In US Election, No Time for Guantánamo, But Torture Rears Its Ugly Head

6.10.12

Last week we were reminded, via the Miami Herald, of how Guantánamo is not on the agenda for the forthcoming Presidential election. In 2008, President Obama was preparing to order the prison’s closure, but his executive order in January 2009, promising to close it within a year, failed to lead to the prison’s closure, and this time around the Democrats’ official message is more nuanced. “We are substantially reducing the population at Guantánamo Bay without adding to it,” their official literature proclaims, adding, “And we remain committed to working with all branches of government to close the prison altogether because it is inconsistent with our national security interests and our values.”

Mitt Romney has also not spoken about Guantánamo on the campaign trail, although in 2007, while he was unsuccessfully seeking the Republican nomination, he said, during a debate on Fox News, that “we ought to double Guantánamo.”

Sadly, although Guantánamo has dropped off the radar, despite being a permanent  source of shame for all Americans who respect the rule of law, torture, it seems, is back as a topic of discussion.

When President Obama promised to close Guantánamo, on his second day in office, he also issued an executive order banning the use of the torture techniques introduced by President Bush in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, ordering interrogators to return to the established, non-abusive techniques in the Army Field Manual.

Despite this, President Obama has been a disappointment for those concerned to thoroughly repudiate the lawlessness of the Bush years. The Army Field Manual contains an Appendix allowing torture techniques to be used in certain circumstances, and there have been regular stories of the ill-treatment of certain prisoners in Afghanistan.

Moreover, although Obama backed away from the already discredited program of extraordinary rendition and secret CIA torture prisons introduced by President Bush, he has largely replaced it with a policy that involves a secret “kill list” and drone attacks in numerous locations — including the assassination of US citizens — that has, understandably, attracted widespread criticism, as well as retaining military commissions at Guantánamo and the Patriot Act at home, and, by failing to close Guantánamo, normalizing the concept of indefinite detention.

Even so, as the New York Times explained on Saturday, “Mr. Romney’s advisers have privately urged him to ‘rescind and replace President Obama’s executive order’ and permit secret ‘enhanced interrogation techniques against high-value detainees that are safe, legal and effective in generating intelligence to save American lives,’” according to a policy proposal drafted in September 2011 by 18 advisers, including Michael Chertoff, secretary of homeland security under George W. Bush and the co-author of the Patriot Act, and Charles “Cully” Stimson, who was deputy assistant secretary of defense for detainee affairs under President Bush.

Most alarmingly, another of the advisers is Steven Bradbury, who was the head of the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) under President Bush after Jay S. Bybee and Jack Goldsmith. The OLC is supposed to provide impartial legal advice to the executive branch, but under Bush, John Yoo, a lawyer in the OLC (and a law professor in Berkeley), who was close to Dick Cheney and his senior lawyer, David Addington, cynically approved the Bush administration’s torture program in a series of memos signed by his boss, Jay S. Bybee (now a judge in the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals), which will forever be known as the “torture memos.” Although Goldsmith rescinded them, Bradbury largely approved Yoo and Bybee’s dangerous aberrations from the law in an additional series of “torture memos” for the CIA issued in May 2005.

As the New York Times explained, Bradbury “took a fresh look at CIA interrogation tactics and reapproved them as not violating an antitorture statute, even when combined,” and “also concluded that they did not violate a more sweeping prohibition on ‘cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment’” established in the UN Convention Against Torture, which was signed by Ronald Reagan in April 1988 and ratified by the Senate in October 1990.

Details of what Mitt Romney specifically thinks about torture are largely unknown, although last December, in Charleston, South Carolina, he promised, “We’ll use enhanced interrogation techniques which go beyond those that are in the military handbook right now.” He also stated that he would “not authorize torture,” but told a reporter that he did not think waterboarding — used under President Bush — was torture. Waterboarding is, of course, an ancient torture technique that involves controlled drowning, so Romney’s stance is not encouraging.

What is particularly troubling is that Romney’s advisers are so poisonously pro-torture, writing in their policy brief that it was not possible to state which techniques he should approve, because more research needed to be undertaken. This was not because torture is illegal, immoral and counter-productive, but because, in their opinion, President Obama had “permanently damaged” the value of some of the techniques when, in April 2009, as part of a court case, he released a series of “torture memos” — the Bradbury memos from 2005 and a previously unreleased Yoo and Bybee memo from August 2002.

Unfortunately, while the Obama administration has openly stated that waterboarding is torture, the majority of the mainstream media — the New York Times included — have failed to take the necessary moral stand in their reporting. Although the article last week by Charlie Savage was important, its tone, as dictated by the Times‘ house style, was as coy about torture as the paper has been since the use of torture was first revealed under George W. Bush.

After noting that “Bush administration lawyers approved as legal, despite antitorture laws, such tactics as prolonged sleep deprivation, shackling into painful ‘stress’ positions for long periods while naked and in a cold room, slamming into a wall, locking inside a small box, and the suffocation tactic called waterboarding,” the article proceeded to explain that, when information about the torture program surfaced, it “ignited a heated debate that continues to flare.”

“The policy’s supporters say they were lawful and extracted valuable information that helped save lives,” the Times continued. On the other hand, “Critics contend that they were illegal and damaged the United States’ moral standing, and that the same or better information could have been obtained with nonabusive tactics.”

One can only wonder what hope there is for torture to be thoroughly repudiated when, even in an important exposé of a Presidential candidate being given advice about torture by his advisers (some of whom are implicated in the Bush-era torture program), waterboarding is only referred to as a “suffocation tactic,” and critics of the program are only allowed to “contend” that the techniques used were torture, and that torture is illegal — as well as being immoral and counter-productive.

The Times was correct to note that no information was obtained through the use of torture that could not have been obtained through nonabusive means, but it will continue to rear its ugly head while those who should know, unambiguously, what torture is — lawmakers, lawyers and newspaper editors, for example — continue to duck the issue.

Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed — and I can also be found on Facebook, Twitter, Digg, Flickr (my photos) and YouTube. Also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, updated in April 2012, “The Complete Guantánamo Files,” a 70-part, million-word series drawing on files released by WikiLeaks in April 2011, and details about the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, and available on DVD here — or here for the US). Also see my definitive Guantánamo habeas list and the chronological list of all my articles, and please also consider joining the new “Close Guantánamo campaign,” and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.

As published exclusively on the website of the Future of Freedom Foundation.

11 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    On Facebook, I wrote:

    Thanks for liking and sharing, my friends. It’s so disgraceful that the torture apologists got away with their crimes, so that they’re now able to propose bringing back torture as an official “policy,” in the event that Romney somehow gets elected. You really aren’t supposed to be allowed to make crimes into official policies, and especially not crimes against humanity. The indifference of the American people is staggering …

  2. harpie says...

    Well said, Andy! It’s all very discouraging.

    You may be interested, if you haven’t seen it, in what Marcy Wheeler wrote about this.

    Also, in relation to this article, you may be interested in a comment I made at TheGuardian this morning.

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks for the links, Harpie. I hadn’t seen Marcy’s article. Tim Flanigan – the torturer who’s the most easy to overlook, but whose malignant presence is still being felt: http://tortureaccountability.org/timothy_flanigan

  4. Jeff Kaye says...

    Great article, Andy. I’d add that Charlie Savage and the NYT referred to the Army Field Manual’s interrogation techniques as “nonabusive”. You did the same, but did remind readers about the actual existence of torture techniques in the manual, i.e., in Appendix M. Savage did not do that, leaving readers to believe, as Obama and his advisers and the Democratic Congressional politicians aver, the AFM is the “gold-standard” for interrogation.

    However, the AFM has some pretty dubious parts even without Appendix M. The use of Fear Up as a technique is something the Army noted in its earlier version of the manual came close to violating Geneva, and there are some who say it already does. The use of drugs is not only not forbidden, but changes in language regarding drugs and interrogations now forbid only drugs that cause “lasting damage”. Language outlawing drugs that cause “temporary psychosis” has been removed from the manual, as has language labeling sleep deprivation as torture (sleep deprivation was snuck back in proactively in Appendix M). The use of false flag interrogators is also a form of torture, as it implies a threat to expose some prisoners to special kinds of harm.

    Anyway, I totally share your dismay over the lack of attention to the Guantanamo issue in the election. Maybe yet something will change about that, but I doubt it. Thanks once again for all your hard work.

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    On Facebook, Noa Kleinman wrote, in response to 1, above:

    Its so disgusting to have to click on “like” to endorse this comment

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Perhaps we need an “outraged”button, Noa! Thanks for being there, and for caring.

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Jeff. And thanks to you for persevering in exposing the crimes of the US government, past and present, to the light of day. These days, I think, we are all admiring each other’s tenacity, as the institutional indifference persists, and even deepens. Who would’ve thought, four years ago, that moral outrage would be wiped out by Barack Obama and the Democrats?

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    Esteban Chavez wrote:

    well the patriarchy is on its last legs both obama and romney work for monsanto. the charade is over all they have is violence and the fema camps. humanity is rising up all over the world, the elite are eating each other and running to hide in underground bunkers. ha ha

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    Wow, Esteban, if only that were strictly true, we’d just have to sit back for a bit and wait, but I think we’re going to have to get involved!

  10. Andy Worthington says...

    Pauline Kiernan wrote:

    Thanks Andy. Sharing Px

  11. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Pauline. Great to hear from you. I was meaning to drop you a line when you were celebrating National Poetry Day last week and posting lots of amazing poems. I meant to give a shout out to Shelley’s Ozymandias, the great leveller!

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