When Perception Becomes Reality

Published: June 19, 2008

By Jim Lichtman
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Torture “is basically subject to perception.”

Sounds like something said by the bad guy to Clint Eastwood from some 70’s-era “Dirty Harry” movie, doesn’t it?

It’s not.

This is what CIA counterterrorism lawyer Jonathan Fredman advised U.S. officials at Guantanamo Bay regarding the treatment of detainees in October, 2002.  The statement comes from one of several documents released by a Senate panel looking into how the Pentagon developed the interrogation program used at the U.S. detention facility.

In a June 17, 2008 press release by Michigan Senator Carl Levin entitled, “Senate Armed Services Committee Hearing:  The Origins of Aggressive Interrogation Techniques,” Senator Levin said this:

“Intelligence saves lives. …But how do we get the people who know the information to share it with us? …I spoke to a senior intelligence officer who told me that treating detainees harshly is actually… a ‘roadblock’ to getting intelligence from them.

“…he said – al Qaeda and Taliban terrorists are taught to expect Americans to abuse them. They’re recruited based on false propaganda that says the United States is out to destroy Islam. Treating detainees harshly only reinforces their distorted view and increases their resistance to cooperate…

”So, how did it come about that American military personnel stripped detainees naked, put them in stress positions, used dogs to scare them, put leashes around their necks to humiliate them, hooded them, deprived them of sleep, and blasted music at them? Were these actions the result of ‘a few bad apples’ acting on their own? It would be a lot easier to accept if it were. But that’s not the case.

“The truth is that senior officials in the United States government sought information on aggressive techniques, twisted the law to create the appearance of their legality, and authorized their use against detainees. In the process, they damaged our ability to collect intelligence that could save lives.”

After contacting Senator Levin’s office, I obtained documents detailing the evidence that support his conclusions.  Of particular interest were the minutes from a “Counter Resistance Strategy Meeting” held October 2, 2002.

When Guantanamo Chief of Staff Col. Cummings mentions that, “We can’t do sleep deprivation,” LTC Beaver, a senior lawyer in attendance, says, “Yes we can, with approval.” Then adds,

LTC Beaver:  “We may need to curb the harsher operations while ICRC [International Committee of the Red Cross] is around.  It is better not to expose them to any controversial techniques. …The ICRC is a serious concern.  They will be in and out, scrutinizing our operations…  This would draw a lot of negative attention.”

CIA Lawyer Fredman:  “The CIA is not held to the same rules as the military… Under the Torture Convention, torture has been prohibited by international law, but the language of the statutes is written vaguely. …It is basically subject to perception.  If a detainee dies, you’re doing it wrong.”  

How on earth, an incredulous Senator Levin asked, did we get to the point where a senior United States Government lawyer would say that whether or not an interrogation technique is torture is ‘subject to perception’ and that ‘if a detainee dies, you’re doing it wrong’?”

And what was senior JAG officer, LTC Beaver’s response to Fredman’s comment?

LTC Beaver:  “We will need documentation to protect us.”

Among the individuals who have condemned the use of torture:  Former Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, Retired Army Lt. Gen. Harry E. Soyster, FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III, Navy Rear Adm. Mark H. Buzby, former Joint Chiefs Chairmen Colin Powell and Jack Vessey.

In a 2006 letter to Senator John McCain, Colin Powell wrote:

[Common Article 3 of the Geneva Convention] was written after all the horrors of World War II and General George C. Marshall, then Secretary of Defense, used it to tell the world and to remind our soldiers of our moral obligations with respect to those in our custody.”

From an ethical standpoint, it doesn’t get any clearer than that.

So, the question remains:  Why doesn’t presidential candidate and former tortured POW Senator John McCain make it that clear for us?

And how about hearing Senator Obama’s reaction to these documents as well?


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