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I was previously a constitutional law and civil rights litigator and am now a journalist. I am the author of three New York Times bestselling books -- "How Would a Patriot Act" (a critique of Bush executive power theories), "Tragic Legacy" (documenting the Bush legacy), and With Liberty and Justice for Some (critiquing America's two-tiered justice system and the collapse of the rule of law for its political and financial elites). My fifth book - No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA and the US Surveillance State - will be released on April 29, 2014 by Holt/Metropolitan.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

American values under the Bush administration

Bill Dedman has a new investigative report on MSNBC regarding the Guantanamo "interrogation" of Mohammed al-Qahtani, the currently alleged "20th hijacker." This is what the U.S. Congress voted two weeks ago to legally authorize and sanction:

Mohammed al-Qahtani, detainee No. 063, was forced to wear a bra. He had a thong placed on his head. He was massaged by a female interrogator who straddled him like a lap dancer. He was told that his mother and sisters were whores. He was told that other detainees knew he was gay. He was forced to dance with a male interrogator. He was strip-searched in front of women. He was led on a leash and forced to perform dog tricks. He was doused with water. He was prevented from praying. He was forced to watch as an interrogator squatted over his Koran.

These are not al-Qahtani's allegations and they are not in dispute. Rather, they are "among the findings of the U.S. Army’s investigation of al-Qahtani's aggressive interrogation at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba."

The way in which the Abu Grahib abuses were dismissed as the isolated, rogue acts of a few deranged low-level soldiers is one of the administration's worst deceits, which is saying a great deal. Most of these abusive techniques were expressly approved at the highest levels of the administration, after numerous intelligence officials and FBI agents vigorously complained about them:

In interviews with MSNBC.com — the first time they have spoken publicly — former senior law enforcement agents described their attempts to stop the abusive interrogations. The agents of the Pentagon's Criminal Investigation Task Force, working to build legal cases against suspected terrorists, said they objected to coercive tactics used by a separate team of intelligence interrogators soon after Guantanamo's prison camp opened in early 2002. They ultimately carried their battle up to the office of Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld, who approved the more aggressive techniques to be used on al-Qahtani and others.

It was widely recognized even back then that these tactics were illegal (as the Supreme Court in Hamdan would essentially and ultimately rule), but nobody -- not even those objecting to these tactics -- were bothered by that. In the Bush climate, even knowing illegality has never been viewed as anything more than a petty inconvenience to be managed away:

Although they believed the abusive techniques were probably illegal, the Pentagon cops said their objection was practical. They argued that abusive interrogations were not likely to produce truthful information, either for preventing more al-Qaida attacks or prosecuting terrorists.

The officer in charge of Guantanamo during these abuses was Gen. Geoffrey Miller, who was sent in 2004 to Iraq to import these interrogation techniques there. It was several weeks after his arrival in Iraq when the Abu Graib abuses were revealed. On his very first visit to Abu Grahib, Gen. Miller demanded that "interrogators adopt 'emerging strategic interrogation strategies and techniques' being used at Guantanamo."

Most revealing is the source the U.S. military used to develop these abusive techniques:

The al-Qahtani plan went much further. The law enforcement agents began to hear a new term, SERE, an acronym for Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape. SERE training is provided to U.S. Special Forces and other military personnel to prepare them to withstand torture if they become prisoners of war. It includes mocking of their religious beliefs, sexual taunting, and a technique called water-boarding, which induces water through the nose to make a prisoner feel like he's drowning.

Intelligence interrogators had the idea to "reverse-engineer" SERE, to use its techniques to pry information out of the suspected al-Qaida and Taliban terrorists. Pentagon e-mails seen by MSNBC.com show that at least a half dozen military intelligence personnel from Guantanamo, including at least one medical adviser, went to Fort Bragg, N.C., on Sept. 16-20, 2002, for SERE training. It was an experiment, apparently not unlike what the CIA had been trying on the few high-value detainees kept at secret locations.

In other words, by studying the torture methods used by America's enemies -- those uncivilized, evil regimes and groups we are always hearing about -- we learned how to torture people and then decided to copy their torture techniques. As always, the "rationale" of the Bush administration is that in order to defend our values and culture from the evil forces seeking to destroy us, we have to become as much like them as possible and copy their behavior.

It seems virtually certain that the entire top level of the Bush administration was fully aware of the techniques being used at Guantanamo. They took frequent trips to Gunatanamo and met with Gen. Miller. One particular trip that MSNBC learned about took place in October, 2002, when various key Bush administration lawyers -- including Alberto Gonzales, David Addington and John Yoo -- visited Guantanamo. That was the same group which, just a couple of months before that trip, had created the now infamous "torture memo" authored by Yoo in August, 2002, which sought to both re-define and justify the administration's use of torture.

I am not entirely unsympathetic to the defense that in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, military and intelligence officials would be tempted to use unusually aggressive, even extreme, interrogation methods on the person who was likely intended to be the 20th hijacker. That isn't a defense of those methods, but it makes its use more understandable.

But that isn't what happened here. These extreme and vile techniques became standard operating procedure for how we interrogate detainees. Far worse, five years after September 11, the U.S. Congress -- right out in the open -- voted expressly to authorize the use of most if not all of these techniques and empower the President to use them at will. Put another way, our country, after five years of distance from 9/11 and after much debate and deliberation, decided to enshrine this behavior as legally authorized and reflective of our new national values.

The article points out that the use of these techniques has likely precluded the prosecution of al-Qahtani, because any information acquired from him would be inadmissible due to the techniques used to interrogate him. But that seems to matter little. They can and will simply detain him indefinitely and never prosecute him.

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about the treatment to which U.S. citizen Jose Padilla was subjected by the Bush administration and, to do so, relied upon the allegations he made as part of his motion to dismiss the criminal indictment against him. It's usually wise to assign a healthy amount of doubt to claims that are nothing more than allegations in a judicial proceeding, but in the Padilla case (and in the case of other claims of mistreatment by detainees), it would be foolish not to believe the allegations.

The torture techniques Padilla described are the same techniques described by detainees around the world, and were the same techniques expressly authorized by the highest levels of the Bush administration. It would be shocking if detainees like Padilla -- whom the administration accused of being the Dirty Bomber -- were not subjected to those techniques. Torture has become a part of what our country is and does -- not in isolation or as part of abusive, rogue misconduct -- but as a consciously chosen value that we endorse. Setting aside semantic disputes over whether the right word for this is "torture," these "techniques" are ones we use systematically, deliberately, and now, with the full authorization of our laws.

When I wrote yesterday about the urgent need for aggressive, compuslory investigations, I did so with issues like these in mind. At the CAP event I did yesterday with Sidney Blumethal, he recounted that former Chief of Staff to Colin Powell, Larry Wilkinson, told Blumethal that the U.S. has roughly 35,000 detainees worldwide in its custody. What we have done to these detainees, who knew about it and authorized it, and the way in which we have operated almost entriely beyond the reach of the law are vitally important questions -- of historic significance -- that have barely been examined. In those rare instances when bits and pieces of this behavior have leaked out -- such as Abu Grahib -- government officials who face no real checks and scrutiny were able to dishonestly dismiss it all away as some bizarre and unauthorized aberration.

A serious accounting is due with regard to the conduct of our government -- not because such an accounting satisfies vindictive urges or is politically beneficial. It is because Americans have the right -- and the obligation -- to know what has been done by our Government and in the name of the United States, and to take action in response to it. Our Congress hasn't wanted to know what has been done -- to the contrary, it has been eager to help conceal it -- and the media, with some rare exceptions, have been unable and/or unwilling to uncover it. But these things can't remain hidden forever, and the sooner they are revealed and discussed openly, the better.

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