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Torture: Who Gives The Orders?


Last Updated: 06/06/2013 6:46 pm

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If it is not yet provable that the use of torture in Iraq is high-level policy, it is demonstrable that the use of torture follows the flag. In Latin America, the cattle-prods were wielded by native labor, but the victims often reported the presence of US personnel.

No administration will acknowledge torture as a policy. But torture thrives when those who make the policy are convinced that they possess a moral superiority that should not be constrained by regulation. Ronald Reagan waged battle with an entity he described as the "evil empire." Local struggles, civil wars, labor disputes, campaigns for inclusion in a political process - all were defined as part of a global contest between opposing global ideologies: democracy and freedom against totalitarianism. How it played out at the grassroots might not be pretty, but the cause was just.

The accounts we have of that period are largely from survivors, but there are a few from the perpetrators that give us an insight into how a group of men, bonded together by an ideology that tells them they are engaged in mortal struggle against evil, rapidly descend into a morass that permits any physical and sexual violation. Once the rules are discarded, anyone can become a victim.

Even before 9/11 the Bush administration demonstrated an unusual contempt for rules and constraints. After 9/11 the disregard became widespread. Within weeks of the attacks on the Twin Towers the use of torture was openly discussed in the establishment press. Conservative voices argued the hypothetical case of the ticking bomb and the terrorist subject. Surely torture, they said, was legitimate to pre-empt an atrocity? Liberal voices like the Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz argued that torture was probably inevitable and should therefore be acknowledged and regulated by the courts through a system of licenses to torture.

In the Senate hearings on May 7, Donald Rumsfeld described the abuses of Abu Ghraib as "fundamentally un-American," a claim echoed throughout the administration. This is historically questionable but even if it had been true in the past, there was a policy shift after 9/11 when the CIA general counsel issued a new set of rules governing interrogation. The new rules sanctioned methods that cause "temporary physical or mental pain." By any definition the door was officially opened to torture.

With the war on Afghanistan the gloves came off. On November 21, 2001, 8,000 Taliban soldiers and civilians surrendered at Konduz to the warlord (and US ally) General Abdul Rashid Dostum. They were loaded into containers, without food, water, or enough air, to be shipped to Sheberghan prison, 120 kilometers away. Then the containers were machine-gunned. Those who survived were later massacred in the presence of US special forces.

In the attempt to dismantle al-Qaeda and capture Osama bin Laden, the US set up a network of secret prisons, an international gulag into which prisoners vanish, all rights suspended, all information denied to families, all methods permitted.

The camp at Guantanamo Bay is the most notorious, a place occupied (in the words of George W. Bush), by the most evil of the evil, but there are many others. Exact numbers worldwide are unknown, in addition to the 700 in Guantanamo itself, there are an estimated 10,000 detainees in Iraq and 1,000 in Afghanistan. Of this host of prisoners, scarcely a handful has ever been charged with any crime, despite the treatment they have received.

The pattern of abuse is global. The New York Times reported on May 12 that the Afghan Human Rights Commission has noted forty-four complaints of abuse by US personnel against detainees in Afghanistan, at a range of bases from Bagram to Kandahar and Gardez. The methods inflicted include sexual humiliation, beating, sleep deprivation and being repeatedly photographed when naked while in US custody. The abuses have been documented for more than a year, yet the US embassy in Kabul claimed this week that it had been unaware of any complaints.

Detainees released from Guantanamo have their own harrowing stories of ill-treatment at the hands of US allies in Afghanistan and of US personnel there. Others are farmed out for torture by proxy regimes in Egypt, Uzbekistan, Syria and Jordan. Several of the deaths in custody in Iraq are attributed to individuals among the 20,000 "private contractors" sent there at US taxpayers' expense, operating in a legal black hole, immune from official reprimand or judicial sanction.

The pattern is too widespread, the official response to the disclosures too muted, to allow for any doubt that the sanction for torture comes from a high level of policy.

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