No Torture? No Problem!


The military released the findings of its investigation into Guantanamo Bay today, and found humiliation but no torture. The New York Times and Washington Post are both running stories, but here’s the Chicago Tribune‘s version:

The Guantanamo detainee suspected of being the would-be “20th hijacker” for the Sept. 11 attacks was subjected to abusive treatment, including being forced to wear a bra and perform a series of “dog tricks” during interrogation, according to an official report made public during a Senate hearing Wednesday. …. The report said Mohamed al-Qahtani—labeled by U.S. officials as the “20th hijacker”—was forced to stand naked before a woman interrogator for at least five minutes and was made to wear thong underwear on his head and a bra.

Qahtani also was told by interrogators that “his mother and sister were whores,” according to the report, and he was led by a dog leash attached to his hand chains and made to do a “series of dog tricks” as part of the interrogation…

Despite the harshness of these tactics, it is not clear that they violated any law. The Geneva Conventions prohibit sexually degrading tactics, but the Bush administration has said the Geneva Conventions don’t apply to the Guantanamo detainees, saying they are suspected terrorists rather than prisoners of war.

Let’s assume the military didn’t whitewash anything here (which is always a possibility). Then it does appear that the earlier FBI reports cited by Sen. Dick Durbin—of prisoners chained to the floor in the fetal position for 24 hours while allowed to wallow in their own feces—were inaccurate. Given the low bigotry of soft expectations at work here, that’s good, although it’s still, needless to say, extremely disturbing that legions of administration defenders thought that that was an acceptable way to treat human beings.

Now, the actual humiliation tactics cited here arguably aren’t torture in the same way, true, although that’s also pretty much beside the point. They certainly fall well short of “humane,” and they’re still outside the law—”[t]he Geneva Conventions prohibit sexually degrading tactics.” So once again for the Rush Limbaugh crowd: a person can believe that the Geneva Conventions aren’t appropriate for this new and radical age of terrorism. Fair enough. But in that case, the president of the United States should go to Congress and get the law changed. That’s how the Constitution works, that’s how Civics 101 teaches us that a bill becomes law, and the idea that a group of bureaucrats and lawyers in the White House get to decide for themselves what interrogation tactics are legal and illegal, and what treaties the country is and is not bound by, is pretty unacceptable.

The other elephant honking around in the torture chamber, meanwhile, is that we still have no idea whether smearing fake menstrual blood all over a fake detainee is even an effective to do business. Bush defenders keep chanting, “The Constitution isn’t a suicide pact!” but does anyone know whether a “series of dog tricks” is actually saving us from suicide? In the American Prospect this month, Jason Vest interviewed a former interrogator, Jack Cloonan, who argued that humiliation and abuse just didn’t work—that treating interrogation subjects humanely, and within the bounds of the Geneva Convention, could yield far more information than anyone could ever imagine. He’s hardly the first to say so. And lest anyone bring up the infamous “ticking bomb scenario,” consider this:

Cloonan and a New York Police Department detective secured actionable intelligence from a suspect in the foiled millennium-bombing plot in just six hours on December 30, 1999 — by following FBI procedure, and by encouraging a suspect to pray during his Ramadan fast. The suspect even agreed to place calls to his confederates, which led to their speedy arrests.

Cloonan was literally faced with a ticking bomb scenario, but still followed FBI procedure, and defused said bomb. It’s not unrealistic to think that Rumsfeld-approved smearing of menstrual blood all over the suspect’s face could have alienated or angered the suspect and failed to stop the bombing. And then consider that “following FBI procedure” doesn’t run the danger of sparking a backlash once news of dog tricks and menstrual blood spread through the Muslim world. (And unless the U.S. plans in keeping its detainees locked up forever, this news will emerge eventually, like it or not.) So just because the U.S. isn’t technically torturing people in Guantanamo—and remember, Guantanamo was always the most benign chunk of this particular iceberg, and we’ve still heard nothing about very clear and horrific instances of torture elsewhere—that still doesn’t mean that our detainee and interrogation policy makes any sense at all.

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