The Courage To Speak Out Against Torture

Yesterday was the United Nations International Day in Support of Victims of Torture.

In many ways, fighting against the use of torture around the world has been Amnesty’s signature issue over the past 50 years. In that time we have tried to shine a light both on the victims of torture and its perpetrators.

However, there is one group that has often been overlooked: Those rare individuals who display the courage to stand up against those who would use torture, regardless the cost to themselves.

Individuals like Military Policeman Joe Darby, who blew the whistle on the abuse of prisoners in Abu Ghraib by referring pictures taken by Charles Graner to the US Army’s Criminal Investigations Division (CID):

“I’ve always had a moral sense of right and wrong. And I knew that you know, friends or not, it had to stop.”


Three Words of Omission When It Comes to Torture

By Matthew Alexander, former senior military interrogator

Matthew Alexander

Since the killing of Osama bin Laden last month in Abbottabad, Pakistan, the torture supporters have been out in full force to credit the success to Bush Administration policies such as torture.

Retired General Michael Hayden wrote in the Wall Street Journal that to deny that waterboarding provided important intelligence information is the equivalent of being a birther.  And Retired Army Major General Patrick Brady, a Medal of Honor Recipient from Vietnam, argued that waterboarders are heroes in a recent Op-Ed in the San Antonio online forum.  They join the ranks of Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, Marc Thiessen, Michael Mukasey, and, of course, the former President himself, George W. Bush.

But I challenge you to search all the articles and interviews done by these men for three key phrases: 1) World War II interrogators, 2) Long-Term, and 3) George Washington.  You won’t find them.  And there’s a reason why.


Known and Forgotten

By Matthew Alexander, Former Senior Military Interrogator and Amnesty Volunteer

Simulated waterboarding © Amnesty International

It would have been a better title for former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s recently released memoir.  There are things Rumsfeld remembers and things he has conveniently forgotten.  What we called in the interrogation room “selective memory.”  What’s most striking about the memoir, however, is the blatant hypocrisy.

Take for instance, his assertion in Chapter 39 (page 582) that “None of the authorized interrogation methods…involved physical or mental pain.  None were inhumane.”  What planet are we on? The Category I techniques he approved include stress positions for up to four hours.  Anyone who’s been through basic training knows that maintaining a stress position for four hours would be the very definition of pain.  But apparently, for Mr Rumsfeld, there’s no difference between standing at your work podium in your cushy Pentagon office and squatting for four hours straight.  No pain, indeed.

Rumsfeld also doesn’t consider it painful to be confronted with one’s phobias, for instance to have aggressive dogs placed inches from one’s face.  To Rumsfeld, that’s probably just a fun way to spend a Saturday.  Of course, this is from a guy who’s made a career out of Washington’s steak rooms.


Pulp Fiction

Today former Bush administration Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld launched his autobiography Known and Unknown: A Memoir with a tour of the usual media outlets.

Even judged by the standard of political memoirs Rumsfeld has mounted an epic display of denial that puts reggae bad boy Shaggy to shame. Bin Laden’s escape from Tora Bora? Wasn’t me. Misleading intelligence about WMDs in Iraq? Wasn’t me. Iraq’s collapse into chaos? Wasn’t me. The Pat Tillman affair? Not even mentioned.

Rumsfeld really outdoes himself when he tries to wash his hands of the systemic abuse of detainees held in military prisons in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay.

Discussing the Abu Ghraib scandal with ABC News anchor Diane Sawyer, Rummy commented:

“That was such a stain on our country. To think that people in our custody were treated in that disgusting and perverted and ghastly way — unacceptable way.”

Fine sentiments indeed, and you might be forgiven for thinking that the incident had nothing to do with the former Secretary of Defense, until you recall that it occurred in a detention facility under his command and grew out of a permissive attitude to detainee abuse that he himself was responsible for creating.

But don’t just take my word for it – here is an excerpt from the Senate Armed Services Committee Inquiry into the Treatment of Detainees in US Custody adopted unanimously in November 2008 by Republican and Democrat members alike:

“The abuse of detainees at Abu Ghraib in late 2003 was not simply a result of a few soldiers acting on their own. Interrogation techniques such as stripping detainees of their clothes, placing them in stress positions and using military working dogs to intimidate them appeared in Iraq only after they had been approved for use in Afghanistan and at [Guantánamo]… Rumsfeld’s authorization of aggressive interrogation techniques and subsequent interrogation policies and plans approved by senior military and civilian officers conveyed the message that physical pressures and degradation were appropriate treatment for detainees in U.S. military custody. What followed was an erosion in standards dictating that detainees be treated humanely.”

In December 2002 Rumsfeld personally authorized the use of “mild, non-injurious physical contact” as well as stress positions, stripping naked and even dogs to break detainees. Rumsfeld famously even questioned why the use of stress positions was limited to just 4 hours noting that he was used to standing for 8-10 hours a day.

In fact, Donald Rumsfeld’s fingerprints are all over the Bush administration’s torture program and you don’t need to be CSI’s Gil Grissom to find them. The last category Rumsfeld’s autobiography belongs in is “Non-fiction”.

That is why we are calling on all good bookshops to take a long hard look at the content of Known and Unknown and then move it straight to the “True Crime” section of their stores.

The Long Arm of the Law

Yesterday a spokesman for former US President George W. Bush announced that he was abandoning a planned visit to Switzerland because of “security concerns”.

Although President Bush’s team officially played down the possibility, it seems likely that the decision was taken in part because of fears that he might be arrested by the Swiss authorities. In 2005 former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld cancelled a visit to Munich, Germany, for the same reason.

Last Friday Amnesty International wrote to Genevoise and Swiss federal prosecutors outlining a lengthy and detailed case calling for the local authorities to investigate President Bush for authorizing the use of torture during the ‘war on terror’.

Since President Bush admitted in his memoir Decision Points that he personally ordered the water-boarding of terrorism suspects and water-boarding comfortably falls within the spectrum of acts prohibited by the Convention against Torture (and for that matter domestic US law) this frankly wasn’t a hard case to make.

Switzerland has an obligation under international law arising from the Convention against Torture to investigate these allegations. Switzerland ratified the Torture Convention in 1986 but even if it had not the prohibition of torture, and the duty to investigate suspects, is considered customary international law.

Furthermore, the Bush administration seized on the law of war as the framework within which it pursued Osama bin Laden and there is no statute of limitations on war crimes. Water-boarding, walling and learned compliance all amount to war crimes.

To borrow a turn of phrase used by General Petraeus, President’s Bush’s criminal liability for these abuses is non bio-degradable.

The reports that have emerged from Cairo this past week about the torture and abuse of pro-democracy activists by Egyptian security forces remind us of the company we keep if we allow the use of torture to go unpunished.

Ending impunity for human rights abuses is not a cause we can only pursue overseas. If our values are to have any meaning we must first put our house in order at home.  We can’t just ‘turn the page’.

It can be easy to get discouraged fighting against impunity when progress is most often measured not in years but in decades. However, this weekend we have been reminded that the law has a long arm and that even Presidents can’t ignore its reach.