Topic(s): Torture | Comments Off on Rene — PLEADING IGNORANCE ON TORTURE

by Brian Beutler
The Guardian
June 20, 2008 UK
The architects of the Bush administration’s torture policy testified
in Washington this week, but they may not be held accountable
Victor’s justice isn’t always the province of victors. Sometimes,
when they are powerful enough in defeat to provide themselves with
a political form of immunity, it can benefit losers too.
At a US Senate hearing on Tuesday, witnesses, including former civilian
Pentagon officials Richard Schiffren and William Haynes, described
their roles in the military’s systemic torture regime. It’s an issue
that has been the focus of countless congressional hearings, but never
in this much detail, and never with so many damning revelations – the
fruitful result of two years worth of deep investigation by the armed
services committee. Nonetheless, there’s the matter of impunity. If
this had been a UN court, for example, the duo (and several others)
might have been facing prison sentences. Instead they were merely
guests, invited to appear before a panel of their countrymen and
claim ignorance.
Notwithstanding all attempts to mislead their congressional
interrogators, however, the paper trail of American torture runs
fairly unobstructed between the summer of 2002, when senior defence
department officials laid the groundwork for subjecting detainees from
Afghanistan and elsewhere to brutal interrogation tactics, and 2004,
when evidence of the programme was first revealed and the extent of
the military’s abuses once again became unclear.
Here’s the short version: In July, 2002, Haynes – then the general
counsel for the department of defence – dispatched his deputy,
Schiffren, to compile information (descriptions, instructions, et
cetera) about a battery of harsh interrogation tactics. Schiffren
complied and forwarded memos on the issue from Lieutenant Colonel
Daniel Baumgartner – then head of the defence department’s Joint
Personnel Recovery Agency (JPRA) – up the chain of command at
the Pentagon. Baumgartner oversaw the military’s Survival Evasion
Resistance and Escape (SERE) schools, where soldiers are trained to
withstand the sorts of horrors that might be inflicted upon them if
they happen, in the future, to be captured and detained by regimes
that do not adhere to the Geneva Conventions.
That’s how the SERE techniques became the basis for interrogation
practices in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. From Cuba, though, they were
passed along to Afghanistan, and then Iraq, where they became standard
operating procedure, not just at Abu Ghraib, but everywhere.
According to Michigan senator Carl Levin, who chairs the Senate armed
services committee: “Not only did SERE resistance training techniques
make their way to Iraq, but instructors from the JPRA SERE school
followed. … SERE instructors were authorised to participate in the
interrogation of detainees in US military custody.” SERE instructors,
it should be noted, are not professional interrogators. Their expertise
is in the application of cruel and unusual punishment.
While the techniques were disseminating across the military, lawyers
in the defence and justice departments, including Lieutenant Colonel
Diane Beaver, were authoring legal opinions to justify the abuses and
protect the abusers from reprisals down the line. Beaver’s opinions
became, for a short time, the military’s official justification for
using over a dozen questionable techniques during detainee interviews.
When confronted with this history at yesterday’s hearing, all of
the relevant players demurred in their own ways. Baumgartner claimed
he was unaware that he was a link in the torture chain. Schiffren,
who appeared nervous and fidgety under some fierce questioning from
Democratic senators, claimed not to recall much about whom he’d spoken
to and when. Haynes, the most senior and perhaps most culpable of
the witnesses, nonetheless appeared to be the most comfortable,
effortlessly recalling minute details from years past when those
details reflected well upon him. But he was curiously unable to
remember almost anything else.
Beaver, by contrast, took full responsibility for her writings but
expressed shock to the committee that her paper and hers alone would
become the Pentagon’s go-to legal script. Nonetheless, she found
herself on the receiving end of a series of incisive questions from
Missouri Democrat and former prosecutor Claire McCaskill.
The one hero at the event was former Navy general counsel Alberto Mora,
who did perhaps more than anybody within the Pentagon to stymie the
torture regime.
Mora received effusive praise from committee Democrats and applause
from a number of protesters in attendance dressed, to recall torture
victims, in orange prison jump suits with black hoods pulled over their
heads. During a brief recess, Mora fielded questions from reporters
and sat down with the protesters, who are often treated as pariahs
on Capitol Hill.
I asked him how the United States can mitigate the harm done
to the country’s reputation by these policies, and, indeed, how
the government can protect forces on future missions from being
tortured by aggrieved regimes. I also asked him how best to hold
the architects accountable for their actions. Mora suggested that
government leaders need to “create a common language with our allies
that goes beyond the protections of Geneva.” How to hold former public
officials accountable for implementing these methods, he added, “is
a difficult question. Politically speaking, achieving an agreed-upon
framework with our allies going forward may require forgiving past
transgressions. And that’s a concern. That’s a problem.”
Brian Beutler is Washington correspondent for the Media Consortium.