Dick Cheney was one of the architects of the torture program the CIA ran in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. So the former vice president’s comments on Fox News one day after the Senate Intelligence Committee released its torture report were predictable.
They were also a calculated attempt to re-frame the discussion of torture, and Cheney was as powerfully persuasive as he was dishonest.
“How nice do you want to be to the murderers of 3,000 Americans on 9/11?” he asked.
In a functioning democracy, the former president and vice president, along with those all the way down the chain of command, would be prosecuted.
“We asked the agency to take steps and put in place programs that were designed to catch the bastards that killed 3,000 of us on 9/11, and to make sure it didn’t happen again,” he said.
First, torture is illegal. Title 18, Part 1, Chapter 113C of the U.S. Code defines torture, declares it a crime, and proscribes punishment up to 20 years in prison—or the death penalty if torture causes the death of the victim. No exception allows torture of “a suspect,” or even the torture of someone who is proven guilty.
Torture is also profoundly immoral and flies in the face of American values. Senator John McCain makes this point when he said the “CIA stained our national honor.”
Cheney’s argument is persuasive, because it makes the case for the pragmatic use of torture, then suggests that all the people tortured by the CIA were part of the Al Qaida plot, therefore “the murderers of 3,000 Americans.”
As murderers, they got what they deserved. And the CIA had to use what were euphemistically described as “enhanced interrogation” measures to extract information “to make sure it didn’t happen again.”
By suggesting that everyone who was tortured was guilty, Cheney ignores the innocent victims of torture.
Consider Murat Kurnaz.
On November 12, I participated in a telephone press conference that included the former Guantánamo detainee, and Baher Azmy, the legal director for the Center for Constitutional Rights who while he was a Seton Hall Law School professor represented Kurnaz.
I asked Kurnaz if he had determined the nationality of the physicians who monitored his vital signs while he was tortured at Kandahar Prison in Afghanistan in 2001.
He hadn’t; there’s no legal mechanism that allows him to obtain the identity of the doctors or the torturers.
I asked because when I interviewed Kurnaz in his German lawyer’s office in Breman, Germany, in 2006, I was struck by one detail in the story he told me.
Kurnaz said he and other detainees had been shackled and suspended by their wrists for hours. At intervals, they would be lowered to the ground to allow a doctor to take their vital signs. Then the doctor would give the go-ahead for the torturers to lift the men off the ground and hang them up again. To me, it brought to mind the death camp doctors in Nazi Germany. Who were these doctors in Kandahar? Army officers? There are no non-commissioned physicians in the U.S. military.
Kurnaz was 18 years old, a Turkish resident of Germany, when in October 2001 he made the mistake of traveling to Pakistan to study the Qur’an. A son of secularized Muslim immigrants—his father had worked for 30 years at a Daimler auto plant and drove a Mercedes—Murat Kurnaz had discovered Islam and was studying at a fundamentalist mosque in Breman when the Imam suggested he could learn much faster if he immersed himself in religious studies in Pakistan.
Near Peshawar, in December 2001, he was pulled off a bus by bounty hunters and sold to U.S. authorities.
In Breman in 2007, Kurnaz told me that in Pakistan he was moved around by car for 10 days, always shackled with a sack covering his head. He was beaten, subjected to electric shock, and repeatedly asked:
“Where is Osama?”
“Who is Osama?”
“Do you know Osama?”
After 10 days in Pakistan, he was escorted to an airplane and placed in custody of an American enlisted man for a trip to a military detention center in Kandahar.
“I was hanged by my hands,” he told me. “Hanged for hours and sometimes days. Interrogators would come and leave me and come back.”
He said he was beaten and subjected to electric shock.
After two months, he was again shackled and hooded, and put on a plane departing for Guantánamo.
Kurnaz told me that when he arrived at Guantánamo, he was taken to an American soldier (probably a Marine) who spoke German and told him:
“Do you know what the Germans did to the Jews? That’s what we are going to do to you.”
In Guantánamo, Kurnaz was subjected to interrogation in hot rooms alternating with cold rooms. And sleep deprivation in a program he said was called “Operation Sandman.”
Baher Azmy represented Kurnaz pro bono.
Working with German attorney Bernhard Docke, Azmy secured Kurnaz’s release by circumventing the unworkable legal process at Guantánamo. At a meeting with President George W. Bush in Germany, German Chancellor Angela Merkel urged the president to release Kurnaz, the only German held at Guantánamo. The two lawyers used Merkel’s interest in the case to free their client.
Five years after his arrival in Cuba, Kurnaz was the sole passenger in the cargo bay of a Globemaster C17, an Air Force workhorse used to transport troops, tanks, and helicopters. Wearing goggles that shut out all light, a mask that covered his mouth so he couldn’t bite or spit, and a soundproof headset, he was flown to Ramstein Air Force Base in Kaiserslautern, Germany.
“Dumped onto German soil like some kind of alien,” Docke told me in his office in Breman.
Here’s the thing.
Murat Kurnaz is innocent. Early into his detention, German intelligence informed U.S. authorities that they concluded that Kurnaz was involved in no plot, nor any illegal activities. The C.I.A. came to the same conclusion after Kurnaz’s second year in Guantánamo.
Kurnaz, like countless other victims of U.S. torture, had nothing to do with the September 11 attack on the Unites States. (They are as of yet “countless”; the CIA admits to only 26, a full accounting will come later, if ever.)
He doesn’t fit into the categories Dick Cheney used to rationalize torture:
-the murderers of 3,000 Americans on 9/11.
-the bastards that killed 3,000 of us on 9/11.
Even if he did, his torture would have been illegal.
Asked on “Meet the Press” about innocent victims caught up in the CIA’s early roundup of potential suspects, Cheney didn’t blink.
“I’m more concerned with bad guys who got out and released than I am with a few that, in fact, were innocent.”
In a functioning democracy, the former president and vice president, along with those all the way down the chain of command, to the guy who turned the crank and hoisted a human being into the air where he was left hanging for hours and the doctors who assisted him, would be prosecuted.
Absent a legal consequence, what’s to prevent a future American president from rescinding Obama’s prohibition on torture and starting a program similar to the Bush-Cheney torture regimen?
“I’d do it again in a minute,” Cheney said.
December 15, 2014
Lou Dubose is the editor of The Washington Spectator.