The fallacy of laying the blame for U.S. torture policy on “a few bad apples”

David Cole, a leading constitutional scholar (Georgetown University) who co-authored Less Safe, Less Free: Why America Is Losing the War on Terror (2007) noted in a recent 2015 OpEd:

“Responsibility for the program lies not with the C.I.A. alone, but also with everyone else, up to the highest levels of the White House, who said yes when law and morality plainly required them to say no. The same can be said for President George W. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and all the cabinet-level officials responsible for national security, each of whom signed off on a program that was patently illegal. The reality is, no one in a position of authority said no.”
(David Cole. Did the Torture Report Give the CIA a Bum Rap? NYT, Feb. 20, 2015)

In light of the evidence documented in (partially declassified) official government reports showing that as early as Dec. 2001, DoD General Counsel’s Office solicited information about the offensive use of SERE techniques; the close involvement of the executive leadership who authorized, coordinated, and closely monitored the torture of prisoners. Jane Mayer observed that the “War on Terror” was a “political battle cloaked in legal strategy, an ideological trench war” waged by a small group of true believers whose expansive views of executive power. The prime movers, Vice President Dick Cheney and his legal counsel, David Addington; after the 9/11 attacks they moved to establish “a policy of deliberate cruelty that would’ve been unthinkable on Sept. 10.”

Until April, 2004, the American public was largely kept in the dark except for readers of The Washington Post which reported about U.S. clandestine involvement in torture in secret U.S.-occupied Bagram Air Base prison in Afghanistan on December 26, 2002:

“captured al Qaeda operatives and Taliban commanders were kept in clandestine cluster of metal shipping containers…Those who refuse to cooperate inside this secret CIA interrogation center are sometimes kept standing or kneeling for hours, in black hoods or spray-painted goggles, according to intelligence specialists familiar with CIA interrogation methods. At times they are held in awkward, painful positions and deprived of sleep with a 24-hour bombardment of lights — subject to what are known as “stress and duress” techniques.”

While the U.S. government publicly denounces the use of torture, each of the current national security officials interviewed for this article defended the use of violence against captives as just and necessary. They expressed confidence that the American public would back their view. The CIA, which has primary responsibility for interrogations, declined to comment.

“If you don’t violate someone’s human rights some of the time, you probably aren’t doing your job,” said one official who has supervised the capture and transfer of accused terrorists. “I don’t think we want to be promoting a view of zero tolerance on this. That was the whole problem for a long time with the CIA..”

“The off-limits patch of ground at Bagram is one of a number of secret detention centers overseas where U.S. due process does not apply, according to several U.S. and European national security officials, where the CIA undertakes or manages the interrogation of suspected terrorists. Another is Diego Garcia, a somewhat horseshoe-shaped island in the Indian Ocean that the United States leases from Britain.

U.S. officials oversee most of the interrogations, especially those of the most senior captives. In some cases, highly trained CIA officers question captives through interpreters. In others, the intelligence agency undertakes a “false flag” operation using fake decor and disguises meant to deceive a captive into thinking he is imprisoned in a country with a reputation for brutality, when, in reality, he is still in CIA hands. Sometimes, female officers conduct interrogations, a psychologically jarring experience for men reared in a conservative Muslim culture where women are never in control.” (Priest & Gellman, U.S. Decries Abuse but Defends Interrogations, 2002)

Official, now partially declassified, government reports include:
U.S. Military Police Brigade. Article 15-6 Investigation “Taguba Report” On Treatment of Abu Ghraib Prisoners in Iraq (2004); The CIA Inspector General Report “Counterterrorism Detention and Interrogation (2004, highly redacted versions were released in 2008 and 2009); The DoD Inspector General Report Review of Detainee Abuse (2006); DoD Inspector General Report. Allegations of the Use of Mind-Altering Drugs to facilitate Interrogations of Detainees (2009); The Senate Armed Services Committee Report, (2008, released in 2009); DoJ Office of Professional Responsibility.  “Investigation into the Office of Legal Counsel’s Memoranda Concerning Issues Relating to the CIA’s Use of “Enhanced Interrogation Techniques” on Suspected Terrorists,” (July 29, 2009); Constitution Project Task Force. Report on Detainee Treatment, 2013, 600pp; The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. Executive Summary of the Report of CIA’s Detention and Interrogation Program, (2009, released Dec. 2014).

However, the full scope of the travesty and the extent of the executive leadership’s involvement in the torture program remain unknown; perhaps the details are contained in the 6,000 classified pages of the Senate Select Intelligence Committee’s unreleased full report.

Shamefully, with few exceptions–most notably, Jane Mayer of The New Yorker, whose article, The Experiment (2005) and book, The Dark Side (2008)the major news outlets were cowed by the Administration and failed to investigate and publish reports about the brutal government sanctioned criminal abuse of prisoners of war. They were complicit in a conspiracy of silence. Yale University’s Sterling Professor David Bromwich recently wrote in the London Review of Books: “As early as 2002 the New York Times had a story in preparation about a secret prison in Thailand, but agreed at Cheney’s request not to publish it.” (Working the Dark Side, 2015)