by Eric Martin
Dan Froomkin at Huffington Post discussing President Bush's recent remarks confirming his order to torture certain detainees, and his defense of that decision:
George W. Bush's casual acknowledgment Wednesday that he had Khalid Sheikh Mohammed waterboarded -- and would do it again -- has horrified some former military and intelligence officials who argue that the former president doesn't seem to understand the gravity of what he is admitting. Waterboarding, a form of controlled drowning, is "unequivocably torture", said retired Brigadier General David R. Irvine, a former strategic intelligence officer who taught prisoner of war interrogation and military law for 18 years. "As a nation, we have historically prosecuted it as such, going back to the time of the Spanish-American War," Irvine said. "Moreover, it cannot be demonstrated that any use of waterboarding by U.S. personnel in recent years has saved a single American life." Irvine told the Huffington Post that Bush seems not to understand how much harm his countenancing of torture has done to his country. [...]
James P. Cullen, a retired brigadier general in the United States Army Reserve Judge Advocate General's Corps, told HuffPost that the net effect of Bush's remarks -- and former Vice President Cheney's before him -- is "to establish a precedent where it will be permissible to our enemies to use waterboarding on our servicemen in future wars." ... "This is not the last war we're going to fight," Cullen said. "Americans not yet born are going to be prisoners of war in those conflicts. And our enemies are going to be able to point back to President Bush and Vice President Cheney saying that waterboarding is OK. "It's just shocking to me how he can be so flip about something that is so serious," Cullen said.
Matthew Alexander, the pseudonymous former Air Force interrogator and author of "How To Break A Terrorist" e-mailed HuffPost that Bush's statement "is de facto approval of the deaths of hundreds, if not thousands, of American soldiers in Iraq who were killed by foreign fighters that Al Qaida recruited based on the President's policy of torture and abuse of detainees. "At least now we know where the blame for those soldiers' deaths squarely belongs. President Bush's decision broke with a military tradition dating back to General George Washington during the Revolutionary War and the consequences are clear: Al Qaida is stronger and our country is less safe."
This is indeed an ugly precedent, and unfortunately Obama isn't doing enough to correct it. In his defense, it would be a political minefield. On the other hand, this is torture.* Bush's boasts are as unseemly as they are reckless, and there will likely be repercussions.
Nevertheless, Ed Morrissey is impressed with Bush's unapologetic advocacy of torture. His commentary on the matter is muddled at best:
Never let it be said that George W. Bush relied on a hindsight argument to back away from his wartime decisions. Had Bush said this in the first few months after he left office, the media would have pilloried him as a hopelessly blind warmonger who didn’t know how to make America safe. Now, though, after three terrorist attacks against the US reached fruition and one resulted in 14 murders, the context has shifted enough to where the media will be more inclined to ignore it. [...]
The two more extensive terrorist attacks failed to work. The Christmas Day attack attempt by Umar Farouk Abdelmutallab would have killed hundreds of passengers in the air; Faisal Shahzad’s Times Square bomb would have killed hundreds more on the ground, potentially [EM: Unlikely, actually, given the crude nature of the bomb]. In another sense, though, both worked in that they have Americans second-guessing their presence in New York City or on international flights. Terrorism works not because it kills a lot of people — which it often does — but because it frightens many, many more into changing their behavior and their policies, or at least that’s the intent behind it.
Susan Anne Hiller says this is what real leadership looks like:
Those decisive decisions from Bush kept America safe for 7 years. Now we have got Obama the apologist and panderer and we’ve had four Jihad attacks on American soil in less than 17 months–June 1, 2009 army recruiting base murder, 2009 Christmas Day undie bomber, November 13, 2009 Ft. Hood, and the May 1, 2010 Times Square bomber.
Whose strategy do you think is or was more effective and has America’s best interests at heart?
What exactly does this mean? Is Morrissey and/or Hiller actually suggesting that had the United States continued to waterboard detainees that those attempts and attacks would not have occurred? How? Also, in what way has Obama's policies, as opposed to Bush's, increased the likelihood of attempted attacks?
It's also ironic that Morrissey discusses the efficacy of terrorism in its ability to change behavior and policies in the same piece that he praises Bush's decision to make torture the official policy of the U.S. government in response to a terrorist attack. Self awareness watch.
Odder still, Morrissey's next paragraph refutes the prior passages regarding torture's effectiveness as a counterterrorism measure:
The controversy over waterboarding has largely died down since early last year, even though the US had stopped the practice after just three detainees went through it, all of them high-ranking AQ operatives involved in the 9/11 conspiracy. Therefore, the contribution of information gleaned from waterboarded detainees (not actually during the waterboarding process, though) would have diminished in relation to the time of their detention. They had all been interrogated by 2002, and in 2008 their information was probably doing less to expose attack plots than to track the various financial and recruiting efforts of AQ.
So Bush kept us safe by waterboarding three detainees way back when, but continuing the use of torture wouldn't yield any valuable intel now (it didn't back then either, but that's another story). Nevertheless, Obama's refusal to continue waterboarding detainees* (even though Bush stopped too) is making us less safe.
[* There have been several reports that the use of torture continues in Afghanistan and other locales at black sites operated by Special Forces and certain U.S. intelligence agencies]
[UPDATE: Adam Serwer is right:
We have now both the former president and his vice president on record copping to an act that was prosecuted as a crime in the United States as recently as 1983. Republicans have insisted that investigating this matter would turn the U.S. into a "banana republic," but the opposite is true -- in a true democracy the powerful are not above the law merely because they happen to be powerful. Certainly in Britain, democracy is not viewed as so fragile that government leaders can escape accountability for wrongdoing.
Torture apologists enjoy restricting the debate to KSM, because he's so clearly an awful person, but this only highlights the fact that torture is a crime -- if it wasn't wrong, they wouldn't need such a terrible example to justify what they'd done. But he wasn't the only person who was tortured. Someone should ask Bush if he would again send Maher Arar to Syria to be tortured, even though he wasn't guilty of anything. If he would subject Khaled El-Masri to the treatment he received in Afghanistan, merely because his name was similar to that of a suspected terrorist. Someone should ask him if he thinks it was appropriate for guards at Gitmo to subject Mohammed Jawad to the "Frequent Flier" sleep deprivation program while possessing little evidence of his guilt or complicity in any crime. And why, if there was nothing wrong with torture, did Bush continue to insist while in office that the United States did not torture? Why does it matter if it "saved lives," as Bush claims?
These questions, of course, are harder to answer, but the typical response is something along the lines of, "you can't make an omelet without breaking some eggs." But of course, once you allow government officials to break as many "eggs" as they want without legal accountability, what you're saying is that the government is above the law, and that in matters of national security, all individual rights are forfeit. That's much harder to defend -- indeed, it's indefensible from the standpoint of a democratic society, and it's why torture requires minimizing what was done by any means available. It also goes without saying that by refusing to investigate torture, the current administration is fully implicated in establishing a de-facto legal immunity for government officials when they break the law in the name of security. The GOP's fears about the U.S. government growing to resemble a banana republic, a state with a corrupt, unaccountable elite have been realized, just not in the way they imagined. ]