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Why the Return of American Torture Is Inevitable

The "War on Terror" has changed, but we're still afraid.

| Thu Jul. 10, 2014 6:53 PM EDT

We Have Never Had a Full Accounting of All the Torture Programs Used in the "War on Terror"

Thanks to the work of persistent reporters, we now know many pieces of the torture puzzle, but we still have nothing like a complete, coherent narrative. And if we don't know just what happened in those torture years, we are unlikely to be able to dismantle the existing infrastructure, which means we won't be able to keep it from happening again.

In addition, the accounts of journalists and historians are not sufficient, as they don't bear any government imprimatur. They are not "the official story." They do not represent an attempt on the part of the government, and hence the nation, to come fully to grips with this past. An official account of what happened could, however, lay the groundwork for a national consensus against the future use of torture.

Forty years ago, congressional investigations of the CIA's Phoenix Program (in which tens of thousands of Viet Cong were tortured and murdered) resulted in some new constraints on the Agency's activities. President Gerald Ford issued an executive order prohibiting the CIA from engaging in "political assassinations" or experimenting with drugs on human subjects. President Jimmy Carter amended that order to prohibit assassination in general. These edicts, combined with the oversight provided by the House and Senate Intelligence Committees, were supposed to rein in the CIA's most egregious acts.

Nevertheless, we now know that a rejuvenated CIA has run a full-scale torture program, kidnapped terror suspects off global streets, and still oversees drone assassination campaigns in Pakistan and Yemen. In addition, it continues to resist Congressional oversight of its torture activities. As yet, the Agency, tasked with "vetting" a 6,000-page report on its "interrogation methods" prepared by the Senate Intelligence Committee, has refused to allow the release of any part of the account. Even Dianne Feinstein, the committee's chair, often considered the "senator from national security," was moved to offer an extraordinary denunciation on the floor of the Senate of the CIA's interference with committee computers.

Recently, the Washington Post reported some leaked details from the report the committee has been struggling unsuccessfully to get released, including information on a previously undocumented form of CIA torture: shoving a prisoner's head into a tub of ice water or pouring that water all over a person's body. (Immersion in cold water is a torture method I first came across in 1984 when interviewing a Nicaraguan who had been kidnapped and tortured by US-backed and -trained Contra guerrillas.)

We don't have anything like the full story of the CIA's involvement in torture, and the CIA is only one agency within a larger complex of agencies, military and civilian. We can't dismantle what we can't see.

None of the High Government Officials Responsible for Activities That Amount to War Crimes Has Been Held Accountable; Nor Have Any of the Actual CIA Torturers

When it comes to torture, President Obama has argued that "nothing will be gained by spending our time and energy laying blame for the past," but this is simply not true. One thing that could be gained would be a public consensus that the United States should never again engage in torture. Another might be agreement that officials who are likely guilty of war crimes should not be allowed to act with impunity and then left free to spend their post-government years writing memoirs or painting themselves bathing.

Retired Major General Antonio Taguba, whose military career was cut short by his report on US abuses at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, wrote in the preface to a June 2008 report by Physicians for Human Rights, "After years of disclosures by government investigations, media accounts, and reports from human rights organizations, there is no longer any doubt as to whether the current administration has committed war crimes. The only question that remains to be answered is whether those who ordered the use of torture will be held to account."

Years later, with a different administration in its second term, this question has been answered. They will not. Nor will the actual CIA torturers, since the Obama Justice Department has dismissed all cases involving their brutal interrogations, even two that resulted in the deaths of prisoners.

This is not to say that no one has been sent to prison because of the CIA's torture programs. Former CIA analyst John Kiriakou is presently serving 30 months in federal prison for revealing the name of a covert CIA operative, while blowing the whistle on the Agency's torture operations. From his prison cell, he has called for a special prosecutor to bring the architects of the torture program to justice.

Living in a Cowardly New World

The post-9/11 United States is no brave new world, but a terrified one. We are constantly reminded of the dangers we face and encouraged to believe that torture will keep us safe. Americans have evidently seen just enough—between revelations of fact and fictional representations—to become habituated to the idea that torture is a necessary cost of safety. Indeed, polls show that Americans are more supportive of using torture today than they were at the height of the "war on terror."

In these years, "safety" and "security" have become primary national concerns. It's almost as if we believe that if enough data is collected, enough "really bad guys" are tortured into giving up "actionable intelligence," we ourselves will never die. There is a word for people whose first concern is always for their own safety and who will therefore permit anything to be done in their name as long as it keeps them secure. Such people are sometimes called cowards.

If this terrified new worldview holds, and if the structure for a torture system remains in place and unpunished, the next time fear rises, the torture will begin anew.

Rebecca Gordon is the author of Mainstreaming Torture: Ethical Approaches in the Post-9/11 United States (Oxford University Press). She teaches in the philosophy department at the University of San Francisco. She has also spent several decades working in a variety of national and international movements for peace and justice, and is a member of the War Times/Tiempo de Guerras collective. You can contact her through the Mainstreaming Torture website. To stay on top of important articles like these, sign up to receive the latest updates from here.

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