This election, Charlie Savage of the New York Times writes, will decide the future of “interrogation methods in terrorism cases,” whether torture techniques used by the administration of President George W. Bush are restored. GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney favors “enhanced interrogation techniques” or torture. President Barack Obama has maintained certain torture techniques should not be used on prisoners suspected of having ties to terrorism.
The reality is the choice is not so distinct. When it comes to policy, both candidates would permit a level of torture.
Obama has stopped agents and military officers from engaging in some forms of torture and outsourced the torture to allies in Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia. That does not mean agents and military officers are not engaged in torture themselves. Guantanamo Bay prison is still open.
It is believed with the Army Field Manual in force torture has stopped. Jeff Kaye of Truthout has found, through his research and work, the Army Field Manual—particularly Appendix M—permits sleep deprivation, twenty hour interrogations and environmental and dietary manipulations, as long as they are not “extreme.” Kaye has detailed how the Army Field Manual makes it justifiable for prisoners to be limited to “four hours of sleep per day for up to thirty days straight and longer than that with approval.” The four hours of sleep, he has noted, could occur at any time of the twenty-four hour day, “a form of manipulation of circadian rhythms that also amounts to torture, not to mention allowing mammoth interrogation sessions to exhaust the prisoner.”
The use of isolation for more thirty days or more with approval is allowed. Goggles and earmuffs can be used for sensory deprivation. Hallucinations can be caused in the minds of prisoners. Officers or agents can create a learned helplessness in prisoners like officers or agents did to prisoners when Bush was president and create mental or even, in some cases, physical illness in prisoners.
It was reported in February 2012 that British prisoner Shaker Aamer, one of eighty-six prisoners at Guantanamo cleared for release, was being held in isolation. According to human rights organization Reprieve, Aamer was placed in isolation—solitary confinement—on July 15, 2011. He was put in a cell that has no view outside, “just a one meter by 30 centimeters of opaque glass, and no real toilet, just a hole in the ground.” Aamer told Reprieve torture was worse in Guantanamo than before: “Here they destroy people mentally and physically without leaving marks.” He suggested isolation was being called “separation” to get around rules limiting “isolation” to thirty days. [There's also evidence on the drugging of detainees, which points to a possible Defense Department coverup and raises questions about how pharmaceuticals are used on prisoners today.]
One can argue Romney would allow more torture if elected, but one could also counter that more torture would not be acceptable to the current actors, who populate the national security state. More torture would scar suspects, making it likely terror prosecutions are complicated by torture. It would further complicate interrogation and detention policy and give suspects evidence that could be used to press cases challenging officials in the US government. [As Savage's report suggests, "The Central Intelligence Agency could give 'a certain amount of passive-aggressive resistance' to any directive to restart any aggressive interrogation practices that could leave it exposed if political winds shift again, said Mark Lowenthal, who was its assistant director for analysis and production from 2002 to 2005."]
Both would maintain the culture of impunity, making it possible for officials to authorize and oversee policies that permit torture. There would be no prosecutions for even a few agents or officers caught torturing or abusing prisoners.
The advisers coaching Romney are the very people, who contributed to Bush efforts to make torture an issue where people debated whether it worked or not rather than how a country could permit torture to be used. They include: ”Michael Chertoff, the former homeland security secretary; Cully Stimson, the Pentagon’s detainee policy chief; and many other Bush-era executive branch veterans: Bradford Berenson, Elliot S. Berke, Todd F. Braunstein, Gus P. Coldebella,Jimmy Gurule, Richard D. Klingler, Ramon Martinez, Brent J. McIntosh, John C. O’Quinn, John J. Sullivan, Michael Sullivan and Alex Wong. Three others — Lee A. Casey,Maureen E. Mahoney and David B. Rivkin Jr. — served in earlier Republican administrations.”
But, if liberals or progressives express any concern over Bush officials returning to power, they should understand that Obama’s commitment to moving forward instead of looking backward has already empowered these officials. Former Vice President Dick Cheney, former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and former counterterrorism head for the CIA, Jose Rodriguez, have all appeared on television to evangelize and preach the Gospel of Torture and how it is effective—that they believe it has disrupted a number of terror plots.
These officials have been vindicated by Obama’s administration, which has let them escape accountability. And, as I have written, without accountability or justice, those who were at the center of acts of torture may work to clear their name, as if they never committed any wrong. They may suggest that if what they had done was criminal, they would have been put on trial. They may point to the absence of prosecutions and say Obama was just spouting hot rhetoric. Civil liberties and human rights advocates and the antiwar or peace activists are all just a part of focus groups, which Obama figured out were misguided once he was introduced to officials from national security agencies.
Parts of history can be rewritten to cloud the record of what really happened. That does not just mean aspects of these torture techniques not repudiated by the lack of investigations into former Bush administration officials may seep back into US interrogation policy but also that abusive techniques like stress positions, sensory deprivation, sleep deprivation and solitary confinement will likely become more and more entrenched in policy.
Whatever Romney might do as president, if elected, Obama would bear a certain level of responsibility. He had the opportunity to be a leader and, in the first months in office, make use of people like Attorney General Eric Holder and former White House Counsel Gregory Craig. He consciously chose the vacuous and morally bankrupt path laid out before him by his former Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel and his former Senior Advisor David Axelrod. He chose continuity of government over justice for victims tortured while Bush was president, over ensuring a culture of impunity would not further seep into the government effectively decriminalizing torture. And, as a result, he ensured officials could return to the halls of power to promote their “Torture Works” ideals that support the myth that America must be able to torture people and torture people in secret in order for the country to survive and prosper.