Published on Wednesday, December 17 2003 by CommonDreams.org
U.S. "Torture Lite" Led To Saddam's Capture
by Ira Chernus
"This guy was in interrogation. He wasn't willingly giving stuff up." That' s what an officer involved in Saddam's capture told the Washington Post. If the informant who led U.S. forces to Saddam wasn't giving information willingly, why did he give any information at all? It is hard to avoid thinking about the the dirty word that everyone is too polite to mention, the "T-word": torture.
Col. James Hickey, who commanded the capture operation, tells the story a bit differently, according to the Chicago Sun-Times: "'Once in our custody the informant was cooperative, and he did provide the crucial information. But will he receive the $25 million?' he laughed. 'I seriously doubt it.'"
If he cooperated voluntarily, why not give him the reward? The guy who fingered Saddam's two sons got $30 million, because he came forward voluntarily. Apparently, the guy who fingered Saddam cooperated involuntarily. CNN explained: "It is unclear whether anyone will receive the $25 million bounty because the information leading to his capture came under duress." A "senior administration official" confirmed to Newsday that the man "didn't provide any information willingly." Col. Hickey told reporters that the informant first gave false information, and "there was three or four hours of questioning before he blurted Saddam's location."
What happened in those three or four (some reports say five or more) hours? Probably not torture, in the technical jargon of U.S. officialdom. No electric shock, no hot irons, no fingernails pulled. At least that's what U.S. officials insist.
They say it was just "interrogation," which is torture lite. Things like bags over the head, tight handcuffs, no light (or constant bright light), no food or bathroom, endless shouting or blaring music or noise, bits of light violence. And, of course, the constant psychological torture of fearing that serious physical pain might start at any moment.
But it wasn't only this one key informant who got torture lite. According to Newsday: "Weeks ago, U.S. forces decided to identify anyone who might have current knowledge of where Hussein was, including former bodyguards, and then to go after them with a vengeance, rounding up their families and friends -- women, children, grandparents, everyone. Many of the key clues came in involuntary interrogations of informants."
A U.S. official told the L. A. Times: "Some people were impossible to find, but we'd find their relatives. One interrogation led to another raid, which led to another interrogation." Another official (who "asked not to be named") told the Chicago Sun-Times: ''You'd squeeze them: 'Where is Saddam?' They'd say, 'I don't know, but my cousin knows somebody who knows somebody else who might know.'"
That's how The Good Guys hunted down the Number One Bad Guy, "squeezing" children and grandparents. It's the same kind of "squeezing" they do at Guantanamo Bay -- all sorts of unpleasant things done to people merely suspected of some undefined link with some undefined evil.
Of course, the U.S. also ships some suspects out to third countries that definitely do torture. And the models for the more aggressive U.S. policies in Iraq, the Phoenix Program and the Israeli occupation of Palestine, certainly involve torture. The line between torture lite and torture heavy can be very thin, indeed.
Was it crossed in those last hours before the capture of Saddam, in the heat of the chase? What made the informant change his story and blurt out the truth, knowing that his friends and family might forever hate him for it? What methods were used to persuade him to "cooperate"? We will never know. But we do know that plenty of innocent people were terrified with torture lite to get to that point. And it was all done in our name, by our employees, paid with our tax dollars.
It is time to have a full open debate about the policies our employees follow. If we had that debate, no doubt the pro-torture side would win, here in the land of the free and home of the brave. Isn't it worth a little bit of torture to capture one of the world's great torturers? That argument would probably prevail. But at least we would have to consider the moral issues involved.
No one would equate the U.S. military with Saddam's torture squads. I am certainly not arguing that our side is as bad as Saddam. Imagine, though, that it was your grandmother or grandfather or spouse or child, seized by the secret police as bait, to lure you in for "interrogation." You would not know for sure that they were being tortured. But you would not know for sure they weren't. I bet you would turn yourself in.
Once you call that ethically OK, where does it stop? Once you torture or threaten to torture the first person, once you say, "Well, it's only a little bit of torture," you are on a slippery slope that leads nowhere but down. If morality is a just matter of degree, who gets to say how much evil a moral person can do and still remain moral? How do you justify just a little torture, or even the threat of a little torture? If that is OK, then what about a little murder, or a little rape, or just a little sexual assault lite on somebody's daughter?
Saddam Hussein is evil, but he's not stupid. He understands all this. When he sits in the defendant's dock and hears the charges against him, he can say: "Yes, I had people tortured. But those people were a threat to the good society I was trying to create. Sometimes, unfortunately, one must use bad means to achieve a good end. Every government leader knows that. Surely George W. Bush knows it."
If we respond, "Yeah, but we only used a little torture, and you are REALLY evil," we will flunk Ethics 101. Until we demand to know the truth about Saddam's capture and are prepared to speak the dirty little T-word, we have already flunked Ethics 101.
Ira Chernus is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder email@example.com