NEWS, OPINION & EDITOR’S COMMENT: Moral clarity on torture

CIA spy calls waterboarding necessary but torture

A leader of the CIA team that captured the first major al Qaeda figure, Abu Zubaydah, says subjecting him to waterboarding was torture but necessary.

In the first public comment by any CIA officer involved in handling high-value al Qaeda targets, John Kiriakou, now retired, said the technique broke Zubaydah in less than 35 seconds.

“The next day, he told his interrogator that Allah had visited him in his cell during the night and told him to cooperate,” said Kiriakou in an interview to be broadcast tonight on ABC News’ “World News With Charles Gibson” and “Nightline.”

“From that day on, he answered every question,” Kiriakou said. “The threat information he provided disrupted a number of attacks, maybe dozens of attacks.” [complete article]

Editor’s Comment — “Because we’re Americans, and we’re better than that” — it’s a popular line, a curious quasi-ethical principal, and it’s John Kiriakou’s reason for no longer supporting the use of torture.

American ideals might be better than that, but Americans and their ideals are not the same. The American government sanctioned torture and American CIA officers have engaged in torture. Therein lies one of the many gaps between America and its ideals.

But to debate the issue of torture in terms of whether it is or is not un-American is to obscure a moral question that is not as complex as it is being made to appear. The issue should not hinge on whether we accept an idealized conception of what it means to be American. It has nothing to do with national identity. It hinges quite simply on whether we accept or reject the principle that the ends justifies the means.

Any time the phrase “saving American lives” enters the torture debate an ends-justifies-the-means argument is being employed. At the same time, no one actually wants to positively assert this line of reasoning. If the ends really do justifies the means then it shouldn’t make any difference what those means are — pulling out finger nails, raping relatives — why would anything be off limits if it could be shown to be effective in saving American lives?

On the other side is a pragmatic (and seemingly safe) argument: torture shouldn’t be used because it doesn’t work. It yields false confessions and there are much better non-violent means to tease out valuable information. This is also a means-ends argument that merely challenges the assumption that the means will accomplish the aims. (And not only is it a means-ends argument; it’s also rather easy to counter. All you have to do is present a case — as the CIA has just done — where it appears that torture “worked.”)

And then there’s the question of who gets tortured. To cite evidence that Abu Zubaydah may not have been a high-level al Qaeda operative is to imply that the legitimacy of torture is affected by the potential for the victim to cough up some valuable information. In other words, it implies that torture might be justifiable if it can be demonstrated that this particular person is really “worth” torturing. (Again, the CIA — on behalf of Bush-Cheney — presses the case that it has been extremely selective in who gets tortured.)

Ultimately, the only unambiguous moral position to take is to say that a calculated effort to make a human being suffer is immoral – it doesn’t make any difference who that person is or how well-intentioned the torturer might be. That’s moral clarity and that’s the principle that law and policy should embody.

The torture of Abdul Hamid al-Ghizzawi

On December 7, 2006, he was among several hundred detainees randomly selected and moved to the newest detention camp at Guantanamo, Camp 6, which was designed to hold the majority of the detainees. According to Amnesty International, and in contravention of international standards, all detainees in Camp 6 are held under conditions of “extreme isolation and sensory deprivation for a minimum of 22 hours a day in individual steel cells with no windows to the outside.”

Their cells reportedly are extremely small. The only source of light is fluorescent lighting that is on 24 hours a day and the only air is air-conditioning, both of which are controlled by the prison guards. The detainees reportedly are allowed two hours of “recreation time” a day to be spent in a metal cage measuring four feet by four feet. (That’s 1/3 the size of a ping-pong table.)

Al-Ghizzawi’s lawyer says that his guards frequently give him his “rec time” in the middle of the night or, sometimes, in the middle of the day when the cage is in the hot sun. Detainees in Camp 6 have no access to radio, television or newspapers. They are given one book a week.

According to his lawyer, Al-Ghizzawi’s eyesight has deteriorated so significantly that he is now unable to read. Thus he now spends his time pacing in his cell. All of the detainees at Guantanamo reportedly are forbidden telephone calls and family visits, and most are not allowed to touch another human being. The detainees are not given any blankets. Their only cover is a plastic sheet.

There is no reason to believe that Al-Ghizzawi’s treatment is exceptional. If his is at all an exceptional case, it is exceptional because he has twice been unanimously declared not to be an enemy combatant. [complete article]

Watching torture

The footage was blurry, shot with a handheld 8mm camera in the poor light filtering through the shack’s small windows. There was no sound—which lent merciful distance to what it showed: the interrogation of some unidentified middle-aged man, undergoing falanga, mostly (beatings to pulp the feet), though the session culminated in anal rape with a stick. What remains as a true horror in the memory is less those activities than the demeanor of the inquisitors. A couple of men in shirts were administering the torture. But a pair of interrogators stood off to one side, mostly out of the frame. They came to the victim before and after each bout, evidently asking questions. Then they’d go back out of frame, to let the next round of beatings commence. Two men in neat dark suits, professionals, just doing a job—unpleasant, perhaps, but necessary, as they saw it, for the safety of the state.

That no doubt is the true horror of the tapes the CIA destroyed—worse, even, than the sight of the torture procedures themselves. We assume it shows waterboarding, the near-drowning of someone strapped to a cruciform plank. Memories of that Savak instructional film tell me, indelibly, what the videos would have looked like: the torturers calmly pouring water over the cloth covering the victims’ faces, the frenzied chest-heavings as the bodies went into shock, the gasping and retching as each session ended. More horrifying still would have been the actions, or inactions, of all those standing around. There must have been interrogators, and an interpreter. Certainly a doctor, watching the victims’ vital signs on a monitor to gauge how long each session could last. This being America, there may have even been a lawyer on hand. All professionals, doing something unpleasant, but—you understand—necessary for the safety of the state. And at the end of the day, one assumes, they drove home to their families.

This is where 9/11 has brought us. No wonder Rodriguez destroyed those tapes. [complete article]

Lawyers cleared destroying tapes

Lawyers within the clandestine branch of the Central Intelligence Agency gave written approval in advance to the destruction in 2005 of hundreds of hours of videotapes documenting interrogations of two lieutenants from Al Qaeda, according to a former senior intelligence official with direct knowledge of the episode.

The involvement of agency lawyers in the decision making would widen the scope of the inquiries into the matter that have now begun in Congress and within the Justice Department. Any written documents are certain to be a focus of government investigators as they try to reconstruct the events leading up to the tapes’ destruction.

The former intelligence official acknowledged that there had been nearly two years of debate among government agencies about what to do with the tapes, and that lawyers within the White House and the Justice Department had in 2003 advised against a plan to destroy them. But the official said that C.I.A. officials had continued to press the White House for a firm decision, and that the C.I.A. was never given a direct order not to destroy the tapes.

“They never told us, ‘Hell, no,’” he said. “If somebody had said, ‘You cannot destroy them,’ we would not have destroyed them.” [complete article]

Editor’s Comment — Any decent mafia boss knows how to avoid implicating himself in a crime.

See also, Gitmo inmate’s lawyer urges U.S. on photos (AP).

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