No Comment — April 12, 2009, 9:18 am

Upholding the Red Cross

On February 14, 2007, the International Committee of the Red Cross delivered a confidential report to John Rizzo, then as now the acting general counsel of the Central Intelligence Agency. It contained the results of the Red Cross’s intensive study of the operations at CIA black sites constructed on the basis of detailed interviews with detainees who were held there. The conclusions it reached are compelling and essentially beyond dispute—the prisoners were systematically tortured, and the process of torture was carried out with explicit approval of high-level CIA officials. It is noteworthy that, although the report constitutes an indictment of serious criminal conduct, the CIA has not made a serious attempt to dispute these conclusions, nor has any other official government spokesman. Any such effort could scarcely be credible and it would only draw attention to an embarrassing fact: the high-level CIA officials who approved torture are by-and-large still running the agency. The Red Cross, an institution that has its roots in the stern Calvinism of Geneva, is the single most highly regarded organization on the international stage today. It has no agenda other than upholding the mandate of the Geneva Conventions and of its own charter. It speaks blunt truths to men of power, and it does so confidentially—not for the ear of the public nor for the use of political factions that are so numerous in a democratic society. Red Cross reports are known for their meticulous attention to detail, their precise language, their incorruptibility, and their utter indifference to questions of national prestige or ideology. There is no doubt that this report will stand the test of time.

And that is a devastating fact for the Bush Administration, whose conduct is branded as lawless in the most searing terms. Indeed, the report’s most notable conclusion is simple, and it sits on the national stage in Washington today. It insists that the perpetrators of these offenses must be fully investigated and punished. Mark Danner, a distinguished war correspondent turned professor at the University of California, is responsible for publishing the report and he offers an extremely persuasive essay about it in the New York Review of Books. Danner starts by outlining how America has dodged this question for so long. It starts with the Bush Administration’s impressive myth-making machine that has been busily at work for years:

Cheney’s story is made not of facts but of the myths that replace them when facts remain secret: myths that are fueled by allusions to a dark world of secrets that cannot be revealed. At its heart is the recasting of President George W. Bush, under whose administration more Americans died in terrorist attacks than under all others combined, as the leader who “kept us safe,” and who was able to do so only by recognizing that the U.S. had to engage in “a tough, mean, dirty, nasty business.” To keep the country safe “the gloves had to come off.” What precisely were those “gloves” that had to be removed? Laws that forbid torture, that outlaw wiretapping and surveillance without permission of the courts, that limit the president’s power to order secret operations and to wage war exactly as he sees fit.

Laws, criminal statutes, long-standing rules of military conduct—they were the obstacles to be overcome. That was to be the handiwork of a new breed of lawyers, men like Alberto Gonzales, John Yoo, Jay Bybee, William J. Haynes II, Douglas J. Feith, and David Addington (now all under criminal investigation in Spain for their role in the torture of five Spanish citizens), who understood perfectly how to remove the rules that Americans fought innumerable wars to establish. With the legal restraints removed, in came techniques long condemned by the United States that belonged to the core repertoire of our enemies, like the Soviet GPU:

They consisted usually of tying the victim in a strait-jacket to an iron bunk. The strait-jacket was his only clothing; he had no blanket, no food and was unable to go to the lavatory. With a gag in his mouth and a stopper in his rectum he would be given periodic beatings with rubber poles.

With the Red Cross report in hand and a growing mound of documents, we now know a great deal about the Bush Administration’s torture system. We know enough to clearly establish that claims offered by Bush himself (“we do not torture”), by Cheney and others were consistently false. But we also know that a great wealth of further detail remains which has so far escaped disclosure.

We need to know more. We need to know, from an investigation that will study all the evidence, classified at however high a level of secrecy, and that will speak to the nation with a credible bipartisan voice, whether the use of torture really did produce information that, in the words of the former vice-president, was “absolutely crucial to getting us through the last seven-plus years without a major-casualty attack on the US.” We already have substantial reason to doubt these claims, for example the words of Lawrence Wilkerson, who, as chief of staff to Secretary of State Powell, had access to intelligence of the highest classification:

“It has never come to my attention in any persuasive way—from classified information or otherwise—that any intelligence of significance was gained from any of the detainees at Guantánamo Bay other than from the handful of undisputed ring leaders and their companions, clearly no more than a dozen or two of the detainees, and even their alleged contribution of hard, actionable intelligence is intensely disputed in the relevant communities such as intelligence and law enforcement.”

At present, the public calls for an investigation are matched by two dissonant responses. One urges us to “move on” and forget about what happened, taking solace in President Obama’s commitment that the experience with torture is a closed chapter. The other, the loud and fact-free rhetoric of Dick Cheney, insists that “torture works” and that the move away from it will end in disaster—charges that echo in the language of many Republican leaders and in the dealings of the G.O.P.’s master tactician, Karl Rove. This all points to the inescapability of a full, formal and public inquiry that grapples with the contentions of the torture lobby and their increasingly absurd claims to exclusive classified data.

There is a sense in which our society is finally posing that “what should we do” question. That it is doing so only now, after the fact, is a tragedy for the country—and becomes even more damaging as the debate is carried on largely by means of politically driven assertions and leaks. For even as the practice of torture by Americans has withered and died, its potency as a political issue has grown. The issue could not be more important, for it cuts to the basic question of who we are as Americans, and whether our laws and ideals truly guide us in our actions or serve, instead, as a kind of national decoration to be discarded in times of danger. The only way to confront the political power of the issue, and prevent the reappearance of the practice itself, is to take a hard look at the true “empirical evidence of the last five years, hard years,” and speak out, clearly and credibly, about what that story really tells.

This is a test not only of commitment to founding principles, but also of our nation’s ability to directly confront an issue of great moral significance and attempt to recast a national consensus. It is a test of the character and integrity of the nation’s political leadership, of the journalists who decide what issues “matter,” and of the clerics whose failure to properly frame the moral debate has allowed this issue to fester so long. For those who, especially on this day, think the time has come to “move on,” I say: read the Red Cross report and think again. This issue will continue to grow until the full truth is known and justice is provided. The Red Cross provides us with a roadmap: “Investigate and punish the perpetrators.”

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More from Scott Horton:

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