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The Guardian/UK

Pleading Ignorance on Torture

The architects of the Bush administration's torture policy testified in Washington this week, but they may not be held accountable

Brian Beutler

Victor's justice isn't always the province of victors. Sometimes, when they are powerful enough in defeat to provide themselves with a political form of immunity, it can benefit losers too.

At a US Senate hearing on Tuesday, witnesses, including former civilian Pentagon officials Richard Schiffren and William Haynes, described their roles in the military's systemic torture regime. It's an issue that has been the focus of countless congressional hearings, but never in this much detail, and never with so many damning revelations - the fruitful result of two years worth of deep investigation by the armed services committee. Nonetheless, there's the matter of impunity. If this had been a UN court, for example, the duo (and several others) might have been facing prison sentences. Instead they were merely guests, invited to appear before a panel of their countrymen and claim ignorance.

Notwithstanding all attempts to mislead their congressional interrogators, however, the paper trail of American torture runs fairly unobstructed between the summer of 2002, when senior defence department officials laid the groundwork for subjecting detainees from Afghanistan and elsewhere to brutal interrogation tactics, and 2004, when evidence of the programme was first revealed and the extent of the military's abuses once again became unclear.

Here's the short version: In July, 2002, Haynes - then the general counsel for the department of defence - dispatched his deputy, Schiffren, to compile information (descriptions, instructions, et cetera) about a battery of harsh interrogation tactics. Schiffren complied and forwarded memos on the issue from Lieutenant Colonel Daniel Baumgartner - then head of the defence department's Joint Personnel Recovery Agency (JPRA) - up the chain of command at the Pentagon. Baumgartner oversaw the military's Survival Evasion Resistance and Escape (SERE) schools, where soldiers are trained to withstand the sorts of horrors that might be inflicted upon them if they happen, in the future, to be captured and detained by regimes that do not adhere to the Geneva Conventions.

That's how the SERE techniques became the basis for interrogation practices in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. From Cuba, though, they were passed along to Afghanistan, and then Iraq, where they became standard operating procedure, not just at Abu Ghraib, but everywhere.

According to Michigan senator Carl Levin, who chairs the Senate armed services committee: "Not only did SERE resistance training techniques make their way to Iraq, but instructors from the JPRA SERE school followed. ... SERE instructors were authorised to participate in the interrogation of detainees in US military custody." SERE instructors, it should be noted, are not professional interrogators. Their expertise is in the application of cruel and unusual punishment.

While the techniques were disseminating across the military, lawyers in the defence and justice departments, including Lieutenant Colonel Diane Beaver, were authoring legal opinions to justify the abuses and protect the abusers from reprisals down the line. Beaver's opinions became, for a short time, the military's official justification for using over a dozen questionable techniques during detainee interviews.

When confronted with this history at yesterday's hearing, all of the relevant players demurred in their own ways. Baumgartner claimed he was unaware that he was a link in the torture chain. Schiffren, who appeared nervous and fidgety under some fierce questioning from Democratic senators, claimed not to recall much about whom he'd spoken to and when. Haynes, the most senior and perhaps most culpable of the witnesses, nonetheless appeared to be the most comfortable, effortlessly recalling minute details from years past when those details reflected well upon him. But he was curiously unable to remember almost anything else.

Beaver, by contrast, took full responsibility for her writings but expressed shock to the committee that her paper and hers alone would become the Pentagon's go-to legal script. Nonetheless, she found herself on the receiving end of a series of incisive questions from Missouri Democrat and former prosecutor Claire McCaskill.

The one hero at the event was former Navy general counsel Alberto Mora, who did perhaps more than anybody within the Pentagon to stymie the torture regime. Mora received effusive praise from committee Democrats and applause from a number of protesters in attendance dressed, to recall torture victims, in orange prison jump suits with black hoods pulled over their heads. During a brief recess, Mora fielded questions from reporters and sat down with the protesters, who are often treated as pariahs on Capitol Hill.

I asked him how the United States can mitigate the harm done to the country's reputation by these policies, and, indeed, how the government can protect forces on future missions from being tortured by aggrieved regimes. I also asked him how best to hold the architects accountable for their actions. Mora suggested that government leaders need to "create a common language with our allies that goes beyond the protections of Geneva." How to hold former public officials accountable for implementing these methods, he added, "is a difficult question. Politically speaking, achieving an agreed-upon framework with our allies going forward may require forgiving past transgressions. And that's a concern. That's a problem."

Brian Beutler is Washington correspondent for the Media Consortium.

© Guardian News and Media Limited 2008

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