Days after the release of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on the Central Intelligence Agency’s use of brutal interrogation techniques, former vice president Dick Cheney appeared on Meet the Press Sunday – one of a number of defenders of the program who took to the airwaves in its defense.
WHY THIS MATTERS
Americans are hearing defenders of the CIA’s torture of prisoners in the years following the 9/11 attacks insist that the program was legally and morally justified. But if they can’t argue in its favor without resorting to fallacy and falsehood, Americans’ collective faith in government – already low – faces another test.
Widely described as the “torture report,” the document revealed details about the use of so-called enhanced interrogation techniques used against people detained by the CIA under suspicion of being members of al-Qaeda or of having knowledge of its plans.
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Moderator Chuck Todd began by asking the former vice president if he had a definition of what constitutes torture.
“Torture to me, Chuck,” Cheney began, “is an American citizen on a cell phone making a last call with his four young daughters just before he burns to death…on 9/11.”
So it would go for the remainder of the interview, with Cheney avoiding questions by appealing to the horror of the 9/11 attacks, and resorting to fallacious arguments, evasion, bluster and demonstrable falsehoods to parry Todd’s questions.
“Torture is an American citizen on a cell phone making a last call with his four young daughters just before he burns to death…on 9/11.”.
In Cheney’s world, every criticism of the approach the United States took to the Bush administration’s “War on Terror” amounts to an accusation that the United States is just as bad as al-Qaeda.
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“There’s this notion that somehow there is this moral equivalence between what the terrorists did and what we do,” Cheney said. “That’s absolutely not true.”
Just as “Other people drive faster than I do” is no defense when you are pulled over for speeding, “We’re not as horrible as al-Qaeda” is hardly justification of morally reprehensible behavior that falls short of mass murder.
Yet, it’s a style of argument Cheney repeatedly returns to.
One of the most well-known of the so-called “EITs” applied to U.S. prisoners was the use of a water board – a device meant to create the sensation of drowning. Accounts of detainees being subjected to it are harrowing. They are described as going into involuntary convulsions due to lack of oxygen. One is described as ingesting so much water in the process that when interrogators pressed on his distended belly, water gushed out of his mouth.
Defenders of the practice have frequently described it as falling short of torture. However, Todd asked, if waterboarding is not torture, why did U.S. authorities prosecute Japanese soldiers as war criminals for waterboarding American and allied troops during World War II?
Cheney retorted that the U.S. prosecuted them “for a lot of stuff” but, “Not for waterboarding.”
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That, of course, is demonstrably false. Copious records of the war crimes trials of Japanese soldiers and civilians exist that prove beyond doubt that multiple Japanese were convicted of war crimes by the United States for waterboarding, using techniques virtually identical to those the CIA employed in its EIT program.
One detainee ingested so much water in the process that when interrogators pressed on his distended belly, water gushed out of his mouth.
Nevertheless, Cheney was off and running, suggesting that by questioning the CIA’s use of waterboarding, Todd was somehow accusing the U.S. of behavior tantamount to every evil thing Japan did during World War II.
“They did an awful lot of stuff. To draw some sort of moral equivalent between waterboarding judged by our Justice Department not to be torture and what the Japanese did with the Bataan Death March, the slaughter of thousands of Americans, with the Rape of Nanking and all of the other crimes they committed, that’s an outrage.
“It’s a really cheap shot, Chuck,” he thundered, “to try to draw a parallel between the Japanese who were prosecuted for war crimes after World War II and what we did with waterboarding three individuals all of whom were guilty.”
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When Cheney finished, Todd moved on, the former vice president having successfully avoided answering the original, and highly relevant, question.
Cheney’s comment about the waterboarding program having been judged “not to be torture” by the Justice Department is key to another frequent defense of the EIT program. He and other defenders of the program go to great pains to describe techniques that were carefully calibrated based on considered legal advice.
All the techniques were “blessed” by the Justice Department, Cheney insisted. “They specifically authorized and okayed exactly what we did.” He added, “We were very careful to stop short of torture.”
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Appearing on Fox News on Sunday, other defenders of the program took the same tack.
“Look, these were carefully designed with the principles in mind of our statutory obligations and international commitments,” said former Bush White House advisor Karl Rove. “The principle tests were, do they involve severe pain or suffering or do they involve severe and prolonged mental pain or suffering. In each instance these procedure were designed so that they would not pass those barriers.”
“All of these techniques were approved by the lawyers and were looked at by the Inspector General and everybody else so yes, I’m okay with all of these procedures,” said Jose Rodriguez, the former head of the CIA’s counterterrorism center, also on Fox.
This is meant to give the impression that the interrogation program including EITs was something that was developed carefully, in a considered manner, after receiving legal advice.
In fact, the Department of Justice signed off on the program retroactively. Most, if not all, of the coercive techniques outlined in the Senate report were already in use when the DOJ, approached by an administration explicitly interested in avoiding future criminal prosecution, was asked to deliver an opinion.
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Perhaps the administration’s finding that the techniques in use turned out not to be torture was untainted by the fact that the behavior was already under way. But the circumstances belie the impression that the program was founded on sound legal advice.
Majid Khan had the contents of his lunch pureed and then infused into his large intestine by a tube inserted through his anus and into his rectum.
Todd walked Cheney through some of the more disturbing elements of the report, mentioning, for instance, Majid Khan, who at one point had the contents of his lunch tray pureed and then infused into his large intestine by a tube inserted through his anus and into his rectum.
“I believe it was done for medical reasons,” Cheney said, adding later, “That was not something that was done as part of the interrogation program,” and, “It wasn’t torture in terms of it wasn’t part of the program.”
Of course, the Senate document belies that, too. Multiple prisoners had food and liquids delivered rectally, sometimes with excessive force the produced injuries consistent with anal rape.
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It cites reports from CIA doctors observing that while much of this was not medically necessary – it could be done safely and effectively through far less invasive measures, such as IV drips – rectal delivery was valued for its effect on the prisoners’ compliance. The chief of interrogations described the practice as asserting the interrogator’s “total control” over the detainee.
Todd asked about Redha al-Najjar, who was chained to a ceiling for 22 hours per day for two consecutive days, and was left in diaper so that he would have to urinate and defecate on himself.
“Was that part of your program – the program?” Todd asked.
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“I can’t tell from that specifically whether it was or not,” said Cheney, before launching into criticism of the Senate report as “seriously flawed” and again arguing that nothing the U.S. did to detainees was as bad as al Qaeda’s 9/11 attack.
Gul Rahman was chained to a wall, in a cold cement room. He froze to death in CIA custody and it turned out it was a case of mistaken identity.
Then Todd brought up the case of Gul Rahman, who was chained to a wall, naked except for a sweatshirt in a cold cement room. Rahman “froze to death in CIA custody and it turned out it was a case of mistaken identity.”
“I’m more concerned with bad guys who got out and were released than I am with a few who that in fact were innocent,” Cheney said.
But, nearly 25 percent of the detainees in the CIA’s program turned out to be innocent of their supposed crimes, Todd pointed out.
“Where are you going to draw the line, Chuck?” Cheney asked.
“I have no problem as long as we achieve our objective. And our objective is to get the guys who did 9/11 and…to avoid another attack,” he said.
“I’d do it again in a minute,” said the former vice president of the United States.
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