Protecting our soldiers and citizens from torture

Humane Treatment of North Vietnamese captives in 1967 by 1st Cavalry Division on Bong Son Plain

Humane treatment of North Vietnamese captives in 1967 by A Co. 2/5  1st Cavalry Division on Bong Son Plain

From 1966 at the U.S. Army Infantry Officer Candidate School at Ft. Benning, GA, I remember a section of the course on treatment of prisoners. We were instructed to treat prisoners humanely, according to the Geneva Conventions–a reciprocal agreement among 196 members, which states that “combatants who are out of the fight . . .  shall in all circumstances be treated humanely, with the following prohibitions: (a) violence to life and person, in particular murder, mutilation, cruel treatment and torture.

I also remember, as I flew to Vietnam for my eleven month tour as an infantry rifle platoon leader, having a few daymares about being captured and tortured by the Viet Cong guerrillas or the North Vietnamese Army. My wife of five months remembers fearing that I might become missing-in-action and suffer ill treatment at the hands of the enemy.

I was lucky. I never was captured, and we treated our captives well. My experiences there formed the basis for my Vietnam War satire, Cologne No. 10 For Men.

Sen. John McCain was not as fortunate. He spent more than five years lying in a prison cell in Hanoi, for a while being beaten every two hours, and later, receiving two to three beatings a week. Since he returned to the U.S.,  he has been unable to raise  his arms above his head.

On Face the Nation in 2009, Sen. McCain said that the U.S., under Bush, violated the Geneva Conventions and the U.N. Convention Against Torture. He said that torture is wrong, counterproductive, and doesn’t work.   Recently, he strongly defended the Democratic-led Senate investigation into the CIA’s post-9/11 interrogation program, saying the agency’s activities “stained our national honor, did much harm, and little practical good.” McCain said that if the United States is to remain better than its adversaries, it must also maintain a higher standard of behavior. “Our enemies act without conscience. We must not,” he said.

The Geneva Conventions, which the U.S. signed in 1955, are meant to protect us and our enemies. Signatories agree to not engage in mutilation, cruel treatment, and torture. The Conventions apply to a signatory nation even if the opposing nation is not a signatory, but only if the opposing nation “accepts and applies the provisions” of the Conventions. If it does not, we are not bound to the Conventions, but our morality, tradition, and values should do so.

On September 11, 2001, the United States was attacked by Al-Qaeda terrorists. The terrorists killed more than three thousand people in the Manhattan skyscrapers plus a hundred eighty-four at the Pentagon.  Who knows how many people in the White House or Congress would have died if the forty heroic people on United flight 93 had not overpowered the hijackers and given their lives for their country.

In response, the Bush administration, on whose watch the attack occurred, decided this was an act of war–the United States was now at war against the Al-Qaeda terrorists. We vowed, “never again,” and President Bush declared a “war on terror.”

Torture by U.S. Army at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq in 2003

Torture by U.S. Army at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq in 2003

From WikipediaThe question arose in the next few weeks what to do with captured prisoners? Instead of sending “the FBI [to] capture the terrorists and bring them back to the United States for a trial,” officials including Justice Department lawyer John Yoo, Deputy Assistant Attorney General of the United States, recommended classifying them as outlaws beyond the protection of the Geneva Conventions, and to send them to special prison facilities instead of the barracks-like “prisoner-of-war camp you saw in Hogan’s Heroes or Stalag 17.”

Yoo prepared a set of legal memoranda, referred to as the Torture Memos, which were signed in August 2002 by Assistant Attorney General Jay S. Bybee, head of the Office of Legal Counsel of the United States Department of Justice. They advised the CIA and the president on the use of enhanced interrogation techniques (including mental and physical torment,  sleep deprivation, binding in stress positions, and waterboarding). Yoo stated that such acts, widely regarded as torture, might be legally permissible under an expansive interpretation of presidential authority during the “War on Terror.”

Black Sites

Black Sites

From Wikipedia: The US began to establish secret “black site” prisons overseas, outside US territory and beyond the restraints of US law.  [On U.S. soil, Amendment VIII to the Constitution prohibits the federal government from imposing. . . cruel and unusual punishments, including torture] [Some suspects were given over to countries with documented histories of torture. This practice became known as “extraordinary rendition.”]

From Wikipedia:In April 2002, after the CIA had captured its first important prisoner, Abu Zabaydah, he was transfered to a CIA black site, and at the suggestion of psychologist James Mitchell, the CIA embarked on abuse including sleep deprivation using bright lights and loud music–prior to any legal authorization by the US Justice Department.  Later that April, Mr. Mitchell proposed to the C.I.A. a list of additional enhanced interrogation tactics including locking people in cramped boxes, shackling them in painful positions, keeping them awake for a week at a time, covering them with insects, and waterboarding, which simulates drowning and which the United States had previously prosecuted as torture.  

Later, contractors conducted much of the torture.

These techniques make me think of Nazi torture–lit cigarettes burning skin, matches under fingernails, electrical shocks, etc. Then I see the pictures from our shameful and horrific Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq (I can’t include the pictures here; they are obscene). News of it became public in late 2003 and early 2004. Incontrovertible photographic evidence showed our soldiers torturing and abusing prisoners. U.S. Brigadier-General Janis Karpinski, at the time in charge of all U.S. detention facilities in Iraq, claimed that prisoners were being treated “humanely and fairly.” Later she stated that she had seen unreleased documents from Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld that authorized the use of these [enhanced interrogation] tactics on Iraqi prisoners.



From Wikipedia:  Enhanced interrogation techniques include “prolonged stress positions, hooding, subjection to deafening noise, sleep deprivation to the point of hallucination, deprivation of food and drink—as well  as waterboarding, walling, subjection to extreme cold, confinement in small coffin-like boxes, and repeated slapping or beating. There were also cases of rectal violation, rectal feeding, rape, threats to abuse and rape family.”

The thing about torture is that those being tortured will say anything to get their assailant to stop.

The United Nations Convention Against Torture was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on 10 December 1984, and ratified by the United States in 1994. The Convention requires states to take effective measures to prevent torture and inhuman degrading behavior within their borders, and forbids states to transport people to any country where there is reason to believe they will be tortured. We transported prisoners to black sites and continue to do so.

“While Obama disavowed the torture aspects and ordered practices such as water-boarding stopped [in 2009], he did not ban the practice of extraordinary rendition. However, there are few locations that are acceptable to which suspects can be rendered these days. Syria is no longer an option and Egypt is under new management. Guantanamo has long stopped taking in new clients. There is Bagram in Afghanistan where the US still keeps a number of foreign fighter indefinitely but the new Afghan government might not be happy to have additional suspects sent there. A new practice of extraordinary rendition is evident in the two cases so far in Libya. . . . Several terrorist suspects abducted overseas have been held aboard U.S. naval ships at sea while being interrogated, after which they were turned over to FBI ‘clean teams’ to question them for trial without endangering the admissibility of evidence.”

Now we are dealing with ISIL, Al-Qaeda, and other terrorist groups, and the CIA is under attack by the U.S. Senate for its torture activities. Former Vice President Dick Cheney is defending the enhanced interrogation techniques used by the Bush Administration, claiming they are effective, and saying he would do it again.

I would ask Mr. Cheney, does our signature on the Geneva Conventions mean nothing to you? And what message do you wish to send our enemies, that torture is okay? We do it, so why shouldn’t you? But sir, the agreements we sign against torture are all that we have to protect us if we are captured in battle, plus the example that we set for our enemies.

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