For Shame

Why don't Americans care more about torture?

Practically everyone from U.S. President Barack Obama to newspaper columnists has reacted to the bombing of the Boston Marathon by declaring that Americans will not abandon their daily habits, or their deepest values, in the face of another terrorist attack. Be it so. But a report on the torture of detainees in the United States and abroad, released the day after the Boston attack, painfully reminds us of what America's leaders permitted themselves to do -- and the American people permitted them to do -- in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. And there is little reason to be confident that it wouldn't happen again.

The report of the Constitution Project's Task Force on Detainee Treatment concludes that "it is indisputable that the United States engaged in the practice of torture." We knew that, of course. But this 577-page report not only reminds us of every sickening thing the United States did in the name of protecting Americans from the threat of terrorist attack, but it comes under the unimpeachably bipartisan seal of co-chairs James R. Jones, a former Democratic congressman from Oklahoma, and Asa Hutchinson, a former Republican congressman from Arkansas who later served in George W. Bush's Department of Homeland Security. That matters: Leading members of the Bush administration, most notoriously Vice President Dick Cheney, continue to insist that they did not, in fact, engage in torture.

The report offers a kind of road map for how a democracy goes about doing things that are repugnant to its principles. Military dictators can simply order dissidents to be pushed out of planes into the sea or thrown into prison to rot; the political leaders of a democracy need the legitimacy of law to justify otherwise despicable acts, whether it's Jim Crow legislation or the fraudulent treaties that drove Native Americans from their land.

How were prisoners seized in Afghanistan to be treated once they were brought back to the detention facility at Guantánamo Bay? Military men tended to assume that they would be treated according to the well-known laws of war. The judge advocates general of the military services believed that the Geneva Conventions had to apply to detainees. But Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld ruled that interrogators could use "enhanced techniques" forbidden by the conventions, adding the dark joke that forcing prisoners to stand for up to four hours was too lenient, since he often stood eight to 10 hours a day. Prolonged standing was, of course, the least of it: Mohammed al-Qahtani, thought to be the "20th hijacker," was subjected to extreme stress positions as well as extreme cold, injected with large quantities of intravenous fluid so that he urinated on himself, led around on a leash and forced to bark like a dog, etc.

The report describes how Alberto Mora, general counsel of the Navy, innocently imagined that the reports he had heard of detainee abuse at Guantánamo must be the result of "a rogue operation." Mora told Rumsfeld's chief counsel that a scandal, and a moral catastrophe, was in the making. Rumsfeld agreed to impanel a review -- but brought in John Yoo, the White House lawyer who had already written the memo granting the CIA the right to use enhanced techniques. Yoo reproduced his reasoning for Rumsfeld. But when Mora heard nothing further, he thought he and the judge advocates general had carried the day. In fact, Rumsfeld's office had produced a secret final report that incorporated Yoo's argument. Torture at Gitmo would thus have the formal imprimatur of the military's own judicial authorities. It would be not just legal, but legitimate.

Again and again, men of principle, often in uniform, insisted that torture was neither legal nor legitimate. They were browbeaten and threatened, sometimes physically. When Jack Goldsmith, who had taken Yoo's job at the Office of Legal Counsel, tried to overturn Yoo's findings, David Addington, Cheney's attack-dog legal counsel, shouted at him: "The president has already decided that terrorists do not receive Geneva Convention protections.… You cannot question his decision." Of course Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld never authorized torture; instead, they made it clear that anything done to detainees would be considered legal. And though torture is by definition illegal, even the most savage punishment would not constitute torture.

America did a terrible thing. But America is a democracy, and democracies hold people accountable for their misdeeds. So once the truth began to come out, by way of the terrible photographs taken at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, the formal mechanisms of accountability lurched into action. The low-level military police who committed those documented outrages were tried and convicted. But the special operations soldiers who committed repeated atrocities at secret facilities in Iraq received nothing stronger than a letter of reprimand. Their commanding officer, Brig. Gen. Lyle Koenig, was allowed to retire. The Justice Department then investigated 101 cases of CIA abuse, dismissed 99 of them, and ultimately found insufficient evidence to go ahead with the other two. The Justice Department's Office of Professional Responsibility found that Yoo had committed "intentional professional misconduct" -- but Obama's attorney general refused to adopt the finding. Of course Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld have not been punished. What is worse -- they have not been dishonored.

Why is that? Why have the torture architects not been covered with the shame they so richly deserve? The report rightly blames Obama for continuing to pull a veil of secrecy over so many crucial documents, including a 6,000-page Senate Intelligence Committee report on detainee abuse, inquiries into prisoner deaths, and even the accounts by Guantánamo inmates of their own mistreatment (on the grounds that the abuse exposed them to classified techniques). Perhaps if we knew more, we wouldn't judge the morality and efficacy of torture from episodes of 24. The crimes belong to the Bush administration, but the failure of accountability also sticks to Obama.

Yet there is no evidence that the American people want to know the truth. Quite the contrary: A poll last fall, featured on ForeignPolicy.com, found that 41 percent of respondents thought the United States should use torture against terrorists, while 34 percent thought it should not -- a figure that had increased significantly from five years earlier, when images from Abu Ghraib were still fresh. A quarter of respondents approved of waterboarding, and 30 percent of chaining prisoners naked in stress positions. The reason the horrors of Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib could happen again is not simply because they have not been forbidden by law, as the report concludes, but because Americans believe that the war on terror has accorded them a right to torture.

Americans have an apparently ineradicable view of themselves as a force for good. Republicans shamelessly play to this angelic self-conception when they accuse Obama of not subscribing to the national credo of "American exceptionalism." But what dark deeds has that credo excused! To know for a certainty that your ends are noble is to excuse yourself in advance for whatever means you choose to fight your adversaries, who by definition must be evil. This is what the South American generalissimos who "disappeared" alleged communists in the "dirty wars" of the 1970s and 1980s told themselves. But of course they didn't profess to believe in fine universal principles, as Americans do. They didn't have a free press and vigorous political debate, as Americans do. The shame, therefore, in some measure attaches to all Americans, not just to America's leaders.

The detainee report quotes an official in Poland, a U.S. ally that hosted one of the "black sites" where the CIA felt free to do what they wished to "unlawful combatants." The man could not quite make sense of what he saw. "The problem," he told investigators, "is that Poland always looked to the United States as a beacon of what was right, what was aspirational, what is ethically correct. To us, when we heard about the Russians, torturing and kidnapping and killing … we thought, the United States is our model."


Terms of Engagement

The Limits of Leading by Example

President Global Zero is learning the hard way that cutting back America’s nuclear weapons arsenal doesn't cut the mustard with rogue states.

The current standoff over North Korea's nuclear ambitions qualifies, I believe, as the first foreign-policy crisis that has completely stumped U.S. President Barack Obama's conservative adversaries. (Just compare, say, the way the National Review talks about North Korea with the way it talks about Iran.) The obvious reason for this is that the standard right-wing response to confrontation with small, aggressive states -- bombs away! -- does not apply when the state in question already has nuclear weapons. But the other reason is that the combination of gunboat diplomacy, bolstered anti-missile defense, and finely calibrated rhetoric with which Obama has responded to North Korea's latest nuclear test bears not even a whiff of the mushy, universalistic stuff that conservatives despise -- that is, nonproliferation.

Of course, those of us who actually believe in that soft stuff and think it can serve the hard purpose of advancing America's national security are left with a question: What good is the president's commitment to nuclear nonproliferation if it's useless in a genuine nuclear crisis? That commitment may have helped the U.S. gain consensus behind harsh U.N. sanctions against North Korea, but the sanctions' only observable effect is that they have made North Korea's leaders really, really mad. The only country with leverage is China, and China's leaders have publicly said that they don't even feel comfortable with the existing sanctions. Right now, The Mouse That Roared is keeping the world at bay.

The logic of nonproliferation policy is that the world is no longer threatened by the giant stockpiles of the two great nuclear powers, the United States and Russia, but rather by the prospect of nuclear proliferation among smaller reckless states and nonstate actors. The only way Washington can build a global consensus to check proliferation is to adhere to the terms of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which calls on nuclear-weapons states to phase out their stockpiles. Obama has, accordingly, negotiated the New START agreement with Russia to reduce nuclear armaments and has rewritten America's nuclear doctrine to place less dependence on the nuclear force. In his 2010 Nuclear Posture Review, Obama asserted that a new policy of restraint and reduction could not only contribute to reciprocal measures by key states including Russia and China, but "could also facilitate closer cooperation by those two countries with the United States on measures to prevent nuclear proliferation and nuclear terrorism."

At the time, administration officials admitted to me that they did not know whether that would prove to be true. Gary Samore, the former White House arms control chief and now executive director of Harvard University's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, argues that the evidence is now in. "Our ability to rally effective diplomacy and economic pressure," he told me this week, "has been assisted by the president's demonstration of his commitment to the restructuring of the number and role of U.S. nuclear weapons." Samore admits, however, that this proposition is more demonstrable in the case of Iran, on which Obama was able to persuade Russia to vote for tough U.N. sanctions immediately after signing New START, than it is with North Korea.

It's hardly clear, however, that the Russians were influenced by Obama's pledge to abide by the terms of the NPT. The problem is that a commitment to rule-abidingness seems to impress only the states that already put great store in international rules, and Washington is not worried about what Denmark might get up to. One of the chief targets of Obama's policy was the major non-nuclear states, like Brazil. James Acton, an arms control expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, points out that these countries have consistently refused to "put some skin in the game" by, say, standing alongside Obama and endorsing the nonproliferation agenda, rationalizing their reluctance by pointing to Washington's failure to adopt the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty and other measures. Acton takes the view that the deal of nuclear reductions in exchange for action on nonproliferation remains unproven.

On this, as on so many subjects, the great question is Beijing, which right now seems less interested in playing by the international rules than in rewriting them, at least on national security issues. A recent analysis of thousands of articles in the Chinese press concluded that China's political and intellectual leaders see the nonproliferation agenda as a stalking horse for the West's goals of containing China and provoking regime change in unfriendly countries, and view nuclear proliferation as less of a threat to their interests than America's alleged ambition to dominate Asia. Chinese writers generally empathize with North Korea's drive to gain nuclear capacity in the face of implacable Western opposition, and they often depict the conflict as one between "U.S. hegemonic interests and North Korea's security interests," as two Chinese scholars put it.

The study's author, Lora Saalman, concludes that China will confront North Korea or Iran only when doing so plainly advances its narrow interests. But North Korea's young leader, Kim Jong Un, has issued such wild threats to South Korea and the United States -- to the world, for that matter -- that China's leaders have begun to question their role as his sole source of support. That doesn't mean they are about to sign up to a Western campaign of isolation. As China's English-language daily Global Times recently wrote, "China is bound to adjust its North Korean policies, but it doesn't mean it will side with the US, Japan and South Korea. Rather, it will respond to the North's extreme moves which offend China's interests and will make the North correct its moves."

This doesn't mean that the nonproliferation agenda was a mistake -- far from it. Reducing America's nuclear arsenal and changing its doctrine would make sense even if doing so had no effect on anyone else's behavior. And on crucial issues like eliminating the clandestine trade in nuclear equipment and material, Washington can't lead so long as it is seen as a scofflaw. Indeed, in 2010, Obama was able to modestly strengthen the NPT's enforcement provisions.

But the coin of rule-abidingness has not bought as much cooperation, from as many actors, as the president had hoped. As with "engagement" policy generally, Obama has found that better U.S. behavior brings applause from predictable corners (i.e., Europe) without necessarily encouraging refractory actors -- the ones Washington really worries about -- to change their ways. This has been one of the elemental lessons of the last four years.

Obama no longer expects to persuade his adversaries, whether in North Korea or Iran (or the U.S. Congress). Indeed, his policy toward Iran has increasingly come to resemble that of George W. Bush, with punishing sanctions designed to force Tehran to relinquish its program of uranium enrichment. Of course, this isn't working either, as the collapse of the latest round of talks, in Kazakhstan, demonstrates. After all, if the underlying lesson is that states will do what they see as being in their interests, the Iranians can hardly be blamed for refusing to surrender their nuclear program in exchange for nothing more than a modest relaxation of sanctions, which is the offer now on the table. Obama has so far refused to offer more, and in 2010, when Turkey and Brazil, two major non-nuclear states, actually tried their own diplomatic bid to end Iran's nuclear program -- which sounds very much in the spirit of the new nonproliferation regime -- the president swatted them down.

Obama is now laying off the soft stuff and winning some grudging credit for it among hard-liners. On North Korea, there's no meaningful alternative. But on Iran, there just might be. I hope the president still has something up his sleeve.

MANDEL NGAN/Getty Images