The CIA Torturers Started at the Top

In 1971, a Stanford University team of researchers led by psychology professor Philip Zimbardo and funded by the US Navy and Marine Corps set up a famous experiment into the causes of conflict between military guards and prisoners.

Some 24 male students were selected to take on arbitrary roles as prisoners and guards in a mock prison in the basement of the Stanford psychology building. The experiment tragically went well beyond Zimbardo’s expectations, with the “guards” increasing the pressure on the prisoners to the point where the prisoners were subjected to psychological torture – and the “prisoners” accepted the abuse, readily harassing other prisoners who attempted to prevent it. The entire experiment was abruptly stopped after only six days because of its horrific implications.

Something like that appears to have taken place within the United States government in the wake of the destruction of the World Trade Towers and a piece of the Pentagon on Sept. 11 2001. What the Stanford study showed is that nobody with a truncheon, even students at one of America’s most elite universities, seems willing to pause, given instructions from superiors, and ask “what am I doing?”

What American jailers did to helpless prisoners defies any kind of rational description. The recently released CIA report on torture paints a disgusting and horrific picture. According to media reports, torture seems to have become not a means to an end but a way of life for the torturers. The report describes the use of waterboarding, sleep deprivation, “rectal feeding” – a reverse enema of pureed hummus, pasta with sauce, nuts and raisins – used on hunger strikers. One detainee died of frostbite and harsh techniques were described as leading to “psychological and behavioral issues, including hallucinations, paranoia, insomnia, and attempts at self-harm and self-mutilation” were used on others. These are people, some bystanders who were just taken off the street, who have been scarred for life.

It is not important to note, as Dick Cheney says, that the torture produced results. It doesn't matter if Cheney says it worked and the Senate report said it didn't. The real point is not whether the torture worked but whether inquisitioners acting for the United States decided to use interrogation methods that have been outlawed for decades. It is also immaterial to say the other side was equally barbarous. What matters is whether the United States committed acts outlawed by common practice in the international community.

Remember the Stanford experiment. Otherwise-rational people, in a kind of Lord of the Flies frenzy, appear apt to tighten the screws on the helpless when tightening the screws on the helpless has no discernible purpose. To keep otherwise rational people from tightening the screws, what is required is constant discipline and supervision from those higher up the line. The prison experiments described in the CIA report were not the first. Similar techniques, and even worse ones, were uncovered by Gen. Anthony Taguba at the Abu Ghraib facility in Iraq, where some of the practices on the part of interrogators appeared to exceed much of the stuff the now dead Saddam Hussain used on his prisoners. Seymour Hersh, writing in the New Yorker, detailed some of those practices and the way Taguba’s report was trashed and buried and Taguba was forced into retirement.

This mess did not start with the foot soldiers who ended up committing these unspeakable tortures. It started in the White House, where the CIA dissembled to President George Bush on what its minions were up to. But George Bush didn’t ask. Dick Cheney didn’t ask. Donald Rumsfeld, according to Hersh’s article, not only didn’t ask but ran for cover when anybody offered to tell him about it.

Inc1945, a committee of distinguished jurists began to draft the United Nations Charter, in which it stated that existing international law would have to be respected, that illegal military aggression would be given a new designation as “crime against peace,” that leaders would be held accountable for planning or perpetrating large-scale crimea against humanity, and that they would be held responsible for the actions of their men in the field.

The distinguished American jurist, Robert Jackson, who would preside as prosecutor over the Nuremburg War Trials of Nazi leaders, said he was “dedicated to the principle that international law must apply equally to all nations. I am not willing to charge as a crime against a German official acts which would not be crimes if committed by officials of the United States,” he said. He added that “we must never forget that the record on which we judge these defendants today is the record on which history will judge us tomorrow.”

Messrs. Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Douglas Feith, Paul Wolfowitz and many more including the head of the CIA and his top assistants apparently have forgotten, or in Bush’s case probably never knew, given his :”gentleman’s C” while serving as a cheerleader at Yale, Jackson’s statement that history will judge the US on the principles enunciated then.

Sadly, nothing is going to happen to them. George Bush is painting and cutting brush on the ranch. Cheney is traipsing around Washington characterizing the report as nonsense. Fox News, in a remarkable episode, excoriated the Senate Intelligence Committee and its head, Diane Feinstein, for releasing the report and characterized it as politics – as a report that would have been exposed as Democratic posturing by an incoming Republican Senate majority.

It has been argued on the pages of the New York Times that the perpetrators should at least be pardoned so that a record will stand that they were pardoned from the crimes they committed. One can argue vainly that they belong in the Hague, in the international court of justice formulated as a result of the Nazi atrocities and trials. They will never get there, But that isn’t any reason for saying they shouldn’t. .Just as the Stanford students needed someone to tell them to stop, so did the CIA. And there was nobody there to do it.