In the Arena

Cheney and Torture

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There’s more today from Lawrence Wilkerson, who was Colin Powell’s former chief of staff, via TPM: one purpose of the torture regime was to extract the (non-existent) links between Iraq and Al Qaeda from detainees. There’s also a report that Cheney’s office ordered the torture of an Iraqi detainee. These are important, obscene things to know. 

One point in Wilkerson’s piece relates to the oft-repeated meme: we have to investigate, prosecute, reveal photos in order to be sure this never happens again… 

My investigations have revealed to me–vividly and clearly–that once the Abu Ghraib photographs were made public in the Spring of 2004, the CIA, its contractors, and everyone else involved in administering “the Cheney methods of interrogation”, simply shut down. Nada. Nothing. No torture or harsh techniques were employed by any U.S. interrogator. Period. People were too frightened by what might happen to them if they continued.

In other words, even a scoundrel like Cheney understood that this was out of bounds–and, once revealed, stopped doing it. Which raises the question, again, about what use the revelation of more photos would have–other than endangering the lives of American troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, an argument that has yet to be engaged, so far as I know, by those who are so intent on getting the photos out. I don’t think the release of those photos is worth a single American life, not a single American pinky. And you can be sure that the photos–of  practices that existed for a brief time, but ceased long ago (and aren’t remotely likely to be revived by the current Administration)–would have a dramatic effect on the jihadis, and potential recruits, in those war zones. 

So what do we do to prevent this horror from happening again? Torture is illegal. It’s also in the eye of the beholder. I believe that any rational human being would understand that waterboarding, stress positions, etc etc are forms of torture. One of the problems with prosecuting the Bush miscreants, who will argue that they gave a good-faith interpretation of existing treaties and statutes, is that most non-ACLU lawyers believe they are likely to be acquitted–which would probably be seen as a validation of Bush torture policy, a disastrous unintended consequence.

But what about those photos? Isn’t there some value in making people more aware of the practices? You could argue–with polling and focus groups to back you up–that most people would see this stuff as (a) tame compared to the things they see in movies and on tv and (b) called for, if the result is actionable intelligence about terrorist acts. (Indeed, the John Kerry campaign conducted such focus groups in 2004, with the result that the candidate never mentioned these outrages during the campaign, not even after the White House link was definitively reported in the Washington Post.) I’d argue that the practices people really need to be aware of are the non-brutal interrogation techniques practiced by the FBI that were successful in gaining cooperation from Abu Zubaydah and other prisoners. The best way to publicize these practices is via Hollywood–one hope the producers of 24 would take note. In fact, David Ignatius wrote about the power of non-brutal interrogation in his last novel, Body of Lies–although I can’t recall if that material made it into the movie. I’d love to see an episode of 24 where Jack Bauer tortures someone and gets false information, while the FBI gets the real story from some creative interrogation. 

The truth is, there really is only one way to prevent this from ever happening again:  through an informed electorate that refuses to be demagogued–and refuses to elect uninformed, Oedipally-impaired bullies like George W. Bush.

Update: The CIA won’t release, for the moment (pending an Freedom of Information Act request), the so-called Cheney memos. Too Bad. I would love to see what Cheney considers exculpatory…And for those commenters who don’t see the difference between these memos and the photos, it’s simple–the memos would (a) advance our knowledge of the situation and (b) not be likely inflame our enemies in Afghanistan. And for those commenters who persist in mis-describing my position: I believe what the Bush Administration did was torture. I don’t think, given the vagaries of the law (i.e. the probability that you can argue that you interpreted the statutes in good faith with a different interpretation of torture than mine), that these will be successful prosecutions. I don’t see what officially letting the Bush miscreants off the hook gets us. 

And for those commenters who doubt the accuracy of my reporting–about the Rumsfeld-McKiernan incident and the Kerry focus groups–I had multiple sources (known to my editors) for both, including eyewitnesses in both cases. In the Kerry case, one of my sources conducted the focus groups but is bound to public silence because it is one of the rules of the road when it comes to consultant-politician relationships. Bob Shrum, who supervised two losing Democratic Presidential campaigns that should have been winners, has no credibility on a cornucopia of issues, including this one.