Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Obama vs. The Cheneys: A Question of American Values

by Nomad

When President Obama admitted that the CIA had, in the years after 9/11, committed torture, Liz Cheney, daughter of the former vice-president blasted the president, calling him an "utter disgrace." The interrogators, she said, were "patriots" and "heroes."

She failed to understand that the torture debate wasn't a matter of patriotism. It was a question of American values and what America stands for.

The Unseen Trap
In itself it was a fairly obvious thing to say. Last Friday, President Obama admitted that the CIA had committed torture. But what was surprising was his use of the pronoun "we." 
After handing over a report to Congress about an investigation into “enhanced interrogation techniques," President Obama said the CIA had “tortured some folks” after the Sept. 11 attacks.
“We did a whole lot of things that were right, but we tortured some folks. We did some things that were contrary to our values.”
What gives? I wondered. Presumably he was referring to the CIA during the Bush administrationIf he were attempting to show solidarity with the CIA then it seemed a politically dangerous and needless thing to say. Indeed, many headlines from the so-called liberally-biased media simply read "We tortured folks, says Obama."
Now it is clear what he was doing: It was a bait for conservatives.

In short order, Liz Cheney, daughter of the former Vice President Dick Cheney, erupted with indignation about Obama's remarks. The venue was, predictably enough, Sean Hannity's show on Fox News.  
Hyperbole, like you never saw.
"..This president is an utter disgrace. He’s got a situation where... you’ve got crises erupting around the world."
A classic non-sequitur and a distraction. Obama wasn't there to talk about the problems of the world and she knew it.  Cheney, (Liz , that is) went on to say:
“And he is expending more time, more energy, more passion, more aggressive activity in targeting and going after patriots, heroes. CIA officers and others who kept is safe after 9/11."
Of course, Cheney's explosive rhetoric is aimed at dividing Americans, a lame attempt to stoke fears one more time. The Cheney apples do not fall far from the tree.
Additionally, there is a very real question about the accuracy of her allegation. Did torture actually keep anybody safe, either in the short or long term?

That's a statement that requires Cheney to prove and she is clearly not willing to attempt it. However, the unreleased U.S. Senate report, according to one source, is purported to conclude that the CIA’s use of harsh interrogation techniques following 9/11 attacks was ineffective and yielded no critical intelligence. 
That's bad news for the Cheney family.

Actually, President Obama never said that enhanced interrogation didn't save lives. He said only that these techniques were contrary to our values. Perhaps the moral question -which is what the president was referring to- is simply not something a daughter of Mr. Dick Cheney could possibly grasp.
Not in a million years.

And that is the trap that Obama set and the one into which Liz Cheney - clearly speaking in defense of her father's policies- unwittingly tumbled. It is a question of values, a question whether the ends justify the means. 
Just because we can find a rationale for doing it and a legal means to escape second-guessing, does it make it right? 

Finding the Means to Do Whatever You Want
Back when the subject was being debated behind closed White House doors, the legal obstacles to enhanced interrogation presented a quite a challenge. 
Even patriots and heroes in the CIA were skittish about the consequences of engaging in what most people would call torture.

In August 2002, The Department of Justice outlined its legal opinions on the definitions of what is and what is not torture for the Counsel to the President, Alberto R. Gonzales.

It was a familiar pattern of searching not for an informed opinion but a search for what the Bush administration wanted: namely a means to an end. That end was the legal right to inflict torture. 
In other words, they would looking for loopholes.

Thus, in true Big Brother fashion, the DOJ officials worked hard not to avoid wrongdoing but re-define the meaning of right and wrong, and especially the meaning of the word, "torture." Torture was really torture if the need was there. Torture wasn't torture when we did.. only when they did it. 

All in all, it is certainly a well-crafted document, to be sure. Teams of lawyers must have burned tankers full of midnight oil to produce it.
We conclude that for an act to constitute torture as defined in Section 2340, [Standards of Conduct for Interrogation under 18 US. C. §§ 2340-2340A] it must inflict pain that is difficult to endure. Physical pain amounting to torture must be equivalent in intensity to the pain accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death.
Physical torture is, of course, only one form of coercion.
For purely mental pain or suffering to amount to torture under Section 2340, it must result in significant psychological harm of significant duration, e.g., lasting for months or even years.
According to this statement, then, a single incident - or even a series of events lasting a few days- might not be considered psychological torture at all.
We conclude that the mental harm also must result from one of the predicate acts listed in the statute, namely: threats of imminent death; threats of infliction of the kind of pain that could amount to physical torture; infliction of such physical pain as a means of psychological torture; use of drugs or other procedures designed to deeply disrupt the senses, or fundamentally alter an individual’s personality; or threatening to do any of these things to a third party.
The legislative history simply reveals that Congress intended for the statute’s definition to track the Convention’s definition of torture and the reservations, understandings, and declarations that the United States submitted with its ratification. We conclude that the statute, taken as a whole, makes plain that it prohibits only extreme acts.
What exactly is the meaning of "extreme" and who is watching the watchers?

In any case, with this bit of legal finagling, the path was clear for the CIA to do pretty much what they wanted. 
And that was that. 
However, but in the real world, outside of the White House bubble, torture (or whatever you called it) was still torture. Someday there would come a time when the fears subsided (or no longer maintained) and people would begin to ask questions.

Outside the Cheney Shell
Liz Cheney might want the world to believe that Obama stands alone in his condemnation the Bush Administration's use of torture. But in fact, it is the Cheneys that stand alone.

The United Nations special rapporteur on torture, Juan Mendez stated that waterboarding- the most common form of enhanced interrogation- was torture and was both "immoral and illegal."   

A nonpartisan, independent review of interrogation and detention programs in the years after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks concluded that “it is indisputable that the United States engaged in the practice of torture” and that the nation’s highest officials bore ultimate responsibility for it.
(After reading this, Liz and Daddikins must surely have jumped whenever there was an unexpected knock at the Cheney door.)

These official statements alone would be fairly conclusive. However, American and European officials  (including former CIA Director Leon Panetta, former CIA officers, a Guantanamo prosecutor, and a military tribunal judge), have all called "enhanced interrogation" a euphemism for torture.

Therefore the people who conducted them were torturers. These were not patriots. These were not heroes. 
And, despite the nonsense the Liz Cheney dished out, these people engaged in extreme acts with the blessings of top officials of the Bush administration and most particularly with the blessing of Vice President Dick Cheney.  
Defining Extreme in Vietnam
Interestingly, a 2004 story for the Department of Defense gives us an insight into the meaning of torture not when it is conducted but when it is inflicted on our own soldiers. 
The article describes what the Vietnam prisoners of war endured and it gives us a very different picture about the reality of torture. 
Kathleen T. Rhem of the American Forces Press Service wrote about the treatment of  Marine Capt.Orson Swindle. After being shot down over enemy territory, Swindle was captured and held as a POW in 1966.
Immediately after his capture, Swindle was beaten with sticks by villagers. That, however, was not even the beginning.  
Torture began in earnest the following day, when he was brought before three interrogators and about a dozen soldiers. He initially tried to stick to the textbook answers: name, rank, serial number, date of birth. But then the real pain was applied.
The torture included the application of tourniquets to his arms to act as vise. Both arms were tied together above the elbows and cinched tighter and tighter. When this proved ineffective the interrogation techniques became more enhanced.
And that was only the beginning. Next they tied his arms behind his back with three men applying pressure on each side. "(They) pulled against each other until my arms, they folded them up my back and my hands went back to my neck," he said.

Next the torturers wrapped cord around his body so it looked like he had no arms. They tied parachute cord around his thumbs, which were at the back of his head, and hoisted his body off the ground by throwing the cord over the rafters. Swindle said the technique pulled his shoulders out of socket.
"And it's about that point where you think you're insane, 'cause this is hurting quite badly, and there's not a soul in the world that can help me," he said.
The horrors of torture are hard even to listen to or read.
However, the question is would any of this treatment be classified as torture according to the Bush administration.
It's difficult to say.
Would you accept this as an extreme act of interrogation? Did Swindle endure "serious" physical injuries or was it merely extreme pain of the non-lethal variety? 
Would the CIA have found this treatment acceptable if they had found sufficient justification for its use? Say, an imminent attack?
Swindle said the experience with the ropes from his second day in captivity was repeated four or five times before he was moved to the infamous Hanoi Hilton prison camp in late December of that year.
This statement could bypass the claim of psychological harm since the torture didn't seem to have lasted long enough (by the DOJ memo, at least.)

From the point of view of the CIA, the bottom line was the end result. In Swindle's tale, the North Vietnamese achieved the desired effect.
"You give in," he said. "So don't think you don't give in. But it's how you do it and what you give them.
Therefore, in the eyes of the CIA heroes and patriots, what POWs like Swindle and so many other servicemen had to endure would have definitely been considered "mission accomplished."

McCain's Logic
In 2009, again on Hannity's show, we were once again honored with an appearance of Senator John McCain. He said about secret memos regarding the use of torture in the Bush era:
I believe torture is unacceptable and a violation of the Geneva Conventions. I believe however that these memos were not necessary to be released. We cannot criminalize people for giving bad legal advice which is what some in the Congress want to do and it's time to move on.
It is a clumsy dodge, since the people who gave that bad legal device were effectively doing so at the request of the Bush administration. All other advice was ignored.  (The handling of the intelligence that provided a pretext for the Iraqi invasion was a similar situation.)

Moving on, as McCain recommends, is simply a way to ignore the mistakes and to allow them to be repeated in the future. Using McCain's logic there was no need for the Nuremberg trials following World War II nor South Africa's The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC).
We just all say "whoops! My bad" and return to the business at hand.

Besides that, McCain's statement was also extremely dishonest. Why? you might ask.
Well, four years before that, in 2005, McCain- after rejecting the policy of enhanced interrogation- eventually relented with a face-saving deal
The Bush administration agreed to a plan that would “make it clear to the world that this government does not torture and that we adhere to the international convention of torture, whether it be here at home or abroad.”

However, the fanciful rhetoric was a cover. The agreement was not what it seemed.
CIA interrogators would be given the same legal rights as currently guaranteed members of the military who are accused of breaking interrogation guidelines. Those rules say the accused can defend themselves by arguing it was reasonable for them to believe they were obeying a legal order.
Obeying orders was the pat excuse in the Nuremberg trials and the judges rejected that argument in 1946. The Nuremberg principles established that 
"The fact that a person acted pursuant to order of his Government or of a superior does not relieve him from responsibility under international law, provided a moral choice was in fact possible to him".
In any case, as we have seen the legality of enhanced interrogation had already been overcome several years earlier. It was, however, perhaps a call to interrogators around the world to clean whatever documentation in their possession. 
The jig was up.

No wonder McCain preferred to move on in 2008. It was, as one reporter said, tantamount to giving the entire Bush administration a free pass.
*   *   *   *
But there is a danger to giving people a free pass. They may begin to believe they were in the right. No punishment means, to some, no wrong-doing. And that's exactly what has happened. 
In 2010,  Dick Cheney said,
"I was and remain a strong proponent of our enhanced interrogation program."
Cheney is not moving on. In fact, he is rather proud of being called America's number one torturer. According to his daughter, it's a sign of his patriotism.

The Shoe on the Other Foot
McCain, whose opposition and then support of the Bush Administration's policies on enhanced interrogation, speaks from a unique position. 
He like Swindle was also one of those who endured this kind of treatment at the hands of the North Vietnamese.

In 2008, McCain wrote about his experiences in detail. After attempting to persuade him to cooperate by friendlier means, the commander of the camp, according to McCain's account, approved of more extreme acts. After July 1968, McCain learned first-hand how the Vietnamese defined "torture."
For almost two months, nothing happened. Then the punishment sessions began. I was hauled into an empty room and kept there for four days. At intervals, the guards returned to administer beatings...
One guard held me while the others pounded away.
...They cracked several of my ribs and broke a couple of teeth. On the third night I lay in my blood and waste, so tired and hurt that I could not move. Three guards lifted me to my feet and gave me the worst beating yet. They left me lying on the floor moaning from the stabbing pain in my re-fractured arm..
Those were the worst two weeks of my life.
In that piece he describes the psychological harm and the abject despair these beatings created. It drove him to consider seriously the idea of suicide. 
However, the condition he faced in Vietnam  would not have necessarily been prohibited in interrogation centers run by the CIA under Bush.
The Vietnamese never seemed to mind hurting us, but they usually took care not to put our lives in danger.
Most of us would consider without much hesitation- what McCain describes in this narrative as torture. And yet according to the  Department of Justice under Bush, there is plenty of room to debate that.
For example, two weeks is not "significant duration" and the injuries inflicted, cracked ribs, broken teeth and broken arm- could be claimed individually as non-threatening. Even McCain states that the enemy "took care not to put lives in danger."

But then he contradicts that statement. Using the "T" word, McCain added that:
We strongly believed that some PoWs were tortured to death and most were seriously mistreated.
So at one time, when McCain was on the receiving end of enhanced interrogation, he wasn't afraid to call a spade a spade. As a politician, and when it came to the CIA, of course, McCain seemed a less sure. More willing to give the interrogators the benefit of the doubt.

We cannot ask the  interrogators of the North Vietnam about whether they felt what they did was justified or not. Perhaps. like, they considered themselves nation-saving patriots and heroes of their country. 
I doubt that the extremely defensive daughter of Dick Cheney would agree.

US veterans and especially former prisoners of war should be furious with Liz Cheney's remarks and the idea that- for whatever reason and no matter how just the cause- torturers were "patriots and heroes." It is an extremely vulgar and offensive thing to say to any person who has had to endure this treatment. Cheney's remarks should be loudly and clearly rejected by every parent, wife or husband, daughter and son who has had a loved one tortured by authorities. Torture is torture. 
If you are amoral, it's not hard to find a justification for it. Any threat- real or imaginary- will suffice. Nonetheless, that doesn't make it right.

For a moral majority of Americans, there can never be a justification for torture. If it is right for the CIA to conduct torture on "evil-doers"- as President Bush used to call nearly everybody who opposed the US- then who gets to decides who is a doer of evil. Aren't torturers also evil-doers
Doing-evil to combat evil-doers is the kind of paradox that can destroy a nation. 

It goes far beyond liberal or conservative politics. It is, after all, a question of our values as a nation. 
That's something that Liz and Pops will never understand.