From the Top,
as We Suspected

Of course it would hardly do to consider a report [.pdf] from a congressional committee the last possible word on a past event or series of events. What makes a report this week from the Senate Armed Services Committee last Thursday of special interest is that it was bipartisan in nature, with no minority report, issued jointly by Senators Carl Levin, the Michigan Democrat, and John McCain, who’s back to being a Republican senator from Arizona after having lost the presidential election (perhaps to his secret relief?). Even relatively non-controversial reports often carry minority reports, sometimes amounting to nuance, sometimes in sharp opposition to the conclusions of the majority report. But there was no stated dissent on the committee.

For many, perhaps most, Americans, the conclusion is not a shocker. It affirms that former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and other top Bushies "bear direct responsibility for the harsh treatment of detainees at Guantanamo Bay, that their decisions led to more serious abuses in Iraq and elsewhere," as the Washington Post put it in a news story. Of course a spokesman for Rumsfeld averred that numerous previous reports had not fingered him personally, which is more or less true. But the denial didn’t amount to a direct statement that the charges the committee made were flat-out untrue, just that previous inquiries had come to different conclusions about his culpability.

I don’t know whether, now that the Bush administration has been so thoroughly defeated and discredited, John McCain somehow feels liberated from the necessity he might have felt during the campaign of having to pretend that he has any respect for a president he almost certainly has held in extremely low esteem for a long time. It is hardly a secret, of course, that he has not been Don Rumsfeld’s biggest fan, and the report does seem more directed at Rumsfeld than at Bubba Bush himself. McCain is known to be sometimes more emotional than dispassionate, and he is not exactly a detail man, so it’s difficult to know whether the evidence the committee staff unearthed convinced him or whether he felt it was appropriate to further separate himself from the mess Rumsfeld made of things and was inclined to believe almost anything derogatory about Rumsfeld even on thin evidence.

The story the administration tried to peddle when photos documenting the shocking abuses were publicized was that this was the work of a few lower-level rogue guards who, perhaps because they were not properly trained, got a bit carried away. A few non-coms were prosecuted, and a few officers found their careers arrested. But the pretense was maintained that "we don’t torture," at least not as a matter of official policy, and the Rumsfelds, Rices [.pdf], Wolfowitzes, et al., were shocked, shocked that such outrages had occurred (or at least been brought to light).

The story wasn’t especially credible from the outset, and it became less credible over time as a series of memos was uncovered in which John Yoo and others first proclaimed that the U.S. was not bound by the Geneva Conventions [.pdf] against torture or even by a U.S. law outlawing torture – with angels (or were those devils?) dancing on pinheads [.pdf] when it came time to define what constituted actual torture (pretty much anything short of inflicting death seemed to be permissible). For a while, the mucky-mucks tried to peddle the story that interrogators in the field, frustrated by their inability to get sufficient information out of detainees through relatively civilized methods, were begging for authorization to use harsher methods than were standard military practice, even for those without the protections of being classified as prisoners of war.

But the Armed Services report knocks that one into oblivion: “The abuse of detainees in U.S. custody," it reads, "cannot be simply attributed to the actions of a few ‘bad apples’ acting on their own. The fact is that senior officials in the United States government solicited information on how to use aggressive techniques, redefined the law to create the appearance of their legality, and authorized their use against detainees."

As the Post‘s Joby Warrick and Karen DeYoung put it, "The report is the most direct refutation to date of the administration’s rationale for using aggressive interrogation tactics – that inflicting humiliation and pain on detainees was legal and effective, and helped protect the country. The 25-member panel, without one dissent among the 12 Republican members, declared the opposite to be true." The Senate panel concluded that the administration’s torture policies and the controversies that arose when they were no longer secret "damaged our ability to collect accurate intelligence that could save lives, strengthened the hand of our enemies, and compromised our moral authority."

In other words, those who suspected that the impulse to torture came from the top, from faux-tough bureaucrats and officials, rather than being the work of carelessness or abandonment of principle at lower levels, turned out to be right. Furthermore, the report strengthened the case, as some of us argued years ago, that the torture techniques were more or less reverse-engineered, adapted from military training designed to help U.S. military people resist the kind of torture Americans had encountered from the Chinese Communists during the Korean War. So the Chicoms of the 1950s turned out to be the model for the early 21st-century "aggressive interrogation" techniques authorized for U.S. officers and officials.

One might have thought that those in search of reliable information from detainees in the "war on terror" would have consulted military and civilian interrogators with a good deal of experience in order to determine the most effective techniques. But no, they went for the Korean and Chinese Communist methods as a first resort, not a last resort. Of course, they were doing it in defense of "freedom," which those in charge of the chains seem to have convinced many Americans is what we have in this country, so it was not only justified but necessary and supremely moral.

It is true that these ostensibly truth-acknowledging Republicans on the Armed Services Committee took their sweet time, waiting until the Bush administration was defeated at the polls and had become for most Americans a bad taste they can’t wait to spit out rather than an entity with any effective power to make it easier or more difficult to get elected or reelected. But better late than never.

Many people have a completely understandable desire to see those who brought such dishonor on our beloved country charged with appropriate crimes and taken on a visible perp walk before facing juries of ordinary Americans. One doubts that such plans are near the top of President-elect Obama’s priority list, although rumblings may come from Congress. Whether those ever come to fruition or not, we who were most suspicious of the Bushies have been vindicated, and administration defenders and apologists have been debunked and discredited (yet again).

Unfortunately, the early critics are still likely to be passed over, when bookers for most cable news programs turn to their Rolodexes or Blackberries, in favor of those who were wrong from the beginning and have been wrong consistently ever since. Such are the wayward ways of what we laughingly call the "mainstream" media.

Author: Alan Bock

Get Alan Bock's Waiting to Inhale: The Politics of Medical Marijuana (Seven Locks Press, 2000). Alan Bock is senior essayist at the Orange County Register. He is the author of Ambush at Ruby Ridge (Putnam-Berkley, 1995).