Torture Revelations Will Leave the Left Frustrated

Now that everybody else has had a say about Bush's torture policy and what to do about it here are a few thoughts from me.

I wonder why the world's once-most-secretive man, Cheney, who is now pleading to have the government declassify memos he says show how well torture works, didn't simply order their declassification or have them leaked when he was vice president. It isn't as though he couldn't have easily done so, or that the controversy is new: Abu Ghraib and all those damning pictures came to light five long years ago, and the arguments over torture have raged ever since.
Cheney had almost five years to declassify those documents but never did.

I, too, would like those memos released. That Cheney didn't do so when he could is powerful evidence that they don't prove his point. To date, I've seen no compelling evidence that torture prevented any attacks on the United States after Sept. 11, 2001. That doesn't mean I don't believe that torture sometimes works. Sen. John McCain and other American POWs in Vietnam, have admitted being broken by torture to make "confessions" and propaganda statements. I can't believe that some of them didn't also provide the enemy with useful information.

More to the point, I do believe statements by intelligence officials like former CIA chief Michael Hayden, who told Fox News that what he euphemistically called enhanced interrogation techniques have resulted in "specific, actionable intelligence as well as a general increase in the amount of intelligence regarding Al Qaeda and its affiliates." Current intelligence czar Dennis Blair says much the same thing.

But, again, one big unanswered question is whether torture prevented more attacks on U.S. soil. Release of more memos might strengthen the present, very thin evidence, but it would take a lot to convince me. Especially given such adverse comments as those by FBI director Robert Mueller that "I don't believe that has been the case;" and former FBI supervisory agent Ali Soufani, who questioned Abu Zubayda for four months using traditional methods, and wrote in the New York Times:

Under traditional interrogation methods, he provided us with important actionable intelligence. We discovered, for example, that Khalid Shaikh Mohammed was the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks,

something Bush administration officials claim came out only under "enhanced" interrogation

...There was no actionable intelligence gained from using enhanced interrogation techniques on Abu Zubaydah that wasn't, or couldn't have been, gained from regular tactics. In addition, I saw that using these alternative methods on other terrorists backfired on more than a few occasions -- all of which are still classified.

Any release of additional torture memos ought to include those about "backfired" cases. Even more important than whether torture prevented attacks is the question of whether it ought to have been used at all, even if it did. The international and U.S. laws against torture do not contain exceptions making it permissible after terrorist attacks. In its more than 200 years of existence, this country has fought a dozen wars and other conflicts but has rarely been accused of torturing prisoners -and on some rare occasions when it has, Americans have been punished for it. Way back in 1775, George Washington famously told his men that injuring a prisoner might bring them the death penalty "for by such conduct they bring shame, disgrace and ruin to themselves and their country."

Besides its being a war crime, the historic American abhorrence against torturing war prisoners is another reason Bush never called our terrorist suspects "prisoners," referring to them instead as "detainees," as if that would make torturing them permissible. We have fought wars in Afghanistan for eight years and in Iraq for six and, astonishingly, to my knowledge, we have done so without taking a single prisoner of war, with the exception of a relatively few Iraqi soldiers in the first month or so of that war. [I am happy to be corrected if I am wrong about that. But have you ever heard of any other Enemy POWs, a common term in past conflicts?].

Everybody (yes everybody) agrees that torture is illegal, immoral and just plain wrong. That includes Bush and Cheney and their cohorts, who, all the while they tortured, felt compelled to lie by insisting that "the United States doesn't torture," despite the judgment of the Red Cross, and irrefutable evidence from the newly released memos (and more older ones) and the testimony of dozens of victims and participants.

Not only is torture wrong but is has proved a major recruiting tool for Al Qaida and a major killer of American soldiers. As one veteran interrogator who goes by the pseudonym Matthew Alexander - wrote in The Daily Beast:

I listened time and time again to captured foreign fighters cite the torture and abuse at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo as their main reason for coming to Iraq to fight. Consider that 90 percent of the suicide bombers in Iraq are these foreign fighters and you can easily conclude that we have lost hundreds, if not thousands, of American lives because of our policy of torture and abuse.

And that doesn't include future U.S. casualties. Then there's the possibly irreversible damage torture has done to this country's reputation in the world. Whatever American exceptionalism existed regarding human rights is now a myth. Nor can we credibly complain about any foreign dictator torturing dissidents. And, as our military leaders have long feared, any complaints about American service members (or even civilians) being tortured abroad won't be taken seriously from now on. (Can you believe that a few days into the Iraq war, Bush and Rumsfeld complained that the Iraqis released tv pictures of American dead, wounded and POWs? "The Geneva Convention makes it illegal for prisoners of war to be shown and pictured and humiliated," Rumsfeld said, "it's something the United States does not do...we treat our prisoners well.")

So, what should Obama do about all this? And what he will do? Bush, Cheney and the other leading officials who ordered torture or issued legal opinions supporting it ought to be investigated and if found legally liable, indicted, tried, and, if convicted, punished. But clearly, that's not going to happen. Obama is not prepared to divide the country still further and take important time and energy away from the effort to end the Bush Depression and establish badly-needed health, energy and education policies, among others. (Maybe Obama should release or pardon the few small fry torturers now being punished since the big fish will get away)

Congress or somebody else may appoint a commission or two to investigate--but to no prosecutorial end. And, as I've written before, no way will Obama permit any Bush officials to be prosecuted abroad. Remember, even the lowliest U.S. private soldier serving abroad is protected by status of forces agreements from being punished by a host country for carrying out official duties. And, however illegal or immoral, torture was an official duty ordered by Bush.

The most likely outcome of this whole business will be that nobody will be punished (I don't even think the Senate will try for, much less accomplish, the simplest punitive step, a two-thirds vote to remove Judge Bybee from office). And the failure to punish those responsible for torture will become, for those of us on the left, the equivalent of right-wing complaints against abortion, stem cell research and gay marriage. There will continue to be much fuss, but no satisfaction. I hope I'm wrong.