Saturday, January 15, 2005

Expanded Interrogation Techniques

Andrew Sullivan reviews new accounts of the U.S.'s use of "expanded interrogation techniques" (torture) since 9/11. The new books are Steven Strasser's The Abu Ghraib Investigations: The Official Report of the Independent Panel and Pentagon on the Shocking Prisoner Abuse in Iraq, and Mark Danner's Torture and Truth: America Abu Ghraib, and the War on Terror.

Sullivan's piece is more than a 'review': it's a comprehensive account of the logic and administrative process that opened the way for systemic prisoner abuse authorized by the Bush administration. It occurred as much at Guantanamo as at Abu Ghraib. It occurred at several other prison/interrogation facilities in Iraq. And it occurred in Afghanistan. Sullivan also looks carefully at what was done, and how it was received by military and governmental authorities. Among the stuff I didn't know was this:

These are not allegations made by antiwar journalists. They are incidents reported within the confines of the United States government. The Schlesinger panel has officially conceded, although the president has never publicly acknowledged, that American soldiers have tortured five inmates to death. Twenty-three other deaths that occurred during American custody had not been fully investigated by the time the panel issued its report in August. Some of the techniques were simply brutal, like persistent vicious beatings to unconsciousness. Others were more inventive. In April 2004, according to internal Defense Department documents recently procured by the A.C.L.U., three marines in Mahmudiya used an electric transformer, forcing a detainee to ''dance'' as the electricity coursed through him. We also now know that in Guantánamo, burning cigarettes were placed in the ears of detainees.

There are also lots of graphic accounts of torture in the piece (what I included above is among the tamer material), most of which you probably haven't heard about yet.

Andrew Sullivan, in case you didn't know, is a Republican, who initially supported the war. The fact that he's speaking out so publicly on this issue now, when most on the right have assiduously ignored it, or even obliquely supported the use of torture, says something about him.

The ending paragraphs speculate on how it's possible that this has been such a small issue in American politics, especially given the fact that the U.S. is losing the war over Iraqi hearts and minds. It's also shocking that it was ignored during the election, when Kerry had enough knowledge about the Administration's role in authorizing torture (the 'torture memos') to use it as a campaign issue. It's a game played by the left as well as by the right:

American political polarization also contributed. Most of those who made the most fuss about these incidents - like Mark Danner or Seymour Hersh - were dedicated opponents of the war in the first place, and were eager to use this scandal to promote their agendas. Advocates of the war, especially those allied with the administration, kept relatively quiet, or attempted to belittle what had gone on, or made facile arguments that such things always occur in wartime. But it seems to me that those of us who are most committed to the Iraq intervention should be the most vociferous in highlighting these excrescences. Getting rid of this cancer within the system is essential to winning this war.

I'm not saying that those who unwittingly made this torture possible are as guilty as those who inflicted it. I am saying that when the results are this horrifying, it's worth a thorough reassessment of rhetoric and war methods. Perhaps the saddest evidence of our communal denial in this respect was the election campaign. The fact that American soldiers were guilty of torturing inmates to death barely came up. It went unmentioned in every one of the three presidential debates. John F. Kerry, the ''heroic'' protester of Vietnam, ducked the issue out of what? Fear? Ignorance? Or a belief that the American public ultimately did not care, that the consequences of seeming to criticize the conduct of troops would be more of an electoral liability than holding a president accountable for enabling the torture of innocents? I fear it was the last of these. Worse, I fear he may have been right.

[See Amygdala]

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