“[A]ny degree of ‘flexibility’ about torture at the top drops down the chain of command like a stone — the rare exception fast becoming the rule.”
–Charles C. Krulak and Joseph P. Hoar, former commandant of the Marine Corps and former commander in chief of U.S. Central Command, respectively.
The Constitution Project’s Task Force on Detainee Treatment recently issued its report. Charged with “providing the American people with a broad understanding of what is known — and what may still be unknown — about the past and current treatment of suspected terrorists detained by the U.S. government,” the Task Force conducted a two-year investigation into detainee treatment under the most recent presidential administrations. In her preface to the report, Constitution Project president Virginia E. Sloan issues a bold statement: “We believe it is the most comprehensive record of detainee treatment across multiple administrations and multiple geographic theatres yet published.” The claim is all the more extraordinary given that the Task Force is a nongovernmental body working with no legal authority, no subpoena power, and no obligation on the part of the government to provide access to classified information. In addition to analyzing vast amounts of information already made public, the Task Force conducted dozens of interviews, noting in its report that with the passage of time many people have become more willing to speak candidly about their experiences.
The eleven members of the bipartisan Task Force were drawn from high-ranking former officials in the judiciary, Congress, the State Department, law enforcement and the military, as well as a few respected experts in law, medicine and ethics. Its website states that the Task Force includes “conservatives and liberals, Republicans and Democrats” — yet one would be hard-pressed to find a single lefty in the bunch. The Republican co-chair, Asa Hutchinson, was a Bush appointee to DEA Administrator (2001-2003) and then to the Department of Homeland Security (2003 to 2005), where he was responsible for thousands of federal employees in the Transportation Safety Administration (TSA), Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center (%#&@!). It doesn’t get any more right-wing-law-&-order than that. Hutchinson’s Democratic counterpart, co-chair James R. Jones, served under Clinton as U.S. Ambassador to Mexico, successfully steering the passage and implementation of NAFTA and overseeing new initiatives in the War on Drugs; previously he was Chairman and CEO of the American Stock Exchange (1989-1993). It doesn’t get any more right-wing capitalist than that. If the word liberal is to have any meaning in our current political discourse, Drug Warriors and Free Marketeers do not get to claim it just because they slapped a “D” after their names. Thomas Pickering, Special Assistant to former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, merits an equally withering assessment.
Another member is Dr. Azizah Y. al-Hibri, a professor emerita of law and the founder and chair of KARAMAH: Muslim Women Lawyers for Human Rights. Dr. al-Hibri is an impressively accomplished person, but it is difficult — to put it mildly — to reconcile Islam with human rights, much less with leftism.
Then there is Dr. David P. Gushee, a professor of “Christian Ethics” at some faith-based operation in the State of Georgia called Mercer University. Without knowing exactly which Christian ethics Dr. Gushee espouses — executing gay people? murdering women’s healthcare providers? worldwide pedophilia coverups? — it is nigh impossible to ascertain what his political views might be. Regardless, I remain warily suspicious of theologians, mainly because for the life of me I have never been able to figure out what it is that they do. As best as I can determine, the word “theology” comes from the Greek logos, meaning knowledge, and theos meaning imaginary beings. I cannot imagine how this knowledge might apply to detainee treatment, but for all we know Dr. Gushee was appointed to the Task Force merely to serve as a cautionary tale.
Still, it can be considered a strength more than a weakness that the Task Force comprises people with whom lefties would generally disagree, for it is the centrist and conservative makeup of the Task Force that renders its two primary findings all the more remarkable — and believable:
Finding #1: U.S. forces, in many instances, used interrogation techniques on detainees that constitute torture. American personnel conducted an even larger number of interrogations that involved “cruel, inhuman, or degrading” treatment. Both categories of actions violate U.S. laws and international treaties. Such conduct was directly counter to values of the Constitution and our nation.
Finding #2: The nation’s most senior officials, through some of their actions and failures to act in the months and years immediately following the September 11 attacks, bear ultimate responsibility for allowing and contributing to the spread of illegal and improper interrogation techniques used by some U.S. personnel on detainees in several theaters. Responsibility also falls on other government officials and certain military leaders.
The report details a litany of revolting abuses, including the barbaric deaths of detainees in U.S. custody, and much of it will be familiar to those who have followed reports on detainee abuse since 2001. Nor will anyone likely be surprised at the actions of the Bush Administration, whose contributions to the U.S. torture regime range from blundering incompetence (e.g. Bush) to glib indifference (Rumsfeld) to enthusiastic sadism (Cheney). After conspiring to engineer a dubious legal loophole for CIA interrogators to escape the grasp of the Geneva Conventions and rewriting the Army Field Manual’s section on detainee treatment to render it deliberately vague, the administration’s subsequent lack of consistent guidance or indeed any meaningful oversight made the worldwide horror show that followed virtually inevitable. But where the report particularly excels is in tracing the pernicious ways that systematic detainee abuse — originally sanctioned only for CIA interrogations and only for a few high-level Al-Qaeda operatives — went viral.
John Sifton of Human Rights Watch is quoted with respect to detainee abuse in Iraq:
There’s been spontaneous abuse at the troops’ level; there’s been more authorized abuse; there’s been overlap — a sort of combination of authorized and unauthorized. And you have abuse that passed around like a virus; abuse that started because one unit was approved to use it, and then another unit which wasn’t started copying them.
There were, of course, many who raised objections, even very early on. Such concerns fell on deaf ears, or worse: in Iraq, a senior intelligence officer interceded to stop the brutal interrogation of a detainee by Army Rangers. Another Ranger heard that he was “coddling terrorists,” and responded by sharpening a knife in his presence and warning him not to sleep too soundly. In a statement to the Navy’s inspector general, Alberto Mora, the Navy’s general counsel, recounted concerns with “force drift,” which NCIS chief psychologist Michael Gelles had voiced with alarm:
[Gelles] believed that commanders [at Guantánamo] took no account of the dangerous phenomenon of “force drift.” Any force utilized to extract information would continue to escalate, he said. If a person being forced to stand for hours decided to lie down, it probably would take force to get him to stand up again and stay standing. … [T]he level of force applied against an uncooperative witness tends to escalate such that, if left unchecked, force levels, to include torture, could be reached.
It seems the Bush administration did excel at one thing: dismissing anything that contradicted what they wanted to hear. (See, e.g., WMD in Iraq, response to Hurricane Katrina, global warming denial, abstinence-only sex education, etc.)
It is chilling to ponder how easily abusive practices spread, becoming “standard operating procedure” very, very quickly. In light of this, it is also chilling to consider the militarization of domestic police forces, the disappearing boundary between law enforcement and the CIA, and the undercover monitoring of liberal groups — particularly in the wake of the police brutality we witnessed against peaceful Occupy protesters, and their designation as “terrorists.”
The most disturbing statement in the report may be the Task Force’s third conclusion:
Finding #3: There is no firm or persuasive evidence that the widespread use of harsh interrogation techniques by U.S. forces produced significant information of value. There is substantial evidence that much of the information adduced from the use of such techniques was not useful or reliable.
All for naught.