Should Obama Be Called Out for His Torture Record?

Source: AFP/Getty Images

Source: AFP/Getty Images

“We tortured some folks” after 9/11, President Barack Obama told reporters during an August 1 news conference. “We did some things that were contrary to our values.”

Those few words reopened the debate on the enhanced interrogation methods used by the United States in the wake of the 2001 terrorist attacks.

After Obama’s August 1 press conference, The Nation published a six-frame cartoon capturing how he has rationalized his administration’s and the Bush administration’s use of torture; each frame shows how hollow staunch, anti-terror proponents lead to the admission of “We tortured some folks.”

Source: The Nation

The comic, taken as a whole, serves as an argument for why those critical of the president’s justifications are not “too sanctimonious.” And it also provides a critique of a longstanding habit of United States government to ignore the country’s own human rights violations. It could be argued that such an analysis is unnecessary now that the Central Intelligence Agency has discontinued its terrorist detention and interrogation program, which existed from 2002 to 2009. But given that the Senate is preparing to release a redacted version of its report on the CIA’s now-defunct program, while the president has simultaneously sought to end the conversation on the use of so-called enhanced interrogation techniques by acknowledging that “we tortured some folks,” the situation begs for a brief reflection on the subject.

Obama has made it an expressed mission of his administration to rehabilitate the United States’ image as the world’s moral standard-bearer. And with the research that has emerged regarding the CIA’s use of torture and the effectiveness of such methods, Obama must do more than say “we tortured some folks” and ambiguously urge greater responsibility of the American people.

It is easy to paint those two sentences uttered by Obama earlier this month as a clear and simple explanation, and indictment, of the Bush era. Yet, the president’s short assessment of how the Bush administration handled the 9/11 crisis did not stop with his assertion that America should not be a country that relies on torture, no matter the circumstances. From his earliest moments in office, Obama  — unsurprisingly — sought to distance himself from the policies of his predecessor; he withdrew U.S. troops from Iraq and showed an obvious desire to both diminish the global footprint of the United States and avoid costly, unpopular, and potentially unwinnable military engagements.

Yet, in that same news conference he cautioned Americans against feeling “too sanctimonious in retrospect about the tough job” U.S. intelligence officials had at the time. ”A lot of those folks were working hard under enormous pressure and are real patriots,” he added. And in summation, the president’s description of the recent use of torture left much unsaid in an effort to walk a middle road between the U.S. intelligence community and the incredibly polarized America public, of which 77 percent support international rules against torture and 45 percent believe torture can sometimes be justified, according to an 2014 Amnesty International survey. The president’s remarks seemed both an attempt to align himself with Senate Democrats and to support Central Intelligence Director John Brennan; Democratic lawmakers in the upper house of Congress and Brennan are currently in disagreement over the Senate’s report on the detention and interrogation of terrorism suspects after 9/11.

Some have called this admission a “milestone” for the U.S. government. “Even in its spare, reductive phrasing, the president’s statement opened up the possibility, finally, of national reflection, contrition and accountability” after more than a decade of denial and concealment, wrote Jameel Jaffer and Larry Siems for The Los Angeles Times. Sure, Obama’s “spare, reductive” phrasing does provide an opportunity to reflect on how the nation dealt with terrorism. But it is hardly the first occasion, nor were his words particularly remarkable when taking into account he has made similar comments before. In May 2013, in his landmark national-security address at the National Defense University, Obama noted that after 9/11, the United States “we strengthened our defenses — hardening targets, tightening transportation security, giving law enforcement new tools to prevent terror.

Most of these changes were sound. Some caused inconvenience. But some, like expanded surveillance, raised difficult questions about the balance that we strike between our interests in security and our values of privacy. And in some cases, I believe we compromised our basic values — by using torture to interrogate our enemies, and detaining individuals in a way that ran counter to the rule of law.” And, in 2011, as an incumbent eager to distinguish himself from Republican challengers who had supported the Bush administration’s interrogation techniques, Obama said: “Waterboarding is torture. It’s contrary to America’s traditions. It’s contrary to our ideals.”

Obama can be commended for stating unequivocally at a press briefing that the U.S. did use torture, and using torture runs contrary to American values. However, given that the president has made that admission previously, his words added little to the torture debate, other than reigniting it. Part of the problem is syntax; using “folks” as the object of torture brought a casualness to his words that suggested his statement was not a serious condemnation but an acknowledgement of a minor mistake. And, his speech contained far too little substance to be considered an important critique or a landmark address on terrorism, especially with his request that Americans not be too “sanctimonious” added as a corollary. That word was an attempt to limit the conversation.

Considering the controversy the Senate report has engendered, a serious examination of the country’s use of so-called enhanced interrogation techniques is essential for a president who signed an executive order banning the use of those methods. But it is important to note that this only overturned George W. Bush’s July 2007 executive action, which ordered limited compliance with the Geneva Conventions, meaning Obama’s own mandate had a limited scope. As Matthew Alexander, a fourteen-year veteran of the U.S. Air Force and Air Force Reserves, wrote in a 2010 opinion piece for the Times entitled “Torture’s Loopholes,” government officials will now be bound to adhere to “noncoercive” methods or those approved by the Army Field Manual. But that manual has not been updated, meaning it contains loopholes. “If I were to return to one of the war zones today…I would still be allowed to abuse prisoners,” Alexander wrote in his book How to Break a Terrorist: The U.S. Interrogators Who Used Brains, Not Brutality, to Take Down the Deadliest Man in Iraq.

Of course, Obama only discussed torture at that press conference became he was prompted by a reporter’s question, but nevertheless, his response was not strongly anti-torture. He offered some justification for why the government resorted to torture. And it seemed to be an effort to relegate the controversy to history books. But still, the controversy created by the senate report has worried the CIA. Even though the Department of Justice has made no attempt to prosecute former government officials for their involvement in the design and use of the so-called enhanced interrogation techniques, former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. John Bolton told U.S. News that the president’s latest comments signal possible trouble for former Bush administration lawyers and other participants. “He’s opening up, or at least aiding an effort to establish liability for the top political leaders up to and including President Bush and [former] Secretary [of Defense Donald] Rumsfeld and a whole bunch of other people,” he said.

When Obama used the word “torture” in May 2013 to describe what had been previous referred to in official circles as “enhanced interrogation techniques,” it suggested the president was preparing to take another step forward with his efforts to permanently remove torture from counter-terrorism operations. That proved not to be the case, but still it was an important milestone. Media outlets, which had up until that time avoided using that word to describe CIA interrogation methods, began to place it in their articles — dropping “enhanced interrogation techniques,” a phrase developed after the Bush administration began insisting no detainees were being tortured. And following Obama’s early August press conference, the executive editor of The New York Times, Dean Baquet, announced that following pressure from reporters and thanks to greater understanding of the CIA’s interrogation methods, the publication “will use the word “torture” to describe incidents in which we know for sure that interrogators inflicted pain on a prisoner in an effort to get information.” He noted that:

“Over time, the landscape has shifted. Far more is now understood, such as that the C.I.A. inflicted the suffocation technique called waterboarding 183 times on a single detainee and that other techniques, such as locking a prisoner in a claustrophobic box, prolonged sleep deprivation and shackling people’s bodies into painful positions, were routinely employed in an effort to break their wills to resist interrogation.”

But the elimination of the euphemisms used in place of the word “torture,” has not led to a broader discussion of how the United States can avoid succumbing to the pressure to use torture in the wake of crises like 9/11. Ramifications for those government officials who created and endorsed torture as an essential national security strategy to fight terrorism are noticeably absented, noted Falguni A. Sheth, a professor of philosophy and political theory at Hampshire College, in a piece for Slate. And her argument carries an indictment of Obama’s recent comments on torture as well; a lack of ramifications for the designers of the torture apparatus suggests a certain hollowness in the president’s recent comments. Obama said in early August that “we have to, as a country, take responsibility for that so that, hopefully, we don’t do it again in the future.” But what plans for greater responsibility has the president outlined?

The only CIA official to be prosecuted was retired officer John Kiriakou, the man who blew the whistle in 2007 on the intelligence agency’s use of waterboarding to elicit intelligence from detainees and to disrupt “a number of attacks, maybe dozens of attacks.” His crime was divulging to the press at least one name of his former CIA colleagues, and his January 2013 conviction was applauded by former director of the CIA David Petraeus.

And the U.S. Department of Justice announced in late 2012 that no CIA agents who tortured detainees during the Bush administration would be charged of crimes. Lawyers for the Bush administration argued that the Geneva Conventions’ prohibition of torture did not apply to al-Qaeda and the Taliban because the organizations are not states party to that agreement, and the UN’s 1988 ‘Convention against Torture’ only guards against acts of torture committed on U.S. soil, according to the administration lawyers. Meanwhile, a series of documents authored in 2002 and 2003 by administration lawyers for the Justice Department and the Department of Defense redefined torture as “serious physical injury, organ failure, or even death,” not “severe pain or suffering,” its original definition.

Evidence abounds that Obama wants to end the discussion on torture. Or, as the president said in The Nation’s comic, “We must accept responsibility! Which is to say we must briefly acknowledge the unpleasantness in the upcoming torture report and then quickly move on.” He has said that he would rather “look forward” than reexamine the past, and his comments on August 1 carried the same sentiment. Yet he has endorsed the Senate’s investigation, which has divided the country over the effectiveness, legality, and morality of the use of torture.

Key sections of the 6,000-page classified report the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence completed last December on the CIA’s detention and interrogation program will be released to the public soon. And Obama’s remarks on torture were made in anticipation of the report’s release. Already, the snippets that have been leaked to the press have revealed that the committee determined the agency’s use of torture was far more widespread and brutal that the American public was led to believe. Leaks have also indicated that the CIA misguided the Bush administration and Congress about the extent and nature of torture, as well as the fact that torture was ineffective for intelligence gathering. However, the CIA has attempted to discredit the report as inaccurate and partisan, and the agency will release a rebuttal alongside the congressional report. It has also done more than just criticize the report, the agency also spied on the Senate Committee’s computers and made numerous redactions, evidence of the CIA’s desire to resist oversight, noted retired major general in the United States Army Antonio M. Taguba in an opinion piece for the Times.

Robert L. Grenier — who served as director of the CIA Counter-Terrorism Center from 2004 to 2006 — argued in a piece for the Huffington Post that “given the cartoonish findings in this report, and the fact that Senator Feinstein’s researchers were utterly uninterested in gaining any explanations [from the CIA] or context for the information they supposedly unearthed, one might be forgiven for suspecting that the results of this study were a foregone conclusion.” He urged readers not to accept at face value the Senate Committee’s conclusion that “a very large number of CIA personnel, perhaps many dozens of them, engaged in a massive, years-long conspiracy in which they first lied to the Department of Justice about the interrogation techniques they planned to employ to gain formal legal support for them.” And he said that “if even a substantial portion of this were true, I would be among the first to advise that CIA be razed to the ground and begun all over again.”

Grenier did support the “harsh interrogation methods — notably excluding waterboarding, which had been discontinued over a year before — when I became director of counterterrorism at CIA in late 2004.” And he advocated for the use of those measures because “given what I knew of the threat, given the clear effectiveness of our interrogation program, and, importantly, given the clear legal assurances we had that we remained on the right side of both U.S. and international law, I felt obliged, as a professional, to use all the legal means at my disposal, judiciously and when necessary, to protect Americans.”

Many journalists have authored indictments of torture. In 2008, British journalist Christopher Hitchens experienced waterboarding firsthand. He admitted that “when contrasted to actual torture, waterboarding is more like foreplay.” But he based his final conclusion on the “Abraham Lincoln test for moral casuistry: If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong,” arguing “well, then, if waterboarding does not constitute torture, then there is no such thing as torture.” And he agreed with Malcolm Nance — a former U.S. Navy Senior Chief, SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape) program instructor for military personnel and Defense Department civilians, and expert in terrorist hostage survival techniques. Nance wrote in The Terrorists of Iraq that techniques such as waterboarding are problematic because when the United States uses and justifies those methods, it cannot complain when those same methods are used against Americans. And he also has found that the information extracted by such methods can often be “junk.” As CIA sources told The Washington Post, the information they got out of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed — identified as “the principal architect of the 9/11 attacks” by the 9/11 Commission Report — was “not all of it reliable.” Hitchens’s work serves as important counterpoint for the piece written by Grenier, and it is supported by data.

“Fear, the most useful interrogation tool, was always present. The well-publicized abuses at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere put all detainees on edge, and assurances that the U.S. command had cracked down were not readily believed. The prospect of being shipped to the larger prison—notorious during the American occupation, and even more so during the Saddam era—was enough to persuade many subjects to talk,” wrote author Mark Bowden in a piece for The Atlantic. But in 2012, a more than three-year long Senate investigation found little evidence that the harsh “enhanced interrogation techniques” the CIA used on high-value detainees produced valuable counter-terrorism intelligence. The other point to keep in mind is the fact that the use of torture was not limited to the “the immediate aftermath of 9/11,” as the Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf argued. Obama said, “In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, we did some things that were wrong.” And if such methods were limited to the immediate aftermath, to ensure no further attacks were coming the arguments made by government officials like Grenier would be more justifiable, according to Freidersdorf. After all, as former top CIA lawyer John Rizzo told Der Spiegel:

“At the time, at the beginning of 2002, we had just captured our first high-level al-Qaida operative, Abu Zubaydah. He was in a newly constructed secret prison and our experts, at least, were convinced that he knew far more about a second attack being imminent. If anyone in al-Qaida would know that, it was Abu Zubaydah… let’s just say there had been a second terrorist attack in the ensuing days and, in the aftermath, Abu Zubaydah were to gleefully tell our interrogators, ‘Yes, I knew all about them, and you didn’t get me to talk.’ There would be hundreds, perhaps thousands of Americans dead on the streets again. And in the post mortem investigations, it would all come out that the CIA considered these techniques but was too risk averse to carry them out.”

This piece is not meant to be a critique of the use of torture in U.S. counterterrorism operations; that argument has already been made — and made well. Rather, it is meant to serve at as argument for why Obama should not merely sweep the past under the rug. Of course, the CIA’s program has been closed for a number of years. But nevertheless, the United States would be a stronger country for having a more honest conversation about the use of torture.

As Taguba noted in his piece for the Times, he knows “from experience that oversight will help the C.I.A. — as it helped the United States military.” He wrote: “Ten years ago, I was directed by Lt. Gen. Ricardo S. Sanchez, the senior officer in Iraq, to investigate allegations of detainee abuse at the Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad. My report’s findings, which prompted a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, documented a systemic problem: military personnel had perpetrated ‘numerous incidents of sadistic, blatant, and wanton criminal abuses.’” He believes that the reason American’s support for terrorism has increased in recent years only because there has been no honest accounting. He cited a 2012 YouGov poll and research conducted by Amy Zegart of Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. Although several years old, that survey showed that 41 percent of Americans supported torturing prisoners, a 14-percentage point increase from 2007. “It turns out that Americans don’t just like the general idea of torture more now,” Zegart wrote for Foreign Policy in September 2012. “They like specific torture techniques more too.”

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