Myths About U.S. and Torture Today

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Myth #1. The U.S. Government has a legal right to pursue
torture as a means to get information out of people
it deems to be terrorists because we are under attack.
Reading the Geneva Convention against Torture and Other
Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
articles, you would be struck by how absolute and unconditional
they are in their prohibitions. It is also striking
how many ways that the Bush Administration has tried to
weasel out from under all the conventions of international
law using new definitions and other legal devices
Torture is defined in Part I, Article 1 of the General
Assembly of the United Nations resolution 39/46 of 10
December 1984 as follows:
Article 1. For the purposes of this Convention, the term
“torture” means any act by which severe pain or suffering,
whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a
person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third
person information or a confession, punishing him for an
act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of
having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a
third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of
any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at
the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a
public official or other person acting in an official capacity….
The Bush Administration redefined torture as “pain
equivalent…to that…associated with serious physical
injury so severe that death, organ failure, or permanent
damage resulting in a loss of significant body function will
likely result.” You might have the impression from the
mainstream media that this definition has been challenged
out of existence. It has been challenged, particularly by the
military and by Congress, but it still serves to guide those
who do the torturing.
From the beginning of its War on Terror, the Bush
Administration claimed that people it seized were not
“prisoners of war,” a term used in the Geneva conventions,
but “enemy combatants” and as such were exempt from
any part of the Geneva Conventions. While the Geneva
Conventions began in 1864 to deal with prisoners of war,
they have evolved to cover anyone in state custody of any
kind. This too is a “fudge” definition.
The next and most serious attempt to escape prosecution
of our agents, guards and torture specialists for war
crimes was to send prisoners to secret prisons, often in
places with vague jurisdictions, such as Guantanamo Bay,
which is in Cuba but is under our control as a U.S. naval
base. Other possibilities have been places with governments
infamous for torturing their own citizens, such as
Syria, Jordan and just now, Ethiopia.
Article 3 of the Conventions reads “No State Party shall
expel, return or extradite a person to another State where
there are substantial grounds for believing that he would
be in danger of being subjected to torture.”
“Extraordinary rendition” is another legal fiction.
“Extradition” occurs when one country asks another country
to turn over a wanted person and there is a hearing or
trial first. “Ordinary rendition” occurs when two countries
mutually agree on an exchange with no legal hearing.
“Extraordinary rendition” is a fancy-sounding, legalsounding
term for kidnapping. The numbers are
unknown, of course, but in November, 2006 ABC News
reported it had obtained a European Parliament draft
report of 1,245 CIA secret flights into European airspace.
Article 2 of the Conventions which states that “an order
from a superior officer or a public authority may not be
invoked as a justification of torture” has led to the goaround
of having private contractors do the torturing
(“Blackwater made me do it.”) or CIA agents (What CIA
agent? I cannot reveal the identity of a covert…”).
At Abu Ghraib, the General in charge of that prison had
been told by Military Intelligence to stay out of the section
where the torture was instituted. Brigadier General Janis
Karpinski was shown the famous photographs for the first
time by the commander of the Criminal Investigation Division.
She reported in a Democracy Now interview: “My first
response was ‘Where is the military intelligence in all of
this?’ And seeing one of the contract people in some of the
photographs, I said, ‘Why are the translators in any of
these photographs?’ And I was told, ‘Ma’am, those aren’t
translators. Those are contract interrogators.’ So, it was my
first time not only seeing the pictures, but the first time I
was receiving details of contract interrogators actually
working out at Abu Ghraib.”
Finally the Bush Administration declared that the President
had the right to do whatever he deemed necessary in
the War on Terror.
Those who put together the Geneva Conventions had
thought of that as well. Article 2, 2 states “No exceptional
circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a
threat of war, internal political instability or any other
public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture.

Myth #2. The Geneva Conventions are set aside. As the
interrogators arriving at Abu Ghraib were told, “The
Geneva Conventions are off.”
While it is obvious to any casual observer that war
crimes are seldom punished and there are many other
countries who engage in torture besides the U.S., we are
by far the most influential.
We are signatories to the Geneva Conventions and there
are several other treaties and conventions that make up
International Law on Human Rights, which always
includes a ban on torture. It is only “grave breeches” that
are cited for punishment and that punishment can include
death. Heads of state and individuals carrying out the state
policies have been tried before: German and Japanese war
criminals were tried in Nuremberg and Tokyo right after
WWII and in the 1990’s tribunals were created for war
crimes committed in Rwanda and the territory of the former
A suit was filed in Germany this past November, 2006
against Donald Rumsfeld, along with George Tenet, Alberto
Gonzalez and others. It was filed by 11 survivors of Abu
Ghraib and one from Guantanamo; the star witness was to
be General Janis Karpinski (demoted to Colonel ), former
military person in charge of Abu Ghraib, to the effect that
she saw a memo on a bulletin board describing tortures,
with a signature of Rumsfeld and the handwritten note:
“This must happen.” The criminal investigation was
stopped before trial, but it illustrates the point that it can
happen, and that any country is entitled to try war criminals
from another country under the conventions, as Spain
did Pinochet of Chile.
Serving notice that the U.S. government is in trouble
under international law, the United Nations Committee
Against Torture issued a “sweeping rebuke” in May of
2006 against the Guantanomo Bay detention camp, the
secret overseas CIA prisons, the transfer of prisoners to
countries known for torture, and the use of what it called
“cruel and degrading interrogation techniques.” (Boston
Globe, May 20, 06). The panel found that the policies of
the Bush Administration were at odds with the commitments
of the U.S. under the global Convention Against
Torture treaty in 1994, signed by the U.S.
Maher Arar, a Canadian citizen who was first held
incommunicado in a terminal of New York’s JFK airport
before being transported to Jordan and Syria for torture,
remembered an Immigration and Naturalization Service
agent telling him, “The INS is not the body or the agency
that signed the Geneva Convention… against torture.
(“Nick Turse on the Bush Planetary Lockup,”, Nov. 2, 2006). This shows a
remarkable awareness and sensitivity all up and down the
line that torture and rendering people to be tortured is an
international crime and as such it is to be carried out in
utmost secrecy.
Myth #3: Torture is a highly effective method of getting
life-saving information. (We’ve seen it on TV).
Absolutely and categorically untrue… and the people
telling us this are the military and the non-military interrogators
who have used it. Apparently there was a great
deal of fighting about this behind the scenes when the
policies were first being formed in March/April 2003 with
the military fighting to keep the U.S. out of the torture
business. This came out in Senate hearings of July 2005
(Armed Services subcommittee – chaired by Sen. Lindsey
Graham) where judge advocate generals (JAGS) and the
Army’s top lawyer testified about their somewhat ineffective
opposition to the Justice Department and the Dept. of
Recently, this subject has come out of the security-classified
closet: a delegation went to meet with the producers of
the very popular TV show featuring torture, “24.” First was
Brigadier General Patrick Finnegan, Dean of West Point,
who wanted to say that their show was totally unrealistic
and they should do a few shows illustrating that torture
backfires. The instructors at West Point are having trouble
training their cadets who all watch “24” and think that it
does portray reality. Tony Lagouranis, a former interrogator
at Abu Ghraib said in a television interview (Democracy
Now, Feb. 22, 2007): “Well the problem was that when we
were interrogating in Iraq in 2004, we were being told that
Geneva conventions didn’t apply. So we didn’t have training
that informed us what to do anymore, because we were
taught according to Geneva Conventions. So people were
getting ideas from television.” When asked whether torture
worked, Lagouranis said, “In my experience, no. I saw torture
in Iraq. I even employed some torture methods. In my
experience, it doesn’t work. I think you are going to get
false intelligence when you employ torture methods.” The
FBI interrogation expert who was at the meeting said that
he would not want anyone like Jack Bauer (the star of the
show “24″) in his organization. “They are untrustworthy
and tend to have grotesque other problems.”
So what do you do instead? Read about U.S. Marine
Major Sherwood Moran, a legendary interrogator of the
Japanese in World War II, legendary because of his effectiveness.
In his classic text, Truth Extraction, Moran formulates
the basic premise of “truth extraction”—know
their language, know their culture and treat the captured
enemy as a human being. “
As for the overworked example of the “ticking time
bomb,” Moran says that it does not work that way. First of
all, very few if any prisoners are likely to have decisive
information about imminent plans, but if they did have it,they would be able to resist torture to
run out the clock. Rather it is small and
seemingly small bits of information given
out in a situation of captive safety that can
be assembled into a meaningful mosaic
that provide the best intelligence.
Myth #4: it is a shame that we have
to use torture and secret prisons, but it
is done to a few very dangerous people
that had best be kept out of circulation
and away from our shores.
In a Wall Street Journal article (May 31,
2004) Chief Warrant Officer Jeffrey Hanson
who screened prisoners (60 a day at
that time) at Abu Ghraib said, “The vast
majority had virtually no intelligence
value. It seemed like when something bad
happened the infantry would just roll up a
dozen Iraqis in the area, most of whom
were not involved…The bad intelligence
we got (from these prisoners) gave way to
raids on innocent people.”
As for the numbers of secret prisons and
the numbers of people who might be in
them, this is beyond estimate. While
Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib are the
posters for secret detention and torture,
there are rumored to be 20 secret prisons
in Afghanistan, perhaps 100 in Iraq,
unknown numbers in Central Europe,
Syria, Jordan, Egypt and as of April 3,
Ethiopia. How many prisoners are in these
prisons is anyone’s guess. No one in them
is ever given a trial (not counting the 10 or
so military tribunals at Guantanamo where
even the military lawyers quit in protest)
and just a handful of people are ever
released. Once you are “disappeared,”
abducted and held in secret without
charges, known as loss of habeas corpus,
anything can happen to you, including
death, and no one will know.
Let me leave you with news of two
recent pieces of legislation for Americans:
the Military Commissions Act, passed in
November of 2006 gives the power to the
Chief Executive to define and decide who
is an “enemy combatant,” including citizens
of the U.S. “Public Law 109-364, or
the ‘John Warner Defense Authorization
Act of 2007’ (H.R.5122) (2), which was
signed by the commander in chief on
October 17, 2006, in a private Oval Office
ceremony, allows the President to declare a
‘public emergency’ and station troops anywhere
in America and take control of statebased
National Guard units without the
consent of the governor or local authorities,
in order to suppress public disorder.”

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