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History Will Not Absolve Us

George Hunsinger

According to an explosive ABC News report on April 9, dozens of top-secret meetings took place in the White House, beginning in 2002, in which the president's top advisors approved the use of torture. Those involved were members of the National Security Council's "Principals Committee" -- Dick Cheney, Condoleezza Rice, Donald Rumsfeld, Colin Powell, George Tenet, and John Ashcroft. Unfortunately, however, these dramatic revelations have been largely ignored by the media and the public. Yet we now know more clearly than ever before that it is because of these senior officials -- and not just Animal House on the night shift -- that America is regarded around the world as a Torture Nation.

The techniques that the advisors not only approved, but reportedly even choreographed in particular cases amount to torture by any reasonable standard. Near drowning (waterboarding), sleep deprivation, subjection to temperatures of extreme cold (hypothermia), physical assault and stress positions are proscribed by international and domestic law. They are gulag tactics that have no place in a democratic society. John Ashcroft rightly asked at one point: "Why are we talking about this in the White House? History will not judge this kindly." But according to the report, Condoleezza Rice prevailed, telling the CIA: "This is your baby. Go do it."

Nor does it seem that the president was insulated from these decisions. As the head of the National Security Council, he signed a decision memo in which torture was effectively authorized (February 7, 2002). He has also admitted that the new report is accurate: "And, yes," he told ABC News, "I'm aware our national security team met on this issue. And I approved." Commenting on these developments, George Washington University Law Professor Jonathan Turley stated bluntly: "This was a torture program . . . and it goes right to the President's desk." He added: "I don't think there's any doubt that [the president] was aware of this. The only doubt is simply whether anybody cares enough to do something about it."

No one up the chain of command has been prosecuted for the torture that has come to light. Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller, at the center of the Abu Ghraib scandal, offers an instructive case. Miller became commander of Guantanamo Bay in November 2002. In August 2003 he was instructed by Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld to brief Army officers in Iraq on interrogation techniques. He favored methods that were outside the Geneva Conventions. Although he denied permitting the use of dogs to terrorize prisoners at Abu Ghraib, he was later contradicted under oath by Col. Thomas Pappas. Observers believed that Gen. Miller could have been a key to determining whether the Abu Ghraib abuses were the result of a few rogue soldiers ("bad apples") or whether responsibility lay higher up the chain of command. He eventually testified in May 2006 without being probed.

Others involved in the Abu Ghraib scandal suffered a different fate. Low-ranking Pvt. Lyndie England, having received a dishonorable discharge, was sentenced to three years in prison. Her compatriot Pvt. Charles Graner was sentenced to 10 years, with a dishonorable discharge and the loss of all benefits. By contrast, Gen. Miller retired from the Army in July 2006, being awarded the Distinguished Service Medal at his ceremony and praised as an "innovator." At the highest levels, Condoleezza Rice was elevated to become Secretary of State, while former CIA director George Tenet, another member of the Principals Committee, received the Presidential Medal of Freedom. In short, while the lackeys are punished, the dignitaries are promoted and rewarded with impunity.

As Darius Rejali, the world's leading authority on the history of torture, has pointed out, if torture is to be stopped, structures of accountability must be strictly observed. Where there is no clear accountability, the situation will rapidly deteriorate. Not only does abuse proliferate through the ranks, but professional interrogators who pride themselves on obtaining reliable information by honorable means get disgusted and leave the system. A process that drives out the professionals, while at the same time rewarding the abusers, can only lead to multiple disasters.

These are the disasters that now beset us. The authorizing of torture and abuse, the dissembling in high places that obscures it, and the rewarding of those who practice it or, like Attorney General Mukasey, condone it -- this is the tarnished legacy of the outgoing administration, the scandal that history is likely to judge most harshly.

Adequate words are lacking to express how necessary it is for us, as a nation, to face what we have done, to stop all cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment as well as torture by our own government, to close all the loopholes, all the secret prisons, all the facilities that shame us, like the one in Guantanamo Bay.

Torture's disasters are multiple. For while torture yields notoriously unreliable information, and attacks the foundations of the rule of law, at the deepest level its costs are spiritual. Torture corrupts the society it claims to defend. Doctors, lawyers and psychologists are increasingly tainted by the shame of being accessories to government-sponsored abuse, while religious leaders are tainted by their silence. Torture degrades everyone involved-not only planners, perpetrators and victims, but also bystanders, and finally society as a whole.

How can we imagine that history will absolve us for permitting, obscuring and rewarding enormities that are universally condemned by law?

What does it profit a country if it should gain the whole world but lose its soul?

George Hunsinger teaches at Princeton Theological Seminary. His book Torture Is a Moral Issue will appear this fall.

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