The more we learn about the Bush administration’s torture regime, the worse it gets. We now know that senior administration officials developed plans for torture long before lawyers in the Justice Department had given the program its legal imprimatur. The layers of incompetence among Bush officials are staggering, but poor staff work and ignorance cannot sufficiently explain how the United States became a torturing nation. Rather, it was Bush officials’ enthusiasm for brutality that led us to become our enemies.
As soon as U.S. forces began capturing Al Qaeda and Taliban prisoners in Afghanistan, the Bush administration began developing plans to torture them. Pentagon officials had crafted a plan by January 2002—before President Bush declared the Geneva Conventions would not apply and before the Justice Department had declared the program legal—to hide detainees from the Red Cross in secret facilities and torture them with the waterboard, sleep deprivation, physical violence, and psychological pressure.
The officials borrowed their techniques from the military training program called SERE, for Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape, first designed to give American pilots and special forces troops a sample of the torture methods used by Chinese and North Korean Communists during the Korean War.
These techniques were precisely the methods used to extract false confessions from American prisoners during the Korean and Vietnam wars. What’s more, the United States had previously prosecuted the use of these techniques as war crimes. The military trainers involved in the program believed them to be ineffective, and the former military psychologist who developed the torture regime had never conducted an actual interrogation.
Top Bush administration officials were apparently ignorant of all of this. Even a cursory examination of the history of interrogation would reveal much of this information, and an ounce of morality would have given any responsible official pause. The level of incompetence is disturbing, but also irrelevant: The Bush administration wanted to torture.
The administration’s first instinct was toward abuse. Every decision was designed to enable physical and psychological violence perpetrated against captives. Quite simply, they were devising ways to inflict pain and suffering. They kept detainees awake for seven and a half days by stripping him naked, forcing him to stand by shackling his wrists to the ceiling and ankles to the floor, and making him urinate and defecate on himself. Whatever rationalizations are offered to justify these actions, nothing can excuse the Bush administration’s eagerness for cruelty.
The results of the Bush torture regime are as predictable as they are disgusting. Dozens of captives were disappeared, snatched off the streets and shuttled through an archipelago of secret prisons. Far from being used rarely, torture exploded out of control and abuse became routine; the practices migrated from Afghanistan to Guantanamo and on to Iraq, leading to the deaths of more than 100 detainees in American custody since 2001.
We sacrificed our standing in the world and drove wave upon wave of recruits into the arms of al Qaeda for nothing. One intelligence official described the information derived from 183 waterboarding sessions with Khalid Sheikh Mohammad as “total f***ing bulls***.”
That we became our enemies is now beyond doubt. The road back from torture is long and difficult, for it is not just the act that is poisoning our democracy, it is the mentality that justifies it. The debate sparked by the Obama administration’s release of the Bush torture memos last week reveals just how many Americans will rush to defend even the most gruesome torture by claiming it kept us safe.
The Obama administration’s previous insistence on turning the page on this dark chapter is no longer sustainable. Our only chance to ensure that this does not happen again is to reach a recognized consensus that torture is illegal, immoral, and ineffective and has done great harm to the United States. If we do not, we must be prepared that the next time the torturers are in power, it won’t be done in secret.
Read also: Obama Shows Leadership on Torture Memos.
Ken Gude is the Associate Director of the International Rights and Responsibility Program at the Center for American Progress.