Tuesday, June 06, 2006


Torture is Neither Justified nor Effective

by Michael Smith - The Sunday Times

Concern over the arbitrary way in which the US administration attempts to justify its abuse of prisoners as in Extraordinary Renditions and Guantanamo Bay had eased recently with clear signs that under pressure from its allies, and in particular Britain, the White House was looking to find a way to get rid of the Guantanamo problem. But it is now clear such optimism was misplaced.

The Pentagon has decided that a new army interrogation manual on the use of torture won't include a key tenet of the Geneva Conventions, that prisoners should not be subject to "humiliating and degrading treatment”. Military lawyers had attempted to make Article 3 of the conventions, which covers this issue, a key part of the manual in an attempt to prevent a recurrence of the abuses meted out to Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib.

But Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld intervened, through their sidekicks David Addington, the vice-president’s chief of staff, and Stephen Cambone, Rumsfeld’s protégée and defence under-secretary for intelligence. Their argument was that including a clause banning "humiliating and degrading treatment” would restrict America’s ability to question detainees. Yes. I know. That's the whole point. But in an atmosphere where senior officials think anything goes it is perhaps unsurprising that scandals such as Abu Ghraib occur. It might even be argued that the alleged massacre at Haditha can be traced back to this "anything goes" attitude from on high.

The Bush administration has performed a series of somersaults in its attempts to show that it “does not torture" prisoners, carefully articulating its own definition of what is and is not torture. In August 2002, the Department of Justice issued a memo which said that the Geneva Conventions preventing interrogators inflicting “severe pain” only referred to pain "equivalent in intensity to the pain accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death." It added that “humiliating and degrading treatment” was only such if it caused long-term psychological damage to the victim.

This provided a wonderful Catch-22 situation of course. Unless the prisoner died, he could not be subject to “severe pain” and since there was no way of knowing if any “humiliating and degrading treatment” was causing long-term psychological damage, the prisoner could effectively be subjected to any form of humiliating and degrading treatment until the point where he became a gibbering wreck.

That memo was eventually withdrawn, in December 2004. But between August 2002 and December 2004 it was the official position of the US administration that it could administer both “severe pain” and “humiliating and degrading treatment” to prisoners so long as they did not die and remained sane. Last week, an Army dog handler became the 11th US soldier to be convicted in relation to the Abu Ghraib scandal, in which Iraqi prisoners were subjected to humiliating treatment during late 2003 and early 2004. You will not however see any Department of Justice officials in the dock.

The August 2002 Department of Justice memo at least placed a limit of sorts on the use of “humiliating and degrading treatment”. The new Army interrogation manual does not even do that. But rest assured that when a prisoner is sent insane by such treatment Messrs Addington and Cambone, and for that matter Cheney and Rumsfeld, will be perfectly safe from prosecution.

There will be some of course who will argue that such methods are justified in the new war we are fighting, the war on terror, or the Long War as it is now apparently known. Any means of getting terrorists to talk is justified in order to get the intelligence we need. Well by coincidence, just as the Pentagon was reaffirming that it doesn’t need to worry about the niceties of the Geneva Convention, the CIA was releasing a 1996 interrogation manual, which states:

“The question of torture should be disposed of at once. Quite apart from moral and legal considerations, physical torture or extreme mental torture is not an expedient device. Maltreating the subject is from a strictly practical point of view as short-sighted as whipping a horse to his knees before a thirty-mile ride. It is true that almost anyone will eventually talk when subjected to enough physical pressures, but the information obtained in this way is likely to be of little intelligence value.”

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