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Historian Alfred McCoy: Obama Reluctance on Bush Prosecutions Affirms Culture of Impunity

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This week, President Obama said waterboarding is torture but gave no indication he is planning to hold anyone accountable for authorizing it. We speak with University of Wisconsin professor, Alfred McCoy, author of A Question of Torture: CIA Interrogation, from the Cold War to the War on Terror. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Juan, our final topic today is the issue of torture.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Yes. Well, sixty-two people were arrested Thursday outside the White House protesting US torture policies. Dressed in orange jumpsuits and black hoods, the activists were calling for President Obama to close Guantanamo and end America’s policies of torture and indefinite detention. The activists criticized Obama for refusing to investigate or prosecute crimes committed by the Bush administration.

On Wednesday night, President Obama said waterboarding was torture, but he gave no indication that he planned to hold anyone from the Bush administration accountable for authorizing torture.

    PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I believe that waterboarding was torture. And I think that the — whatever legal rationales were used, it was a mistake.

AMY GOODMAN: To talk more about the latest developments on the issue of torture, we’re joined here in Madison, Wisconsin, by Alfred McCoy. He’s a professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, author of several books, including A Question of Torture: CIA Interrogation, from the Cold War to the War on Terror.

It’s great to have you here, Professor McCoy. We last saw you in New York when your book first came out. A lot of things have happened since then, especially just in the last week: the issuing of, or the making public the so-called torture memos. Your response?

ALFRED McCOY: We’re at a critical moment in the debate about torture. We’re at the exact moment historically we’ve been at six times over the past forty years. What’s happened since really 1970, right up to the present, because we’ve been engaged in torture continuously throughout this entire period, is that Congress and the press will conduct a major exposé of torture; the public will be momentarily aroused; there will be no sustained investigation, no prosecution, no penalty; the practice will continue. A few more years later, another revelation, another round of debate, discussion, nothing done, and then it emerges again.

So I think what’s fairly certain to say, that if the past teaches us anything, that unless there is serious prosecution and something beyond simply a legislative investigation, something more binding, something more permanent, that within five or six years, we’ll be faced with another major torture scandal just like this one, except it will be worse, because the world will remember this exposé. They’ll think that we tried to correct, and we didn’t correct, and they’ll realize that this is in fact American state policy, that torture is part of the apparatus of American power.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, talk about President Obama’s approach, on the one hand, releasing the torture memos — and I’d like you to respond to specifically what’s in those torture memos —


AMY GOODMAN: — but then saying he will not be holding the interrogators responsible, people involved with it; we have to move forward, not move back.

ALFRED McCOY: Right. That’s exactly how you get impunity. That’s what’s happened every single time in the past. For example, in 1970, the House and Senate of the United States discovered that the Phoenix Program had been engaged in systematic torture, that they had killed through extraditial executions 46,000 South Vietnamese. That’s about the same number of American combat deaths in South Vietnam. Nothing was done. There was no punishment, and the policy of torture continued.

In 1994, for example, the US ratified the Convention Against Torture. There was no investigation of past practice. So, when that ratification went through, it was done in a way that in fact legalized psychological torture, because when we ratified that convention, we also, if you will, passed a reservation, which then got codified into US federal law, Section 2340 of the US Federal Code. In that code, we said that psychological torture, which is actually the main form of torture practiced by the United States since the 1950s, is basically not torture.

And we defined, very cleverly, under that code, what psychological torture is. We simply said it’s four things. It’s extreme physical pain, forced injection of drugs, threats against another, or doing that to a third party. OK? That’s all that psychological torture is. In other words, everything in those torture memos, all those techniques of belly slaps, face slaps, face grabbing, waterboarding, is, under US law, supposedly not torture, because when we — President Clinton ratified the UN Convention Against Torture, he didn’t look into the past, he didn’t discover what the nature of American torture was. And so, we’re now at a moment where if we don’t prosecute or don’t punish or don’t seriously investigate, that this will be repeated again.

Another thing that emerges from the memos is, in fact, that the Bush Justice Department is very well aware. If you read the May 2005 memo by the head of the Office of Legal Counsel, Steven Bradbury, he says, “Look, I can’t assure you that waterboarding is not torture. You know, the courts may find that it is torture. But don’t worry about it. Because you know what? The courts aren’t going to rule on this.” So in other words, don’t worry about the law, because the law doesn’t apply to you. The law will not be brought to bear. And that’s the problem of President Obama’s procedure. The men were assured that they could torture, because it wouldn’t come before the courts.

There’s another problem with those memos, as well. Those memos argue again and again that the most extreme of all the authorized CIA techniques, waterboarding, is not torture, because it does not violate that same Section 2340 of US Federal Code. But it does. Waterboarding is the most cruel, the most extremely cruel form of torture known to man, very simply because of this — and people don’t understand, I think, waterboarding. Amy, if you and I were riding in a car, and we went off a bridge in January here in Wisconsin and crashed through the ice and went down to the bottom of the Ohio River, within three minutes you and I would be dead from drowning. If there were an infant in a car seat behind us, that infant could survive for twenty minutes under water. A weak, fragile three-month-old infant could survive twenty minutes under water, be plucked by the rescue crew from the waters and suffer no brain damage, be perfectly fine. Alright? How can this happen? It’s the mammalian diving reflex. The human being is so afraid of death by drowning that we are hardwired into our biology, into our…

JUAN GONZALEZ: I want to —

ALFRED McCOY: — brains with this bizarre mammalian diving reflex. So, therefore, waterboarding, which induces this primal fear of death by drowning, is the most painful form of torture you can concoct. That’s why it’s existed for 500 years.

AMY GOODMAN: Juan, you have a question?

JUAN GONZALEZ: Yeah. Professor McCoy, in terms of waterboarding, the revelations of the number of times that some of the detainees, and into the hundreds, were waterboarded, and yet the administration continues to say that it — apparently that it’s not going to pursue prosecutions of this. Your reaction?

ALFRED McCOY: Yes. The number of times — one of the al-Qaeda suspects was waterboarded eighty-three times. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the mastermind of the 9/11 attack, was waterboarded 183 times. This is extraordinary. This is beyond the idea of sort of clinical, scientific, dispassionate torture. That’s pure sadism. Pure sadism. And that’s another problem of torture, OK?

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go to a comment of, well, former Secretary of State and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice publicly defending the Bush administration’s interrogation techniques, including the use of waterboarding. Rice made the comments while visiting with students in a dormitory at Stanford University, where she teaches political science. Her comments were posted on YouTube.

    CONDOLEEZZA RICE: In terms of enhanced interrogation and rendition and all the issues around the detainees, Abu Ghraib is — and everyone said, Abu Ghraib was not policy. Abu Ghraib was wrong. And nobody would argue with [inaudible].

    STANFORD STUDENT: Except that information that’s come out since then speaks against that.

    CONDOLEEZZA RICE: No, no, no. The information that comes out since then continues to say that Abu Ghraib was wrong. Abu Ghraib was. But in terms of the enhanced interrogation and so forth, anything that was legal and was going to make this country safer, the President wanted to do, nothing that was illegal and nothing that was going to make the country less safe. And I’ll tell you something, unless you were there in a position of responsibility after September 11, you cannot possibly imagine the dilemmas that you faced in trying to protect Americans.

    STANFORD STUDENT: Is waterboarding torture?

    CONDOLEEZZA RICE: The President instructed us that nothing we would do would be outside of our obligations, legal obligations, under the Convention Against Torture. So that’s — and by the way, I didn’t authorize anything. I conveyed the authorization of the administration to the agency, that they had policy authorization subject to the Justice Department’s clearance.


    CONDOLEEZZA RICE: That’s what I did.

    STANFORD STUDENT: Is waterboarding torture, in your opinion?

    CONDOLEEZZA RICE: And I just said, the United States was told, we were told, nothing that violates our obligations under the Convention Against Torture. And so, by definition, if it was authorized by the President, it did not violate our obligations under the Convention Against Torture.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Condoleezza Rice. She was taped at a Stanford University dorm. Your response, Professor McCoy?

ALFRED McCOY: Two points. First of all, waterboarding is torture under US law, because it constitutes a death threat. OK? It’s a threat to die by drowning. Alright? So, one, waterboarding is torture. President Obama is correct. It’s a violation of law, and all of those that ordered it should be prosecuted for violations of federal statutes.

Second point, her argument that you had to be there, because the nation was at risk, that’s the argument that every Latin American military dictator made for brutal torture and summary executions, arguing that the communists, the barbarians were at the gate, and therefore extreme measures were qualified. That’s impunity. Every Latin American dictatorship, every Latin American nation that emerges from dictatorship finds the same argument: we had to do it because the nation was at risk. That’s how you get impunity.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor McCoy, I want to thank you very much for being with us. His latest book is called A Question of Torture .

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