Questioned by experts
Bush tiptoes round torture
September 7, 2006
George W Bush yesterday confirmed the existence of secret CIA prisons for the interrogation of suspected terrorists:
Many are al Qaeda operatives or Taliban fighters trying to conceal their identities. And they withhold information that could save American lives. In these cases, it has been necessary to move these individuals to an environment where they can be held secretly, questioned by experts and, when appropriate, prosecuted for terrorist acts.
Questioned by experts is a very careful phrase. Are the subjects really only questioned? And what exactly is the expertise of these experts? Are they simply experts in asking questions, like TV quiz-show hosts? Or does their expertise extend to other areas?
It seems that it does. As the speech continues, Bush’s speechwriters pile up other dainty euphemisms. Faced with a subject who wouldn’t talk, “the CIA used an alternative set of procedures”. An alternative set of procedures? To what, we may wonder, was it an alternative? Presumably, to mere questioning. So being questioned by experts might involve an alternative set of procedures. Does procedure make you think of a medical practice, a physical intervention? You are letting your imagination run away with you.
Later on, Bush also referred to the most sensitive questioning. Are the experts doing the questioning the sensitive ones, a little like psychotherapists? Or is it a matter of exploiting the sensitive subjects? Are the men being questioned by experts thought to be sensitive in the sense of having finely tuned emotions, or is there a hint of exploiting physical sensitivity? Well, perhaps we are reading too much into mere words. Bush reassured his audience:
These procedures were designed to be safe, to comply with our laws, our Constitution and our treaty obligations. The Department of Justice reviewed the authorized methods extensively and determined them to be lawful. I cannot describe the specific methods used. I think you understand why. If I did, it would help the terrorists learn how to resist questioning and to keep information from us that we need to prevent new attacks on our country. But I can say the procedures were tough, and they were safe and lawful and necessary.
Ah, good, the alternative set of procedures consisted of authorized methods, of specific methods that were tough. But they were also lawful. Actually, as Chapter Seven of Unspeak documents in detail, the procedures were found to be lawful by the Department of Justice because the Department of Justice unilaterally redefined “torture” to include only acts that inflicted pain on the order of organ failure or death. Any violence that did not “rise” to this “level” was, by this new definition, not torture, even though it was torture according to an FBI observer in 2003 [pdf], and according to the Army’s own definition of torture in its Field Manual on Intelligence Interrogation.
You might with reason wonder whether, if it was so uncontroversially true that these procedures were legal, why Bush decided to insist on all this in his speech yesterday. Hard to say, since he coyly refused to describe the specific methods. Well, we know that one such method has been “waterboarding”, whose name sounds sporty and whose actual effects are routinely downplayed. (See my post and the subsequent discussion on Alan Dershowitz over at Crooked Timber.) I suggest we need a new name for “waterboarding”: perhaps enforced partial drowning.
But please don’t mention what Donald Rumsfeld once squeamishly called “the torture word”. Bush said yesterday:
I want to be absolutely clear with our people and the world: The United States does not torture. It’s against our laws and it’s against our values. I have not authorized it and I will not authorize it. Last year my administration worked with Senator John McCain, and I signed into law the Detainee Treatment Act, which established the legal standards for treatment of detainees wherever they are held.
We can understand this better when we know that there is a special definition of “torture” that excludes all but the most hideous imaginable acts. Further, Bush appeals to McCain’s anti-torture amendment, yet mysteriously fails to mention (as WIIIAI notes) the signing statement he added to the bill when passing it into law. As I explained in this post, the signing statement said that Bush would “construe” the anti-torture strictures “in a manner consistent with the constitutional authority of the President to supervise the unitary executive branch and as Commander in Chief” – in other words, consistent with his belief, and that of his lawyers, that his wartime authority overrides any merely legal challenge.
In this way, Bush’s claim that the procedures were lawful and necessary is a clever bit of misdirection, reversing the real logic. Because, according to the administration’s lawyers, a regular invocation of “military necessity” automatically authorizes anything, the real underlying claim is: necessary therefore lawful.
Bush added yesterday that, in implementing the amended Detainee Treatment Act, he would “continue to use every lawful method to obtain intelligence”. Since, under the prevailing theory of administration lawyers, nothing done by the Commander in Chief during wartime can be unlawful (thank God for the “war on terror”), this simplifies nicely into a promise to continue using every method.
So let us sum up. The government will continue to have people questioned by experts in sessions of sensitive questioning, using a set of alternative procedures, procedures that are tough, necessary and lawful, according to a doctrine in which almost nothing can be unlawful: indeed, every method will continue to be used. You have to admire the delicacy with which Bush’s speechwriters tiptoed around the issue. Yet even through such a blizzard of euphemism and Unspeak, it is difficult to resist interpreting the real message as being this: we’re going to continue torturing people, and there’s nothing you can do about it.