The Red Cross Torture Report

Mark Danner is well known journalist and professor of journalism at Berkeley. He has written dozens of articles for the New York Review of Books, and has, in my mind, provided the definitive reportage on the Serbian massacre of Muslims at Srebrenica.

His latest article is a thorough yet blistering summary of the “ICRC Report on the Treatment of Fourteen ‘High Value Detainees’ in CIA Custody”, otherwise known as the “Red Cross Torture Report”. We may be tired of the issue, as it’s been a focal point for criticism of the Bush administration since 2001. However, Danner may have written the definitive summary again, and I think the question of torture will continue to haunt American politics for many years to come. The current debate over the release of the Bush torture memos, a possible South African-style truth and reconciliation commission, and possible war crime charges against Bush-era politicians, will ensure the past continues to inform (and deform) the present. Plus, the descriptions of torture, especially the waterboarding and beatings against plywood sheets, is too gripping to ignore. After reading Danner’s article, it’s almost impossible to believe that America hasn’t crossed some irreversible, unrepairable moral divide. The rank hypocrisy of American foreign policy has never been more exposed.

Here are some excerpts from his review:

… An awareness of this history makes reading the International Committee of the Red Cross report a strange exercise in climbing back through the looking glass. For in interviewing the fourteen “high-value detainees,” who had been imprisoned secretly in the “black sites” anywhere from “16 months to almost four and a half years,” the Red Cross experts were listening to descriptions of techniques applied to them that had been originally designed to be illegal “under the rules listed in the 1949 Geneva Conventions.” And then the Red Cross investigators, as members of the body designated by the Geneva Conventions to supervise treatment of prisoners of war and to judge that treatment’s legality, were called on to pronounce whether or not the techniques conformed to the conventions in the first place. In this judgment, they are, not surprisingly, unequivocal:

The allegations of ill-treatment of the detainees indicate that, in many cases, the ill-treatment to which they were subjected while held in the CIA program, either singly or in combination, constituted torture. In addition, many other elements of the ill-treatment, either singly or in combination, constituted cruel and inhuman or degrading treatment….

… One fact, seemingly incontrovertible, after the descriptions contained and the judgments made in the ICRC report, is that officials of the United States, in interrogating prisoners in the “War on Terror,” have tortured and done so systematically. From many other sources, including the former president himself, we know that the decision to do so was taken at the highest level of the American government and carried out with the full knowledge and support of its most senior officials….

…Mr. Abu Zubaydah commented that when the collar was first used on him in his third place of detention, he was slammed directly against a hard concrete wall. He was then placed in a tall box for several hours (see Section 1.3.5, Confinement in boxes). After he was taken out of the box he noticed that a sheet of plywood had been placed against the wall. The collar was then used to slam him against the plywood sheet. He thought that the plywood was in order to absorb some of the impact so as to avoid the risk of physical injury….

… Torture has undermined the United States’ reputation for respecting and following the law and thus has crippled its political influence. By torturing, the United States has wounded itself and helped its enemies in what is in the end an inherently political war—a war, that is, in which the critical target to be conquered is the allegiances and attitudes of young Muslims. And by torturing prisoners, many of whom were implicated in committing great crimes against Americans, the United States has made it impossible to render justice on those criminals [because torture=inadmissable evidence], instead sentencing them—and the country itself—to an endless limbo of injustice. That limbo stands as a kind of worldwide advertisement for the costs of the US reversion to torture, whose power President Obama has tried to reduce by announcing that he will close Guantánamo….

… The only way to defuse the political volatility of torture and to remove it from the center of the “politics of fear” is to replace its lingering mystique, owed mostly to secrecy, with authoritative and convincing information about how it was really used and what it really achieved. That this has not yet happened is the reason why, despite the innumerable reports and studies and revelations that have given us a rich and vivid picture of the Bush administration’s policies of torture, we as a society have barely advanced along this path. We have not so far managed, despite all the investigations, to produce a bipartisan, broadly credible, and politically decisive effort, and pronounce authoritatively on whether or not these activities accomplished anything at all in their stated and still asserted purpose: to protect the security interests of the country….

The full article can be found at Here is a video of Mark Danner talking with Bill Moyers:

The Paradoxes of Torture: Mark Danner in discussion with Bill Moyers and Bruce Fein from Mark Danner on Vimeo.

Posted by Colin Welch at 2:13 PM
Edited on: Thursday, June 18, 2009 9:49 PM
Categories: American Politics, Global Issues, The Good, The Bad, and the Stupid


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