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The Complicit General

In the face of such clear opposition to the proposed techniques from each of the armed services, one would have expected General Myers to adopt a firm position. There is no evidence that he did so. It might also be expected that General Myers would explain why he seems to have caved in without a fight. Nowhere does he do this or express regret that it was during his chairmanship that the US military embraced cruelty as an official policy, apparently for the first time since 1863.

Why might that be? In April 2007 Myers generously granted me an on-the-record interview on the subject of al-Qahtani’s interrogation—the Guantánamo prisoner for whom the fifteen special interrogation techniques were, according to multiple sources, largely designed. I felt he was honest in his responses, and there was no question he was unwilling to answer, although I also got the sense that he may have been out of his depth on these issues, an easy pushover for a pugnacious secretary of defense aided by Jim Haynes, a product of Harvard Law School.

Myers told me that when the documents arrived in late October 2002 he immediately recognized the importance of the decision that faced them. It was, he said, “a big step” for General Hill to have written on so serious an issue, and that it would require getting “the staff together and work this up to where we have some opinions on this, legalities and everything else.”7 He described how he involved Jane Dalton and the central role played by Haynes. “It’s radioactive,” he told me, “so we’ve got to get an answer back to [General Hill] that is the right answer.”

He also seemed to believe that “all the techniques came out of the book”—the US Army Field Manual. This answer was surprising. We went, one by one, through each of the fifteen techniques approved by Rumsfeld into three progressively severe groups. The Category I techniques didn’t present large problems, he said, since they were regularly used in training. “I expect to get yelled at,” he explained, “they’re going to deceive you, you’re going to have different techniques, they’re going to give you false stuff.”

As we moved down the list onto Category II we reached forced grooming (cutting off hair), the use of dogs, and other matters. “Dogs were only to be present, never to be…” His voice trailed off. Removal of clothing? That “would be less fun.” Forced grooming? “The last two here are a little…the last one in particular”—referring to the use of “individual phobias (such as fear of dogs) to induce stress”—“you know in general I think, that’s how we train. Those are the kind of things we train against.” His voice paused. “There was never a physical injury there…,” he said, throwing light on the rationale for humiliation.

I think all of these are in the manual,” he then offered.

They’re not,” I responded.

They aren’t?”

No they’re not,” I said, “none of them are in the manual.”

This was a moment that occurs only rarely in any interview: your interlocutor inadvertently reveals the full extent to which he has fallen into a fog. There was one issue on which I had a particular interest. As chairman of the Joint Chiefs, I asked, are you comfortable with all of these techniques being used on American personnel? “Not [the ones] in this memo,” he responded without hesitation. The response left open the unanswerable follow-up question: If these techniques are “inappropriate” for us, why are they appropriate for detainees in US custody?

Myers doesn’t address the question in his book. But he vehemently maintains that he did not believe himself to have signed off on torture. “When you see this, you say, holy mackerel, because one thing that I don’t think I ever authorized in any of the communications I sent to anybody was…we never authorized torture, we just didn’t, not what we would do.” With these techniques there were “nuances within nuances,” he explained, and issues arose: “What about combinations? permutations of these? how will they impact? And we in fact, in front of the secretary, we got into a lot of that.”

A lot was obviously still not enough. In January 2009, Susan J. Crawford, former chief judge of the US Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces who was appointed in 2007 as the convening authority of the Guantánamo military commissions, told Bob Woodward that al-Qahtani’s treatment at Guantánamo “met the legal definition of torture,” and that was why the charges against him were dropped in May 2008 and why new charges were not filed.8 It was, she said, the “combination of things that had a medical impact on him, that hurt his health…. It was that medical impact that pushed me over the edge” to call it torture.

General Myers’s actions had even more far-reaching consequences. In August 2003, the techniques he failed to object to for al-Qahtani migrated to Iraq where they were formally approved by Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez, a month before the abuses of Abu Ghraib were photographically recorded. In the executive summary of its report on detainee abuse, made public in December 2008, the Senate Armed Services Committee concluded:

The abuse of detainees at Abu Ghraib in late 2003 was not simply the result of a few soldiers acting on their own. Interrogation techniques such as stripping detainees of their clothes, placing them in stress positions, and using military working dogs to intimidate them appeared in Iraq only after they had been approved for use in Afghanistan and at GTMO. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s December 2, 2002 authorization of aggressive interrogation techniques and subsequent interrogation policies and plans approved by senior military and civilian officials conveyed the message that physical pressures and degradation were appropriate treatment for detainees in US.9

This too is a matter on which Myers’s silence is troubling, in view of his evident unease with the Abu Ghraib photographs. He singles out images of abuse, humiliation, hooding, and nudity, describing the shame he felt as to “what our fellow servicemen and women did at Abu Ghraib.” Yet he appears oblivious to the widespread recognition that the techniques he supported for Guantánamo were so closely connected with such abuse.

General Myers is not alone in avoiding these issues, which raise the prospect of criminal investigations. The mode of total silence is adopted by others, like Douglas J. Feith, who worked with General Myers as undersecretary of defense from 2001 to 2005 and was also closely involved in the Rumsfeld memo. In December 2007 I interviewed Feith about the Pentagon’s approval of additional techniques for use by military interrogators at Guantánamo. My first mention of al-Qahtani elicited an all-too-rapid “I had nothing to do with that.”10 A few months later Feith’s memoir War and Decision was published, purporting to be “a contribution to history, extensively documented and as accurate as one person’s account can be.”11 Curiously, the extensive documentation did not include any reference to the Rumsfeld memo, in which Haynes explicitly refers to Feith’s support.

Feith was one of only two people who received copies of Rumsfeld’s memo; the other was Myers. The name of Mohammed al-Qahtani does not appear in Feith’s book, although the issue of detainee abuse is addressed, and one cryptic paragraph (out of Feith’s 674 pages) is devoted, obliquely, to the circumstances of al-Qahtani’s abuse. It points the finger of blame at US Southern Command, which “requested permission to try some techniques that went beyond the Army Field Manual.” Feith makes no mention of the memo, or of the efforts of his own office to take part in the quest for the new techniques before Southern Command made its official request to the Pentagon.12

Another approach is partial silence, the mode adopted by Jack Goldsmith in a skillfully written but partial account of his time as head of the Office of Legal Counsel, from October 2003 to July 2004. He glosses over his earlier period assisting the Bush administration, from September 2002 when Haynes appointed him as his “Special Counsel” and provided him with “an endless stream of fascinating legal problems,” including “Guantánamo detentions.”13 Again, Goldsmith makes no mention of al-Qahtani or Haynes’s role in securing Pentagon endorsement for the use of torture in military interrogations, despite the fact that it occurred at the very time he served under Haynes.

Goldsmith does refer to a visit he made to Guantánamo with Haynes in September 2002 when, it is now known, the interrogation of al-Qahtani was discussed. We do not know from Goldsmith himself what his knowledge or involvement, if any, may have been in the process of decision-making that led Haynes to write the December 2 memo. What is apparent is that Goldsmith saw nothing in Haynes’s actions that might preclude appointment to the federal bench: in July 2006, well after Haynes’s authorship of the memo became public, Goldsmith joined three others in writing to the Senate Judiciary Committee to support Haynes’s nomination for a judgeship on the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit.14 The nomination failed.

Yet not all writers have fallen into total amnesia about the treatment of Mohammed al-Qahtani. John Yoo, author of the two Justice Department memos of August 1, 2002, secretly relied on by Haynes in recommending the new techniques of interrogation for use on al-Qahtani, has expressed the view that only the CIA, and not the DoD, should have engaged in such interrogations.15 His account explicitly discusses the “coercive interrogation” of al-Qahtani, which he justifies on the grounds that it produced positive results, did not constitute torture, and did not migrate to Abu Ghraib—all points now established as wrong. He addresses the dark subject that Myers and others go out of their way to avoid16.

The torture of Mohammed al-Qahtani was a defining moment in American military history. For that reason, Myers should have addressed his involvement in it. His memoir gives no hint why this decent family man would have rolled over on this issue when confronted by the desires of his political masters. What we know of his earlier career—Air Force training school, distinguished duty in Vietnam, fighter training school, commander of US forces in Japan—points to a man imbued with the best values of the US military. Perhaps his Air Force background implied a greater distance from the Geneva Conventions, although he recognized the real possibility he could have been tortured in Vietnam. Perhaps another fight distracted him: as chairman he successfully resisted efforts by Rumsfeld and Haynes to deprive the military of its independent advisory functions. Perhaps he genuinely believed that the newly approved interrogation techniques were justifiable and did not cross any lines.

Whatever the reason, the silence of Myers and others indicates the uncomfortable truth that the full circumstances in which the CIA and then the US military adopted interrogation strategies amounting to torture remains to be explained. Under the 1984 Convention Against Torture, to which the US is a party, torture and complicity in torture are international crimes that must be investigated. President Obama’s administration does not have the luxury of being able to look the other way. His attorney general, Eric Holder, seems to recognize that, and he has just appointed a prosecutor to address these issues. To do nothing is to cover up the crime. Silence is complicity.

August 26, 2009

  1. 7

    Interview between the author and General Richard Myers, April 26, 2007, transcript and audio held by author.

  2. 8

    Bob Woodward, “Detainee Tortured, Says US Official,” The Washington Post, January 14, 2009.

  3. 9

    See Senate Armed Services Committee, “Inquiry into the Treatment of Detainees in US Custody,” November 20, 2008, publicly released April 21, 2009, Executive Summary, Conclusion 19; available at levin.senate.gov/newsroom/release.cfm?id=313072.

  4. 10

    Interview between the author and Douglas J. Feith, December 6, 2006, transcript and audio available at www.vanityfair.com/politics/features/2008/07/feith_transcript200807.

  5. 11

    War and Decision: Inside the Pentagon at the Dawn of the War on Terrorism (Harper, 2008), p. ix.

  6. 12

    Douglas J. Feith, War and Decision: Inside the Pentagon at the Dawn of the War on Terrorism (Harper, 2008), p. 165. According to the report of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Feith’s office was involved in efforts to identify new interrogation techniques as early as June 2002; see “Inquiry into the Treatment of Detainees in US Custody,” pp. 21 and 92.

  7. 13

    Jack Goldsmith, The Terror Presidency: Law and Judgment Inside the Bush Administration (Norton, 2007), p. 21; reviewed in these pages by David Cole, December 6, 2007.

  8. 14

    Letter from James B. Comey, Jack Goldsmith, Patrick F. Philbin, and Larry D. Thompson to Senator Arlen Spector and Senator Patrick J. Leahy, July 10, 2006, at: balkin.blogspot.com/haynes.nomination.thompson.letter.pdf.

  9. 15

    Philippe Sands, Torture Team: Rumsfeld’s Memo and the Betrayal of American Values (Palgrave Macmillan, 2008), p. 74; reviewed in these pages by David Cole, January 15, 2009.

  10. 16

    John Yoo, War by Other Means: An Insider’s Account of the War on Terror (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2006), pp. 191–199; reviewed in these pages by David Luban, March 15, 2007.

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