After the past two weeks of document-dumps from the leaked February
Red Cross report calling George W Bush’s interrogation policy unequivocally “torture”, to the Office of Legal Counsel “torture memos” released by Barack Obama 10 days ago, to the doorstopper armed services committee report, what do we know about the Bush-Dick Cheney programme for interrogating terror suspects that we did not know before?
Not much in the essentials. In fact, what’s remarkable is how solid the story has stayed from its beginnings six years ago. Nobody now disputes the following: after 9/11, President Bush secretly suspended the Geneva conventions for prisoners captured in the war on terror. The prison camp at Guantanamo Bay under the jurisdiction of neither Havana nor Wash-ington was picked to find a legal loophole to permit the torture of prisoners.
The techniques included multiple beatings; total sensory deprivation; keeping suspects awake for weeks on end; keeping prisoners on the edge of medical hypo-thermia and extreme heat; stress positions that make a human being buckle under muscular distress and pain; and religious, sexual, cultural and psychological abuse. Bush and Cheney also added waterboarding, long classified as torture in American and international law.
All of this was reiterated in numbing and often disturbing bureaucratic language. Yes, this is how banal evil looks in modern America. But one small detail did leap out of the footnotes. They waterboarded Abu Zubaydah
83 times; and they waterboarded Khalid Sheikh Mohammed 183 times. They then destroyed the tapes of these sessions.
What is it about the specificity of the number? Perhaps it helps people to see through the Orwellian language “enhanced interrogation” to the act itself. You immediately ask yourself: what was it like to strap a man to a waterboard and make him feel as if he is drowning for the 75th time? As soon as you are forced to understand that this act of torture was directly monitored by the president of the United States, you can’t look away. And the defenders of the policy, sensing the psychological impact of this fact, immediately shifted. Cheney segued effortlessly from saying “we don’t torture” to saying “it worked”. Karl Rove tweeted:
“Precautions taken 2 guarantee compliance w/ federal prohibition on torture. U might characterise diligence as overcautious.” Yes, they tortured and then ordered up transparently absurd legal memos to say they hadn’t. When Philip Zelikow, Condi Rice’s key aide, wrote a memo saying explicitly that this was torture and illegal, they did not just ignore him but, according to Zelikow last week, sought to collect and destroy all copies of his memo.
The second startling revelation was confirmation that Zubaydah, the first prisoner to be tortured, was judged by the CIA and FBI to have told everything he knew before Bush and Cheney ordered the 83 waterboardings.
Why did they order the torture? An FBI interrogator of Zubaydah broke ranks to tell The New York Times “there was no actionable intelligence gained from using enhanced interrogation techniques on Abu Zubaydah that wasn’t, or couldn’t have been, gained from regular tactics”.
What did the Bush administration gain from torturing Zubaydah? As David Rose reported in Vanity Fair magazine last year, the result of the torture was a confession by Zubaydah that Saddam Hussein and Al-Qaeda had a working relationship, the key casus belli for the Iraq war. Rose quotes a Pentagon analyst who read the transcripts from the interrogation: “Abu Zubaydah was saying Iraq and Al-Qaeda had an operational relationship. It was everything the administration hoped it would be.” That analyst did not then know that the evidence was procured through torture. “As soon as I learnt that the reports had come from torture, once my anger had subsided I understood the damage it had done,” the analyst says.
The president used this tortured evidence to defend the war, alongside the confession of Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, who was cited by Colin Powell at the United Nations as a first-person source of the Saddam-Al-Qaeda connection.
But al-Libi was also tortured. And we know that such an operational connection did not exist. And we also now know that what Zubaydah and al-Libi provided were false confessions, procured through torture techniques designed by the communist Chinese to produce false confessions.
In other words, the first act of torture authorised by Bush gave the United States part of the false evidence that it used to go to war against Saddam.
The problem with torture is the enormous damage it does to the possibility of finding the truth. Torture forces a victim to tell his interrogator anything to stop the pain. There may be some truth in the confession but there is also untruth and no way to tell the two apart. Every experienced interrogator knows this, which is why governments that are concerned with getting at the truth do not use it.
The British government processed and interrogated more than 500 Nazi spies during the second world war in a situation in which the very existence of Britain as a free country was at stake and when Londoners endured a 9/11 every week during the blitz. But not one of the spies was physically coerced. Not just because it would have been immoral and illegal, because giving in to torture was not morally different from surrendering to Nazism, but because it would have produced false leads, dead ends and fantasies.
The reason totalitarian states use the torture techniques that Bush did is to produce false confessions to create a reality that buttresses their ideology.
The Bush and Cheney ideology was that Iraq needed to be invaded because Saddam had weapons of mass destruction and had an operational relationship with Al-Qaeda that put America under an intolerable risk. When the facts could not be found to defend that idée fixe, they skewed the intelligence. When there was no intelligence to skew, they tortured people to get it.
Or, to put it more simply: on March 27, 2007, when Zubaydah went before his combatant status review tribunal at Guantanamo, the judge asked him: “So I understand that, during this treatment, you said things to make them stop and then those statements were actually untrue. Is that correct?” Zubaydah replied: “Yes.” This is partly how the entire war was justified: on a tortured lie. And this much we now know for sure.