Thursday, August 27, 2009

Preliminary Thoughts, RE: CIA Torture

With the release earlier this week of the CIA Inspector General's Special Review on Counterterrorism Detention and Interrogation Activities (Sept. 2001-Oct. 2003), the interrogation practices of the CIA and, by extension, the Bush administration have returned to the national spotlight -- even if the health care debate and the passing of Sen. Ted Kennedy pushed it off the front page.

Still, the heavily-redacted report that was actually months in coming (and can be found in its 159-page entirety here) has some merit, particularly in light of news that Attorney General Eric Holder would appoint a Special Prosecutor to investigate interrogation practices. The investigation appears narrow in scope, focusing (initially, at least) on those who performed the actual interrogations.

If the Special Prosecutor (a man named John Durham) finds that CIA interrogators went above and beyond their established protocol, the Department of Justice could levy charges against them. However, as it stands now, the investigation would likely ignore the fact that those protocols -- established by the DoJ, the National Security Council and those within the White House (looking at you, former Vice President Dick Cheney and Attorney General John Ashcroft) -- were in themselves illegal.

Sure, CIA interrogators may have broken the law, but who bears the brunt of the responsibility if the guidelines they were ordered to follow were illegal? I hope Durham's investigation grows in scope as he inevitably follows the bread crumbs to the higher-ups within the previous administration. I've disagreed with President Obama's stance that an investigation of torture practices was unnecessary; if the previous administration broke laws, those responsible should be held accountable for it.

Much to Cheney's -- and late President Richard Nixon's -- dismay, being in the White House doesn't shield you from the law.

Given the size of the report, I've yet to read the entire thing. I have, however, read through the first several pages, and much like I'm doing with Jeff Sharlet's book on C Street and The Family, I figured I'd break down what I read in this report as I come across it, trying to figure out just what all this means with regards to the Bush administration and its War on Terror.

As much as I would love to break down what's hidden beneath the copious black ink boxes that litter almost every page of the report, I cannot. My x-ray vision can't penetrate redacted text. From what some Washington insiders are saying, though, what's hidden under the redacted text -- which sometimes takes up entire pages of the report -- is much worse than the atrocities we can read about now.

Fair warning: once we get to the actual descriptions of torture, this will no longer be an issue for the faint of heart or weak of stomach.

In January 2003, the Deputy Director of Operations (DDO) informed the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) that he had received allegations that CIA personnel had used "unauthorized interrogation techniques" with a detainee named Abd Al-Rahim Al-Nashiri and requested an investigation. Around the same time, the OIG also received intel from some CIA operatives that there were activites at other international detention and interrogation sites that might have involved "violations of human rights."

This is the first mention of anything resembling torture in the report, and it comes on the first page, under the second bullet point (the first was completely redacted).

The report goes on to state that in March 2002, CIA operatives felt that Abu Zubaydah was withholding intel. Feeling the need to extract that information and prevent another terrorist attack, the report claims that CIA officials believed a "more robust approach" was needed. The report goes on to say other al Qaeda operatives were considered for this approach.

CIA interrogators were also apparently aware that captured members of al Qaeda were trained to resist certain interrogation techniques, though the report did not specify what kinds. CIA officials were left with trying to figure out how to overcome these challenges without violating international interrogation laws.

In August 2002, the Department of Justice, along with the National Security Council and the Office of General Council determined that there were 10 specific "enhanced interrogation techniques" that did not violate international torture prohibitions. The early pages of the report did not list the 10 approved methods, though there were "instances of improvisation and undocumented interrogation techniques," presumably times where interrogators took matters into their own hands -- either of their own volition or at the order of a higher authority.

On July 29, 2003, the DoJ informed the CIA that such deviations from protocol were not "significant for purposes of DoJ's legal opinions." In short? Yeah, you broke the rules, but you didn't do it by much, so it's okay.

The report goes on to specify on page 7 that the current interrogation policy (current as of May 7, 2004) differs greatly from the previous policies. CIA operatives had expressed concern that making torture practices public knowledge (which incidentally, this report does) would hurt their reputations, as well as that of the CIA as an organization.

Well, so long as your egos aren't bruised ...

While I've yet to delve into the bulk of the report, preliminary analysis does not look good. I don't care who is responsible for the implementation of torture; whoever made the decisions and ensured they would be enacted deserves to be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law, whether that was Cheney or Ashcroft or the CIA. This is not a matter of Republican versus Democratic ideologies; we're talking about basic human rights and standards of decency. The Geneva Conventions are in place for a reason, and tossing them aside in the interest of national security in unacceptable.

We are the United States of America. We are supposed to be better than this. I fully supported the efforts to bring down those responsible for the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, but when we go into some dark room and waterboard a terrorism suspect, or we tell a detainee we're going to rape his mother in front of him, we are not patriots protecting our land. We become neanderthals who, at our core, are no better than the terrorists we are trying to punish.

Protecting this country from another terrorist attack is a noble effort, and I give those who've done so by the letter of the law by deepest and most eternal gratitude. But to those who authorized and carried out these "enhanced interrogation techniques," I ask this: is our collective safety worth the sacrifice of individual liberty and human decency? Does acting like a rabid animal and channeling your inner Jack Bauer make you more American than the rest of us?

I think not.

Further impressions forthcoming as I continue reading through the report.

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