Obama’s torture problem is only just beginning - Macleans.ca

Obama’s torture problem is only just beginning

It’s a problem, too, for all of us, as we decide what to do with knowledge gained this way


Obama’s torture problem is only just beginningHere is a problem.

Late in 2006, a Guantánamo Bay prison detainee named Abu Zubaydah recounted the treatment he received in 2002 at the hands of his American captors.

“After the beating I was then placed in the small box,” he said. “The wound on my leg began to open and started to bleed. I don’t know how long I remained in the small box, I think I may have slept or maybe fainted . . .

“A black cloth was then placed over my face and the interrogators used a mineral water bottle to pour water on the cloth so that I could not breathe. After a few minutes the cloth was removed and the bed was rotated into an upright position. The pressure of the straps on my wounds was very painful. I vomited.”

Zubaydah is believed to be a senior associate of Osama bin Laden. He was describing his treatment to representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross. In February 2007 the ICRC submitted to the U.S. government a report on the treatment Zubaydah and 13 other high-value detainees faced in a network of “black sites” around the world. Some time later a copy of that classified report found its way to a reporter named Mark Danner. Danner’s 13,000-word account of the ICRC report, the first public description of its contents, is in the current issue of the New York Review of Books.

It’s a problem because the ICRC concludes that the treatment the detainees suffered “constituted torture” and “constituted cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.”

Danner adds: “Such unflinching clarity, from the body legally charged with overseeing compliance with the Geneva Conventions . . . couldn’t be more significant.”

So all of this is a problem for many people, and one among them is Barack Obama.

The new U.S. President has a lot on his plate. He has a banking system to fix and wars to win or wind down. He would like to be bipartisan. He does not like to confront Republicans if he can avoid it. Upon his inauguration he said America would not torture. He ordered the prison at Guantánamo closed. He would like to leave this business of torture at that. He would rather not drag the responsible Bush administration officials, including perhaps his predecessor, to court.

But the question may not be his to decide.

That was the main conclusion I took from my telephone conversation with Mark Danner the other day. His piece in the New York Review is only one of several ways this story is developing, he said. The Senate intelligence committee has announced a “review of the CIA’s detention and interrogation program,” for one. The judiciary committee is calling for a “truth and reconciliation commission” of some sort or other. The American Civil Liberties Union has written to Attorney General Eric Holder demanding a special prosecutor to investigate torture under the Bush administration. Several people who have been detained, including Maher Arar, whose torture was outsourced to Syria, have launched civil suits.

It’s not clear how Obama can control all of that, I said to Danner.

“Well, of course it’s not in his control,” Danner said, chuckling. “He’s only the President.”

Danner said Obama may yet decide “to consolidate some of these things into a broad, blue-ribbon, bipartisan commission, similar to the 9/11 commission.” Not out of a spirit of vindictiveness, but simply to try to get ahead of all these processes that are speeding along whether he wants them or not. “I think he’s in a world of hurt when it comes to these issues. And they’re going to have to confront them. They’ve taken a number of steps already, but they’re at the beginning of trying to deal with these things.”

This is a problem, too, for all of us, as we try to decide what to do with the knowledge that a U.S. government took care to organize a standard of abuse for prisoners in secret prisons around the world, and that a qualified body investigating that treatment took care to call it torture.

You can’t say the detainees made their treatment up. They were kept carefully apart from one another, they could not have colluded, yet their accounts of their treatment match.

You can say these are bad men who had it all coming. But here’s the thing about repeatedly beating a man, making him fester in his own waste, and leading him to believe he will drown: his coerced testimony cannot be used at trial. “One may doubt that any of the 14 ‘high-value detainees’ whose accounts are given in this report will ever be tried and sentenced,” Danner writes.

You could say the abuse wrung information from them that saved lives. Claims to that effect are, to say the least, hotly disputed. In the meantime, remember all those false alarms in 2002 about attacks on banks and shopping malls and nuclear plants? Probably terrified detainees were babbling to make their tormentors stop, kicking off countless wild goose chases.

The widespread abuse of prisoners did have one certain result, however. Alberto Mora, a former U.S. Navy general counsel, told a Senate committee last year: “There are serving U.S. flag-rank officers who maintain that the first and second identifiable causes of U.S. combat deaths in Iraq—as judged by their effectiveness in recruiting insurgent fighters into combat—are, respectively, the symbols of Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo.” The same symbols have reached Afghanistan, where Canadians continue to fight and die.


Obama’s torture problem is only just beginning

  1. Don’t forget about the courts in Spain agreeing to consider criminal charges against ex-Bush administration officials over giving cover of torture at Guantanamo. That seemed to get more US press coverage that I’d have expected.

  2. Great column.

  3. .” Upon his inauguration he said America would not torture. He ordered the prison at Guantánamo closed. He would like to leave this business of torture at that. He would rather not drag the responsible Bush administration officials, including perhaps his predecessor, to court.”

    Clearly there are risks and dangers, mostly political -not least from complcit democrats, for the President to open up that Pandora’s box. But what are the risks and dangers of not acting, and as you say, maybe it’s going to be opened for him. A truth and reconciliation process seems wisest, but speaking personally, i’d like to see some of those sobs go on trial ; starting with Cheney!

  4. And yet most Americans I talk to are largely unmoved by these stories. 9/11 was such a shock and resonates so deeply that many still seem to be in “vengeance” mode.

    As you note, some people are beginning to see the practical problems with this approach (creating new enemies etc.) and the American civil and military lawyers have conducted themselves pretty well. CNN ran some stuff on this, but it obviously generated little interest as they dropped it quite quickly.

    I am a great supporter of America and of the Iraq and Afghanistan efforts, but I find the use of torture, Abu Graib and Guantanamo quite indefensible, and I pray constantly for the day when it will stopped and the perpetrators brought to account.

    • “And yet most Americans I talk to are largely unmoved by these stories. 9/11 was such a shock and resonates so deeply that many still seem to be in “vengeance” mode.”

      I agree, though it’s nothing like it was; i.e. Fox News now looks like self-satire, where before it was quite serious.

      I think the willingness of many Americans to accept torture results from American exceptionalism. The average American not only knows nothing about the world outside America, he cares even less; and is thus apt to regard foreigners in general, and those who fight against America in particular, as less than human.

  5. “…remember all those false alarms in 2002 about attacks on banks and shopping malls and nuclear plants? Probably terrified detainees were babbling to make their tormentors stop, kicking off countless wild goose chases…”

    Probably???? Paul, were you not paying attention? False alarms – of course there will be those in a jittery world when New York’s skyline gets a haircut leaving thousands dead. Aside from Reid (shoe bomber) and Padilla, there are over a dozen documented cases of terror plots on American soil in the past 7 years. I don’t know the source for how these plots were foiled in each case but let me pose this:

    Should we accept that casualties are inevitable while we play by the rules?

    I hate the thought of torture in my name but I’m no utopian. In a perfect world, we wouldn’t have 9/11 or Gitmo etc. but we’ve had both. The terrorists may or may not have useful info. How will you find out what they know?

    • A skilled interrogator doesn’t need to torture.

      • Exactly. Torture is so old-fashioned. We should be experimenting with drug cocktails that will compel the prisoners to tell us whatever they know.

        • Funny you should raise that point, why hasn’t this displaced phsyical torture? Anyone?
          Maybe we’re discounting the sicko factor in torture and punishment.

          • Because it doesn’t work. Or at least not reliably.

          • I know drugs don’t really work. I was just being facetious. The truth is that no interrogation method works reliably, including the psychological methods used by skilled interrogators.

    • “Should we accept that casualties are inevitable while we play by the rules?”


      • Bit dense on that one Jack. Is this an arguement for us playing by the rules? ie, no torture?

        • Sorry, kc, I meant that we should try and accept that innocent people are going to die, one way or another, torture or no torture, and anyway our national honour is worth a lot more than a thousand innocent victims’ lives, such as another big terrorist attack might cause. Funny how the pro-torture Steyn types simultaneously tell us to “be a man” etc. and then run around hysterically at the mere thought that some of us might die.

          • That last one’s a zinger Jack.

  6. You can’t say the detainees made their treatment up. They were kept carefully apart from one another, they could not have colluded, yet their accounts of their treatment match.

    Which makes it unfortunate to these angels’ cause that terrorist training manuals have future prisoners allege torture the moment they are detained to soften up western populations. Suggesting, of course, that the collusion may have occurred PRIOR to, not during, the detention.

    I am not prepared to dismiss the allegations of abusive treatment just because Osama taught his vermin pupils to lie about this exact point. Western countries are indeed supposed to be better than this, and it bothers us all that we might stoop this low. The “ticking time bomb” gives me great pause, however, because I am not convinced how I might react if I was in the position of authority. Oh sure, I could belt out the holier-than-them line and join the choir, but I am a bit queasy that this might be a hypocritical self-delusion.

    • I trust that, in a “ticking time bomb” scenario, your first thought would be for the safety of LA and not for your own legal status after the fact.

      The “ticking time bomb” is not and has never been a realistic possibility. It’s just a smokescreen to allow systematic torture by scaring soft anti-torture people with their worst nightmare.

      • I agree. The ticking time bomb scenarios is a poor argument, I see it as similar to the whole “company too big to fail argument”. It’s simply not realistic, companies that are too big to fail are also to big to keep on losing gargantuan sums of money.

        I also see it as similar to the classic argument that committing a crime is OK as long as it prevents a bigger crime. One such example is the argument that restricting free speech is OK to prevent dissemination of hate. Or eliminating the rights of English-speaking Quebecers is OK in order to preserve French culture. Or institutionalizing people by force is OK in order to make them better.

        The logic goes nowhere, no matter where it is used.

        • Or preventing Canadians from hearing what Galloway has to say, because some may not like what he has to say, is that one of your examples

          • No, that is not an example at all. I’m talking about committing a crime to prevent a bigger crime. How on earth Galloway is an example of that I cannot fathom.

          • sf
            If you’re such an absolutist as to not like hate laws, resriction of language rights in Quebec, then your approval of restrictions on Galloway, and my right to hear and/or reject him as i please, doesn’t look consistent from where i sit.

          • Galloway was stopped because of his financial support for a terrorist organizations, namely Hamas. There is absolutely no dispute that he provided money to Hamas. I am perfectly fine with restricting the mobility rights of people who commit crimes. When somebody commits a murder and is thrown in jail, do you consider that a free-speech issue? Because there is no difference.

            The government did not stop Galloway because of things he has said or will say. There is no such law.

            People can be denied entry to Canada if they have a criminal record in a foreign country or there is clear evidence that they have broken Canadian laws.

            Why is that so hard for you to understand?

            What you are saying is nonsense.

          • I feel myself getting dumber just debating this nonsense, because you are also completely off-topic. You have not even bothered to attempt to describe how Galloway has anything to do with committing a crime to prevent a bigger crime.

            Are you even gonna bother to try to abandon your partisan rant to attempt an answer?

          • First off sf i’m not ranting, it’s you who are debating with yourself. Galloway has broken no law, he delivered relief goods and some money to Hamas. You can argue he was naive or foolish, but not hold him guilty of some ridiculously broad law, that could sweep me up for delivering say: toilet paper to ns. Hamas.
            So Gallway has no criminal record, and it hasn’t been demonstrated at all that he’s broken an absurdly broad Canadian law. I don’t suppose this does fit your ticking bomb theory, but it’s interesting how your absolutism wavers when it’s no longer convenient.

          • Canadian law says
            1- thou shalt not provide financing to terrorist organizations

            Canadian law says
            2- hamas is a terrorist organization

            Now, given those two facts, if you cannot figure out how giving money to hamas is a contravention of Canadian law, then I cannot help you.

          • If it makes any Galloway-lovers feel better, I’m sure Hamas waited until Galloway had left before they sold his “humanitarian supplies” for cash.

          • sf
            Then the law in this instance is an ass. And it is yet to be demonstrated i a court of law he’s breached it. It seems you have no problem with our govt leaving laws so broad as to define support for terrorism, as giving bread to the hungry.
            Please don’t resort to the same cheap theatrics of conbots, it doesn’ look good on you. Am i a “Galloway lover” because i question laws that are too broad? Hamas may have cashed in his food aid, which would make him foolishly naive, but you’re just speculating. Which is pretty well what our govt is doing. I’m sure you don’t approve of guilt by association, any more than i do. Why not let him in and charge him? Because it’s all politics for these clowns.

    • Who called them angels? What a pathetic straw man.

      • At the risk of pathetically assuming you’re serious, Paul:

        A comment adds the recollection of reports that these creeps were trained to cry torture the moment they’re detained. It uses sarcasm to call these detainees “angels,” never once accusing anyone of claiming these people are upstanding humans. Paul naturally plucks that one word out, makes a false claim that the comment alleges something it does not, and shoots it down. The very definition of a straw man fallacy.

        Which, the more I think of it, makes me wonder if it was some of that subtle double-reverse Wellsian wit after all. Nah, I doubt it, at least I hope not, the topic itself is too serious.

        So, I shall continue to enjoy your columns and your blog posts, for you are an excellent writer. I shall endeavour henceforth to refrain from sullying this excellence with commentary, pathetic or otherwise.

        Good night.

        • I think the straw man Paul references is the fact that torture is not warranted regardless of who is in custody, whether the Taliban’s cook or the angel Bin Laden himself.

          But yes, I agree, focusing on that one word is also somewhat of a straw man.

  7. Bloodlust. There is simply nothing that can satiate it …

    “You could say the abuse wrung information from them that saved lives. Claims to that effect are, to say the least, hotly disputed.”

    According to what I read today, I think you are going up against our very own CSISies on this one.

    • “Intelligence gained from torture okay, CSIS says
      CHRIS WATTIE/REUTERS Mar 31, 2009 12:20 PM Toronto Star

      Opposition MPs criticize the security agency ignoring recommendations from Arar inquiry

      OTTAWA – CSIS will still use information that may have been obtained by torture in national security investigations “if lives are at stake,” a senior CSIS official says.

      Geoffrey O’Brian, a CSIS lawyer and advisor on operations and legislation, under questioning by the public safety committee, admitted there is no absolute ban on using intelligence that may have been obtained from countries with questionable human rights records on torture.”

  8. Suggest you all read The Dark Side by Jane Mayor. I f even half of what she documents is provable then many high in Bush’s office (read Cheney) and the CIA could do serious jail time.


  9. the insanity continues – whilst Iran becomes a nuclear power, the Taliban reorganizes under Pakistani protection, god knows what kind of `homegrown’ terror is now being planned – and the Red Cross considers putting women’s underwear in terror suspects faces as `torture.’

    It’s funny: the first person I heard, post 9/11, who suggested that torture, or the infliction of deliberate pain, should be legalized was that great `neo-con’ Alan Dershowitz (I’m aware that some posters here believe all Jews are neo-cons)…

    This is the Red Cross, after all, which calls itself the `Red Crescent’ in Muslim countries, but which refuses to certify a red Maden because the Star of David `is like a swastika.’

    The same Red Cross that in 1942 learned of the Nazi death camps, but refused to divulge their existence (and also countenance torture, without a peep, against u.s. servicemen during the Viet war, remember, all the while while Vietnamese pow’s were under the protection of the Geneva convention).

    I know it’s easy for journalists like Paul Wells, Chris Shelley and posters kc sunshine to fold their arms, holier than thou, and proclaim `torture doesn’t work’, or `torture is always wrong’, but the people who were charged with interrogating these suspects had the awesome responsbility of preventing another 9/11 – which they have in fact done.

    But, nevertheless, the `international community’ will be more exercised over `torture’ – putting women’s panties on someone’s head – than the actual torturers of Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran and other terror fascists.


    • Well that really convinced me, i’m off to practise my waterboarding – any volunteers?…William?

  10. There are only two defensible positions on torture:
    (1) it’s intrinsically wrong, and therefore wrong no matter what benefits it might bring, or
    (2) it’s distasteful but for national security, do whatever is required.

    The problem with (2) is that then one finds oneself not only torturing bad guys, but also torturing and raping their loved ones in order to “do whatever is required” to get the bad guy to talk. In short, you end up with Cambodia, the USSR, ancient Rome, etc. Not good.

    I go with (1), but I doubt Obama will. I don’t think he believes anything is “intrinsically wrong” on principle. After all, if it is morally permissible to tear an unborn child’s limbs off for some greater good, why should it not be permissible to do the same to a terrorist’s child?

    Unfortunately the same could be said for many Canadians. When our survival is at stake, how many will still hold to the principle that torture is wrong if by it they think they can save themselves? Few, I suspect.

    • So you can’t oppose torture if you do support the right to choose. Amazing. If men could have children this wouldn’t even be an issue.

  11. I would like to see more come out about this. My impression all along is that the only maltreatment that went on was sleep deprivation and water-boarding. Apart from these tactics, the Bush administration went through great pains to assure people that the prisoners were given proper treatment, such as Korans, prayer mats, proper meals and so on.

    I think that unquestionably the prisoners will be lying and exaggerating to give the impression that more went on.

    I don’t think tactics such as water-boarding should ever be used. I see the issue the same way as free speech, either you have it or you don’t. In the same vein, either you inflict suffering on prisoners or you don’t.

    However, the administration’s argument all along has been that such tactics are not, in fact, torture. This is where the debate has been and I think this is where it should continue. I hope that the use of water-boarding and sleep deprivation is put to an end.

  12. Sweet puppy, thou shalt not
    Be waterboarded, no,
    Nor strapped into a cot
    In old Guantanamo;

    I picked thee for thine eyes,
    When thou wert just a babe,
    And none shall pulverize
    Thy paws in Abu Ghraib;

    Someday, within the law,
    O loyal dog and dear,
    In Bagram thy wet maw
    Shall make them choke with fear!

    • Very nice! Jack, is this based on a famous poem that I should know? The “Sweet… thou shalt not” seems familiar.

      • Thanks, CR! No, my own non-parody; I had Blake’s “Songs of Innocence” in mind, esp. “The Lamb,” which is also three beats to the line, but trochaic (LITtle LAMB, who MADE thee) and with couplets instead of ABAB.

  13. What is almost always ignored is the number of our troops lives have been lost or horribly maimed because of the ‘tough guy on torture’ tactics these cowards used to placate Chaney, Rummy, and the rest of the ‘Bushies’ trying to give the impression they were tough! COWARDS, every one of them!

    Investigate, indict and incarcerate! We might start to redeem some semblance of honor!

  14. I have a real problem with both the media and the liberals, as well as the judges who give more “rights” to those who are criminals and did damage to this country, then we do to the families and the cost to this country financially. How do we know that these guys didn’t concoct the stories or how bad their “torture” was? The media and the Red Cross are acting like a dog in heat, panting over every little tidbit that just adds to their hatred of Bush and the republicans. Don’t forget, much of what the Bush administration did, both in starting the war, and other responses, had just as much democratic support as Republicans. It was only when public opinion changed (without fact), that the democrats said, “we were for the war, until we were against it”. We had 7 years of peace, because we took the war to the enemy. If the rest of the world doesn’t like it, then let them do something about the terrorists who are home grown in their own counfounded countries. Then we won’t have to.