Semantics of torture in the age of Obama

Posted Feb. 06, 2009, at 6:31 p.m.

Torture. We can ban it, but can we stop it? What’s the difference? It’s a matter of semantics and vantage point.

President Obama has moved quickly to reject the use of torture and to re-establish U.S. adherence to all domestic and international laws, treaties and conventions that require humane treatment of prisoners in wartime.

Obama ordered the closing of Guantanamo (in a year), abolished the military commissions and outlawed torture in all forms, rendition flights and secret prisons run by the CIA. Is this enough?

Professor James Hill, a lawyer who teaches at the University of Southern California School of Medicine, doesn’t think so. He sees potential loopholes. According to Hill, another of Obama’s executive orders of Jan. 22 asks what are the “lawful options available to the federal government” for treating individuals detained in “counterterrorism operations,” a group apparently “differentiated” by the White House from those captured during “armed conflicts.”

Professor Hill also questions language in the directive that appears to open the way for entities other than the CIA to run and staff secret prisons — private contractors, perhaps. And the directive does not even mention “counterterrorism detainees” where Red Cross access is concerned. If this analysis is correct, I call on President Obama to clarify the status of these counterterrorism detainees, not only in regard to their legal rights, but also as to their immunity in interrogations from acts of torture and humiliation.

That was semantics. What about vantage point?

Nowhere does the Obama directive address the systematic nature of the abuse and torture of prisoners at the level of field interrogations. It’s not a soldier’s battlefield rage I’m addressing here, where prisoners or innocent bystanders may be subjected to abuse or even murder in, or after, the heat of action. But the practices that are typically standard operating procedures throughout military intelligence interrogation units integrated at the level of field operations in all ground combat branches of the military.

I can testify from personal experience that low-ranking interrogators are not instructed in those methods of torture much publicized today, and well known to the public at large: electrical torture, waterboarding, the range of humiliating, often life-threatening abuses associated with Abu Ghraib. While interrogators may hear of these techniques informally during training, for the most part they learn to apply them on the job. Uses of these coercive methods emerge generally in an environment of intense, ambiguity-ridden command pressure to develop reliable, tactical intelligence. A commander doesn’t have to explicitly order a team of interrogators to obtain information through force. It’s usually enough to apply command intimidation, demanding immediate results (with the implied subtext “and I don’t care how you get them”).

The United States, under President Obama’s leadership, must not only reject and abolish torture as a matter of official policy extended to all categories of detainees, but also address the culture of torture practiced in the field. When identified, perpetrators, certainly those who are punished, tend to be to limited to low-ranking interrogators, glossing over or simply ignoring those in the command structure responsible for their supervision.

There may be no way in the real world to completely eliminate torture in the field environments I am describing. But we would go a long way toward that end by ensuring that accountability for such abuses begins at the top, before it works its way down to the ranks.

Michael Uhl lives in Walpole. He served with a military intelligence unit in Vietnam.

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