The Logic of Torture


We’ve now had fifteen of the highest-level officials involved in this entire operation, from the secretary of defense to the generals in command, and nobody knew that anything was amiss, no one approved anything amiss, nobody did anything amiss. We have a general acceptance of responsibility, but there’s no one to blame, except for the people at the very bottom of one prison.
—Senator Mark Dayton (D-Minn.), Armed Services Committee, May 19, 2004

What is difficult is separating what we now know from what we have long known but have mostly refused to admit. Though the events and disclosures of the last weeks have taken on the familiar clothing of a Washington scandal—complete with full-dress congressional hearings, daily leaks to reporters from victim and accused alike, and of course the garish, spectacular photographs and videos from Abu Ghraib—beyond that bright glare of revelation lies a dark area of unacknowledged clarity. Behind the exotic brutality so painstakingly recorded in Abu Ghraib, and the multiple tangled plotlines that will be teased out in the coming weeks and months about responsibility, knowledge, and culpability, lies a simple truth, well known but not yet publicly admitted in Washington: that since the attacks of September 11, 2001, officials of the United States, at various locations around the world, from Bagram in Afghanistan to Guantanamo in Cuba to Abu Ghraib in Iraq, have been torturing prisoners. They did this, in the felicitous phrasing of General Taguba’s report, in order to “exploit [them] for actionable intelligence” and they did it, insofar as this is possible, with the institutional approval of the United States government, complete with memoranda from the President’s counsel and officially promulgated decisions, in the case of Afghanistan and Guantanamo, about the nonapplicability of the Geneva Conventions and, in the case of Iraq, about at least three different sets of interrogation policies, two of them modeled on earlier practice in Afghanistan and Cuba.1

They did it under the gaze of Red Cross investigators, whose confidential reports—which, after noting that “methods of physical and psychological coercion were used by the military intelligence in a systematic way to gain confessions and extract information,” then set out these “methods” in stark and sickening detail2—were handed over to American military and government authorities and then mysteriously “became lost in the Army’s bureaucracy and weren’t adequately addressed.”3 Or so three of the highest-ranking military officers in the land blandly explained to senators on the Armed Services Committee on May 19. On that same day, as it happened, an unnamed “senior Army officer who served in Iraq” told reporters for The New York Times that in fact the Army had addressed the Red Cross report—“by trying to curtail the international organization’s spot inspections of the prison”:

After the International Committee of the Red Cross observed abuses in one cellblock on two unannounced inspections in October and complained in writing on Nov. 6, the military responded that inspectors should make appointments before visiting the cellblock.…

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