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.”

Share
Single Page

More from Scott Horton:

Conversation August 5, 2016, 12:08 pm

Lincoln’s Party

Sidney Blumenthal on the origins of the Republican Party, the fallout from Clinton’s emails, and his new biography of Abraham Lincoln

Conversation March 30, 2016, 3:44 pm

Burn Pits

Joseph Hickman discusses his new book, The Burn Pits, which tells the story of thousands of U.S. soldiers who, after returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, have developed rare cancers and respiratory diseases.

Context, No Comment August 28, 2015, 12:16 pm

Beltway Secrecy

In five easy lessons

Get access to 167 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

February 2018

The Bodies in The Forest

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Minds of Others

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Modern Despots

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Before the Deluge

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Notes to Self

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Within Reach

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
The Minds of Others·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Progress is impossible without change,” George Bernard Shaw wrote in 1944, “and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.” But progress through persuasion has never seemed harder to achieve. Political segregation has made many Americans inaccessible, even unimaginable, to those on the other side of the partisan divide. On the rare occasions when we do come face-to-face, it is not clear what we could say to change each other’s minds or reach a worthwhile compromise. Psychological research has shown that humans often fail to process facts that conflict with our preexisting worldviews. The stakes are simply too high: our self-worth and identity are entangled with our beliefs — and with those who share them. The weakness of logic as a tool of persuasion, combined with the urgency of the political moment, can be paralyzing.

Yet we know that people do change their minds. We are constantly molded by our environment and our culture, by the events of the world, by the gossip we hear and the books we read. In the essays that follow, seven writers explore the ways that persuasion operates in our lives, from the intimate to the far-reaching. Some consider the ethics and mechanics of persuasion itself — in religion, politics, and foreign policy — and others turn their attention to the channels through which it acts, such as music, protest, and technology. How, they ask, can we persuade others to join our cause or see things the way we do? And when it comes to our own openness to change, how do we decide when to compromise and when to resist?

Illustration (detail) by Lincoln Agnew
Article
Within Reach·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

On a balmy day last spring, Connor Chase sat on a red couch in the waiting room of a medical clinic in Columbus, Ohio, and watched the traffic on the street. His bleached-blond hair fell into his eyes as he scrolled through his phone to distract himself. Waiting to see Mimi Rivard, a nurse practitioner, was making Chase nervous: it would be the first time he would tell a medical professional that he was transgender.

By the time he arrived at the Equitas Health clinic, Chase was eighteen, and had long since come to dread doctors and hospitals. As a child, he’d had asthma, migraines, two surgeries for a tumor that had caused deafness in one ear, and gangrene from an infected bug bite. Doctors had always assumed he was a girl. After puberty, Chase said, he avoided looking in the mirror because his chest and hips “didn’t feel like my body.” He liked it when strangers saw him as male, but his voice was high-pitched, so he rarely spoke in public. Then, when Chase was fourteen, he watched a video on YouTube in which a twentysomething trans man described taking testosterone to lower his voice and appear more masculine. Suddenly, Chase had an explanation for how he felt — and what he wanted.

Illustration by Taylor Callery
Article
Before the Deluge·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

In the summer of 2016, when Congress installed a financial control board to address Puerto Rico’s crippling debt, I traveled to San Juan, the capital. The island owed some $120 billion, and Wall Street was demanding action. On the news, President Obama announced his appointments to the Junta de Supervisión y Administración Financiera. “The task ahead for Puerto Rico is not an easy one,” he said. “But I am confident Puerto Rico is up to the challenge of stabilizing the fiscal situation, restoring growth, and building a better future for all Puerto Ricans.” Among locals, however, the control board was widely viewed as a transparent effort to satisfy mainland creditors — just the latest tool of colonialist plundering that went back generations.

Photograph from Puerto Rico by Christopher Gregory
Article
Monumental Error·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

In 1899, the art critic Layton Crippen complained in the New York Times that private donors and committees had been permitted to run amok, erecting all across the city a large number of “painfully ugly monuments.” The very worst statues had been dumped in Central Park. “The sculptures go as far toward spoiling the Park as it is possible to spoil it,” he wrote. Even worse, he lamented, no organization had “power of removal” to correct the damage that was being done.

Illustration by Steve Brodner
Post
CamperForce·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

After losing their savings in the stock market crash of 2008, seniors Barb and Chuck find seasonal employment at Amazon fulfillment centers.

Minimum number of shooting incidents in the United States in the past year in which the shooter was a dog:

2

40,800,000,000 pounds of total adult human biomass is due to excessive fatness.

Trump’s former chief strategist, whom Trump said had “lost his mind,” issued a statement saying that Trump’s son did not commit treason; the US ambassador to the United Nations announced that “no one questions” Trump’s mental stability; and the director of the CIA said that Trump, who requested “killer graphics” in his intelligence briefings, is able to read.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Report — From the June 2013 issue

How to Make Your Own AR-15

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

By

"Gun owners have long been the hypochondriacs of American politics. Over the past twenty years, the gun-rights movement has won just about every battle it has fought; states have passed at least a hundred laws loosening gun restrictions since President Obama took office. Yet the National Rifle Association has continued to insist that government confiscation of privately owned firearms is nigh. The NRA’s alarmism helped maintain an active membership, but the strategy was risky: sooner or later, gun guys might have realized that they’d been had. Then came the shootings at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, and at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, followed swiftly by the nightmare the NRA had been promising for decades: a dedicated push at every level of government for new gun laws. The gun-rights movement was now that most insufferable of species: a hypochondriac taken suddenly, seriously ill."

Subscribe Today