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The Red Cross Torture Report: What It Means

Download the text of the ICRC Report on the Treatment of Fourteen “High Value Detainees” in CIA Custody by The International Committee of the Red Cross, along with the cover letter that accompanied it when it was transmitted to the US government in February 2007. This version, reset by The New York Review, exactly reproduces the original including typographical errors and some omitted words.

ICRC Report on the Treatment of Fourteen “High Value Detainees” in CIA Custody

by the International Committee of the Red Cross
43 pp., February 2007

When we get people who are more concerned about reading the rights to an Al Qaeda terrorist than they are with protecting the United States against people who are absolutely committed to do anything they can to kill Americans, then I worry…. These are evil people. And we’re not going to win this fight by turning the other cheek.

If it hadn’t been for what we did—with respect to the…enhanced interrogation techniques for high-value detainees…—then we would have been attacked again. Those policies we put in place, in my opinion, were absolutely crucial to getting us through the last seven-plus years without a major-casualty attack on the US….

—Former Vice President Dick Cheney, February 4, 20091


When it comes to torture, it is not what we did but what we are doing. It is not what happened but what is happening and what will happen. In our politics, torture is not about whether or not our polity can “let the past be past”—whether or not we can “get beyond it and look forward.” Torture, for Dick Cheney and for President Bush and a significant portion of the American people, is more than a repugnant series of “procedures” applied to a few hundred prisoners in American custody during the last half-dozen or so years—procedures that are described with chilling and patient particularity in this authoritative report by the International Committee of the Red Cross.2 Torture is more than the specific techniques—the forced nudity, sleep deprivation, long-term standing, and suffocation by water,” among others—that were applied to those fourteen “high-value detainees” and likely many more at the “black site” prisons secretly maintained by the CIA on three continents.

Torture, as the former vice-president’s words suggest, is a critical issue in the present of our politics—and not only because of ongoing investigations by Senate committees, or because of calls for an independent inquiry by congressional leaders, or for a “truth commission” by a leading Senate Democrat, or because of demands for a criminal investigation by the ACLU and other human rights organizations, and now undertaken in Spain, the United Kingdom, and Poland.3 For many in the United States, torture still stands as a marker of political commitment—of a willingness to “do anything to protect the American people,” a manly readiness to know when to abstain from “coddling terrorists” and do what needs to be done. Torture’s powerful symbolic role, like many ugly, shameful facts, is left unacknowledged and undiscussed. But that doesn’t make it any less real. On the contrary.

Torture is at the heart of the deadly politics of national security. The former vice-president, as able and ruthless a politician as the country has yet produced, appears convinced of this. For if torture really was a necessary evil in what Mr. Cheney calls the “tough, mean, dirty, nasty business” of “keeping the country safe,” then it follows that its abolition at the hands of the Obama administration will put the country once more at risk. It was Barack Obama, after all, who on his first full day as president issued a series of historic executive orders that closed the “black site” secret prisons and halted the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” that had been practiced there, and that provided that the offshore prison at Guantánamo would be closed within a year.

In moving instantly to do these things Obama identified himself as the “anti-torture president” no less than George W. Bush had become the “torture president”—as the former vice-president, a deeply unpopular politician who has seized the role of a kind of dark spokesman for the national id, was quick to point out. To a CNN interviewer who asked Mr. Cheney in March whether he believed that “by taking those steps…the president of the United States has made Americans less safe,” Cheney replied:

I do. I think those programs were absolutely essential to the success we enjoyed of being able to collect the intelligence that let us defeat all further attempts to launch attacks against the United States since 9/11. I think that’s a great success story.4

To which President Obama a few days later answered, “I fundamentally disagree with Dick Cheney.” He went on:

I think that Vice President Cheney has been at the head of a movement whose notion is somehow that we can’t reconcile our core values, our Constitution, our belief that we don’t torture, with our national security interests…. That attitude, that philosophy has done incredible damage to our image and position in the world.5

The President spoke of justice and reputation and the attitudes of Muslims toward Americans. And he spoke of “the facts”—which, he said of Mr. Cheney, “don’t bear him out.” It is clear that the President, a former professor of constitutional law and self-professed “optimistic guy” who, when asked whether those who have tortured should be punished, speaks of his preference for “looking forward” over “looking backward,” appreciates the political importance of the “great success story” being shaped by Cheney and others out of the recent past, a “success story” that the new president, with his overly “legalistic” concern for the Constitution, is said to be wantonly and foolishly destroying.

Cheney’s story is made not of facts but of the myths that replace them when facts remain secret: myths that are fueled by allusions to a dark world of secrets that cannot be revealed. At its heart is the recasting of President George W. Bush, under whose administration more Americans died in terrorist attacks than under all others combined, as the leader who “kept us safe,” and who was able to do so only by recognizing that the US had to engage in “a tough, mean, dirty, nasty business.” To keep the country safe “the gloves had to come off.” What precisely were those “gloves” that had to be removed? Laws that forbid torture, that outlaw wiretapping and surveillance without permission of the courts, that limit the president’s power to order secret operations and to wage war exactly as he sees fit.

The logic here works both ways: if “taking the gloves off” was a critical part of the “great success story” that has “kept the country safe,” then those who put the gloves on—Democrats who, in the wake of the Watergate scandal during the mid-1970s, passed laws that, among other things, limited the president’s freedom to order, with “deniability,” the CIA to operate outside the law—must have left the country vulnerable. And if by passing those restrictive laws three decades ago Democrats had left the country defenseless before the September 11 terrorists, then putting the gloves back on, as President Barack Obama on assuming office immediately began to do, risks leaving the country vulnerable once more.

Thus another successful attack, if it comes, can be laid firmly at the door of the Obama administration and its Democratic, “legalistic” policies. Especially in the case of “the ultimate threat to the country,” as the former vice-president put it two weeks after leaving office, of

a 9/11-type event where the terrorists are armed with something much more dangerous than an airline ticket and a box cutter—a nuclear weapon or a biological agent of some kind. That’s the one that would involve the deaths of perhaps hundreds of thousands of people, and the one you have to spend a hell of a lot of time guarding against.

I think there’s a high probability of such an attempt. Whether or not they can pull it off depends [on] whether or not we keep in place policies that have allowed us to defeat all further attempts, since 9/11, to launch mass-casualty attacks against the United States….

If you release the hard-core Al Qaeda terrorists that are held at Guantánamo, I think they go back into the business of trying to kill more Americans and mount further mass-casualty attacks. If you turn them loose and they go kill more Americans, who’s responsible for that?

Who indeed? Mr. Cheney’s politics of torture looks, Janus-like, in two directions: back to the past, toward exculpation for what was done under the administration he served, and into the future, toward blame for what might come under the administration that followed.

Put forward at a time when Republicans have lost power and popularity—and by the man who is perhaps the least popular figure in American public life—these propositions seem audacious, outrageous, even reckless; yet the political logic is insidious and, in the aftermath of a future attack, might well prove compelling. We are returning here to old principles, the post–cold war national security politics that Karl Rove, scarcely four months after the September 11 attacks, set out bluntly before his colleagues at the Republican National Committee: “We can go to the country on this issue”—the “War on Terror,” Rove said, because voters “trust the Republican Party to do a better job of protecting and strengthening America’s military might and, thereby, protecting America.” And in 2002 and 2004, just as Rove had predicted, Republicans gathered a rich harvest from this “politics of fear,” establishing and adding to majorities in both houses of Congress and managing to reelect a president who had embroiled the country in a deeply unpopular war in Iraq.

Cheney’s politics of fear—and the vice-president is unique only in his willingness to enunciate the matter so aggressively—is drawn from the past but built for the future, a possibly post-apocalyptic future, when Americans, gazing at the ruins left by another attack on their country, will wonder what could have been done but wasn’t. It relies on a carefully constructed narrative of what was done during the last half-dozen years, of all the disasters that could have happened but did not, and why they did not, and it makes unflinching political use of the powers of secrecy. As the former vice-president confided to the CNN correspondent John King,

John, I’ve seen a report that was written based upon the intelligence that we collected then that itemizes the specific attacks that were stopped by virtue of what we learned through these programs. It’s still classified. I can’t give you details of it without violating classification, but I can say there were a great many of them.

Attacks prevented, threats averted, lives saved—all secret and all ascribed to a willingness to do the “tough, mean, dirty, nasty” things that needed to be done. Things the present “anti-torture president” is just too “legalistic” to do. Barack Obama may well assert that “the facts don’t bear him out,” but as long as the “details of it” cannot be revealed “without violating classification,” as long as secrecy can be wielded as the dark and potent weapon it remains, Cheney’s politics of torture will remain a powerful if half-submerged counter-story, waiting for the next attack to spark it into vibrant life.


Key to what we did” in the “War on Terror,” the former vice-president told CNN, “was to collect intelligence against the enemy. That’s what…the enhanced interrogation program was all about.” It was not about punishment or pain or degradation but rather about intelligence. The question was, how to gather vital intelligence most efficiently and yet do it—as the former vice-president insists it was done—“legally” and “in accordance with our constitutional practices and principles.” These “techniques” would not be torture but rather “enhanced interrogation” or “extreme interrogation,” or, in President George W. Bush’s favored phrase, almost beautiful in its utter and perfect neutrality, “an alternative set of procedures.” These “procedures” were “designed to be safe, to comply with our laws, our Constitution, and our treaty obligations.”6

  1. 1

    See John F. Harris, Mike Allen, and Jim VandeHei, “Cheney Warns of New Attacks,” Politico, February 4, 2009.

  2. 2

    See my article, “US Torture: Voices from the Black Sites,” The New York Review, April 9, 2009, in which the ICRC report is extensively excerpted, and to which the present essay is a sequel. The report is based on extensive interviews, carried out in October and December 2006, with fourteen so-called “high-value detainees,” who had been imprisoned and interrogated for extended periods at the “black sites,” a series of secret prisons operated by the CIA in a number of countries around the world, including, at various times, Thailand, Afghanistan, Poland, Romania, and Morocco. Download the full text of the report.

  3. 3

    Among others, the Senate Armed Services Committee has made public parts of its Inquiry into the Treatment of Detainees in US Custody and more of this will doubtless be released in coming days. Meanwhile, a Spanish judge sent to a prosecutor a case against Alberto Gonzales, the former White House counsel and attorney general, and five other senior Bush officials, including John Yoo and Jay Bybee. See Marlise Simons, “Spanish Court Weighs Inquiry on Torture for 6 Bush-Era Officials,” The New York Times, March 28, 2009. In the United Kingdom, the Crown Prosecution Service has begun an inquiry into allegations of the torture of Binyam Mohamed during his detention by the CIA. In Poland, prosecutors have reportedly begun an inquiry into allegations that the CIA made use of an abandoned military facility as a “black site” to torture prisoners.

  4. 4

    Interview with Dick Cheney,” State of the Union With John King, CNN, March 15, 2009.

  5. 5

    See “Obama on AIG Rage, Recession, Challenges,” 60 Minutes, March 22, 2009.

  6. 6

    See “President Discusses Creation of Military Commissions to Try Suspected Terrorists,” September 6, 2006, East Room, White House, available at cfr.org. This is the most important speech President Bush gave on the “alternative set of procedures” and is analyzed at length in my previous article.

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