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Washing the Hands: Obama and the Torture Memos
by Dr. Binoy Kampmark
2009-04-20 09:19:16
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A few documents on the infamous interrogative techniques accepted by the Bush Administration were released last week, much to the consternation of old hands within the Central Intelligence Agency.  But the Obama Administration, as is rapidly becoming the case, opted for a conciliatory, cleansing approach.  The editors at the Washington Post (April 17) made it clear that the right balance had been struck in forgiving government agents purportedly responsible for committing crimes under orders, and indicating that such acts must never again be condoned by the United States.  The Department of Justice has effectively ruled out any prosecution suits against operatives for various interrogative techniques used during the previous Administration. 

Is this road, freed of criminal procedure and penal sting, the right one?  Archbishop Desmond Tutu, when dealing with the wounds of South African apartheid, felt that commissions and confessionals seeking the truth were in order.  South American governments have all too frequently sought amnesty for tortures and crimes committed by military officers and leaders in the name of broader healing.  Such self-imposed immunity comes with its problems, and don’t, in themselves, preclude legal actions.

The four released memorandums, as part of a request by the American Civil Liberties Union, detail various techniques which formed part of a hideous package of Orwellian doublespeak.  These guidelines were not ever described as torture – simply as part of an all-inclusive acronym: EIT or Enhanced Interrogation Techniques.

These included simulated drowning (the infamous waterboarding), used on one of the planners of the September 11 attacks, Khalid Sheik Mohammed; sustained sleep deprivation techniques, in some cases up to 11 days; and various other methods (the rather bizarre use of insects was suggested in one case) demonstrating yet again the astonishingly limited imagination of the world’s most powerful intelligence agency.  The use of “walling” where detainees would be slammed into “false” walls to cause shock was also part of the acceptable cocktail of methods.  

It should come as little surprise that the redundant defense of following orders again appears in the miscellany of excuses.  The very fact that such operatives acted under orders has, ever since the Nuremberg Trials, no exculpatory value.  In the words of Article 8 of the Charter establishing the tribunal, “The fact that the Defendant acted pursuant to order of his Government or of a superior shall not free him from responsibility, but may be considered in mitigation of punishment if the Tribunal determines that justice so requires.” 

Some members of the public in the US will express indignation that lowly employees, and not higher-ups, should even foot the blame.  Scapegoating is the automatic assumption, a society’s hunt for the purifying sacrifice.  But the pressure to bring some sort of proceeding remains.  As Manfred Nowak, UN special rapporteur, pointed out in the Austrian paper Der Standard, “The United States, like other states that are part of the UN convention against torture, is committed to conducting criminal investigations of torture and to bringing all persons against whom there is sound evidence to court.” 

CIA agents have been told to cut back on risqué techniques.  Orthodoxy has returned.  This has alarmed some accustomed to seeing intelligence officers work outside acceptable rules of law, those formerly celebrated “enhancers” of “interrogation techniques”. “If you want an intelligence service to work… they always work on the edge.  That’s just where they work,” explained Michael Hayden, head of the CIA under President George W. Bush.  Naturally, the value of such evidence, obtained on the darker side of the law, is virtually impossible to ascertain, cloaked as it is with such crude justifications as “state security.”  Hayden will be happy to go to the grave confident that he, and his organization, saved a few lives in the process of ruining others.

Officers in the era of Obama are now mandated to follow the formulae outlined in the US Army Field Manual.  Hayden’s adventurers can rest easy, though this may change.  As Mark Benjamin points out in Salon.com, the lack of a commission into this whole affair gives the notion that such techniques as waterboarding may still have a shroud of legitimacy, however bare.  Hayden is certainly not alone in that regard. 

Investigations, both as to the supposed efficacy of the techniques (damned as they are), and the very wrongfulness of the conduct, should still take place, a prelude, perhaps, to court proceedings.  Investigations have already begun in other countries.  The Spanish national security court, manned by such (ironically) counter-terrorist luminaries such as Judge Baltasar Garzón, is particularly interested in Bush’s legal officers.  But any court proceeding in the US would seem rather threadbare without the architects of the whole scheme, those less than venerable characters from the Bush Administration with their famed aversion to legality.

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, University of Cambridge.  Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

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Emanuel Paparella2009-04-20 09:55:50
Indeed, archbishop Tutu has it on target: without repentance and confession of wrongdoing one can only expect that those who think of themselves beyond the law will eventually return to their good old ways under the cloak of national security which justifies a multitude of sins. As Dostoyevsky proved brilliantly in his Crime and Punishment, Christianity is not only a theology but a psychology too and modern man in search of soul invariably ends up in nihilism when it deludes himself that he has gone beyond it.

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