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Cheney’s Tortured World : Terrorism, Torture and Preemption

John Ehrenberg and J. Patrice McSherry are Professors of Political Science at Long Island University, Brooklyn Campus.  Jose Ramon Sanchez is Associate Professor of Political Science at Long Island 9780195398595University. Caroleen Marji Sayej is Assistant Professor of Government and International Relations at Connecticut College. Together they wrote The Iraq Papers, which offers a compelling documentary narrative and interpretation of this momentous conflict. In the post below we learn about torture.  This post first appeared here.  Read other posts by these authors here.

So, ex-Vice President Dick Cheney admitted last week that he “is a big supporter of waterboarding” and torture. This was not the first time he admitted as much. Back in 2006, he told conservative talk show host Scott Hennen that waterboarding Khalid Sheikh Mohammed amounted to no more than a “dunk in the water.” Torture, Cheney said, was a “no-brainer” if it permitted authorities to collect actionable intelligence. Torture, Cheney has insisted, “it saves American lives.” Moralists among us can oppose this with the proverbial “the ends should not justify the means.” Conservatives usually place themselves in this camp on many other issues. Why do they insist on torturing, then, given how it a real violation of their moral principles? Why do they also reject the fact that most military and intelligence experts argue that not much actionable intelligence can be gathered by torture? Even Napoleon understood that. In 1978, Napoleon wrote his Major-General Berthier in Egypt that the:

“barbarous custom of whipping men suspected of having important secrets to reveal must be abolished. It has always been recognized that this method of interrogation, by putting men to the torture, is useless. The wretches say whatever comes into their heads and whatever they think one wants to believe.”

Most governments have rejected torture since the late Middle Ages precisely because it is not only immoral but also not effective. And yet U.S. government agents interrogated Abu Zubaydah and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed over 266 times. The only actionable intelligence Zubaydah provided apparently came in the first hour when long time FBI agent Ali Soufan interrogated him using traditional, non-coercive techniques. Zubaydah stopped talking when CIA agents took over and resorted to “enhanced methods.” Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, on the other hand, confessed to all kinds of terrorist crimes, most of which he could not possibly have committed. Among his confessions, he claimed responsibility for killing journalist Daniel Pearl, though intelligence shows that he was nowhere near that killing. The fact that he was waterboarded so many times just points to its ineffectiveness. The CIA could not get enough good intelligence. Torture has never been very effective. What then accounts for the continued support for torture by the likes of neo-cons like Cheney and by many other Americans?

One possibility is that the Bush administration was desperate to find evidence to connect Al Qaeda to Saddam Hussein. They tortured to extract the confession that would justify a war of choice. This is a very likely possibility. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld officially approved of enhanced interrogation methods, for example, on December 2, 2002, before the invasion of Iraq. It may even explain why Cheney continues to insist and justify torturing alleged terrorists. Some have speculated that Cheney’s aggressive defense is an attempt to prevent possible ‘war crimes’ charges for what he advocated while Vice President. But this reason does not explain it completely. If the tortured will confess to anything, why did the Bush administration not get what they wanted a long time ago? It also doesn’t explain why others, like the Tea Partiers and conservatives in general, remain so committed to torture. The answer can perhaps be found in the recent, vile actions of one Iraq War veteran.

Joshua Tabor has been accused by authorities in Tacoma, Washington of waterboarding his 4 year old daughter because she refused to learn her ABCs. The news reports claim that he may have been drunk, that he may have anger management problems, and that his girlfriend may have helped in dunking the 4 year old’s head in the water. Many have connected this crime to the CIA’s use of waterboarding, suggesting that the practice has been made legitimate by the government and has now spread to its soldiers as a normal behavior. I think it reveals a lot more. It points to the inner logic behind the continued push for torture and waterboarding by Cheney and others.

Torture may be simply what some powerful people do with those who do not willingly accept their weak position in the world and resist the designs of those with power. Tabor waterboarded his daughter because she had the temerity not to comply with his demands that she repeat her ABCs. Cheney wants to waterboard suspected terrorists because they have the temerity to suggest that the U.S. cannot protect itself despite being the singular and most powerful state in the world. When you examine carefully what Cheney tells reporters about Obama’s policies on terror, you get the impression that he is afraid, afraid of those who oppose him.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the neo-conservatives have expressed fear that a new superpower could emerge to rival U.S. power. The Defense Planning Documents developed during Cheney’s reign as Secretary of Defense in the early 1990s was designed to “to prevent the reemergence of a new rival” to U.S. world power. It argued for maintaining “the mechanisms for deterring potential competitors from even aspiring to a larger regional or global role.” Terrorists may pose a remote possibility of delivering mass casualties to the U.S. if they are able to detonate a weapon of mass destruction within the U.S. They are not, however, the existential threat once posed by the Soviets. The real danger is that they may pose the appearance of being a rival to U.S. power, especially in the eyes of the American people. Cheney and his crowd demand torture to cower rivals, as punishment for resisting, and as an example of their impatience with those who oppose them no matter their limited capabilities.

In a 2006 interview, Cheney painted terrorists as a “huge threat” and as capable of breaking “the will of the American people.” That is scary indeed. Al Qaeda, a group with a couple of thousand members, no army, navy, air force or state organization is as scary as a 4 year old who yells “No!” To an enraged and deranged “parent” possessed of vastly superior power yet uncomfortable with peaceful engagement or negotiated co-existence, such petulance by the weak can only be answered by a fiercely preemptive slap or waterboarding torture. It was such deep impatience with any challenge from the weak that led Cheney to accuse President Obama of “dithering” while developing his policy on Afghanistan. However, as conservative George Will argued, the U.S. would have been much better off had Bush and Cheney exhibited similar patience and self-control.

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  1. CFH

    You write that “Vice President Dick Cheney admitted last week that he ‘is a big supporter of waterboarding’ and torture,” with a link to sources, but nowhere in those sources does Cheney say anything about “supporting torture”. In fact, it it quite clear from the sources that he does not regard waterboarding as torture. Though you clearly disagree with him on that, putting words in people’s mouths and misrepresenting their position is dishonest (at best) and misdirects discussion of the actual issues.

    Respecting the boundary between fact and fabrication also would obviate your question as to why conservatives (in your words) “insist on torturing, then, given how it a real violation of their moral principles?”: those who like Cheney don’t regard waterboarding as torture don’t in fact view it as “a real violation of their moral principles”, and thus do not see the two as contradictory.

  2. Jose Ramon Sanchez

    CFH incorrectly accuses me of putting words in Cheney’s mouth. If you paid attention to the quotation marks in the text, they stop before “and torture.” The original link and the video of the interview with Cheney are very clear that Cheney said he is “a big supporter of waterboarding.” The point of this blog entry was to point to the contradictions in his and conservative thinking. That Cheney refuses to label waterboarding torture and prefers “enhanced interrogation” is simple obfuscation. Most of modern human history, the U.S. in convicting Japanese officers after WWII, the Geneva Conventions which the U.S. signed, most current U.S. military officers (including Petraeus), the SERE training program, and the rest of the world all regard waterboarding as torture. BTW, what would you have called what Joshua Tabor is accused of doing to his daughter, “enhanced parenting?”

  3. CFH

    If you paid attention to _my_ post, you’d see that you’ve just agreed with my point: you agree with me that Dick Cheney did _not_ say he supports torture, but the first sentence of your post claims that he did.

    As for your question, I didn’t say anything about my _own_ views of whether waterboarding is torture — though you seem to think you know it — so I don’t see how your question is relevant to what I wrote; but I would call what Tabor is accused of a despicable crime. Of course, what is criminal for a citizen to do isn’t always criminal for the government to do: e.g., it would be a despicable crime for Tabor to lock his daughter in a cell, but it is not so for the government. So again, the relevance of your question escapes me.

  4. Jose Ramon Sanchez

    Are you saying that governments cannot commit crimes? You are no doubt a decent person who is committed to keeping our country safe. But I would suggest to you that calling waterboarding “enhanced interrogation” instead of torture is pure deception and dangerous. The world sees it as torture. All we accomplish by waterboarding is to lose our credibility and moral standing with most rational and peaceful people around the world. That cannot be good for our democracy, future, and peace.

  5. CFH

    I am of course not “saying that governments cannot commit crimes”, as you well know. I _am_ saying government can lawfully do things that citizens cannot (and vice versa, of course). We are a country of laws, not men, and that law, not personal opinions (either yours or mine or the world’s) determines what the government is or is not authorized to do, i.e., what does or does not constitute a government crime.

    As for the rest: you assert that “All we accomplish by waterboarding is to lose our credibility and moral standing with most rational and peaceful people around the world”, but others, including intelligence experts, assert that in fact lives have been saved by the waterboarding of KSM et al. I see no reason to accept your assertion over the other. But true or not, the fact remains that waterboarding _was_ authorized at the time it was used — including by members of Congress that were briefed on the practice and did nothing to hinder it.

  6. CFH

    I am of course not “saying that governments cannot commit crimes”, as you well know. I am saying (quite clearly) that government can lawfully do things that citizens cannot (and vice versa, of course). We are a country of laws, not men, and that law, not personal opinions (either yours or mine or the world’s) determines what the government is or is not authorized to do, i.e., what does or does not constitute a government crime.

    As for the rest: you assert that “All we accomplish by waterboarding is to lose our credibility and moral standing with most rational and peaceful people around the world”; but others, including intelligence experts, assert that in fact lives have been saved by the waterboarding of KSM et al. I see no reason to accept your assertion over the other. But true or not, the fact remains that waterboarding _was_ authorized at the time it was used — including by members of Congress (like Nancy Pelosi) who were briefed on the practice and did nothing to hinder it.

    Neither circumventing the rule of law nor failing to thwart further terrorist attacks on the US can “be good for our democracy, future, and peace”, either. As someone once said, the Constitution is not a suicide note.

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