Minnesota torture critics weigh in on Bush-era memos


The Minnesota Independent contacted four outspoken critics of America’s torture policies and practices for reaction to revelations about Bush-era treatment of prisoners. None of them said, “I told you so.” But the truth is … they told us so.

On Monday, just as the nation’s interest in the torture issue was resurging, Miles’ 2006 book Oath Betrayed: America’s Torture Doctors came out in paperback. The new, updated edition reworks the original subtitle (”Torture, Medical Complicity, and the War on Terror”), delves into whether psychologists used interrogations to perform coercive experiments and provides a handy guide for book groups.

Miles, a physician and University of Minnesota professor of bioethics, lauds the Obama administration for releasing four “torture memos” last week, but says that move alone is far from sufficient:

The decision [to release the memos] is another step to restoring international law and the United States’ role as a leader for civil society. However, the task is not done. We need a Truth Commission and an independent prosecutor.

The American Bar Association and state physician and psychologist licensing boards must investigate and sanction health professionals for misconduct. Such sanctions are necessary for us to criticize the health [professionals] of other nations that cooperate with torture and to resume our role in supporting those groups who dare to challenge torturing regimes.

Miles tells the Independent he’s currently focused on researching all the doctors from around the world who have been punished for assisting torture.

Douglas Johnson, executive director at the Center for Victims of Torture (CVT), issued a statement Thursday (pdf) applauding President Obama’s stated openness to “investigations of those policymakers and lawyers who authorized torture.”

The Center issued an e-mail alert asking members to urge lawmakers to launch investigations, which includes this message:

It is clear to the world that the U.S. committed torture. It is equally clear that authorizing, ordering or perpetrating torture is illegal. At this point, we urgently need an investigation to determine who authorized and ordered torture. We do not need to strengthen our laws. We need to enforce them; in fact, we are required to as a matter of law. … Whether this is a politically convenient time is not part of the equation.

“Prosecutions tend to strengthen democratic regimes,” Johnson told MnIndy Wednesday. But he said the center’s clients tend to be mixed on the issue, with some strongly in favor of prosecutions and others who say an apology is what’s needed.

Attitudes toward prosecutions can change during treatment, Johnson said, as victims’ sense of safety slowly returns. CVT’s clients, he said, are “filled with fear”:

The predominate purpose of torture is to create a climate of fear and a culture of fear. … It produces a sense of panic, a brittleness, that makes it difficult to accurately judge what political space is available [in which] to work


The politics of torture in America is based on warped views. “I don’t think either the media or the people have a very good handle on it,” Johnson said.

We’re hearing a lot from Bush’s people’s perspective. … The question is not “Does torture work?” but “Work for what?” … The focus is on the interrogation chamber instead of the costs we’ve paid as a country.

Johnson offers three ways torture costs America, saying it endangers American personnel in the future, it gives enemies incentive to fight to the death, and it contributes to a drop in approval of the United States by our allies.

America’s turn to torture, in Johnson’s estimation, was the work of “amateurs and a lack of respect for the rule of law.” Referencing World War II, he noted that though the post-9/11 world is scary, “We’re not fighting two wars in Europe and Asia. We did that without resorting to torture.”

That’s a point picked up by Kirk Anderson, a St. Paul-based political cartoonist.

“The Nuremburg trials helped to carve in stone some basic premises about the rule of law, like you don’t get to ignore it when things get rilly rilly bad, even in a national emergency, even if there’s a national emergency with NAZIS, fer krine out loud,” he wrote in an e-mail. “We have apparently forgotten those lessons, and even now spout the Germans’ legal and moral rationalizations. They were only following orders! Somebody higher up said it was okay!”

Late last year Anderson published Banana Republic, a book compiling the weekly cartoons he drew for the Star Tribune for more than two years from 2005 to 2007. In the strip, Anderson relentlessly excoriated the Bush administration for treating prisoners as poorly as does the stereotypically repressive regime that controls his fictional Latin American country of Amnesia.

Is Obama’s move “courageous,” as some have said? Anderson responded by e-mail:

I suppose it is. Pretty sad that when your country commits war crimes, it’s “courageous” not to sweep it under the rug. … I am a very cynical, pessimistic guy. But the last eight years, I’m repeatedly astounded that my cynicism is no match for the day-to-day morality of Washington movers and shakers. Just when I think all the scales have fallen from my eyes, I read the morning paper, and realize that more scales are falling into my cereal. …

Anderson isn’t shy about wishing for prosecutions up and down the chain of command:

Of course, the higher-ups must be tried, but we need not gloss over lower level torture bureaucrats. This isn’t a difficult case, the former president and vice president admitted they were accomplices to torture on national TV … . We don’t need a “truth commission” or a “fact-finding commission,” many or most of the facts are already known. We need perpetrators rotting in jail, so this doesn’t happen again. At least not for a good ten years or so. …

But also, we should not let ourselves off the hook. We are all complicit, we all had a pretty good idea of what was going on. Congress, the Democrats, the media, us citizens, we let it happen, and often facilitated it. Part of the reason any accountability is unlikely is that Democrats are complicit, so they’re not real anxious for any hearings either. …

That sense of broader national complicity is on Rowley’s mind as well. She told MnIndy: “Torture cannot be ended by being swept under the rug. And we, the American people, have already been seen as complicit.”

The former FBI agent, one-time DFL congressional candidate and now peace and government-openness activist, has been all over the mediascape, from the New York Times to the Huffington Post, since the torture memos’ release.

Torture is wrong, illegal and it doesn’t work. … The FBI agents should be speaking out right now bc the FBI all along was not a part of it. They knew it was wrong from the start. They started a “war crimes” file. … but all that time they were keeping quiet.

So Rowley said she was encouraged to see an op-ed titled “My tortured decision” in Thursday’s New York Times by Ali Soufan — the former FBI agent who Rowley called on more than a year ago to tell the truth about CIA torture.

“That’s a big deal,” Rowley said. “He specifically counters the things Cheney is lying about in terms of [torture’s] effectiveness.”

To Rowley’s way of thinking, Obama is confusing the issue by rejecting “retribution.”

“Retribution” is pejorative term for the penalty phase of the criminal justice system. … He’s jumping over the fact finding phase. The little people, some of them didn’t like this. They didn’t want to do it. There’s a mixture of reasons why lower-end people went along with it. Obama should not be skipping over that.

On the other hand, Rowley said, “I don’t think there’s a lot of excuses for Cheney.”

Rowley recommends what she calls a “two-tiered approach” — congressional committee hearings combined with a special prosecutor’s investigation.

She cites the 1970s congressional committee led by the late Sen. Frank Church as the last to effectively investigate the country’s intelligence agencies and recalls that former Vice President Walter Mondale was a member.

“There have been 11 commissions since the Bush Administration started on intelligence failures. No one cares about these stupid commissions,” Rowley said.

Still, she figures it’s worth a try: “It’s such a historical moment. I think you could get the stellar people who are beyond reproach.” Mondale and former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor are two she has in mind.

A Congressional committee should have purview only over non-criminal matters, Rowley said. Leave that to a special prosecutor, who in her view must be named by Attorney General Eric Holder, not Obama.

The president is not supposed to be doing it. Appoint [a special prosecutor] and do not even tell people who it is [for a while]. … If we had a good prosecutor, it couldn’t be reckless. It would take a long, long time.

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