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Why does America torture?

By Alan Gilbert.

On December 21, the New York Times called editorially for the prosecution of torturers, based on the Senate Intelligence Committee’s 600 page Executive Summary on torture. The Times says rightly that the US government will only be considered a defender of human rights if it acts against these powerful torturers under the law. And beyond the Senate report, it names Cheney and his minions as those who need to be prosecuted, though interestingly not President George W. Bush who is plainly guilty of ordering torture.

For the Times, in its effort to restore the law, criminal Presidents must apparently, no matter what their crimes, go scot-free. But if the President need pay no attention, so much for the rule of law.The Times and others need to shed their surviving obsequiousness to torture and murder. As intelligence professionals like Ray McGovern have long insisted, torture never gets useful information. Why then is it done?

In an article from Veterans Today, a journal of the “Clandestine Community,” Jim W. Dean underlines the likely planting of false information which leads to repulsive foreign policy decisions – the second Iraq aggression, the disgrace of black sites, the corrupting of the European community (the carefully blacking out of names of allies in the Senate Report by the solicitous CIA\Obama administration), and most importantly, the trashing of the law against torture as the centerpiece of international law and of American law. It is this last point on which the Times‘ editorial finally touches.

Habeas corpus – the right of each prisoner to a day in court and not to be tortured – is, as Philip Soper argues, the central feature of a system of law as opposed to despotism. It is what had distinguished (somewhat, if one does not disregard genocide against indigenous people, the ordinary practice of slavery, Jim Crow and the like, which mark American history) the US or English system of law from, say, the Chinese.

The Chinese Communists were modern revolutionaries, but their view and practice of law were from the Emperors. To be just now in Dharamsala, to hear from Ama Adhe about her torture where she ended up eating the leather off boots, and was one of three women, out of 400, who survived 3 years in a Chinese prison in the late 1950s (she went on to be brutalized for another 27 years; she has no hearing in her right ear so Yeshi, the translator had to sit to her left for the questions; she has the Dalai Lama’s spirit of compassion, wanting a happy life for the Chinese so long as Tibet is independent, and is a kind of angel) is to understand how barbaric the Chinese rulers were and are.

The Chinese have but to point to American practices in the black sites and Guantanamo underlined in the 600 page Executive Summary of the Senate Torture Report – published against the will of Obama and the CIA under tremendous pressure from below and from some determined Senators – and there is no difference in kind.

But the clash between habeas corpus, enshrined in the Magna Carta in 1215 and then fought over for 400 years or the international agreements making an absolute ban on torture and which are also centerpieces of American law (and for which the Nuremburg and Tokyo tribunals, under American prosecutorial leadership, executed Nazi and Japanese war criminals after World War II), and these Chinese/ Bush-Cheney enacted/Obama-protected practices is noisome.

Writing for intelligence professionals, Jim Dean says that Israeli intelligence could plant false stories, and these would gain high currency in the US through torture. Here is the core of his account:

“’Here is why torture is a horrible problem, because corrupt interrogators can lead a person while they are interrogating them, telling them what they really want them to tell them and they will stop torturing them,’” he continued [no, ripping human bodies apart is horrible and not because of the bad information it elicits].

“’And then what will happen is that someone would submit a false report like the Israelis, and the US intelligence… will end up torturing two people to confirm it, and then the government actually gets hustled in doing something based on a completely false report,’” he explained.

“’And this actually makes it a threat to the national security, because corrupt insiders inside the government can rig events, like they had done for the Iraq war,… to initiate a war,’” the journalist noted.”

There is a large element of truth here: once a government goes in for torture, it does not get the truth and is extremely easy to manipulate, plant false information on from on high (most likely) and below. Dean’s argument is the theory of disillusioned CIA critics of why the US invaded Iraq yet again (now we are on the third round with Obama). For there is no plausible “national interest” in these elite aggressions. They have forfeited American strength and revealed the rottenness of American power, including its harms to most Americans. But Dean’s explanation is too convenient, blaming Israel (however reactionary its genocide in Palestine) for what are plainly crimes executed in accordance with (fantasies about) American “interests”.

For the CIA, not Israel, under the urging of Bush and Cheney, enacted torture; the decent people both there (such as Ray McGovern) and in the FBI – Ali Soufan – have criticized these crimes relentlessly. McGovern even rightly calls for the abolition of the CIA. What is most clear about the barbarity of American torture is that the CIA torturers were even repulsed themselves by water boarding Abu Zubaydah 82 times, asking in the middle to stop. For this was the practice, as the Senate Report makes clear, of “ensuring” the prisoner knew nothing beyond what he had confessed not under torture, a criminal policy that took torture on many individuals, without any justifiable suspicion, to the max…. David Addington, Cheney’s “man,” stilled them: “Be Men!” But torture did not – ever, once – get any useful information.

What it did do was seek for ties between Saddam and Al-Qaida. The US plan was to invade Iraq from the first day of the Bush administration – see the Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill’s memoir, The Price of Loyalty. O’Neill who had been in the Ford and Reagan administrations, was rightly confused by a cabinet discussion at the first meeting in January 2001 which assumed the administration would invade Iraq, making tactical plans…but failed to discuss: why?

Bush and his minions fixed on this policy without any clear justification. Cheney looked for any “prop” for his assertion of ties between Al-Qaida and Saddam; the “dark side” was his means. But no such ties between Saddam and Al-Qaida existed.Torture is also, as Elaine Scarry underlines in her remarkable book,The Body in Pain, a way of asserting domination, of threatening or trying to scare people widely.

But Richard Cheney is more frightening to Americans than to others. And in fact, his policy also yields justified hatred among many – recall the Count of Monte Christo and then ask: how many Monte Christos has the US minted at Guantanamo.It was Cheney’s desire – underlined in his loathsome “Meet the Press” interview last Sunday here, a former Secretary of Defense, Ford Chief of Staff, V-P Mafioso, strutting and screaming – to get the information he already knew by torture.

So “What the Torturer Knew” is the primary and obvious aspect of torture. That the neocons, including Israelis or certain influential Straussians, ran Cheney is not obvious. That Cheney bought much of their lies/fantasies and sought to carry them out is clear. That Israel is becoming, in its Occupation of Palestine, more and more of a depraved racist regime, murdering 426 children in Gaza last summer for one Israeli child murdered by Hamas rockets, is clear.

That Israel and the United States, its endless supplier of weapons like the named for genocide “Apache” helicopter, need to be stopped is clear.But that the tail wags the dog, that the US, across administrations, does not benefit from its relation with Israel, is not clear. For a long time, the US played divide and rule in the Middle East to control the oil and establish military bases. Now, with the arrival of nonviolent Palestinian resistance (BDS, in the villages and the like), with the increasing knowledge of Americans (AIPAC has given up on the campuses now; there is too much evidence about what Israel does, and “hasbara” – Israeli public relations – will not cover forced transfer, lies about negotiations, and wanton murders…). Israel is becoming increasingly isolated even in America.

The American invasions of the Middle East starting with the first Gulf War reveal 25 years of decline, the latest with no boots on the ground except some mercenary “invisibles,” are signs of an unpromising, decadent, militarist addiction. Better the US clean up its torture act; read the Senate Report and ask yourself – are “we” better, in kind, than the hideous IS – and the difficulty in the answer may startle you. For as Cheney said on Meet the Press, torturing innocents to death, hung up when their legs were broken, in stress positions, and anal rape, no biggie. The only criminals are those who did 9/11. Defending the Bill of Rights and human rights promise something different…

Nonetheless, Dean’s commentary does suggest one route by which those determined to plant false information can gull credulous CIA torturers (the latter are sometimes breathed on by Mr. Cheney to spread lies; one self-described “Troglodyte”/reactionary on the second floor of Langley described how frightened he was when Cheney came down and “breathed” on him). But the Iraqi engineer “curveball” made up for German intelligence a story about mobile bioweapons laboratories. Germany, a comparatively civilized nation, did not use torture, though they “interrogated” him for a year and a half. The engineer wanted and got asylum in Germany. Yet both German and British intelligence warned the US about his “information.”

Nonetheless, Bush and Powell also picked up and used this “information” in speeches pushing for aggression (as Cheney planted front page stories in the New York Times through access to Judith Miller – via his minion Scooter Libby – and then cited those Times‘s stories as “evidence” for Iraqi wmds).It is mainly the danger of winds blowing from the top – the thuggish Cheney, the hapless and easily incited Bush – and the pressures of American militarism or war complex dominated politics funded at a trillion dollars a year (the official Pentagon and “intelligence” budgets) – pushing things ever to the Right. The latter is what I call the “right wing two step” in which one oligarchic party calls out for craziness hoping to win elections given a compliant mainstream press, coupled with the other oligarchic party putting up little fight – Obama’s bombing of Syria is the latest illustration.

Now Senator Mark Udall on the torture report, Obama on recognizing Cuba are counterexamples, which in their difficulty/exceptionalism – Udall and Obama no longer face elections – underline the point. The Senate Report misleadingly concentrates on the CIA, leaves aside the criminal Bush administration. And the Times editorial restricts the matter too much. It is worth taking in how extensive this program was (only Colin Powell objected to it, was apparently out of the loop…).

But while it is surely true, for example, that Jay Bybee or John Yoo should be disbarred, the act of rationalizing torture in a position of legal responsibility, if Americans still value the rule of law and the physical and moral security of citizens, is a war crime for which they should be tried. Even Boardman thus adjusts somewhat to the “politics” of the powerful. But Obama, who represented some hope when he came into office, has become an accomplice to torture, and the next election (unless Rand Paul is nominated and holds onto some principle) will be, without a movement from below, between abettors of neo-cons/friends of torturers (Hillary supports Obama’s initial renunciation of water boarding, yet opposes bringing war criminals to justice).

But enough pressure from below on Obama and the appointment of an independent prosector who does his job (unlike the one who, as the Times pointed out, was charged with finding acts of torture beyond those permitted by the Bush administration and scandalously brought no charges) may become possible.

I also link here to an article on the edits from the Senate Report by the CIA/Obama of names/places of allied torturers (Poland, for example, where one notorious black site was). This corrupt editing underlines the wreckage of international law, of which the absolute ban on torture is the centerpiece, brought about by the Bush administration. But there will be a fight in Europe to restore these things. And the UN special rapporteur on torture again called, with the Senate report, for trials of the Bush\Cheney administration under the Convention against Torture. Further, as the Times‘ editorial insists, the US needs to repudiate these actions across the board – Cheney and Bush and the others need to be confronted with trials and jail time (capital punishment is a barbaric American thing so probably, despite US legal precedent, they haven’t quite earned that).

Even Senator Feinstein, a collaborator with torturers, spoke up. Even the Times, which under Bill Keller, propagated the euphemism “very harsh interrogations” and refused to look at torture, has now spoken out strongly against it. It is only being a decent society, having law at all, which hangs in the balance.

Alan Gilbert is John Evans professor at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver and author of Marx’s Politics:Communists and Citizens (Rutgers, 1980), Democratic Individuality (Cambridge, 1990), Must Global Politics Constrain Democracy (1999) and Black Patriots and Loyalists: Fighting for Emancipation in the War for Independence (Chicago March, 2012). His blog Democratic Individuality is a rich mine.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, January 2nd, 2015.