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The Weekly Abolitionist: Last Week in Torture

Last Friday, August 1st, President Barack Obama commented on the CIA’s use of torture after 9/11. At first glance, his comments look like an acknowledgement of wrongdoing. After all, Obama acknowledged that “When we engaged in some of these enhanced interrogation techniques – techniques that I believe, and I think any fair-minded person would believe were torture – we crossed a line.”

However, the way the president talked about CIA agents engaging in war crimes seemed downright flippant at times. Saying “we tortured some folks” is a remarkably casual way of acknowledging that employees of an organization you lead committed war crimes.

“We have to as a country take responsibility for that so hopefully we don’t do it again in the future,” Obama said. But his attitude towards individual responsibility for the torturers flies in the face of taking responsibility to ensure this never happens again. Obama directly deflected blame from the individuals responsible for torture, saying, “It is important for us not to feel too sanctimonious in retrospect about the tough job those folks had.” Obama not only made excuses for the torturers, he directly praised them, saying  “A lot of those folks were working hard under enormous pressure and are real patriots.” This is consistent with the pattern we’ve seen from this administration. Obama’s mantra has been that, when it comes to torture, “we need to look forward as opposed to looking backwards.” As such, his administration has consistently protected torturers from legal accountability.

If intelligence agents and guards in detention centers are “working hard under enormous pressure” that can motivate them to torture detainees, and if they know that they will face no consequences for torturing, then they have every incentive to torture.  We’re often told that the state is necessary to protect us from predatory criminals, but it’s clear in this case that the state empowers its agents to act as predatory criminals.

There’s another issue with Obama’s torture speech that has been much less widely discussed. Jeff Kaye points out that Obama explicitly said “one of the first things I did was to ban some of the extraordinary interrogation techniques that are the subject of that report.” That is to say, Obama only prohibited some of the torture techniques that CIA agents used.

Kaye explains some specifics on how the administration continues to permit particular torture techniques:

Obama’s admission that he had only banned “some” of the previous administration’s torture techniques was not the first time the government has made such an admission, however obliquely.

Last April, I wrote how the Department of Defense’s main directive on interrogations (3115.09), which supposedly had banned SERE-derived torture techniques (like waterboarding, hooding, etc.) used by the government after 9/11, in fact made a note that only some of the SERE techniques were banned. The ones that were not banned resided in — the Army Field Manual on interrogation, the same manual Obama had endorsed in his Jan. 2009 executive order on “lawful interrogations.”

SERE stands for Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape, and is the name given to DoD’s program to prepare military and CIA and other specific government personnel for capture and imprisonment by a brutal enemy. Its participants take part in a mock-prison camp exercise, and it was the kinds of torture practiced during that exercise that were utilized in full-blown operational mode by CIA and Defense Department interrogators in the so-called War on Terror.

The SERE-derived model, which is what the “extraordinary interrogation techniques” really were, was superimposed on an earlier torture program based on isolation and sensory deprivation, sleep deprivation, fear and drugs, developed by the CIA and codified in a 1963 interrogation program that is referred to today as KUBARK. Earlier this year, I obtained a version of the previously declassified KUBARK manual with new portions now unredacted.

But oddly, besides myself, only Obama seems to have noticed that not all the torture techniques were rescinded by him. The press and certainly the Senate and the House of Representatives have ignored entirely the use of torture in the Army Field Manual. While some bloggers and human rights groups have noted the anomaly of having the nation’s primary instructions on interrogation include torture techniques, and some have even called for a repeal of Appendix M or a rewriting of the field manual itself, none of these groups or individuals have made this a primary issue. Nor, when the controversy over the Senate report on the CIA torture program is discussed, is the ongoing presence of torture in the Army Field Manual ever mentioned.

This is a key point that is all too often ignored: torture is still happening. Kaye also notes that Jeremy Scahill uncovered the use of torture by the current administration at a black site in Somalia.

Last week, Obama tried to make a speech that showed the US government coming to terms with how wrong it was to use torture. Instead, the president illuminated how his administration’s actions, and the state’s very structure, enable torture.

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