We speak with veteran war correspondent Robert Fisk of the London Independent about the U.S. abuse of prisoners in Iraq, Guantanamo Bay and rendition to other countries as well as the role of journalists in a time of war. [includes rush transcript]
- Robert Fisk, chief Middle East correspondent for the London Independent. He is author of several books. His latest is "The Great War for Civilisation: The Conquest of the Middle East."
AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to Robert Fisk, author of The Great War for Civilization, long-time veteran war correspondent. Your response, from Algeria to the White House?
ROBERT FISK: Well, a colonel in the U.S. Special Forces said to a good friend of mine a few months ago in a telephone conversation, "You know, torture works." I quoted him in my book just before it went to press without giving his name, though I know who he is and I know what his job is. Torture is used routinely by U.S. forces in Iraq and in Afghanistan. It is a fact. One of the amazing things was that when I went back to research my book, I found that by the summer of 2003, I was doing interviews with Iraqis who clearly had been tortured, but the only evidence was their own word for it. We were printing my reports in the paper, but they didn’t get on the front page, because, of course, there was no substantial confirmation from any other source except their own words. But, quite clearly, different people who had no contact with each other were reporting the same treatment.
One of the initial torture implements was bottled water, plastic bottles filled with water with which they would beat a prisoner, particularly American troops based just outside Ramadi and Fallujah in a big base. It was actually run by the 82nd Airborne. And the interrogators would beat the prisoner with the plastic bottle filled with water until it broke, and they would continue beating him, so many of the men actually had sharp cuts from the broken plastic on their face when the water had broken out. And I found approximately seven men of quite different origin in different cities all gave the same description of these beatings. They couldn’t have made this up. This was not a complot, as the French would say, it wasn’t a plot. It was obviously real.
It was interesting that when, in fact, the pictures first came out of Abu Ghraib, of the atrocious abuse of people, sexual abuse, the initial reaction was, "Oh, my God, what will the Iraqis say?" Well, the Iraqis knew all about it. They weren’t at all surprised. It was we, the Westerners, who were shocked. 'What? We're doing this?’ It was very interesting to see that when, under the various pieces of legislation by which you can, and we in Britain can’t, get hold of documentation of Abu Ghraib, when more pictures were about to be revealed, which, oddly enough, I think they have not been, the response of the U.S. government was that it would create further anger among the Iraqi population against U.S. troops serving in Iraq. It won’t. The Iraqis already know all about it. They’re not shocked at all. They think that’s how we behave, and actually they’re right, aren’t they?
AMY GOODMAN: What do you make of President Bush in Panama saying, "We do not torture"?
ROBERT FISK: It’s not true. I’m afraid that most armies torture, in one way or another. The British engaged in torture in Northern Ireland, and they certainly did in Aden — South Yemen, as it then was. I’m pretty sure we did in Cyprus. I’ve got considerable evidence, which I can’t prove, but it’s fairly substantial, that torture was used against Egyptian prisoners during the 1956 Suez invasion. The French army actually massacred Egyptian prisoners, particularly fishermen in a subsidiary of the Nile and the Suez Canal. I’m afraid armies perform like that, especially when they’re losing.
AMY GOODMAN: And the Vice President of the United States now asking for an exemption for C.I.A. officers, for C.I.A. agents engaged in torture — of Republican Senator McCain, who was a tortured P.O.W. in Vietnam.
ROBERT FISK: Well, this, obviously — this assumes that it’s rather more easy to be tortured by the C.I.A. than by the military or that the C.I.A. find it rather more easy to torture, which I’m sure they do. Well, they could take some lessons from the K.G.B., as well, who are also becoming our friends now since the Soviet Union collapsed. Look, at the end of the day, you’ve got to realize that even if we don’t do the tortures, we are using this system, laughingly known as "rendition," where we put would-be torture victims onto an airplane and send them back to a country where they will be tortured, but we won’t actually put the electricity onto their genitals or their penis in order to make them scream with pain.
These aircraft are flying through Europe. In fact, they’re flying through Shannon Airport. I was giving a lecture in Ireland the other day, and I said, "Why don’t the Irish police go onboard these aircraft and unshackle these men and take them off in the interest of law and order?" Because what we’ve got to now with the torture is that we are becoming the criminals. We are the criminals now. And if we’re going to behave the same way as the Taliban would behave, and they would not hesitate to put electricity onto people’s bodies for torture, then the war is over. It’s finished. We have no further moral cause to fight for.
AMY GOODMAN: What do you make of the Washington Post exposing a secret C.I.A. prison in Eastern Europe, and yet complying with the Pentagon’s request?
ROBERT FISK: Yes, but they wouldn’t say where they were, would they? In fact, the prisons are about 100 miles from Warsaw in Poland and also quite a considerable way from Bucharest, but in Romania. It was very amusing to find that the Washington Post would not say that Poland and Romania were the two countries involved, and most American journalists have fought shy of saying that. But Poland and Romania are the two democracies where these people are taken for torture by the C.I.A.
AMY GOODMAN: And what do you make of them complying with the Pentagon request not to name the countries?
ROBERT FISK: Well, this is the same problem that’s existed all along with American journalism. And that is this osmotic, parasitic relationship between the press or journalists, in general, and power, where to criticize your country’s foreign policy, especially when it’s war, is seen as a form of unpatriotic behavior and thus of potential subversion. Add to this the sort of American school of journalism, where everyone has to have 50% of each story, each side, which is ridiculous. The victims should be the subject of the story if we have any kind of compassion at all as human beings. When we reach this stage, I think, you know, journalism ceases to perform its function.
What we should be doing is challenging authority, which is what Helen was trying to do in that clip we just saw from the White House press conference. But if you want to see the normal White House press conference, you’ll quickly see the relationship between the journalist and the President. It will be "Mr. President! Mr. President! Mr. President!" And then George W. Bush will say, "John," "Amy," "Bob," whoever it might be, right? That is the relationship that exists now, and it should be much more combative. You know, Amira Hass, the very fine Israeli journalist, a friend of mine, we were discussing the purpose of being a foreign correspondent about two years or so ago, and I was going on about, you know, "We write the first pages of history," in my Brit way. And she said, "No, Robert, our job is to monitor the centers of power." And we don’t do that.
AMY GOODMAN: Robert Fisk is our guest. This is part one of our interview. Stay tuned for part two. The Great War for Civilization: The Conquest of the Middle East is his book. He has been reporting in the Middle East for some 30 years, based in Beirut. Living in — going back and forth to Baghdad, to Afghanistan. In Afghanistan, almost killed by an angry mob after the U.S. bombing of Afghanistan, reporting on Algeria and Lebanon, occupied territories, Israel and Palestine.