Tortured Memos, Ignorance and Accountability

Looking at the recently declassified Justice Department memos, it’s pretty obvious there only purpose was to provide cover, using convoluted logic, describing torture, only to give excuses for why torture wasn’t torture and this conspiracy to commit torture wasn’t a conspiracy.

According to the New York Times, waterboarding was used 266 times on 2 suspects – at least 83 times against Abu Zubaydah and 183 times against Khalid Shaikh Mohammed.

How did all of this happen?  According to an April 21 New York Times article:

In a series of high-level meetings in 2002, without a single dissent from cabinet members or lawmakers, the United States for the first time officially embraced the brutal methods of interrogation it had always condemned.

This extraordinary consensus was possible, an examination by The New York Times shows, largely because no one involved — not the top two C.I.A. officials who were pushing the program, not the senior aides to President George W. Bush, not the leaders of the Senate and House Intelligence Committees — investigated the gruesome origins of the techniques they were approving with little debate.

According to several former top officials involved in the discussions seven years ago, they did not know that the military training program, called SERE, for Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape, had been created decades earlier to give American pilots and soldiers a sample of the torture methods used by Communists in the Korean War, methods that had wrung false confessions from Americans.

Some of their ignorance I find incredible.  C.I.A. Director George Tenet didn’t know the history of waterboarding, and top officials who were briefed didn’t know the U.S. had prosecuted waterboarding in war crimes trials following World War II?

Wait, there was more they didn’t know:

They did not know that some veteran trainers from the SERE program itself had warned in internal memorandums that, morality aside, the methods were ineffective. Nor were most of the officials aware that the former military psychologist who played a central role in persuading C.I.A. officials to use the harsh methods had never conducted a real interrogation, or that the Justice Department lawyer most responsible for declaring the methods legal had idiosyncratic ideas that even the Bush Justice Department would later renounce.

In addition to never having conducted a real interrogation, the psychologist’s hypothesis was questionable.

By late 2001, the agency had contracted with James E. Mitchell, a psychologist with the SERE program who had monitored many mock interrogations but had never conducted any real ones, according to colleagues. He was known for his belief that a psychological concept called “learned helplessness” was crucial to successful interrogation.

Martin Seligman, a prominent professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania who had developed the concept, said in an interview that he was puzzled by Dr. Mitchell’s notion that learned helplessness was relevant to interrogation.

“I think helplessness would make someone more dependent, less defiant and more compliant,” Dr. Seligman said, “but I do not think it would lead reliably to more truth-telling.”

No matter, apparently.

Still, forceful and brainy, Dr. Mitchell, who declined to comment for this article, became a persuasive player in high-level agency discussions about the best way to interrogate Qaeda prisoners. Eventually, along with another former SERE psychologist, Bruce Jessen, Dr. Mitchell helped persuade C.I.A. officials that Qaeda members were fundamentally different from the myriad personalities the agency routinely dealt with.

“Jim believed that people of this ilk would confess for only one reason: sheer terror,” said one C.I.A. official who had discussed the matter with Dr. Mitchell.

It’s beyond disturbing that these decisions to torture were made, and it was illegal as well as immoral.  There needs to be accountability, and an independent commission, as Amnesty International and others have called for. While I know I know it is difficult, due to the current political divide, that this is an issue that causes division is exactly why it should be examined.  There are too many people out there who believe the “ticking time bomb” theory and think that torture is alright, under certain circumstances.  In addition to the need for justice, the facts need to come out and there needs to be accountability so this will never happen again.



One thought on “Tortured Memos, Ignorance and Accountability

  1. I totally agree with you that a thorough, impartial inquiry into how and why the US became a torturer is the only tool that will assure that the US will not repeat these atrocities in the near future.

    Human Rights First and other leading human rights organizations have created a petition calling on President Obama to set up a nonpartisan inquiry to evaluate the full cost of American torture, look at how it could happen, and come up with safeguards so that the current administration does not repeat the mistakes of the previous one.

    Sign the petition here:


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