Inconvenient News,
       by smintheus

Thursday, June 18, 2009

  Instant torture

As I've noted from time to time here and elsewhere during the last few years, under George Bush the US began torturing prisoners almost immediately after September 11, 2001. Although the history of this early period in the Bush torture regime remains largely shrouded in secrecy, several clear bits of evidence have been made public. Today's Guardian newspaper adds another piece of evidence – a British government document from January 2002 that discusses what to do about US torture.

This information matters because the early descent into barbarity occurred before the earliest torture memos were produced by the Bush administration. By arguing, preposterously, that international conventions are not binding on the US and that common forms of torture are not indeed torture, these 'legal' opinions were supposed to protect from prosecution anyone who ordered, facilitated, or inflicted torture under Bush. But even the most absurd legal opinion cannot inoculate you retroactively for practices you've already implemented.

The earliest of these Office of Legal Counsel memos, dating from January 2002, argue that the Geneva conventions do not apply to prisoners (PDF) in Bush's self-proclaimed "war on terror". More than six months later, in the summer and fall of 2002, Bush's OLC lawyers finally got around to producing the infamous memos that tried to rewrite the laws on torture and put a stamp of approval on several favored torture techniques (PDFs). Since then, torture's apologists have tried to misdirect public attention toward the implementation of these "enhanced" techniques late in 2002, even going so far as to claim (falsely) that they were approved only because interrogators at Guantanamo prison asked for permission to use them.

In other words we're supposed to believe that everybody from President Bush on down the chain of command were simply relying on the advice of the OLC lawyers, as all administrations do. And just you try to prove that the OLC memos produced spurious rather than genuine advice!

The smirk begins to slip, however, as evidence mounts that the OLC opinions were generated long after torture became the official policy of the US government.

* *

The document newly revealed by the Guardian seems pretty decisive in that regard:

The [British interrogation] policy, devised in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, offered guidance to MI5 and MI6 officers questioning detainees in Afghanistan whom they knew were being mistreated by the US military.

British intelligence officers were given written instructions that they could not "be seen to condone" torture and that they must not "engage in any activity yourself that involves inhumane or degrading treatment of prisoners".

But they were also told they were not under any obligation to intervene to prevent detainees from being mistreated.

"Given that they are not within our custody or control, the law does not require you to intervene to prevent this," the policy said.


The policy was set out in written instructions sent to MI5 and MI6 officers in January 2002, which told them they might consider complaining to US officials about the mistreatment of detainees "if circumstances allow".

* *

The document appears to confirm what other available evidence implies, that the US had a well established policy of torturing prisoners overseas even before Guantanamo prison was opened in January of 2002. Only a "few weeks" after 9/11, German agents at Tulza air base in Bosnia documented the abuse of terrorist suspects by the US military. The Germans refused to assist in such illegal interrogations, which they reported back to their own government.

In January 2002, the Bush administration coerced the Bosnian government to hand over several prisoners, including Lakhdar Boumediene, whom the Bosnian Supreme Court had ordered released for lack of evidence. Only recently released by the US – for lack of evidence - Boumediene has confirmed that he was tortured in captivity. Just as with other prisoners transported to Guantanamo, the torture of Boumediene began immediately with abusive conditions during his flight to the island between January 18 and 20th, 2002 (with beatings, sensory deprivation, painful "stress" positions). The opening of Guantanamo prison in January 2002, with the highly scripted and notoriously abusive and degrading transport flights (PDF), provides us with a firm terminus ante quem for the Bush administration's introduction of its torture regime.

In fact, an Air Force colonel who was in charge of SERE training has testified to the Senate Armed Service Committee (PDF) that he was asked already in December 2001 to describe to top Pentagon lawyers the full range of abusive interrogation techniques that are inflicted in SERE training courses. SERE training is designed to prepare military personnel in case they're captured by an abusive regime. SERE trainers are experts in the techniques inflicted on American captives during the Korean War. Thus by December 2001, at the latest, the Pentagon was considering how to reverse-engineer SERE training in order inflict abuse that was modeled on the abominable practices of North Korea.

Furthermore, by October 2002 at the latest it was an open secret in the US military that the torture of prisoners had been systematized in Afghanistan. A thorough investigation by McClatchy confirmed that foreign-born prisoners held at Bagram prison routinely were tortured by the US, beginning already in 2001.

Former guards and detainees whom McClatchy interviewed said Bagram was a center of systematic brutality for at least 20 months, starting in late 2001.

Indeed an American citizen held in Afghanistan in December 2001, John Walker Lindh, was blindfolded and held in isolation, naked, in freezing conditions for days (PDF). In other words, Lindh in 2001 was subjected to the same variety of torture that was practiced routinely on foreign-born prisoners in Bush's "war on terror".

So it shouldn't come as a surprise that already in January of 2002, the British equivalent of the CIA wanted or needed to be told what to do whenever its agents found themselves witnessing torture committed by the US. Torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment of prisoners are outlawed under the UN Convention against Torture, which both the US and UK have ratified.

* *

On the morning of September 11, 2001 I left my office to take a long hike on Hawk Mountain. I could sense that it would be the last respite for a long time to come, that we were going to be in for several godawful years of civil rights abuses by a government that had been caught totally off guard. I imagined that it might well turn out to be worse than Woodrow Wilson's war years, horrific as they were. However I did not dream that the Bush administration would resort to torture - which General George Washington himself had declared to be unAmerican - much less that the descent into torture would be almost instantaneous.

crossposted at

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