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London Review of Books (UK)
Are We There Yet?
Read other reviews for "Torture and Truth"

By David Simpson February 17, 2005

TORTURE AND TRUTH
America, Abu Ghraib, and the War on Terror
By Mark Danner
Granta, 573 pp, £16.99
[ Buy from the London Review Bookshop ] ·

THE TORTURE PAPERS
The Road to Abu Ghraib
ed. Karen Greenberg and Joshua Dratel
Cambridge, 1284 pp, £27.50
[ Buy from the London Review Bookshop ] ·


Where does it stop? The events at Abu Ghraib prison show no signs of vanishing into historical inertia. On the contrary, they seem to be replicating themselves throughout the defenceless body politic of the ‘coalition of the willing’: even the Danes now apparently have their scandal. The photographs of British misdeeds made public after a hapless soldier took his film to be developed at a shop on his local high street have given us Camp Bread Basket, another probable icon of infamy. The photos are hard to read. Are the clenched fists and heavy boots caught in midair about to break the bones and bruise the flesh of defenceless prisoners, or are they posed for the camera in a gesture of simulated, lookalike bravado? Are they staged re-enactments of beatings that have already taken place, or prophecies of those to come? We will not know more until the court martial runs its course, and we may not know everything even then. The assessment has just begun. Meanwhile in the US the American Civil Liberties Union recently released another report listing various cases of torture and abuse, some already investigated and others, often involving the Special Forces, perhaps yet to be explored or convincingly resolved.

Mark Danner’s opening thesis, formulated of course before this latest round of revelations, is that the wide circulation of the Abu Ghraib photographs, startling though they were when first released, has increasingly worked to ‘block a full public understanding of how the scandal arose and how what Americans did at Abu Ghraib was ultimately tied to what they had been doing in Afghanistan, Guantanamo, and elsewhere’ in the so-called war on terror. So here he offers a reprint of some of the most important items in the historical record, an invitation to read the small print that prefigured and followed on the scenes now embedded in our memory and reproduced all over the world as icons of the Coalition’s cruelty and hypocrisy: a hooded man standing on a box with wires hooked up to his limbs and genitals; a dead man wrapped in plastic sheeting; a naked man on a leash; a man cowering in front of a soldier with a dog. The 32 photographs (out of more than two hundred) that make up the public record of the tortures and abuses at Abu Ghraib during the last three months of 2003 are here reproduced in modestly minimised format, squeezed onto eight pages in the middle of the book. They are still shocking, and their meanings and implications have yet to be fully understood, digested and discussed. I would not say that they are blocking a full public understanding, which is not something we should be in a rush to think we have achieved. But they do call for words, and the words are coming thick and fast. Torture and Truth reproduces some of them: the prisoner testimonies, the Red Cross report, the three official investigations (Taguba, Fay/Jones and Schlesinger) that have separately reported on the events, along with the record of various defining exchanges in 2001-02 between lawyers in the White House, the US Department of State and the Department of Defense discussing the Geneva protocols, interrogation techniques and POW categories, all of these preceded in the book by reprints of Danner’s own essays, published in the New York Review of Books between May and November 2004.

The even more extensive compilation of documents assembled by Karen Greenberg and Joshua Dratel includes all of these, along with further Bush administration internal memoranda from the years 2001-04, important reports critical of the administration from the New York City Bar Association (April 2004) and the American Bar Association (August 2004), and the 300-page Mikolashek report (July 2004), in which the army’s inspector general reported on detainee operations.

It has been widely claimed, as it is here by Danner, that the establishment of separate inquiries reporting on bits and pieces of the Abu Ghraib affair as they involved the army (Taguba), military intelligence (Fay-Jones) and the Department of Defense (Schlesinger), has had the intended effect of diminishing any awareness of the connectedness and deliberate coherence of the pattern of abuse, and its relation to policies originating at the top of the chain of command. But a careful reading of these reports produces much that should impede any such displacement. The soldiers on trial for their part in the Abu Ghraib atrocities were following routines established (and continued) in Afghanistan, at Guantanamo, and at other sites in occupied Iraq. They are not so different from the routines familiar to British troops (the MoD has admitted that seven Iraqis have died in British custody) and to torturers the world over. One Department of Defense legal brief (11 October 2002) actually discusses the legal implications of the aggressive interrogation techniques of the British in Northern Ireland, which overlap with some of those favoured by US forces: hooding, loud noise, prolonged standing, deprivation of food, water and sleep. All the reports share a rhetorical emphasis on the ‘few bad apples’ argument: the events at Abu Ghraib are variously framed as ‘wanton acts of select soldiers’, or as ‘aberrant behaviour’ carried out by ‘a small group of morally corrupt soldiers and civilians’. This is constantly undercut, however, by the evidence of the authors of the reports themselves, who argue for ‘institutional and personal responsibility at higher levels’, discover clear or ambiguous permission for stronger than normal interrogation techniques in a number of memos and findings, and point to intense pressure for results from frustrated military officers. In the light of these accounts, Abu Ghraib does seem to have been exceptional in its vulnerability to mortar attack, its radically overcrowded conditions, its low morale and obscure command structure, lack of coherent record-keeping and prisoner identification, and for the sense among those running it that it was a ‘forgotten outpost receiving little support from the army’. There is agreement that 80 to 90 per cent, or more, of those rounded up were innocents with no information of any use to the coalition. But the goings-on there were not categorically different from procedures at other internment camps and prisons. They just happened to generate some unforgettable photographs that found their way into the public domain and generated an intense pressure for explanations.

The earliest records reprinted in these books are of various lobbies at the highest levels of the US administration in late 2001 and early 2002 jostling to impose their own understanding of the relevance or irrelevance of the Geneva Conventions to the ‘war on terror’. These are among the documents that have been in the headlines recently during the confirmation hearings for Alberto Gonzales, Bush’s nominee for attorney general, who signed the one calling some of the Geneva Conventions ‘quaint’. Over the objections of the State Department, Bush decided in February 2002 that al-Qaida and Taliban ‘detainees’ were not entitled to protection under the terms of the Geneva Prisoner of War provision, but he affirmed that humane policies would govern US practice anyway, and that persons would be treated ‘in a manner consistent with the principles of Geneva’, though only ‘to the extent appropriate and consistent with military necessity’. This circumlocution may have been crucial both in its claim that the US does not need Geneva because it is committed to humane behaviour as a matter of course, and in its introduction of the weasel clause about military necessity. It also set the terms of a policy that was not revised or revisited when the ‘enemy’ ceased to be al-Qaida or the Taliban and became Iraq, whose citizens, as the Fay/Jones report admits, obviously qualify for the protections of Geneva. These are some of the legal and political obfuscations that follow from the ruthless and reckless running together of the war in Afghanistan and the invasion of Iraq, as if one were the natural continuation of the other.

The disturbing record of the effort to rationalise and legitimate various degrees of pain and suffering as essential to a military need or as not quite in breach of humane behaviour is written into the three main official reports, which were in progress even before Abu Ghraib became public knowledge: the Taguba inquiry began in January 2004 in response to the photographic evidence of abuse handed to his superior officers by Specialist Joseph Darby. Major General Taguba filed his report in early March, six weeks before some of the photos (but only a few) were published. In all the reports reprinted in these books, acronyms constantly distract the reader from any actual agents or victims under discussion – the global war on terror is simply GWOT. Laborious disambiguation operates to assure us, for example, that ‘adjusting the sleeping times of the detainee . . . is NOT sleep deprivation.’ Euphemisms abound. We are told that relations between interrogators and detainees are ‘frequently adversarial’, but that (as if one were applying for a bank loan) ‘detainee interrogation involves developing a plan tailored to an individual and approved by senior interrogators’: elsewhere this turns out to include ‘use of detainees’ individual phobias (such as fear of dogs) to induce stress’ and something called ‘forced grooming’. The New York City Bar Association is explicit in using the word ‘torture’; the more ingratiating Red Cross report consistently favours ‘ill-treatment’. ‘Segregation’, we are told, should not be conflated with ‘isolation’ although it often became so in practice. Detainee 28, who died in custody, received his fatal injury from being ‘butt-stroked’, a weirdly punning and oxymoronic coinage that (one infers) indicates being hit on the head with a rifle butt to ‘suppress the threat he posed’. Dogs are kept around to ‘help provide a controlled atmosphere . . . that helps reduce risk of detainee demonstrations or acts of violence’.

This same rhetoric of decorous and delicate specification, friendly and confiding, as if all measures taken are for the detainees’ own good, informs the discussions of what is and is not torture. Assistant Attorney General Jay Bybee (since appointed by Bush to the federal bench) opens his August 2002 memo with the assurance that ‘certain acts may be cruel, inhuman or degrading, but still not produce pain and suffering of the requisite intensity to fall within Section 2340A’s proscription against torture.’ To qualify as torture, the pain must be ‘equivalent in intensity to the pain accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function, even death’. This is the memo that was, some say cynically, retracted and revised the week before the Gonzales confirmation hearings (although it then emerged that the White House had successfully resisted any serious weakening of the right to apply force up to – and including? – the point of torture). Imagine an interrogator getting his or her hands on this and trying to decide at precisely what point the inhuman and degrading turns into torture. Are we there yet?

Reading on, we find that Section 2340A might need to be violated anyway in conditions of ‘necessity or self-defence’: all of this to argue against the possibility of criminal liability on the part of US interrogators. Guantanamo protocols begin with polite questioning – ‘the detainee should be provided a chair and the environment should be generally comfortable’ – move up through four-hour stress positions and 30-day isolation, and end in Category III, where the notorious water treatment, described as ‘use of a wet towel and dripping water to induce the misperception of suffocation’, sits alongside the bland and incommodious ‘use of mild, non-injurious physical contact such as grabbing, poking in the chest with the finger, and light pushing’. How could anyone imagine that a light push incurs a comparable response to being almost suffocated in a wet towel? Twenty-hour interrogations are permissible as long as they ‘are not done for the purpose of causing harm or . . . prolonged mental suffering’: no problem, time’s up, off you go! The water treatment can similarly be approved if it is not carried out ‘with the specific intent to cause prolonged mental harm’. Similar evasions, sometimes artful and sometimes so bizarre as to appear fantastical, govern much of the language of these documents, which seem designed to make almost anything permissible under the right conditions, or to justify anything that happened on the assumption that the right conditions might have been deemed by somebody to have been present. Before and after humans are tortured – or was it just inhumane abuse? – the language itself is dismembered and disjoined. The lawyers do the work.

One of the most chilling items in this long record of graduated cruelty and implausibly rationalised measurement of pain is the transcription of a handwritten note commenting on the four-hour standing technique in the approved section of the interrogator’s manual: ‘However, I stand for 8-10 hours a day. Why is standing limited to 4 hours? D.R.’ D.R. is apparently Donald Rumsfeld: the same Rumsfeld who was recently revealed, as US military deaths in Iraq were pushing 1300, to have signed all the letters of condolence with a machine signature, and who chastised an impertinent combat soldier with a reminder that he serves in the army he has and not the one he wants. According to his employer, this man’s gruff exterior hides a heart of gold. It does not apparently hide an imagination capable of having any sense of what the body of the other might be experiencing, as he stands stock still in threatening conditions under interrogation (with or without clothes, women’s underpants, the hood or the electrodes). Why only four hours? Why not ten or 12, so that the detainees suffer at least as much as the poor public servant shuttled between one big decision and the next, chaperoned by bodyguards and ministered to by faithful employees? It is easy to be sarcastic, harder to know how else to respond. What goes on in the mind and heart of a man who could write that note? What does it bode for the fate of nations that he occupies one of the most powerful positions in the world? It was Rumsfeld who approved more forceful interrogation techniques at Guantanamo in December 2002, only to rescind them under pressure from navy lawyers a month later. Various modifications and limited permissions for such obscure tactics as ‘pride and ego down’ and ‘environmental manipulation’ continued to be devised and approved, and various items from the menu were taken up by interrogators in Iraq after the invasion of March 2003.

Very evident in these records is the ‘ticking bomb’ scenario beloved of classroom theorists and house intellectuals. This is the question of whether and how much to torture a prisoner in possession of vital information that would save lives but only if revealed promptly. (Gonzales found parts of the Geneva Convention’s provisions and legal protocol ‘quaint’ in the light of the need to ‘quickly obtain information . . . to avoid further atrocities’.) A DoD working group reported in April 2003 that the possibility of ‘catastrophic harm’ might justify the use of ‘exceptional’ techniques of interrogation. And Bush’s memo of February 2002 left open the possibility of more extreme actions in conditions of ‘military necessity’. The Schlesinger report tells of a case in which unauthorised violence against a detainee is said to have succeeded in saving American lives, and mentions two cases at Guantanamo where ‘additional techniques’ gained ‘important and time-urgent information’. The report finds that such situations bring about a ‘perplexing moral problem’, and resolves this by saying that violating the norms may be ‘understandable but not necessarily correct’. In other words, it will happen but we don’t permit it.

At the same time, Bush’s ‘military necessity’ appears to leave all options open to those who decide where that necessity applies, and the White House lawyers from the very start were anxious that nothing interfere with the president’s ability to do whatever he deemed necessary for the security of the country. The ticking bomb scenario is by all accounts extremely rare: Alan Dershowitz, who has written a widely circulating essay about it, mentions only one case in the official hist-ory of Israeli intelligence.* The New York City Bar Association’s report refutes any argument favouring the torture of imputed ticking bomb terrorists, pointing out that there can never be any certainty that any prisoner has such information. And indeed the evidence is now overwhelming and widely circulated that few if any of the Abu Ghraib detainees were other than completely innocent, let alone in possession of critical intelligence. What must be very common, however, is the situation in which the interrogator does not know whether or not the detainee has such information, but wonders whether he might and is therefore unsure how to proceed. By its very nature ‘time- urgent information’ cannot wait for complex official approval. How would one expect an interrogator who is not sure what he has or what he is looking for to respond to the ticking bomb example? How can the constant reference to this hypothetical case fail to create an atmosphere which pressures interrogators into thinking that they might have such a case on their hands, and had better act as if they do? The state of exception or emergency presumed by the ticking bomb scenario is in fact the normative state of the nation at war, and the US is now indefinitely at war. Giorgio Agamben tells us that the power of the modern state is always premised on the state of exception and on its ability to dispose of bare life as it sees fit and with impunity. The Jay Bybee memo provides empirical evidence of just this, as it argues away any limits on the president’s ‘constitutional power to conduct a military campaign’. Indeed it finds that any efforts to impose limits must themselves be ‘unconstitutional’: even Congress is thought to have no say in how troops are deployed or how prisoners are interrogated.

Some might suppose that we do not need such an elaborate account of why the events at Abu Ghraib and in so many other places whose stories are still coming to light might have occurred. Could it be that we are in the world described in Lord of the Flies, or in Elizabeth Costello, J.M. Coetzee’s latest novel, where the protagonist proposes that there are no laws for the prisoner of war who ‘does not belong to our tribe. We can do what we want with him . . . cut his throat, tear out his heart, throw him on the fire’? Several of those reporting in these books affirm that there is no single cause to which the Abu Ghraib paradigm can be attributed. All acknowledge that clear rules and functional chains of command can do much to pre-empt unregulated torture, even as the documents determining the regulations themselves allow for torture (though it is not called that) to take place. Are we seeing evidence for some grotesque flaw in human nature, so that we should not be surprised at the occurrence of similar events in all situations where one person has power over another, where we are to each other as flies to wanton boys?

The Schlesinger report’s one major foray into academic evidence refers to the findings of the 1973 Stanford University experiment simulating prison conditions in which ‘we witnessed a sample of normal, healthy American college students fractionate into a group of prison guards who seemed to derive pleasure from insulting, threatening, humiliating and dehumanising their peers.’ The worse it got, the worse it got; each level of cruel behaviour encouraged a yet higher level. Should we then be either surprised or morally self-assured at the photos of young men and women in uniform leering at or torturing naked prisoners in an overcrowded prison in Iraq? As more and more evidence comes out of similar episodes in Afghanistan, Guantanamo, Mosul, Basra and so on, it does begin to be clear that abusive behaviour, even torture, is not the exception and is not to be accounted for simply by the ‘few bad apples’ argument. Records released in December 2004 under the terms of the US Freedom of Information Act – some ten thousand pages with more to come – make clear that abuse/ torture has been generic rather than exceptional in all branches of the military.

This is by no means an exclusively American problem: stories from Deepcut barracks in England suggest that if no foreign enemy is at hand then proxies can be created. The confidential Red Cross report on Guantanamo, details of which became public at the end of November, stated that the treatment of prisoners there ‘amounted to torture’ – this finding was the result of a visit in June 2004, after the worldwide circulation of the Abu Ghraib photos. A similar Red Cross report concerning the British treatment of Iraqis and delivered to the British government in February 2004 was kept confidential (by the standard agreement), despite requests for a public accounting. Blair’s government, responding to accusations by Amnesty International and others of stalling or inaction on complaints about the deaths and abuse of civilians, has also defended itself pre-emptively by claiming that the European Convention on Human Rights does not apply in Iraq. George Carey, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, was quoted in May 2004 as distinguishing between the ‘barbaric’ televised executions of Westerners and the merely ‘shameful’ abuses of Iraqis by Westerners. This effort to tabulate degrees of cruelty (in our favour) is not comfortably distinct from lawyers’ verbal ingenuities. Those lawyers turned gratefully to decisions made by the European Court of Human Rights which held that certain Abu Ghraib-like procedures employed by the British in Northern Ireland were not extreme enough to be called torture; the Israeli Supreme Court was similarly complacent when it decided that behaviour could be ‘cruel and inhuman’ without amounting to torture. Meanwhile, a self-exonerating essay in the New York Times by Michael Koubi, a former Israeli interrogator, claiming that only ‘very low levels’ of physical coercion were used, was answered by a letter from the executive director of Amnesty International (on 27 December last year) giving evidence that during the period in question – 1987-93 – torture was routine in Israel.

But it is the recent US involvement in acts amounting to torture that has made headlines all over the world, and that continues to preoccupy the American public, its politicians and the media, who have been made aware not only of torture in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo, but at other out of the way locations to which the US secretly sends its captives under a policy known as ‘rendition’. Nothing that the coalition has done is as bad as ‘chopping someone’s head off on television’, Rumsfeld is supposed to have said when presented with increasing evidence of widespread torture: our behaviour is shameful, perhaps, rather than barbaric. Efforts to fine-tune language in the face of complex experience might normally be welcomed as the sign of an active and critical intelligence at work. When it comes to deciding whether near-suffocation with a wet towel is torture or just cruel and inhuman behaviour, critical taxonomy itself has been suborned in the service of power. The damage being done works on the perpetrators as well as the victims. The Schlesinger report wonders whether the employment of euphemistic language at Abu Ghraib could have led to ‘moral disengagement’. The language of evasion increases the likelihood of cruel behaviour: I am more likely to feel justified in beating someone to a pulp if I know I am arguably within the law or sheltered by a benign definition of what I am doing. This is radical damage to the other but also significant damage to the self. Schlesinger also supposes that the sight of naked prisoners might have worked to dehumanise them further and thus to incite even more abusive actions on the part of the guards. A DoD working group report of April 2003 notes that reports of torture have an adverse effect, not only on the level of ‘support for the war on terrorism’ but also ‘on the cultural self-image of US military forces’. Many ordinary soldiers pressed or tempted into dehumanising others come to feel very bad about what they have done even when it was done in life-and-death situations: many such persons have already returned from Iraq and told their stories. Some of them testified in the court martial of Specialist Charles Graner, one of the prominent figures in the Abu Ghraib atrocities. Graner, sentenced to ten years in prison and given a dishonourable discharge, has yet to discover or announce any regrets or second thoughts. His lawyer once again tried the tactic of comparing Abu Ghraib to a college romp, and the leashing of prisoners to what parents do to toddlers at airports. But for many soldiers, a serious self-loathing is likely to be attached to gratuitous brutality directed at internees, especially when the vast majority are innocent. The cost of victory is partly (though never equally) paid by the victors. We do not suffer as much as those we make suffer, but we don’t escape without damage.

The lesson to be drawn from Abu Ghraib and these investigations of it is indeed one about the widespread culpability (and sometimes the integrity) of US military personnel and also, more chillingly and with fewer extenuating arguments, of the lawyers and politicians who give them their orders. The part of the historical record that these books reprint is an invaluable resource, all the more so because, as books, they are far more durable and available than any series of virtual documents on the web. By offering themselves for slow reading and rereading, they also open up for discussion some of the deeper issues governing the way we perpetrate and respond to conduct that many of us consider inhuman and appalling. Among these issues is the language we use, and its consequences not just for others but for ourselves. The tendency of all such violence to corrupt those who imagine and deploy it is one of the most important lessons of Abu Ghraib, and it cannot be answered by handing out long prison sentences to a few bad apples. It goes to the heart of the imperial imagination, as revealed in the Rumsfeld annotation and in the hair-splittings by means of which legal lackeys attempt to separate merely abusive behaviour (as if that were acceptable) from torture. There is nothing here that convinces us that with the best will in the world on the part of officers in the field any and all future acts of torture could be completely prevented. But it is equally clear that in a climate where official opportunism, devious euphemism and cynical ambiguity seem to allow for and even encourage extreme brutality, such acts are much more likely than not. We are nowhere near having created a climate in which there might be only a few bad apples. And with the evidence mounting daily of more and more remote prison sites and greater numbers of ‘foreigners’ detained in Iraq, the task is not going to get any easier. Given the tendencies described in the Stanford experiment, we might want to conclude that the dangers of betraying our better selves are so serious that situations giving us arbitrary power over each other ought to be tolerated only in conditions of radical and absolute emergency. The invasion of Iraq clearly never did and does not now meet those conditions.

Footnotes

* ‘Should the Ticking Bomb Terrorist Be Tortured?’, reprinted in Why Terrorism Works: Understanding the Threat, Responding to the Challenge (2002).

© 2017 Mark Danner