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The same old story: torture and accountability

By Binoy Kampmark - posted Friday, 1 May 2009

The Obama administration finds itself on slippery ground. Having initially demonstrated a strong reluctance to drag its predecessors before commissions and courts for acts of torture and abuse, it finds itself somewhat dazed by recent events. Like the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, who condemned the crimes of his predecessor Josef Stalin, a catharsis may well have been unleashed. Some, including its initiators, will not be necessarily pleased.

The release of four memorandums, the release of which was pressed by the American Civil Liberties Union, was just the start. What it did was shatter any illusion that the accounts of detainees, be they at Bagram airbase or Guantánamo, had exaggerated their maltreatment. We found that the “9-11 mastermind” Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded 183 times in the course of a month. Abu Zubaydah clocked a lesser 83. Extensive bouts of sleep deprivation were common fare. The suggested use of supposedly “dangerous” animals to exploit allergies and weaknesses was another.

On top of these memorandums was the release of a Congressional inquiry showing how the Bush administration’s resort to such abusive tactics gathered pace in the months before the invasion of Iraq. Links between al-Qaida and Saddam Hussein had to be found, and the CIA and its colleagues were expending much time forging them. A system was, effectively, being devised, one that would come into use from Guantánamo Bay in Cuba to Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.


As these words are being written, almost daily announcements are been made about the release of photos of abuse that took place at American bases in its war on terror. The ACLU has been particularly aggressive on this score, seeking to uncover such pornographic violence. Hundreds of photos, some with the tag “unmentionable” are alleged to be in the pipeline. Such evidence will further demonstrate that a policy was in place, and that such acts were not merely the handiwork of overly enthusiastic operators.

Nothing that has come out in the last few weeks is new. Torture assumed a tedious normality during the Bush administration; a normalised, even ritualised system of obtaining information. The weighty, and ghastly compilation by Joshua L. Dratel and Karen J. Greenberg (The Torture Papers) put pay to notions that international law and the Bush administration might be warm, let alone accommodating bedfellows.

No doubt lawyers from former White House Counsel Alberto R. Gonzales to current Berkeley academic John Yoo will argue that they were merely stating the law with unflinching, black letter clarity.

A very marginalised Colin L. Powell, then Secretary of State, notably demurred. To ignore the Geneva Conventions, he warned the White House on January 26, 2002, imperiled the American forces and the cause it was pursuing, reversing “over a century of US policy and practice in supporting the Geneva Conventions”. Public support from America’s allies would also erode.

The warnings were repeated in a memorandum (February 2, 2002) from William H. Taft IV, the State Department’s legal advisor, to Gonzales. “A decision that the conventions do not apply to the conflict in Afghanistan in which our armed forces are engaged deprives our troops of any claim to the protection of the conventions in the event they are captured.”

Individuals like a snarling Dick Cheney think the issue of using such techniques was obvious, following that ancient dictum that laws somehow fall silent in times of war: the US did it to keep its citizens safe, and, more to the personal point, his family.


The evidence on that score is almost as abundant as Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction in 2003. One is left proving the elusive negative, an absence. For his part, Cheney has challenged the Obama administration to release even more documents, showing the effectiveness of the interrogations he endorsed. “I formally ask that [the memos] be declassified. I know specifically of reports that lay out what we learned through the interrogation process and what the consequences were for the country.”

Finding heads to hunt is now the crucial issue. The legal staffers who once roamed the halls of the Justice Department with security and comfort now face possible action for various documents giving the green light for “enhanced” interrogation techniques. European lawyers, notably those in Spain, already have the likes of Yoo in their legal sights.

The CIA staffers who were the dark administrators of such treatment should not escape some form of censure or punishment.

Some will argue that they will the scapegoats of the venture, though they need not be. Ever since the Nuremberg trials, it has been clear that the order of superiors is no exoneration for a crime, merely providing a form of mitigation.

In the final analysis, we have, of course, those who approved the entire program, from George W. Bush to Condoleezza Rice. The precursor to all of this should be, at the very least, a thorough commission, preferably bi-partisan. That might, at least, be a start to formal legal proceedings. That will be provide the true catharsis.

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About the Author

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He currently lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne and blogs at Oz Moses.

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