The Lessons of Torture Should Be Learned Again

Even as he undertook what is for him the unprecedented step of apologizing, the president unwittingly exposed the conceits underlying his foreign policy. In a meeting with King Abdullah II of Jordan, the president apologized for the treatment of some prisoners in U.S. hands. Nonetheless, while promising to resolve the scandal, he still reassured his audience that the documented cases of torture were isolated instances. Yet until practices in the prisons under U.S. control are thoroughly investigated - and by outside authorities - how can one know that the cases are isolated?

U.S. Rep. Tom Allen has properly called on Congress to do an independent investigation of the torture revelations. There are good reasons why the administration cannot be counted on to run an adequate investigation. The problem is not just that these prisons were under its control and that gross malfeasance would reflect on its competence and integrity. In a more fundamental sense, the way in which these prisons have been managed go to the heart of the Bush agenda.

Neither critics nor supporters should prejudge the outcome of an independent examination. However, there are already several reasons to be concerned. The administration has long taken the position that because the United States is a democratic nation and is at war with terrorists, it alone can determine whom it will imprison and under what circumstances it will maintain those prisoners. This posture has had unfortunate consequences. Anthony Lewis pointed out in the New York Times recently that, "Fear of terrorism ... has led to harsh departures from normal legal practice at home. Aliens swept off the streets by the Justice Department as possible terrorists after 9-11 were subjected to physical abuse and humiliation by prison guards, the department's inspector general found. Attorney General John Ashcroft did not apologize - a posture that sent a message."

Any independent investigation of these incidents must also ask just who is receiving these messages. The media have highlighted the possibility that some private contractors assigned prison guard duty may escape prosecution for their role in the torture incidents. Surely these loopholes in the law need to be filled, but the larger question is the privatization of vital juridical and security functions.

The Bush administration has a near-religious faith in privatization. Yet it is ironic that while Bush willingly privatizes schools and hospitals, he does not advocate privatization of the Secret Service. He does not want his own security to depend on hired outside guns. Some functions require sensitivity, judgment and commitment to the public good. These cannot be bought.

Private contractors asked to run prisons have long fallen far short of minimal commitments to humane values. Not surprisingly, maximizing profits has been their agenda. The London-based Guardian recently carried an interview with a disillusioned interrogation officer:

"As the number of suspects sucked into the system exploded, the Pentagon came to rely increasingly on interrogators from private contractors to question them. Mr. [Torin] Nelson, [who served as a military intelligence officer at Guantanamo Bay before moving to Abu Ghraib as a private contractor last year], was one of a roughly 30-strong team in Abu Ghraib employed by a Virginia-based firm, CACI International. He believes his decade of experience in military intelligence made him well qualified to do the job, but he had growing doubts about his colleagues. 'I'd say about the contractors that it's kind of a hit or miss. They're under so much pressure to fill slots quickly... They penalize contracting companies if they can't fill slots on time and it looks bad on companies' records. If you're in such a hurry to get bodies, you end up with cooks and truck drivers doing intelligence work.'"

How ugly this story eventually becomes remains to be seen, but the potential for widespread, systemic abuse is surely here. Noncombatants and civilians swept up by soldiers who are surely no experts on Iraqi culture are then deposited in prisons to be interviewed by poorly trained staff under pressure to deliver "results."

Such circumstances may not always yield outright abuse, but these prisoners, whether terrorists, enemy combatants, or innocent bystanders, have not been treated fairly. The United Nations is not perfect and surely needs reforms of its own. Nonetheless, both justice and our image in the world demand in this instance that the prisoners should be handed over to the United Nations to be dealt with in a fully transparent fashion.

Unfortunately, an administration that has consistently repudiated all international standards is unlikely to follow that course. Indeed, perhaps its strongest motive to contain this scandal lies in the pressure that these revelations exert to acknowledge that the United States has no unique hold on or commitment to human rights.

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.