As Stories of Bergdahl's Torture Surface, The Case of Rumsfeld As War Criminal Grows

06/09/2014 07:32 am ET | Updated Aug 09, 2014
  • H. A. Goodman Columnist published in The Cleveland Plain Dealer, The Baltimore Sun, The Hill, Salon, The Jerusalem Post

Even the most ardent believers that Bowe Bergdahl deserted his base and acted dishonorably can't deny that torturing an American is wrong. According to recent reports, Bergdahl claims he was tortured, beaten, and held in a cage by the Taliban. While Republican lawmakers have no problem at all believing claims that Bergdahl deserted, they're a bit skeptical that he was tortured by a terrorist group. Senator Saxby Chambliss responds to the issue of Bergdahl's torture at the hands of the Haqqani network (a Taliban affiliate) by saying, it will be "difficult to validate." This reaction to claims of torture by the Haqqani network, the Taliban associates that held Bergahl, is a bit odd considering that that the U.S. declared it a terrorist organization in 2012. As for the validation that Bergdahl was in the hands of a group known for torture, The Telegraph in 2001 published an interview with a former conscript of the Taliban. The following is what he told The Telegraph about what Taliban superiors demanded of their fighters:

"YOU must become so notorious for bad things that when you come into an area people will tremble in their sandals. Anyone can do beatings and starve people. I want your unit to find new ways of torture so terrible that the screams will frighten even crows from their nests and if the person survives he will never again have a night's sleep."

Therefore, considering the Taliban's use of torture as a tool of statecraft, it's safe to say that Mr. Chambliss and others shouldn't have a difficult time believing Bergdahl's claims.

As for recent accounts of torture by the former POW, they are indeed harrowing and include treatment far beyond the guidelines of the Geneva Convention. The New York Times writes that according to one U.S. official, "He's said that they kept him in a shark cage in total darkness for weeks, possibly months." The Times also reports that U.S. officials earlier in the year saw "a video of him that the Taliban made in December and released a month later -- a video so alarming, American officials have said, it made his release an urgent priority." As for claims by some skeptics about Bergdahl's seemingly sufficient physical health, there are reports that his captors might have brought him medical care in the months preceding his release. ABC News reports that his mental and psychological state is "so serious that doctors have cautioned officials and family not to reach out to even just say 'welcome back' yet." When one's mental state is so delicate that he shouldn't even hear the words, "welcome home," this says something about the anguish he's endured under Taliban captivity.

If accounts of Bergdahl's experiences become more graphic and continue to surface, then one former Secretary of Defense will have a difficult time escaping an uncomfortable past. While President Bush and Vice President Cheney might not have documents with their signatures endorsing "enhanced interrogation," Donald Rumsfeld has a great number of memos and statements linked directly to him. In Rumsfeld's own words, published by The New York Times in 2005 (and George Washington University), he wrote a memorandum advocating over 20 enhanced interrogation techniques, including the following methods that already seem eerily similar to Bergdahl's treatment by the Taliban:

I approve the use of specified counter-resistance techniques...

Use of these techniques is limited to interrogations of unlawful combatants held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba...

E. Fear Up Harsh: Significantly increasing the fear level in a detainee...

J. Futility: Invoking the feeling of futility of a detainee...

Isolation: Isolating the detainee...

Although the provisions of Geneva are not applicable to the interrogation of unlawful combatants, consideration should be given to the victim prior to application of the technique...

While some claim Bush and Cheney should be tried for war crimes, they've not been tied directly to phrases like, "I approve the use of" and "use of these techniques is limited to" Guantanamo prisoners.

The link between an American POW being left in a cage for weeks or possibly months and Rumsfeld's approval of techniques leading to isolation, fear, and futility (including the use of barking dogs, keeping prisoners awake for 20 hours in a day for over a month, and other harsh techniques) might seem tenuous to many conservatives. However, the more we hear of Bergdahl's treatment by the Taliban, the more our country will be horrified by accounts of torture. Whereas the Taliban might have justified such behavior because Bergdahl tried to escape or was an enemy combatant, Donald Rumsfeld justified his approval of interrogation techniques in his own manner. The justification he used, even though it was legally defensible at the time based on U.S. interpretation of laws, was not ignored by the rest of the world. Two lawsuits in Germany and one in France have been filed against Donald Rumsfeld. According to The New York Times, "the prospect of foreign lawsuits could be a lingering irritant, should he decide to travel overseas as a private citizen."

Whereas he might not ever be tried in the U.S., Rumsfeld is accused by Human Rights Watch of having "approved illegal interrogation methods that facilitated the use of torture and ill-treatment by US military personnel in Afghanistan and Iraq." HRW also believes there are "solid grounds" to investigate Rumsfeld for war crimes. Amnesty International, in a mock trial of Rumsfeld, states he "personally ordered" techniques that amount to torture. Needless to say, there exist grounds for a legal case against the former official.

Finally, the more we hear of Begdahl's treatment by the Taliban, the more Rumsfeld's signatures and approvals become even more embarrassing for the nation. An American POW did not deserve to be treated in a cruel manner by his captors. He did not deserve to be left in a cage for weeks or experience the beatings and torture techniques -that the Taliban is well known for utilizing.

What's the inconvenient link to Rumsfeld? Sadly, when hearing more of these graphic accounts, it will be difficult not to remember when Donald Rumsfeld used memos and press conferences to justify similar techniques.