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Confronting America the Torturer

Later this month on June 26, the United Nation’s will observe a Day for Victims of Torture.

Before 2002, America would have heralded this day, joining in the remembrance and using the resultant global solidarity to advance even further the goal of stopping torture wherever it might occur. No longer. America is now one of the world’s chief, unrepentant, unapologetic, still-polling-positive-on…torturers.

[1]Since President George W. Bush—under relentless pressure from Dick Cheney, his Machiavellian vice president—withdrew America from the Geneva Conventions in 2002, ostensibly so he could deal with al-Qaeda and Afghanistan’s Taliban, the United States has operated “on the dark side.” Recently reaffirming that position, President Donald Trump nominated and the Senate approved torture’s disciple and supervisory practitioner Gina Haspel to lead the Central Intelligence Agency.

How did we get here?


After the tragic deaths on September 11, 2001, America went slightly berserk. Though both international and U.S. domestic law held that no condition, no matter how extreme, could justify the heinous crime of torture, America turned to it anyway. Initially—and perhaps understandably if not legally or ethically—we turned to torture under the misguided belief that it might save lives. After all, we had just suffered an attack worse than that on Pearl Harbor in December 1941.

But as early as February 2002, we began to torture for another reason: to “verify” Iraqi complicity in the 9/11 attacks so we could go to war with Iraq (I went into greater detail [2] on this for TAC in May). This rationale was more in line with practices in countries such as Egypt and Syria, where torture was—and still is—aimed at extracting confessions, not the truth.  

The al-Qaeda-Iraq complicity did not exist. But we tortured to produce evidence for war anyway via our lackeys in Egypt. Among those we tortured was Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, who said afterwards he would have confessed to anything to stop the pain. Acting swiftly on Libi’s “evidence,” Colin Powell made a historic statement at the United Nations that linked al-Qaeda to Iraq.

We all know the rest of the story.

Could there be a more poignant and disturbing example of torture not working? Or, perhaps better said, of torture’s dangerous consequences even beyond its moral and ethical repugnancy and illegality?  

Let’s mark this day with a tribute to all those in the world who are opposed to torture, from Johannesburg to Auckland, from Vladivostok to Portland. Large majorities in almost all other nations are anti-torture, knowing it to be a tyrant’s tool to suppress dissent and manufacture false confessions.

Let’s tip our hats to those who man the centers for victims of torture the world over and to those who offer succor to such victims wherever they are found and who oppose torture wherever it might be practiced.  

I’ve joined 10 other commissioners—law professors, health professionals, human rights experts, and faith leaders—in a non-governmental torture truth-telling project called the North Carolina Commission of Inquiry on Torture [3]. Why North Carolina? It’s home to a key CIA operation, a private Smithfield-based contractor that operated aircraft that flew dozens of captives to be tortured at CIA black sites.  

We’ve had the privilege of hearing excellent testimony from experts on both sides of the aisle, including seasoned military interrogators. They tell us torture has multiplied hatred for the U.S. abroad and degraded our democracy at home, without benefitting us in the fight against terrorism. Trained interrogators wouldn’t use torture. They know reliable intelligence is gained from rapport-building and staying within professional guidelines.

But the North Carolina project must serve as an example beyond that state’s borders. Other places and institutions need to gather the truth about our torture record, confront the damage it has done, and help set us on a different path.

With Haspel in charge at the CIA and our president making no secret of his enthusiasm for waterboarding and “a lot worse,” we are in real danger of further excursions into the dark side of secret detention and torture. In December, reports surfaced that the Trump administration is considering setting up a global private spy network and a new rendition program. Lessons from the first rendition and torture program have apparently not been learned.

President Obama made one of the most serious mistakes of his young administration when he listened to the “experts” who counseled him against prosecuting the torturers. He should have known better. Looking forward instead of backward might be a peculiarly American trait, but in the case of torture it was wrong, misguided, and dangerous. It sent a signal: torture and go unharmed. Haspel’s appointment to head the CIA only magnifies this mistake.

The only way we can ward off this danger is to squarely confront our past and as a nation acknowledge the harm we have caused—to those whom we tortured and to ourselves.

Lawrence Wilkerson is Visiting Professor of Government and Public Policy at the College of William and Mary. He was chief of staff to secretary of state Colin Powell from 2002-05.

16 Comments (Open | Close)

16 Comments To "Confronting America the Torturer"

#1 Comment By Youknowho On June 13, 2018 @ 12:27 am

For God’s sake, don’t whitewash what went on before Bush II.

What is the difference between doing the torture yourself, and putting in power those who torture? Do you think that because it was Iran’s SAVAK that did it after we overthrew Mossadegh instead of you, that you are innocent? Do you think that because it was Pinochet who ordered the torture after you overthrew Allende, that you are a wide eye innocent?

Do you think that after Jeanne Kirkpatrick embraced Videla, he of the “disappeared” that the US had any innocence to lose?

As Lincoln said, I prefer my malfeasance without the base alloy of hypocrisy.

#2 Comment By Fayez Abedaziz On June 13, 2018 @ 2:03 am

One of the main reasons that the members of the houses of Congress could care less about the so many ‘fine American CIA and military intelligence’ men and women,torturing humans is that they don’t care, they have limited capacities for empathy, or at least, something of a conscience.
Like at least, in my studied opinion and most often I am right, they reflect I’d say a very large portion of the American people. And that is: shallow, inauthentic humans themselves.
The American people, most of them, don’t know and don’t wanna know what’s going on, let alone somethings/issues that are negative, you know… not pleasant and fun.
The media is all in, and has been for decades with, basically the neo-con agendas.
Where are the ‘liberals?’
Look at them. Hypocrites on ‘human rights.’
Where are the Christians?
Oh, they have these strange, weird hypocritical leaders that say nothing, and in fact, support wars and the neo-con, yes, the Israeli centered one: That serve what Israel tells them they want done.
The conservatives always support war and they make up the the majority of mean people in the U.S. when it comes to any nation/people overseas.
Seeing the so-called Democratic leadership in the Senate and House makes me sick.
Again, phonies and hypocrites and they also are in with war making by the Department of Offense. Some call it defense. That’s a joke there. Torture-that’s part of America’s heritage, history and the media rarely covers it. Why would they…CNN and Fox, for example, all all in with the neo-cons/Israeli lobbies.
They know what I mean.

#3 Comment By Balconesfault On June 13, 2018 @ 6:56 am

Alas, the three branches of Government are currently led by the Party of Torture. One only needs attend any GOP debate to verify that sad truth.

It is who we’ve become.

#4 Comment By George Hoffman On June 13, 2018 @ 8:05 am

There is a more pragmatic reason Obama decided to listen to his experts and forgo prosecuting torturers. It would have set a precedent. He then could have been prosecuted later when he left office for his illegal drone wars. He violated the sovereignty of many nations with that program. I would remind Wilkerson who is also a Vietnam veteran like me that Obama’s drone wars is a high-tech update in the age of the Internet of the infamous Phoenix Program, a CIA covert ops, during that war. Every Tuesday afternoon, Obama would have a conference and select targets for assassination regardless of the collateral damage from those strikes. So things really haven’t changed that much since the Phoenix Program except technology, the revolution in military robotics and the hyper connectivity in the age of the Internet. Killing has become a video game except for the people being killed.

#5 Comment By Kent On June 13, 2018 @ 10:21 am

The approval of the use of torture is truly testimony to how low the US has fallen. I shouldn’t say the US. Let’s say how low the American people themselves have fallen. Probably the most shameful band of scum to walk the planet.

#6 Comment By Josep On June 13, 2018 @ 3:44 pm

@ Kent
I would still say that the US has fallen. How the heck is every single American (over 300 million) individually responsible for this mess?

#7 Comment By Jeeves On June 13, 2018 @ 3:55 pm

Kent says:
June 13, 2018 at 10:21 am
The approval of the use of torture is truly testimony to how low the US has fallen. I shouldn’t say the US. Let’s say how low the American people themselves have fallen. Probably the most shameful band of scum to walk the planet.

This comment was moderated by TAC?

#8 Comment By Soxtory On June 13, 2018 @ 5:50 pm

My Greek fraternity initiation in the mid 1950s was worse than water boarding.

#9 Comment By Buzz On June 13, 2018 @ 7:37 pm

George Hoffman, I really liked your comment. It’s shameful how much this country has forgotten the horrors of the Phoenix Program, under which twenty-something thousand people were murdered, often for nothing but personal vendettas. On a different point, whatever other good Obama did, his record will always carry the heavy blemish of his failure to prosecute the torturers and his execution of the drone program. Now under Trump I fear we will see the fruits of his failure as Trump asserts himself more and more and with no precedents set against torture.

#10 Comment By Fran Macadam On June 13, 2018 @ 9:03 pm

“The approval of the use of torture is truly testimony to how low the US has fallen. I shouldn’t say the US. Let’s say how low the American people themselves have fallen.”

You can’t go much lower underground than the Deep State. Given that’s what has the final say over policy, it’s irrelevant if the ordinary American disagrees, up here on the surface.

#11 Comment By Apolonius On June 14, 2018 @ 2:17 pm

I think that people in USA were conditioned to accept torture with TVshows like “24”, similar movies, etc. Before in US movies main hero was often tortured, now heroes are torturing!!!
Torture was medieval evil, something you can find only in books about inquisition, I thought.
The fact that majority americans support torturing people I can´t understand.I hope it is a lie,paid by government agencies , from obvious reasons.At WW2, Americans were known as a party that provided far the best conditions for prisoners of war, their humanity was thing very well known in Europe. What happened with them?

#12 Comment By Minnesota Mary On June 14, 2018 @ 8:16 pm

What gets me riled up is when the talking heads on FOX and other networks criticize Iran for the way our sailors were humiliated and treated when they were captured in Iran’s territorial waters. The pictures show the sailors lounging on Persian carpets with no cufflinks or signs of distress. They were released within 17 hours of capture. Yet our news media pundits are outraged at the treatment they received while forgetting the pictures of how the prisoners at Abu Ghraib were treated. There is such a double standard. It makes me sick.

#13 Comment By EliteCommInc. On June 15, 2018 @ 10:43 am

“The conservatives always support war and they make up the the majority of mean people in the U.S. when it comes to any nation/people overseas.”

Conservatives neither support needless war or torture.

Conservatives existing is fewer and fewer numbers daily I suspect tend to be the more generous of US citizens when it comes to humanitarian causes. In fact, if you want to hoodwink conservatives into some non-conservative posture — just clothe whatever advocacy in humanitarian or religious morality pose.

To can even get conservatives to support murdering children in the womb, arresting and killing innocent people by dressing up the act in common good against the savages motifs. But those are not conservative instincts.

You can even get them to support wars of revolution.

#14 Comment By Youknowho On June 15, 2018 @ 12:37 pm


If you think that “24” was bad, you should have seen “Cover Affairs” THAT normalized torture by having a likeable, winsome protagonist, who starts as an eager naive recruit, and gets better and better.

Eventually we get to torture, and this pretty girl does not even bat an eyelid. It is par for the coourse for her, and does not put a dent in her social life. At one point one of her bosses protests about it, not because it is wrong, but because the victim is his son. And that’s ALL the complaint made.

So, of course, if this nice pretty, winsome, eager lady sees nothing wrong, why should you?

#15 Comment By Curtis On June 18, 2018 @ 6:59 am

This whole ugly monster has been rearing it’s ugly head for a long time before bush. Honestly the real underlying issue here seems to be a culture of misanthropy that has been permiating for some time.

Hear me out,it’s been a combination of things that really contribute to this attitude. It seems that everybody really hates each other and can’t stand the general concept of humanity. You can argue that charitable giving has gone up and that this is nihilistic nonsense all you want.

But the ugly truth is, Americans resentment for each other has been growing for a while. Based on a number of factors each of which I will do my best to list and explain.

1. Collapse of the industrial base, and the creation of the rust belt.
I’m going to start off with the obvious here. Or what should be obvious, when you take away people’s livlihoods they don’t react well. When the jobs left or replaced by robots. Crime took it’s place, crime like murder, drugs, theft, etc etc etc. Was the only way people could make a living when that happened. The social attitudes crime brings, intense selfishness and competition which drives a gang culture in the poor communities. It’s us vs them, to an extreme. Violence is common place. Especially when you lack critical funding for health services. The mentally unstable sociopaths and sadists do what is natural at this point. They try to dominate and inflict pain, whether through pleasure or gain. Makes no difference, this is where it began, the collapse of our industrial base. Led to desperation, desperation leads to mental instability. When someone has to worry about their next meal. It does bad things to the mind.

2. Weakening social safety net, both sides are guilty of this. It started as I said with the slashing and closing of mental health facilities. This left the mentally Ill with no place to turn to, so as they go untreated they get worse and worse. Some go homeless as we know, others work in the same place we do, some run for political office, others go on to become high ranking officers in the military, some become athletes. The horrible hazing stories we hear, rapes with broom handles, branding the skin with cattlerods, horrific stories of bullying and torment. The victims then of course go on to victimize others, or simply just remain the victims. Some move on and look past their incidents. But most whether they move on or not, lose that very crucial aspect the society needs to operate at an efficient non barbaric level, trust. Sometimes these people get caught, and you might think ” great”. Not it’s not, our system focuses more on punishment rather than rehabilitation. This same system is responsible for making these offenders worse and become more violent. This had already been talked about alot, and both sides are to blame. The three strike laws passed by Clinton, the mental health funding cut by Regan. It adds up, the war on drugs too yet another symptom of the punitive culture of our criminal justice system. And our system of government itself, our government literally once a beacon of fairness and human rights. In less than 30 years has become a tyrannical menace. The system turned into a menace on society rather a protective guiding hand. This made people fearful and afraid of speaking out against those in the system that did them harm. This definitely helped contributed to our hateful distrust of one another. When our own leaders are punishing us like this by passing such punitive laws, how else are people going to react. It was a standard pushed and set by the adminstrations before us dating back to Regan, punish and pressure.

3. The blame game, this is what lead to the Guantanamo bay torture incidents and ultimately Trump’s election. When people’s livlihoods were lost and when the war on drugs decimated more American communities. People wanted answers, look no further than the Columbian countries and the jobs that we’re outsourced to Mexico, china, etc. People saw the same jobs they needed to survive go to other Foreigners overseas. Drugs from south America and Mexico were pouring into these communities and causing even more misery to those affected by the outsourcing and job losses. Let’s be honest here, it’s hard not to point the finger, China in particular has benefited alot from out lost wealth, so has Mexico. That will piss people off. And to be even more honest here, they are not entirely wrong. Chinas economy has exploded, in really big part to American industries moving overseas there. They have stolen American technicalogical advances, they have tried to undermine us on the world stage for the last decade. Basically adding insult to injury, they are not blameless here. Countries like china, even allies like Mexico share some of the blame. They knew how much we relied upon these jobs, and still happily took them anyway. They knew how much it hurt these communities to lose them and still profited from it regardless. That will cause a serious resentment, I’m not saying we haven’t done that. Nor am I saying that these are bad countries. I’m saying common people that use to rely on these jobs won’t understand why people we have helped in the past and protected profited while they suffered from those losses. It hard to understand and argue against why they would be pissed. What about the oil embargo in the 1970s which destroyed American energy independence for decades only for it just now to recover. Because of that we have had to send troops to fight wars in the middle east, thousands of lives lost fighting proxy wars to keep the oil flowing. They took full advantage of our weakness and profited from it, while Americans died stopping their dictators from bombing each other. The grew fat and rich from the oil they sold to us. They were getting our military protection and forcing us to buy their oil. That situation in the eyes of everyday Americans is so totally messed up. It’s no wonder why we have so much comtempt for the middle east. They even tried to kill our shale industry, the first real progress toward energy independence in decades. Seriously, again messed up. Americans see this and saw how much they were screwing us and got pissed. Why do you really think we are bombing their countries and invading and toppling their governments. It’s honestly in the eyes of the voters payback. Why else are we fighting and causing senseless wars there. The hate is coming from somewhere and it isn’t racism or xenophobia, most people aren’t like that. It’s revenge, it’s payback for them trying to weaken us.Getting fat on our money while we had to protect them. It’s just messed up. No other words to describe it. Which is why trump got elected, he promised to put America first. Stop protecting those that truly don’t need it. Let them use their wealth for once.

The end result of these three things is the torture on detainees. The bombings of innocent civilians in other countries, the police shootings on minorities, the horrific shootings across the country. It goes on and on. There are other reasons too, some point to the collapse of the community,others point to the ongoing culture of violence, others point to even poor diets as to why we have these issues. But the end result of all these things is why we are in the situation we are in. Unless we correct these things, then it will continue and only get worse.

#16 Comment By EliteCommInc. On June 20, 2018 @ 12:07 pm

“After the tragic deaths on September 11, 2001, America went slightly berserk. Though both international and U.S. domestic law held that no condition, no matter how extreme, could justify the heinous crime of torture, America turned to it anyway.”

As someone who openly opposed the wars in iraq and afganistahn, a little beserk is akin to saying

after stubbing her toe, a wife in response began to systematically murder her entire family.”

We have not recovered. And my candidate is a clear example of where the country is on this matter. And as with other wrongs we have embraced — it may feel good — but god is not not mocked. There will be recompense.