Columns » Ernest Dumas

Torturers at the top

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King Henry VIII of England, founder of the Church of England and a particularly virile ruler, did not think it at all inhumane to have a counterfeiter boiled alive or to cut off the extremities, including the heads, of sundry enemies in prison without a fair trial. Some of Henry’s enemies, after all, were of a new and particularly thoughtless kind — religious zealots.

What the king lacked in the 16th century but what George W. Bush has had were gifted speechwriters to rationalize such punishment to his subjects and a secretary of state to explain sweetly to the royal courts of Europe how it never happened.

When he was pressed during his Latin American tour about all the stories of soldiers and government agents torturing detainees in secret prisons, already confirmed by governments from Scandinavia to the Mediterranean, President Bush declared, “We do not torture.” Bush, Vice President Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld continue to insist that the random instances where someone was abused were the work of a few rogue privates and corporals (130 of them so far) defying their commanders.

It is hard for even the most trusting citizens to believe the president and his men anymore and, of course, almost no one in any foreign land does. The government has surrendered more than 70,000 pages of CIA, FBI, Defense and State department documents that detail inhumane treatment in Afghanistan, Iraq and the Guantanamo Naval Base — prisoners shackled to the floor for hours on end, kept naked and sexually tormented, their hands bathed in alcohol and set afire, waterboarded, threatened with death and, in a number of cases, killed.

Rear Adm. John Hutson (Ret.), former judge advocate general of the Navy, says the blame should not stop with the grunts who were punished.

“In dealing with detainees, the attitude at the top was that they are all just terrorists, beneath contempt and outside the law so they could be treated inhumanely. . . ,” Hutson said. “International obligations didn’t matter, nor did morality or humanity. That attitude dropped like a rock down the chain of command.”

The documents, remember, are those that the government collected, preserved and is now reluctant but willing to give up under court order. We will never know how much of the truth they tell.

The American Civil Liberties Union sought the documents under the Freedom of Information Act even before the Abu Ghraib photographs were unearthed. A federal judge has ordered the government to release photos and videos of abuse at Abu Ghraib in response to an ACLU lawsuit but the administration is fighting the release and it obtained a stay of the order and now an extension. One day it will all come to light though probably after the Bush administration has receded into history. Then we shall see ourselves as others see us now and be more aggrieved because from General Washington forward we have always held ourselves to a higher standard.

Last week, Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice told the European capitals that the U.S. does not whisk people away, fly them across the borders of Europe to clandestine prisons and torture them in a regimen called “extraordinary rendition.”

Never happened, Rice said. Well, that’s not exactly what she said but it’s the impression she wanted to leave. Verb tense, legalisms and careful semantic distinctions left plenty of leeway if subsequent revelations prove her to be unequivocally lying.

The big legalism, of course, is what constitutes torture. In Bush’s lexicon, as in King Henry’s, nothing does.

But detailed reports in the Washington Post and in the European press had already put the lie to her account. There was the celebrated case of Khaled Masri in which Rice herself had a role. Masri, a 41-year-old German citizen of Lebanese descent and father of five, had a spat with his wife and got on a bus to Macedonia to cool off. On Dec. 31, 2003, the CIA took him off the bus for questioning. The local CIA chief had a hunch that he was an Al Qaeda agent. They questioned him for 23 days in a dark hotel room.

He was taken handcuffed and blindfolded to an airfield where he was severely beaten with a stick. His clothes were cut off and he was given an enema, the standard drill for extraordinary rendition. In a diaper and jump suit, he was blindfolded, handcuffed, earmuffed and shackled spread-eagle to the floor. Then he was flown to Afghanistan for four months in a cold concrete cell. His interrogator, apparently an American, told him that he was in a country where there was no law. “If you die, we will bury you and no one will know.” He was photographed naked and interrogated by masked men, tied to a chair and a feeding tube stuck through his nose to his stomach.

The German government confirmed the central details of his story — the exact dates and places and methods of his movements, including the CIA-chartered plane.

By March, the CIA knew they had the wrong man and debated what to do with him. Stopping the torture apparently was not an option. Two months later, they flew him to Albania and dropped him off in the woods.

In Washington, they consulted the White House and the State Department. On Bush’s behalf, Rice said they had to notify the German government of the mistake because Masri might talk, and CIA Director George Tenet finally agreed. But they would never confirm, apologize or comment on the story if it broke.

Honorable as she is, Rice stuck to the deal last week.


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