Even Bipartisan Conventional Wisdom Report Says It Was Torture

The Constitution Project has released a major report on the government’s torture program. You can download the report here.

The report is important and comprehensive, but not without flaws. It took me a matter of minutes to find a number of errors, repetition of dangerous misinformation, and incomplete reporting. While I may lay out some of these problems at more length after the report has had its big publicity splash, suffice it to say the report tends to preference newspaper reporting over actual primary sources, and at times it appears completely unaware of what primary sources say.*

As such, the report represents a cautious, bipartisan, institutionalist view. Which is why its conclusion is so valuable. Because even this cautious, bipartisan, institutionalist report concludes the following (among other findings):

Finding #1 U.S. forces, in many instances, used interrogation techniques on detainees that constitute torture. American personnel conducted an even larger number of interrogations that involved “cruel, inhuman, or degrading” treatment. Both categories of actions violate U.S. laws and international treaties. Such conduct was directly counter to values of the Constitution and our nation.

Finding #2

The nation’s most senior officials, through some of their actions and failures to act in the months and years immediately following the September 11 attacks, bear ultimate responsibility for allowing and contributing to the spread of illegal and improper interrogation techniques used by some U.S. personnel on detainees in several theaters. Responsibility also falls on other government officials and certain military leaders.

Finding #3

There is no firm or persuasive evidence that the widespread use of harsh interrogation techniques by U.S. forces produced significant information of value. There is substantial evidence that much of the information adduced from the use of such techniques was not useful or reliable.

Finding #16

For detainee hunger strikers, DOD operating procedures called for practices and actions by medical professionals that were contrary to established medical and professional ethical standards, including improper coercive involuntary feedings early in the course of hunger strikes that, when resisted, were accomplished by physically forced nasogastric tube feedings of detainees who were completely restrained.

Finding #19

The high level of secrecy surrounding the rendition and torture of detainees since September 11 cannot continue to be justified on the basis of national security.

Finding #21

The Convention Against Torture requires each state party to “[c]riminalize all acts of torture, attempts to commit torture, or complicity or participation in torture,” and “proceed to a prompt and impartial investigation, wherever there is reasonable ground to believe that an act of torture has been committed in any territory under its jurisdiction.” The United States cannot be said to have complied with this requirement.

In short: it was torture, it was illegal, it was not valuable, and it still needs to be prosecuted. (And, among other findings implicating it directly, the Obama Administration needs to stop force feeding Gitmo detainees.)

And all that’s ignoring some of the more damning evidence out there.

Let’s see whether bipartisan conventional wisdom serves its purported purpose, effecting change in cautious, institutionalist DC.


*I am admittedly biased on this front. I was within a day of being contracted to collect documents for this effort, but someone involved in the process deemed me — at a time when I was already loudly criticizing the Obama Administration for things they’ve done — too partisan for the project. Some of the documents I had already identified at that time are utterly absent from this report; in their place the report claims ignorance.

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

44 replies
  1. What Constitution? says:

    Prosecute torturers and those who authorized and allowed torture.

    We live in a country with principles, in a global civilization that has outlawed torture.
    Don’t we?

  2. lefty665 says:

    EW, Would you be kind enough to relate this to your 4/12 post on the ICRC meetings with seemingly everyone in D.C.

    Satchel Paige: “Don’t look back, something might be gaining”. Is it too much to hope that could be justice?

  3. emptywheel says:

    @lefty665: Actually that was Jim’s post.

    But I think they’re unrelated. Today’s release placed a good deal of emphasis on the force feeding, so it reacted to recent events, but I don’t think they’re related.

  4. bsbafflesbrains says:

    Outside D.C. bipartisan means something different than in the beltway. I don’t think the truth means anything to the people currently in power.

  5. harpie says:

    I am very happy this report is finally out there. It was probably doomed from the beginning to be “cautious, bipartisan, institutionalist” but, despite this, the committee has some strong words and recommendations for US that many will read, and may even affect some changes…I [maybe naively] hope.

    I wish you had been on the team, Marcy.

    [typo “bipartisan convention wisdom.]

  6. emptywheel says:

    @harpie: Right. And it’ll make a nice comparison w/the Senate report, which the torturers claim was too prosecutorial. Having this out here, no matter how smooshy, will serve real value.

  7. peasantparty says:

    WTH?

    Partisan!

    When has that ever stopped anything from happening in DC before? Could we go back and take a look at the 9-11 Commission?

    Partisan my ass! They certainly have missed an opportunity for real facts, and comprehensive review by dissing Marcy!

  8. Arbusto says:

    With Asa Hutchinson, a serial commissionaire as co-lead, what could possibly be incomplete, edited, omitted or erroneous? What conclusion do you want and you’ll get it, if compensated properly.

  9. Jeffrey Kaye says:

    I have the same take as you, Marcy, after a quick but none too thorough look at the 500+ page report.

    I think it especially treads lightly on the drugging issue. While it does call for rescission of Appendix M, it is mum on the loosening in language I found in the AFM re use of drugs. It also passes by the IG report on drugs with minimal, though critical comment.

    Interestingly, TCP decided to profile Al Shimkus, the Gitmo hospital chief in the first year and a half of operations. Shimkus is now contrite, says he was duped by higher-ups, while the report mentions but tries
    to debunk criticisms of Shimkus’s approval of mass administration of treatment doses of mefloquine to detainees.

    I’m going to hold off final judgement re weighing the pros and cons of this Eatablishment effort. I guess it looks good after years of official obstruction of accountability, and ongoing use of rendition and abusive interrogation by the Obama administration. But I fear this report is trying to set a new narrative, where reform and apologies take the place of actual accountability and substantive change.

  10. emptywheel says:

    @Jeffrey Kaye: I think there are a number of weak areas I’ve identified. But yeah, I’m willing to hold off for now, to see if this smushy narrative can get more traction than one a little closer to the known evidence.

  11. joanneleon says:

    I ordered the ebook version of it this morning. They say it will be available by the end of the month.

    I didn’t know that they had nixed you for this task force and to now hear that they missed some crucial documents is really disappointing. I’m glad that they came to the conclusion that it was torture though. Having this and the Senate report, UN rapporteur, I mean, CIA does not stand a chance of convincing anyone that it was not torture now.

  12. joanneleon says:

    This was what I found to be the most valuable conclusion, aside from the obvious value of declaring that it was torture.

    “The nation’s most senior officials, through some of their actions and failures to act in the months and years immediately following the September 11 attacks, bear ultimate responsibility for allowing and contributing to the spread of illegal and improper interrogation techniques used by some U.S. personnel on detainees in several theaters. Responsibility also falls on other government officials and certain military leaders.”

  13. klynn says:

    EW and Jeff,

    Perhaps a 2.0 version needs to be written with better primary resources?

    Ebook it!

    Thank you to both of you.

  14. joanneleon says:

    @emptywheel: Hmm, just off the top of my head… a report that added information to this report, done by two investigative journalists like you and Jeff, could become a de facto addition to it.

  15. emptywheel says:

    @joanneleon: If, as appears likely, the Senate Report will not be released anytime soon, I think I may have to do a grand narrative of torture. There’s just too much out in the public record that has been missed.

    But I’d do it as a book. Time to get paid for all that work I’ve done. Besides, that’s probably the only way to get it read by people.

  16. earlofhuntingdon says:

    A politicized government commission? Who would have thunk it.

    Mr. Obama’s campaign rhetoric aside, his government is not one that values a diversity of views, even, or especially, where the commission’s purpose is a non-partisan evaluation of government conduct. Mr. Obama much prefers conformity and continuity; he’s the perfect man in the grey flannel suit.

  17. earlofhuntingdon says:

    “Prosecutorial” is a description the administration shuns, certainly with respect to its own DoJ, except with regard to whistleblowers, transparency and open source advocates, and small-time criminals.

  18. Guy Montag says:

    “The report is important and comprehensive, but not without flaws. …at times it appears completely unaware of what primary sources say.*”

    @emptywheel: I agree. Last summer I did my own research into Gen. McChrystal’s role in torture by JSOC. This report contains some of my findings, but is missing important primary sources. I just searched the report for “mcchrystal” and quickly read the hits; I think this report rather whitewashes McChrystal’s role. And, no surprise, the report notes that “McChrystal declined several invitations from the Task Force to be interviewed about Afghanistan and Iraq.” (p.78)(although he feels free to spout his BS on the lecture circuit).

    If you (or your readers are interested) in my take on McChrystal & torture, see my 200 page post “Never Shall I Fail My Comrades” at http://www.feralfirefighter.blogspot.com

  19. Guy Montag says:

    P.S. And Admiral McRaven’s role in torture as commander of JSOC TF 121 after October 16, 2003 is not mentioned in the report (except for a reference to an unnamed “TF commander”.

  20. Peterr says:

    I am admittedly biased on this front.

    Marcy, I think you are confusing being biased with being qualified. Being biased is to have staked out a position uncritically; to take a stance based on investigation and research is something else entirely.

    In that regard, the Constitution Project’s decision to exclude you says more about their biases than yours.

  21. rosalind says:

    @P J Evans: yeah, i have friends who have done both, and find that for some reason people are more willing to give money when there is a certain set amount that has to be raised before funds are released (Kickstarter), vs. any amount raised going to the project automatically (IndiegoGo).

    YMMV.

  22. JohnT says:

    @Peterr:

    I’m echoing you Peterr, but on a different sentence

    I was already loudly criticizing the Obama Administration for things they’ve done — too partisan for the project.

    Partisan? Yea, if they mean for truth telling

  23. emptywheel says:

    @earlofhuntingdon: Oh, it’s not govt at all. It’s NGO pretending to be govt, using some of the same people who would have been chosen if it were govt.

    But I suspect it was made worse by certain staffing choices. And I note that Eleanor Hill was Chairperson and then left for undisclosed professional obligations, leaving co-chairs. Makes you wonder.

  24. emptywheel says:

    @Jeff Kaye: But that’s not correct, is it? She said to SASC that CITF wrote it and they were biased against her and that’s why it’s so unflattering to her (of course that doesn’t explain why it’s so damning of Freedman).

  25. orionATL says:

    “… As such, the report represents a cautious, bipartisan, institutionalist view. Which is why its conclusion is so valuable. Because even this cautious, bipartisan, institutionalist report concludes the following (among other findings):…”

    yes, it is very valuable indeed.

    this is the anti-particle to the “gloves-off memo of understanding”.

    it will always be there.

    as for your being denied, at the last moment, an opportunity to advise and inform the commission with your extensive specialized knowledge,

    consider it a badge of integrity!

    the folks playing this game are terrified of individuals they cannot pressure and control.

  26. Frank33 says:

    General P4 is another torturer. Petraeus had his own secret army of mercenaries and torturers, the Wolf Brigade. Why do assassins give wolves a bad name? The “surge” was a reign of terror from the US military and its goons outside the regular chain of command.

    Apart from Mosul, in late 2004 and 2005, elements of the brigade were sent to virtually every Sunni population center in the country, including Samarra, southern Baghdad, Ramadi, Baquba and Tal Afar.

    Iraq war logs released by WikiLeaks in 2010 included reports that described the US military handing their captives over to the Wolf Brigade for “further questioning” and using the threat of being interrogated by the Wolf Brigade to intimidate detainees.

  27. shagnaski says:

    Your bias…Only by reading your writings could someone select you for such a project yet that reading would dispel concerns about bias. Your participation could have improved the report considerably.

  28. scribe says:

    @P J Evans: He was working to the end. One of my local stations runs a syndicate program, hosted by him, in which he profiles up-and-coming high school football players. “Stars of tomorrow” or something.

    Like thay say – he was football.

  29. emptywheel says:

    @harpie: There’s the legal memo, which she clearly wrote. Then there’s the minutes of a meeting involving her, which IIRC she implied people who hated her wrote. Which accords w/email tracking tied to it.

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