October 5, 2102
Last week we were reminded by the
Miami Herald that Guantánamo
is not on the agenda for the forthcoming presidential election. In 2008,
Barack Obama was preparing to order the prison’s closure, but his
executive order in January 2009 promising to close it within a year failed to
lead to the prison’s closure. This time around the Democrats’
official message is more nuanced. "We are substantially reducing the
population at Guantánamo Bay without adding to it," their
"And we remain committed to working with all branches of
government to close the prison altogether because it is inconsistent with our
national security interests and our values."
Mitt Romney also has not spoken about Guantánamo on the campaign trail, although in 2007,
when he was unsuccessfully seeking the Republican nomination, he said during a
debate on Fox News that "we ought to double Guantánamo."
Sad to say, although Guantánamo has dropped off the radar, despite being a permanent source of shame
for all Americans who respect the rule of law, torture, it seems, is back as a
topic of discussion.
When Obama promised to close Guantánamo on his second day in office, he also issued
an executive order banning the use
of the torture techniques introduced by George W. Bush in the wake of the 9/11
attacks, ordering interrogators to return to the established, nonabusive
techniques in the
Army Field Manual.
Despite that, Obama has been a disappointment for those concerned to thoroughly
repudiate the lawlessness of the Bush years. The Army Field Manual
contains an appendix allowing torture
techniques to be used in certain circumstances, and there have been
regular stories of the ill treatment of certain prisoners in Afghanistan.
Moreover, although Obama backed away from the already discredited program of
extraordinary rendition and secret CIA torture prisons introduced by
Bush, he has largely replaced it with a policy that involves
secret "kill list" and drone
attacks in numerous locations — including
the assassination of U.S. citizens — that has, understandably, attracted widespread criticism. He has also retained
military commissions at Guantánamo and the USA PATRIOT Act at home; and by failing
to close Guantánamo, he has normalized the concept of indefinite detention.
Even so, as the
New York Times explained on
Saturday, "Mr. Romney’s advisers have privately urged him to 'rescind
and replace President Obama’s executive order’ and permit
secret 'enhanced interrogation techniques against high-value detainees
that are safe, legal and effective in generating intelligence to save American
lives,’" according to a policy proposal drafted in September
2011 by 18 advisors. Those advisors include Michael Chertoff, secretary of Homeland Security
under Bush and the co-author of the PATRIOT Act, and Charles
"Cully" Stimson, who was deputy assistant secretary of Defense
for Detainee Affairs under Bush.
Most alarming, another of the advisors is Steven Bradbury, who was the head of the Justice
Department’s Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) under Bush after
Jay S. Bybee and Jack Goldsmith. The OLC is supposed
to provide impartial legal advice to the executive branch; but under Bush, John
Yoo, a lawyer in the OLC (and a law professor at
Berkeley) who was close to Dick Cheney and his senior lawyer, David Addington,
cynically approved the Bush administration’s
torture program in a series of memos signed by his boss, Jay S. Bybee
(now a judge in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals), which will forever be known as
the "torture memos." Although Goldsmith rescinded them, Bradbury largely approved Yoo’s
and Bybee’s dangerous aberrations from the
law in an additional series of "torture memos" for the CIA
issued in May 2005.
As the New York Times explained, Bradbury
"took a fresh look at CIA interrogation tactics and
reapproved them as not
violating an antitorture statute,
that they did not violate a more sweeping prohibition on 'cruel, inhuman, and
degrading treatment’" established in the
Convention against Torture, which was signed by Ronald Reagan in April 1988
and ratified by the Senate in October 1990.
Details of what Mitt Romney specifically thinks about torture are largely unknown, although
last December, in Charleston, South Carolina, he promised, "We’ll
use enhanced interrogation techniques which go beyond those that are in the
military handbook right now." He also stated
that he would "not authorize torture," but told a reporter
that he did not think waterboarding — used under Bush —
was torture. Waterboarding is, of course, an ancient torture technique that
involves controlled drowning, so Romney’s stance is not encouraging.
What is particularly troubling is that Romney’s advisors
are so poisonously pro-torture: they wrote in their policy brief that it was not
possible to state which techniques he should approve, because more research
needed to be undertaken. That was not because torture is illegal, immoral, and
counterproductive, but because, in their opinion, Obama had
"permanently damaged" the value of some of the techniques
when, in April 2009, as part of a court case, he
released a series of "torture memos" — the
Bradbury memos from 2005 and a previously unreleased Yoo
and Bybee memo from August 2002.
Unfortunately, while the Obama administration has openly stated that waterboarding is torture,
the majority of the mainstream media — the New York Times
included — have failed to take the necessary moral stand in their
reporting. Although the article last week by Charlie Savage was important, its
tone, as dictated by the Times’s house style, was as coy about
torture as the paper has been since the use of torture was first revealed under
George W. Bush.
After noting that "Bush administration lawyers approved as
legal, despite antitorture laws, such tactics as prolonged sleep
deprivation, shackling into painful 'stress’ positions for
long periods while naked and in a cold room, slamming into a wall, locking
inside a small box, and the suffocation tactic called waterboarding,"
the article proceeded to explain that, when
information about the torture program surfaced, it "ignited a heated
debate that continues to flare."
"The policy’s supporters say they were lawful and extracted valuable
information that helped save lives," the Times
continued. On the other hand, "Critics contend that they were illegal
and damaged the United States’ moral standing, and that the same or
better information could have been obtained with nonabusive
One can only wonder what hope there is for torture to be thoroughly repudiated when, even in
an important exposé of a presidential candidate’s being given advice about
torture by his advisors (some of whom are implicated in the Bush-era torture
program), waterboarding is referred to only as a "suffocation tactic,"
and critics of the program are allowed only to
"contend" that the techniques used were torture, and that torture
is illegal — as well as being immoral and counterproductive.
was correct to note that no information was obtained through the use of torture
that could not have been obtained through nonabusive
means. Even so, torture will continue to rear its ugly head while those who should know,
unambiguously, what it is — lawmakers, lawyers and newspaper
editors, for example — continue to duck the issue.
Andy Worthington is the author of The
Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s
Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press) and serves as policy advisor
to the Future of Freedom Foundation. Visit his website at