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“Psychological Torture is Enshrined in U.S. Law”: Complicity in Abuses Began Long Before Bush

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As President Obama continues to reject a criminal probe of torture in the George W. Bush administration, former Vice President Dick Cheney has said he has no regrets about the torture of foreign prisoners, including innocent people. Speaking to NBC’s Meet the Press on Sunday, Cheney said, “I’d do it again in a minute.” Cheney’s claim highlights a key question: Are top officials above the law — and will the impunity of today lead to more abuses in the future? We discuss the issue of impunity and the history of U.S. torture with Alfred McCoy, professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and author of the books, “A Question of Torture: CIA Interrogation, from the Cold War to the War on Terror,” as well as “Torture and Impunity: The U.S. Doctrine of Coercive Interrogation.” We are also joined by Steven Reisner, founding member of the Coalition for an Ethical Psychology and psychological ethics adviser to Physicians for Human Rights.

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

AMY GOODMAN: Colonel Larry James, at that meeting, who is now dean at Wayne State in Detroit [sic], of the U.S. Army, chief psychologist at Guantánamo and a member of the APA governing board, said at the meeting, defending military psychologists, said they help make interrogations safe, ethical and legal, and cited instances where psychologists allegedly intervened to stop abuse. He said, “If we remove psychologists from these facilities, people are going to die.” But then Dr. Laurie Wagner got up, a Dallas psychologist and the past president of the APA Division of Psychoanalysis, “Why are people dying, if the U.S. military is in charge?” Let me put that question to Professor Al McCoy. This whole debate within the APA and the role of psychologists, as you see it?

ALFRED McCOY: Yeah, Amy, we can put this in a wider context. The psychologists are critical, but they’re critical because psychological torture is, in effect, enshrined within U.S. law. When the United States finally ratified the U.N. Convention Against Torture in 1994, we did so subject to certain qualifications, known in diplomatic parlance as “reservations.” And basically, the four reservations that we introduced modified our approval, our ratification of that convention, everything in it except: We redefined the U.N. definition of what torture was—extreme pain—and we called it “prolonged mental harm,” that for an act to rise to the level of torture, it had to become, in U.S. parlance, in those reservations, prolonged mental harm.

Now, those three words are critical. First of all, “mental.” That meant that the United States was effectively splitting the U.N. convention down the middle. The convention barred both physical and psychological torture. We were saying, “We accept the ban on physical torture, but we’re exempting the ban on psychological torture. And we are qualifying that ban because in order for an act to rise to the level of torture, of psychological torture, it has to inflict prolonged mental harm upon the victim.”

Now, what is “prolonged”? How long is “prolonged”? That’s not defined. It’s a huge loophole. And what constitutes “harm”? That’s another huge loophole. And that, of course, opened the door for that notorious memo by the Office of Legal Counsel, its leader then Jay Bybee, to say that for something to rise to the level of harm, the pain must be sufficient or equivalent to organ failure. In other words, torture, psychological torture up to but not including death, is legally acceptable in U.S. law.

Those words in the reservations have been replicated verbatim in the U.S. War Crimes Act of 1996, the Military Commissions Act 2006, verbatim. Those paragraphs recur in U.S. law, and it’s that which creates the opening for psychologists like Mitchell and Jessen to participate in these programs. And that, in effect, means that these acts, which are outrageous and which we now consider to be torture, are in fact—can be, if you will—can be exempted from the rubric of law. So, it’s a problem that the United States has been so reliant on psychological torture for so long that it’s become embedded not only in bureaucracy, in professional practice, like the military psychologists that work for the Defense Department, but also in U.S. law. It’s deeply embedded in our society.

AMY GOODMAN: I just wanted to make a slight correction. I was talking about Dr. Larry James. He’s at Wright State in Dayton, Ohio. Aaron?

AARON MATÉ: Well, yeah, just back to this history, Professor McCoy, that you’re talking about, this raises an important point. A common narrative is that it’s the Bush administration that imposed torture, but you’re saying that this has been enshrined in policy for a long time.

ALFRED McCOY: Yes. I mean, again, going back to the start of this whole process, right, the United States responded to the idea that the Soviets had cracked the code of human consciousness, that they had somehow had the capacity to produce, to borrow the parlance, a Manchurian candidate—they could program an assassin. So, we reacted to this by using psychologists to develop our own offensive doctrine of psychological torture. And again, the CIA disseminated this among our allies worldwide for 30 years throughout the Cold War. This became encoded within the U.S. military through the SERE training.

And then, when that was all over and it was time for serious structural reforms, those reforms took place. The CIA abjured torture in 1989, said they wouldn’t do it anymore. They said it was completely counterproductive. The Defense Department recalled the manuals. The manuals were actually published in the U.S. press in 1997. It seemed to be all over—except that the inclination, the reliance, the belief and the faith in the efficacy of psychological torture was at this point so deeply embedded in the U.S. national security bureaucracy that our reflex, upon ratification of the U.N. convention—which, by the way, took us an extraordinarily long time, took us six or seven years after the rest of the world had ratified that convention—by the time we did it, we did it in a way that protected, that reserved our right to engage in these psychological torture practices.

And indeed, since then, we’ve conducted ourselves in activities that are a clear violation of the U.N. convention. So, in other words, the reflex to torture, the sense of empowerment, the idea that we can defy international law, defy our own law for reasons of national security, that arises from this long and troubled history of our relationship to psychological torture.

AMY GOODMAN: On Sunday, former Vice President Dick Cheney said he would do it all again. Cheney was speaking on NBC’s Meet the Press.

DICK CHENEY: With respect to trying to define that as torture, I come back to the proposition torture was what the al-Qaeda terrorists did to 3,000 Americans on 9/11. There is no comparison between that and what we did with respect to enhanced interrogation. … It worked. It worked now. For 13 years we’ve avoided another mass casualty attack against the United States. We did capture bin Laden. We did capture an awful lot of the senior guys of al-Qaeda who were responsible for that attack on 9/11. I’d do it again in a minute.

AMY GOODMAN: That is Vice President Dick Cheney. Now, the Senate Intelligence Committee report that came out last week, at least the summary—the full thousands of pages has not—detailed the list of torture methods they used on prisoners, including waterboarding; sexual threats with broomsticks; medically unnecessary rectal feeding; people who had died as a result, for example, of being kept in the cold; people being kept up for something like 180 hours; buzzing power drills put against their heads; dunked repeatedly in tanks of ice water; at least 26 innocent people subjected to torture, including one who froze to death. Your response, Professor McCoy, to Vice President Cheney saying he’d do it again?

ALFRED McCOY: Dick Cheney has been a forceful advocate for the enhanced interrogation techniques. He’s been unapologetic. He’s been vociferous. He’s given dozens of interviews over the years. In effect, Dick Cheney is the leading voice for those in the intelligence community that are determined to win impunity for their violations of law and international conventions.

And we’re now—as a result of the Senate report, we’re now in what I call the fifth and final stage of a decade-long struggle over the torture issue, a decade-long struggle for impunity. And the United States, just like other nations that have emerged from these sad practices at the end of the Cold War, has been going really through a five-stage process of impunity.

When the Abu Ghraib photographs were released back in April 2004, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld blamed it on the so-called “bad apples.” That’s the first reflex—blame the bad apples. Then Dick Cheney and others, right away, began saying that it was an imperative for national security: We had to do it for reasons of safety. That’s the second stage in impunity. Then, when President Obama came into office in April 2009, he visited CIA headquarters, and he brought us to the third stage of impunity by saying that the past was indeed unfortunate, but it was time to move forward together. In other words, national unity means we can’t investigate this troubled past.

Then we hit stage four, which is essentially exoneration for the perpetrators and the powerful that ordered them to commit these acts. That occurred, ironically, after the death of Osama bin Laden in May of 2011, when an a cappella chorus of Republican neoconservatives arose on the media and said that these enhanced interrogation techniques led us to Osama bin Laden, they kept us safe. To use to Dick Cheney’s words, they saved thousands of lives, tens of thousands of lives. At that point, the U.S. Justice Department terminated its investigation of nearly a hundred CIA excesses that were potentially crimes, and the perpetrators had won exoneration.

Now what they’re fighting for is not just exoneration, they want vindication before the bar of history. And that’s critical on a couple of levels. First of all, policy level, if they achieve that, if they win the fight and say that these techniques were, first of all, not torture, and, second of all, they kept us safe, they will then, first of all, be exempt from civil litigation by the victims, second of all, to possibly U.S. criminal investigations, to international arrests should they travel abroad. More importantly, in terms of policy, that means that this doctrine will remain in the presidential toolkit so that a future president can set aside President Obama’s restrictions on these methods and torture again.

And so, that’s why this is a desperate and very serious battle over impunity. And that’s why the Senate committee’s report is so important, because up to this point the perpetrators and their powerful were winning the debate. Now, in fact, the debate has shifted its tone, and it’s looking to me like it’s a much more neutral, much more positive outcome.

AMY GOODMAN: And in the 30 seconds we have left, Steven Reisner, in the APA, an investigation is being done within the APA. What will make it different from the PENS committee years ago, that was made up, majority, of the people who were involved with the interrogations?

STEVEN REISNER: Well, what makes this different is that the Risen book exposed the collusion, apparent collusion, between the APA and the CIA and perhaps the DOD. An independent investigator has been hired to take a look at all documents at the APA, to look at all of the questions that we dissidents at the APA have raised, and will do a full and thorough independent investigation. And I agree with Dr. McCoy that we have to enshrine into law that torture has to be made illegal, but we also have to close that one place that has permitted torture, which has to do with health professionals and doctors and psychologists. And I’m hoping the results of this investigation will force, will press the APA to, once and for all, prohibit psychologists from being involved in any coercive interrogations from here on in.

AMY GOODMAN: We have to leave it there. I thank you, Steve Reisner, founding member of the Coalition for Ethical Psychology and psychological ethics adviser to Physicians for Human Rights. And thanks so much to Professor Alfred McCoy, professor of history at University of Wisconsin-Madison, author of A Question of Torture: CIA Interrogation, from the Cold War to the War on Terror, as well as Torture and Impunity: The U.S. Doctrine of Coercive Interrogation.

When we come back, former Senator Mike Gravel is calling on another senator, a current senator, Mark Udall, to read the Senate Intelligence Committee full report into the Congressional Record. Stay with us.

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