How often in our nation’s history has a Congressional Committee published a report which concludes that the President is essentially guilty of war crimes? Only once. It happened last week with the release of the Senate Armed Services Committee report on prisoner abuse. Put a sharper point on it: war crimes that produce the death of a detainee are punishable with the death sentence. And in this case we now have more than one hundred deaths potentially linkable to detainee abuse, linked to the President. Yet to the American mainstream media, which has made virtually no effort to comprehend the report, it was a non-event.
“We do not torture” is a Bush mantra, repeated dozens of times, the all-purpose reply. A member of the Commission on International Religious Freedom once recounted to me how, when the Commission raised the question of torture in a private meeting with Bush, he reacted by saying “We do not torture.”
“There was an element of anger in his voice,” she said. “He was dismissive.”
Bush directed the introduction of torture, overturning two centuries of American doctrine prohibiting it. “First, treat them with humanity,” said George Washington in 1776. “Military necessity shall never admit of torture,” wrote Abraham Lincoln in 1863. But the essence of the Bush position starting from late in 2001 is “Do what it takes to get the results I want and don’t worry, my lawyers will come up with a way to say it isn’t torture.”
Here is how the Levin-McCain Report, with the unanimous support of the thirteen Democratic and twelve Republican members of the Senate Armed Services Committee, described Bush’s personal initiative:
On February 7, 2002, President Bush signed a memorandum stating that the Third Geneva Convention did not apply to the conflict with al Qaeda and concluding that Taliban detainees were not entitled to prisoner of war status or the legal protections afforded by the Third Geneva Convention. The President’s order closed off application of Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions, which would have afforded minimum standards for humane treatment, to al Qaeda or Taliban detainees. While the President’s order stated that, as “a matter of policy, the United States Armed Forces shall continue to treat detainees humanely and, to the extent appropriate and consistent with military necessity, in a manner consistent with the principles of the Geneva Conventions,” the decision to replace well established military doctrine, i.e., legal compliance with the Geneva Conventions, with a policy subject to interpretation, impacted the treatment of detainees in U.S. custody.
When George Washington used the word “humane,” he was explicit as to what it meant. In no case would the treatment of the prisoners be in any way inferior to that of our own soldiers; indeed, our soldiers would suffer privations before the prisoners would. The prisoners would be treated with dignity and respect and would not be subject to degradation or humiliation. The religious views of the prisoners would be respected, and any suggestion of contempt towards their religion by any American soldier would be severely punished. George W. Bush overturned each and every one of these orders of the Founding Father.
Note also that Bush introduces the concept of “military necessity” as the escape hatch—the Geneva Conventions would be observed “to the extent appropriate and consistent with military necessity.” On this point, Abraham Lincoln wrote that the doctrine of military necessity may never be invoked to justify the torture and mistreatment of prisoners–but Bush used the doctrine in just this way.
In December 2001, more than a month before the President signed his memorandum, the Department of Defense (DoD) General Counsel’s Office had already solicited information on detainee “exploitation” from the Joint Personnel Recovery Agency (JPRA), an agency whose expertise was in training American personnel to withstand interrogation techniques considered illegal under the Geneva Conventions. JPRA is the DoD agency that oversees military Survival Evasion Resistance and Escape (SERE) training. During the resistance phase of SERE training, U.S. military personnel are exposed to physical and psychological pressures (SERE techniques) designed to simulate conditions to which they might be subject if taken prisoner by enemies that did not abide by the Geneva Conventions. As one JPRA instructor explained, SERE training is “based on illegal exploitation (under the rules listed in the 1949 Geneva Convention Relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War) of prisoners over the last 50 years.” The techniques used in SERE school, based, in part, on Chinese Communist techniques used during the Korean war to elicit false confessions, include stripping students of their clothing, placing them in stress positions, putting hoods over their heads, disrupting their sleep, treating them like animals, subjecting them to loud music and flashing lights, and exposing them to extreme temperatures. It can also include face and body slaps and until recently, for some who attended the Navy’s SERE school, it included waterboarding.
So Donald Rumsfeld’s lawyer, Jim Haynes, took the key initiative. He decided that he knew just where to find the key torture techniques to implement–the ones that the North Koreans, the North Vietnamese, the Chinese used on American Airmen. Imitation, they say, is the sincerest form of flattery. And Mr. Haynes was convinced that the North Koreans were on to something really useful–and he had the approval of his bosses. The time for accountability has come.
“We do not torture,” said George W. Bush.
The time for accountability has come.