Torture: The Buck Started in the Oval Office

** by Chuck Kennedy

Given the release last year of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on torture, the facts regarding the chain of command now seem clear.  The so-called “buck” started at the Oval Office, sometime during the fall of 2001.  Most likely, Vice President Cheney, who had been assigned to lead the counterterrorism effort, convinced President Bush to take the gloves off when fighting terrorists.  By November, the CIA began discussing how to legally justify acts, like waterboarding, that would have been banned earlier.  Then in February 2002, the door was opened wide for torture to enter when President Bush declared al-Qaeda operatives to have no protection under the articles of war.  Thus when the first high-level terrorist leader was captured the next month, President Bush naturally chose a CIA plan to send him to a secret black site in Thailand.  By August, the torture nightmare and national disgrace had commenced.

We should take former President Bush and Vice President Cheney at their word when they have insisted recently that they were fully informed and were not deceived by the CIA.  President Bush may not have known the full details of how terrorists were tortured; for example, the list of a dozen or so “enhanced interrogation techniques” (IETs) that Bush said he approved in his memoir included placing prisoners in “stress positions.”  What President Bush did not know until 2006 was how exactly that was operationalized to include chaining a prisoner to the ceiling for hours.  That is when President Bush was said to have become uncomfortable with his decision.

President Obama will probably never pardon former President Bush and Vice President Cheney for their actions, as the head of the American Civil Liberties Union in now urging in order to declare what happened war crimes.  In that way, it is hoped, no future President of the United States will ever approve torture.  Certainly, President Obama should do all that he can to prevent the reoccurrence of torture as official policy of this country; this should be his top priority in this crisis of America’s moral standing in the world.  But the recommendation to quickly pardon is based on flawed logic because why would such an act, certainly one that would be unwelcomed by an unrepentant former vice president, deter a future administration?  Under the circumstances of a quick pardon, how likely is it for a future Republican administration to follow former Vice President Cheney’s advice, which is a popular position within the GOP, namely don’t hesitate one minute to IET the bastards again.

A better course of action would be to appoint a special prosecutor to see where the chips fall in terms of who approved the IET program. The focus should be on those policymakers who were at the top of this chain of command.  CIA operatives carrying out their orders would not be the target of this investigation. The results of this investigation should be made public.  If former President Bush and Vice President Cheney were indicted for war crimes, which violate the US Constitution and international treaty obligations, then President Obama might consider a pardon once the official record is made clear.  Perhaps such a public airing of the facts on top of the embarrassment of an indictment would deter the future use of torture by any American president. 

Unfortunately, President Obama is unlikely to take such action.  On a number of issues, he has shown a tendency to avoid obvious short-term political costs when only long term gains can be expected.  Nevertheless, all people who respect the basic human rights of everyone in the world must unite to prevent the nightmare from reoccurring; America must not become an empire of evil in the eyes of more and more people. National reconciliation is needed, and at the end of the day, it might be sparked by an international response given the lack of follow-up by the US legal system that our treaty obligations require.  Certainly US policymakers, who ordered torture as defined by international law, can be prosecuted outside the United States.  Thus, here is my request to former Vice President Cheney.   Since you believe in your position with such passion, why not take a lot of trips to Europe over the next few years, and while you are there, give a lot of public interviews on this subject.  Surely, you can teach those sissy Europeans a lot about the effectiveness of torture.

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Wake Forest University School of Business
Associate Professor of Management