America and Torture
“America is the symbol of democracy, but then you have the abuses at Abu Ghraib. The American government took tough measures, and we are doing the same, so where is the problem and why this raucousness?” (Dagher, 2010)
This was the response of Nuri al-Maliki, the current Iraqi Prime Minister, to a Human Rights Watch report issued on April 27, 2010. The report described more than 500 cases of Sunni prisoners being tortured at the hands of Shiite guards in 2009 at a secret Baghdad prison. After first proposing that no such prison existed and no such torture took place, Maliki then resorted to his “well, America did it, so we can too” defense.
The implications for this report could prove disastrous for Maliki and for the fragile democracy in Iraq. But, what is particularly interesting is the message that Maliki’s quote sends about America’s moral standing in the world as a result of the decision to torture enemy combatants in the War on Terror.
Several months before this report on Iraq, the Judiciary Committee of the House of Representatives released a redacted Department of Justice report investigating the legal arguments used to justify “enhanced interrogation” of detainees in American custody (U.S. Department of Justice, n.d.). Developed by the Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR), the internal watchdog agency of the Justice Department, the report focused on two memos dated August 1, 2002. They were requested by the Bush Administration and written in secret by John Yoo, the Deputy Assistant Attorney General in the Office of Legal Counsel, and Jay Bybee, the Head of the Office of Legal Counsel. One of the memos approved 10 specific torture techniques that could be used by interrogators, which includes water-boarding, placing insects in a confined box, and stress positions (The Times of London, 2009). The second memo continued to further analyze torture, executive power, and criminal defenses for interrogators accused of torture.
Yoo, Bybee, and other defenders of the program argued that these techniques did not constitute torture, but “enhanced interrogation,” which every accepted legal definition of torture seems to contradict (U.S. Department of Justice, n.d., pp. 184-195). As a result, the OPR report found that Yoo and Bybee intentionally provided legal advice on the question of interrogation for the purpose of protecting those engaged in these techniques (U.S. Department of Justice, n.d., p. 260). Taken together, this provides the legal foundation for the first officially sanctioned program of torture by the American government in history.
But, what may even be more disconcerting than this conclusion is what came out earlier in the report. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, “…it became apparent, during the course of our review, that relevant documents were missing, we requested and were given direct access to the email and computer records of Yoo, Philbin, Bybee, and Goldsmith. However, we were told that most of Yoo's email records had been deleted and were not recoverable. Philbin's email records from July 2002 through August 5, 2002—the time period in which the Bybee Memo was completed and the Classified Bybee Memo was created—had also been deleted and were reportedly not recoverable” (p. 5). In other words, much of the email evidence that OPR needed to assess Yoo’s and Bybee’s behavior had been destroyed. The destruction of key evidence of torture in this case was similar to what occurred with several videos of similar acts, such as the CIA water-boarding sessions (ACLU, n.d.), the last taped interrogation session of Jose Padilla (Isikoff & Hosenball, 2007), and the surveillance videos of the Gitmo "suicides" (Horton, 2010).
Torture and the willful destruction of the evidence of that torture—it's hard to believe that this is America. Even harder to believe is that so few people are talking about it and no one has yet to be held accountable for it.
U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Professional Responsibility Report. (n.d.). Investigation into the OLC's Memoranda Concerning Issues Related to the CIA's use of "Enhanced Interrogation Techniques" Against Suspected Terrorists.