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What Did We Learn from Abu Ghraib?

On the 10th anniversary of the Abu Ghraib revelations, America still has a long way to go.

| Mon Apr. 28, 2014 1:19 PM EDT

This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.

It's mind-boggling. Torture is still up for grabs in America. No one questions anymore whether the CIA waterboarded one individual 83 times or another 186 times. The basic facts are no longer in dispute either by those who champion torture or those who, like myself, despise the very idea of it. No one questions whether some individuals died being tortured in American custody. (They did.) No one questions that it was a national policy devised by those at the very highest levels of government. (It was.) But many, it seems, still believe that the torture policy, politely renamed in its heyday "the enhanced interrogation program," was a good thing for the country.

Now, the nation awaits the newest chapter in the torture debate without having any idea whether it will close the book on American torture or open a path of pain and shame into the distant future. No one yet knows whether we will be allowed to awake from the nightmarish and unacceptable world of illegality and obfuscation into which torture and the network of offshore prisons, or "black sites," plunged us all.

April 28th marks the tenth anniversary of the moment that the horrors of Abu Ghraib were made public in this country. On that day a decade ago, the TV news magazine "60 Minutes II" broadcast the first photographs from that American-run prison in "liberated" Iraq. They showed US military personnel humiliating, hurting, and abusing Iraqi prisoners in a myriad of perverse ways. While American servicemen and women smiled and gave a thumbs up, naked men were threatened by dogs, or were hooded, forced into sexual positions, placed standing with wires attached to their bodies, or left bleeding on prison floors.

Thus began America's public odyssey with torture, a story in many chapters and still missing an ending. As the Abu Ghraib anniversary nears and the White House, the CIA, and various senators still battle over the release of a summary of a 6,300-page report by the Senate Intelligence Committee on Bush-era torture policies, it's worth considering the strange journey we've taken and wondering just where we as a nation mired in the legacy of torture might be headed.

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Chapter One: Revelations

The odyssey started with the shock of those "60 Minutes II" photos, followed two days later by the reporting of veteran New Yorker writer Seymour Hersh. Having seen even more grim photographs and interviewed many in the chain of command stretching from Abu Ghraib to the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Pentagon, Hersh painted a picture of a deliberate policy of abuse. He traced Abu Ghraib's crimes to pressure from "military-intelligence teams, which included CIA officers and linguists and interrogation specialists from private defense contractors," urging the production—and fast—of crucial information from US captives in Iraq. Towards this end, the guards at Abu Ghraib were encouraged to "soften up" the detainees for interrogation.

That summer and fall of 2004, the Washington Post, the New York Times, the ACLU, and others got their hands on several Bush administration memos justifying and legalizing torture. These had largely been written by John Yoo and Jay Bybee, lawyers in the Office of Legal Counsel at the Department of Justice, and they proved grim reading indeed. The documents provided uniquely tortured definitions of torture that made almost any act in which the infliction of pain didn't rise to the level of "organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death" acceptable. As if that weren't enough, they developed no less tortured theories of executive power in which the president as commander-in-chief retained the right to authorize torture for national security reasons, despite its illegality under domestic, military, and international law.

With this anything-goes green light switched on, the memos proceeded to expressly approve individual methods of abuse (previously defined as torture) for American interrogators. Used in combination and repeatedly, these were known to destroy the human psyche and bring severe pain to the body as well. Specifically, they put the Bush administration's stamp of approval on graphically described "techniques," including sleep deprivation, slapping, the dangling of trussed prisoners from beams, and especially waterboarding, a process in which individuals essentially experience drowning, only to be saved at the last moment.

The trail of evidence went right to the top. The office of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told the interrogators of "the American Taliban," John Walker Lindh, to "take the gloves off." Vice President Dick Cheney, who famouslysaidit was time to "work the dark side," has repeatedly defended the policy of harsh interrogation techniques, including waterboarding, as effective and essential in keeping the nation safe.Top officials reportedly had various "enhanced interrogation techniques" demonstrated in the White House. The 2002 torture memos were addressed to White House Counsel and later Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.

CIA director George Tenet knew, too. Rumsfeld approved the use of special techniques in a December 2002 memo. It is impossible to imagine that Yoo's boss, Attorney General John Ashcroft, didn't know about the memos as well, and given what everyone else knew, it's unlikely President George W. Bush was left in the dark for long, if at all.

There were those who protested, but they did so only inside "the family." FBI Director Robert Mueller, for instance, knew enough to forbid the Bureau to use the techniques. He even pulled his men away from CIA interrogations of terror suspects, including the one that ended with the brutal waterboarding of suspected al-Qaeda operative Abu Zubaydah 83 times. Colin Powell, the four-star general who was Secretary of State, balked at the notion of removing the prisoner of war protections of the Geneva Conventions from al-Qaeda detainees for the purposes of "interrogation and length of the detention." He went no further, however, than protesting vigorously in that early 2002 memo, urging the president to reconsider his options and stay within the law.

Michael Chertoff, the head of the Criminal Division at the Department of Justice and the future head of the Department of Homeland Security, abruptly left a meeting at which he was asked to give immunity in advance to those who would use harsh interrogation techniques. He refused to do so. But no one went public.

All told, there were no vocal dissidents when it came to the torture policy; no one resigned over it; no one even leaked the story to the media to protest the evisceration of American values and the constitutional or legal principles involved. In the aftermath of Abu Ghraib and the revelations that followed, there was just a chorus of "it wasn't torture" or "I didn't know" from nearly every official inside the executive branch who had known.

Chapter Two: The End Is(n't) in Sight

Many initially believed that the Abu Ghraib revelations would bring a quick policy about-face. After all, torture is against the law in the United States, as well as under international law and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Once awakened to the facts, could there be any question that the country's nightmare would end promptly? Americans and their officials would wake up, shake off the bad episodes, and move on in law-abiding fashion.

The government, it was assumed, would back down from its violations of the law, the programs would be terminated, the perpetrators would be punished, Americans would lament the error, and chalk it all up—ruefully—to the misbehavior unleashed by the shock and fears of 9/11.

But these predictions—and they were widespread—proved wrong. Rather than recant, the administration, top to bottom, chose to lie, denying that "torture" in its true sense was taking place, and accusing the media and civil libertarians of exaggerating. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, for example, called the accusations "isolated pockets of international hyperventilation."

The administration's counter-story took the My Lai massacre path: there was no policy, no conspiracy to torture. The Abu Ghraib photos reflected a few low-level bad apples and rogue players, soldiers with anger management issues, who were understandably full of hate post-9/11 and unfortunately sexually perverse as well. They were in need of punishment, to be sure, but no one else was. And as for those memos, they were just drafts and suggestions, not accepted policy at all.

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