Torture

  • December 12, 2014
    Guest Post

    by Chris Edelson is an assistant professor of government in American University's School of Public Affairs. He is the author of Emergency Presidential Power: From the Drafting of the Constitution to the War on Terror, published in 2013 by the University of Wisconsin Press.

    In his piece, “Torture Is Who We Are,” Peter Beinart rightly exposes the Pollyanish mindset that would describe the United States as “intrinsically moral” with torture that has occurred since 9/11 “represent[ing] an aberration.” Beinart is of course right to point out that post-9/11 waterboarding is hardly the first time in U.S. history that Americans have been guilty of torture -- he cites slavery, waterboarding of Filipino prisoners during the Spanish-American War and electric shocks delivered to the genitals of prisoners during the Vietnam War as some grotesque examples. There are others. Civilian law enforcement authorities used waterboarding and sleep deprivation on domestic criminal suspects decades before 9/11. A U.S. soldier waterboarded a Vietnamese prisoner in 1968

    So Beinart is right in one sense -- torture is not something new in American history. It cannot be seen as an aberration from a previously morally upright, torture-free history. But there is one important difference that he misses, that makes his analysis more pessimistic than it need be.  Torture by Americans is not new. The idea that Americans can torture with impunity, however, is new. In each of the examples I listed, there were consequences for the torturers. A Texas sheriff and his deputies who waterboarded a criminal suspect were themselves convicted and sentenced to prison. The U.S. soldier who waterboarded a Vietnamese prisoner was court-martialed. When law enforcement authorities subjected a suspect to questioning for 36 hours without sleep, the Supreme Court threw out a conviction based on the coerced confession that had been extracted.  The same is true for one of Beinart’s examples.  A U.S. military officer who waterboarded Filipino prisoners was court-martialed, suspended from command for one month and fined $50.  Moreover, before 9/11, even when torture was not punished, no one proudly defended it or attempted to justify it -- instead, it was swept under the rug, as often happened during the Vietnam War. There is one essential exception to emphasize: slavery.  Slaveowners openly tortured slaves with impunity.  This is of course a central fact of American history, not truly an “exception”, except in the limited sense that it varies from the other examples I have given where torture before 9/11 was either punished or else covered up.  What has changed since 9/11 as compared with most of the examples noted is that there are now people willing, even proud, to defiantly defend torture

    Beinart is correct that “America has tortured throughout its history.” Before 9/11, however, there were usually consequences for torture: torturers faced prosecution and punishment in the criminal justice system. This is part of what it means to be true to the rule of law: when the law is violated, offenders are punished. No country can guarantee that all of its law enforcement officials, soldiers, or government officials, will refrain from torture. But countries that uphold the rule of law can guarantee that torturers will be prosecuted. 

  • December 10, 2014
    Guest Post

    by Chris Edelson, an assistant professor of government in American University's School of Public Affairs. He is the author of Emergency Presidential Power: From the Drafting of the Constitution to the War on Terror, published in 2013 by the University of Wisconsin Press.

    Following release of the redacted Senate Intelligence Committee's majority report on torture, critics are insisting that the report overlooks the value of waterboarding, sleep deprivation and other interrogation methods better suited to the Spanish Inquisition than a constitutional republic. Those who defend torture tend to emphasize its supposed efficacy in extracting intelligence that prevents terrorist attacks.  In fact, those who insist torture saves lives have never identified evidence that proves their case.

    More importantly, however, arguing about the efficacy of torture point obscures two essential points: (1) torture, by definition, is illegal and (2) the argument in defense of torture is a rejection of the rule of law.

    Defenders of the Bush administration’s tactics have helped make these points clear. For example, on yesterday's “Morning Joe,” former Bush communications chief Nicolle Wallace declared that she “pray[s] to god that until the end of time, we do whatever we have to do to find out what’s happening [in terms of planned terrorist attacks].” She suggested that we must trust the government to do whatever it believes is necessary to protect the nation -- in her words, “I don’t care what [the government] did” after 9/11 to prevent another terrorist attack -- as long as it works.                                         

    Wallace is an effective and powerful speaker, and I thought her bombastic approach caught her sparring partner, Howard Dean, off guard and made for good TV. But it's worth taking more time than cable TV allows in considering the implications of what she said.

    Wallace's argument is a case for handing over power to the executive branch, assigning it complete power to defend the nation, unrestrained by law. That is, of course, not what the framers of the U.S. Constitution had in mind when they created a system of checks and balances designed to give government enough power to carry out is responsibilities but also to set definable limits on that power. It is, however, precisely how government officials who authorized torture justified their actions. In once-secret memos written on August 1, 2002, former Justice Department lawyers John Yoo and Jay Bybee concluded that waterboarding, sleep deprivation and other methods CIA interrogators wanted to use on suspected al Qaeda leader Abu Zubaydah could not be defined as torture. Their view depended on the preposterous notion that severe physical pain necessary to constitute torture under U.S. criminal law could be defined by reference to health care statutes. But it is the backup argument that Yoo and Bybee relied on that is most chilling: they concluded that President George W. Bush could authorize any interrogation methods he deemed necessary, even if such methods violated U.S. criminal law. The president, they said, could not be constrained by Congress in this area.  

    That is the language of an executive branch above the law, the same language Wallace uses when she says that she doesn't care what the government did to prevent terrorist attacks after 9/11, that it must do whatever is necessary. Bush administration lawyers agreed, concluding that the executive branch is not constrained by law.

  • August 8, 2014
    Guest Post

    by Raha Wala, Senior Counsel, Defense & Intelligence, Human Rights First

    Last week President Obama admitted what most people have long known—that, in the president’s words, “we tortured some folks” after 9/11 in a bid to thwart future terrorist plots.  The president was referring to a soon-to-be released report by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI) that documents the CIA’s use of torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment at secret “black sites” around the world in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. But the CIA has resisted and even undermined oversight on this critical issue from the beginning. And now current and former CIA leaders appear poised to mount a “counterattack” to undermine the report’s key findings and defend the so-called “enhanced interrogation” program. President Obama can’t let that happen.  He should direct members of his administration, including CIA Director Brennan, to get in line with the anti-torture policy he laid out when he—as one of his first official acts as president—signed an Executive Order shuttering the CIA black sites and banning torture and other forms of cruel treatment. 

    The SSCI report is the result of a five-year inquiry into the CIA rendition, detention and interrogation program; it began when the committee discovered that the CIA had disregarded warnings from the White House and destroyed videotapes of waterboarding and other brutal torture sessions. The report—a voluminous account, at 6,700 pages—is based on a review of more than 6 million pages of official documents, and is said to conclude that interrogations in the CIA program were much more widespread and brutal than previously known, and much less effective at gathering intelligence to stop terrorist plots than proponents of so-called “enhanced interrogation” claim. The report will show, for example, how the interrogation program played no meaningful role in gathering intelligence to help discover Osama Bin Laden’s whereabouts. It is also said to document how the CIA systematically misled Congress, the Department of Justice, and the White House about the effectiveness of the program. Senator Dianne Feinstein, Chair of the SSCI, has called the investigation into the CIA’s use of torture one of the most significant in the history of the United States Senate, and the most important oversight activity ever conducted by the SSCI. The executive summary, findings and conclusions of the SSCI report—about 600 pages of material—are set to be released in the coming weeks.

  • April 16, 2013

    by Jeremy Leaming

    President Obama promised but failed to shutter the Guantánamo Bay military prison and has refused to launch an investigation into the use of torture at the prison and other unknown or “black sites.” But groups like Human Rights Watch and many others, including inmates at the prison, strive to highlight the injustices and atrocities of the prison, rendition and military commissions.

    It’s not an easy endeavor in a nation where polls suggest that many people are not terribly concerned about the rights of people who the American government has labeled terrorist suspects. In a piece for The New York Times op-ed page that garnered notice, Samir Najl al Hasan Moqbel, a prisoner at Guantánamo for more than 10 years, explained his reasons for going on a hunger strike. He’s never been charged with a crime, he has been left to languish in a dark hole, where prison officials brutally force-feed him. “The situation is desperate now,” he writes. “All of the detainees are suffering deeply. At least 40 people are on a hunger strike. People are fainting with exhaustion every day. I have vomited blood.”

    It has been widely documented that military detainees have been tortured at Guantánamo and other unknown or “black” sites overseas, with the knowledge of top administration officials in the administration of George W. Bush. In 2011, Human Rights Watch issued a report documenting evidence that top Bush administration officials, including the president, approved of torture. (Office of Legal Counsel memoranda were eventually made public reveling the lengths attorneys took to justify torture.) The Constitution Project, as reported by The New York Times’ Scott Shane, has released an exhaustive report, more like a book, that adds “considerable detail” to the treatment of military detainees. See the group’s Task Force on Detainee Treatment.

    Another report from Seton Hall School of Law provides more evidence that the Guantánamo military tribunals are a sham.

    In “Spying on Attorneys at Gitmo,” the Seton Hall School of Law’s Center for Policy & Research, details a system of “surveillance and recording” devices in “designated attorney-client meeting rooms at the military prison.”

    Law Professor Mark Denbeaux, director of the law school’s policy and research center, said government surveillance of conversations between attorneys and military detainees greatly undermines the already wobbly legitimacy of the military commissions.

  • February 21, 2013

    by Jeremy Leaming

    Thanks to scholars like Michelle Alexander, Americans and policymakers are increasingly questioning the effectiveness the nation’s system of mass incarceration and taking note of its great harm to certain populations of Americans.

    In this ACS Book Talk, Alexander, a former ACLU attorney and now a law professor at Ohio State University, explains how mass incarceration has disproportionately targeted African Americans. She wrote that more “African Americans are under correctional control today – in prison or jail, on probation or parole – than were enslaved in 1850, a decade before the Civil War began.”

    The widespread use of solitary confinement in our nation’s prisons is also coming under greater – and long overdue – scrutiny, as noted in this ACSblog post, which highlighted a 2011 statement from the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture that blasted solitary confinement as “a harsh measure which is contrary to rehabilitation” that “can amount to torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.”

    The conservative columnist George F. Will is also weighing in on the matter, noting in a Feb. 20 piece for The Washington Post that “tens of thousands of American prison inmates are kept in protracted solitary confinement that arguably constitutes torture and probably violates the Eighth Amendment prohibition of ‘cruel and unusual punishment.’”

    Will cites federal law on torture barring “conduct ‘specifically intended to inflict severe physical or mental pain or suffering.’” He notes what others have long known, that “severe mental suffering from prolonged solitary confinement puts the confined at risk of brain impairment.”

    Although solitary confinement was once considered a humane tool for rehabilitation, it is now widely considered debilitating, creating inmates who are unfit for social interaction.

    “Americans should be roused against this by decency – and prudence,” Will writes.