Monday, January 5, 2009

How GOP Plans to Defend BushCo on Torture

I don't have any special source within inner Republican Party circles. Nor do I have any particular new insight into the dynamics of how the GOP works out their policy. What I do have is the statement of the Republican minority opinion on the Senate Armed Services Committee's "supposedly bipartisan" report, Inquiry into the Treatment of Detainees in U.S. Custody. In the minority's mix of apologia and attack, we see the outlines of the GOP game-plan for any investigations into Bush crimes under an Obama administration and a Democratic-majority Congress.

The minority statement is endorsed by only about half of the Republican Senators on the Armed Services committee: Saxby Chambliss, R-GA, James Inhofe, R-OK, Jeff Sessions, R-AL, John Cornyn, R-TX, John Thune, R-SD, and Mel Martinez, R-FL. As you read what follows, consider that all of the above voted for the unanimously released report. According to a Washington Post article at the time, the SASC report was originally "sent to the Pentagon with no dissenting views."

But then a week later, the above Senators released their statement, which then made its way into the pages of the National Review. What happened in that intervening week to make them feel the necessity to issue their statement? And what a statement! It essentially accuses the SASC of aiding and abetting U.S. enemies, and endangering U.S. troops. It is my contention that this is how Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and the whole gang will attempt to "defend" themselves if, and when, any investigations of their crimes are proposed or begun.

The GOP Six begin their aggrieved tirade with a stirring invocation to American ideals:
Throughout our history, even in the gravest of circumstances, the United States has embodied the ideals of individual freedom and liberty. This nation adheres to the principle that all detainees in U.S. custody must be treated humanely and in accordance with applicable law.
Well, as they say, from their mouths to God's ears (so to speak).

Their statement continues (and I want to give them a chance to make their argument here, and thereby hang themselves):
The fallacious assertion, made in recent newspaper editorials and other media outlets, that illegal treatment of detainees was an intentional or necessary result of administration policy is irresponsible and only serves to aid the propaganda and recruitment efforts of extremists dedicated to the murder of innocents and the destruction of our way of life....

The implication, however, that this abuse was the direct, necessary, or foreseeable result of policy decisions made by senior administration officials is false and without merit. It is counter-productive and potentially dangerous to our men and women in uniform to insinuate that illegal treatment of detainees resulted from official U.S. government policies.

Administration officials sought to comply with requests from the field for effective interrogation techniques within the legal constraints in place at the time....

While it is well-documented that the guidelines and orders developed by administration and military officials were not followed in a handful of isolated and well-publicized incidents, and that certain techniques were used in areas and by individuals for which they were not authorized, all credible allegations of abuse by U.S. military personnel were and continue to be taken seriously and investigated in painstaking detail. Where applicable, offenders have been charged, tried, and punished under federal law.

Contrary to the lies and wounded patriotism of the GOP statement, the SASC report painstakingly recounts the timeline whereby President George W. Bush and top officials of his administration, the Pentagon and the CIA, introduced and administered a regime of abusive treatment and torture of prisoners. In order to do so, they had to trash fundamental international law, laws to which the United States was not only a signatory, but formerly a champion.

From the Committee report, released by Senator Carl Levin and Senator John McCain:
On February 7, 2002, President George W. Bush made a written determination that Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions, which would have afforded minimum standards for humane treatment, did not apply to al Qaeda or Taliban detainees. Following the President’s determination, techniques such as waterboarding, nudity, and stress positions, used in SERE training to simulate tactics used by enemies that refuse to follow the Geneva Conventions, were authorized for use in interrogations of detainees in U.S. custody....

Members of the President’s Cabinet and other senior officials participated in meetings inside the White House in 2002 and 2003 where specific interrogation techniques were discussed. National Security Council Principals reviewed the CIA’s interrogation program during that period....

The use of techniques similar to those used in SERE resistance training – such as stripping students of their clothing, placing them in stress positions, putting hoods over their heads, and treating them like animals – was at odds with the commitment to humane treatment of detainees in U.S. custody....

[The Pentagon's] Joint Personnel Recovery Agency (JPRA) efforts in support of “offensive” interrogation operations went beyond the agency’s knowledge and expertise. JPRA’s support to U.S. government interrogation efforts contributed to detainee abuse. JPRA’s offensive support also influenced the development of policies that authorized abusive interrogation techniques for use against detainees in U.S. custody....

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s authorization of aggressive interrogation techniques for use at Guantanamo Bay was a direct cause of detainee abuse there.
The report also took on the "bad apple" theory of abuse, which was especially relevant to the Abu Ghraib scandal, where the clandestine nature of U.S. abuse was exposed, thanks to a whistleblower, digital photography and the ability to burn CDs. The "bad apple" theory dovetails with more sophisticated psychological research, i.e., that everyday human beings are subject to social pressures and in an abusive context can be easily led to torture. (See articles on Zimbardo's Prisoner experiment, or Milgram's famous obedience experiment, recently replicated.)

As important as these psychological theories are, the abuse at Abu Ghraib was a matter of policy, not character disorder or psychological slippage. The Levin/McCain report concluded that arguments, such as those advanced by the GOP Senators, that the torture was confined to "isolated" incidents, and the perpetrators "charged, tried, and punished," were false:
The abuse of detainees at Abu Ghraib in late 2003 was not simply the result of a few soldiers acting on their own. Interrogation techniques such as stripping detainees of their clothes, placing them in stress positions, and using military working dogs to intimidate them appeared in Iraq only after they had been approved for use in Afghanistan and at GTMO.
The Defense Department had criticized the SASC report, too, at the time of its release. According to a Washington Post story back on December 12, 2008:
A Defense Department spokesman noted that the Pentagon cooperated extensively with the Senate investigation and has taken numerous steps in recent years to ensure the humane treatment of detainees. The steps included a revision of the Army's field manual that establishes the rules for interrogations.

"Any credible allegations of abuse by U.S. military personnel are taken seriously and looked into in painstaking detail," said the spokesman, Bryan Whitman. "If and when applicable, offenders have been punished."
I'd ask my readers to take note of the special place in the Pentagon's narrative of the Army's revision of its interrogation field manual. It's described as one of the "steps" taken "in recent years to ensure the humane treatment of detainees."

The assertion about the Army Field Manual, like those about the adherence to humane standards for treatment of detainees, is a lie. The AFM contains provisions for abusive treatment at variance with humane standards laid down by the Geneva Conventions, including the use of isolation, perceptual deprivation, sleep deprivation, threats, and humiliation. There is not much that separates the AFM in its treatment of prisoners from that proposed by the CIA in its famous KUBARK manual of the early 1960s.

In my next article, I'll dissect further ways in which the struggle against the Pentagon and CIA's use of abusive interrogation techniques now shifts to an assessment of the Army Field Manual, which is being proposed as the new template for all U.S. military and intelligence interrogations.

Also posted at Daily Kos

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