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Tuesday, April 21st, 2009

[digg-reddit-me]This isn’t a definitive timeline of the debate over torture in America. These are merely some highlights.

On September 11, 2001 we were attacked by militant islamists as they took advantage of the openness of our society and our technology and committed one of the most foul atrocities in history.

By September 12, 2001, everything had changed for those in power – and for many of us – “The sense of danger in the White House was urgent, palpable.” An associate of Condi Rice explained:

We really thought we were going to be attacked – possibly chemical, biological, even nuclear, the potential that they could blow up entire American cities…And then CIA came and said, ‘You know, this is the only way to question these people. Our experts say this is the only program that will work.’ And Justice said that the [Geneva Conventions] didn’t apply…and that the agency program did comply with the torture statute.

Others in the White House described a feeling of panic imbuing all their actions.

On September 16, 2001Dick Cheney appeared on Meet the Press:

I think the important thing here, Tim, is for people to understand that, you know, things have changed since last Tuesday…We…have to work, though, sort of the dark side, if you will. We’ve got to spend time in the shadows in the intelligence world. 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, if we’re going to be successful. That’s the world these folks operate in, and so it’s going to be vital for us to use any means at our disposal, basically, to achieve our objective.

On August 1, 2002, what becomes known as the Bybee torture memo, written apparently by his deputy John Yoo, re-defines torture as physical pain:

equivalent in intensity to the pain accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death.

It is not known if all of the techniques justified using this legal shield have been made public – but a partial list includes:

Sometime in 2002John Ashcroft exclaims during a meeting of the cabinet-level officials going over the details of how detainees are being interrogated:

History will not judge this kindly.

Donald Rumsfeld writes on 2002 memo describing interrogation techniques:

I stand for 8-10 hours a day. Why is standing limited to four hours?

Rumsfeld presumably stood at a desk, using it for support and moved around – a very different experience than “forced standing,” a former Communist torture technique which can result in physical effects which Red Cross reports described in detainees:

After 18 to 24 hours of continuous standing, there is an accumulation of fluid in the tissues of the legs. This dependent edema is produced by the extravasation of fluid from the blood vessels. The ankles and feet of the prisoner swell to twice their normal circumference. The edema may rise up the legs as high as the middle of the thighs. The skin becomes tense and intensely painful. Large blisters develop, which break and exude watery serum….

Beginning in 2004, photographs from the Abu Ghraib scandal surface:

Christopher Hitchens – after publicaly calling waterboarding and the other interrogation methods used merely “extreme interrogation” and not “outright torture” – accepts a challenge to undergo it himself. He comes away a changed man:

Here is the most chilling way I can find of stating the matter. Until recently, “waterboarding” was something that Americans did to other Americans. It was inflicted, and endured, by those members of the Special Forces who underwent the advanced form of training known as sere (Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape). In these harsh exercises, brave men and women were introduced to the sorts of barbarism that they might expect to meet at the hands of a lawless foe who disregarded the Geneva Conventions. But it was something that Americans were being trained to resist, not to inflict…

[I]f waterboarding does not constitute torture, then there is no such thing as torture.

Deroy Murdok writes in the National Review:

Waterboarding is something of which every American should be proud.


Former CIA operative Barry Eisler:

[T]orture is also an excellent way to get the subject to confess to anything at all, which is why it was a wonderful tool for the Spanish Inquisition and for the secret police of assorted totalitarian regimes. But if the goal is to produce accurate, actionable intelligence, torture is madness… To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, torture is worse than immoral: it’s tactically stupid. It produces false confessions, which can be used to confirm mistaken suspicions and even outright policy fantasies; it instills an insatiable thirst for vengeance in most people who are subjected to it, and so creates new, dedicated enemies; it permanently brutalizes its practitioners; and it cuts us off from intelligence from the local populace because so many people will refuse to inform on someone if they fear he’ll be tortured.

On October 15, 2004, Justice John Stevens wrote:

For if this nation is to remain true to the ideals symbolized by its flag, it must not wield the tools of tyrants even to resist an assault by the forces of tyranny.

On June 14, 2005, Senator Dick Durbin gave a controversial speech in which he read from an FBI report of detainee interrogations:

If I read this to you and did not tell you that it was an FBI agent describing what Americans had done to prisoners in their control, you would most certainly believe this must have been done by Nazis, Soviets in their gulags, or some mad regime – Pol Pot or others – that had no concern for human beings. Sadly, that is not the case. This was the action of Americans in the treatment of their prisoners

Malcolm Nance, a former SERE interrogator explained that Senator Dick Durbin was right:

Now, at long last, six years of denials can now be swept aside, and we can say definitively: America engaged in torture and legalized it through paperwork.

Despite all the gyrations – the ducking, dodging and hiding from the facts – there is no way to say that these people were not authorizing torture. Worse yet, they seem to have not cared a wit that these techniques came from the actual manuals of communist, fascist and totalitarian torturers.

On September 28, 2005, Captain Ian Fishback wrote a letter to Senator John McCain:

…the most important question that this generation will answer [is] Do we sacrifice our ideals in order to preserve security? Terrorism inspires fear and suppresses ideals like freedom and individual rights. Overcoming the fear posed by terrorist threats is a tremendous test of our courage. Will we confront danger and adversity in order to preserve our ideals, or will our courage and commitment to individual rights wither at the prospect of sacrifice? My response is simple. If we abandon our ideals in the face of adversity and aggression, then those ideals were never really in our possession.I would rather die fighting than give up even the smallest part of the idea that is “America.

On November 4, 2005, Senator John McCain explained his opposition to torture:

I have said it before but it bears repeating: The enemy we fight has no respect for human life or human rights. They don’t deserve our sympathy. But this isn’t about who they are. This is about who we are. These are the values that distinguish us from our enemies, and we can never, never allow our enemies to take those values away.

On January 19, 2009Dick Cheney explained to the Weekly Standard

I think on the left wing of the Democratic party, there are some people who believe that we really tortured…

On January 14, 2009, Bob Woodward interviewed the top Bush administration official in charge of deciding whether to bring Guantanamo Bay detainees to trial in the Washington Post:

“We tortured [Mohammed al-]Qahtani,” said Susan J. Crawford, in her first interview since being named convening authority of military commissions by Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates in February 2007. “His treatment met the legal definition of torture. And that’s why I did not refer the case” for prosecution.

On January 22, 2009, a day after taking office, Barack Obama said:

I can say without exception or equivocation that the United States will not torture.

In April 2009, Mark Danner in the New York Review of Books:

[T]he political logic is insidious and, in the aftermath of a future attack, might well prove compelling…

The only way to defuse the political volatility of torture and to remove it from the center of the “politics of fear” is to replace its lingering mystique, owed mostly to secrecy, with authoritative and convincing information about how it was really used and what it really achieved.

On April 20, 2009, Dick Cheney told Sean Hannity:

I’ve now formally asked the CIA to take steps to declassify those memos so we can lay them out there and the American people have a chance to see what we obtained and what we learned and how good the intelligence was, as well as to see this debate over the legal opinions.

In spring 2008, Eric Holder explained:

We owe the American people a reckoning.

On March 18, 2008 Dawn Johnsen, who has been appointed to head Obama’s Office of Legal Counsel which was responsible for the legal opinions cited above wrote in in Slate:

We must avoid any temptation simply to move on. We must instead be honest with ourselves and the world as we condemn our nation’s past transgressions and reject Bush’s corruption of our American ideals. Our constitutional democracy cannot survive with a government shrouded in secrecy, nor can our nation’s honor be restored without full disclosure.

On April 19, 2009, Peggy Noonan on This Week With George Stephanopoulos:

Some things in life need to be mysterious … Sometimes you need to just keep walking.

(All emphases within quotations are my own.)

This is where we stand today – thanks to the courage of heroes within the Bush administration and the military who stood for American values in a time of crisis and against preemptive surrender of our way of life and thanks to the courage of journalists from Mark Danner to Andrew Sullivan to Glenn Greenwald to Dana Priest to Jane Mayer who exposed these secret actions.


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Posted in Barack Obama, Morality, National Security, Politics, The Opinionsphere, The War on Terrorism | 14 Comments »

Grandstanding McCain: Despite Fine Words, He Refused to Act on Torture

Wednesday, September 10th, 2008

[Image by SoggyDan licensed under Creative Commons.]

On September 16, 2005 a captain in the army wrote a letter to Senator John McCain. The captain had commanded troops in Iraq and witnessed what he described as “a wide range of abuses [of American-held prisoners] including death threats, beatings, broken bones, murder, exposure to elements, extreme forced physical exertion, hostage-taking, stripping, sleep deprivation and degrading treatment.” He attempted to determine what standards governed the treatment of detainees as he reported these abuses up the chain of command – but was given no guidance. He had written to many military and political officials, informing them of what was going on and asking for guidance, despite being told by the military brass that he was committing career suicide. He wrote letters to anyone he thought might be able to help him – but no one responded.

Finally, on Finally, on September 16, 2006, this captain wrote a letter to Senator John McCain. The letter concluded:

…the most important question that this generation will answer [is] Do we sacrifice our ideals in order to preserve security? Terrorism inspires fear and suppresses ideals like freedom and individual rights. Overcoming the fear posed by terrorist threats is a tremendous test of our courage. Will we confront danger and adversity in order to preserve our ideals, or will our courage and commitment to individual rights wither at the prospect of sacrifice? My response is simple. If we abandon our ideals in the face of adversity and aggression, then those ideals were never really in our possession. I would rather die fighting than give up even the smallest part of the idea that is “America.” [My emphasis.]

John McCain was so moved by this letter that he pushed for it to be published in the Washington Post, began drafting legislation to stop America from torturing it’s prisoners, and began publicly pushing the Bush administration on the issue in the press. On November 4, 2005, in the middle of this fight Senator John McCain issued a sober call for to reform our intelligence-gathering and

What should also be obvious is that the intelligence we collect must be reliable and acquired humanely, under clear standards understood by all our fighting men and women. To do differently not only offends our values as Americans, but undermines our war effort, because abuse of prisoners harms – not helps – us in the war on terror. First, subjecting prisoners to abuse leads to bad intelligence, because under torture a detainee will tell his interrogator anything to make the pain stop. Second, mistreatment of our prisoners endangers U.S. troops who might be captured by the enemy – if not in this war, then in the next. And third, prisoner abuses exact on us a terrible toll in the war of ideas, because inevitably these abuses become public. When they do, the cruel actions of a few darken the reputation of our country in the eyes of millions. American values should win against all others in any war of ideas, and we can’t let prisoner abuse tarnish our image.

Senator McCain concluded his remarks by echoing the army captain:

We should do it not because we wish to coddle terrorists. We should do it not because we view them as anything but evil and terrible. We should do it, Mr. President, because we are Americans, and because we hold ourselves to humane standards of treatment of people no matter how evil or terrible they may be. America stands for a moral mission, one of freedom and democracy and human rights at home and abroad. We are better than these terrorists, and we will we win. I have said it before but it bears repeating: The enemy we fight has no respect for human life or human rights. They don’t deserve our sympathy. But this isn’t about who they are. This is about who we are. These are the values that distinguish us from our enemies, and we can never, never allow our enemies to take those values away. [My emphasis.]

Responding to criticisms that he was being overly moralistic in attempting to prohibit Americans from torturing, McCain told George Stephanopoulos said:

In that million-to-one situation, then the President of the United States would authorize and then take responsibility for it

Despite heavy criticism from the right-wing, McCain had proposed what became known as the McCain Anti-Torture Amendment (and later the Detainee Treatment Act.)1 The right-wing excoriated McCain for leaving America defenseless and the Bush administration pleaded with McCain to amend the language of his amendment, threatening to veto any measure that impinged on the president’s authority to torture people. Under great pressure, McCain limited the bill’s specific language to only cover the military, leaving out the CIA. Although the bill called for an end to all torture of prisoners by Americans, it only gave specific and binding direction to the military. Further undermining the anti-torture provisions, President Bush issued a signing statement that suggested the law violated the Constitution and that it should not be considered binding.

In 2006, the Bush administration began to push for a bill that concerned the issue of torture. McCain initially requested that the bill include the explicit protections of the Geneva Conventions. The Bush administration conceded to McCain’s requests and included these protections, but undermined this passage with a provision that gave the president authority to determine what acts were consistent with and inconsistent with the Geneva Conventions. Again, McCain’s stand against torture won him plaudits, but only served to authorize the president’s power to use whatever methods he personally deemed “not torture”.

In February 2008, a number of top Democrats on the Intelligence Committee became concerned that the CIA was continuing to torture prisoners despite assurances by the administration to McCain that they had stopped those practices due to McCain’s public pressure. The Democrats sought to close the loophole left by the McCain Anti-Torture Amendment, and reaching out to McCain for support, they were surprised to be rebuffed.

McCain explained his opposition to what became known as the Feinstein Amendment, saying that the current law was sufficiently clear and that:

We always supported allowing the CIA to use extra measures…

He continued to repeat his claim that:

I obviously don’t want to torture any prisoners.

Yet, despite reports of ongoing torture, he refused to back a law with teeth that would actually prevent torture. His first two attempts had been considered noble failures by human rights activists who worked with Senator McCain. They admired him for standing up to the Bush administration and calling on America to be better – and even if he hadn’t actually accomplished what he had set out to do. Now – with a Democratic Congress ready to push the issue and actually pass an enforceable law ending official American torture, McCain balked. He even suggested the president veto the bill if it was passed. Such was the moral authority he had built up on the issue that his standing against the amendment effectively quashed it.

What does it say about a man’s character that he hears the call of injustice and composes a powerful defense of American values and becomes the public face of opposition to torture – and then he accepts a compromise that gives him only a symbolic victory? And then, given another chance to put an end to this practice he has condemned in no uncertain terms, he again mounts a public defense and accepts a symbolic victory that reinforces the position he has condemend? And then, given a chance to support a bill that would truly end torture, he opposes it and encourages the president to veto it? His words promise so much more than his deeds deliver.2

While Senator John McCain was the only official Captain Ian Fishback reached out to that responded to his call for leadership, McCain failed the test Captain Fishback put to him. McCain chose to “sacrifice our ideals in order to preserve security” and  give up some part “of the idea that is America.” He accepted plaudits and symbolic victories, but when given the chance to act on his fine words and professed ideals, he declined.

I admired the McCain who fought against torture when no other Republican would. I admired him despite the compromises he made. I could not admire the way he declined to back up his words once the opportunity was given to him.

Both the liberal law professor Glenn Greenwald and the conservative columnist Andrew C. McCarthy use the same word to describe McCain’s opposition to torture: “grandstanding.”

N.B. This post was written in the midst of an obviously contentious election campaign – one in which I had strongly considered supporting John McCain but after careful evaluation, had come to the conclusion that Barack Obama was the only candidate suited to our current challenges. While I stand by the content of the post, in retrospect, the tone is a bit overheated. That said – the fact that McCain would backtrack on this issue that was at the core of his reputation for moral authority is a testament to how this issue has become one of the issues in the new “culture war” – this one over national security. 


  1. All told, the position outlined and taken by McCain to this point is a serious one – and one which I mainly agree with. []
  2. As with Georgia. []

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Posted in Election 2008, Law, McCain, Morality, National Security, Politics, The War on Terrorism | 975 Comments »

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