Torture: The Fault Is Not in Our Stars

by , September 16, 2009

Unlike many of my progressive friends, for me the current administration’s behavior on torture is a glass half full. In my view, the real scandal is how very few have taken a sip.

Sure, President Barack Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder have adopted some of the secrecy habits of the previous administration. But, for heaven’s sake, read what Obama and Holder have gone ahead and released – and done – before you grouse any louder about the torture photos and other data still suppressed.

Lecturing around the country, I have come to expect blank stares when I ask how many in the audience have read any of the downright sickening "torture memos" appearing under Department of Justice letterhead. You know, the ones that Obama released on April 16; remember?

Nor have many read the horse’s-mouth "Special Review" by the CIA’s own inspector general on torture and interrogation, which was released on Aug. 24. Sure, it’s heavily redacted, but I am tired of hearing about delicate stomachs as an excuse for not reading and pondering the 60 percent of that report that survived. Think for a moment, would you, about the detainees’ stomachs.

I feel fortunate to be part of the "Five for Truth" presentations and workshops that Veterans for Peace is arranging for New Mexico – at Taos, Santa Fe, and Albuquerque – on Oct. 9, 10, and 11. The presenters will be Ann Wright, David Swanson, Cindy Sheehan, Elliot Adams, and I.

In thinking through how I might organize the workshop on "Torture and Intelligence," I decided to bar those who have not read significant portions of the Justice Department torture memos and/or the CIA IG report. And if no one comes, well, so be it.

For me, the attendance will be a microcosmic answer to whether American citizens, including progressives, care enough about the torture conducted in their name that they will have the courage to learn more about it and then to hold accountable those responsible. I think we can safely assume that Obama and Holder are even more interested in a bottom-line answer to that.

We Five for Truth were asked to provide background on our workshops, including what a participant could expect to learn and references for further study. For me, this was an opportunity to do a short précis, distilling the abundant evidence now available on torture. Why, for example, is President Obama so wary of letting justice take its proper course regarding CIA functionaries and contractors (not to mention administration insiders)?

If we can extrapolate from the glass half full – the courage that the president and Holder have shown on the issue of torture – we might have to conclude that they need strong support from us, the American people. So far, I am afraid, what they see is a preponderance of "quiet Germans."

Here’s what I sent to the Veterans For Peace organizers:

Workshop on Torture and Intelligence

On April 16, President Barack Obama released official memoranda demonstrating serious crimes by the previous administration. The documents reveal that top CIA officials solicited and obtained from handpicked Department of Justice lawyers legal opinions based on an extraordinary premise; namely, that so-called "enhanced interrogation techniques" did not amount to torture unless they caused "pain equivalent to organ failure or death."

With that very high threshold, the CIA was given free rein to use harsh techniques like waterboarding and sleep deprivation, to name just two of the torture techniques that find antecedents in the Spanish Inquisition.

Several detainees died in CIA custody; the murders appear to qualify as capital offenses under 18 U.S.C. 2441, the War Crimes Act passed into law in 1996 by a Republican-controlled Congress.

The president clearly is conflicted about what to do. That he wants to put this issue on the back burner is clear. Why, is less clear. What goes without saying – but shouldn’t – is that it is highly risky business to pursue felons who are armed and dangerous and fear the prospect of many years in prison or even execution, if they are brought to justice.

And yet, Obama has done what he promised in letting Attorney General Eric Holder decide to put a prosecutor on the case. As a result, those responsible for the torture are at more risk than ever. And so, one might argue, is Obama.

What might the president be expecting from us?

What an attendee will learn:

In April, Obama faced down very strong pressure from, among others, CIA Director Leon Panetta (not to mention Panetta’s four immediate predecessors) against releasing four Justice Department memoranda setting forth "approved" torture techniques. Why?

Obama was quite aware at the time that the court-ordered release of the explosive findings of the CIA inspector general’s investigation was imminent. It would add to our knowledge of how heinous the CIA abuses actually were – and from the horse’s mouth.

What did Obama expect – or at least hope – would happen once those damning findings were made public?

Attorney General Eric Holder, reportedly "sickened" after reading the CIA inspector general report and facing growing pressure to hold accountable those responsible for the deaths and torture of detainees, has now authorized a preliminary investigation.

This is precisely the fateful step that Dick Cheney and the corral of "anonymous" intelligence sources favored by the Washington Post have been agitating so strongly to prevent. The danger, as they see it, is that the whole ball of twine will unravel and that people will end up with prison terms or even worse.

Are Holder and Obama willing to run that risk? What are they likely to do, or avoid doing, if they conclude that most Americans don’t give a hoot about torture carried out in their name?

Cheney’s current gambit is to make it crystal clear that he is not going down alone; that – as he told Bob Schieffer – it was his boss who "signed off" on waterboarding and other "enhanced" interrogation techniques. The former vice president is betting on Obama not having the stomach to pursue a former president for crimes that the Fawning Corporate Media (FCM) trivialize as "policy differences."

Conflicted though he may be, President Obama did take a solemn oath to ensure that the laws of the land are faithfully executed. What would give him the political support – and the courage – to ensure that justice is pursued, this time not exempting rotten apples at the top of the proverbial barrel?

What about the "just-following-orders" excuse, which was summarily dismissed at the post-WWII Nuremberg Tribunal? Does Obama’s and Holder’s curious willingness so far to accept that defense bespeak a preference for letting the torturers off rather than run the very real risks of bringing them to justice?

Is it not the case that men and women instinctively know that it is wrong to abuse the person of another human being? But what about fear of the consequences of disobeying an order?

There, at least the Nazi torturers had a stronger argument. They could expect to be shot in the head, whereas CIA operatives and contractors might expect to receive a bad fitness report. Do Obama and Holder really think they can hold to the view that "just following orders" is an adequate defense? Should we acquiesce in that?

The entire civilized world cooperated after WWII to ban torture. Our own tradition goes back to Patrick Henry, who insisted that the "rack and the screw" were artifacts of the Old World and needed to be left behind there. And Gen. George Washington strongly insisted from the outset that, whatever the practices of the English, torture was not to be tolerated in the new American Army. Where are the Patrick Henrys, the George Washingtons, of today?

How is it that the issue of torture, an intrinsic evil in the same moral category as rape and slavery, has gotten divorced from the realm of morality and been given a completely different focus; i. e., does torture "work"?

Torture does not provide reliable information; but that’s not the main point. Why is it that religious leaders, by and large, cannot find their voices? Why do they take the course of least resistance, adopting as their model the cowardice of the institutional churches of Nazi Germany? What are the implications for us?

What those who wish to attend the workshop will receive:

A NO ADMITTANCE notice for those who have not read at least portions of:

1. The four Department of Justice memoranda on torture, which President Obama decided to bear the political cost of releasing on April 16; and

2. The CIA inspector general’s "Special Review" of May 7, 2004 [.pdf] released, pursuant to an ACLU lawsuit, on Aug. 24, 2009. (Yes, that’s a wait of more than five years. Pay no heed to the heavy redaction. There is quite enough readable prose to "sicken" you.)

Fair labeling: do not read these before bedtime. And think a bit on what Obama and Holder may be expecting of us at this point. How often has President Obama told us "make me do" the right thing? Are we unable to imagine effective ways to do that?

Those qualifying for admittance can expect a challenge to find effective ways to ensure that the history books read by our children and grandchildren will record that:

The Bush/Cheney chapter on torture as an immoral aberration in the life of our country, and at least some of us refused to act as "silent Germans."

This article appeared first on Consortiumnews.com.

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