Among the mass-scale atrocities in which these criminals were complicit was a benign-sounding process, devised originally during the Spanish Inquisition, called “the water treatment,” a spectacularly cruel procedure used to extract information from an unwilling victim by practically drowning him.
Almost 60 years after Japanese torturers were hanged for their crimes, men and women acting on the authority of the United States government performed the same kind of brutal ablutions on foreign prisoners in their charge. Incredibly, there appears to be no consensus on whether or not it was wrong for Americans to have done these things.
It seemed pretty clear to Shepard Smith of Fox News last week as he declared, “If we are going to be Ronald Reagan’s ‘shining city on a hill’, we don’t get to torture!” Perhaps it seemed so to former President George W. Bush in 2005 when he told reporters, “We don’t torture.”
Nevertheless, memos released to the public last week suggest that torture was the case, euphemized as “enhanced interrogation techniques,” when it came to getting “high value detainees” in the ”global war on terror” to spill their guts before their inquisitors saturated them.
The process now known infamously as “waterboarding” was apparently authorized at the highest levels of the executive branch even before our secret prisons opened for business; according to the Senate Intelligence Committee, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice gave it her stamp of approval in July 2002. As delineated in horrifying detail in the declassified memos, waterboarding was only one of 10 techniques utilized by interrogators to compel their prisoners to talk. Each technique seems clearly in violation of international torture statutes, yet each was cleared for use by Americans through advisory memos drafted by the Bush Administration’s Office of Legal Counsel.
The OLC’s justification of torture might rest on tenuous legal ground, according to Philip Zelikow, former counsel to Reagan and Bush I, who opined that “the OLC memo basically ignored standard 8th Amendment ‘conditions of confinement’ analysis (long incorporated into the 5th amendment as a matter of substantive due process and thus applicable to detentions like these). That case law would regard the conditions of confinement in the CIA facilities as unlawful.”
Author and history professor Joseph Palermo puts it rather less delicately: “These torture memos were not peer-reviewed by their colleagues or evaluated by any judge. Their ‘legal opinions’ were pure sophistry and the lawyers who drew them up knew they would never hold up in court or with their peers or with the public.”
However, by pausing to consider these viewpoints, we can find ourselves drawn into a debate that should not be, parsing the degree of torture’s illegality. Better perhaps to take the word of an expert on this matter, a recipient of enhanced interrogation in Vietnam. “Waterboarding is torture, period,” former POW John McCain told Fox News Sunday morning, adding, “I can assure you that once enough physical pain is inflicted on someone, he will tell that interrogator whatever they think they want to hear.” Pressed to rat out fellow squadron members during his own captivity at the “Hanoi Hilton”, McCain acceded to his Vietnamese captors’ brutality by giving them the names of the Green Bay Packers offensive line.
Thus, besides being illegal, torture might be plain ineffective. A 2004 CIA Inspector General’s analysis, as reported by McClatchy News Service last weekend, singled out waterboarding as “riskier than officials claimed”; finding no proof that information obtained under this duress had headed off subsequent terrorist attacks on the homeland. (This particular report remains classified. Maybe when the CIA releases Dick Cheney’s secret memo requests, it’ll include this one as well.)
The American tactic of torture may also have proved a useful tool for our enemies. Patrick Cockburn of the investigative journal Counterpunch quotes Major Matthew Alexander, former Iraqi interrogator and author of How to Break A Terrorist, as saying, “It plays into the hands of al’-Qa’ida in Iraq because it shows us up as hypocrites when we talk about human rights.”
Senator McCain raised another interesting point on Face the Nation, namely that the use of torture contravened several international compacts, including the U.N. Convention Against Torture signed into law by Ronald Reagan in 1988: “We violated fundamental commitments that the United States of America made when we signed the Geneva Conventions, and we disregarded what might happen to Americans who are held captive in the future.”
Were we in fact a nation bound by the rule of law, we would prosecute those who violated our constitutional protections against cruel and inhumane punishment. It’ll never happen, though, because by the time you indicted everyone in Washington past and present complicit in torture’s villainy, you couldn’t raise a quorum for a poker game. Should there be accountability for wrong actions? Of course, it’s a beautiful American tradition. Should those found accountable be forced to atone at once? Good luck with that.
The Prime Minister of Japan ultimately made a speech of contrition for his nation’s complicity in war crimes. Expressing regrets that his nation had pursued a war of aggression, Tomiichi Murayama said, “In the hope that no such mistake be made in the future, I regard, in a spirit of humility, these irrefutable facts of history, and express here once again my feelings of deep remorse and state my heartfelt apology.”
Murayama made that speech in 1995 — exactly 40 years after Japan surrendered to the Allies.
Courtney Haden is a Birmingham Weekly columnist. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org