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Tortured Explanations

Philippe Sands' new book shows that those who drew up the United States' post-9/11 policy on interrogation were woefully inexperienced and badly advised.

SOURCE: Book cover

Ever since the first horrific images from Abu Ghraib emerged almost exactly four years ago, I have repeatedly asked myself: how in the world could my country be responsible for such terrible things? I know a lot of people out there think that this is not an aberration and believe the worst about the United States, its motives and its actions. The Bush administration has certainly added a lot of fuel to that fire. But in this case, the "hate America" crowd are simply wrong: never before in the modern history of the United States has there been an officially sanctioned, government-wide system of inflicting torture and abuse on detainees. Until now.

Figuring out how and why all of this transpired is vitally important to ensuring it never happens again. The excerpt from Philippe Sands’ new book, Torture Team – carried here in the Guardian today – illuminates some of the critical decisions that got us into this mess. Looking back on these actions in hindsight, it is easy to see the errors of judgment. But it is important, however, to try and put yourself in these officials’ shoes, feeling what must have been an awesome sense of personal failure at the loss of 3,000 lives on their watch and a deep sense of responsibility to prevent any future attacks. Initially, you must to have some sympathy for the incredible strain they would have been under. But as the catalogue of catastrophic decisions piled up, that feeling evaporates. We are left to conclude that these were the wrong people in the wrong jobs at the wrong time.

From Sands’ and other retellings, we know that the policymakers who guided this debacle were victims of their preconceptions. They knew Mohammed al-Qahtani, Detainee 063, was supposed to be the elusive 20th hijacker on 9/11. Since he is the only surviving al-Qaida member of that plot, and everyone believes we are going to be attacked again, al-Qahtani must know all details of those other plots. Since he must know those things, and up to that point he had not told his interrogators anything about them, the interrogation techniques must not be tough enough. Nobody asked if the poor return was due to inexperienced interrogators that were mostly US Army Reservists with little or no training. Never was it even considered that al-Qahtani just might not know that much in the first place. No. He is al-Qaida, so he knows, we have to get tougher.

If one thing alone stands out from Sands’ account it should be that the people who cooked up this scheme had no experience with interrogation and were certainly not experts on al-Qaida. Intelligence interrogation is difficult, complex work but not for these guys. Getting inspiration from the television show 24? Seriously? This is how we threw out 150 years of military culture, history, and training? After that foray into fiction predictably failed to produce the desired results, we called in the KGB. The CIA and Pentagon colluded to reverse-engineer the interrogation resistance training given to US airmen at high risk of capture by the Soviets, employing techniques based on the old KGB playbook. Add to that the recent ABC News investigation that uncovered dozens of meetings of the so-called National Security Council "Principals" – Rice, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Powell, Ashcroft – who micromanaged the interrogations of specific suspects from the Situation Room in the White House. This would be a comedy of errors if it wasn’t so tragic.

Sands’ points the blame at the lawyers – Beaver at Gitmo and her superior Haynes at the Pentagon – but only tangentially fingering the one most responsible, John Yoo from the office of legal counsel in the Justice Department. It was Yoo’s legal advice that for an act to be torture it would have to cause pain "equivalent in intensity to the pain accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death." Under that definition almost anything would be legal.

Being a lawyer himself, it is understandable that Sands’ would focus on the lawyers involved and single them out for particular scrutiny. Perhaps because I am not, I think the ultimate culpability lies elsewhere. For me, whether this kind of interrogation meets the legal definition of torture (I think it does) or whether or not it is constitutional (it obviously is not) is entirely beside the point. Caught up in a debate about whether they could do something, no one ever asked if they should do it. The United States should not be in the torture business, full stop. For those who want to go on to the merits, mountains of evidence demonstrates that abusive interrogations produce unreliable and often false information and are a poor substitute for a carefully constructed humane interrogation program. The lawyers only enabled this decision, they didn’t make it. President Bush rejected the moral and practical arguments in favour of advice from John Yoo, Jack Bauer and Joe Stalin. That is how a young woman from small town West Virginia ended up dragging an Iraqi man around on the ground by leash.