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The Torture Administration


By Anthony Lewis
The Nation

26 December 2005 Issue

When the Nazis came to power in Germany in 1933 and proceeded to carry out their savagery, many in the outside world asked how this could have happened in the land of Goethe and Beethoven. Would the people of other societies as readily accept tyranny? Sinclair Lewis, in 1935, imagined Americans turning to dictatorship under the pressures of economic distress in the Depression. He called his novel, ironically, It Can't Happen Here.

Hannah Arendt and many others have stripped us, since then, of confidence that people will resist evil in times of fear. When Serbs and Rwandan Hutus were told that they were threatened, they slaughtered their neighbors. Lately Philip Roth was plausible enough when he imagined anti-Semitism surging after an isolationist America elected Charles Lindbergh as President in 1940.

But it still comes as a shock to discover that American leaders will open the way for the torture of prisoners, that lawyers will invent justifications for it, that the President of the United States will strenuously resist legislation prohibiting cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment of prisoners-and that much of the American public will be indifferent to what is being done in its name.

The pictures from Abu Ghraib, first shown to the public on April 28, 2004, evoked a powerful reaction. Americans were outraged when they saw grinning US soldiers tormenting Iraqi prisoners. But it was seeing the mistreatment that produced the outrage, or so we must now conclude. Since then the Bush Administration and its lawyers have prevented the release of any more photographs or videotapes. And the public has not reacted similarly to the disclosure, without pictures, of worse actions, including murder.

The American Civil Liberties Union released documents on forty-four deaths of prisoners in US custody, twenty-one of them officially classified as homicides. For example, an Iraqi prisoner died while being interrogated in 2004. He had been deprived of sleep, exposed to extreme temperatures, doused with cold water and kept hooded. The official report said hypothermia may have contributed to his death.

Writing recently in The New Yorker, Jane Mayer described the killing of an Iraqi prisoner, Manadel al-Jamadi, in Abu Ghraib in 2003. His head was covered with a plastic bag, and he was shackled in a position that led to his asphyxiation. The death was classified as a homicide. But so far no charges have been brought by the Justice Department against the man who had custody of the prisoner, a CIA officer named Mark Swanner.

In addition to murder and torture, humiliation and indignity have been widely used as aids to interrogation. Time quoted at length earlier this year from the official log of how one prisoner in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, was interrogated. Over a period of weeks he was questioned for as long as twenty hours at a stretch, forbidden to urinate until finally he "went" on himself, made to bark like a dog. His treatment was an exercise in humiliation. Other reports have described prisoners chained hand and foot to the floor for twenty-four hours, until they urinated and defecated on themselves.

Several provisions of law forbid not only torture but humiliation of prisoners. The Geneva Conventions prohibit "outrages upon personal dignity, in particular humiliating or degrading treatment" of war captives. The UN Convention Against Torture condemns "cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment"-and Congress enforced the provisions of the convention in a criminal statute. The Uniform Code of Military Justice makes cruelty, oppression or "maltreatment" of prisoners by US forces a crime.

Then how can it be that hundreds of Americans, at a modest estimate, have been involved in the tormenting of prisoners, using the "waterboard" technique to bring them to the brink of drowning, beating them or worse? The answer is that the cue for these outrages came from the top of the American government.

Soon after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the Justice Department-then under Attorney General John Ashcroft-began producing memorandums that opened the way to torture and mistreatment of prisoners. The memos gave an extremely narrow definition of torture: producing pain equivalent to that from "serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death." They argued that the President, in his constitutional role as Commander in Chief, had the power to order the use of torture no matter what treaties or US statutes said. And they said the Geneva Conventions did not apply to the prisoners at Guantánamo.

It is important to note that these legal opinions came almost entirely from political appointees, not longtime Justice Department lawyers. Similarly, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld and his aides overrode objections from most military lawyers and other officers. Secretary of State Colin Powell, former chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was a notable opponent of the memos.

The very purpose of these radical legal opinions was to override objections to torture from those in the services and the law who wanted to carry on the American tradition of humane treatment of prisoners. And there was a further, crucial purpose: to immunize those who actually carried out torture or inhumane treatment from criminal prosecution. If charged, they could maintain that their actions were authorized from above.

One more legal interpretation by the Bush lawyers, especially clever, should be mentioned: It concluded that the Convention Against Torture (and its enforcement by criminal statute) did not apply to actions taken against non-Americans outside the United States-for example, the torture of Jamadi in Abu Ghraib under CIA auspices. A soldier who tortured would still be subject to the Uniform Code of Military Justice. But under this legal theory no criminal law would apply to a CIA torturer. It was to preserve this impunity that Vice President Cheney fought to exempt the CIA from the ban on cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment proposed by Senator John McCain and passed, 90 to 9, by the Senate.

When George W. Bush was asked about torture in early November, he said: "Any activity we conduct is within the law. We do not torture." How could he say that after the hundreds of convincing reports of torture and maltreatment? One possible answer is that he has not allowed himself to know the truth. Another is that his lawyers have so gutted the law governing these matters that not much, in their view, is unlawful.

But there is another explanation for Bush's words: confidence that words can overcome reality. Just as a large part of the American people could be led to believe in nonexistent links between Saddam Hussein and the 9/11 bombers, so it could be persuaded-in the teeth of the evidence-that "we do not torture." And there is reason for that confidence.

Congress has shown no great zeal for tracking down responsibility for the abuse of detainees in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantánamo Bay. It has reacted with the equivalent of a yawn to the disclosure of "extraordinary rendition," the shipment of prisoners to Egypt, Syria and other places where torture is common practice. The Senate, moved by the power of John McCain's example, voted for his ban on prisoner abuse. But then it approved a devastating prohibition on the use of habeas corpus by Guantánamo prisoners to test the lawfulness of their imprisonment.

The truth is that most members of Congress are scared to do anything that could be portrayed, in a campaign, as being soft on terrorists. They worry that if there is another terrorist strike in this country, any vote to hold true to the law of war or even to investigate what has happened could be held against them.

Playing cat's-paw to the Administration, Congress has turned aside all demands for an independent investigation of Abu Ghraib and the other horrors-and of the policies that led to them. When Dana Priest of the Washington Post uncovered the chain of secret CIA prisons around the world, the reaction of Republican leaders of the House and Senate was not to look into the agency's doings but to demand an investigation of the leak.

The press has provided flickering light on the torture scandal, with some notable stories but not the sustained, relentless attention of Watergate. In the daily papers the outstanding performer has been Priest, who uncovered the Justice Department memos that took such a permissive view of torture. Seymour Hersh told us about Abu Ghraib and much else in The New Yorker.

The public, as I have indicated, seemed to lose its sense of outrage once the visual evidence from Abu Ghraib faded. As in every war through American history, it looked primarily to the President to ease its anxiety. The fear aroused by September 11 did not easily dissipate.

Not one of the major actors in the torture story has been effectively called to account: not Rumsfeld, who loosened the rules on interrogation of prisoners; not Alberto Gonzales, now Attorney General, who as White House Counsel approved the torture memorandums; and not the Justice Department lawyers who wrote them.

Among those officials there is no sign of repentance. One of them has indeed become a kind of preacher of the legitimacy of using pressure on suspected terrorists. He is John Yoo, who was a lawyer in the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel from 2001 to 2003 and is now a professor at the law school of the University of California, Berkeley, and a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. In frequent television appearances and public forums he argues a theme of those torture memos: that President Bush as Commander in Chief is empowered by the Constitution to order what treatment he wishes for detainees in the "war on terror." His constitutional argument, that the Framers of the Constitution intended to clothe the President with the war powers of a king, conflicts with the near universal understanding of the constitutional text, with its careful balancing of executive, legislative and judicial power.

A New York lawyer who has contributed greatly to exposure of the torture phenomenon, Scott Horton, has suggested that Yoo's views echo those of a German legal thinker of the period between the world wars, Carl Schmitt. Schmitt argued that when it came to degraded enemies like the Soviet Union, the idea of complying with international law was a romantic delusion. The enemy, rather, must be seen as absolute-stripped of all legal rights.

Those who want to relax the laws against torture often make the "ticking bomb" argument: that if a prisoner may know the location of a bomb set to go off shortly, torturing him is justified to save lives. If captors believe that, they may well resort to forceful interrogation. But to write such an exception into the rules invites the systematic use of torture. I had a lesson in the danger of the ticking-bomb argument years ago in Israel. I was interviewing Jacobo Timerman, the Argentine publisher who was imprisoned and tortured by the military regime that for a time took over Argentina. (Intervention by the Carter Administration saved Timerman's life; on release from prison he immigrated to Israel.) Timerman turned the interview around and asked me questions about torture, positing the ticking-bomb situation. I tried to avoid the question, but he pressed me to answer. Finally, I said that I might authorize torture in such a situation. "No!" he shouted. "You must never start down that road."

Americans are not immune from evil; no people are. We know now that American soldiers, improperly led, can beat to death prisoners they have in their minds dehumanized. What can we do to limit the evil?

Investigation is one idea, widely endorsed. An independent body like the one that carried out the 9/11 investigation could tell us much that we do not know: not just an authoritative account of the wrongs done but a timeline of the official opinions and actions that opened the way for them. But I think a more effective solution would be the appointment of a special prosecutor. He or she would have the power not just to find the facts but to prosecute the wrongdoers. For we must not forget that not only treaties but criminal laws forbid the torture, mistreatment and humiliation of those we take in conflict.

It is unimaginable that President Bush would agree to a special prosecutor for war crimes if ever the public and Congress grew exercised enough to demand one. But you never know about history. The other day, on the sixtieth anniversary of the Nuremberg prosecution of Nazi officials, Scott Horton recalled that Nuremberg established the principle of command responsibility for abuse-and punished those who wrote legal memorandums counseling German officials to ignore the conventions protecting prisoners.

The chief American prosecutor at Nuremberg, Justice Robert H. Jackson of the Supreme Court, warned that "the record on which we judge these defendants today is the record on which history will judge us tomorrow. To pass these defendants a poisoned chalice is to put it to our lips as well."

Horton said the moment of historical reckoning for American officials may come. "A number of key Bush officials," he wrote, "are more likely to be the Pinochets of the next generation-blocked from international travel and forever fending off extradition warrants and prosecutors' questions."


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I agree completly with Anthony, yet feel he is writing about them, not us. He says "much of the American public will be indifferent to what is being done in its name." We reelected Bush, and his actions since are fully consistent with those of his first term. The founders of America were rebelling against abuse of power, and they did their best to prevent its reacurance. With the end of the cold war we had a chance to turn the corner on our self-destructive tendencies as a species. In a remarkably short time we will no longer be the world's only superpower. For me, we are now no longer America. As many have said, you don't know what you have 'till it's gone.

Because there are plenty of us out here that will keep fighting and yelling and kicking and screaming the truth until we drop, if that's what it takes. This is OUR country. George W. Bush resides in OUR White House. We must NOT stand by and let our country's greatness wither in the hands of a criminal cabal that exists only to serve itself, caring nothing about the people that they're supposed to be working for.

FYI - The first thing you have to understand and accept is that we most certainly did not re-elect Bush, nor did we elect him the first time. Both elections were, without a doubt, stolen from us. Who he was running against is irrelevant.

The evidence that proves this abounds. Do some homework and see for yourself.
Here's a good place to start.

I keep coming back to the fact that the 535 people on Capitol Hill (the House and the Senate) and the few others in the White House serve in their positions at the will of the people. If even a very small percentage of the 280-90 million of the rest of us could summon up the nerve to stand up publicly and say "NO MORE! STOP SCREWING WITH OUR COUNTRY AND RUINING OUR REPUTATION!", we could send these evil, ignorant bastards away sulking, with their tails between their legs, like the schoolyard bully who just got his ass whipped by the principal.

Our effort should be multi-faceted: A relentless, non-stop attack on the phones, faxes and email addresses of our representatives in Congress. When they get the message loud and clear, beyond any doubt, that they will not have a job if they continue to support the criminal actions of the Bush administration, they will act appropriately and begin impeachment proceedings for the entire criminal crowd at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. At the same time, we must be demanding REAL campaign finance reform and clean elections.

If there is something more important to the success of democracy than maintaining unquestionable integrity in the process by which we elect our public servants, I don't know what it is.

John Perry

Well, Dubya sez the US Constitution is just a "Goddamned piece of paper", anyway.

In a Patriarchal Fascist system, the only Game Rules that apply are the ones that allow the Dominant Predators to Win. If a Game Rule gets in the way, a "Double Standard" explaination . . . a Machiavellian "Pretext" . . . is created to get around the Game Rule thus creating a "Subjective Truth." ("When the President does it, it isn't breaking the law" - Richard Nixon during the David Frost Interviews) ("Torture Saves Lives" - Dr. Condi "Mushroom Cloud" Rice)

This "Subjective Truth" is JUSTIFIED by the Patriarchal Fascist Power system to be both "Legal" and "Right/Good." (John "I can't bear to look at a woman's boobie" Ashcroft sez we can get away with it and Pat "Gawd, Send Thy Holy CIA to Kill Hugo Chavez" Robertson will cherry-pick the appropriate bible-verse to shut up the masses)

Anyone refusing to go along with this "Double Standard Subjective Truth" becomes a target by the Fascist Power System. Ridicule, shame, threats, criminal set-ups, assassination, etc.

In their psychological dysfunction, the Dominant Predator only has "self value" when they are "Winning" and the crowds are cheering them. In severe dysfunctional Patriarchal Systems, this need for external validation (to the be the beloved Hero/Champion) is bonded to the individual's personal "survival circuits."

The viscious-cycle comes into play as the Dominant Predators must break more and more "Game Rules" to maintain the SURVIVAL and EXPANSION of the Patriarchal Fascist System. Thus the "white lies" turn into "white propaganda" which turn into "grey propaganda" then "black propaganda" . .. then Criminal Acts . . .then "You are either with us or against us" all out warfare against humanity as
another "final solution." Another case of "The end justifies the means". Another sad chapter in Human Primate history.

The "Right Man" Patriarchal Fascist can NEVER be wrong. This is the root of their dysfunction. . . and WE THE PEOPLE are all expendable. As Ben Franklin said, "WE must hang together, or most assuredly, we shall all hang seperately." ;-)

"How many times must a man look up
Before he can see the sky?
Yes, 'n' how many ears must one man have
Before he can hear people cry?
Yes, 'n' how many deaths will it take till he knows
That too many people have died?
The answer, my friend, is blowin' in the wind,
The answer is blowin' in the wind."
- Blowing in the Wind by Bob Dylan


Here is another look at Dubya's stance as the US Constitution as JUST a "Goddamn Piece of Paper."

Ya know, if I was in the Military, in Intelligence, or in Law Enforcement and I heard MY commander-in-chief call "THE" GAME RULE BOOK just a "Goddamn Piece of Paper" that didn't apply to HIM, I think I'd be pretty gosh darn pissed off . . .


(Interesting side note . . . Hey, kidz, did you know that the early Puritans banned Christmas all together? Yup, too damn "Catholic" for their tastes . .. of course, they killed "witches", too. ;-) )

"You can shine you're shoes
and wear a suit
you can comb your hair
and look quite cute
you can hide your face
behind a smile
one thing you can't hide
is when you're crippled inside"
- Crippled Inside by John Lennon


I'm not going to wax philosophical here about this jerk-off's treasonous comment about the Constitution he swore an oath to uphold and to defend, SO HEL ME GOD (not the 4000 year old dog named Son O' Sam he listens to in his f'ing head!).

No less than '3' Senator's heard this fucker utter those words, and did virtually nothing to question him. How can this be? Every one of them swore an Oath of office, just like this impostor from outer f'ing space did...apparently they didn't understand what it meant.

We cannot allow this sham to go on and on. If TREASON isn't grounds to IMPEACH THIS CHARLATAN AND LIAR, then I just don't know what is.

just another piece of paper? I don't think so. Too many of us put on a uniform (unlike your lying, pretentious self) to defend that Constitution you have so much disdain for, George.

It's criminal that a sitting president can utter TREASONOUS and SEDITIOUS crap in the White House and get away with it.

Has the time yet arrived when the antiwar movement can drop the "support the troops" shtick as "compensation" for the supposed sins of the '60s that never actually happened?

There is no evidence of any kind that anyone ever spat on a Vietnam veteran or called one a "baby killer." Those stories only began appearing after the 1982 release of Rambo: First Blood: "It wasn't my war--you asked me, I didn't ask you...and I did what I had to do to win," says Sylvester Stallone's character. "Then I came back to the world and I see all those maggots at the airport, protesting me, spitting on me, calling me a baby-killer."

All of that is pure fiction. Nevertheless, anxiety about not "supporting the troops" in the current "war on terror" gives rise to some very stange anomalies amongst today's antiwar movement.

"Support the Troops, Oppose Their Actions," reads the oxymoronic headline of an April 2005 essay at In a column titled "Support Our Troops, Not Our President," liberal columnist Richard Reeves worries about Iraq war vets: "They will come home to be called 'torturers', as Vietnam vets were called 'baby killers.'" To avoid repeating the supposed excesses of the '60s peace movement, today's antiwar groups praise the soldiers fighting the wars they abhor.

"Supporting our troops while opposing their actions may seem contradictory," argues Joshua Frank in the article. "The duties of U.S. soldiers in Iraq are wrong and many may be committing horrible crimes against humanity. True. But soldiers are mostly not bad people (though, of course, some are)." How is a person who voluntarily commits "horrible crimes against humanity" not a "bad person"?

Even if U.S. forces were not violating the rules of war in Iraq -- torturing, maiming and murdering POWs, robbing and subjecting civilians to collective punishment, raping and sodomizing children, dropping white phosphorus and depleted uranium bombs on civilian targets -- the war itself, based on false pretenses and opposed by the United Nations, would remain a gross violation of American and international law.

Soldiers, they say, must obey orders. However, "just following orders" wasn't an acceptable excuse at the Nuremberg trials, where the charges included waging a war of aggression. Do our government's poorly paid contract killers deserve our "support" for blindly following orders?

Not according to the military itself. The U.S. Army's "Law of Land Warfare," taught in basic training, says that U.S. troops must always refuse an unlawful order--one that violates the Constitution or other U.S. laws, is not reasonably linked to military necessity or is issued by someone without the proper authority.

Even passivity in the face of wrongdoing breaks military law. "If you are responsible for what's going on around you, and it is going unlawfully, and you know that [and] do nothing about it, I'm going to prosecute you," says Bill Eckhardt, a retired army colonel and professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law who prosecuted most of the perpetrators of the My Lai massacre. "So basically, you've gotta be a whistleblower."

If we are, as Jean-Paul Sartre posited, defined by our actions, most of the blame for the murder of more than 100,000 Iraqis belongs to our top government officials. But Bush's armchair warriors couldn't have invaded Iraq without a compliant and complicit United States military -- one that, it should be noted, is all volunteer. These individuals, who enjoy free will, fire the guns and drop the bombs. If personal responsibility is to have any meaning, the men and women of our armed forces have must accept some accountability for the carnage.

What are members of the military to do? They should certainly refuse to applaud when Bush uses them as backdrops to his logo-ridden pro-death pep rallies. Moreover, just as Muslim leaders were pressured to speak out against Islamist extremists after 9/11, soldiers ought to step forward to condemn the atrocities at Bagram, Fallujah and Guantánamo in letters to newspapers and other public venues.

The military used to be an honorable calling. Not under Bush. Ethical Americans considering a military career should seek a civilian job until a lawful, elected government has been restored in Washington and we have withdrawn our forces from occupied Afghanistan and Iraq. Those who are already enlisted should refuse to reenlist. Soldiers trapped by "stop loss" orders should apply for conscientious objector status (which is difficult to obtain) or refuse deployment based on the unlawful order principle.

And if all else fails, there's always desertion. Would any of us have condemned a "brownshirt" who deserted the torture administration of that era.

Would one say that if the United States has "foreign troops" stationed inside our borders, it's as close to the real thing as we will get.

I read an article on,Congressman Ron Paul of Texas was very concerned about the foreign troops being here without the american citizens knowledge. He said that the american people should know. Well, have you been told. I have written several e-mails to radio talk show hosts, but no one is willing to talk about it.

I believe that the reason our government wants the "foreign troops" here is because if we are placed under MARTIAL LAW, the foreign troops will have no problem shooting americans, whereas american troops would.

Love your ideology and hate the neocon's, but no matter how many times Bushies tell us we are making good, great, and real progress, conditions on the ground continue to get worse. Yes integrity is vital, but when most Americans don't care enough to vote at all, and way too many vote for the person they feel most comfortable with, a regular guy, we are well on our way to being history. Bushies say we must have backbone and stay the course, and many others believe that with the right strategy we can still win. It's past time to look beyond winning. Our reactions to 9/11 have done far more damage to America than the event itself. It reminds me of "to save the village we had to destroy it." Unfortunately too many Americans just want more good times and don't want to be bothered about politics. What do you think will change this reality?

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