When torture changes America

by John MacBeath Watkins

About 20 years ago, I sensed that torture was becoming a moral issue in the world, no longer so unspeakable that it was never discussed, and more commonly practiced than it had been at times in the recent past. I wrote this story about the topic then (and updated it a couple years ago,) never dreaming that torture would become an official policy of the U.S. government.

We'd been to some dark places during the Viet Nam War, and it was rumored that the CIA had engaged in torture with the Phoenix Program, but the U.S. government claimed to be in compliance with the laws of war and of South Viet Nam. I didn't believe that claim, but but at least our government tried to provide plausible deniability to Americans, allowing them to believe that the abuses of the Phoenix Program were the work of rogue CIA officers who needed to be reigned in. This was itself an acknowledgment that torture was wrong.

During the Bush Administration's war on terror, unrepentant officials as high as the Vice President were ready to own up to approving waterboarding, even adopting the term "enhanced interrogation," which echoed the term "Verschärfte Vernehmung" used by the Nazis. To this day, former Bush Administration officials are willing to defend the use of techniques we used to prosecute soldiers for using.

In 1947, Yukio Asano, a Japanese officer who had waterboarded American prisoners of war, was sentenced to 15 years hard labor. In 1983, Texas Sheriff James Parker and three of his deputies were sentenced to four years in prison for using waterboarding to extract confessions, according to this NPR story.

And today, we have former U.S. Attorney General Michael Murkasey defending waterboarding.
Strangely, his reply to Sen. John McCain's op-ed article calling him out on the issue wasn't in an op-ed penned by Murkasey himself, but in one penned (keyboarded?) by former Dick Cheney spokesman Marc Thiessen.

McCain wrote:

Former attorney general Michael Mukasey recently claimed that “the intelligence that led to bin Laden . . . began with a disclosure from Khalid Sheik Mohammed, who broke like a dam under the pressure of harsh interrogation techniques that included waterboarding. He loosed a torrent of information — including eventually the nickname of a trusted courier of bin Laden.” That is false.
 Murkasey replied, through Thiessen:

Senator McCain described as “false” my statement that Khalid Sheik Mohammed broke under harsh interrogation that included waterboarding, and disclosed a torrent of information that included the nickname of Osama bin Laden’s courier.  He strongly implied in the remainder of his column in the Washington Post that this harsh interrogation was not only useless but also illegal.  He is simply incorrect on all three counts.

Murkasey relies on the word of former CIA Director Michael Hayden and former Director of National Intelligence Admiral Michael McConnell, under whose watch the abuses occurred, as his source of the claim that torture was effective. I cannot imagine people culpable in torture admitting that they had engaged in such odious activities to no avail, especially when talking to someone who could prosecute them. Surely, they had every reason to try to justify their actions by any means available to them. After all, if torture doesn't produce result, it's just sadism.

McCain consulted current CIA director Leon Panetta, who according to McCain told him:

The trail to bin Laden did not begin with a disclosure from Khalid Sheik Mohammed, who was waterboarded 183 times. The first mention of Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti — the nickname of the al-Qaeda courier who ultimately led us to bin Laden — as well as a description of him as an important member of al-Qaeda, came from a detainee held in another country, who we believe was not tortured. None of the three detainees who were waterboarded provided Abu Ahmed’s real name, his whereabouts or an accurate description of his role in al-Qaeda.
As for legality, Murkasey said:

So far as the waterboarding technique used by CIA operators, as outlined in the memoranda released by the Department of Justice, it was entirely legal at the time, which is to say before the passage of later statutes in 2005 and 2006, by which time it was no longer in use and under which it has not been evaluated.

So it would appear that sometime between the 1947 American prosecution of Yukio Asano and 2005, something changed that made waterboarding legal, but he fails to inform us what this was. Of course, if waterboarding was illegal and Murkasey didn't prosecute it, what sort of prosecutor was he? Could that have something to do with why he now wants to present torture as legal and effective?

One of my major disappointments with the current administration was their decision not to prosecute those who initiated, provided the legal justification for, and executed the use of torture as the official policy of the U.S. government. I realize that it would have torn the country apart, and I realize it would have jeopardized the  many things Obama wanted to accomplish as president. But we crossed a line when we made torture an official instrument of American policy, and if America stands for anything, we shouldn't stand for that.

Wars change countries, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse. America had to deal with Antisemitism and racism after World War II instead of letting these ills fester any longer, because we fought against them. The Roman republic couldn't survive the Punic Wars -- the changes in wealth distribution as cheap slave labor impoverished farmers with small holdings worked against it, as did the administrative needs of a large standing army and distant provinces in a growing empire.

We need to take a close look at how the war on terror is changing us, and whether American ideals of liberty and democracy can survive it. When I talk to people who see nothing wrong with torture, I worry for my country. All the tools needed to destroy our republic are those we're tempted to use in war.