American Torture: Which Side Are You on?

This article appeared on on July 20, 2011.

A Wall Street Journal editorial, "Vindicating the CIA" (July 2), praised "Attorney General Eric Holder's decision to pull the plug on the investigation into most CIA interrogations. The disgrace is that this probe was ever undertaken."

Agreeing, Republican Mike Rogers, head of the House Intelligence Committee, said: "The Justice Department's decision to close the book on all but two of the remaining cases 'has finally substantially lifted an undeserved cloud of doubt and suspicion from all of our intelligence professionals.'" (New York Times, July 1)

As a longtime reporter on the U.S. policy of torture, I refuse to ever close that book.

On Dec. 26, 2002, the Washington Post's Dana Priest and Barton Gellman were the first to expose in detail this form of the Bush-Cheney war on terrorism at our Bagram Air Field in Afghanistan.

In an editorial the next day, the newspaper said of this previously secret torture site: "The American people ought to know and ought to be able to respond through their representatives and through individual and organizational voices. It shouldn't be the administration's unilateral call."

Former constitutional lawyer Glenn Greenwald, an exceptionally penetrating and persistent revealer of the Bush-Cheney authorization of torture — still continuing, as the BBC and I have reported, under Obama at Bagram — has reacted to the current administration's closing of the book on unilateral torture with this plain, appalling record of our international disgrace:

In "Torture crimes officially, permanently shielded," he unmasks what Obama and Holder have done: "American war criminals, responsible for some of the most shameful and inexcusable crimes in the nation's history — the systematic, deliberate legalization of a worldwide torture regime — will be fully immunized for those crimes."

Greenwald goes on — as I often have here and in occasional exchanges with law students — that: "The Obama administration has spent years just as aggressively shielding those war criminals from all other forms of accountability beyond the criminal realm: invoking secrecy (state secrets to shut down lawsuits) and immunity doctrines to prevent their victims from imposing civil liability, exploiting their party's control of Congress to suppress formal inquiries, and pressuring and coercing other nations not to investigate their own citizens' torture at American hands" (as in the CIA kidnapping suspects from their countries for transport to other countries to be tortured — using CIA-provided demands for answers).

It gets worse. In my book The War on the Bill of Rights and the Gathering Resistance (Seven Stories Press, 2003), I wrote in the chapter "CIA's Disappearing Prisoners" of a 27-year veteran FBI agent, Jack Cloonan, who at the time was in charge of the FBI's bin Laden unit in New York, whose members were also questioning suspects abroad.

He was insisting that the agents he supervised stay within our laws, unlike the CIA interrogators. He was worried they might eventually face our criminal penalties. And Cloonan was also very concerned about the "ghost prisoners" in the CIA secret cells.

"What are we going to explain to people when they start asking questions about where they are? Are they dead? Are they alive? What oversight does Congress have?"

When I talked to Cloonan a couple of years ago, he was still deeply worried. The families of those disappeared prisoners still don't know where they are or even whether they're alive.

Now dig this. In 2006, in my column for United Media (reprinted in the July 19, 2007, Jewish World Review), I disclose, "U.S. rejects ban on making prisoners disappear":

"In a historic expansion of international protection of terrorism suspects and other prisoners from being held in secret detention or being forced to disappear, 57 nations signed an international treaty in Paris. This ban includes kidnapping (as in CIA 'renditions' to countries known for torturing prisoners). The United States was invited to sign the treaty but refused despite our ... adherence to the rule of law and our core emphasis on due process — as ordered by the Supreme Court in our treatment of detainees (Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, 2006)."

This public, international abandonment of the "ghost prisoners" showed that American values had also disappeared.

President Obama — like President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney before him — has given no indication he gives a damn about these disappeared human beings. He refuses to look "backward," preferring instead to blindly "look forward."

If you have doubts about any of this, among other verifiable sources are: Center on Law and Security at the New York University School of Law's The Torture Papers: The Road to Abu Ghraib (Cambridge University Press, 2005); Beyond the Law: The Bush Administration's Unlawful Responses in the "War" on Terror by professor Jordan J. Pauls (Cambridge University Press, 2007); Ghost Plane: The True Story of the CIA Rendition and Torture Program by Stephen Grey (St. Martin's Griffin, 2007); and The Dark Side by Jane Mayer of The New Yorker (Anchor, 2009).

When the new CIA director, Gen. David Petraeus, was commander in Iraq, he wrote a letter to "Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, Marines, and Coast Guardsmen serving in Multi-National Force — Iraq": "Some may argue that we would be more effective if we sanctioned torture or other expedient methods to obtain information from the enemy. They would be wrong. ... We must observe the standards and values that dictate that we treat noncombatants and detainees with dignity and respect."

So far, there is no record of Petraeus saying torture is wrong to those he now commands in the CIA. Does he agree with Obama and Holder that accountability for this part of the CIA's history not be subject to a full-scale independent investigation?

Is this abhorrent, disgraceful chapter in our history — in our American history — to be closed, general?

Not on this citizen's watch.

Nat Hentoff

Nat Hentoff is a nationally renowned authority on the First Amendment and the Bill of Rights. He is a member of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, and the Cato Institute, where he is a senior fellow.