Podcast • September 18, 2008

Torture, Part 3: the Philip Gourevitch version

In our third go at this miserable business of sanctioned American torture, Philip Gourevitch turns it around, Pogo-style. We have met the victims, he says in effect, and they are us. Click to listen to ...

In our third go at this miserable business of sanctioned American torture, Philip Gourevitch turns it around, Pogo-style. We have met the victims, he says in effect, and they are us.

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Philip Gourevitch (58 minutes, 27 mb mp3)

Philip Gourevitch (photo: Andrew Brucker)

Even if you want to put it into culture war terms, or a war of our principles versus theirs, or our civilization versus theirs – we’ve violated the principles that we claim our civilization stands for, in order to fight off this threat to our civilization. That’s what’s so incoherent about it. That’s where, when I look at these photographs from Abu Graib, when I look at the story, a lot of what I wrote this book for is to ask not ‘why did we go?’ and ‘how did we de-humanize them? and do these things to them?’ It’s ‘how did we do this to ourselves? Why are we doing this to ourselves?’ Maybe the best way to get us to stop doing it is not to ask why are we doing this to them – why are we doing this to ourselves?

Philip Gourevitch of Standard Operating Procedure, in conversation with Chris Lydon in James Der Derian’s global security seminar at Brown’s Watson Institute, September 17, 2008

Philip Gourevitch’s book, Standard Operating Procedure, is of course the hard-cover partner of the Errol Morris movie.

Gourevitch‘s eye and story-telling pen are as powerful as any thousand pictures from Abu Ghraib. This is his reading, for example, of the interrogation (with the help of dogs) of a prize prisoner called “AQ” (for Al Qaeda) before he turned out finally to be a used-car dealer in Baghdad, a man of no political or security interest:

Once again Smith moved in with the animal. In one picture you see it lunging, ears back, a black blur of muscle and jaw… Smith is in the picture, crouching over the dog, restraining him and urging him on at the same time.

It does not seem possible to amplify the drama of this moment, but the look on AQ’s face does just that. He has the horrified, drawn-back, and quivering expression of a thoroughly blasted soul. It is all there in his eyes, moist and mad with fear, fixed on a mouthful of fangs. What secrets does he have that we want so badly, but are so precious to him that he endures this day after day? The answer in AQ’s case was none. Once again at Abu Ghraib they had the wrong guy, or they had the guy wrong, and when they realized this after several months of dogs and bondage and hooding and noise and sleeplessness and heat and cold and who knows just what other robust counter-resistance techniques, they told him to scram, and closed his case. The pictures of AQ on that night before New Year’s are the last known photographs of our prisoners on the MI block at Abu Ghraib, which seems fitting, because these pictures don’t leave much to the viewer’s imagination, except the obvious question: if you fight terror with terror, how can you tell which is which?

Philip Gourevitch, Standard Operating Procedure.

As Abu Ghraib was the sequel to Guantanamo, our classroom conversation with Philip Gourevitch flows out of our session two days earlier with Philippe Sands — and Sands’ point that the criminal torture story began with President Bush’s dismissal of the Geneva Conventions in February, 2002 and “migrated” from there. One of the Morris-Gourevitch interviews with the investigator Tim Dugan gets it all into a nutshell, in the vernacular:

Tim Dugan was summoned to join a meeting with Colonel Pappas to discuss the interrogation of this fresh crop of Saddam cronies. Pappas explained that he’d just got off a conference call with General Sanchez and the secretary of defense. “He said, ‘We’re starting a special projects team, and we’re going to break the back of the resistance. Anybody who doesn’t want to volunteer for this has to leave the room. And if you volunteer, you can’t talk about this to anybody,'” Dugan said. “We all volunteered and he said all approach techniques were authorized. Someone asked, ‘Even dogs?’ And he says, ‘yep, even dogs.’ He’s like, ‘We got a chance to break this unlawful insurgency, and the people in an unlawful insurgency have no protection under the Geneva Conventions.'”

Dugan thought that was pretty definitive. “If the fuckin’ secretary of defense designates the motherfucker an unlawful insurgency, I mean, what the fuck am I supposed to say? It’s an unlawful insurgency, wouldn’t you think? He’s the second-highest motherfucker in the country during the war.”

Philip Gourevitch, Standard Operating Procedure.

Podcast • September 17, 2008

Philippe Sands’ Torture Team

First, the Spencer Tracy “verdict” from “Judgement at Nuremberg” (1961). Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Philippe Sands (45 minutes, 21 mb mp3) Who will pay for the illegal abuse of detainees at Guantanamo? ...

First, the Spencer Tracy “verdict” from “Judgement at Nuremberg” (1961).

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Philippe Sands (45 minutes, 21 mb mp3)

Who will pay for the illegal abuse of detainees at Guantanamo? If violations of the Geneva Conventions — and specifically of Common Article 3, against torture, cruelty and “outrages upon personal dignity” — are “‘war crimes,’ punishable as federal offenses,” as Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in the Hamdan case two years ago, who will prosecute them?

Will Americans and the US government initiate an examination of the record — and of our national conscience? Or are we waiting for a prompt from abroad — waiting, in effect, for Donald Rumsfeld or Antonio Gonzalez to get their version of the Pinochet “tap on the shoulder,” as they’re strolling on a sidewalk in London, Berlin or Mexico City?

Philippe Sands of Torture Team: “…doing nothing is not an option.”

In his book Torture Team and in our conversation, Philippe Sands aims such questions at the top tier of his own legal profession. Who will hold to account the lawyers who gave President Bush the very bad advice that the Geneva rules, the US Army manual on interrogation, and the long tradition against torture (President Lincoln’s order in 1863 was that “military necessity does not admit of cruelty”) did not apply to the Al Qaeda suspects picked up after 9.11? And then: what about the lawyers who gave Donald Rumsfeld a green light to introduce abusive interrogation at Guantanamo in the autumn of 2002?

Torture Team can be read as a fiercely accusatory extension of Jane Mayer’s argument in The New Yorker and her book, The Dark Side, that “but for the lawyers this would not have happened.” Philippe Sands brings to bear an English barrister’s perspective and a generous investment of shoe leather in the US. He interviewed a large cast of principals and credits the marvelous openness of American society for his access to (among others) Rumsfeld’s chief counsel William “Jim” Haynes; the first commanding officer at Guantanamo, Major General Michael Dunlavey and his counsel, Lt. Col. Diane Beaver; the Navy’s General Counsel who blew the whistle on enhanced interrogation, Alberto Mora; the Pentagon’s aggressive Undersecretary for Policy Doug Feith, and the apparently witless chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Richard Myers. But then he turns scathingly to the judgment that ideology, and lawyers, drove the mission to create something new: a “legal black hole” in which designated persons would be stripped of their humanity and all their rights.

That is precisely what the system of rules that the United States had done so much to put into place after the Second World War was intended to avoid. It comes back to Spencer Tracy in Judgement at Nuremberg: the dignity of even a single human person is what our values are about. There are no legal black holes. The moment you go down that route you undermine the entirety of who it is we believe we are, and what it is we believe we’re doing… I think there was a conscious decision to remove international legal constraints (and U.S. legal constraints — after all, that’s why Guantanamo is outside the US) which would limit the ability of the administration to adopt new techniques of interrogation. The legal black hole was the removal of international constraints on interrogation as part of an ideological drive to increase executive power and remove the shackles of international law. It has failed miserably.

Philippe Sands in conversation with Chris Lydon, September 15, 2008.

The press and popular culture didn’t help us notice what was underway, Sands observes. Notably, the Fox TV hit, 24 (another Jane Mayer subject) was as insidiously wrong about the long-term issues as Judgement at Nuremberg was once eloquently right. Sands also makes you wonder about the elite legal establishment — most particularly Harvard Law School, training ground of principals like Alberto Gonzales and Jim Wright and home base of the inescapable advocate of “torture warrants,” Professor Alan Dershowitz. But the hard focus here is on the legal minds who used a devious process to create a lawless prison (seedbed, not least of Abu Ghraib) that became an even more monstrous symbol of American power out of control.

The choice we don’t have, Philippe Sands argues, is to do nothing about this stain on the American reputation, the American soul.