Tuesday, February 21, 2006

The Decent American

The New Yorker has a long piece on the bureaucratic struggle against torture within the Pentagon, focussing on a detailed historical narrative [PDF] written by Naval General Counsel Alberto Mora. In 2002, Mora was told by the head of the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) that NCIS agents at Guantanamo had learned that some detainees "were being subjected to physical abuse and degrading treatment", reportedly "authorised, at least in part, at a 'high level' in Washington". This caused him to go on the warpath, working his way up the chain of command, opposing torture at every turn. His opposition was strengthened after he had read Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld's December 2nd memo on Counter Resistance Techniques [PDF], which authorised (among other things) prolonged isolation, "removal of clothing", and "using detainees individual phobias (such as fear of dogs) to induce stress". And after being put off by one of Rumsfeld's hacks, he went nuclear:

Mora delivered an unsigned draft memo to [Pentagon General Counsel William] Haynes, and said that he planned to “sign it out” that afternoon—making it an official document—unless the harsh interrogation techniques were suspended. Mora’s draft memo described U.S. interrogations at Guantánamo as “at a minimum cruel and unusual treatment, and, at worst, torture.”

By the end of the day, Haynes called Mora with good news. Rumsfeld was suspending his authorization of the disputed interrogation techniques. The Defense Secretary also was authorizing a special “working group” of a few dozen lawyers, from all branches of the armed services, including Mora, to develop new interrogation guidelines.

Score one for decency! Unfortunately, this apparent victory was simply another put-off: the working group's recommendations were to be guided by John Yoo's now-infamous torture memo, which essentially argued that the only limit on the treatment of prisoners was the arbitrary whim of the Absolute Monarch President. Mora fought that too, and apparently won again - the working group's report (which concluded that torture was acceptable) was never formally signed off, and Mora thought it had been buried. Instead, Rumsfeld had adopted it [PDF], without informing its authors, and it was being used to sanction cruel and degrading treatment and torture in Guantanamo.

Without Mora’s knowledge, the Pentagon had pursued a secret detention policy. There was one version, enunciated in Haynes’s letter to Leahy [which said "we do not and will not torture" - I/S], aimed at critics. And there was another, giving the operations officers legal indemnity to engage in cruel interrogations, and, when the Commander-in-Chief deemed it necessary, in torture. Legal critics within the Administration had been allowed to think that they were engaged in a meaningful process; but their deliberations appeared to have been largely an academic exercise, or, worse, a charade.

The reason for this was precisely to prevent people like Mora from objecting on the record, where it could later be used against those approving such atrocities.

Alberto Mora was a decent American. When faced with a policy fundamentally at odds with American (and human) values, he opposed it to the best of his ability. And he was not alone. Others within the US military, particularly within the US Navy, also stood up against barbarism. In the end, they lost, but they at least fought for the values America is supposed to stand for. Their opposition to torture deserves to be remembered, even as we condemn those like Yoo and Rumsfeld and Bush who supported it.