Tortured Parlance

by Jeff Fleischer

(BuzzFlash, May 28, 2009)


Say one thing for Dick Cheney: The man knows how to stage publicity for a comeback tour.

For the past few weeks, the former vice president has been acting less like a retired official and more like a shadow minister in a parliamentary system. He’s become more visible in that span than he was for long stretches of his actual time in office, and has managed to launch yet another round of debate between the Republican base and the party’s shrinking moderate wing.

Most of his public comments have treaded familiar territory, and therefore much of the coverage has focused on tired back and forth about the differences between the Bush Administration and the Obama Administration. As The Wall Street Journal put it, “Like him or loathe him, Mr. Cheney forced the president to engage him.” The former VP has trotted out a lot of the same old falsehoods, from still insisting faulty intelligence led to the Iraq invasion to employing the trope that Al Qaeda “hates us for our freedom.”

On the issue of torture, however, Cheney has introduced a clever — and dangerous — rhetorical trick.

After years of denying that the American military and intelligence agencies employed torture at all, he’s now justifying its use on the worst of the suspected terrorists currently imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay and treating those men as if they were the only targets of torture. It’s a trick progressives, moderates, and conservatives of conscience shouldn’t let him pull off.

“For all that we’ve lost in this conflict, the United States has never lost its moral bearings,” Cheney actually said to the American Enterprise Institute last week. “And when the moral reckoning turns to the men known as high-value terrorists, I can assure you they were neither innocent nor victims. As for those who asked them questions and got answers: they did the right thing, they made our country safer, and a lot of Americans are alive today because of them.”

Showing the same intentional naiveté he did when acting on worst-case scenarios about WMD, Cheney is trying to cast these high-value terrorists as the central figures in the torture debate. In the process, he’s getting news coverage and even the Congress to respond to extreme and atypical cases and discuss them as somehow the norm.

In his AEI speech, Cheney focused at length on the waterboarding of Khalid Sheikh Muhammed, allegedly one of the masterminds behind the attacks of September 11. Without citing any examples, he also continued to insist that the torture of the high-value prisoners prevented further attacks on American soil — the phantom “ticking time bomb.”

This is the ground on which pro-torture officials, both civilian and military, want to fight this battle. For good reason. Nobody’s going to feel any sympathy for the likes of KSM, and the time-bomb scenario — if it were true — could provide a plausible case of noble ends justifying awful means.

The reality, as the public well knows by now, is that torture was far more pervasive during the Bush years and that its rot continues to run deep. When talking about Guantanamo and waterboarding, it’s crucial not to ignore the larger scope of the problem.

Official government documents showed that by 2005, more than 100 detainees were already killed in military custody. At least 27 of those were officially deemed homicides, as Lawrence Wilkerson, Colin Powell’s former chief of staff, recently reiterated in testimony to Congress. Those numbers only cover official prisons, as there is so far no public data regarding the results of torture on Navy prison ships in international waters or in secret prisons, nor for prisoners tortured by other countries under rendition arrangements. The Bush Administration routinely paid ruthless dictatorships to do its dirty work for it. Just a year after 9/11, a regime in Uzbekistan — best known for boiling pro-democracy advocates alive — was getting $500 million for use of its air bases, while also serving as a rendition (and alleged torture) site.

By May 2004, the public had already seen the notorious photos from Abu Ghraib prison, which demonstrated that torture was not used merely to extract information from high-value terror suspects. At a time when the International Red Cross determined somewhere between 70 and 90 percent of Iraqis arrested by the American military were wrongly imprisoned, those photos showed some of those prisoners tortured by smiling, posing troops. These were not evidence of serious interrogation but of sadists enjoying themselves. And they weren’t alone. That same year, the Nation reported about Web sites where tens of thousands of American troops swapped photos of torture and the killing of civilians as if those acts were trophies to boast about. And these are just a few examples.

Cheney has been extra motivated to argue for torture’s effectiveness given April hearings of the Senate Armed Services Committee, where former FBI interrogator Ali Soufan’s written testimony became the latest voice saying those techniques don’t work. (Soufan called them “ineffective, slow, and unreliable, and as a result harmful to our efforts to defeat Al Qaeda.”) Oh, and there was that report from McClatchy newspapers in which a senior intelligence official reported that “enhanced interrogation techniques” were used to try extracting false information about links between Iraq and Al Qaeda. In other words, getting suspects to say what officials wanted to hear.

Of course, Guantanamo Bay is the backdrop against which this round of the torture debate is playing out. Closing the camp is a no-brainer, as was Obama’s announcement just days into his administration that he would do so. It’s a rare foreign-policy move that can earn the unanimous support of America’s living secretaries of state, a group as philosophically diverse as Henry Kissinger, James Baker, and Madeleine Albright. Yes, Obama still needs to put forward a fully realized plan for how to prosecute the remaining prisoners, and it’s crucial not to just shift them to another base that just becomes Guantanamo II.

While Cheney and others accuse those who oppose torture of looking to the past, those past policies continue their impacts. Obama must do his best to stop them, and the best way to do that is the prosecution of offenders. Not just the low-level Charles Graners and Lynndie Englunds who already received too-light sentences or just the high-level authors of the torture memos. Punishment should go beyond partisan congressional investigations and into the realm of law enforcement, so that those who raped, tortured and murdered unarmed prisoners — and those who authorized it — are taken off taxpayer-funded payrolls and made to pay for their crimes.

“Any abuse of detainees is unacceptable,” President Obama said last week. “It is against our values. It endangers our security. It will not be tolerated.”

It’s time to stop tolerating it. Time to talk about and act on all levels of this problem, rather than letting a disgraced former vice president limit the focus.

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