Monday, 8 October 2007

Bush’s torturers follow where the Nazis led

By Andrew Sullivan

10/07/07 "
" -- -- I remember that my first response to
the reports of abuse and torture at Guantanamo Bay was to accuse
the accusers of exaggeration or deliberate deception. I didn’t
believe America would ever do those things. I’d also supported
George W Bush in 2000, believed it necessary to give the
president the benefit of the doubt in wartime, and knew Donald Rumsfeld as a friend.

It struck me as a no-brainer that this stuff was being invented
by the far left or was part of Al-Qaeda propaganda. After all,
they train captives to lie about this stuff, don’t they? Bottom
line: I trusted the president in a time of war to obey the rule
of law that we were and are defending. And then I was forced to
confront the evidence.

From almost the beginning of the war, it is now indisputable,
the Bush administration made a strong and formative decision: in
the absence of good intelligence on the Islamist terror threat
after 9/11, it would do what no American administration had done
before. It would torture detainees to get information.

This decision was and is illegal, and violates America’s treaty
obligations, the military code of justice, the United Nations
convention against torture, and US law. Although America has
allied itself over the decades with some unsavoury regimes
around the world and has come close to acquiescing to torture,
it has never itself tortured. It has also, in liberating the
world from the evils of Nazism and communism, and in crafting
the Geneva conventions, done more than any other nation to
banish torture from the world. George Washington himself vowed
that it would be a defining mark of the new nation that such
tactics, used by the British in his day, would be anathema to

But Bush decided that 9/11 changed all that. Islamists were
apparently more dangerous than the Nazis or the Soviets, whom
Americans fought and defeated without resorting to torture. The
decision to enter what Dick Cheney called “the dark side” was
made, moreover, in secret; interrogators who had no idea how to
do these things were asked to replicate some of the methods US
soldiers had been trained to resist if captured by the Soviets
or Vietcong.

Classic torture techniques, such as waterboarding, hypothermia,
beatings, excruciating stress positions, days and days of sleep
deprivation, and threats to family members (even the children of
terror suspects), were approved by Bush and inflicted on an
unknown number of terror suspects by American officials, CIA
agents and, in the chaos of Iraq, incompetents and sadists at
Abu Ghraib. And when the horror came to light, they denied all
of it and prosecuted a few grunts at the lowest level. The
official reports were barred from investigating fully up the
chain of command.

Legally, the White House knew from the start that it was on
extremely shaky ground. And so officials told pliant in-house
lawyers to concoct memos to make what was illegal legal. Their
irritation with the rule of law, and their belief that the
president had the constitutional authority to waive it, became a
hallmark of their work.

They redefined torture solely as something that would be
equivalent to the loss of major organs or leading to imminent
death. Everything else was what was first called “coercive
interrogation”, subsequently amended to “enhanced
interrogation”. These terms were deployed in order for the
president to be able to say that he didn’t support “torture”. We
were through the looking glass.

After Abu Ghraib, some progress was made in restraining these
torture policies. The memo defining torture out of existence was
rescinded. The Military Commissions Act was crafted to prevent
the military itself from being forced to violate its own code of
justice. But the administration clung to its torture policies,
and tried every legal manoeuvre to keep it going and keep it
secret. Much of this stemmed from the vice-president’s office.

Last week The New York Times revealed more. We now know that
long after Abu Ghraib was exposed, the administration issued
internal legal memos that asserted the legality of many of the
techniques exposed there. The memos not only gave legal cover to
waterboarding, hypothermia and beating but allowed them in
combination to intensify the effect.

The argument was that stripping a chained detainee naked,
pouring water over him while keeping room temperatures cold
enough to induce repeated episodes of dangerous hypothermia, was
not “cruel, inhuman or degrading”. We have a log of such a
technique being used at Guantanamo. The victim had to be rushed
to hospital, brought back from death, then submitted once again
to “enhanced interrogation”.

George Orwell would have been impressed by the phrase “enhanced
interrogation technique”. By relying on it, the White House
spokesman last week was able to say with a straight face that
the administration strongly opposed torture and that “any
procedures they use are tough, safe, necessary and lawful”.

So is “enhanced interrogation” torture? One way to answer this
question is to examine history. The phrase has a lineage.
Verschärfte Verneh-mung, enhanced or intensified interrogation,
was the exact term innovated by the Gestapo to describe what
became known as the “third degree”. It left no marks. It
included hypothermia, stress positions and long-time sleep

The United States prosecuted it as a war crime in Norway in
1948. The victims were not in uniform – they were part of the
Norwegian insurgency against the German occupation – and the
Nazis argued, just as Cheney has done, that this put them
outside base-line protections (subsequently formalised by the
Geneva conventions).

The Nazis even argued that “the acts of torture in no case
resulted in death. Most of the injuries inflicted were slight
and did not result in permanent disablement”. This argument is
almost verbatim that made by John Yoo, the Bush administration’s
house lawyer, who now sits comfortably at the Washington think
tank, the American Enterprise Institute.

The US-run court at the time clearly rejected Cheney’s
arguments. Base-line protections against torture applied, the
court argued, to all detainees, including those out of uniform.
They didn’t qualify for full PoW status, but they couldn’t be
abused either. The court also relied on the plain meaning of
torture as defined under US and international law: “The court
found it decisive that the defendants had inflicted serious
physical and mental suffering on their victims, and did not find
sufficient reason for a mitigation of the punishment . . .”

The definition of torture remains the infliction of “severe
mental or physical pain or suffering” with the intent of
procuring intelligence. In 1948, in other words, America
rejected the semantics of the current president and his aides.
The penalty for those who were found guilty was death. This is
how far we’ve come. And this fateful, profound decision to
change what America stands for was made in secret. The president
kept it from Congress and from many parts of his own

Ever since, the United States has been struggling to figure out
what to do about this, if anything. So far Congress has been
extremely passive, although last week’s leaks about the secret
pro-torture memos after Abu Ghraib forced Arlen Specter, a
Republican senator, to proclaim that the memos “are more than
surprising. I think they are shocking”. Yet the public, by and
large, remains indifferent; and all the Republican candidates,
bar John McCain and Ron Paul, endorse continuing the use of

One day America will come back– the America that defends human
rights, the America that would never torture detainees, the
America that leads the world in barring the inhuman and
barbaric. But not until this president leaves office. And maybe
not even then

Andrew Sullivan is an author, academic and journalist. He
holds a PhD from Harvard in political science, and is a former
editor of The New Republic. His 1995 book, Virtually Normal: An
Argument About Homosexuality, became one of the best-selling
books on gay rights. He has been a regular columnist for The
Sunday Times since the 1990s, and also writes for Time and other

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