How We Got Here: How Torture Entered US Interrogation Policy After 9/11

Below is a summary of the session:

 

How We Got
Here:  How Torture Entered US
Interrogation Policy after 9/11/08



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Speaker:  Karen Greenberg

Respondents:  Linda Gustitus and Ron Mahurin

 

Greenberg:  My job today is to give you the parameters of
the story you are to hear from speakers to come.  I want to tell you two things:  I am not a human rights expert; I am an
expert in terrorism.  So, I come to the
question of torture from the question "does torture make us more secure as a
nation?"  I would like to start at the
middle of my story, the release of pictures at Abu Ghraib, which is when the
abuse of the military was revealed to the public.  The questions that came out the pictures
were, "were these rogue elements or policy?" 
The answer is both.  The pictures
we saw were rogue elements, but well before they came out to the public, the
government investigated what happened and issued twelve reports.  It took a long time for those reports to be
made public.  But the first report came
out with the pictures and reading it was like being on Mars; it was
unbelievable.  [reads from report practices discovered]  If you read those backup pages of
documentation you will not have a doubt that these practices are policy.  This is what launched me into my work and
study.  The one story I want to begin
with is that of Al-Kahtani.  For the
first few months at Guantanamo no one had any idea who he was.  The reports of the interrogation tactics used
on him were released a few years ago. 
What the release of the Abu Ghraib pictures did was make us question
"What happened?  Why are we seeing the
same thing at Guantanamo?"  The history
of what happened goes back to Sept. 12 and a group of men who called themselves
the War Council.  The military order
issued transformed what this country
was about.  It said the U.S. government
had all power to detain and try all persons related to the war on terror and
gave all power to Rumsfeld.  This is an
order that showed the U.S. government did not want to be restrained at all in
how they handled detainees.  The second
thing that happened is that the U.S. government decided to move all detainees
to Guantanamo.  This is not
unprecedented, but in moving them to Guantanamo, it is the single place in the
world they wouldn't have to make any agreement with the country they were
occupying so therefore they could operate outside of international and domestic
law.  The detainees were now in a law free
zone and were in no way to be considered prisoners of war.  The third thing that happened was Donald
Rumsfeld did not get the information he wanted and he got angrier and angrier.  Then they discovered Al-Kahtani and decided
to get information from him.  A series of
memos and meetings circulated ideas of what techniques they could use to get
information.  New techniques were added
including waterboarding, threatening to kill detainees or their family, the use
of dogs etc.  The Yoo-Byee memo is the
document that introduced the issue of torture to the American people.  The question of how we got to torture is not
answered by a series of memo or a group of men who decided we needed to do
whatever we could to get information.  It
happened for two reasons.  It was an
exclusive policy.  When the military
order appeared in the Washington Post leading security people in the government
(Rice, Powell etc) had not seen it.  The
other part of the story is the scary part, of Powell, Bell and others who were
given the order and realized they had been taken out of their positions.  Their power had been taken away and they were
outraged.  When you ask them what they
were thinking at the time they say, "I didn't think they would ever use this,
they just wanted to have the parameters available to them.  It didn't occur to me they would torture
people."  They justify to themselves that
the people they went to law school with, served in government with, went to
parties with wouldn't  justify torture,
which wasn't even a word used . . . it was a 13th century word.

 

I want to
explore a little bit why national security is compromised by the use of
torture.  The reason we wanted to torture
people may have been revenge at the lowest level, but the real reason is that
we desperately needed the information they had. 
Now, you are citizens of the United States of America, why did we not
have this information?  When the British
and Belgian police came to Guantanamo they had files and knew who was in custody.  The
point is, we hadn't done our homework and no one was watching.  If you had been in the CIA prior to 9/11 you
would have know that the entire effort in the Middle East has been
revamped.  We thought we had to torture
people to cover up our weakness.  Torture
gives you the tactic of the bully, not the wise person.  Another reason not to use torture is that
there are a number of instances it doesn't work and there are a number of
instances when national security has been compromised because the information
we got is wrong.  The most obvious
instance is when we were told there were weapons of mass destruction in
Iraq.  Torture can work and it cannot
work, is that how you want your policy shaped? 
Thirdly, in order to have national security you need to have an
identity.  I want to close with the story
of a man who broke after three and a half years of torture and gave
information.  He was humiliated and never
forgave himself for giving that information, but there are two things he tells
us that are important.  First, for the
three and a half years before he broke he gave the most misinformation he could, knowingly and willfully, to deceive his
captors.  That man was John McCain.  John McCain says, "I went to Vietnam with a
love of my family, country and God.  What
I learned under torture is that I loved my family more, my country more, my
religion more."  Now when you think of
that man not as John McCain, but as a detainee, do you think this practice
makes our country safe?

 

Mahurin:  In my response to Prof. Greenberg's remarks I
would like to begin where she did, if the first question is "how did we get
here?" the implicit question is "why?" 
While Americans oppose the use of torture on the whole, those who
unequivocally do so represent only a slight majority, with 43% of those
surveyed saying the only exception should be for terrorists, 13% say it always
alright.  In a nation that holds out to
the world the ideals of liberty, freedom, democracy, what are we saying when
the majority of the nation think that the use of torture is always or sometimes
justified.  During the drafting process
of the Evangelical of Declaration of Human Rights I gained an increasing
understanding of the difficulty of getting evangelicals to agree on
anything.  The non-hierarchical nation of
the evangelical community makes crafting any statement even on the most basic
issues with one voice is extremely difficult. 
The backlash against the Declaration has been extensive in some circles
and the response has been remarkable.  To
Prof. Greenberg's doubt that her own government could commit these acts, I add
my own doubt that many within my community would remain silent.  If the events of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo
have failed to stir the consciences of evangelical leaders out of silence then
I fear that we evangelicals have much more work in our own hearts and mind to
do than I would have believed.  Let's put
aside the notion that there is no moral higher ground?  What strained moral argument do we need to
say what happened wasn't really torture? 
As we learn more about Guantanamo and the practices of our government,
the facts are no longer in dispute.  Yet,
in the end, as much as we are haunted by the use of torture, we ought to be
haunted by much more, about how we as a nation would support these acts.  And if our nation is not haunted then we bear
as much responsibility as those who carried out those direct acts against our
government.

 

Gustitius:  When we think about national security it
sounds like an abstract idea, but what it really is is about keeping America
safe.  When I look at the actions of
Rumsfeld and others I don't challenge their motive of trying to keep American
safe.  The President and Vice President
did the wrong thing for the right reasons. 
Five days after 9/11 the V.P. went on Meet the Press and he told the
world, "We're going to go to the dark side to get the job done.  That's where these people operate and that
where we're going to have to go?" 
Jonathan Yoo wrote the memos that basically sanctioned torture.  His basic proposition is that terrorists and
suspected terrorists are basically the other, persons outside the protection of
the law.  My response to that is to say,
"certainly Jesus didn't believe anybody was outside the law."  I grew up Lutheran and remember the story of
Jesus thanking his disciples for the care they gave him and when the disciples
questioned him about when they saw him hungry, or thirsty, or in prison, Jesus
said "whatever you do for the least of these you did for me."  And that word "for" can be substituted with
"to."  There are three unequivocal and
clear acts illegal in international law, slavery, genocide and torture.  And we allowed our government to do one of
these illegal acts.

About Rachel Johnson

Rachel Johnson is an Associate with the Eleison Group, a consulting firm that specializes in faith-based outreach for Democrats and progressives. She also serves as Programs Director for the American Values Network, a faith-based non-profit advocacy group. Prior to Eleison, Rachel worked as Mississippi field director for Common Good Strategies doing faith outreach for Democratic candidates. She holds a bachelor’s degree from the University of Virginia and a MAR in Theology from Yale Divinity School. The daughter of two ministers, Rachel is an active member and deacon in her church in Washington, D.C.


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