Torture in the First Person

The following is a long excerpt from a guest contributor’s column on T r u t h o u t, a web site I would describe as an alternative news bureau.

The guest author is Phillip Butler, a former Navy pilot during the Viet Nam war. Here is the excerpt:

I spent eight years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, from 1965 to 1973. During that time, I and more than 90 percent of my fellow POWs were repeatedly tortured for the extortion of information to be used for political propaganda and sometimes just for retribution. We were not recognized by Vietnam as POWs, but as criminals, because the Vietnamese had not signed the 1949 “Geneva Convention relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War.”

Later, in 1975, the United Nations created the “Convention Against Torture.” Both conventions were ratified by Congress and became laws of our land. Unfortunately, Vietnam – along with numerous other countries who are still partially stuck in the 15th century – had institutionalized torture to punish and extract information from prisoners.

We received great moral and psychological strength during our incarceration from telling each other, “Our country is civilized and would never knowingly treat people like this.”

We felt we had the moral high ground and took great pride in being American, above such barbarity. Besides, we all knew from experience that torture is useless, because under torture we told our tormentors whatever we thought they wanted to hear. Whenever possible we slipped in ridiculous statements like one I used in a torture-extracted “confession,” that “only officers are allowed to use the swimming pool on the USS Midway.” Another friend wrote in a “confession” that “my commanding officer, Dick Tracy, ordered me to bomb schools and hospitals.” These are just two examples of the kind of culturally embedded nonsense people can expect to extract through torture.

I recommend reading the whole piece, which is about double the length quoted here.

Are we interested enough in reversing U.S. policy on torture to impeach George W. Bush? We would actually need to impeach Bush, Cheney, and Alberto Gonzales, the current Attorney General. In terms of salvaging the energy to govern the country in the next two years, it seems to me (reluctantly) that we will be better off riding out these rump years and prosecuting these men after they leave office.

Of course I am assuming a vigorous and successful election campaign by the Democrats, and an resulting executive branch that reverses existing policy. Is that a tenable assumption?

Waterboarding Issues

There’s an interesting and generally literate discussion following the posting of the waterboarding video from Current TV on the North Dakota blog Say Anything. I added the following comments to that discussion, for anyone who doesn’t want to read 37 or so comments. To quote myself,

I’ve read through this often thoughtful discussion. Most of the problematic statements were soon corrected. There is one exception. Someone stated that persons such as the “enemy combatants” designated by Bush were treated by the Geneva Conventions as Brigands/Bandits, and could be immediately shot. There is no such category in the Geneva Conventions.

The following quote is the portion of the Conventions that most concerned the U.S. Supreme Court. There’s a link to the whole thing following the quote, but here is part of Common Article III. This is the part that the Supreme Court says applies to the enemy combatants held at Guantanamo.

1. Persons taking no active part in the hostilities, including members of armed forces who have laid down their arms and those placed hors de combat by sickness, wounds, detention, or any other cause, shall in all circumstances be treated humanely, without any adverse distinction founded on race, colour, religion or faith, sex, birth or wealth, or any other similar criteria.

To this end the following acts are and shall remain prohibited at any time and in any place whatsoever with respect to the above-mentioned persons:

(a) Violence to life and person, in particular murder of all kinds, mutilation, cruel treatment and torture;

(b) Taking of hostages;

(c) Outrages upon personal dignity, in particular, humiliating and degrading treatment;

(d) The passing of sentences and the carrying out of executions without previous judgment pronounced by a regularly constituted court affording all the judicial guarantees which are recognized as indispensable by civilized peoples. Geneva Conventions Article 3

“No active part in the hostilities” means just that. People handed over to us by rival tribes in Afghanistan, who told us they were Al Qaeda (perhaps because they spoke Arabic or another foreign language) are not, until there is direct evidence, people taking an active part in hostilities. Many of the prisoners at Guantanamo, a portion of them already released, have been recognized to fall in this category.

<>We clearly, as the Supreme Court said, need to have good judicial process to recognize when there is evidence that shows prisoners *were* on the battlefield with guns in their hands, and when they just got rounded up and handed in for a bounty. Many of the JAGs are concerned about good compliance with the Geneva Conventions.

<>The concerns raised by waterboarding of a few “high-value” targets by trained CIA operatives acting under separate orders every step of the way (Brian Ross, ABC News) do not stop at whether they tell us something. We should also be concerned, as citizens, that the executive branch (the CIA) has taken on judicial functions, that these prisoners have little hope of a trial, that they have no access to the Red Cross, that perhaps we actually found or had handed to us some people with “high-value” information, that we could also have gotten without using waterboarding.

<>This last, that many psychologists familiar with interrogation methods will tell you, is the shame of it all. We could have gotten the information without the use of waterboarding and other “enhanced techniques.”

Still denying torture

This administration’s denial of torture seemed to be over in September of 2006. President Bush revealed that the U. S. had used “alternative interrogation tactics” on some “high-value prisoners,” among them Khalid Sheik Muhammed. These tactics, among them waterboarding, were said by the President to be very helpful in producing information leading to the capture of senion members of Al-Qaeda.

The news, this past week, is not that Vice President Cheney agreed with his ND interviewer that waterboarding is a “no-brainer” in the above circumstances. The news, in view of the President’s open endorsement of such tactics in September, was Tony Snow, the White House Press Secretary, insisting that the U.S. does not torture, and President GW Bush reverting to the script as before, that “We do not torture.”

We use waterboarding. The President himself has said we use waterboarding and similar alternative interrogation tactics. And, he says, “we do not torture.”

I wish that I thought he uses an imperial “we,” in that construction. He doesn’t. He means that all of us are endorsing tactics just as those in the video I linked to in the last post.

Torture is going under – for a little while

The following post is appearing out of sequence, and should have followed the post that consisted of a long letter to a constitutuent from the office of US Senator Arlen Specter. Specter’s letter is the full documentation for the excerpt that appears here.

——————-

I cannot do better in this post than to quote from a long form letter sent to me by Arlen Specter, Senator from Pennsylvania and Chair of the Judiciary Committee. The Military Commissions Act, recently signed into law by President Bush, has one bad provision, according to Specter. That is, the denial to prisoners (“detainees”) of the use of a habeas corpus petition to challenge their detention. U. S. Courts recognized that use until December of 2005, which allowed for Hamdan v. Rumsfeld to be heard and decided. <>So I think, or more emotionally, I fear, that Senator Specter is a bit ingenuous in the following paragraphs from his letter:

In the June 2006 Supreme Court decision Hamdan v. Rumsfeld , the Court held that military commissions used in prosecuting enemy combatants at Guantanamo Bay must be authorized by Congress and must obey the legal obligations of the Geneva Conventions’ Common Article III and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. The decision explicitly urged Congress to legislate a solution by properly establishing military commissions to try alien unlawful enemy combatants.

Following the Hamdan decision, members of the Senate Armed Services Committee worked with President Bush to craft legislation to establish military tribunals. I generally supported the legislation dra fted by these Senators and the a dministration, however, I had serious reservations about a provision in the bill which eliminated detainees’ right to habeas corpus. Habeas corpus is the right of those in custody to challenge their detainment in court. As Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, I held a hearing on September 25, 2006 to specifically address habeas corpus for Guantanamo detainees. During the Senate’s consideration of the legislation, I offered an amendment which would have guaranteed habeas\ncorpus for detainees. Unfortunately, the amendment failed on a narrow 48-51 vote.

On September 28, 2006 the Senate passed the Military Commissions Act by a vote of 65-34. Although my amendment was rejected, I voted in favor of the bill because I believe without this legislation, the ability of our government to effectively fight the global war on terrorism would be hindered. I am confident the courts will address the legislation’s constitutionality by ruling on the provision limiting habeas corpus.

The Military Commission Act is consistent with previous legislation prohibiting torture. The bill stipulates the military commissions must be established in accordance with the Uniform Code of Military Justice and Common Article III of the Geneva Conventions. Finally, it establishes specific guidelines for the use of hearsay evidence and coerced testimony and the handling of classified information.

During the Senate’s consideration of the legislation, I offered an amendment which would have guaranteed habeas corpus for detainees. Unfortunately, the amendment failed on a narrow 48-51 vote.

On September 28, 2006 the Senate passed the Military Commissions Act by a vote of 65-34. Although my amendment was rejected, I voted in favor of the bill because I believe without this legislation, the ability of our government to effectively fight the g lobal war on terrorism would be hindered. I am confident the courts will address the legislation’s constitutionality by ruling on the provision limiting habeas corpus.

United States Senator Arlen Specter, Chair of the Judiciary Committee, form letter/email, dated October 25, 2006, “regarding the treatment of prisoners detained by the United States in connection with the global war on terrorism.” Full contents uploaded to this blog, available in the post below.

As the excerpt shows, the topic is, in truth, the Military Commissions Act, signed into law by President George W. Bush in the third week of October, 2006.

Text of Arlen Specter letter/email of October 25, 2006

Emailed letter “Dear Friend” dated October 25, 2006.

——— Forwarded message ———-
From: Senator_Specter@specter.senate.gov <Senator_Specter@specter.senate.gov>
Date: Oct 25, 2006 10:09 AM
Subject: Re: Demand Fair Trials for Guantanamo Detainees
To: petersig@gmail.com

<>Dear Friend : <>
Thank you for contacting my office regarding the treatment of prisoners detained by the United States in connection with the global war on terrorism. I appreciate hearing from you. <>
The United States has no higher priority than the war against terrorism. In the course of this struggle, we must make every effort to detain those who engage in acts of terrorism and to obtain information from detainees that will enable us to prevent future attacks. At the same time, it is imperative we wage the war in a way that upholds the values the United States has always advanced, making clear by our actions and our example that we stand for freedom and fairness. <>
In the June 2006 Supreme Court decision Hamdan v. Rumsfeld , the Court held that military commissions used in prosecuting enemy combatants at Guantanamo Bay must be authorized by Congress and must obey the legal obligations of the Geneva Conventions’ Common Article III and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. The decision explicitly urged Congress to legislate a solution by properly establishing military commissions to try alien unlawful enemy combatants. <>
Following the Hamdan decision, members of the Senate Armed Services Committee worked with President Bush to craft legislation to establish military tribunals. I generally supported the legislation dra fted by these Senators and the a dministration, however, I had serious reservations about a provision in the bill which eliminated detainees’ right to habeas corpus. Habeas corpus is the right of those in custody to challenge their detainment in court. As Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, I held a hearing on September 25, 2006 to specifically address habeas corpus for Guantanamo detainees. During the Senate’s consideration of the legislation, I offered an amendment which would have guaranteed habeas corpus for detainees. Unfortunately, the amendment failed on a narrow 48-51 vote. <>
On September 28, 2006 the Senate passed the Military Commissions Act by a vote of 65-34. Although my amendment was rejected, I voted in favor of the bill because I believe without this legislation, the ability of our government to effectively fight the g lobal war on terrorism would be hindered. I am confident the courts will address the legislation’s constitutionality by ruling on the provision limiting habeas corpus. <>
The Military Commission Act is consistent with previous legislation prohibiting torture. The bill stipulates the military commissions must be established in accordance with the Uniform Code of Military Justice and Common Article III of the Geneva Conventions. Finally, it establishes specific guidelines for the use of hearsay evidence and coerced testimony and the handling of classified information. <>
As a member of the United States Senate, I have a consistent record of voting to ensure we adhere to the same values we fight to protect. On October 5, 2005, I voted in favor of an amendment introduced by Senator John McCain to the Fiscal Year 2006 Department of Defense Appropriations Act prohibiting “cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment” of detainees. This amendment passed on a 90-9 vote in the Senate and was signed into law by President Bush on December 30, 2005. During consideration of the Fiscal Year 2005 Defense Authorization Act, I supported an amendment offered by Senator Leahy that stated it is policy of the United States to treat prisoners in its control humanely. Furthermore, I cosponsored an amendment offered by Senator Durbin reaffirming prisoners of war and enemy combatants must not be tortured or treated inhumanely. In light of the abuses at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq , I cosponsored the Senate resolution that condemned the abuse of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib and called for a full and complete investigation to ensure justice is served. <>
On June 25, 2003, I wrote to National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice expressing my concern over the mistreatment of enemy combatants in the custody of the United States . Our reputation has been significantly marred by the abuse of some detainees. The images and stories appearing in both the American, and perhaps more significantly, the Arab and international media have the potential to damage America ‘s standing as the unquestioned champion of human rights and the rule of law. <>
I believe the United States should make it clear that all interrogations of enemy combatants are conducted in a manner consistent with our obligations under the “Convention Against Torture and Other Forms of Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.” This treaty, ratified by the United States , provides the most widely accepted definition of torture and other forms of unlawful mistreatment. <>
Thank you again for contacting me. The concerns of my constituents are of great importance to me, and I rely on you and other Pennsylvanians to inform me of your views. Should you have any further questions, please do not hesitate to contact my office or visit my website at http://specter.senate.gov .

Sincerely,

 

<> Arlen Specter

Torture is going under again

The Sunday Philadelphia Inquirer for October 15, 2006 has a front-page article on the ability of Family Services in Philadelphia and in Pennsylvania to bury their mistakes. “Their mistakes,” as in battered and abused children who had already been reported to authorities, but had not been taken out of the homes in which adults abused them. I ached to read the stories, about children at the tender age of my loved and protected grandchild, who had died horrible and painful deaths, tortured before they died, deliberately maltreated by a person with a great deal more power and authority over them.

The stories are wrenching. The children were not always innocent; sometimes they interrupted an adult’s television show, or sleep, or other valuable activity.

They didn’t have valuable information to impart or to fabricate.

It is in the wisdom of a President, on the advice of her or his advisors, to determine whether extraordinary measures of extracting information should be used, upon citizens and/or enemy combatants. That determination, about using methods of” alternative interrogation,” apparently rests on direct access by the President to the people doing the interrogation, as in the riveting television show “24.” Actually, accounts from books such as Inside the Wire: A Military Intelligence Soldier’s Eyewitness Account of Life at Guantanamo, by Erik Saar and Viveca Novak (Penguin, 2005), indicate that the interrogator is very far removed from the oval office. As the Taguba Report (about Abu Ghraib) indicated, few of the poorly trained National Guard officers and soldiers knew anything at all about how to manage a prison, how to provide further training to undertrained recruits, and how to prevent violations of the Geneva Conventions. Throw in an officer whose approval stemmed from his apparent toughness on the prisoners rounded up for Guantanamo (so-called al Qaeda “enemy combatants”), put him in the pipeline to a President whose military understanding is not the best, whose prejudices would not entertain contrary information from psychologists, or from John McCain, and the pipeline confirms the President in the use of torture, torture light, abusive interrogation techniques, and generalized indignities applied to people who can’t identify themselves easily.

Given the general lack of cultural sensitivity and Arabic or Pashto language skills possessed by the military, attested in Inside the Wire (above), the person in U.S. custody as an “enemy combatant” is as helpless as a two-year-old child, unable to make her or his case to an abuser, unable to oppose abuse with words.

Therefore I have great difficulty understanding the passage by both Houses of Congress, in September 2006, of a law that would exempt the President and other members of the Executive Branch from War Crimes culpability under the Geneva Conventions. The law passed both Houses before an Amnesty International campaign to oppose it could get underway; thus members of Congress may never have heard from constituents who would have opposed the law.

Where was the press? Does the press now rely on lobbyists of every stripe to get out the information we need? In the case of the Philadelphia Inquirer in October 2006 we have the information we need to hold government accountable for abuses and deaths from the torture of children; we did not have the information we needed to counter the provisions of this law that excuses a President of war crimes when she or he condones torture.

Like Philadelphia Family Services, the President can bury his or her mistakes, but with impunity.