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Monday, January 12, 2009

A History of Torture

Bush scowls during presserPresident Bush finished what will apparently be his final press conference this morning. He managed to make most of the answers the press threw at him into defenses of his presidency. This guy's pretty much already punched out, thinking more about next Wednesday and beyond. For example, he spoke about the future in discussing Iraq.

"When the history of Iraq is written, historians will analyze for example the decision on the surge," he said. "I decided to do something about it, and to send 30,000 troops in as opposed to withdrawing. The part of history is certain in the situation did change."

This strikes me as kind of a crazy hope for the future, like saying that the lessons scholars take from Vietnam is that napalm works really well. It's the invasion itself that people remember, not some tactic used during the occupation -- Civil War history isn't all about Pickett's Charge. Bush may hope that historians put a lot of emphasis on his "surge" -- while also hoping they don't look too closely at it -- but that seems a vain hope.

For the past couple of months or so, the Bush administration has been all about defending their record and preemptively spinning away all their failures. The danger here is that it's nearly impossible to spin mistakes and crimes without discussing them. In many ways, this spin doctoring has always been a problem for Bush, keeping some issues alive longer than they would normally have lived. At other times, this spinning of major scandals created minor scandals of their own. And sometimes it leads to confessions to war crimes.

In an interview with FOX News Sunday, Bush had this to say:

One such person who gave us information was Khalid Sheikh Mohammed... And I’m in the Oval Office and I am told that we have captured Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and the professionals believe he has information necessary to secure the country. So I ask what tools are available for us to find information from him and they gave me a list of tools, and I said are these tools deemed to be legal? And so we got legal opinions before any decision was made.

This is an admission that he personally authorized torture. That he asked whether it was legal or not is beside the point -- if a lawyer tells you to commit a crime and you're later busted for it, all you can really say is that you've got a lousy lawyer. You're still guilty. Ignorance of the law is famously no defense.

Bush argues that his torture policies have kept the United States safe, but most people who've looked closely at it say it's only making terrorism worse. In November, Matthew Alexander, an interrogator, wrote a piece for the Washington Post titled "I'm Still Tortured by What I Saw in Iraq." In it, he called US interrogations "deeply flawed, ineffective and un-American."

I learned in Iraq that the No. 1 reason foreign fighters flocked there to fight were the abuses carried out at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo. Our policy of torture was directly and swiftly recruiting fighters for al-Qaeda in Iraq. The large majority of suicide bombings in Iraq are still carried out by these foreigners. They are also involved in most of the attacks on U.S. and coalition forces in Iraq. It's no exaggeration to say that at least half of our losses and casualties in that country have come at the hands of foreigners who joined the fray because of our program of detainee abuse. The number of U.S. soldiers who have died because of our torture policy will never be definitively known, but it is fair to say that it is close to the number of lives lost on Sept. 11, 2001. How anyone can say that torture keeps Americans safe is beyond me -- unless you don't count American soldiers as Americans.

Bush has always been shameless in hiding behind the military, but this is just one more example of how he serves poorly those who serve us. Bush, who bears a large part of the responsibility for 9/11, throws soldiers into the meat grinder in order to claim he's keeping us safe from terrorism. "Other than that one time the house burned down," he might as well say, "I've been a really good housesitter." Bush wants to be seen by history as being a great protector against terrorism -- as long as you don't count the worst terrorist attack in American history.

According to a criminal complaint that will be submitted to the Obama administration, Bush and thirty of his administration are guilty of war crimes, including "savage beatings, sleep deprivation, slow drowning, hanging by chains, being slammed head-first into concrete walls, temperature extremes, food deprivation, burial alive in coffin-like boxes for extended periods, and even threats against their families."

And does any of this work? Not really. A former senior CIA official familiar with the interrogations of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed told Vanity Fair that "90 percent of it was total f*cking bullsh*t." A Pentagon official told the magazine that "K.S.M. produced no actionable intelligence. He was trying to tell us how stupid we were." Either that or he was just tortured into false confessions. Torture me or you or anyone long enough and we'll confess to shooting JFK. Torture doesn't actually work as a way of determining truth.

But I think the worst crime here is incidental. We were once a society that hated torture. Just a few short years ago, torture was nearly synonymous with evil. Today, you don't have to look far to find someone who thinks it's a great idea.

Those people are cowards, just like the president they adore. But they're also poorly informed -- a claim the president can't make. He knows that torture is turning up crappy intelligence, he knows it's being used to recruit new terrorists, and he knows that it's putting US military personnel at risk -- people who believe they'll be tortured don't surrender, they fight to the death.

Bush can try to pre-emptively rewrite history and he's certain to fail. Too many of us know the truth and too many are more than willing to call BS on it all. He's made too many mistakes -- mistakes that were easily avoided -- for his revisionism to work. Whether he's tried as a war criminal is an open question, but whether he'll be remembered as a war criminal is up to us.

History is just human memory. All we need to do is remember the events of 2001-2009 correctly.


(Transcript of the final press conference is available here)