Epistle October 2009

Dear President Bush,

Americans want, and need, to move on from the debate over torture in Iraq and Afghanistan and close this tragic chapter in our nation’s history. Prosecuting those responsible could tear apart a country at war. Instead, the best way to confront the crimes of the past is for the man who authorized them to take full responsibility. An open letter to President George W. Bush. (Photo by Christopher Morris/VII)

Extreme cold was complemented with extreme heat. Here is firsthand testimony from an FBI officer who visited Guantánamo Bay in its early days, before the FBI washed its hands of what was happening there:

On a couple of occasions, I entered interview rooms to find a detainee chained hand and foot in a fetal position to the floor, with no chair, food, or water. Most times they urinated or defecated on themselves, and had been left there for 18–24 hours or more … On another occasion, the [air conditioner] had been turned off, making the temperature in the unventilated room well over 100 degrees. The detainee was almost unconscious on the floor, with a pile of hair next to him. He had apparently been literally pulling his hair out throughout the night. On another occasion, not only was the temperature unbearably hot, but extremely loud rap music was being played in the room, and had been since the day before, with the detainee chained hand and foot in the fetal position on the tile floor.

“Stress positions” can also sound relatively banal. When your first defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, approved their use, including “long-time standing,” he wryly wrote on the memo: “However, I stand for 8–10 hours a day. Why is standing limited to four hours?” The answer is that the prisoner is usually shackled to a bolt in the floor with his hands cuffed behind him. Any attempt to rest or sit down is prevented by beating or prodding. Other stress positions include being forced to stand on a box, with your hands cuffed and attached to a bar behind you; or being forced to kneel with cuffed hands behind your back; or forced to lean on a wall by your fingertips, with feet shackled to the ground, so that supporting your weight eventually becomes an unbearable strain. The same applies to many of the positions we saw in the Abu Ghraib photos, where the body’s weight rests on one or two muscle groups that quickly become exhausted, creating great pain over long periods of time.

Darius Rejali notes that long-time standing, for example, causes “the ankles and feet to swell to twice their size within twenty-four hours. Moving becomes agonizing and large blisters develop. The heart rate increases, and some people faint. The kidneys eventually shut down.” The photographs at Abu Ghraib show a variety of the positions that you authorized, Mr. President—hooded humans forced to balance on boxes, with their arms outstretched or tied to bars behind their back.

The one recorded death at Abu Ghraib was caused by just such a stress position enhanced by beating. This kind of strain on the muscles and joints was what John McCain endured. He has never argued that it didn’t constitute a violation of the Geneva Conventions. Do you, Mr. President? In your endorsement speech for McCain broadcast at the 2008 Republican Convention, in St. Paul, you referred merely to the “beatings and isolation” he endured. You did not mean, did you, that if America treated prisoners the way the Vietnamese had treated McCain, you would regard it, as your vice president has stated he regards it, as “in accordance with our constitutional practices and principles”? And if you did not believe the false confession McCain was forced to sign after enduring this mistreatment, why did you believe similar tales told by human beings under similar duress under your command—and tout them as evidence of success in the war?

I want to mention one other human being, an American, Jose Padilla. I do not doubt that Padilla had been a troubled youth and had disturbing and dangerous contacts with radical Islamists. You were right to detain him. But what was then done to him—after a charge (subsequently dropped) that he was intent on detonating a nuclear or “dirty” bomb in an American city—remains a matter of grave concern. This was a U.S. citizen, seized on American soil at O’Hare Airport and imprisoned for years without a day in court. He was sequestered in a brig and, his lawyers argued,

was tortured for nearly the entire three years and eight months of his unlawful detention. The torture took myriad forms, each designed to cause pain, anguish, depression and, ultimately, the loss of will to live. The base ingredient in Mr. Padilla’s torture was stark isolation for a substantial portion of his captivity.

Among the techniques allegedly used on American soil against this American citizen were isolation (sometimes for weeks on end) for a total of 1,307 days in a nine-by-seven-foot cell, sleep deprivation effected by lights and loud music and noise, and sensory deprivation. He was goggled and earmuffed to maintain a total lack of spatial orientation, even when being treated for a tooth problem. He lost track of days and nights and lived for years in a twilight zone of pain and fear. His lawyer Andrew Patel explained:

Mr. Padilla was often put in stress positions for hours at a time. He would be shackled and manacled, with a belly chain, for hours in his cell. Noxious fumes would be introduced to his room causing his eyes and nose to run. The temperature of his cell would be manipulated, making his cell extremely cold for long stretches of time. Mr. Padilla was denied even the smallest, and most personal shreds of human dignity by being deprived of showering for weeks at a time, yet having to endure forced grooming at the whim of his captors …

After four years in U.S. custody, Padilla was reduced to a physical and mental shell of a human being. Here is Patel’s description of how Padilla appeared in his pretrial meetings:

During questioning, he often exhibits facial tics, unusual eye movements and contortions of his body. The contortions are particularly poignant since he is usually manacled and bound by a belly chain when he has meetings with counsel.

Mr. President, if you heard of a citizen of Iran being treated this way by the Iranian government, what would you call it?

You argue that you authorized these dehumanizing and cruel policies because you were determined to protect the nation from another terror attack. This is a claim impossible for those of us without security clearances to judge. Many have questioned it. No one has argued that such policies prevented any catastrophic attack with weapons of mass destruction, the original justification for the extraordinary use of torture by a country dedicated to human rights and the rule of law. And we have no way to determine whether any information gleaned by these sessions could have been procured through traditional and legal American interrogation methods. Nor do we know how many false trails from false confessions wasted time and resources. We do know that crucial evidence Colin Powell used at the UN to link Saddam and al-Qaeda came from a tortured suspect who later recanted. We also know that hundreds of prisoners at Guantánamo Bay were released by your administration because they had no intelligence value and had been detained by mistake. We know that a study of 132 prisoners at Gitmo conducted by National Journal found that more than half were not even accused of terrorism against the United States, and only eight were accused of terror attacks outside Afghanistan. The majority of the prisoners had been captured outside the field of battle, mostly by Pakistani authorities in Pakistan. If this snapshot of those detained is in any way similar to the broader picture, the abuse and torture of so many people only distantly related to the war against America undoubtedly generated many more recruits and increased the danger to the West.

You have also claimed that defending the security of the United States was the paramount requirement of your oath of office. It wasn’t. The oath you took makes a critical distinction: “I do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.” It is the Constitution you were sworn to defend, not the country. To abandon the Constitution to save the country from jihadist terrorists was not your job. Yes, of course your role as commander in chief required you to take national security extremely seriously, but not at the expense of your core duty to protect the Constitution and to sincerely respect—not opportunistically exploit—the rule of law.

And the core value of the Constitution, and of your own rhetorical record, is freedom. Some civil liberties may need to be curtailed somewhat in a new kind of war; almost no one, apart from doctrinaire libertarians, would disagree. Most people are prepared to compromise, as long as checks and balances are in place to keep government accountable. But the deployment of torture and abuse of prisoners is not within this framework. It is not so much an infringement of freedom, as the obliteration of freedom. Western freedom begins with the right to protect one’s own body from government power. That’s what habeas corpus means. What was done to Jose Padilla makes a mockery of that freedom and, in fact, establishes a precedent that, if left in place, could destroy it. Because the war you declared has no geographic boundaries and no time limit, the power of the executive to detain and torture without bringing charges—the power you introduced—is not just a war power. Because the war on terror is for all practical purposes permanent, the executive power to torture is a constitutional power that will become entrenched during peacetime.

When a human being is tortured, his body and mind are used as weapons to destroy his agency and will. The point of torture is to render a suspect helpless in the face of government power, to make him a vessel for whatever the government wants from him. It is the polar opposite of Western freedom—not a threat to freedom or an infringement of it, but its nemesis. If liberty is white, torture is black. No society has remained free that has allowed its government to torture human beings. And no previous American president has imported the tools of torture into the very heart of the American system of government as you did. Every dissident in every foul tyranny on Earth, imprisoned and tortured by men and women far less scrupulous than you, now knows something he or she never knew before your presidency: America tortures too. What this will do to the march of freedom you believe in is yet unknown. But my view is that by condoning torture, by allowing it to take place, and by your vice president’s continuing defense and championing of torture as compatible with American traditions, you have done enormous damage to America’s role as a beacon of freedom and to the rule of law.

Maybe you do not see the gravity of the precedent as I do. But I became a conservative a long time ago in part because of the torture record of the Soviet Union and what I saw as the failure of the left to confront it aggressively enough. I supported the Iraq War in part because I despise torture and felt that, whatever else happened, shutting down Saddam’s torture chambers could never be a bad thing. But to have believed all this—sincerely, genuinely, deep in my heart and soul—and then to see America, the America I love and have made my home, actually become a country that secretly tortured and dehumanized and abused people has been a wrenching and transformative experience. I hope you can at least understand my concern and anger. I believe that deep down, you do understand, or else I would not even attempt such an appeal to you. But that is also why a public accounting of what you did, what you understood you were doing, and what you now know and feel, is so important.

Presented by

Andrew Sullivan, an Atlantic senior editor, blogs at andrewsullivan.theatlantic.com. More

Andrew Sullivan was born in August 1963 in a small town in southern England. He attended Magdalen College, Oxford, where he took a first in modern history and modern languages. He was also president of the Oxford Union in his second year at college and spent his summer vacations as an actor in the National Youth Theatre of Great Britain.


In 1984, he won a Harkness Fellowship to Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government. In his summers, he interned as an editorial writer at The Daily Telegraph in London, and at the Centre For Policy Studies, Margaret Thatcher's informal think tank, where he wrote a policy paper on the environment, called "Greening The Tories." At Harvard, he was best known for acting, appearing as the title character in Hamlet, Alan in Peter Shaffer's Equus, and Mozart in Shaffer's Amadeus.

In the summer of 1986, after completing his master's degree in public administration, Andrew interned at The New Republic and wrote his first article for the magazine on the cult of bodybuilding. He then returned to Harvard to start a Ph.D. in political science. His doctoral thesis, "Intimations Pursued: The Voice of Practice in the Conversation of Michael Oakeshott," won the government department prize. In 1990, he returned to Washington, D.C., where he freelanced for The Telegraph and started a monthly column for Esquire. He was soon back at The New Republic as deputy editor under Hendrik Hertzberg, and in June of 1991, at the age of 27, was appointed acting editor. In October, he took over as editor, and presided over 250 issues of The New Republic. In those years, The New Republic's circulation grew to well over 100,000 and its advertising revenues grew by 76 percent. The magazine also won three National Magazine Awards for General Excellence, Reporting, and Public Interest. The first two awards overlapped with Rick Hertzberg's tenure at the magazine. In 1996, his final year at the magazine, Sullivan was named Editor of the Year by Adweek.

In the early 1990s, Sullivan became known for being openly homosexual, and for championing such issues as gays in the military and same-sex marriage. His 1995 book, Virtually Normal: An Argument About Homosexuality, became one of the best-selling books on gay rights and was translated into five languages. He followed it with a reader, Same-Sex Marriage: Pro and Con, and testified before Congress on the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996. His 1998 book, Love Undetectable: Notes on Friendship, Sex, and Survival, was a synthesis of three essays on the plague of AIDS, homosexuality and psycho-therapy, and the virtue of friendship. Sullivan tested positive for HIV in 1993 and remains in good health.

In the late 1990s, Sullivan worked as a contributing writer and columnist for The New York Times Magazine, a regular contributor to The New York Times Book Review, and a weekly columnist for The Sunday Times of London. His 2000 New York Times Magazine cover story on testosterone, "Why Men Are Different," provoked a flurry of controversy, as well as a cover-story in Time and a documentary on the Discovery channel. Since 2002, Sullivan has been a columnist for Time Magazine and a regular guest on HBO's Real Time with Bill Maher and NBC's Chris Matthews Show.

In the summer of 2000, Sullivan became one of the first mainstream journalists to experiment with blogging and soon developed a large online readership with andrewsullivan.com's Daily Dish. Andrew blogged independently and for Time.com and, in February 2007, moved his blog to TheAtlantic.com (archives here), where he was a senior editor for the magazine. In April 2010, Andrew moved to TheDailyBeast.com.

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