In the background, behind all the noise and fury about misspent billions and AIG bonuses, there is the story that won't go away. President Obama and his aides express no interest in it. Major news reports about it are intermittent at best. Yet in twenty, even fifty years, long after the AIG bonuses are forgotten, today’s background story may be as vivid a historical marker as the Palmer raids or the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. Slowly, not yet surely, America is moving toward a reckoning with torture.
Few people, in the press or elsewhere, seem to want it. The big news organizations have mustered an army of reporters to sort through the financial wreckage. But the torture beat has been largely relegated to lefty bloggers, The New Yorker and a few outraged conservatives. Americans feel bad enough about the general state of affairs. Who wants to wallow in what, in the end, may turn out to be the biggest national guilt trip since Zippo lighters in Vietnam?
It’s perhaps telling that the latest revelations were published in The New York Review of Books—not exactly home to mainstream, let alone investigative, journalism. But that is where Mark Danner laid out his story, based on a leaked, confidential report on U.S. torture prepared by the International Committee of the Red Cross. Elements of the Red Cross report had previously surfaced in reporting by The New Yorker’s Jane Mayer, but Danner added unambiguous detail.
Here, briefly, is what the Red Cross said the U.S.’s “enhanced interrogation techniques” entailed: In addition to being waterboarded, naked prisoners were put in tiny boxes and forced to crouch in “stress positions’’ over long periods, emerging with hobbled and damaged legs. They were handcuffed to overhead bars while standing for consecutive days (falling into exhausted sleep while suspended from their wrists), denied sleep for as much as two weeks, and periodically doused with icy water in air conditioned cells while they shivered on the floor.
They were repeatedly flung, slingshot-like, into walls head first. At some point, interrogation walls were covered in plywood, presumably to soften the blows and render death or brain damage less likely. Prisoners confined separately gave similar, detailed accounts of specific types of abuse.
In January, in an opinion piece in The Washington Times, constitutional lawyer Bruce Fein made a case for criminal investigations of the highest echelon of the Bush administration, including the former president and vice-president. “The best way to deter government criminality and to teach citizens the rule of law is to punish the perpetrators,” Fein wrote. It’s hard to imagine indictments of senior government officials. But it’s less hard to imagine today than it was a short while ago.
Inertia seems to be on the side of investigation now. The engine generating this momentum, however, is not the press, mainstream or otherwise. It is the rule, and culture, of the law. The law has been around for some time now, and seems determined to have its say, with or without encouragement from The Washington Post. Torture is illegal in the United States. That fact is a stubborn thing, difficult to steer around no matter how fast the CIA or others spin their wheels.
There is an established path in Washington from sworn congressional testimony to prosecutorial action, and the first steps on the trail have been taken. Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Patrick Leahy has committed to hold some type of hearings on torture and constitutional violations—possibly in the form of a truth commission. House Judiciary Committee chairman John Conyers has produced a 500-page report on abuses and seems disinclined to let the topic fade. Senate Intelligence Committee chairman Dianne Feinstein intends to conduct closed-door hearings of her own. If criminal acts are divulged in hearings, the Justice Department may be obligated to pursue charges.
Amidst this activity, vice president Dick Cheney has twice taken to television to blast the Obama administration’s national security policy. It is curious behavior for a 68-year-old who has just left the White House and has no conceivable political future. It’s strange first as a matter of decorum, but also because Obama has deviated so little from key Bush policies on terrorism. In Iraq, in Afghanistan, even regarding the status of detainees, not much has really changed. The official end of torture is the glaring exception.
The medium is not the message in politics, but it can provide clues about intent. Some have speculated that Cheney’s television appearances are an attempt to burnish his legacy. But cable television is not where legacies are cast or reconstructed. For that, there is the publishing industry (President Bush has just signed his book deal); the pages of Foreign Affairs; even the op-ed pages. By contrast, television is immediate—a conduit of today’s battles, not history’s.
Cheney seems determined to establish a real-time record of rancor with the new administration, to write his name in neon on a very public White House enemies list. Perhaps he’s genuinely angry. Or perhaps at some future, still hypothetical, date, his current belligerence might prove a useful shield, allowing the vice president to claim that he is being targeted for his political opposition, being made a scapegoat for denouncing his successors. Perhaps Dick Cheney, too, suspects his days of discussing torture may not be over.