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Tue., Dec. 16, 2008

Our View: Torture report illuminates American atrocity

To paraphrase one of the more ignominious comments from the Iraq war, “We go to war with the defense secretary we have, not the one that we want.”

A bipartisan Senate committee recently released a torture report that highlights then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s endorsement of the abuses of detainees in Afghanistan and Iraq and at the military prison at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. He certainly didn’t act alone, as the report points to several top administration officials, including President Bush.

But the Senate Armed Services report points to Rumsfeld as the brains behind a venture outside traditional military protocols and the Geneva Conventions when it comes to the treatment of prisoners.

The notion that these prisoners required different treatment because of their disregard for human life is both ironic and wrongheaded. That’s just one of the excuses the report obliterates in its devastating dressing-down of the administration’s denials and rationalizations.

The abuses at Abu Ghraib prison were not merely the actions of “a few bad apples,” and the request to torture did not come from officers in the field. No, this was a top-down operation, and the techniques were derived from the resistance training given to government employees traveling overseas in case they are captured and tortured.

Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape, or SERE, is taught at survival schools, such as the one attached to Fairchild Air Force Base. But the report said the administration decided to apply the techniques directly to enemy combatants, which was a perversion of the Joint Personnel Recovery Agency’s mission. A Spokane military psychologist, Bruce Jessen, was involved, but he isn’t saying much.

So rather than teaching Americans ways to resist simulated drowning, painful stress positions, snarling dogs, hooding, forced nudity, sleep deprivation and blaring music, the U.S. military subjected prisoners to these techniques that have long been considered forms of torture. And, yes, it’s still torture if we do it. We learned these barbaric practices from communist China, which used them on U.S. troops in the Korean War.

We are better than that, or should be. The damage to the United States’ reputation around the world is incalculable. The torture of detainees has certainly aided the recruiting efforts of terrorists.

Some might ask whether it’s worth revisiting this controversy, but it is imperative that Americans know what their government is capable of. And it’s important for the rest of the world to know that our government can expose wrongdoing and accept responsibility, which is the first step toward redemption.

The good news is that the current head of U.S. Central Command, Gen. David Petraeus, understands this. In a 2007 letter to troops he wrote:

“Our values and the laws governing warfare teach us to respect human dignity, maintain our integrity, and do what is right. Adherence to our values distinguishes us from our enemy.”

We can’t say it any better than that.

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