April 24, 2009

Cause For Anger, Cause For Shame

Why should you be angry about torture? You should be angry if you want to hold your head high in the United States of America. This post is about my anger, but also why if you've just wanted talk about torture to go away, you need to think again.

In the waning months of the Bush administration, I began to feel like Bush was gone no matter what happened in the election. I cared less and less about what was quickly becoming our past. Putting aside the burden he leaves behind of war and economic instability, I wanted to believe Barack Obama's exhortation to look to the future rather than to dwell on the past. I was emotionally drained from years of outrage; I felt willing to just say goodbye to George and Dick and watch them fade in the rear-view mirror of history.

With each passing day, however, it is clear that acts committed during the Bush years need to be investigated as possible crimes. Evidence is piling up which implies not only misfeasance, but malfeasance. This is seriously upsetting stuff, far beyond what anti-Bush partisans had speculated. You should be surprised at this news because you should have assumed that this cannot happen in the United States of America.

I have argued with people who defended the torturing of high-value prisoners. The strongest emotional argument they made was that Bush was protecting me from future attacks. I essentially believed this and conceded to Bush that his intention was to protect the country, even if it led him to policies that endangered the country in other ways. Ordinary men in extraordinary situations can make some extraordinary mistakes, but you have to sympathize with the situation they are put into; the prospect of another 9/11 is distressing to say the very least.

Another defense of torture was that the methods weren't known to be torture, that waterboarding was not torture. It is a difficult legal question.

Bush's own defense of his administration was that the United States does not adopt torture as a policy, but there are a few bad apples out there who were torturing against the wishes of the administration.

Those last two arguments were just plain wrong. And now it turns out, shockingly, upsettingly, that torture was not simply for your protection from future attacks.

Recently released torture memos reveal the timelines of the torture programs that the US began to create. They have information about how those torture programs were developed, about how they were patterned. These memos dispel perhaps all of the arguments of supporters of Bush-era torture policies. Ron Suskind has been digesting and explaining the implications of these memos on MSNBC lately, and the implications are staggering.

Here are some highlights:

  • New methods of torture were developed simultaneously in different branches of the government. These were the same methods and the same policies, indicating that the programs were connected at a very high level, where authorization and details were handed down. This destroys the "few bad apples" defense.
  • These new methods were based on knowledge from the SERE program - a military program to train servicepeople to resist communist-style torture that is designed to get false confessions from Americans which would later be used in propaganda. The SERE program itself is designed to protect Americans from this sort of torture. The administration took that and turned it into an American version of communist-style torture.
  • Torture programs kicked into high gear when Bush administration officials were frustrated that they couldn't find evidence linking Saddam to 9/11 and WMDs were nowhere to be found. They needed to be able to tell the American people something for political cover. To quote Paul Krugman: "Let's say this slowly: the Bush administration wanted to use 9/11 as a pretext to invade Iraq, even though Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11. So it tortured people to make them confess to the nonexistent link. There's a word for this: it's evil."
  • Bush administration officials had access to information informing them of the dubiousness of their legal arguments. They chose not only to ignore that reasoning, but do obliterate evidence of such reasoning.

That last one seems to this non-lawyer to be especially legally damaging. Philip Zelikow, former personal representative to Condoleeza Rice on policy in the State Department states the following on the Foreign Policy website:

At the time, in 2005, I circulated an opposing view of the legal reasoning. My bureaucratic position, as counselor to the secretary of state, didn't entitle me to offer a legal opinion. But I felt obliged to put an alternative view in front of my colleagues at other agencies, warning them that other lawyers (and judges) might find the OLC views unsustainable. My colleagues were entitled to ignore my views. They did more than that: The White House attempted to collect and destroy all copies of my memo. I expect that one or two are still at least in the State Department's archives.

They could not brook dissent; I believe this was because they knew the shaky ground they were on.

There was a time when saying that the Bush administration perpetrated evil was unsupportable and was a fringe belief based on too many assumptions. Today we're faced with the possibility that evil was institutionalized, right here in the USA, while we slept.

Defense of these activities is a defense of the legal rationale for an administration to torture whomever it wants, and for political reasons. Can the danger of such a policy be overstated?

I know the president has said he has no interest in investigating this, but he needs to back off and let the Justice Department investigate. His politics have no place in this. We've already seen the problems with an administration meddling in Justice. This is a huge blot on our nation that will not be resolved until an investigation can be done to explain the evidence some other way or bring perpetrators to justice.

Posted by James at April 24, 2009 4:26 PM
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