There was a cascade of coverage of the President’s August 1 remarks concerning John Brennan and his defense of his embattled CIA chief, as Obama was also widely derided for his seeming defense of those who tortured “some folks” after 9/11. (Obama did not mention that the order to torture came from the Oval Office.)
“Well, at least he called the crimes out as ‘torture,” some observers noted. Others, including some in the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI), called for John Brennan’s resignation as CIA director after he admitted the CIA had spied on Congressional investigators who were writing a thousands-of-pages-long report on the CIA Rendition, Detention, and Interrogation program.
An Executive Summary of that report, in a censored version produced by the CIA itself, is now back in the hands of the SSCI, who may or may not release it soon. The Committee has already decided the full 6000 or so page report itself will not be released for years (if ever), a cover-up of immense proportions.
Jason Leopold, who has been covering the story for Al Jazeera America and VICE, noted astutely in a tweet the other day, that Obama’s comments at his August 1 press conference included a reference to his only banning “some” of the CIA’s torture techniques. Leopold believed Obama previously had always been more absolute in his prohibition of torture.
The full quote from the August 1 presser is worth reproducing here. The quote below begins in the middle of Obama’s defense of those who used torture after 9/11, i.e., those who are the subjects of the Senate’s controversial torture report (bold emphasis is added):
And it’s important for us not to feel too sanctimonious in retrospect about the tough job that those folks had. And a lot of those folks were working hard under enormous pressure and are real patriots.
But having said all that, we did some things that were wrong. And that’s what that report reflects. And that’s the reason why, after I took office, one of the first things I did was to ban some of the extraordinary interrogation techniques that are the subject of that report.
Only “some of the extraordinary interrogation techniques”? Not all? Was this merely a slip of the tongue by the President? No one in the press corp seemed to notice, and no one took him up on the issue. To date, no one has in the press has at all (besides Leopold’s tweets), though it is very much worth noting that Jeremy Scahill reported in July 2011 on the CIA’s continuing use of black sites and torture in an important article in The Nation. Others had surmised as much even earlier.
But there was a much more insidious and institutional salvage of torture by the U.S. government, which, rocked after the Abu Ghraib revelations, tried to hide and maintain its use of detention and interrogation techniques that relied on force, mental cruelty, fear, isolation, stress positions, sleep and sensory deprivation, and the use of drugs. Waterboarding, for all the attention given to that brutal form of torture, was never really a major component of U.S. torture. There were even some in the CIA who would be glad to see it go.
Using solitary confinement, loud music and 24 hour bright lights, verbal abuse and humiliation, “dislocating the expectations” of prisoners by, for instance, moving them around every day so they never had a sense of solid place or safety or time to rest, or using drugs to disorient them — this is the kind of torture that leaves deep psychological wounds, and which the U.S. wanted to maintain in its interrogation arsenal.
What Obama Meant by Banning Only “Some” Torture
Over the past few years, I have shown how first the Bush administration hid their torture program within a 2006 rewrite of the Army Field Manual on interrogation, then how the Obama administration via Executive Order made that same field manual the law of the land, incumbent on both the CIA and the Defense Department.
I showed that when in January 2009 Obama publicly revoked the Bush torture program, which the government labeled “extraordinary interrogation techniques,” and all the John Yoo/Jay Bybee/Steven Bradbury Justice Department memoranda approving that same torture program, he did not do it in a blanket fashion, but referred the memos themselves to Eric Holder for review. Ultimately, as a Department of Defense spokesperson actually told me, the Holder and the Justice Department never rescinded one of the Bush-era torture memos, in particular the one that approved forms of torture that would be used in a special section, called Appendix M, of the Army Field Manual.
Obama’s admission that he had only banned “some” of the previous administration’s torture techniques was not the first time the government has made such an admission, however obliquely.
Last April, I wrote how the Department of Defense’s main directive on interrogations (3115.09), which supposedly had banned SERE-derived torture techniques (like waterboarding, hooding, etc.) used by the government after 9/11, in fact made a note that only some of the SERE techniques were banned. The ones that were not banned resided in — the Army Field Manual on interrogation, the same manual Obama had endorsed in his Jan. 2009 executive order on “lawful interrogations.”
SERE stands for Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape, and is the name given to DoD’s program to prepare military and CIA and other specific government personnel for capture and imprisonment by a brutal enemy. Its participants take part in a mock-prison camp exercise, and it was the kinds of torture practiced during that exercise that were utilized in full-blown operational mode by CIA and Defense Department interrogators in the so-called War on Terror.
The SERE-derived model, which is what the “extraordinary interrogation techniques” really were, was superimposed on an earlier torture program based on isolation and sensory deprivation, sleep deprivation, fear and drugs, developed by the CIA and codified in a 1963 interrogation program that is referred to today as KUBARK. Earlier this year, I obtained a version of the previously declassified KUBARK manual with new portions now unredacted.
But oddly, besides myself, only Obama seems to have noticed that not all the torture techniques were rescinded by him. The press and certainly the Senate and the House of Representatives have ignored entirely the use of torture in the Army Field Manual. While some bloggers and human rights groups have noted the anomaly of having the nation’s primary instructions on interrogation include torture techniques, and some have even called for a repeal of Appendix M or a rewriting of the field manual itself, none of these groups or individuals have made this a primary issue. Nor, when the controversy over the Senate report on the CIA torture program is discussed, is the ongoing presence of torture in the Army Field Manual ever mentioned.
The failure to take on the entire torture apparatus is one reason accountability for U.S. torture cannot get sufficient traction. The argument remains shackled by what the Establishment deems reasonable dialogue about torture. So one can criticize the embrace of euphemism to describe torture, or argue why waterboarding is torture, or shout loudly why the redacted portion of the SSCI’s Executive Summary of their years-long investigation should be released, but evidently it is not reasonable, that is, establishment-sanctioned via the New York Times or other media or political authority, to bring up torture beyond the terms already established.
But now Obama has done it. He has said he banned only “some” of the torture techniques that were the target of the SSCI’s report. Now, besides me, who’s going to take him on about this?