Torture: The Bush Administration on Trial


Law-abiding US citizens have been appalled that Jose Rodriguez, the director of the CIA’s National Clandestine Service until his retirement in 2007, was invited onto CBS’s “60 Minutes” program last weekend to promote his book Hard Measures: How Aggressive CIA Actions After 9/11 Saved American Lives, in which he defends the use of torture on “high-value detainees” captured in the Bush administration’s “war on terror,” even though that was — and is — illegal under US and international law.

Rodriguez joins an elite club of war criminals — including George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld — who, instead of being prosecuted for using torture, or authorizing its use, have, instead, been allowed to write books, go on book tours and appear on mainstream TV to attempt to justify their unjustifiable actions.

All claim to be protected by the “golden shield” offered by their inside man, John Yoo, part of a group of lawyers who aggressively pushed the lawlessness of the “war on terror.” Abusing his position as a lawyer in the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, whose mandate is to provide impartial legal advice to the executive branch, Yoo instead attempted to redefine torture and approved its use — including the use of waterboarding, an ancient torture technique and a form of controlled drowning — on an alleged “high-value detainee,” Abu Zubaydah, in two memos, dated August 1, 2002, that will forever be known as the “torture memos.”

Unfortunately, for those who abhor the use of torture and respect the rule of law, President Obama refused to allow Yoo — and his boss, Jay S. Bybee — to be punished. A four-year internal ethics investigation concluded in January 2010 that Yoo and Bybee had been guilty of “professional misconduct,” which would have led to professional sanctions, but a senior DoJ fixer, David Margolis, was allowed — or encouraged — to override those conclusions, stating instead that both men had, understandably, been under great pressure following the 9/11 attacks, and had only exercised “poor judgment,” which was the equivalent of nothing more than a slap on the wrist.

No one bothered mentioning that Article 2.2 of the UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, to which the US became a signatory under Ronald Reagan, declares: “No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture.”

And so, last Sunday, Jose Rodriguez was allowed to undertake his own redefinition of torture, essentially unchallenged, and on mainstream TV. With a disturbingly macho presentation that left Charles Pierce of Esquire “pretty convinced that Rodriguez is both a sociopath and a maniac,” as well as a war criminal, he brushed off criticism of the use of torture by saying, “We made some al-Qaeda with American blood on their hands uncomfortable for a few days, but we did the right thing for the right reason. The right reason to protect the homeland and to protect American lives.”

As Amy Davidson noted in the New Yorker, he also “bragged about its use in proving the manhood of the torturer,” stating, “We needed to get everybody in government to put their big boy pants on and provide the authorities that we needed,” and “talked as if torture were an expression of strength, rather than momentary domination masking the most abject moral and practical weakness.” For Glenn Greenwald, the reference to “big boy pants” exposed “a whole new level of psychosexual creepiness.”

On specific techniques, Rodriguez defended the use of waterboarding by saying, of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who was subjected to waterboarding 183 times, “I don’t know what kind of man it takes to cut the throat of someone in front of a camera like that [a reference to KSM’s unproved confession that he personally killed US journalist Daniel Pearl], but I can tell you this is probably someone who didn’t give a rat’s ass about having water poured on his face.”

He also defended the use of physical violence and nudity by pointing out that “[t]he objective is to let him [the detainee] know there’s a new sheriff in town and he better pay attention,” compared sleep deprivation to “jet lag,” and, reflecting on the use of “stress positions” over many hours, said, “I was thinking about this the other day. The objective was to induce muscle fatigue, and most people who work out do a lot more fatiguing of the muscles.”

At another point in the interview, Rodriguez also made reference to the psychologists — including James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen — who had worked on the US military’s program for using torture to train US personnel to resist interrogation if captured by a hostile enemy, which was reverse engineered and provided the basis of the torture program in the “war on terror.” Their particular contribution was to stress that detainees must be broken down to a state of “learned helplessness” (a concept conceived by US psychologist Martin Seligman in the 1960s), in which all resistance is futile, and the detainee becomes completely dependant on his interrogators. Speaking of this, Rodriguez stated, “This program was about instilling a sense of hopelessness and despair on the terrorist, on the detainee, so that he would conclude on his own that he was better off cooperating with us.”

To be spouting all of the above on mainstream TV without, essentially, any comeback from the host, Lesley Stahl, or from those who should be enforcing America’s obligations to prosecute torturers, is depressing enough, but it was not all that was wrong. Rodriguez also spoke openly of the crime for which he is most generally known — the destruction of 92 videotapes that contained the “interrogations” in Thailand of Abu Zubaydah and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, another “high-value detainee” who was waterboarded. As Glenn Greenwald explained last week:

At the time the destruction order was issued, numerous federal courts — as well as the 9/11 Commission — had ordered the US Government to preserve and disclose all evidence relating to interrogations of Al-Qaeda and 9/11 suspects. Purposely destroying evidence relevant to legal proceedings is called “obstruction of justice.” Destroying evidence which courts and binding tribunals (such as the 9/11 Commission) have ordered to be preserved is called “contempt of court.” There are many people who have been harshly punished, including some sitting right now in prison, for committing those crimes in far less flagrant ways than was done here. In fact, so glaring was the lawbreaking that the co-Chairmen of the 9/11 Commission — the mild-mannered, consummate establishmentarians Lee Hamilton and Thomas Kean — wrote a New York Times Op-Ed pointedly accusing the CIA of “obstruction” (“Those who knew about those videotapes — and did not tell us about them — obstructed our investigation”).

As with John Yoo and Jay S. Bybee, Rodriguez was never punished. An investigation into the destruction of the videotapes began under George W. Bush, and continued under Obama, but in November 2010 the DoJ announced that the investigation would be closed without any charges being filed. As Greenwald explained, Judge Alvin Hellerstein, who had ordered the CIA to preserve and produce the tapes, “refused even to hold the CIA in contempt for deliberately disregarding his own order.” Instead, he “reasoned that punishment for the CIA was unnecessary because, as he put it, new rules issued by the CIA ‘should lead to greater accountability within the agency and prevent another episode like the videotapes’ destruction.'”

However, while Rodriguez — like John Yoo, Jay S. Bybee and senior Bush administration officials, up to and including the President — continues to get away with his crimes, it is uncertain if, overall, the apologists for torture are winning. For them to succeed in persuading enough ordinary Americans that the law doesn’t actually apply to the US president, or anyone working for him, they also need to establish that all this torturing kept America safe, and on this front, despite their protestations over the years, they have no proof that torture worked.

In his interview, Rodriguez wheeled out the tired old lies about torture leading to the capture of “high-value detainees.” In a moment of courage, Lesley Stahl mentioned well-established claims that Abu Zubaydah’s torture had led operatives on countless wild goose chases, to which Rodriguez replied, “Bullshit. He gave us a road map that allowed us to capture a bunch of Al-Qaeda senior leaders.” In contrast, of course, former FBI interrogator Ali Soufan pointed out last year that torture did not yield important leads, and that, for example, information from Abu Zubaydeh pointing to Khalid Sheikh Muhammad’s central role in the 9/11 attacks came before the CIA’s torturers took over his interrogations.

Soufan also pointed out the difference between torturers and skilled interrogators, which CNN described as follows:

“There is a difference between compliance and cooperation,” he said. Compliance can result from torture — a detainee will do anything to make the rough treatment end. But real cooperation, says Soufan, comes from engaging the detainee after learning everything possible about them.

Torture’s apologists always want to deny the importance of skilled interrogators, who conduct extensive research on their subjects and often spend a long time building up a rapport with them. Instead, they permanently seek to reinforce the macho idiocy of their preferred approach, which is driven more by vengeance and bloodlust than anything else.

In Rodriguez’s case, he also resorted to claims that torture had led to the capture of Osama bin Laden, telling Dana Priest of the Washington Post last week, “I am certain, beyond any doubt, that these techniques, approved at the highest levels of the US government, certified by the Department of Justice, and briefed to and supported by bipartisan leadership of congressional intelligence oversight committees, shielded the people of the United States from harm and led to the capture and killing of Osama bin Laden.”

In response, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, and Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), the chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, issued a joint statement (PDF) condemning the remarks made by Rodriguez and others — including former Attorney General Michael Mukasey and former CIA director Michael Hayden — who had leapt on the bandwagon as the anniversary of bin Laden’s death approached, calling them “inconsistent with CIA records,” and “misguided and misinformed,” and expressing their disappointment that “Mr. Rodriguez and others, who left government positions prior to the OBL operation and are not privy to all of the intelligence that led to the raid, continue to insist that the CIA’s so-called ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ used many years ago were a central component of our success.”

The statement, as the New York Times explained, “rebutted various claims that critical information about bin Laden’s courier” came from Khalid Sheikh Mohammed or from Abu Faraj al-Libi, another “high-value detainee,” seized in Pakistan in 2005, and held at Guantánamo, like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and 13 other “high-value detainees,” since September 2006. In addition, the Times noted that the statement “rejected claims that tough treatment drew valuable information about bin Laden’s courier from a third detainee, unidentified in the statement,” but elsewhere identified as Hassan Ghul, another “high-value detainee,” seized in Iraq in 2004, who was never held at Guantánamo. The statement noted that, “While this third detainee did provide relevant information, he did so the day before he was interrogated by the CIA using their coercive interrogation techniques.”

“Instead,” the Times explained, Sens. Feinstein and Levin stated, without elaborating, that “the CIA learned of the existence of the courier, his true name and location through means unrelated to the CIA detention and interrogation program.”

This is significant, but what is needed now is for the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence to complete its comprehensive review of the CIA’s former detention and interrogation program, and publish it. As the statement also explained, “Committee staff have reviewed more than 6 million pages of records and the Committee’s final report, which we expect to exceed 5000 pages, will provide a detailed, factual description of how interrogation techniques were used, the conditions under which detainees were held, and the intelligence that was — or wasn’t — gained from the program.”

As Dan Froomkin explained in the Huffington Post last Monday, the investigation by Democrats, which has taken nearly three years, and has involved Republican lawmakers refusing to take part, “concludes that records from the Bush administration fail to support claims that torture was effective in stopping any terrorist attack,” or in leading to the discovery and killing of Osama bin Laden last year.

While people like Jose Rodriguez remain free to peddle their lies and distortions about torture, and to profit from it, America’s name not only continues to be tarnished, but the American public also continue to be shamefully misled. The long-awaited report into the CIA’s torture program should be published as soon as possible, to let people know what really happened, and hopefully to play a part in tearing down the “golden shield” that has so far protected the Bush administration’s torturers from prosecution.

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 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.

A version of this article was published exclusively on the website of the Future of Freedom Foundation.

25 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    On Facebook, Zeke Smith wrote:

    CBS is giving a platform to torture advocates.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Willy Bach wrote:

    This story probably goes with your story about the vile Jose Rodriguez, Andy – a study of psychopaths:

    Study finds psychopaths have brain abnormalities

    Scientists who scanned the brains of men convicted of murder, rape and violent assaults have found the strongest evidence yet that psychopaths have structural abnormalities in their brains. This does not only apply to Andreas Brievik.

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Donald Pratt wrote:

    I am sure that torturers in places like Syria are looking at Rodriguez and saying, “We do the same stuff you do. So, if you say it’s okay for you to do then it must be okay for us to do, too!”

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Zeke, Willy and Donald. This is indeed corporate sponsorship of torture, Zeke, and it’s also worth noting that CBS and the publisher of Rodriguez’s book, Simon & Schuster, are both owned by the CBS Corporation, so really the interview was a sponsored advert for the book.
    Willy, thanks for that link. I’ve been interested of late to note people mentioning the danger of psychopaths and sociopaths in positions of power, because of their lack of empathy, and I hope we’ll see more of this type of analysis, and less slavish devotion to “powerful” leaders.
    And finally, Donald, yes that’s right, although some in Syria will also be recalling that, when Bush embarked on his torture program, one of the models was Syria, with its long history of torture, and, of course, several prisoners were rendered there, many of whom have never been heard from again. See here for more:

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Graham Ennis wrote:

    Well, I have a question. Why is there no funded criminal prosecution, from all those New York review of books liberals?……not one single person has the courage, in a population of 308 million, to pursue a single one of the torturers?……..this says it all.

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    You know, Graham, I don’t have an answer to that. I know of various attempts that were made to initiate prosecution, like Vincent Bugliosi’s book, “The Prosecution of George W. Bush For Murder.” He sent a letter urging prosecution to 2,200 prosecutors, but obviously the case wasn’t taken up:

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    On Op-Ed News, Peter Wedlund wrote:

    Torture works, just like magical thinking!

    The problem with Rodriquez, Yoo and others of similar ilk is no amount of reason, logic, facts or common sense will change their minds, or others of the mindset that torture works. These Troglodytes believe precisely what they wish to believe. I only hope we can prevent them from ever holding positions of power and responsibility and we can deny them a podium from which to spew their rhetorical nonsense.

    It is unfortunate their actions were not prosecuted, but that is true of many actions taken by the prior administration, including lying to the US public and Congress about the threat from Iraq, imprisoning US citizens without due process (in violation of the US Constitution), violation of the Hatch Act, blatant obstruction of justice, spying on US citizens and utter incompetence in leadership. The consequences of the totally dysfunctional nature of the last administration are obvious enough for the world to see in the failed economy, failed wars and failed ability to even go after bin Laden, let alone kill him.

    Let’s face it, the Republicans think power and force solves all problems. It is their solution to Middle East Problems, uncooperative prisoners, and their answer to how the US should define its position in the world. It is just this type of magical thinking that got us into the problems we face now, and it remains the same type of magical thinking they wish us to embrace going forward. Based on GOP logic, we aren’t a community of nations anymore than we are a community of equals in the US. We have those who are and will always be more equal than everyone else and — “that’s the way they like it”. Maybe they do, but it is a magical thought process that flies in the face of reality, the truth and the expectations of most everyone else.

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks for the comments, Peter. A great summary of what happens when a notion of “exceptionalism” runs rampant.

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    Graham Ennis wrote (in response to 6, above):

    exactly. All these years later, we ask why the German resistence to hitler was so small….its a common phenomenon, the league of the white rose. Here, Blair is going back into politics, cashing in his peerage, the pig. I wonder what his title will be? “Lord Blair of Guernica”, I should imagine

  10. Andy Worthington says...

    Esteban Chavez wrote:

    sounds like he used little ‘w’ bush’s bull about making big decisions, after reading my little goat upside down little w got in touch with the illuminati and had them write a book about big tough decisions.

  11. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks again, Graham, and Esteban, and everyone else who has liked and shared this. Glad to see that not everyone buys the disgraceful propaganda about torture.

  12. Andy Worthington says...

    Ghanim Khalil wrote:

    Though not about torture, Anatol Lieven’s America Right or Wrong: An Anatomy of American Nationalism, is an interestingly informative work on explaining how it is possible for presidents to tap into specific strains of the American national character to justify evils like torture as both necessary and obligatory (especially during times of fear and hate).

  13. Andy Worthington says...

    Graham Ennis wrote:

    Yes. As the Native American First nations found out. Sitting Bull is still an international Hero, but to Americans, he was a criminal. I love Sitting Bull!

  14. Andy Worthington says...

    Graham Ennis wrote:

    Oh, I forgot to mention Geromino. First antifascist fighter inside the USA

  15. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Ghanim. I hadn’t heard of America Right or Wrong. I found a New York Review of Books review here:
    And thanks again, Graham. Reading Dee Brown’s “Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee” was important for me. I read it about 12 years ago, and it was a real eye-opener.
    I was led to it after being asked to review a great illustrated book called “Sacred Lands of Indian America,” which put Indian sacred places in their modern context, as well as providing historical background – and some great photos.

  16. Andy Worthington says...

    Zilma Nunes wrote:

    you do true journalism.

  17. Andy Worthington says...

    Graham Ennis wrote:

    Yes Andy, I had the great privilidge to take part in a protest action with Richard Skyhawk, Great Grandson of Sitting Bull, here in the UK. He was campaigning against nuclear testing, and the US Gov. were setting off nuke tests on Indian reservations…..I mean………He was not allowed in, and I had to go to France and bring him back, plus a huge row at immigration, to get him in. This was in the nineties. He went on a UK speaking tour. an amazing man. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee is a classic. The Sioux Indians are still struggling for their rights.

  18. Andy Worthington says...

    Graham Ennis wrote:

    What is happening in Amerika right now cries out for a documentary, regarding the Indians. There is a new UN report out on their situation.

  19. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Zilma. You just made my day.
    And thanks again, Graham. I had no idea about any of that story about Richard Skyhawk. Fascinating. Thanks also for mentioning the UN investigation into Native Americans’ rights, and their ongoing abuse, which I’ve been following in the Guardian:

  20. Andy Worthington says...

    Graham Ennis wrote:

    yep, the American authorities are going purple at the UN nosing around on the reservations

  21. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, I imagine they thought that, after all this time, they’d got away with the genocide and the shameful marginalization and abuse of those who survived the ethnic cleansing.

  22. Andy Worthington says...

    Graham Ennis wrote:

    absolutely Andy. Hitler got his idea for the final solution from the American treatment of the Indians. Bizarrely, he was a big fan of the history of the Wild West. He was an expert, at least on this. As he said, they slaughtered them, and in Europe, no one worried

  23. Andy Worthington says...

    I hadn’t heard that before, Graham, although now you mention it it makes horrible sense that it created a disturbing context for Hitler’s genocidal plans. That and the whole history of eugenics, which was also particularly promoted in the UK as well as the US.

  24. Andy Worthington says...

    Graham Ennis wrote:

    yes, there is quite a lot written about this. Hitler used to read Wild West stories and novels in the trenches, during the first world war. Went bonkers for cowboy movies. but also decided, from close study of what the American Government had done, that it was possible to practice racial violence and genocide and get away with it. He spoke about this often. Sadly, the native American Nations are America’s Palestinians.
    The whole thing is well documented, but only usually known to former Nazi hunters like me.

  25. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks again, Graham.

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Andy Worthington

Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo and We Stand With Shaker. Also, photo-journalist (The State of London), and singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers).
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