Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Torture in the Cathedral: How Petty Politics Subverted Our Best National Character

NOTE: This is an analysis of the just-released report of the Senate Armed Services Committee's report on detainee abuse. I have limited my coverage to a section of the Executive Summary, although there's much much more to go through. As limited as it is, the story of how an unprepared bureaucracy was used to justify torture is worth telling. The Committee's report can be found linked in two parts at the bottom of this page. All citations are from part I of that document unless otherwise noted. Any spelling or grammatical errors are likely mine in transcribing it from its original pdf format.

Late in the evening of April 21, 2009, the Senate Armed Services Committee released its report on detainee abuse. This report focused on the chain of events that led from Donald Rumsfeld’s authorization of torture (i.e. harsh or otherwise euphemized interrogation tactics) to the spread of such tactics throughout the theaters in the Bush War on Terror, including Abu Ghraib prison.

The report’s executive summary and conclusion sections by themselves are a cold foray into the banality of evil. From its evidence a careful reader can glean traces of the internecine bureaucratic battles between Donald Rumsfeld and his allies and the established forces that – in this case at least – tried to preserve the rule of law against the buildup of an autocratic feifdom. From nearly the beginning of the War on Terror, Secretary Rumsfeld sought for the military unprecedented and clearly illegal leeway to use torture on detainees. The Senate Armed Service’s Committee’s report documents, in rather bland and acronym-heavy language, how the administration carried out this task, propping up a flimsy legal framework when it could and simply ignoring other legal hazards when it had to.

The story begins three months after the September 11, 2001 attacks, with a relatively small arm of the Department of Defense called the Joint Personnel Recovery Agency, which is charged with “training American personnel to resist techniques considered illegal under the Geneva Conventions.” Its most famous activity is the SERE school, which stands for Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape. Soldiers going through SERE school are subjected to the kinds of rough treatment they might expect to endure if they had been captured in 1950s Korea – brutal uses of force intended to break them down and elicit false confessions to be used for propaganda purposes.

For some reason, JPRA was the group that Rumsfeld turned to when the US captured several high-value detainees, among them Khalid Sheikh Mohammad and abu Zubaydah. According to a
McClatchy article, the adminstration’s goals were twofold – to find out what other al-Qaida plots were in the pipeline and to uncover the fabled Iraq-al-Qaida connections that could be used to justify the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. The continual lack of good information – especially of the latter type – spurred the use of harsher techniques.

A month after Rumsfeld solicited JPRA’s assistance with developing torture techniques, President Bush signed a memorandum stating that the US was not going to abide by the Geneva Conventions in the case of al-Qaida and Taleban operatives (p. xiii). Rumsfeld was set to shove his interrogation tactics through that open door and set up whatever justification was necessary to make it look acceptable.

In the process of appropriating JPRA and the SERE school techniques away from their original mission to one of interrogation, a number of red flags went up throughout the military establishment. First of all (p. xvii) “SERE techniques were ‘developed to better prepare US military personnel to resist interrogations and not as a means of obtaining reliable information.’” Furthermore, the Committee concluded that JPRA had never conducted any investigation into which, if any, techniques garnered reliable information.

Not that that seemed to matter. In the months that followed, JPRA, in conjunction with other elements of the military and the CIA, drafted plans to use SERE school techniques, including waterboarding, on the high-value detainees. Meanwhile, at the Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Counsel, Jay Bybee was assiduously redefining torture to accommodate whatever new techniques would be tried out on America’s captives (p. xv).

With the groundwork now set for the application of torture, the first place the Defense Department would try them would be at Guantanamo Bay, where a makeshift prison camp for enemy combatants had been set up. On October 11, 2002, Major General Michael Dunlavey, in charge of the Gitmo detainees, formally requested use of the SERE school techniques. His backing legal analysis came from Lt. Col. Diane Beaver, who fully expected a more comprehensive rationale to be executed by a higher authority. General Dunlavey’s request worked its way up to the General Richard Myers, head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who solicited opinions from throughout the military (p. xvii).

The reaction was swift and certain: Objections to Lt. Col. Beaver’s analysis, as well as to the techniques themselves, came from the Air Force, the Navy, the Marine Corps, DOD’s Criminal Investigative Task Force and the Chief of the Army’s Internal and Operational Law Division. General Myers’ chief legal counsel, then-Captain (now Rear Admiral) Jane Dalton, initiated a thorough legal review of the proposed procedures in light of the avalanche of troubled responses from the military establishment. According to her testimony, she made DOD Chief Legal Counsel Jim Haynes aware of her actions (p. xviii).

Shortly afterwards, however, General Myers put a stop to Dalton’s review, apparently at Haynes’ request. The Committee’s evidence points to Secretary Rumsfeld growing impatient with the review and pressing for a recommendation before the investigation was stopped. However, only Captain Dalton seems to remember Myers and Haynes calling a halt to her analysis. The general and the lawyer expressed no recollection of the events, although they didn’t object to Dalton’s testimony.

Haynes then issued a one-page memo allowing the SERE school techniques on the Gitmo detainees. When asked by the Senate Committee what his legal basis was for his conclusions, he cited only Lt. Col. Beaver’s legal analysis, which legal authorities throughout the military had called “woefully inadequate” and which she herself had expected would be supplemented by more thorough studies.

Thus did Donald Rumsfeld and the advocates of torture roll over decades of civilized advance in the conduct of war, in the process severely tarnishing America’s image abroad, not to mention turning back the clock on the history of humanistic principles. You might imagine such a momentous decision made only after thorough deliberations by the most erudite minds of the nation in a time of great peril. And while the peril existed, it’s shameful to see that threat held up not as a pretext for fighting a great and principled battle, but as an excuse to trash the values we hold dear.

Determination and fortitude will be necessary to uncover and undo the damage that Rumsfeld and other petty bureaucrats have wrought over the previous eight years. And after that, ideally, prosecutions and convictions will convince anyone longing to follow in their footsteps that this country won’t stand for it.

No comments: