‘We Tortured Mohammed al Qahtani’

(AFP) The Pentagon has dropped charges against Mohammed al-Qahtani, seen here in 2006

Mohammed al-Qahtani, 2006 file photo (AFP)

The blogosphere is abuzz over an issue of semantics.

The top Bush administration official in charge of deciding whether to bring Guantanamo Bay detainees to trial has concluded that the U.S. military tortured a Saudi national who allegedly planned to participate in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, interrogating him with techniques that included sustained isolation, sleep deprivation, nudity and prolonged exposure to cold, leaving him in a “life-threatening condition.”

“We tortured [Mohammed al-] Qahtani,” said Susan J. Crawford, in her first interview since being named convening authority of military commissions by Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates in February 2007. “His treatment met the legal definition of torture. And that’s why I did not refer the case” for prosecution.

Crawford, a retired judge who served as general counsel for the Army during the Reagan administration and as Pentagon inspector general when Dick Cheney was secretary of defense, is the first senior Bush administration official responsible for reviewing practices at Guantanamo to publicly state that a detainee was tortured.

Now, here’s the thing: The only news here is that a Bush appointee is using the word “torture”  to describe these events.  The facts of the matter are not otherwise in dispute.  Indeed, as Spencer Ackerman notes, TIME published the logs way back in June 2005. The administration had heretofore called exactly this same treatment “extraordinary measures” or some similar euphemism.  Crawford’s conclusion that it crosses the line changes nothing, other than providing another opinion along those lines.

It’s one that I share, incidentally, but that’s not dispositive in any legal sense.    My sense of the matter is well put by Andrew Sullivan:

What Crawford grasps is that torture is not defined by some cartoonish Jack Bauer-style sadism. It need not leave any physical marks (that’s why some of the techniques used by Bush were studied and used by the Gestapo). Things that might seem banal on paper – “sleep deprivation,” for example – in practice when maintained for a sufficient amount of time can be among the worst torture there is. Put these techniques together – hypothermia, sleep deprivation, repeated beatings, constant nudity, sensory deprivation – and they become something often worse than an electric shock.

The definition of torture is when the victim has no effective choice but to say something, true or false, to end the ordeal.

As Michael van der Galien notes, that was Crawford’s take as well.

“The techniques they used were all authorized, but the manner in which they applied them was overly aggressive and too persistent. . . . You think of torture, you think of some horrendous physical act done to an individual. This was not any one particular act; this was just a combination of things that had a medical impact on him, that hurt his health. It was abusive and uncalled for. And coercive. Clearly coercive. It was that medical impact that pushed me over the edge”

Not everyone agrees, of course.   Jules Crittenden recites the familiar rebuttal:

By that definition, the United States military has been torturing its own soldiers for decades, but never mind that. Anyone foolish enough to sign their life away and commit war crimes for the military-industrial complex or whatever they call it these days probably has it coming. We probably shouldn’t even talk about the war crimes committed in frat houses across America.

Of course, some of the treatment used in SERE courses, Ranger school, and even plebe indoctrinations have been scaled back over the years as people died or suffered unrecoverable injuries.  And we’ve rethought hazing rituals, too.   Regardless, however, it’s one thing to subject volunteers to abusive manhood rituals and quite another for it to be state policy to do it to prisoners, especially those merely suspected of wrongdoing.   Oh, and it happens to be in violation of treaties that we’ve obligated ourselves to and expect others to observe when capturing our troops.

Still, Jules’ larger point is right:  The line between “torture” and harsh but permissible interrogation techniques is not a bright one.  Especially when, as Crawford says, a difference and degree can become a difference in kind.

FILED UNDER: Intelligence, Law and the Courts, Terrorism, World Politics, , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Eneils Bailey says:

    Could not give a shit about this creature’s lot in life.

    Everything is relative.

    “Torture,” to me me is no bottle of “Cabernet Sauvignon” on Friday Night.

  2. Loviatar says:

    How sad a country we’ve become when you have people like James closing his post by attempting to excuse torture.

    Still, Jules’ larger point is right: The line between “torture” and harsh but permissible interrogation techniques is not a bright one. Especially when, as Crawford says, a difference and degree can become a difference in kind.

  3. Eneils Bailey says:

    How sad a country we’ve become when you have people like James closing his post by attempting to excuse torture.

    I don’t think Mr. Joyner ever tried to excuse the torture the 3000 people endured on September 11, 2001.

  4. Franklin says:

    While I think it’s a horrible analogy in the first place, I’m pretty sure that incoming frat boys know that the “torture” will end at some point. It’s almost like tickling yourself – you can’t do it.

    Now I understand that most people don’t really care on a personal level whether an actual proven terrorist is tortured (and mind you, that’s not what we’ve done: we’ve only tortured suspects). However, I’m still waiting for the pro-torture folks to explain how it makes us any safer. Because it doesn’t.

  5. markm says:

    How sad a country we’ve become when you have people like James closing his post by attempting to excuse torture.

    Still, Jules’ larger point is right: The line between “torture” and harsh but permissible interrogation techniques is not a bright one. Especially when, as Crawford says, a difference and degree can become a difference in kind.

    Hey, I have an idear…why don’t we have lawmakers step up to the plate and clearly define what is and isn’t torture??. That would end any debate. Get rid of any gray areas, get in that tool box and throw some stuff in the waste basket, put some money where the pie hole is….or do you think that hasn’t been done because nobody wants their name on one of those tools in the waste basket should a possible need arise???.

    To some people listening to ABBA at high or low volume is torture.

  6. Judge Crawford doesn’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows in Washington, DC.

  7. tom p says:

    The blogosphere is abuzz over an issue of semantics.

    I think what is significant here is that we finally have someone from within the Bush Admin who is actually willing to say out loud what everybody already knew. (even Cheney who is quite proud of all this will not use the word “torture”)

    What is more, she is telling us what it cost us: Qahtani in all likelihood will never stand trial.

  8. PD Shaw says:

    Qahtani in all likelihood will never stand trial.

    Really? I disagree; that’s not even true in domestic criminal settings. People who are tortured stand trial in the United States. Beginning in the 1930s, the SCOTUS has excluded the confessions derived from torture from being used at trial. If there is still evidence of the crime, the defendant still stands for trial.

    (If the torture was committed by a non-state actor, the confession is still read)

  9. PD Shaw says:

    markm, I think one of the reasons that we don’t clarify “torture” is that many people feel that it would potentially vindicate the claim of Bush supporters that the word is vague.

    It’s a question of priorities.

  10. Bithead says:

    Still, Jules’ larger point is right: The line between “torture” and harsh but permissible interrogation techniques is not a bright one. Especially when, as Crawford says, a difference and degree can become a difference in kind.

    The argument gets a little thin when the narrow minded dont accept those distinctions, as one or two of the commentors demonstrate.

  11. Zelsdorf Ragshaft III says:

    First, would it not be better to let a dictionary define what a word means rather than each individual deciding on their own what words mean. Police techniques would have to be defined as torture if Susan J. Crawford’s definintion is the accepted norm. That might just release more than just a few very dangerous individuals onto the steets of our cities (something liberals would love as the state could then really crack down on all of us in the name of public safety). Torture to me, is seeing my paycheck, knowing I am being taxed without valid representation.

  12. Phil Smith says:

    Tangential: How many deaths have occurred during “plebe indoctrinations” at this country’s service academies and ROTC units during, say, the last 50 years?

  13. James Joyner says:

    Tangential: How many deaths have occurred during “plebe indoctrinations” at this country’s service academies and ROTC units during, say, the last 50 years?

    Significantly more than zero, certainly, but I don’t know that anyone’s compiling the data. The numbers go up significantly if stress-related suicides are included.

  14. Franklin says:

    something liberals would love as the state could then really crack down on all of us in the name of public safety

    How’s that? I see your conservative friends on the bench put another nail in the 4th amendment today.

  15. Franklin says:

    Tangential: How many deaths have occurred during “plebe indoctrinations” at this country’s service academies and ROTC units during, say, the last 50 years?

    Significantly more than zero, certainly, but I don’t know that anyone’s compiling the data. The numbers go up significantly if stress-related suicides are included.

    Just to be clear, no hazing that I know of is government-sanctioned. Comparing these is similar to the weak argument, “well the terrorists do bad things like torture and behead all the time, so it’s okay if we do it a little.”

  16. Franklin says:

    Regarding my last post, please pardon me but James had already properly covered that point in the original article:

    Regardless, however, it’s one thing to subject volunteers to abusive manhood rituals and quite another for it to be state policy to do it to prisoners, especially those merely suspected of wrongdoing.

  17. Zelsdorf Ragshaft III says:

    Franklin, do you really want to call what we do to captive terrorist the same as what they do to innocent captives? If so, you should get and watch the tape of Zawahri or whoever slowly removing the head of Mr. Berg. Do you think water boarding is the equal of an acid bath? Actually Franklin, torture as you would define it would cause those who would roast your children and serve them to you for dinner then force you to eat to laugh in your face.

  18. tom p says:

    Really? I disagree; that’s not even true in domestic criminal settings. People who are tortured stand trial in the United States. Beginning in the 1930s, the SCOTUS has excluded the confessions derived from torture from being used at trial. If there is still evidence of the crime, the defendant still stands for trial.

    (If the torture was committed by a non-state actor, the confession is still read)

    PD, I don’t even know where to begin. But I will start with this: Give me a month with you in shackles and I can have you confessing to anything including Bf*ing 2 yr old boys… turn the tables and you could do the same to me.

    Does not make it true.

    ps: if I recall correctly, the Alabama SC said in the 1920’s that confessions coerced thru torture are inadmissable in court.

  19. tom p says:

    The argument gets a little thin when the narrow minded dont accept those distinctions, as one or two of the commentors demonstrate.

    Bit, there are several FBI agents who would disagree with you.

  20. tom p says:

    Franklin, do you really want to call what we do to captive terrorist the same as what they do to innocent captives? If so, you should get and watch the tape of Zawahri or whoever slowly removing the head of Mr. Berg.

    Zelsdorf, even you should be able to tell the difference between an execution and the slow death of the soul that comes about thru “enhanced interrogation techniques”… and which is preferable, as shown by the hunger strikes and attempted suicides at Gitmo? (by the by, who is “Berg”? Do you mean Daniel Pearl? A truly heinous act but at least he died quickly)(and if you can’t get the names right, I doubt you have anything else right)

    As to who is innocent… who made you God, He who can see the evil which lurks in the hearts of men?

    Do you think water boarding is the equal of an acid bath?

    WHAT acid baths, Z? Where do you pull this sh*t out of?

    Actually Franklin, torture as you would define it would cause those who would roast your children and serve them to you for dinner then force you to eat to laugh in your face.

    And make you cry like a baby. Tell you what Z: You let me do to you, what has been done to them, and if you survive, I will let you scream “it is not torture” from whatever mountain top you choose.

    Short of that, shut the f up.

  21. Eneils Bailey says:

    interrogating him with techniques that included sustained isolation, sleep deprivation, nudity and prolonged exposure to cold, leaving him in a “life-threatening condition.”

    Oh, get over it, Sounds like my ex-wife during divorce proceedings.

  22. tom p says:

    Oh, get over it, Sounds like my ex-wife during divorce proceedings.

    EB: I got over my divorce a long time ago. How’s about you do the same?

  23. Zelsdorf Ragshaft III says:

    Tom I know you didn’t pay any attention to what they found in Iraq, but Saddam used extreme methods of dealing with those with whom he found disfavor. Among the techniques used was a bath in strong acid. I suggest to you that it might have been painful to be immersed in a vat of hydrochloric, sulfuric, or nitric acid. Admittedly this practice is not used by primitive cultures unless they have access to such caustics. I get this sh*t from the news and reports back from people who were there. Where do you get your sh*t? The Daily Kos?

  24. Bithead says:

    Tangential: How many deaths have occurred during “plebe indoctrinations” at this country’s service academies and ROTC units during, say, the last 50 years?

    That argument pales in comparison to the number of deaths at the hands of the interrogated, and his friends.

  25. tom p says:

    Tom I know you didn’t pay any attention to what they found in Iraq,

    Z: You are absolutely right…. I paid a hell of a lot more atention to what they didn’t find in Iraq then to what ever fantasies you pretend they did,

    but Saddam used extreme methods of dealing with those with whom he found disfavor.

    But that’s OK, you would just as soon we were at Saddam’s level?

    Among the techniques used was a bath in strong acid. I suggest to you that it might have been painful to be immersed in a vat of hydrochloric, sulfuric, or nitric acid. Admittedly this practice is not used by primitive cultures unless they have access to such caustics. I get this sh*t from the news and reports back from people who were there.

    I can not help but notice Z that you have not provided a single link to back up your statements…

    Where do you get your sh*t? The Daily Kos?

    No… the BBC, among others… but you have yet to show me or the rest where you get your’s.

    I can not help but notice that you have not given a direct answer to any of my questions either Z. Why is that? You afraid of a little backstroking?

    Put up or shut up time Z, put up or shut up.

  26. tom p says:

    That argument pales in comparison to the number of deaths at the hands of the interrogated, and his friends.

    Funny Bit… I am unsure exactly of whom you are talking of….

  27. Zelsdorf Ragshaft III says:

    tom, what did they find in Iraq. Did you notice the mass graves???? How many f**king times has the USA been attacked since 9/11????? How many more people do you think Saddam and his gentle children will rape and kill???? I see you are one of the idiot liberals who do not take sh*t serious until it knocks at your door. Why don’t you go live someplace where you can experience Shiria law. See how tolerant they are of you. Every intelligence agency of any importance in this world thought Saddam had WMD. He threw out the UN inspectors twice. Why? You and lops like you display 20/20 hindsight and nothing but loathing for the nation that allows your BS. Your parents should have spanked you more.

  28. PD Shaw says:

    PD, I don’t even know where to begin. But I will start with this: Give me a month with you in shackles and I can have you confessing to anything including Bf*ing 2 yr old boys… turn the tables and you could do the same to me.

    MMM. Yes. I understand what excites you. I’m just describing what the law is.

  29. Franklin says:

    I’m still waiting for a torture advocate to give me evidence that it makes us safer. I ask this in almost every thread, and nobody answers. It’s a deafening silence, because the answer is obvious. It doesn’t.

  30. Franklin says:

    Oh, and you guys are *still* making the absolutely pathetic argument that “those bad guys do bad stuff, so we can do bad stuff, too.”

    You just can’t help yourself. It’s an adolescent response and you KEEP doing it.

  31. UK says:

    That was too mild. He needs to be tied behind a pickup truck and dragged for about 20 miles.

  32. Obi Wannosi says:

    Terrorists do not adhere to the Genevea Convention.

    Nor should we, when it comes to protecting citizens of the U.S.A., and the rest of the free world.

    If “torturing” this guy saved just ONE American life, it was worth it.

  33. Cotton Rotten says:

    Do unto others as they would do unto you. Unless you’ve seen what others do to American personnel then you have no idea what maniacal means these animals use. Waterboarding is the least severe torture technique they use, I’d waterboard every terrorist in the world to save one American life Anyone that disagrees should join the terrorists. I’d do it and then go have some pie and catch a real nice nap.

  34. Big Johnson says:

    Mere torture is too good for the dogs being held at Guantanamo. Each and every one of those animals would kill an innocent American in a heartbeat, just because they are American. Would not matter one bit to them if you were a Liberal or a Conservative. The only true justice would be to put a bullet in the head of every prisoner at Guantanamo. They are illegal combatants, and merciless killers of the innocent, and they need to be treated as such.

  35. mannning says:

    I believe that torture will go on. I believe that those on the front line of terrorism, not the pantywaists back here, will resort to whatever means they think necessary to obtain information. Up their command channel, what they did will be somehow ignored, pasted over, or covered insofar as possible.

    I also believe that the users of torture know what they are doing, and know that they will face harsh punishment if brought to a court. It is the results they get, the payoffs, that tell them they must go on, not the constraints of law, policy, morality, or orders. (If anything, massive attempts to quash torture will ensure that what torture does go on will result in the death of the person tortured, and the disappearance of his body. DMTNT.)

    That this is true is obvious: we have been torturing for years, despite a plethora of existing prohibitions, and statements about how useless torture is supposed to be. Few citizens have the background and accesses necessary to make a valid, just determination in these matters, either.

  36. UK says:

    I hope they start torturing traitorous liberal fruitcakes like mannning. We’ve had just about enough of your girly-man over sensitive politically correct enemy protecting bullcrap!

  37. snoopdog says:

    Liberals love the taste of muslim penis

  38. JACK says:

    ALL MUSLIMS SHOULD BE TORTURED

  39. JACK says:

    ONLY LIBERAL MENTAL ILLNESS CARES ABOUT TORTURING MUSLIMS. ANY NORMAL PERSON UNDERSTANDS WHY ITS DONE.

  40. Robert S. says:

    Liberals are always siding with enemy forces and have contributed to the division of this great nation. They will continually berate EVERYTHING America does and then praise those who hate us. Do you pussies ever say anything good about our nation????????????????

  41. Robert S. says:

    This piece of crap was going to MURDER thousands of Americans. WHO CARES IF HE WAS TORTURED? What about the lives of our citizens he was going to MURDER? Doesn’t that mean anything to you???

  42. mannning says:

    I hope they start torturing traitorous liberal fruitcakes like mannning. We’ve had just about enough of your girly-man over sensitive politically correct enemy protecting bullcrap!

    Well now! Calling me a liberal? Maybe you used the wrong name there. Or maybe you can’t read properly. Read what I wrote again from the point of view that I support the fact that torture of some degree will be practiced now and in the future. Waterboarding is effective, but so are other tactics, depending on the individual.

    It is a practical matter: many experienced field personnel (read: non-coms) in a war will tell you that applying a bit of coersion to captives out of sight and hearing from their officers is not unusual, and is very fast and effective. I have seen shiny, moralistic, book-following officers that hadn’t a clue about it, too, and they could be grilled about their men’s participation all day and not be able to verify it.

    No, on second thought, perhaps they won’t tell you now, it might get them a summons to testify in your gurly court. So the issue is literally moot. Time to take the 5th!