The Torture Tapes And The President


Today's NYT piece on the provenance of the CIA's tapes of the torturing of various terror suspects raises lots of intriguing red flags. One one level, it seems quite obvious that the tapes were made to ensure that if Zubaydah died in interrogation - like many others tortured to death under this commander-in-chief - the agents involved could prove they were doing what they could to keep him alive. And I have no doubt this is true. Zubaydah was seriously injured and of course Bush wanted him alive: you can't get information out of a dead person. At the same time, it seems obvious to me that the tapes were also made to record key details of the interrogation - for subsequent viewing by the most nuanced Arabic speakers and al Qaeda experts. The torturers in the room could do with back-up. Small details can be missed when you are inflicting severe mental or physical pain or suffering on a prisoner. Notice also the presence of doctors, medical professionals, violating their professional ethics by putting their medical expertise at the service of torturers.

But of course, the tapes also definitively prove torture - worse than most of the abuses at Abu Ghraib and obviously sanctioned, closely monitored and dictated up the chain of command. And when you actually see torture, it becomes harder to sustain the denial that Orwellianisms such as "enhanced interrogation" are designed to foster. Remember how Abu Ghraib only became a story once the photographs were viewed. Rumsfeld, Bush and Cheney all believed in and authorized the techniques revealed at Abu Ghraib - but they only panicked once the images came out. The president continues to use the repulsively deceptive term - "ask questions" - to refer to torture. Visual evidence would remove any doubt in most Americans' eyes that he is a bald-faced liar. The money quote of today's piece is therefore obvious:

[Former CIA Deputy Director John] Gannon said he thought the tapes became such an issue because they would have settled the legal debate over the harsh methods. "To a spectator it would look like torture," he said. "And torture is wrong."

It would look like torture because it is torture. And torture is a war crime. And Bush and Cheney always knew this, which is why they went to such great lengths to order his own OLC to reinvent the law to make what is illegal legal. They knew from the start that they had crossed the torture Rubicon, and that torture would be their prime weapon in the war on terror. They may have done this with good intentions. But they broke the law and knew it. Hence the increasingly dense cover-up.

Scott Horton has some useful insights into the political background to the Shane-Mazzetti piece, especially the fact that, even as the administration has imposed a gag-rule on any leaks on the matter, it licenses one A.R. Kronberg to create the spin that all this was done by independent CIA agents, with no relationship to the White House. Bush and Cheney are trying to pull off the cover-up of Abu Ghraib yet again.

(Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty.)