America can’t take it anymore

The Bush administration has embraced torture as a key part of the "war on terror." Finally, members of Congress, the military and the CIA are speaking out against the abuse.

Topics: Afghanistan, CIA, Al-Qaida, Terrorism, Torture, Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, John McCain, R-Ariz., Iraq, Middle East,

America can't take it anymore

Five days after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Vice President Dick Cheney instructed the nation that the U.S. government would begin working “the dark side” to defeat its enemies in a new global war. “A lot of what needs to be done here will have to be done quietly, without any discussion,” Cheney declared on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” He added, “It’s going to be vital for us to use any means at our disposal.”

More than four years later, the Bush administration has delivered on Cheney’s vow to wage war in the shadows, free from oversight and accountability. Policies for seizing and interrogating suspects — conceived and commanded at the highest levels of the White House — have permitted numerous acts of torture and even murder at the hands of American soldiers and interrogators.

The grim acts unleashed by those policies are no secret today. Cruel and wanton abuses have been exposed at Abu Ghraib, Guantánamo Bay, and other lesser known U.S. military bases and prisons around the world. In November, the Washington Post uncovered a global network of covert CIA prisons known as “black sites,” top-secret interrogation facilities reportedly operating in far-flung locations from Eastern Europe to Thailand. Still, many dark details remain unknown.

“There is no instance in American history where we’ve been exposed as being so deeply involved in actually conducting torture on a routine and regular basis,” says Thomas Powers, an expert on national security and the author of two books on the CIA.

In recent months, a fierce backlash against the abuses has not only been rising in Washington, but well beyond. Many Americans on the front lines of national security are demoralized and angered by the fact that only a few foot soldiers have been punished — such as Pvt. Lynndie England of Abu Ghraib infamy — while commanders in the field and policymakers have remained untouched. A growing number of military and CIA personnel, according to officers from both realms, admit that the Bush policies, hatched in the fearful weeks and months after 9/11, have deeply corrupted military and intelligence operations over four years of war.

In October, the Senate passed the McCain amendment with overwhelming bipartisan support. It would impose uniform standards for interrogation on both the military and CIA, adhering to the Geneva Conventions’ ban on torture and other “cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment” of prisoners. As the amendment makes its way to the House, the Bush administration is fighting it every step of the way. Cheney is wielding his influence on both Capitol Hill and in the Pentagon, seeking to water down language in the McCain amendment and exempt the CIA from new guidelines.

Following the revelation of the black sites, President Bush stated: “We do not do torture.” Much evidence proves otherwise, but what else could the president of the United States say? Torturing prisoners is both illegal and morally reprehensible. Committed by Americans, it has undermined the mission to bring democratic reform to Afghanistan, Iraq and the greater Middle East. It has done profound damage to America’s image at home and worldwide. And most intelligence experts, including CIA director Porter Goss, agree that when it comes to gathering useful information, torture simply doesn’t work.

By now, the public may be desensitized to all the personal testimonials of torture brought to light in the media. In some cases, skepticism is warranted: Captured al-Qaida training manuals revealed instructions for prisoners to lie about being tortured to undermine the enemy. Military investigators have said they’ve found instances of prisoners at Guantánamo Bay making false allegations.

But evidence of widespread use of torture by the United States under the Bush administration is indisputable, including the policy of rendition, or the handing over of prisoners to foreign allies like Jordan and Egypt who are known to torture. European leaders have been in an uproar as further evidence emerges that the CIA has secretly used European airports to transport prisoners for interrogation.

The numbers alone tell a chilling story. According to recent reports by the Associated Press, the United States has held more than 83,000 prisoners since the war on terror began, primarily in Iraq and Afghanistan. Today, more than 14,000 remain in U.S. custody, mostly in Iraq, where U.S. military officials have acknowledged in the past that many prisoners were of little or no intelligence value. Military officials have said the same of the majority of prisoners held in Guantánamo Bay; yet from Guantánamo to the war zones, more than 4,000 prisoners have been held for a year or longer, with several hundred held for multiple years.

As of March this year, 108 detainees were known to have died in U.S. military and CIA custody. Of those, 22 died when insurgents attacked Abu Ghraib prison, while others reportedly died of natural causes. At least 26 deaths have been deemed criminal homicides.

Particularly troubling, says Powers, is that the Bush White House has taken no responsibility for the long trail of illegal abuses committed in the name of fighting terror: “Has anybody high up been held accountable for those 26 homicides? Not that I know of. And I’d be very surprised if we ever learn the full extent of all this. My guess is that if we could see the whole picture, it’d be extremely dark and unpleasant.”

Army Capt. Ray Kimball is among the growing number who say that interrogation by torture is anti-American, ineffective and categorically wrong. In an interview with Salon, he said it also causes severe harm to U.S. soldiers themselves.

“Torture not only degrades the victim, it also ultimately degrades the torturer,” said Kimball, who served in Iraq and now teaches history at West Point. “We already have enough soldiers dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder after legitimate combat experiences. But now you’re talking about adding the burden of willfully inflicting wanton pain on another human being. You tell a soldier to go out there and ‘waterboard’ someone” — strap a prisoner to a board, bind his face in cloth, and pour water over his face until he fears death by drowning — “or mock-execute someone, but nobody is thinking about what that’s going to do to that soldier months or years later, when it comes to dealing with the rationalizations and internal consequences. We’re talking about serious psychic trauma.”

A few courageous soldiers, including Army Capt. Ian Fishback of the elite 82nd Airborne Division, have spoken out against policies they say have cultivated torture on the battlefield. For 17 months, Fishback sought clarification within the military for the proper treatment of prisoners, and could find none. “I am certain that this confusion contributed to a wide range of abuses including death threats, beatings, broken bones, murder,” Fishback wrote in an open letter to Sen. John McCain in September. “I and troops under my command witnessed some of these abuses in both Afghanistan and Iraq.”

Coercion used on detainees, Fishback wrote, “is morally inconsistent with the Constitution and justice in war. It is unacceptable … If we abandon our ideals in the face of adversity and aggression, then those ideals were never really in our possession.”

More soldiers are starting to come forward with the support of groups like Human Rights Watch, which conducts leading research on torture in the war on terror. Although unwilling to talk on the record for fear of retribution by the military, a number of active-duty soldiers who’ve spoken with Human Rights Watch are increasingly angry about the torture scandals, according to researcher John Sifton. While some soldiers are wary that media and human rights groups are out to make the military look bad, Sifton says most of them realize that they are taking the sole blame for the abuses.

“A number of soldiers we’ve talked to have told us they were ordered by military intelligence to torture,” Sifton told Salon. “And not just at Abu Ghraib but at forward operating bases across Iraq.” According to Sifton, several soldiers who tried to report misconduct say their superiors told them to take a hike.

One of them was Army Spc. Tony Lagouranis, who worked as an interrogator at Abu Ghraib prison and in a special intelligence unit that operated across Iraq in 2004. After multiple attempts to report wrongdoing, he became frustrated by stonewalling inside the military and took his knowledge of abuses to the media.

“It’s all over Iraq,” Lagouranis, now retired, told the PBS show “Frontline” in late September. “The worst stuff I saw was from the detaining units who would torture people in their homes. They were using things like … burns. They would smash people’s feet with the back of an axe-head. They would break bones, ribs.” At the root of the abuses, he said, was a lot of “frustration that we weren’t getting good intel,” and murky directives regarding the treatment of prisoners. Inevitably, Lagouranis said, those conditions gave rise to instances of “pure sadism,” like the ones at Abu Ghraib.

There are other accounts of stonewalling and coverup by the military: One Army whistleblower who tried to report abuses in Iraq in 2003 was suddenly declared psychologically ill and forcibly shipped out of the country. “They were determined to protect their own asses no matter who they had to take down,” said Sgt. Frank “Greg” Ford, in a Salon report last year.

In a joint effort with Human Rights First and NYU’s Center for Human Rights and Global Justice, Human Rights Watch has been amassing a database of “literally hundreds and hundreds of cases of torture” at the hands of the U.S. military and CIA that have gone uninvestigated or unresolved. “There are only two cases I know of in which an officer or senior NCO has been accused of criminal conduct because of actions of those under their command,” Sifton said. While some lower-level troops who committed abuse have been rightfully punished, he said, “it’s simply shocking that nobody higher up has been held criminally liable.”

“The message that’s going out to guys is, as long as you’re a senior military member or administration staffer, you’re golden,” says one active-duty Army officer, a veteran of combat in Iraq. “Just make sure either you’ve got a fall guy, or you’re high enough up in the hierarchy, and you’ll be fine.”

Beginning almost immediately after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, policies crafted inside the Bush White House set the conditions for rampant abuses by the military and CIA. In the first fearful weeks and months after the attacks, top administration lawyers in the White House and Justice Department drew up a series of secret legal memos that recast the rules for the treatment of so-called enemy combatants, those considered terrorist suspects from no easily identifiable army or nation. The memos argued that captured enemy combatants were not entitled to fundamental protections of U.S. or international law, including the obligations of the U.N. Convention Against Torture, a treaty the United States ratified in 1994 explicitly outlawing “torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment” of prisoners.

The administration also relied on a classified document known as a “presidential finding,” authorizing broad covert action by the CIA to capture, detain or kill members of al-Qaida anywhere in the world. The finding, which administration legal advisors apparently ruled lawful, was signed by Bush on Sept. 17, 2001. A day later, Congress granted the administration additional power by authorizing the use of “all necessary and appropriate” military force at the discretion of the president.

This November, in response to the torture scandals, the Pentagon issued a new high-level directive requiring that interrogations be conducted using “humane” treatment. That term replaced language in an earlier draft of the directive modeled after the international rules against torture — a change that was made following intense pressure from Cheney’s office.

According to one senior Army officer, a judge advocate general who has been involved in discussions with Pentagon officials on the issue, reaching a consensus on what constitutes “humane” treatment can be exceedingly difficult — and vague language remains precisely the strategy of the Bush administration’s legal maneuverings on detention and interrogation. Pentagon officials working to revise the Army field manual have also reportedly faced stiff resistance from Cheney’s office. In theory, the senior Army JAG says, the rules outlined in the current version of the manual, including 14 techniques approved for interrogations, were already well-defined enough to avert wrongdoing — at least until the Bush administration began calling for “the gloves to come off” in the war on terror.

According to the senior Army JAG, who wasn’t authorized to speak to the media and was granted anonymity by Salon, many fellow JAGs and military officers feel that the administration has long since veered into dubious territory. “There are plenty of us who think that the legal opinions put forth by the administration, while maybe passable from a technical standpoint, aren’t serving our long-term interests. The feeling is that there are steep costs to the administration’s views, and that we’re just beginning to pay them.”

It is no accident that the McCain amendment seeks to tighten controls over both the military and CIA. The two often work in concert in an ill-defined, shadowy world of prisoner capture, transport and interrogation. While some abuses took place in Afghanistan and Guantánamo Bay prior to the Iraq war, conventional wisdom holds that torture only ballooned with the rise of the Iraqi insurgency. But according to one active-duty Army officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the information, U.S. intelligence operatives were working alongside the military in the Middle East well before the war even began.

“Before the invasion of Iraq, I was on an airfield in a foreign country that had an OGA site operating on it,” says the Army officer. (OGA, or “other government agency,” is parlance for a nonmilitary agency, typically the CIA.) “The airfield was prepped for any number of missions. It was made abundantly clear to us that those guys were self-sufficient and operated under their own set of rules. And if we didn’t like that, that was too damn bad.”

Robert Baer, a veteran CIA officer who operated in Iraq and across the Middle East before retiring in 1997, affirms that the CIA often works with military and private contractors, including on interrogations. He says joint operations are likely all over Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as at the “black sites,” which, according to the Washington Post, were set up beginning nearly four years ago.

A recent report by Jane Mayer in the New Yorker revealed how the joint operations can shield any single agency from responsibility for torture. The killing of a terrorist suspect in U.S. hands at Abu Ghraib in 2003 may go unpunished, according to the report, because of murky circumstances over whether the military or CIA had custody of him. The prisoner, Manadel al-Jamadi, was first captured and roughed up by Navy SEALS before being handed over to a CIA interrogator at the prison. The CIA interrogator reportedly placed a bag over al-Jamadi’s head, bound his hands behind his back, and hung him by his hands. Top forensics experts who examined the case said al-Jamadi, who had broken ribs, suffocated to death.

Several military investigations have fingered the CIA for operations in Iraq that essentially made prisoners like al-Jamadi disappear within the military’s detention system with no record of their captivity — a practice known as “ghosting.” To date, only one agency employee has been held to account, a CIA contractor — but not an officer — charged for beating a prisoner to death in Afghanistan.

The CIA has never had a sterling reputation on human rights, says author Thomas Powers, though no one inside the agency would ever admit to using torture. “They’ve also said they don’t commit assassinations,” Powers says wryly. “They don’t, except when they do.”

Nevertheless, Bush policies appear to have corrupted the CIA to an unprecedented degree. Between the torture scandals and the prewar intelligence meltdown — Powers says analysts were made to “hop on one leg and whistle” while pumping up bogus intelligence on Iraqi WMD — the CIA has become an “operational arm” of the Bush White House.

The network of secret CIA prisons is particularly disturbing, Powers says, because they make prospects for oversight and accountability even dimmer. As with the military, it’s likely that only the rank and file will be held accountable. “Over the last 50 years the agency has been asked many times to do extreme things,” Powers says. “But almost always, whenever there’s somebody to be blamed for it, nobody in the White House takes a hit.”

Other CIA experts confirm that torture fails to exact useful information from prisoners, especially insurgents. “I’ve never seen torture solve an insurgency problem. It just makes it worse,” Baer says. In addition to decrying its ineffectiveness, some veteran CIA officers, like their counterparts in the military, have begun to speak out against torture on moral grounds.

“It goes completely against the profile of people the CIA wants to recruit,” Baer says, adding that officers are trained to resist interrogation, but generally not to conduct it. “This is a 180-degree turn, and it’s wrecking the CIA further.”

The rising backlash against torture today indicates more military and intelligence officers are realizing that the Bush administration is sinking the United States into an unprecedented moral quagmire — one that could lead to an especially dire end. “The problems with this are huge and they’re hitting home now,” Powers says. “How do you let these people go, especially the ones deemed to be of no intelligence value, after they’ve been treated so badly? Are you just going to hold them forever? You have to ask whether or not they will eventually reach the stage of just summarily killing them. It may have happened already. This policy isn’t just ineffectual — it’s complete madness.”

Last summer, Sen. Richard Durbin, a senior Democrat from Illinois who co-wrote the McCain amendment, was savaged by the White House for pointed criticisms he made comparing torture at the U.S. military prison in Guantánamo Bay with Nazism and the Soviet gulags. Looking back, Durbin maintains he could have chosen his words more carefully — but more importantly, he says, Cheney’s battle against the McCain amendment represents a betrayal of America’s men and women fighting on the front lines, and an “incredible contradiction” from the White House on torture.

For Durbin, who served on the Senate Intelligence Committee until last January, the revelation of the CIA “black sites” has raised new, troubling questions. “To my knowledge, it was never discussed — whether they exist, where they exist, who runs them, and what’s going on inside,” Durbin said, speaking by phone from his office on Capitol Hill. “I think we absolutely need a more thorough investigation. But we’ll be hard pressed to see it because it reflects directly on statements made by the president and vice president. And when it gets that delicate politically, the Senate Intelligence Committee has refused to step in.”

That’s been the norm under the Bush White House, Durbin adds. Cheney, he says, enjoys powerful sway over the committee. “There is a close relationship between Sen. Pat Roberts [who heads the Intelligence Committee] and the vice president. I can tell you that little or nothing was done while I served on the committee, in terms of a thorough review of our treatment of prisoners.”

While Durbin and fellow lawmakers responsible for oversight were kept in the dark on covert interrogation operations, before he left the committee he and others viewed hundreds of classified photos of torture from Abu Ghraib. According to Durbin, a number of the images they witnessed were even more horrific than the public has seen to date, though he declined to go into detail, because they remain classified. “In all of my years of public service, I’ll never forget that day. I was standing there in a room with fellow senators, some of whom were in tears, as we watched brought up on a screen hundreds and hundreds of photos showing the most unimaginable treatment of prisoners.”

“I honestly believe that when this war is over, we’ll look back on this treatment of prisoners as our own Japanese internment-camp issue,” Durbin says. “It’s further illustration that when a nation is in fear, as we are of continued attacks of terrorism, a nation will do things that do not stand up well at all by the judgment of history.”

Mark Follman is Salon's deputy news editor. Read his other articles here.

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