Accountable Strategies blog

A blog about accountability issues in the public, private, and nonprofit sectors

The tangled web of U.S. torture

Posted by David Kassel on December 9, 2007

On a human level, one of the more disturbing things about the CIA’s destruction of the videotapes of its interrogations of two top Al Qaeda operatives is that there were hundreds of hours of these tapes.

Hundreds of hours of “harsh interrogation” (read possible torture) of two people?  How many interrogation sessions were held and how long did each session last?  These sessions reportedly included stress positions and waterboarding. What kind of information could the CIA have possibly gotten out of this by the 50th hour of this kind of interrogation, the 70th?

The destruction of the tapes revives a debate over larger issues as well, such as the Bush administration’s power to conduct these kinds of interrogation sessions under its expansive interpretation of the the unitary executive theory.  Has the administration ignored laws and court decisions, which were passed to restrict or ban the use of torture, and what authority does it have for doing so?

Moreover, has Congress implicitly given the administration the authority to use torture through the enactment of legislation such as the Military Commissions Act?

It’s good to see the Democrats finally making an issue of the videotapes.  Senator Edward Kennedy has called the destruction of the videotapes “a coverup,” and compared it to the 18 1/2-minute gap in the Nixon White House tapes during Watergate.  But where has Congress been on the torture issue for the past six years?  What have the Democrats done since they gained control of Congress last year?

There are a host of related questions, some of which are before the courts right now.  One concerns our authority to detain enemy combatants at Guantanamo Bay without giving them the right to challenge their detentions in court.  According to The Times, five lower-level detainees at Guantanamo were initally charged with offenses based on information provided by or related to Abu Zubaydah, one of the two Al Qaeda operatives whose interrogations were filmed by the CIA, which subsequently destroyed the tapes.

The question  arises whether the information Zubaydah provided against these detainees and perhaps others was coerced and therefore worthless.   And that question itself raises further questions about the Military Commissions Act, and whether it gave the U.S. the authorization to detain and convict people based on coerced information.

It’s a tangled web, and it’s one in which we’ve managed to ensnare ourselves through our disregard of basic human rights.


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