Here 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.