PBS Frontline & James Carroll / The Boston Globe – 2006-09-21 09:33:35
The Torture Question
PBS Frontline (90 minutes / RealPlayer & Windows Media formats)
• Before you give credence to Bush’s allegations about the threat of “Islamo-fascism,” watchthis video.
In mid-August, a FRONTLINE documentary crew made the perilous journey to the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. Entering the 280-acre compound in the middle of the night, escorted by helicopters and a convoy of armed Humvees, the crew was following 50 detainees fresh from the battlefield.
As they were ordered to kneel in formation on the concrete floor, one detainee nervously asked the FRONTLINE cameraman, “Is this Abu Ghraib?” The answer brought a shudder. Abu Ghraib has always been a terrifying place to Iraqis — Saddam Hussein used it as his primary torture chamber — but in 2004, when graphic photographs of American soldiers abusing prisoners surfaced, Abu Ghraib took on deeper meaning.
“The details of what happened in those cellblocks between the American soldiers and Iraqi detainees are well known,” says producer/director Michael Kirk, “but how and why it happened is what took us into the heart of Abu Ghraib that night.”
In “The Torture Question”, FRONTLINE traces the history of how decisions made in Washington in the immediate aftermath of Sept. 11 — including an internal administration battle over the Geneva Conventions — led to a robust interrogation policy that laid the groundwork for prisoner abuse in Afghanistan; Guantanamo Bay, Cuba; and Iraq.
The political firestorm ignited by the Abu Ghraib photos and the shocking revelations that followed resulted in 12 Department of Defense investigations. One of them, a commission of ex-defense secretaries, found that there were lapses in oversight in the Pentagon, but that the practices had not been condoned. So far there have been arrests and convictions of some low-level soldiers and reprimands for the colonel in charge of Abu Ghraib, Thomas Pappas, as well as for Army Reserve Gen. Janis Karpinski.
“They can do whatever they want; they could make it appear any way they want. I will not be silenced,” Karpinski tells FRONTLINE. “I will continue to ask how they can continue to blame seven rogue soldiers on the nightshift when there is a preponderance of information right now, hard information from a variety of sources, that says otherwise.”
“The Torture Question” traces the aggressive development of the administration’s interrogation policy in the aftermath of 9/11, where the push for “actionable intelligence” led to authorization for interrogators to strip detainees, degrade prisoners with sexual humiliation techniques and use dogs for intimidation.
Former White House and Justice Department legal advisers who were involved in drafting many of the administration’s boldest proposals agreed to talk to FRONTLINE. “There was a powerful set of shared assumptions we had in the wake of 9/11, and one of the most powerful was the assumption that we would never be forgiven if we failed to do something that was within the power of our government lawfully to protect the public from a further attack,” says Associate White House Counsel Bradford Berenson.
The legal framework developed by administration lawyers like Berenson, Alberto Gonzales and John Yoo provided the impetus for unprecedented rules for interrogating detainees, rules authorized by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld — rules officials insist never condoned torture.
FRONTLINE follows the implementation of the Rumsfeld rules from the battlefields of Afghanistan to the detention facilities at Guantanamo Bay, where eventually the FBI began to document a trail of abuses by interrogators.
In one e-mail, an agent reports on conditions in an interrogation room: “[T]he A/C had been turned off, making the temperature in the unventilated room probably well over 100 degrees. The detainee was almost unconscious on the floor, with a pile of hair next to him. He had apparently been literally pulling his own hair out throughout the night.”
In this report, American soldiers give first-hand accounts of their involvement in the harsh treatment of prisoners. Moreover, one former Army interrogator and member of a special intelligence team insists that the use of torture was happening all over Iraq. Other military sources, some of whom had to be disguised, confirm that prisoner abuse is a more widespread problem than previously reported.
“The Torture Question” provides the context for understanding how the rules were confused, how lines of authority were blurred, and what happens when the authorization of “coercive interrogation” makes it way into the battle zone.
Judge, Jury, and Torturer
James Carroll / The Boston Globe
(September 18, 2006) — “Trust us. You’re guilty. We’re going to execute you, but we can’t tell you why.” That is how Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, characterized the Bush administration’s recent proposal for a draconian new trial system to deal with accused terrorists.
The plan includes a reinterpretation of prisoner protections guaranteed by the Geneva Conventions. Graham was joined in opposition last week by other Republicans, including Colin Powell. Remarkably , lawyers in the Pentagon also raised objections.
But the White House argument is straightforward: terrorists are such a mortal threat that established due process must be suspended. In particular, the classified secrets of anti terrorist operations must be so closely held that the most basic pillar of jurisprudence — the accused’s right to know and respond to evidence — must be discarded. The legislation was drafted by Franz Kafka.
The Congress will decide how to respond to administration proposals, and courts will review whatever system is enacted. All of this unfolds in the context, first, of the Supreme Court’s decision in June that Bush-sponsored terrorist tribunals, centered in Guantanamo, violate international law and the Constitution, and, second, of the administration’s admission two weeks ago that the CIA has been running a secret and extrajudicial prison system abroad, without any pretense of legal procedure. Nothing inhibits interrogation methods from approaching torture. Not exactly grounds for trust.
In the United States, there has been only vague unease about such revelations. It does not seem right to suspend hallowed legal protections, but questions about such Bush policies dating back to early days of the war on terrorism have not risen to the level of vigorous resistance, much less indignation.
That’s why the Supreme Court ruling was so surprising. Regarding the new White House proposals, The New York Times reported that, even with vociferous Republican objection, responses from Democrats were muted. They don’t want to seem friendly to terrorists.
What reservations are expressed have less to do with innate rights of the accused than with possible repercussions when enemies apply such standards to captured US soldiers. Last week, 27 retired military leaders warned Congress, “If degradation, humiliation, physical, and mental brutalization of prisoners is decriminalized” then US soldiers will suffer similarly.
But the fabric of law is spun from a single thread and when the US government deems a few individuals to be less worthy of full protections against the abuse of power , everyone is threatened.
That’s because the procedures of law — the requirement, in this example, that the accused be shown the evidence — protect not only the individual but the system itself. To say that justice must be administered blindly is to forbid favoritism toward the privileged, yes, but it is also to prevent prejudice toward the despised or dangerous.
Justice is measured in every society by how the worst malefactors are treated — the worst not only in culpability, but in capacity for general harm. The best way to combat terrorism is to wrap accused terrorists in the cloth of the law they would rip asunder. More important, to legalize the abuse of a class of prisoners is to prepare for the abuse of all.
In the novels and stories of Kafka, the guilt or innocence of the accused is not the issue. When hauled before the unknown accuser, without explanation of charges or evidence, Kafka’s characters assume that they must have done something wrong. The surreal dislocation of the one imprisoned in the penal colony or the castle consists in solitude, vulnerability, ignorance.
The anonymously oppressing power structure is Kafka’s true subject, and it is characterized only by its radical unaccountability. “Trust us. You’re guilty. We’re going to execute you, but we can’t tell you why.” The absolute power of the oppressor depends on the absolute ignorance of the oppressed.
Kafka died in 1924, but his work was recognized as a prophecy of the totalitarian nightmares of the rest of the 20th century. Who would have thought his images would resonate again? And not this time in Berlin or Prague.
To watch the Bush administration cavalierly dismantle the most basic structures of justice is to feel like the man in “Metamorphosis” who discovers upon awakening that, in the night, he has become a monstrous insect. But, in the United States today, instead of thinking of his body as the objection of gross mutation, he is thinking of his nation. Kafka’s last novel was called “Amerika.”
A Defining Moment for America:
The president goes to Capitol Hill to lobby for torture.
Washington Post Editorial
(September 15, 2006) — President Bush rarely visits Congress. So it was a measure of his painfully skewed priorities that Mr. Bush made the unaccustomed trip yesterday to seek legislative permission for the CIA to make people disappear into secret prisons and have information extracted from them by means he dare not describe publicly.
Of course, Mr. Bush didn’t come out and say he’s lobbying for torture. Instead he refers to “an alternative set of procedures” for interrogation. But the administration no longer conceals what it wants. It wants authorization for the CIA to hide detainees in overseas prisons where even the International Committee of the Red Cross won’t have access. It wants permission to interrogate those detainees with abusive practices that in the past have included induced hypothermia and “waterboarding,” or simulated drowning.
And it wants the right to try such detainees, and perhaps sentence them to death, on the basis of evidence that the defendants cannot see and that may have been extracted during those abusive interrogation sessions.
There’s no question that the United States is facing a dangerous foe that uses the foulest of methods. But a wide array of generals and others who should know argue that it is neither prudent nor useful for the United States to compromise its own values in response. “I continue to read and hear that we are facing a ‘different enemy’ in the war on terror,” retired Gen. John W. Vessey Jr., a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, wrote in a letter to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) this week.
“No matter how true that may be, inhumanity and cruelty are not new to warfare nor to enemies we have faced in the past…. Through those years, we held to our own values. We should continue to do so.”
Another former chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and one more intimately familiar with the war on terrorism, also weighed in this week: “The world is beginning to doubt the moral basis of our fight against terrorism,” former general and secretary of state Colin L. Powell wrote to McCain. “To redefine Common Article 3 would add to those doubts.”
Mr. Powell was referring to an article of the Geneva Conventions that prohibits cruel and degrading treatment of detainees. Mr. Bush, with support from most Republican congressional leaders, wants to redefine American obligations under the treaty.
Three Republican senators — John W. Warner of Virginia, chairman of the Armed Services Committee; Lindsey O. Graham of South Carolina; and Mr. McCain — are bravely promoting an alternative measure that would allow terrorists to be questioned and tried without breaking faith with traditional US values. The Armed Services Committee approved their bill yesterday and sent it to the Senate floor.
The doubts of which Mr. Powell spoke are impeding the US war effort. A president who lobbies for torture feeds those doubts even if, as we hope, Congress denies him his request.
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