CIA Torture and other War Crimes

Personal accountability has all but disappeared from the American political system. Bill Clinton lied to his entire cabinet about Monica Lewinsky and not a single cabinet member resigned in protest after he was forced to recant. When Alberto Gonzales lied repeatedly during testimony before Congress everyone knew exactly what he was doing but no leading Democrat was willing to impeach him. The hopelessly incompetent Michael Brown was able to resign from FEMA without sanction to "avoid further distraction from the ongoing mission" and later even blamed everyone else for his shortcomings. Condoleezza Rice, Paul Wolfowitz, Tommy Franks, George Tenet, and Paul Bremer were all rewarded for their incompetence, some with medals and some with promotions. Recent resignations from the Bush administration stemming from the massive policy failures of the past seven years have frequently been couched in terms of "wanting to spend more time with my family" though sometimes a bit of candor creeps in a la Trent Lott, who believes it is time to step down and follow the money as a lobbyist. Public Diplomacy Tsarina Karen Hughes arguably plans to do both, returning to Texas to rejoin her family while also cashing in through lucrative speaking engagements. During her two and a half years of Texas-style soccer mom diplomacy at State Department and in spite of a large budget, Hughes only succeeded in increasing the number of foreigners who actively dislike the United States. Never is a resignation from government service framed in terms of "Hey, I screwed up."

The embrace of illegal detentions and torture are among the truly horrific decisions that can be attributed to the Bush White House. It is ironic to read the media accounts surrounding the recent discovery by shocked U.S. Marines of an alleged al-Qaeda torture center in Iraq's Diyala province because the Marines work for a government that itself publicly embraces torture as an interrogation technique. And it is not just the White House. Torture is bipartisan. The recent House of Representatives intelligence appropriations bill included a clause that requires CIA to abide by the Geneva Conventions in its interrogation and detention policies. One hundred and ninety-nine Congressmen from both parties voted "no." Even if some of the Congressmen voted against the bill for other reasons, there is a strong sense that many politicians consider torture to be perfectly okay. Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney, and Fred Thompson have all jumped on that bandwagon, endorsing "enhanced interrogation" as a counter-terrorism tool. Mitt Romney, who might bolster his claims to be a Christian by occasionally perusing the compassionate message of the Sermon on the Mount instead of the Book of Mormon, even wants to make Guantanamo prison bigger. Giuliani appears to want to jail and torture lots of people all the time, but he is, admittedly, a pagan.

If senior managers at the Central Intelligence Agency actually worried about committing war crimes more than they cared about getting revenge on ragheads and advancing their careers, they wouldn't have tortured anyone in the first place back in 2002. Shortly after 9/11, the redoubtable armchair warrior Vice President Dick Cheney, who famously had other priorities and avoided military service by virtue of five deferments during Vietnam, announced that the "gloves are off" in reference to America's enemies. Those comments set the tone and ushered in the exciting days of "anything goes" when Cofer Black, chief of the Agency's Counter Terrorism Center, sent out his myrmidons with orders to come back with Usama bin Laden's head in a box. Somehow, that head turned out to be Saddam Hussein's.

Ethically, torture degrades the country that permits it, the organization that carries it out and the individuals who perform it. Doctors are not present during torture as it would violate the Hippocratic Oath, so it is up to the torturer to decide how far to go. If a victim dies while being interrogated by torture, as has happened a number of times in both Afghanistan and Iraq, it is both a war crime and murder.

Most intelligence and law enforcement officers reject torture as an interrogation tool, knowing that it more often than not produces false information. The FBI claims that the CIA waterboarding of terrorist suspect Abu Zubaydah was unnecessary, that he was already cooperating. Waterboarding, which was used extensively both by the Gestapo and by the Spanish Inquisition, is a particularly heinous form of torture as it simulates death. With U.S. troops deployed all over the world at the present time, sanctioning torture lowers the bar for terrorists who might happen to capture an American soldier or diplomat to do likewise. Even in 2002 someone with a bit of foresight might have anticipated the possible consequences arising from the CIA's use of torture and its more general bull in the china shop approach. Someone with a bit of backbone and an intact moral compass might even have even resigned in protest, but, alas, there were few of those types around.

What has made CIA's so-called leaders really nervous in the current political environment is not the ethical or moral issue of torture per se. It is the thought of getting sued by the victims and victim advocacy groups, which means hiring expensive lawyers. Donald Rumsfeld's flight from Paris in late November to avoid war crimes charges also raises the possibility that an otherwise pleasant trip to Provence or Tuscany might have to be curtailed if some Euro-version of a pasty-face peace creep tries to file a lawsuit. Fortunately for all the torturers at CIA, there is now a government reimbursed private insurance program designed to cover contingencies. When former Chief of Clandestine Operations Jose Rodriguez was subpoenaed to appear before a Congressional committee last week, he was able to afford representation by the redoubtable Robert Bennett.

The latest CIA scandal began in 2002 when at least two terrorist suspects were videotaped while they were being subjected to the waterboarding version of "enhanced interrogation." The questioning took place somewhere in Asia, possibly in a Pakistani or Thai prison but more likely at either Bagram Airbase in Afghanistan or at Diego Garcia Island, in the Indian Ocean, where the CIA maintains "off-sites." In May 2003, CIA told Federal Judge Leonie Brinkema that there were no recordings or other records of the interrogations. That was a lie. In 2003 and 2004, the Congressional 9/11 Commission made "repeated and detailed inquiries relating to interrogations." The CIA said there was no additional material, another lie. In June 2005, Director of Operations Jose Rodriguez ordered the tapes destroyed. The order came, perhaps not coincidentally, just as the Italian authorities were entering into the investigative phase of a major inquiry into CIA renditions in Italy.

CIA now claims that the tapes were destroyed to protect the identity of the agency interrogators involved. That argument is complete nonsense. Unless the cameraman was suffering from delirium tremens and shaking uncontrollably, the camera would have been focused on the victim of the torture, not on those administering it. In any event, terrorists would hardly be able to identify and gain access to an otherwise unremarkable and nameless CIA employee from what they might see on a tape, even if they could get hold of a copy.

The real reason for the cover-up on the tapes is because torture is universally acknowledged to be a war crime and everyone in the CIA and White House hierarchy knows that to be true. The denial that the tapes existed in 2003 and 2004 could not have taken place without the concurrence of Director George Tenet, Deputy Director John McLaughlin, and General Counsel Scott Muller. Probably then-Director of Operations James Pavitt would have also been involved. When Rodriguez destroyed the tapes in 2005, he was not acting alone. Director Porter Goss almost certainly would have been part of the decision making process as well as acting General Counsel John Rizzo and it is tempting to speculate that White House aides like Dick Cheney's David Addington and President Bush's Harriet Miers might also have been in the loop.

Looking for war crimes committed by members of the Bush administration is a complicated exercise because there are so many to go around. Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo come immediately to mind. The Nuremburg Tribunals at the end of the Second World War defined an aggressive war against another country if that country has not attacked you first or threatened to do so as "essentially an evil initiate a war of not only an international crime; it is the supreme international crime differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole." A number of leading Nazis were executed for their unprovoked attack on Poland. The Bush administration has its own Poland in Iraq, and if there is an American attack on Iran it would also fit the Nuremberg definition. Unlike at Nuremberg, however, no one will be held accountable.