CIA and administration officials that played out for the duration of the program, in which the agency leadership repeatedly asked for approval for patently illegal interrogation methods, and repeatedly got “yes” for an answer. This is the record of an agency with a guilty conscience, and of multiple high-level officials and lawyers eager to enable it at every turn.
Even though the program had been approved at its outset by National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice in July 2002 and by Attorney General John Ashcroft in August 2002, the slightest hint that the Bush administration might actually be committed to avoiding torture or inhumane treatment caused the CIA to panic. Bush administration lawyers had determined that the methods the agency was using to induce detainees to talk—including waterboarding, extended sleep deprivation, slamming into walls, and painful stress positions—were not torture and did not violate the prohibition on cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment. But the agency acted as if it couldn’t quite believe it. It kept returning to the White House and the DOJ asking them to say, yet again, that the agency could do what it had already been told it could do.
Again and again, the agency’s concerns were triggered by official statements by the Bush administration suggesting that the US does not mistreat its prisoners. The first concerns arose in late 2002, after the program had been fully approved. Scott Muller, then general counsel of the CIA, worried that the program might conflict with a February 2002 memo from President Bush entitled “Humane Treatment of al Qaeda and Taliban Detainees.” In that memo, Bush had proclaimed that the Geneva Conventions, which require humane treatment of all wartime detainees, did not apply to al-Qaeda or the Taliban, but stated that “as a matter of policy, the United States Armed Forces shall continue to treat detainees humanely.”
In December 2002, Muller twice asked John Bellinger, counsel to National Security Adviser Rice, whether this posed a problem for the CIA’s continuing program. Bellinger twice told Muller not to worry, assuring him that the CIA’s techniques were “consistent with the President’s direction as reflected in the February Memo,” and urging him to speak to Justice Department lawyer John Yoo about it. Yoo, who with Jay Bybee wrote the initial Justice Department memo approving of the CIA’s interrogation tactics in August 2002, concurred, and told Muller that the February memo “had been deliberately limited to be binding only on ‘the Armed Forces’ which did not include the CIA.”
Early the next year, in January 2003, Muller again raised the issue in a meeting with four top legal officials for the Bush administration—White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales, Counsel to the Vice-President David Addington, Defense Department General Counsel Jim Haynes, and Yoo. Again, Addington and Gonzales reassured Muller, confirming that the commitment to humane treatment did not apply to the CIA. Tellingly, no one suggested that the CIA’s tactics were actually “humane”; rather, they insisted that only the Armed Forces, and not the CIA, were bound to treat detainees humanely.
All of these reassurances were not enough, however. The CIA came back for more in July 2003. This time its anxiety was the result of three events in the last week of June 2003. DOD General Counsel Haynes had written a letter to Senator Pat Leahy, stating that “United States policy is to treat all detainees and conduct all interrogations, wherever they may occur, in a manner consistent with” the US’s international treaty commitment to prevent “cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment.” The administration had issued a press release on International Day in Support of Victims of Torture that condemned “cruel” treatment of detainees. And a White House press officer had said that US government detainees were being treated “humanely.” Tenet promptly wrote a memo to Rice asking the administration to reaffirm its commitment to the CIA interrogation program in light of, or more properly, in spite of, these statements.
The implicit predicate of Tenet’s request is that what the CIA was doing was in fact cruel and inhumane, and therefore not in keeping with the administration’s representations. But in a meeting on July 29, 2003, attended by Tenet, Muller, Vice President Cheney, Rice, Ashcroft, Gonzales, Bellinger, and Justice Department lawyer Patrick Philbin, the CIA was again told not to worry. Vice President Cheney was apparently aghast, not at the program, but at the press. . .
Dan Froomkin reports in The Intercept:
The Bush administration was so adamant in its public statements against torture that CIA officials repeatedly sought reassurances that the White House officials who had given them permission to torture in the first place hadn’t changed their minds.
In a July 29, 2003, White House meeting that included Vice President Dick Cheney and National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, CIA Director George Tenet went so far as to ask the White House “to cease stating that US Government practices were ‘humane’.” He was assured they would.
The memo describing that meeting is one of several documents that were unclassified last year but apparently escaped widespread notice until now. Georgetown Law Professor David Cole called attention to the trove of documents on the Just Security blog.
The documents were apparently posted in December at ciasavedlives.com, a website formed by a group of former senior intelligence officials to rebut the newly released Senate report that documented the horrors that CIA officers inflicted upon detainees and the lies about those tactics’ effectiveness that they told their superiors, would-be overseers and the public.
The new documents don’t actually refute any of the Senate report’s conclusions – in fact, they include some whopper-filled slides that CIA officials showed at the White House. But they do call attention to the report’s central flaw: that it didn’t address who actually gave the CIA its orders.
As Cole writes:
The overall picture that the new documents paint is not of a rogue agency, but of a rogue administration. Yes, the CIA affirmatively proposed to use patently illegal tactics — waterboarding, sleep deprivation, physical assault, and painful stress positions. But at every turn, senior officials and lawyers in the White House and the Department of Justice reassured the agency that it could — and should — go forward. The documents reveal an agency that is extremely sensitive to whether the program is legally authorized and approved by higher-ups — no doubt because it understood that what it was doing was at a minimum controversial, and very possibly illegal. The documents show that the CIA repeatedly raised questions along these lines, and even suspended the program when the OLC was temporarily unwilling to say, without further review, whether the techniques would “shock the conscience” in violation of the Fifth Amendment. But at every point where the White House and the DOJ could have and should have said no to tactics that were patently illegal, they said yes.
The documents also illustrate how CIA officials, just like journalists and members of the public, had to decide whether to take the White House’s disavowals of torture at face value. Apparently the CIA, like many others, couldn’t believe the White House was flat-out lying.
Tenet, in a July 3, 2003, letter to Rice, requested that White House officials reaffirm that waterboarding and other so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques” were being done on their orders. Tenet cited a June 2003 Washington Post story headlined U.S. Pledges Not to Torture Terror Suspects. . .
Do read the whole thing. It is astonishing that they were able to get away with this, but that is thanks in large part to Obama’s own decision to facilitate the cover-up. Later in the article, the specific persons whom Obama should have prosecuted for war crimes are identified:
The July 3 letter from Tenet to Rice reminded her that the White House had been in on all this since the beginning: “The Vice President, National Security Advisor, Deputy National Security Advisor, Counsel to the President, Counsel to the National Security Adviser, and the Attorney General were consulted in August 2002 in advance of implementing use of the techniques with a particular detainee and concurred in its implementation as a matter of law and policy.”
An interesting column at TomDispatch.com by Rebecca Gordon, describing six Americans who resisted the torture program that George W. Bush and Dick Cheney created—not because it was ineffective (not the issue) but because it was immoral and illegal and a war crime. The column begins:
Why was it again that, as President Obama said, “we tortured some folks” after the 9/11 attacks? Oh, right, because we were terrified. Because everyone knows that being afraid gives you moral license to do whatever you need to do to keep yourself safe. That’s why we don’t shame or punish those who were too scared to imagine doing anything else. We honor and revere them.
Back in August 2014, Obama explained the urge of the top figures in the Bush administration to torture “some folks” this way: “I understand why it happened. I think it’s important, when we look back, to recall how afraid people were when the twin towers fell.” So naturally, in those panicked days, the people in charge had little choice but to order the waterboarding, wall-slamming, and rectal rehydration of whatever possible terrorists (andinnocents) the CIA got their hands on. That’s what fear drives you to do and don’t forget, at the time even some mainstream liberal columnists werecalling for torture. And whatever you do, don’t forget as well that they were so, so afraid. That’s why, says the president, “It’s important for us not to feel too sanctimonious,” too quick to judge the people in the Bush administration, the CIA, and even the U.S. military who planned, implemented, and justified torture.
The president has vacillated about just how long this period of exculpatory fear was supposed to last. Sometimes he seems to suggest that it’s just the responses in the more or less immediate aftermath of those attacks we shouldn’t feel too sanctimonious about. Sometimes it’s all those “years after 9/11” during which America’s leaders had to face “legitimate fears of further attacks” and therefore kept on torturing people.
Anyone in President George W. Bush’s position would have declared that the Geneva Conventions, which are supposed to protect prisoners of war from mistreatment, don’t cover prisoners taken in the “war on terror.” Anyone would have told the pundits on “Meet the Press,” as Vice President Dick Cheney did less than a week after 9/11, that the attacks meant we would now have to work “the dark side.” Anyone in CIA Director George Tenet’s shoes would have agreed with Cheney when he said that “a lot of what needs to be done here will have to be done quietly, without any discussion, using sources and methods that are available to our intelligence agencies.”
And any attorney in the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel would naturally have written the “torture memos” that John Yoo and Jay Bybeecreated in 2002, in which they sought to provide legal cover for the CIA’s torture practices by redefining torture itself more or less out of existence. For some act to count as “severe physical suffering” and therefore as torture, they wrote, the pain inflicted would have to be of a sort “ordinarily associated with a… serious physical condition, such as death, organ failure, or serious impairment of bodily functions.”
Wouldn’t anyone do what these men did, if they, too, were frightened out of their wits? Actually, no. In fact, the sad, ugly story of the U.S. response to the criminal acts of 9/11 is brightened by a number of people who have displayed genuine courage in saying no to and turning their backs on torture. Their choices prove that Bush, Cheney, & Co. could have said no as well.
Though you’d never know it here, no level of fear in public officials makes acts of torture (or the support of such acts) any less criminal or more defensible before the law. It’s remarkably uncomplicated, actually. Torture violates U.S. and international law, and those responsible deserve to be prosecuted both for what they did and to prevent the same thing from happening the next time people in power are afraid.
Some of those who rejected torture, like CIA official John Kiriakou and an as-yet-unnamed Navy nurse, directly refused to practice it. Some risked reputations and careers to let the people of this country know what their government was doing. Sometimes an entire agency, like the FBI, refused to be involved in torture.
I’d like to introduce you to six of these heroes.
Sergeant Joseph M. Darby: If it hadn’t been for a 24-year-old soldier named Joe Darby, we might never have heard of the tortures and abuses committed at Abu Ghraib, 20 miles outside Baghdad. It had once beenSaddam Hussein’s most notorious prison and when the U.S. military arrived in 2003, they put it to similar use.
Early on, however, the Defense Department was unhappy with the quality of “intelligence” being produced there, so Major General Geoffrey Miller was dispatched from his post as commandant of the jewel in the crown of the Bush administration’s offshore system of injustice, Guantánamo, to Iraq with orders to “Gitmo-ize” Abu Ghraib.
Joe Darby was a member of the Military Police assigned to that prison. One day early in 2004, Army Specialist Charles Graner handed him a couple of CDs full of photographs, thinking perhaps that Darby would enjoy them as much as he did.
Graner was one of the people in charge of the Army Reservists responsible for “softening up” prisoners before they were handed over for interrogation to Military Intelligence and the “Other Government Agency” (a euphemism for the CIA and its private contractors). Prisoners being softened up were stacked in pyramids like cordwood, paraded like dogs on leashes, bitten by actual dogs, and in at least one case,raped in the anus “with a chemical light and perhaps a broom stick.”
When Joe Darby saw the photographs, unlike Graner, he was not amused. He was horrified. He recognized them as evidence of crimes and, after three weeks of internal debate, handed them to Special Agent Tyler Pieron of the U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Command, who was working at Abu Ghraib. From there, the photos made their way up the chain of command, via a leak into the hands of New Yorker reporter Seymour Hersh, and eventually into U.S. living rooms on 60 Minutes II one Tuesday evening at the end of April 2004.
Darby hoped to remain anonymous, but he soon gained international renownfor what he had done. With exposure came threats to him and to his family. In the immediate aftermath of the disclosures, while still stationed at Abu Ghraib, he feared — he told the BBC — that he might be murdered in his sleep. Still, he doesn’t consider what he did anything special. As he said, when accepting the Kennedy Library’s Profiles in Courage award, “It just seemed like the right thing to do at the time.” Joe Darby may have felt fear, but he didn’t go along with a torture regime.
Major General Antonio M. Taguba: . . .
It’s important to recognize how severely punished were those who refused to torture, while those who were willing to torture suspects (some of whom were innocent) faced no reprisals and no accountability at all, thanks to President Obama and his Department of “Justice.”