From the belly of the beast: Obama covers up torture

By Barry Sheppard, in San Francisco

After releasing memos from lawyers for the Bush administration advocating torture of prisoners swept up in the US wars against Afghanistan and Iraq, US President Barack Obama has ruled out prosecuting the war criminals who ordered the use of torture. Those let off the hook are former president George Bush, his vice president, Dick Cheney, his attorney general, Alberto Gonzales, his secretary of war, Donald Rumsfeld, the lawyers who wrote the torture memos, the CIA operatives and the military brass, from generals on down, who carried out the torture.

The only soldiers who have been tried are the rank and file pictured in the photos of torture carried out in Abu Ghraib some years ago. No one responsible in the military command above them has been held accountable. Bush covered up these crimes by insisting that only “a few bad apples” were responsible. This assertion was ridiculous at the time and now has been proved false by the release of the memos. The CIA has destroyed the videotapes it took of its agents torturing people. It can be assumed that much more evidence has been shredded.

Cheney has been on a public campaign to justify his role in the torture. His claim is that it saved “hundreds of thousands of lives”. He also said that Bush was in on it. In itself, Cheney’s public campaign to justify torture is a confession that he and Bush are war criminals, but Obama has done nothing to bring them to justice. Cheney is demanding that the “evidence” backing his claim be declassified. He can do this because he knows the claim is false and ridiculous and there is no such evidence. Carl Levin, chairperson of the Senate armed services committee, has publically called out Cheney’s claim. He told a May 27 dinner of the Foreign Policy Association, “Those classified documents say nothing about the numbers of lives saved, nor do the documents connect [the] acquisition of valuable intelligence to the use of abusive techniques”. If the Bush administration had evidence that torture “saved hundreds of thousands of lives”, it would have long ago made that public and bragged about it.

Obama’s administration is pursuing the cover-up in other ways. It has intervened in the case before a British court of Binyam Mohamed, who was held for seven years in Pakistan, Morocco and Afghanistan (under “special rendition”) and Guantanamo. He was tortured in each place. He was finally released for lack of evidence and flown to Britain, where he had earlier been given asylum. In Morocco a razor blade was used on his penis, a “harsh method” even Cheney has yet to endorse publicly. Obama is continuing a Bush threat to punish Britain if a document is made public detailing his torture. The secret document was originally sent to the British Foreign Office by the Bush administration. The Obama administration is also continuing attempts to stop a court case in the US by Mohamed and four other former prisoners. They have brought a civil lawsuit against a US aircraft company that participated in the “special renditions”.

Why they do it

One purpose of torture is to terrorise the targeted population, in this case Iraqis and Afghanis. Thousands were swept up and tortured in both countries. Many were then released and spoke out about their ordeals. Of course the general population in both countries knew what was going on. The message sent to them was: “See what we can do to you if you don’t cooperate with our occupation”.

The second purpose was to obtain false confessions. Those being tortured will often say anything they think their tormenters want to hear in order to stop the mental and physical pain. The Inquisition carried out by the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages was designed to obtain such confessions and then roast the “sinners” to death in a public celebration. This in turn would terrorise the general population, deter dissent and force conversions of Muslims and Jews. Under such pressure, Galileo recanted his discovery that the Earth went around the Sun. In the Salem, Massachusetts witch trials, torture of accused “witches” resulted either in a confession and then the accused was burned to death, or the death of the accused, which was considered proof that she was in league with the devil, since otherwise she couldn’t have withstood the torture.

It has come to light in statements by officials, reported first in the independent media, that the torture used in 2002 and 2003 in Afghanistan, and then in Iraq, was intended to illicit false confessions tying Saddam Hussein to al Qaeda — a far-fetched accusation used as a justification for the war against Iraq, which Cheney still brings up from time to time.

Some of the torture techniques now admitted include bashing prisoners’ heads against the wall of the cell and waterboarding (Cheney’s favourite). Towels wrapped around prisoners’ heads are supposed to prevent serious damage during the head bashing, but it doesn’t take much imagination to see that sometimes the towel becomes loose and the skull is fractured when smashed against a wall. Waterboarding, which the US considered a war crime punishable by death when it was used against US soldiers in World War II, consists of holding a prisoner down, placing a cloth over his or her face and pouring water over it until the prisoner is forced to breath the water into their lungs. The euphemism for this is “simulated drowning.” Someone is supposed to stop the procedure before actual drowning, but what happens when this intervention is too late? Is it unbelievable that perhaps some prisoners were murdered deliberately? The armed forces admit there have been many deaths in the torture dungeons, with over 100 classified as homicides. There has been no admission that these are murders, and no one has been indicted. (Readers can go to for more information.)


The Pentagon holds many more torture photos than those that came to light (because some soldiers released them) around Abu Ghraib in 2004. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has fought to have the photos released under a Freedom of Information lawsuit, and won in a federal court. Obama at first agreed to release the photos, but then reversed course and refused. The New York Times reported that officials “who have seen the photos describe them as falling into two categories: Abu Ghraib-style personal snapshots taken by soldiers; and photos taken by military criminal investigators documenting allegations of abuse, including autopsy photos of prisoners who died in custody”. Anthony Romero, executive director of the ACLU, said that officials had described them as “worse than Abu Ghraib” and that their number, more than 2000, showed that “it is no longer tenable to blame abuse on a few bad apples. These were policies set at the highest level.”

That’s the problem Obama wants to cover up. He even justified his decision to suppress the photos by repeating a Bush assertion, saying: “The publication of these photos would not add any additional benefit to our understanding of what was carried out in the past by a small number of individuals”. Who does “our understanding” refer to? Not to me. I guess it refers to the government, including the Bush and Obama administrations. Obama also claimed it was necessary to suppress the photos because they would inflame anti-Americanism and thereby put the US troops in danger. If by “anti-Americanism” he means anger against Washington’s torture regime, then I guess I’m “anti-American” too. Just like Bush, Obama hides behind “defending our troops” when all other arguments fail. Yes, the photos “inflame anti-Americanism,” but the destruction of Iraq, occupation, widening the war and bombing people “inflames anti-Americanism” much more.

Obama cannot release these photos because he doesn’t want the US people, and people around the world, to see them (especially people in the US, because many around the world already understand what went on). To do so would intensify pressure to bring the war criminals to justice. Any indictments of people in the Bush administration would rapidly involve more individuals, including top Democrats. Cheney himself has made that warning.

Democrats knew

Democrat Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the House of Representatives, was informed about the use of torture as far back as 2003, when she was on the House Intelligence Committee. Republicans have charged that she and other top Democrats knew all along about the torture, attempting to shift the spotlight away from the Bushites. Pelosi, in a sputtering, stuttering and incoherent appearance on TV, lied about it and then said she was bound by secrecy rules, so she couldn’t do anything about it. She did say that the CIA lied to her, and then Obama’s head of the CIA said the CIA never lies (guffaws are in order). What the Republicans are charging is that Pelosi failed to try to stop the torture their administration was guilty of. Of course the Democrats, the same ones who voted for the war against Iraq, the Patriot Act, etc., knew about the torture. To start pulling on the yarn by indicting even one top person would unravel the whole sweater. Obama cannot allow that.

Obama is carrying on Bush’s policies in other ways. He now says, reversing a campaign promise, that he is for trying some of the prisoners at the Guantanamo naval base in special military tribunals. He says there will be proper legal safeguards. But the military judges will be appointed by the Pentagon, as will the military prosecutors, the “defence” attorneys and the military jury. “The system is designed to ensure the outcome they want … convictions in every case”, said Ben Wizner, an ACLU attorney who has attended proceedings for prisoners at Guantanamo. “This suggests that the much-heralded improvements to the Bush military commission system are largely cosmetic.” Hearsay evidence could still be used, although Obama said it would be restricted somehow, as would “evidence” from torture. Obama is also seeking approval to continue the Bush practice of holding prisoners without charge or trial indefinitely, but in prisons in the US. The Guantanamo gulag would simply be shifted from the land Washington holds illegally in Cuba. He says he has to do this because he knows such prisoners are guilty but he can’t prove it. In reality, Cheney is winning his debate with Obama, as Obama adapts more and more to the Bushites on the torture cover-up.

[This is the first of what will be a regular column in each edition of Direct Action. The column’s title “From the belly of the beast” was how the great Cuban fighter against US imperialism, Jose Marti, signed his letters to friends back in Cuba when he was in the US.]