Revolution #164, May 17, 2009

The Torture Memos …
And the Need for Justice

A hooded man stands on a stool at the U.S. Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, with wires running under a blanket to administer electric shocks.

CIA “interrogators” waterboard Khalid Sheikh Mohammed 183 times in one month in 2003—using a torture technique that provokes the human instinct to gasp for air when being suffocated, and is among the most horrific tortures ever devised.

Thousands of similar stories and images are yet to be revealed.

New developments have shed light on how and why an unchecked reign of torture came to be openly approved during the Bush years. On April 16, 2009, the U.S. Department of Justice released four formerly secret memos issued by Bush administration lawyers. They document how, at the top levels of government, a stamp of legality played a critical role in unleashing depraved brutality.

With the release of these memos, Barack Obama announced that: “[I]t is our intention to assure those who carried out their duties relying in good faith upon legal advice from the Department of Justice that they will not be subject to prosecution.”

If the perpetrators and commanders of this are “not subject to prosecution,” that would set a terrible precedent for the future.

Systematic Torture Unleashed—Scores Murdered, Thousands Traumatized

The torture memos are written in the form of responses to (and approving of) requests by the CIA to torture post- 9/11 detainees. The memos approve waterboarding; slamming prisoners into walls; confining a prisoner with a fear of stinging insects in a small dark box with a crawling insect, and a long list of sadistic, dehumanizing and brutal acts.

The torture memos were illegal, and those issuing them knew that. They put the official stamp of approval on torture techniques—like waterboarding—that are illegal under international agreements signed by the U.S. The U.S. had charged and convicted Japanese torturers for waterboarding U.S. troops during World War 2.

These so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques”—the U.S. press still resists calling them torture—maimed and traumatized thousands of people.  And they resulted in death for at least scores of people.

A report from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) dated 2/14/07, on the treatment of 14 detainees at Guantánamo, paints a horrific picture of how combinations of torture techniques were repeatedly applied (the report is available at several online sites including The ICRC report revealed, in one case, that CIA “interrogators” waterboarded Khalid Sheikh Mohammed 183 times in one month in 2003—an average of 6 times a day. Waterboarding is drowning. It is unambiguously illegal under international agreements signed by the U.S., and is a war crime under U.S. law.

A recently released report by the organization Human Rights First, documents the death of 98 detainees captured in Iraq and Afghanistan, in U.S. detention centers since 2002. Jamal Naseer, an Afghan army soldier mistakenly arrested in 2004, was “punched and kicked” and then, according to the report, hung upside down, and hit with sticks or cables. He collapsed and died about two weeks afterwards. In 2002, Mohammad Sayari was killed by four U.S. servicemembers after being detained for allegedly following their movements. A Pentagon document obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union in 2005 said that the Defense Department found a captain and three sergeants had “murdered” Sayari, but the section of that report dealing with the department’s probe was redacted (blacked out).

Another man in U.S. custody, Abed Hamed Mowhoush, was “beaten over days by U.S. Army, CIA and other non-military forces, stuffed into a sleeping bag, wrapped with electrical cord, and suffocated to death,” The Human Rights First document reports that, “In the recently concluded trial of a low-level military officer charged in Mowhoush’s death, the officer received a written reprimand, a fine, and 60 days with his movements limited to his work, home, and church.” (See “Command’s Responsibility: Detainee Deaths in U.S. Custody in Iraq and Afghanistan.”)

This torture and murder was carried out, in most cases, against people rounded up basically at random. An Amnesty International Report stated that “More than 85 percent of detainees at Guantanamo Bay were arrested, not on the Afghanistan battlefield by U.S. forces, but by the Northern Alliance fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan, and in Pakistan at a time when rewards of up to U.S. $5,000 were paid for every ‘terrorist’ turned over to the United States.” (“Bounties paid for terror suspects,” January 16, 2007). The Northern Alliance is a faction of Islamic fundamentalists, warlords, and drug lords who have been aligned with the U.S. in the occupation of Afghanistan.

Torture “Almost Choreographed”
by “the Most Senior Bush Administration Officials”

The widespread use of torture was known to those at the top of the chain of command.

All the top officials of the Bush regime, up to Bush, approved of what Bush insisted on calling “enhanced interrogation techniques.” “Well, we started to connect the dots in order to protect the American people,” Bush told ABC News White House correspondent Martha Raddatz. “And yes, I’m aware our national security team met on this issue. And I approved.”

ABC News reported that “the most senior Bush administration officials repeatedly discussed and approved specific details of exactly how high-value al Qaeda suspects would be interrogated by the CIA. The high-level discussions about these ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ were so detailed, these sources said, some of the interrogation sessions were almost choreographed—down to the number of times CIA agents could use a specific tactic.” (“Bush Aware of Advisers’ Interrogation Talks,” by Jan Crawford Greenburg, Howard l. Rosenberg and Ariane de Vogue, April 11, 2008).

In the wake of worldwide furor over exposure of brutal, sadistic torture at the U.S.-run prison at Abu Ghraib, the U.S. Army commissioned Major General Antonio M. Taguba to head an official investigation. Whatever the intent of those who appointed him, Taguba’s report concluded that “sadistic, blatant, and wanton criminal abuses” went on at Abu Ghraib, and that this was “systemic and illegal.”

Taguba was called into the White House where he was interrogated and mocked by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and another top architect of the Iraq war, Paul Wolfowitz, who asked Taguba at this meeting if what was done to detainees was torture, or “abuse.” Taguba told the White House officials, including Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld, that: “a naked detainee lying on the wet floor, handcuffed, with an interrogator shoving things up his rectum… That’s not abuse. That’s torture.” This was 2004, five years ago. (See “The General’s Report,” by Seymour M. Hersh, June 25, 2007.)

The Immoral—And Imperialist
—Logic of Torture

The terms of debate over the torture memos in the mainstream media revolve around whether or not information extracted by torture is “reliable.” Those terms are both deceptive, and morally wrong.

The systematic, widespread, and openly sanctioned use of torture by the U.S. in the so-called “war on terror” is not mainly about information. The images of Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo, of degrading sexual humiliation and grotesque physical and psychological torture, were meant to strike terror in the minds and hearts of the people very broadly, not only in Iraq and Afghanistan, but around the world.

Let’s make it plain: torture is, literally and in essence, a crime against humanity.  Like rape, it is a systematic attempt to violently degrade people and rob them of their very humanity.  Any government which not only tolerates such things but which, from its highest offices, justifies and insists on them as “instruments of policy”…any government which does not, once this has been exposed, prosecute the perpetrators but instead provides them in advance with immunity...reveals itself as a system that requires such crimes, and such criminals, for its functioning.  Any people that does not resist such crimes, and demand prosecution of the torturers and, even more so, those who formulated the policy at the highest levels, reveals themselves to be complicit in those crimes. And in passively allowing the humanity of others to be degraded and attacked, they lose their own.

It is instructive to examine a column by Thomas Friedman in the New York Times in support of Obama’s decision to release the Memos but to not prosecute the torturers. While claiming to oppose torture now, Friedman argues that “Al Qaeda truly was a unique enemy, and the post-9/11 era a deeply confounding war in a variety of ways.” Later in his column, he elaborates: “We could deter the Russians because they loved their children more than they hated us; they did not want to die. The Al Qaeda operatives hated us more than they loved their own children. They glorified martyrdom and left families behind.” (“A Torturous Compromise,” April 28, 2009).

Friedman’s argument here is that threatening to kill their children was sufficient for the U.S. to contend with their former rivals, the Russians, but since, according to Friedman, that won’t work with Islamic fundamentalists, even more brutal, sadistic, extreme thuggish methods are needed.

This is Thomas Friedman speaking, not Barack Obama. But Friedman is not just some columnist—he is an influential voice of ruling class forces represented by the Democratic Party. And the logic of his argument is really just a franker, cruder version of Obama’s own argument that prosecution would hurt the “confidence” of “the men and women of our intelligence community who serve courageously on the front lines of a dangerous world.”

The high-level, legal approval of torture was a statement that the people who run the U.S. are ruthless and crazy and will stop at nothing in the defense of their “right” to run the world; that not only will they kill you and your family, but they will hold you and torture you and fiendishly fuck with your mind, not just torture your body but torture your very psyche in ways that will make you wish you were dead. All in service of their empire.

Needed: Prosecution and Justice

Bush’s vice-president, Dick Cheney, and those around him in the ruling class, are lashing out at Obama for supposedly being soft on terrorism for permitting the release of the torture memos. Obama, in turn, pledges that while he cleans up the image of the U.S., nobody will prosecute the torturers.

But the interests of justice lie completely outside the terms of that “debate.”

Torture is torture. It’s immoral, and illegal.

The underlying logic behind Obama’s refusal to prosecute the CIA agents who carried out torture is that they were “only following orders.” That “defense” was explicitly ruled invalid at the Nuremberg Trials of Nazi war criminals after World War 2. And, Obama is refusing, at least at this point—absent mass protest and societal upheaval—to prosecute those who did give the orders.

There is an immoral logic behind refusing to prosecute the torturers. That “logic” boils down to: We have to do whatever it takes to protect American lives. And then, if those actions provoke even more hatred for Americans around the world, “we” need to carry out even more vicious brutality to protect the safety of American lives. With this “logic” goes the underlying assumption that those American lives are more precious than those of anyone else. In an intensely lopsided world, where a few countries plunder the globe and vast sections of the planet suffer in widespread starvation and pain, that logic is morally unacceptable.

This logic does reflect the interests of a particular class—the capitalist-imperialists who sit atop and run the American empire and fight for “their share” of that plunder.  But this logic does NOT reflect the fundamental interests of most people in the world.  It is NOT in people’s interests to live in a world where the imperialists can have their enforcers put a hood on the head and electrodes on the genitals of anyone they deem to be a threat, and terrorize them, all in the name of safety—and all in the service of exploitation and empire.

It is a fact that torture has always been a part of the arsenal of U.S. imperialism—from the roasting alive of Native Americans by the colonists, to the use of waterboarding during the conquest and occupation of the Philippines, to the torture of prisoners in the Chicago police dungeons to extract false confessions. That torture, undercover and usually illegal, is terrible enough.

But, if those who set up, legitimized, and endorsed open torture simply walk away, if those who concocted the legal “golden shield” for the torture go free, and if those who “almost choreographed” the torture go free, that is nothing other than a statement that torturers need not look over their shoulders in the future. Regardless of the honeyed promises of the representative of the imperialist system, Obama, it would leave intact the “right” of the U.S. imperialists to order torture.

And on the other hand, if people DO resist, if they DO demand that the criminals be prosecuted and wage a serious political struggle to make that happen, it can be the beginning of a struggle that can, among other things, lead to the beginnings and possibility of real  justice—and not some phony, feel-good, ‘let’s-forget-about-the-past-and-move-on’ so-called redemption and/or “reconciliation” that only ultimately enables still more, and still worse, crimes by the bloody criminal enterprise known as America.  

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