detailed depictions of torture and abuse

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Obama can't keep torture under wraps

Withholding photos of prisoner abuse won't end the torture debate. We need a formal investigation of Bush's policies

No matter how badly the Obama administration wants it to, torture is not going to go away. News just continues to roll out, from a front line interrogator dismissing torture as the tool of the ignorant to the return of one of the architects of the Bush administration torture regime. Still only half over, the Obama administration supplied the big news this week by reversing its earlier decision to accept a court ruling and release photographs depicting torture and abuse in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Torture will continue to be the distraction the Obama administration hopes to avoid until we get a formal investigation to take torture out of the inside-the-Beltway political battle of the day.

Wednesday's Senate judiciary committee hearing brought into the open US government officials vehemently opposed to torture who had worked to stop the Bush administration's policies from behind the scenes and on the front lines.

Philip Zelikow, the former executive director of the 9/11 Commission who went on to become counsellor to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, described a "collective failure" on the part of the entire Bush administration. It was certainly a government-wide breakdown, but Zelikow directed significant ire at Bush administration lawyers, whose interpretation of US law was "indefensible in a whole variety of ways", and produced an "unprecedented programme in American history of cruelly calculated, dehumanising abuse and physical torment to extract information."

Zelikow's battles were largely within the corridors of power in Washington, but Ali Soufan, the FBI interrogator first assigned to coax information out of Abu Zubaydah, was actually in the field and had to push back against the application of the Bush torture policies. Soufan is an experienced interrogator, not a government official easily seduced by the fictional exploits of Jack Bauer, and his testimony blew apart the arguments of torture advocates.

We often hear Dick Cheney claim that we have to torture suspected terrorists because sometimes we just can't wait for regular interrogation techniques to work. Never mind that sleep deprivation takes 180 hours or waterboarding needed to be applied 83 times. Soufan provides the evidence of just how ignorant this argument is.

He used his expertise and knowledge of Zubaydah, and in his first exchange with him, after Zubaydah refused to give his name, Soufan suggested calling him Hani, the nickname his mother had given him as a child. Zubaydah was shocked, and they started talking, and he revealed the alias for Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the key piece of information that connected him to the 9/11 attacks.

Republican senator Lindsey Graham waded into dangerous territory with Soufan when he tried to argue that torture must work because it has "survived for 500 years". Soufan would have none of it, and replied that they are still around, "because, sir, there's a lot of people who don't know how to interrogate, and it's easier to hit somebody than outsmart them."

One of the objects of Zelikow's scorn, former office of legal counsel attorney John Yoo, returned to prominence this week with the announcement that he has been hired as a regular columnist by the Philadelphia Inquirer. Just as with John Bolton's continued frequent publications, I have never understood how these guys keep getting hired. Haven't these newspaper editors been paying attention the last seven years? No wonder the industry is in terminal decline. I look forward to Yoo's monthly recitation on how the US constitution actually is a manual for presidential dictatorship.

All this, and then we learn that the Obama administration is reversing its decision to comply with a court order and release photographs of torture and abuse of prisoners in the custody of the United States. This is not an easy call.

Photographic evidence is what made Abu Ghraib. We have had a dozen similar revelations, but nothing has broken through to that level because no TV-ready images accompanied the detailed depictions of torture and abuse. The White House lost control of the story on the torture memos, and it was only pushed off the front pages two weeks later by the swine flu. I'm sure it doesn't want to go through that again, and this time it will be a month or more.

But the Obama administration set the expectations by agreeing to release the photos in the first place, and it faces an uphill battle to now convince the court that this material should be properly withheld from public disclosure when only a month ago it had said the opposite.

All of this is just more evidence that we need to stop the constant drip of news and channel it into an authoritative, non-partisan, non-adversarial investigation into the Bush administration's torture policies. Congress and the Obama administration are going to be dogged by questions and allegations about each new revelation unless there is a formal process to examine them that is at least one step removed from the political debate of the day. Mr President, we need an investigation.

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This page contains a single entry published on May 14, 2009 10:11 AM.

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