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, 2001 – Dick 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:
- Suffocation by water (waterboarding, or traditionally, the water torture);
- Prolonged stress standing position, naked, held with the arms extended and chained above the head…
- Beatings by use of a collar held around the detainees’ neck and used to forcefully bang the head and body against the wall…
- Beating and kicking, including slapping, punching, kicking to the body and face…
- Confinement in a box to severely restrict movement…
- Prolonged nudity…this enforced nudity lasted for periods ranging from several weeks to several months…
- Sleep deprivation…through use of forced stress positions (standing or sitting), cold water and use of repetitive loud noises or music…
- Exposure to cold temperature…especially via cold cells and interrogation rooms, and…use of cold water poured over the body or…held around the body by means of a plastic sheet to create an immersion bath with just the head out of water.
- Prolonged shackling of hands and/or feet…
- Threats of ill-treatment, to the detainee and/or his family…
- Forced shaving of the head and beard…
- Deprivation/restricted provision of solid food from 3 days to 1 month after arrest…
Sometime in 2002, John 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.
[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, 2009, Dick 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.