On Torture and Accountability

Fernando Botero

President Bush is back from his Emily Dickinson like seclusion with a book of reflections on his presidency, and a consequential media book tour. Of the many revelations in the book – i.e. being called a racist by Kanye West was the lowest point of his presidency – the least surprising is that he personally signed off on the enhanced interrogation techniques that other people call torture.

The Nation’s Jonathan Schell reports on the documents that suggest that The United States was engaging in torture techniques in the war in Iraq. President Bush still defends waterboarding as an interrogation technique, not torture, but the documents made available by WikiLeaks show a broader and more vicious approach at the so called interrogations. This is a report by an American soldier:

THE DETAINEE WAS BLINDFOLDED AND IS UNABLE TO IDENTIFY THE OFFENDERS. THE DETAINEE CLAIMED HE WAS BEATEN ABOUT THE FEET AND LEGS WITH A BLUNT OBJECT, AND PUNCHED IN THE FACE AND___. HE CLAIMED THAT ELECTRICITY WAS USED ON HIS FEET AND GENITALS, AND HE WAS ALSO [SODOMIZED] WITH A WATER BOTTLE. –___PERSONNEL CLAIMED IT WAS CAUSED BY THE DETAINEE FALLING FROM HIS MOTORCYCLE WHILE HE WAS BEING CHASED BY THE___. THE DETAINEE DISPLAYED GREAT DIFFICULTY WALKING WITH BRUISING AND SWELLING ON THE SOLES OF BOTH FEET. THE DETAINEE HAD LOCALIZED CUTS AND BRUISING ON BOTH LEGS (PRIMARILY THE LEFT), THE LEFT ARM, AND THE LEFT CHIN. THERE WERE NO INJURIES VISIBLE ON THE DETAINEE E___HANDS, UPPER ARMS, TORSO, UPPER LEGS, OR BUTTOCKS. HIS CLOTHING WAS NOT RIPPED OR DAMAGED, BUT DID DISPLAY BLOOD STAINS.

Schell reports that nothing was done with these reports, and that executed victims were found with electric-drill holes in their bodies. Bush and Cheney admit to approving waterboarding, which in their minds is not torture. Let’s see what exactly waterboarding is:

In his book, Decision Points, President Bush claims that the interrogation techniques applied helped save lives. The Daily Mail reports that Bush is likely referring to a February 2003 incident when Blair sent tanks to Heathrow after intelligence revealed a potential attack on airplanes, and 2004 claims of an aerial attack on three towers at Canary Wharf.

Unfortunately the British are not standing behind these claims. From the Daily Mail:

Kim Howells, who was chairman of the Commons intelligence and security committee, said: ‘I doubt torture actually produced information which was instrumental in preventing those plots coming to fruition. I’m not convinced of that.’

Former Attorney General Lord Goldsmith said: ‘I know President Bush has made these claims. I don’t know what evidence there is for it. I didn’t hear that at the time.’

He said of waterboarding: ‘I think it is torture. It is mental and physical suffering. It’s not simulated drowning. If it carries on it will actually cause drowning.’

Lord MacDonald, the former Director of Public Prosecutions, said: ‘These stories about waterboarding thwarting attacks on Canary Wharf and Heathrow – I’ve never seen anything to substantiate these claims. These claims are to be treated with a great deal of scepticism.’

Prime Minister David Cameron also publicly condemned the use of torture and denied Bush’s claims that it helped save lives. The Daily Telegraph’s Andrew Porter reports:

In an interview on Thursday. Mr Cameron said he disagreed with Mr Bush, though he did not deal directly with the belief that specific attacks had been headed off. “Look, I think torture is wrong and I think we ought to be very clear about that,” Mr Cameron said. “And I think we should also be clear that if actually you’re getting information from torture, it’s very likely to be unreliable information.”

When pressed on whether torture saves lives, he added: “I think there is both a moral reason for being opposed to torture – and Britain doesn’t sanction torture – but secondly I think there’s also an effectiveness thing … if you look at the effect of Guantánamo Bay and other things like that, long-term that has actually helped to radicalise people and make our country and our world less safe. So I don’t agree.”

There are potential consequences coming at Bush and Cheney. The United States is legally obligated to investigate any credible allegations by The Convention Against Torture, a treaty the U.S. helped draft. On November 9th, however, the Justice Department announced that no criminal charges would be brought against the CIA agents who destroyed evidence of torture. Bush and Cheney may be safe in The United Sates, but when it comes to torture, ‘international jurisdiction’ applies. The crime is considered so heinous that any country can investigate and prosecute them if the U.S. takes no action.

The Nation’s David Cole reports:

Chile’s former President Augusto Pinochet found this out the hard way. After flying to London for medical treatment, he was served with an arrest warrant issued by a Spanish magistrate investigating him for, among other things, authorizing torture. Pinochet argued that he was immune from such action as a former head of state, but Britain’s highest court rejected that plea, and Pinochet was placed under arrest. He was eventually sent back to Chile on medical grounds, but he spent the last years of his life there fighting criminal charges arising out of his acts as president

There are many players in the development of this story, and with every player a different take on the the legality of waterboarding and the effectiveness of interrogation techniques. For now the literary contradiction of a President at war in the name of freedom and the liberty of those oppressed in the Middle East enacting the medieval techniques of the Inquisition is enough to force a structure of accountability that is not retrospective, but rather immediate. A President should not be able to ‘do what it takes’ without any consideration for the implications of the actions taken.

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One Response to “On Torture and Accountability”

  1. jean-philippe Says:

    “Well, when the President does it that means that it is not illegal”

    Richard Nixon, 1977


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