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Making His List: Presidential Pardons and Torture

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Tis the season. Santa had his naughty or nice gift list and checked it twice. President Bush is still working on his list-the one granting pardons. And while a Brooklyn developer at the center of a fraud scheme has already been scratched, will those who conceived and implemented this administration's torture policy make the final cut? As a physician who evaluates and cares for torture victims the prospect of such pardons is chilling to say the least. They would be pre-emptive pardons since no one responsible for torturing detainees in U.S. custody with the exception of 'a few bad apples on the night shift at Abu Grhaib' have ever been prosecuted. The pardon may be quite general-covering anyone, including the president himself, who fought the good fight in the war on terror.

Will the President's pardon list include Vice President Cheney who authorized waterboarding and other forms of torture? In a recent interview with the Washington Times, Mr. Cheney said "I felt very good about what we did. I think it was the right thing to do." Ironically, in the same interview, Mr. Cheney described his great admiration for President James Madison who championed our Bill of Rights, including the 8th amendment forbidding cruel and unusual punishment. Mr. Cheney perhaps wasn't aware that in a message delivered to the nation during the War of 1812 President Madison called torture an "outrage against the laws of honorable war and against the feelings sacred to humanity." George Washington and Abraham Lincoln had similar things to say about torture.

Then there is former Defense Secretary Rumsfeld, whose reservations in signing a memo authorizing torture at Guantanamo seemed to focus on why detainees were forced to stand for only 4 hours a day when he was regularly on his feet for 8-10 hours/day. There is, however, a profound physiologic difference between being on your feet for extended periods while active, versus standing in one place, where the blood begins to pool in the legs causing painful swelling. Maybe the person faints. Or clots form which can migrate to the lungs, causing potentially lethal pulmonary emboli.

And of course we should not forget Justice Department Officials including Alberto Gonzales and John Yoo who through Orwellian doublespeak redefined the meaning of torture. By their misguided justifications, it wasn't torture unless it intentionally caused death or organ failure. Thus into our lexicon came terms to sanitize the brutality and harm of our actions. It wasn't kidnapping and denial of due process but instead was "extraordinary rendition" (sounds like a nice tour package). Beatings, sexual humiliations, sleep deprivation and waterboarding weren't torture, they were "enhanced interrogation techniques." Waterboarding sounds more like a sport rather than the terrifying, potentially lethal mock drowning that in reality it is.

From a medical, scientific and health perspective, there is nothing benign about enhanced interrogation techniques. These methods are gruesome dehumanizing and dangerous. They are torture and can cause significant and long lasting physical and psychological pain and harm. Noted one patient I cared for-a journalist from Chad who was subjected to many of these same methods; "As someone who has experienced torture, I know these things are torture."

Another group that could find their names on this pardon list are the psychologists and other health professionals who were complicit in implementing the torture. Psychologists encouraged using abusive methods never proven to elicit accurate information (in fact they came from a Chinese manual describing methods for eliciting false confessions) that had been used to prepare our military to withstand torture. They violated basic principles of medical ethics including 'to do no harm.' In fact, the leadership of the American Psychological Association utilized its own double speak to rationalize the presence of psychologists in interrogations at Guantanamo as providing a protective element. Psychologists there were more likely enablers.

Recently, I coauthored a report by Physicians for Human Rights( PHR) "Broken Laws, Broken Lives'' that documented clear physical and psychological evidence of torture among former Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib detainees. One former Guantanamo detainee I examined described how he was repeatedly beaten, deprived of sleep for weeks on end, subjected to extremes of cold and heat, and forced to be naked and sexually humiliated. He noted how medical personnel looked on as he and other detainees were beaten; how medical personnel monitored his vital signs while he was exposed to the temperature extreme, never calling for the torture to stop; and how he confided in someone who identified himself as a psychologist how lonely he was and how much he missed his family. In his next interrogation, this was what they specifically focused on-which they had not previously done. As he recounted these events to me, he often stared down at the ground. "No sorrow can be compared to my torture in jail. That is the reason for my sadness," he said. After nearly two years, he was released from Guantanamo never having been charged with a crime. In the report's introduction Retired Major General Antonio Taguba, stated:

"A government policy was promulgated to the field whereby the Geneva Conventions and the Uniform Code of Military Justice were disregarded. The UN Convention Against Torture was indiscriminately ignored. And the healing professions, including physicians and psychologists, became complicit in the willful infliction of harm against those the Hippocratic Oath demands they protect....There is no longer any doubt as to whether the current administration has committed war crimes. The only question that remains to be answered is whether those who ordered the use of torture will be held to account."

By condoning and practicing torture, regardless of what we call it, we have made the world a much more dangerous place. We have poured kerosene on the fire that is already a worldwide public health epidemic of torture-documented to occur systematically in over 90 countries. Torture is almost always invoked in the name of national security, whether the victim is a Tibetan monk calling for independence or an African student advocate protesting for democracy. It is no surprise that Zimbabwe's president, Robert Mugabe, who methodically and brutally targets and tortures his political opponents, often refers to his captives as "terrorists." Our polices have put innocent civilians living under despot regimes around the world, who dare to speak out for freedom and democracy, at much greater risk.

Unfortunately, my colleagues and I at the Bellevue/NYU Program for Survivors of Torture and at other torture treatment centers throughout the U.S. and worldwide can expect demand for our services to be greater than ever. Last year, wear we cared for nearly 600 men, women and children from over 60 countries. At one point earlier this year we had had a waiting list of over 70 individuals. We see the scars from shackles, the marks from cigarette burns inflicted during interrogations and the wounds and broken bones from brutal beatings. We listen to stories of shame and humiliation from individuals raped or sexually humiliated; of haunting nightmares and memories that will not go away. One patient of mine-a journalist from an African country imprisoned because of criticizing his government still has chronic pain because of the beating he suffered. More than 10 years since her torture and imprisonment she still wakes up after dreams in which she hears the chilling screams of her colleagues being tortured in the adjacent cell.

In reality, torture is not about eliciting information-for which it is woefully ineffective. It is used primarily as a means to destroy an individual's dignity and an entire community's sense of trust and safety. Our program and other treatment centers work to restore trust and dignity to torture survivors and help them rebuild their lives. With appropriate care there is much we can do to help such individuals rebuild their lives. One of my patients who was repeatedly raped after she attended a peaceful demonstration, once told me, "For a long time after what I suffered, I felt so alone. But your program made me again feel part of society." It is essential that we as a society ensure that services are available to torture survivors worldwide, including those tortured while in U.S custody. Unfortunately the economic downturn-another legacy of the Bush administration-has hit torture treatment programs such as ours hard. Private donors and foundations have substantially less to give. We face having to scale back our services-that at a time when demand for them has never been greater.

Regardless of whether President Bush does or does not provide a far reaching pardon to the architects and accomplices of torture during this administration, several things need to happen. First, we need to dispense with the myth-exemplified by the ticking bomb scenario in TV programs like 24 -that torture is an effective means of eliciting accurate information. Clearly, the current administration, many of whom were apparently enamored with 24 forgot that it was a dramatization- a television show- and not the real thing. "Torture works to get someone to say whatever you want them to, but that has nothing to do with the truth," one interrogator with over 20 years experience told me. Noted one of my patients: "I would say anything to stop the torture. Even if what I was saying was not true."

We also need to rid ourselves of the naïve notion that torture is perpetrated by individual monsters-a few bad apples on the night shift. What is clear from Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo and elsewhere is that these horrific acts are often done by seemingly ordinary individuals acting within systems that allow and in fact encourage torture. The scary thing is that it's much easier for people to torture than we would like to think. The Milgram and Stanford Prison Experiments played out in real life. Take some moral disengagement and combine it with vilification and dehumanization of the detainee. Put that in the context of an administration accountable to no one, perhaps convinced that what they are doing isn't torture and even if it is they can and they will do whatever they want to or think needs to be done. It worked on "24" right? Then add a prolonged period of in-communicado detention-when torture is most likely to occur-that goes on and on. What do you have? A guaranteed recipe for torture.

Restoring our integrity also means accountability. An impartial and comprehensive investigation is essential. If Watergate was about our national conscience, then this is about our international conscience. In both cases the basic truth holds that no one or no branch of our government is above the law. Nothing less than our international stature and credibility are on the line. The ramifications go far beyond the walls of Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo. Recently, I testified before the Helsinki Commission of the U.S. Congress about the PHR report. One member of the Commission told me how a Turkish diplomat almost laughed in his face when he brought up concerns about extrajudicial imprisonments in Turkey.

Many high ranking military officials understand the importance of an unequivocal ban on torture. The army field manual cites the "golden rule" in how to treat detainees-namely, if you wouldn't want something to be done to you or one of your fellow soldiers, then you shouldn't do it to a detainee in your custody. Retired Rear Admiral John Hutson, who served as the Judge Advocate General of the Navy, clearly articulated the importance of the chain of command with regards to torture. Hutson reflected on how not only orders go down the chain of command but so do attitudes. "In dealing with detainees, the attitude at the top was that they are all just terrorists, beneath contempt and outside the law so they could be treated inhumanely...That attitude dropped like a rock down the chain of command, and we had Abu Ghraib and its progeny. The self-respect of the military and the country was diminished. Our international reputation will be tarnished for generations."

At their essence, human rights, including a ban on torture, are about respecting human dignity. They are guiding principles for how and what governments ought and ought not do. Promoting and practicing fundamental human rights, including an unequivocal ban on torture, is not only the right thing to do from a moral perspective, but ultimately is strategically essential for global security and stability. If the President does issue pardons to those responsible for torture during his administration, it will likely serve as a who's who list in this debacle. And even if given a presidential pardon, they will need to think twice when traveling abroad lest they face charges in another country (remember Pinochet). Regardless, accountability is crucial for restoring our international stature, for making amends to those subjected to our brutality and for protecting those around the world living at risk of torture. We owe ourselves and the rest of the world no less.