Accountability for Torture Must Go to the Top

In an encouraging move, yesterday Attorney General Holder appointed a prosecutor to investigate allegations of CIA interrogation abuses, although it’s only a “preliminary” and apparently cautious one at this point.

AttorneyGeneralHolder

photo: Physicians for Human Rights

According to the Washington Post:

In a statement Monday afternoon, Holder cautioned that the inquiry is far from a full-blown criminal investigation. Rather, he said, it is unknown whether indictments or prosecutions of CIA contractors and employees will follow. Lawyers involved in similar reviews said that any possible cases could take years to build because of challenges with witnesses and evidence.

Also encouraging (and disturbing for the information they contain), the Justice Department declassified and released documents related to prisoner abuse in the “war on terror”. These documents are available on the ACLU and Center for Constitutional Rights websites.

However, as John Nichols notes in The Nation, “But that does not necessarily mean that an accountability moment will come. “

For that to happen, Holder — and, by extension, President Obama — must stop being so cautious about laying the groundwork for the prosecution of wrongdoings.

Accountability has to go to the top.

For it to be meaningful, the investigation can and should focus on the people who authorized the use of torture and who outlined how it should be applied. Those are high-level players in the Bush-Cheney administration, not “honorable members of the intelligence community.” The only place at which low-level CIA operatives might become targets of an investigation – or perhaps face prosecution – would be if followed their own personal agendas.

Nichols concerns echo those of Amnesty International and others.  In an AI Press release, Larry Cox says that:

“Attorney General Holder’s decision to name a prosecutor to reopen and investigate half of the cases brought to the Department of Justice because of questionable interrogation tactics is a welcome, yet incomplete, step. Any meaningful investigation would encompass both those who claimed they were following orders and those who designed and demanded that the illegal policies be implemented.”

The Center for Constitutional Rights states that:

“Responsibility for the torture program cannot be laid at the feet of a few low-level operatives. Some agents in the field  may have gone further than the limits so ghoulishly laid out by the lawyers who twisted the law to create legal cover for the program, but it is the lawyers and the officials who oversaw and approved the program who must be investigated.

“The Attorney General must appoint an independent special prosecutor with a full mandate to investigate those responsible for torture and war crimes, especially the high ranking officials who designed, justified and orchestrated the torture program. We call on the Obama administration not to tie a prosecutor’s hands but to let the investigation go as far up the chain of command as the facts lead. We must send a clear message to the rest of the world, to future officials, and to the victims of torture that justice will be served and that the rule of law has been restored.”

What is becoming clear from the documents is the amount of bureaucratic control the CIA had over the interrogation process. As described in a New York Times article:

Two 17-watt fluorescent-tube bulbs — no more, no less — illuminated each cell, 24 hours a day. White noise played constantly but was never to exceed 79 decibels. A prisoner could be doused with 41-degree water but for only 20 minutes at a stretch.

The Central Intelligence Agency’s secret interrogation program operated under strict rules, and the rules were dictated from Washington with the painstaking, eye-glazing detail beloved by any bureaucracy.

Very detailed and controlled:

Managers, doctors and lawyers not only set the program’s parameters but dictated every facet of a detainee’s daily routine, monitoring interrogations on an hour-by-hour basis. From their Washington offices, they obsessed over the smallest details: the number of calories a prisoner consumed daily (1,500); the number of hours he could be kept in a box (eight hours for the large box, two hours for the small one); the proper time when his enforced nudity should be ended and his clothes returned.

The detainee “finds himself in the complete control of Americans; the procedures he is subjected to are precise, quiet and almost clinical, ” noted one document.

There was a progression to go through.  The details weren’t just thought up by a rogue night shift.  Regarding the procedure for high value detainees (HVDs):

“The interrogators’ objective,” the background paper says, “is to transition the HVD to a point where he is participating in a predictable, reliable and sustainable manner.” The policy was to use the “least coercive measure” to achieve the goal. The harsh treatment began with the “attention slap,” and for three prisoners of the nearly 100 who passed through the program, the endpoint was waterboarding.

Waterboarding might be an excruciating procedure with deep roots in the history of torture, but for the C.I.A.’s Office of Medical Services, recordkeeping for each session of near-drowning was critical. “In order to best inform future medical judgments and recommendations, it is important that every application of the waterboard be thoroughly documented,” said medical guidelines prepared for the interrogators in December 2004.

The required records, the medical supervisors said, included “how long each application (and the entire procedure) lasted, how much water was used in the process (realizing that much splashes off), how exactly the water was applied, if a seal was achieved, if the naso- or oropharynx was filled, what sort of volume was expelled, how long was the break between applications, and how the subject looked between each treatment.”

All very chillingly clinical, as in this ACLU video, Tortured Logic:

Actually, worse though, as it turns out, our government wasn’t just justifying it, then closing their eyes; they were directing it. It’s chilling how easy former government lawyers can still defend it:

But defenders of the program say the tight rules show the government’s attempt to keep the program within the law. “Elaborate care went into figuring out the precise gradations of coercion,” said David B. Rivkin Jr., a lawyer who served in the administrations of Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush. “Yes, it’s jarring. But it shows how both the lawyers and the nonlawyers tried to do the right thing.”

The Washington Post documents more:

As the session begins, the detainee stands naked, except for a hood covering his head. Guards shackle his arms and legs, then slip a small collar around his neck. The collar will be used later; according to CIA guidelines for interrogations, it will serve as a handle for slamming the detainee’s head against a wall.

After removing the hood, the interrogator opens with a slap across the face — to get the detainee’s attention — followed by other slaps, the guidelines state. Next comes the head-slamming, or “walling,” which can be tried once “to make a point,” or repeated again and again.

“Twenty or thirty times consecutively” is permissible, the guidelines say, “if the interrogator requires a more significant response to a question.” And if that fails, there are far harsher techniques to be tried.

Once again, the guidelines are all laid out, very clinically and all the more disturbing:

As outlined in the memo, the agency’s psychological assault on a detainee would begin immediately after his arrest. With blindfolds and earmuffs, he would be “deprived of sight and sound” during the flight to the CIA’s secret prison. He would have no human interaction, except during a medical checkup.

In the initial days of detention, an assessment interview would determine whether the captive would cooperate willingly by providing “information on actionable threats.” If no such leads were volunteered, a coercive phase would begin.

The detainee would be ushered into a world of constant bright light and high-volume “white noise” at levels up to 79 decibels, about the same volume as a passing freight train. He would be shorn, shaved, stripped of his clothes, fed a mostly liquid diet and forced to stay awake for up to 180 hours.

“Establishing this baseline state is important to demonstrate to the [detainee] that he has no control,” the memo states.

Interrogations at CIA prisons occurred in special cells outfitted on one side with a plywood wall, to prevent severe head injuries. According to the agency’s interrogation plan, the nude, hooded detainee would be placed against the wall and shackled. Then the questioning would begin.

“The interrogators remove the [detainee’s] hood and explain the situation to him, tell him that the interrogators will do what it takes to get important information,” the document states.

If there was no response, the interrogator would use an “insult slap” to immediately “correct the detainee or provide a consequence to a detainee’s response.” If there was still no response, the interrogator could use an “abdominal slap” or grab the captive by his face, the memo states.

Each failure would be met with increasingly harsher tactics. After slamming a detainee’s head against the plywood barrier multiple times, the interrogator could douse him with water; deprive him of toilet facilities and force him to wear a soiled diaper; or make him stand or kneel for long periods while shackled in a painful position. The captive could also be forced into a wooden box for up to 18 hours at a stretch.

But, apparently you can’t take this too far.  The Office of Medical Services (OMS) “raised serious concerns about the medical dangers of waterboarding.”

“Most seriously, for reasons of physical fatigue or psychological resignation, the subject may simply give up, allowing excessive filling of the airways and loss of consciousness,” the OMS warned, according to the 2005 Justice Department memo.

Time to become kinder and gentler torturers:

Such warnings, combined with congressional concerns about the CIA’s secret prisons, gradually led the agency to modify the program. The menu of enhanced interrogation techniques was reduced from about a dozen to six, according to a Justice Department memo. Gone were nudity, walling, water-dousing, stress positions, cramped confinement in boxes and waterboarding. The proposed six techniques to be kept were dietary manipulation, sleep deprivation for up to 180 hours, the facial hold, the attention grasp, the abdominal slap and the insult slap.

The CIA said those techniques were “the minimum necessary to maintain an effective program.”

While “just following orders” is no excuse for those carrying out the torture, we’ve done nothing towards true justice and accountability if only a few low level soldiers or CIA agents are prosecuted, even if they did go beyond whatever sick and warped rules of engagement were the rules of the day.

We need to go after those who planned the torture, and in detail, then set it in motion.  Those who gave the orders, not just the ones following them.

It’s hard to look at this clinically though.  This is my country.  Cold, clinical torture isn’t supposed to happen here.

Yet it did.

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