‘We Tortured Mohammed al Qahtani’
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.