People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 38

September 20, 2009

 Torture in US: The Bush Legacy Continues


Yohannan Chemarapally


SEPTEMBER 11, 2009 marked the eighth anniversary of the terror attacks on New York. It was also the beginning of the so called war on terror launched by the US. September 11 was used as an excuse to implement a long standing imperial blueprint for global domination by the US. Unfortunately for Washington, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq did not go as planned. But the aftermath of the war has left a bitter trail of bloodshed and torture all over the world.

Credible evidence has since emerged to implicate the CIA, the Pentagon and even the White House under the former president, George W Bush, in the war crimes perpetrated during the so call �global war against terror.� The horrific photographs that emerged from Abu Ghraib in 2004 are still etched in the collective memory of the Arab and Islamic world. Since then there have been more graphic exposes of American atrocities connected with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Abu Ghraib was not an isolated case. Similar atrocities were being simultaneously carried out in other secretive CIA �black sites� all over the world.



The international community had expected the new American president, Barak Obama, to seriously investigate the previous administration�s rendition and torture policies. But till now, the Obama administration has sought to portray these crimes against humanity as random acts by a few rogue elements in the establishment. Before being elected to the presidency, Obama had promised to the American people to bring about more �transparency� while probing the countless incidents of torture committed during the Bush administration�s eight year long tenure.

President Obama had described the practice of �water-boarding�, routinely used by the CIA and the �contractors� hired by them, as torture. The CIA�s inspector general had written a critical report on the Bush administration torture programme in 2004. The declassified report is expected to be released soon. President Obama ordered the CIA interrogation programme closed after taking over seven months ago. He had also promised to close down the military prison in Guantanamo Bay within a year.

But the Obama administration track record in the last seven months has not matched his promises. The US attorney general, Eric Holder, according to reports in the American media, has only agreed to hold an enquiry into the torture cases that would be �narrow� in its scope. The enquiry would be limited to finding out whether officials went beyond the scope of interrogation and torture techniques authorised by the Bush administration. Water-boarding, one of the heinous torture techniques that were used widely in the last seven years, is being virtually glossed over by the Obama administration. �Nothing will be gained from spending our time and energy laying blame for the past,� President Obama had said in March this year while releasing four Bush era memos detailing CIA torture policies.

On a visit to the CIA headquarters earlier in the year, Obama, while acknowledging that �some mistakes� were made during the Bush presidency, urged Americans to �acknowledge them and just move forward.� The UN�s top official on torture related matters, Manfred Nowak, had to remind the American president that Washington was obligated under the UN Convention against Terror to act against those responsible for the violation of international law. The US had belatedly signed the UN Convention against Torture in 1994, after the Cold War ended.



The biggest crime of President Bush, according to legal experts, is his order to the CIA to set up �secret prisons� abroad where torture could be carried out. After closing down the CIA prisons, the Obama administration has reverted back to the old policy of rendering terror suspects to friendly countries like Pakistan, Libya, Thailand and Saudi Arabia. The CIA director, Leon Panetta, said recently that he would �rely on diplomatic assurances of good treatment� of the prisoners, given by the authoritarian governments of these countries.

According to reports, only high profile cases, like those involving Abu Zubaydah and Khalil Sheikh Mohammad are being investigated by the Obama administration. It has been revealed that Zubaydah was water-boarded 83 times in August 2002. Khalid Sheikh had to undergo this extreme form of torture 183 times in March 2002. Water-boarding has been described by The New York Times as �the most important interrogation program in the history of American counter-terrorism.� It has been established that President Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, the then Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld and the Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice were closely monitoring the information that was prized out of Abu Zubaydah and Khalid Sheikh. Among other things, they had hoped that the two would confess under duress to the non-existent ties between Al Qaida and Saddam Hussein�s Iraq.

The Bush administration had designated all those it had captured and subjected to brutal interrogation techniques as �enemy combatants,� having no rights under the Geneva conventions. It has taken four years of litigation for the American Supreme Court to rule that those held in the US jail in Guantanamo Bay should have the protection of the Geneva Conventions. Though President Obama, from the outset, had said that the Geneva Convention should be applicable to the inmates in Guantanamo Bay, the conditions in the prison, according to the lawyers representing the inmates, have only worsened and are in breach of the Geneva Conventions. After World War 11, Common Article 3 was added to the Geneva Conventions. This particular article was introduced to ensure minimum rights to prisoners, regardless of the character of the war they were involved in.  

However, President Obama seems to have endorsed his predecessor stance that �enemy combatants� can be held indefinitely without any criminal charges. This year, one prisoner in Guantanamo died while being force-fed. Torture still continues despite the regime change in Washington. The Obama administration has increased the prison capacities in Afghanistan and Iraq. Washington has not complied with the Geneva Conventions which calls for US prisons to comply with the laws of the host country.



The Obama administration is continuing with the previous administration�s �top secret� policy of despatching small CIA teams abroad to kill senior Qaeda leaders. The Obama administration has also continued with the practice of targeting terror suspects by drones fitted with missiles. The drone attacks are responsible for immense collateral damage in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

In 1976, President Gerald Ford, issued an executive order prohibiting assassinations. �No employee of the United States government shall engage in, or conspire to engage in political assassination,� the order said. President Ronald Reagan went one step further and dropped the word �political,� thus formally banning all covert assassination plots by the CIA. During the Cold War years, the CIA had actively plotted to assassinate eight foreign leaders. Five of them died violently.

Despite the presidential notifications, the US went on targeting foreign heads of states and leaders. President Reagan himself authorised a missile strike against the Libyan leader, Muammar Gaddafi. His daughter died in the attack. During the US led war against Yugoslavia, a cruise missile was sent through the bedroom of President Slobodan Milosevic�s official residence. During the first Gulf War, Robert Gates, then the CIA director, had expressed the hope that Saddam Hussein would be killed in his bunker.

Despite its stated good intentions, The Obama administration continues with many of the illegal policies of the previous administration. Renditions to countries that routinely use torture are continuing, along with military trials and indefinite detentions. Gabor Rona, a human rights activist and a former lawyer for the ICRC, told the Al Jazeera network that there is �very little daylight between Obama and Bush.� Rona said that the Obama administration is still using the �overtly broad application of the Laws of War paradigm to justify detentions that are not justifiable under international law.�

Human rights groups and political activists have been urging the Obama administration to bring senior Bush administration officials responsible for creating and executing illegal torture policies to justice. Only then, they feel, will the rule of law be firmly re-established in the US. Groups like Human Rights Watch (HRW) and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) want the same legal yardstick applied to senior Bush era officials as was done to the soldiers who went to jail for the Abu Ghraib abuses. There is a growing clamour for action against Cheney and Rumsfeld, as clinching evidence is emerging about their culpability.

According to a declassified US Senate report released in April, President Bush�s national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, attorney general John Ashcroft, the CIA director George Tenet had all joined Cheney in a meeting to formally authorise water-boarding and other illegal interrogation methods in 2002. The infamous �Torture Memo� drafted by Vice President Cheney�s legal counsel and John Yoo of the US Justice Department tried to redefine the meaning of torture. As interpreted by the Bush administration, lawyers for interrogation to be defined as torture, the pain endured by the victim �must be equivalent in intensity to the pain accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily functions, or even death.�      

The US had played a key role in setting up tribunals to try former heads of state for war crimes and crimes against humanity. But when it comes to judging its own record, different yardsticks are being applied. More than a million Iraqis have been killed or displaced in the wake of the American invasion and occupation of Iraq. The invasion of Afghanistan also resulted in a huge loss of life for the civilian populace. The least the international community expects from the Obama administration is that justice would be meted out to those directly responsible for the carnage and the torture of the last seven years.