America's extraordinary tolerance for torture

By now shouldn't liberals and conservatives alike be aghast over the Bush administration's secret, systematic policy of outsourcing torture?

By Mark Follman
Published February 11, 2005 5:47PM (EST)

The disturbing stories of abuse and torture committed by intelligence operatives and soldiers in U.S. military prisons keep coming; this week it's the story of Omar Khadr, an adolescent Canadian-born terror suspect held at Guantánamo Bay for more than two years, who says that U.S. soldiers used him as a "human mop" to clean up the floor after Khadr urinated on himself in a predawn interrogation in March 2003.

The Bush administration has sought to portray such incidents as the work of a few rotten insubordinates, operating on their own and out of control. President Bush has publicly denounced torture, while administration officials have insisted over and over that there is no policy for its use by the U.S. government. That, in spite of Vice President Cheney's assertion on NBC's "Meet the Press" five days after the 9/11 terrorist attacks that in order to fight a new war against terrorism, the U.S. government would often need to work "quietly" and "without any discussion," and would "use any means at our disposal" and "work through, sort of, the dark side."

Now we have some more disturbing revelations, and of a grander scale: The Bush administration's vastly expanded use of a highly secretive program known as "extraordinary rendition." First conceived under the Clinton administration in the 1990s, it entails the U.S. shipping terrorist suspects off to foreign countries for interrogation and prosecution, where they are almost sure to be brutally tortured, if not killed. The program has been documented before, but not to the degree that Jane Mayer offers in the latest issue of the New Yorker. "Critics contend that the unstated purpose of such renditions is to subject the suspects to aggressive methods of persuasion that are illegal in America -- including torture," she writes. All the chilling details in Mayer's report about what allegedly happened to detainees whom the U.S. government sent to places like Syria, Egypt and Jordan after 9/11 are painfully familiar by now.

But the secrecy and scope of the program are not limited to U.S. "allies." We are also carrying it out ourselves. As Mayer adds: "Reports have suggested that C.I.A. prisons are being operated in Thailand, Qatar, and Afghanistan, among other countries. At the request of the C.I.A., Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld personally ordered that a prisoner in Iraq be hidden from Red Cross officials for several months, and Army General Paul Kern told Congress that the C.I.A. may have hidden up to a hundred detainees." (For what happens after that, see Cheney above.)

So at what point do Americans -- regardless of political stripe -- say enough is enough? By now shouldn't we all, liberal and conservative alike, be aghast at what is undeniably the Bush administration's systematic policy for prosecuting the global war against terrorism so perversely in the name of democracy, freedom and human rights? Anyone who wants to believe that torture is an effective method of gathering intelligence suffers from a denial no less flimsy than the administration's own "few bad apples" explanation for Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib.

According to John C. Yoo, the deputy assistant attorney general who helped author a series of documents after 9/11 that effectively gave the Bush administration carte blanche to deal with terrorist suspects, not only are we not aghast -- we're done worrying about it. As Mayer reports, Yoo believes that President Bushs victory in the 2004 election, along with the relatively mild challenge to attorney general nominee Alberto Gonzales mounted by the Democrats in Congress last month, is "proof that the debate is over" regarding torture.

"The issue is dying out," he said, "The public has had its referendum.

He's as terribly wrong as the Bush administration's policy is. On the political left, start with Bob Herbert in today's New York Times.

And perhaps one light in all this darkness is that at least some on the political right are coming to their senses about just how bad policies like "extraordinary rendition" really are. Here's conservative blogger Sebastian Holsclaw, from, who says it all:

"Well, here is the post I never wanted to have to write There has been a drip, drip, drip that we have mostly ignored. It does us no credit to continue. The Bush administration has engaged in a very troubling pattern of legtimizing torture by dramatically expanding the practice of 'extraordinary rendition.'

"Torture is wrong. The practice of extraordinary rendition began as a classic Clintonian hairsplitting exercise in the mid 1990s to avoid the clear letter of the laws which prohibit America from using torture. This is the kind of avoidance of the law and ridiculous semantics that we decried when employed by the Clinton administration. It has gotten no more attractive just because Bush has decided to continue the program.

"It is becoming completely obvious that some of the people being tortured are innocent. That is crazy. There isn't any information we are getting that could possibly justify the torture of innocent people.

"Torture also opens us up to the legitimate criticism that we are acting out the very barbarism that we want to fight. I think as Republicans we have heard that charge so many times employed against practices where the analogy was completely inappropriate, that we have become inured to the charge when properly employed.

"President Bush must be shown that the Republican Party is not willing to stand for the perversion of our moral standards. The Republican-controlled Senate and the Republican-controlled House can close the loophole which allows for extraordinary rendition and can loudly reaffirm that torture is not something we do. We are the majority party, and we claim to be a party that cares about the moral health of the nation. We are damning ourselves if we sit back and let it continue."

Mark Follman

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

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9/11 Abu Ghraib Afghanistan Al-qaida Guantanamo Osama Bin Laden Taliban Torture War Room