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Coleen Rowley Headshot

Would Jesus Waterboard?

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2008-02-04-peacesundaywouldjesusresized1.jpg

This photo--taken of our Sunday morning vigil--is another attempt to get MSM (main stream motorists) to think. And no, we didn't try to replicate Huckabee's floating cross idea. It just so happens that it's on a church about a half mile behind where we're standing. But serendipitously enough, it does fit well with the Sunday morning reflection, huh?

We decided we can't give up just because these questions have seemingly stumped Attorney General Michael Mukasey and the Bush Administration's other ethics-challenged cronies. Their lack of responses shame us all. It's clear more effort is needed to get everyone to deal with these issues.

Because, however, we can't fit more than a few words on our overpass perch, former State Department counter-terrorism official Tom Maertens and I recently tried to explain it a little better--why torture is not only illegal and unethical, but it doesn't work--in the following opinion piece published last week in the St. Paul Pioneer Press:

The products of torture? Degradation, lousy evidence

No matter how many angles columnist Mark Bowden uses to try to justify torture ("On waterboarding Zubaydah" Jan. 6), his arguments amount to nothing more than the worn-out "ticking time bomb" hypothetical - which makes for good TV fiction but bad policy. Bowden's construction is actually a version of right-wing radio's "torture saves lives" talking point that, through pure repetition, has deluded so much of the public.

Waterboarding dates back to the Spanish Inquisition, and it was used extensively by the Gestapo during WWII. They termed it "Verschärfte Vernehmung" - "enhanced interrogation techniques" - a term the Bush administration adopted with no sense of irony whatever.

Following the war, the U.S. charged German and Japanese intelligence officers with war crimes for using the same waterboarding, hypothermia, beatings, excruciating stress positions and sleep deprivation the U.S. has used against detainees in Afghanistan and Iraq.

But if torture really did allow the government to stop "dozens" of terrorist plots, as it claims, and might prevent the fictional scenario from "24" where Jack Bauer tortures exactly the right guy to find the hidden nuke, aren't a few Gestapo tactics warranted?

Following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, about 1,000 mostly Muslim immigrants were rounded up and tossed into jail without charges, where they were brutalized for six to nine months because the FBI and police believed that a ticking time bomb, "a second wave of terror," existed.

So the authorities were understandably frustrated when these post-Sept. 11 detainees wouldn't talk, despite the mistreatment. But as the DOJ Inspector General later found, none of those rounded up knew anything of value because they were not terrorists.

We've seen the terrible photos and heard the reports of the inhumane and degrading treatment and tortures that occurred in Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, and in the CIA's "secret black sites." News reports sourced to released prisoners and humanitarian organizations suggest a high percentage of those tortured were innocent, like the Canadian, Maher Arar, and the German, Kahlid el-Masri. Do Americans really want their government to employ Gestapo tactics on prisoners in this fashion?

A true ticking-time-bomb scenario that requires urgently identifying the unique guy with the crucial information is so rare as to be almost nonexistent. It's the stuff of movies, not of real life. Bowden used the slightly different example of catching a kidnapper who's hidden the victim who may otherwise die or never be found. Such rare public safety emergencies have been considered and effectively accommodated under the law of interrogation. The Supreme Court carved out a "public safety exception" years ago, in the Quarles case, to dispense with Miranda Rights for such cases.

In contrast to the limited exception to the Miranda protocol, our criminal and military justice systems have never recognized exceptions for the use of waterboarding or other torture. Torture is not merely unethical and contrary to American values, it doesn't produce reliable information.

The administration has made Abu Zubaydah a poster boy for the effectiveness of torture. But how can we know the truth about whether he provided any valuable information? The videotapes of the interrogations were destroyed, which is reason itself for skepticism. Ron Suskind quotes an official in his book "The One-Percent Doctrine" who saw Abu Zubaydah's diary and declared that "This guy is insane, certifiable, split personality." Under torture, Abu Zubaydah reported that shopping malls were targeted by al-Qaida, as well as banks, supermarkets and water systems, along with nuclear plants, apartment buildings, and on and on. Suskind concluded the U.S. tortured a prisoner who was mentally ill. Nonetheless, because of his fabricated information, thousands of police and security officials were sent on wild goose chases because Abu Zubaydah wanted to stop the pain.

Use of torture has given rise to things worse than wild goose chases. The classic example is that of Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, a Libyan captured in Pakistan who denied knowing anything about Iraq providing WMD training to al-Qaida, but was tortured until he "remembered." According to the Washington Post (Aug. 1, 2004), President Bush's October 2002 statement - "We've learned that Iraq has trained al-Qaida members in bomb-making and poisons and gases" - was based entirely on al-Libi's interrogation. The CIA later retracted al-Libi's fabricated stories, which were extracted under torture. In the meantime, the Bush administration used his false information to justify the invasion of Iraq.

In other words, torture is the least effective method to find a ticking time bomb or the kidnap victim buried underground in a timely manner. It is therefore illegal for a very practical reason: It doesn't work. Most judges are ethical but they are also pragmatic and utilitarian. They figured out quite a long time ago that confessions coerced through physical torture not only make lousy evidence but are of no utility in preserving public safety.

Far more definitive analysis is to be found in Professor Darius Rejali's massive new book (849 pages): Torture and Democracy, the result of a decade long "exhaustive study of waterboarding and other 'clean tortures' or tortures that leave no permanent scars," hailed in the San Francisco Chronicle as "a towering achievement, a serious work of social science on an urgent topic that is too frequently surrounded by assumption and myth."

Additionally, an already sold out upcoming debate in NYC to be hosted by Brian Lehrer and aired on NPR, promises to really educate people as Professor Rejali's academic expertise is set to combine with the practical experience of such experts as retired FBI Supervisor Jack Cloonan who spent the last several years of his 25 year career investigating Osama Bin Laden and former CIA operative Robert Baer who spent twenty years running agents from inside the CIA's Directorate of Operations, against Hizballah, Al-Qaeda, and other terrorist organizations in the Middle east. All three experts are slated to argue that the use of "harsh interrogation techniques" is NOT necessary.

Public education about the Bush administration's secret torture policies cannot come too soon as these policies need to be rectified immediately. One alarming indication of how far Bush-Cheney have pulled us down and how the neo-con leaning radio pundits and their silly "torture saves lives" talking point have misled people in this country is the on-line poll being conducted in connection with this upcoming NYC debate. It's unbelievable how so many can be so quickly misled, but the poll currently shows 55% to 42% of respondents in agreement with the notion that "tough interrogation" of terror suspects is necessary.

So until people understand the truth, Guantanamo is closed down and waterboarding and torture are (again) made illegal, you'll know where to find us asking the hard questions every Sunday morning.