Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


U.S. Torture is Headline News Again

David P. Forsythe

U.S. torture is back in the headlines. The Feinstein Report about U.S. detention and interrogation practices after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 has been prominently covered in the U.S., Europe, and indeed around the world. Issued by the Democratic majority in the Senate Intelligence Committee without the cooperation of Republicans, the Report was “politicized” from the start in the sense of being caught up in the intense party divisions that characterize Washington these days. Partly because of that party animosity, it may be that no new legislation will be forthcoming to curtail the torture option in the future. Republicans will control both houses of Congress as of January, 2015.

Anyone who has read my book on the subject, published three years ago on the basis of public information, knows the general outline of the story. In the light of the Feinstein Report, I would not change any broad conclusions or big points of analysis. Now we have further proof that the U.S. engaged in cruel treatment of suspected enemy prisoners that sometimes rose to the level of torture, that it was mostly a matter of consciously chosen policy by top officials, that it was often amateurish and confused, and that it was not perfectly clear how much truly valuable intelligence was gained through abusive treatment that was bound to prove controversial when eventually exposed. The new report covers only the CIA, whereas my book covers military detention as well in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Guantanamo.

The Feinstein Report is important for the details it adds to the story, information that was not available when I wrote my book during 2005-2010. The contractors who devised the program, who have been known, were paid over $80 million for a dubious approach that they then supervised and evaluated. In the early days of abuse, those in charge may have misrepresented facts to the lawyers in the Justice Department who wrote the infamous torture memos authorizing abuse. (It was known that the torturers were indeed interacting with the lawyers in the spring and summer of 2002 when both practice and authorization were moving forward.) There are new numbers to debate:  119 total prisoners held by the CIA in secret places, 39 intensely abused, perhaps 26 of 119 wrongly held in mistaken identity. The total number waterboarded remains unclear. We learned of a new technique, “rectal feeding” or “anal rehydration,” which was pretty clearly used to humiliate and control since it was not ordered by any medical official. As such, it may be a form of rape and hence a major human rights violation and war crime. Based on these and other details, some media characterized U.S. policy as depraved.

Nevertheless, this shocking expose, which adds texture to previous accounts such as my own, may not lead to either prosecutions or new U.S. policy. Neither Democratic nor Republican leaders have wanted to criminalize policy decisions by the other side, especially on matters of national security. If Obama sought to put Bush and Cheney in the dock, he might find himself a defendant in the future regarding his policies of drone strikes which include at least one attack targeting an American cleric in Yemen. Convictions are not assured, given the legal memos authorizing abuse by the appropriate office in the Justice Department. Most Republican members of Congress want to sweep the whole matter under the rug, John McCain notwithstanding. About half the public either supports abusive interrogation or is prepared to live with it given the nature of Islamic militants and what they have done and keep trying to do.

Not the least of the troubling facts to emerge is that around 25 European democracies, and more than 50 states overall, supported the Bush abusive policies. This, too, I covered in my book, but the Feinstein Report reminds us as never before of these disturbing points.

About The Author

David P. Forsythe

David P. Forsythe is the author of Human Rights in International Relations....

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