The Anti-Empire Report #69
By William Blum – Published May 3rd, 2009
Some thoughts about torture. And Mr. Obama.
Okay, at least some things are settled. When George W. Bush said “The United States does not torture”, everyone now knows it was crapaganda. And when Barack Obama, a month into his presidency, said “The United States does not torture” 1 , it likewise had all the credibility of a 19th century treaty between the US government and the American Indians.
When Obama and his followers say, as they do repeatedly, that he has “banned torture”, this is a statement they have no right to make. The executive orders concerning torture leave loopholes, such as being applicable only “in any armed conflict” 2 What about in a “counter-terrorism” environment? And the new administration has not categorically banned the outsourcing of torture, such as renditions, the sole purpose of which is to kidnap people and send them to a country to be tortured. Moreover, what do we know of all the CIA secret prisons, the gulag extending from Poland to the island of Diego Garcia? How many of them are still open and abusing and torturing prisoners, keeping them in total isolation and in indefinite detention? Total isolation by itself is torture; not knowing when, if ever, you will be released is torture. And the non-secret prisons? Has Guantanamo ended all its forms of torture? There’s reason to doubt that. 3 And what do we know of what’s happening now in Abu Ghraib and Bagram?
And when Obama says “I don’t believe that anybody is above the law”, and then acts in precisely the opposite fashion, despite overwhelming evidence of criminal torture – such as the recently leaked report of the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Bush Justice Department “torture memos” – it’s enough to break the heart of any of his fans who possess more than a minimum of intellect and conscience. It should be noted that a Gallup Poll of April 24/25 showed that 66% of Democrats favored an “investigation into harsh interrogation techniques on terrorism suspects”. If the word “torture” had been used in the question, the figure would undoubtedly have been higher.
Following the US invasion of Iraq in March 2003, President Bush went on TV to warn the people of Iraq: “War crimes will be prosecuted. War criminals will be punished. And it will be no defense to say, I was just following orders.” 4
“Objectively, the American public is much more responsible for the crimes committed in its name than were the people of Germany for the horrors of the Third Reich. We have far more knowledge, and far greater freedom and opportunity to stop our government’s criminal behavior,” observed James Brooks in the Online Journal in 2007.
On February 10, the Obama Justice Department used the Bush administration’s much-reviled “state secrets” tactic in a move to have a lawsuit dismissed – filed by five detainees against a subsidiary of Boeing aircraft company for arranging rendition flights which led to their torture. “It was as if last month’s inauguration had never occurred”, observed the New York Times. 5
And when Obama says, as he does repeatedly, “We need to look forward as opposed to looking backwards”, why is it that no one in the media asks him what he thinks of the Nuremberg Tribunal looking backwards in 1946? Or the Church Committee of the US Senate doing the same in 1975 and producing numerous revelations about the criminality of the CIA, FBI, and other government agencies that shocked and opened the eyes of the American people and the world?
We’re now told that Obama and his advisers had recently been fiercely debating the question of what to do about the Bush war criminals, with Obama going one way and then another and then back again, both in private and in his public stands. One might say that he was “tortured”. But civilized societies do not debate torture. Why didn’t the president just do the obvious? The simplest? The right thing? Or at least do what he really believes.
The problem, I’m increasingly afraid, is that the man doesn’t really believe strongly in anything, certainly not in controversial areas. He learned a long time ago how to take positions that avoid controversy, how to express opinions without clearly and firmly taking sides, how to talk eloquently without actually saying anything, how to leave his listeners’ heads filled with stirring clichés, platitudes, and slogans. And it worked. Oh how it worked! What could happen now, as President of the United States, to induce him to change his style?
The president and the Director of the CIA both insist that no one at the CIA who was relying on the Justice Department’s written legal justification of methods of “enhanced interrogation” should be punished. But the first such approval was dated August 1, 2002, while many young men were arrested in Afghanistan and Pakistan during the previous nine months and subjected to “enhanced interrogation”. Many were sent to Guantanamo as early as January 2002. And many others were kidnaped and sent to Egypt, Jordan, Morocco and other secret prisons to be tortured beginning in late 2001. So, at least for some months, the torturers were not acting under any formal approval of their methods. But they still will not be punished.
I love that expression “enhanced interrogation”. How did our glorious leaders overlook calling the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki “enhanced explosive devices”?
Lord High Dungeon Master Richard Cheney is upset about the recent release of torture memos. He keeps saying that the Obama administration is suppressing documents that show a more positive picture of the effectiveness of interrogation techniques, which he claims produced very valuable information, prevented certain acts of terrorism, and saved American lives. Hmmm, why am I skeptical of this? Oh, I know, because if this is what actually happened and there are documents which genuinely and unambiguously showed such results, the beleaguered Bush administration would have leaked them years ago with great fanfare, and the CIA would not have destroyed numerous videos of the torture sessions.
But in any event, that still wouldn’t justify torture. Humankind has aspired for centuries to tame its worst behaviors; ridding itself of the affliction of torture has been high on that list. There is more than one United States law now prohibiting torture, including a 1994 law making it a crime for US citizens to commit torture overseas. This was recently invoked to convict the son of former Liberian dictator Charles Taylor. There is also the Geneva Convention Relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War, ratified in 1949, which states in Article 17:
No physical or mental torture, nor any other form of coercion may be inflicted on prisoners of war to secure from them information of any kind whatever. Prisoners of war who refuse to answer may not be threatened, insulted, or exposed to any unpleasant or disadvantageous treatment of any kind.
Thus it was that the United States has not called the prisoners of its War on Terror “prisoners of war”. But in 1984, another historic step was taken, by the United Nations, with the drafting of the “Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment” (came into force in 1987, ratified by the United States in 1994). Article 2, section 2 of the Convention 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.
Such marvelously clear, unequivocal, and principled language, to set a single standard for a world that makes it increasingly difficult for one to feel proud of humanity. We cannot slide back. If today it’s deemed acceptable to torture the person who supposedly has the vital “ticking-bomb” information needed to save lives, tomorrow it will be acceptable to torture him to learn the identities of his alleged co-conspirators. Would we allow slavery to resume for just a short while to serve some “national emergency” or some other “higher purpose”?
If you open the window of torture, even just a crack, the cold air of the Dark Ages will fill the whole room.
“I would personally rather die than have anyone tortured to save my life.” - Craig Murray, former British Ambassador to Uzbekistan, who lost his job after he publicly condemned the Uzbek regime in 2003 for its systematic use of torture. 6
With all the reports concerning torture under the recent Bush administration, some people may be inclined to think that prior to Bush the United States had very little connection to this awful practice. However, in the period of the 1950s through the 1980s, while the CIA did not usually push the button, turn the switch, or pour the water, the Agency …
- encouraged its clients in the Third World to use torture;
- provided the host country the names of the people who wound up as torture victims, in places as bad as Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib and Bagram;
- supplied torture equipment;
- conducted classes in torture;
- distributed torture manuals – how-to books;
- was present when torture was taking place, to observe and evaluate how well its students were doing. 7
I could really feel sorry for Barack Obama – for his administration is plagued and handicapped by a major recession not of his making – if he had a vision that was thus being thwarted. But he has no vision – not any kind of systemic remaking of the economy, producing a more equitable and more honest society; nor a world at peace, beginning with ending America’s perennial wars; no vision of the fantastic things that could be done with the trillions of dollars that would be saved by putting an end to war without end; nor a vision of a world totally rid of torture; nor an America with national health insurance; nor an environment free of capitalist subversion; nor a campaign to control world population … he just looks for what will offend the fewest people. He’s a “whatever works” kind of guy. And he wants to be president. But what we need and crave is a leader of vision.
Another jewel in the crown, Miss Hillary
During the presidential campaign much was made of Obama’s stated promises to engage in direct talks with Iran, as opposed to the Bush administration’s refusal to speak to the Iranians and threatening to attack them and bomb their nuclear facilities. This was one more example of the much-vaunted “change” that Obama was going to bring. But, in actuality, it wouldn’t be much of a change. Mid-level American officials did in fact occasionally meet with Iranian officials, most notably after the September 11 attacks in 2001 and in mid-2003 after the US invasion of Iraq. These meeting were always in secret. 8 There were also at least three publicly-announced meetings between the US and Iran in 2007, primarily dealing with the fighting in Iraq. And now that Obama is in power, what do we find? We find his Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, testifying April 22 before the House Foreign Affairs Committee and stating:
“We actually believe that by following the diplomatic path we are on [speaking to Iran], we gain credibility and influence with a number of nations who would have to participate in order to make the sanctions regime as tight and as crippling as we would want it to be.”
Would it be unfair to say that she’s implying that a reason for talks with Iran is that the US could get more international support when it decides to cripple that country? Is crippling a country the United States is at peace with supposed to be part of the “change” in US foreign policy? Is Iran expected to be enthusiastic about such talks? If the talks collapse, will the United States use that as an excuse for bombing Iran? Or will Israel be given the honor?
Later in the hearing, Clinton declared: “We are deploying new approaches to the threat posed by Iran.”
I would love to have been a member of the House committee so I could have had the following exchange with the Secretary of State:
Cong. Blum: Do we plan to impose sanctions on France?
Sec. Clinton: I don’t understand, Congressman. Why would we impose sanctions on France?
Cong. Blum: Well, if we impose sanctions on Iran on the mere suspicion of them planning to build nuclear weapons, it seems to me we’d want to impose even stricter sanctions on a country which already possesses such weapons.
Sec. Clinton: But France is an ally.
Cong. Blum: So let’s make Iran an ally. We can start with ending our many sanctions against them and calling off our Israeli attack dogs.
Sec. Clinton: But Congressman, Iran is a threat. Surely you don’t see France as a threat? What reason would France have to use nuclear weapons against the United States?
Cong. Blum: What reason would Iran have to use nuclear weapons against the United States? Other than an irresistible desire for mass national suicide.
If Congressman Blum had pursued this line of questioning, it might well have culminated in some Orwellian remark by dear Hillary, such as the one she treated us to a few days later when speaking to reporters in Iraq. As the Washington Post reported it: “Clinton played down the latest burst of violence, telling reporters she saw ‘no sign’ it would reignite the sectarian warfare that ravaged the country in recent years. She said that the Iraqi government had ‘come a long, long way’ and that the bombings were ‘a signal that the rejectionists fear Iraq is going in the right direction’.” 9
So … the eruption of violence is a sign of success. In October 2003, President George W. Bush, speaking after many resistance attacks in Iraq had occurred, said: “The more successful we are on the ground, the more these killers will react.” 10
And here is Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, speaking in April 2004 about a rise in insurrection and fighting in Iraq over nearly a two-week period: “‘I would characterize what we’re seeing right now as a – as more a symptom of the success that we’re having here in Iraq,’ he said … explaining that the violence indicated there was something to fight against – American progress in building up Iraq.” 11
War is Peace … Freedom is Slavery … Ignorance is Strength. I distinctly remember when I first read “1984” thinking that it was very well done but of course a great exaggeration, sort of like science fiction.
Clinton was equally profound on May 1, speaking to an assemblage of State Department employees. Discussing Venezuela and Bolivia, she said that the Bush administration “tried to isolate them, tried to support opposition to them, tried to turn them into international pariahs. It didn’t work. We are going to see what other approaches might work.” Oh … uh … how about NOT trying to isolate them, NOT supporting their opposition, NOT trying to turn them into international pariahs? How about the National Endowment for Democracy, the Agency for International Development, and the US Embassy NOT trying to subvert their revolutions? And when she says “It didn’t work”, one must ask: Work to what end? To return the two countries to their previous condition of client-states? Perhaps like with Nicaragua, about whom the Secretary of State said improving relations was important to counter Iran’s growing influence. She noted that “the Iranians are building a huge embassy in Managua. You can only imagine what it’s for.” 12 I can only imagine what Ms. Clinton imagines it’s for. What is the new American Embassy in Iraq – the biggest embassy in the entire history of the world, in the entire universe – What is that for? Another example of Obamachange that means no change. What is it with American officials? Why are they so insufferably arrogant and hypocritical?
- Washington Post, February 24, 2009
- See, for example, “Executive Order – Ensuring Lawful Interrogations”, January 22, 2009
- See The Observer (London), February 8, 2009 for an account of how conditions were still very awful at Guantanamo as of that date.
- Video of Bush
- New York Times, February 10, 2009, plus their editorial of the next day. In April, a federal appeals court ruled that the detainees’ lawsuit could proceed.
- Testimony before the International Commission of Inquiry On Crimes Against Humanity Committed by the Bush Administration, session of January 21, 2006, New York Cit
- See William Blum, “Rogue State: A Guide to the World’s Only Superpower”, chapter 5.
- The Independent (London), May 27, 2007
- Washington Post, April 26, 2009
- Washington Post, October 28, 2003
- New York Times, April 16, 2003
- Associated Press, May 1, 2009
Any part of this report may be disseminated without permission, provided attribution to William Blum as author and a link to williamblum.org is provided.