No. This trial is not about American officials but it does have something in common with our government’s actions in the field of interrogation and reveals just where America stands on the moral chart of generally accepted norms of good behavior.
On March 30, 2009, “three decades after Cambodia’s murderous Khmer Rouge, a pro-China communist group, were flushed from power, a prominent regime official stood in the dock Monday for the first time to answer charges of crimes against humanity, breaches of the laws of war, murder, and torture.”
Kaing Khek Iev, a former school teacher known as Duch, ran the infamous Cambodian torture center Tuol Sleng in the capital of Phnom Penh. As many as 16,000 men, women and children died there between 1975 and 1979.
Some of the charges against Duch:
“There were autopsies carried out on live persons, there was medical experimentation, and people were bled to death: These were all crimes against Humanity admitted by Duch.” One of “the four forms of torture he officially condoned…was pouring water up victims’ noses.”
The prosecution, a court made up of Cambodian and international judges, “described a chain of death operated by Duch. His victims–most of whom were either disgraced members of the Khmer Rouge or their families–were either tortured with electric shocks, waterboarding or beating to extract a confession, which would implicate new victims. After confessing, the victims would be killed, most often by a sharp blow to the back of the head.” (Cambodia is now known as Kampuchea.)
The history of waterboarding predates the Spanish Inquisition but the Catholic church improved on it. The technique “more widely used today–involves choking the victim by filling their throat with a steady stream of water–a sort of ‘slow-motion drowning’ that was perfected by Dutch traders in the 17th century…[and] used against their British rivals in the East Indies.”
Historian Ed Peters says, “The thing you could not do in torture was injure the body or cause death…That was–and still is–what makes waterboarding such an attractive interrogation technique…It causes great physical pain and mental suffering, yet leaves no mark on the body.”
Many European countries banned the practice in the early 1800s but “waterboarding moved underground…[and] it …experienced something of a revival [especially] in the 20th century.”
“During the Spanish-American War, a U.S. soldier, Major Edwin Glenn, was suspended from command for one month and fined $50 for using ‘the water cure.’ In his review, the Army judge advocate said the charges constituted ‘resort to torture with a view to extort a confession.’ He recommended dispproval because ‘the United States cannot afford to sanction the addition of torture.”
After world War II a war crimes tribunal “charged a Japanese officer, Yukio Asano, with war crimes for waterboarding a U.S. civilian.” His sentence-15 years of hard labor.
On the front page of the Jan. 21, 1968 issue of The Washington Post, a photo showed “a U.S. soldier supervising the waterboarding of a captured North Vietnamese soldier. The caption said the technique induced ‘a flooding sense of suffocation and drowning, meant to make him talk.” The Army investigated and gave the soldier a court martial two months later.
In a radio interview in 2006, Vice President Cheney was asked if “a dunk in the water is a no-brainer if it can save lives?” His response: “Well, it’s a no-brainer for me, but for a while there I was criticised as being the vice-president for torture. We don’t torture.”
But Senator John McCain, who was tortured by the North Vietnamese while a POW in Hanoi, has stated that waterboarding is torture: “It is no different than holding a pistol to his head and firing a blank.”
But it appears that the period of time that the U.S. was waterboarding al-Qaeda members, the technique was not the success that Cheney stated. See this article from The Washington Post:
“In the end, though, not a single significant plot was foiled as a result of Abu Zaida’s (captured terrorist) tortured confessions, according to former senior government officials who closely followed the interrogations. Nearly all of the leads attained through the harsh measures quickly evaporated, while most of the useful information from Abu Zaida–chiefly names of al-Qaeda members and associates–was obtained before waterboarding was introduced…”
Republicans and some Democrats are getting very nervous as new revelations appear. For Democrats, it’s because some of those in Congress held positions that allowed them to have knowledge of the Bush administration’s use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” but said nothing.
For Republicans, it’s because authorizing or participating in waterboarding is torture and a crime, which is punishable by prison terms.
Professor David Bromwich comments negatively on President Obama’s statement releasing the torture memos:
“The United States is a nation of laws.” [And a nation in which the men and women who serve courageously as secret agents are not bound by laws.]
“My administration will always act in accordance with those laws, and with an unshakeable commitment to our ideals.” [Except when those ideals conflict with “unity” and the overcoming of collective “pain”: these are more important than accurate history or equality under the law.]
“That is why we have released these memos, and that is why we have taken steps to ensure that the actions described within them never take place again.” [But if a future president reasons as you reason concerning the past, the actions described in the memos will take place again and again.] David Bromwich
No accountability. The times they are a changing. And the next time the victim could be you.