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Use of Torture in the U.S. 'War on Terror'


On our program yesterday, I had a conversation with Slate editor Emily Bazelon about US policy toward torture and how it's changed since the September 11th attacks. At slate.com, you can find an interactive guide to the many reports, memos and personalities that shape what US policy is towards prisoners captured in the war on terror and in the war in Iraq. Among the conclusions in Slate's report is that with a few exceptions, there was, quote, "a uniform willingness to accept"--and they mean among administration officials--"a pretty extreme doctrinal definition of torture."

We sought comment and a response on this issue from various members of Congress. We got this from Senator John Warner--he's chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and his office provided us a statement from the senator. It's dated April 22nd, 2005. It reads in part, quote, "Beginning with our first hearing, members on both sides of our committee expressed the view that it was absolutely essential to determine what went wrong up and down the chain of command, both civilian and military; who was responsible; and who should be held accountable in accordance with judicial due process. These steps are essential in order to uphold the standards of the department and the professional military, and to ensure that such a dereliction of duty and responsibility never happens again." The senator's statement goes on to say that investigations are continuing within the Department of Defense, and when they're concluded, he's going to hold hearings.

We're joined now by David Rivkin Jr. He's a Washington lawyer, a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, a former official in the administrations of both President Reagan and President Bush Sr. He supports the Bush administration's position on the treatment of prisoners.

David Rivkin, welcome to the program.

Mr. DAVID RIVKIN Jr. (Council on Foreign Relations): Nice to be with you.

CHADWICK: Slate's conclusion--a pretty extreme doctrinal definition of torture. According to Slate, the administration has drawn a very narrow definition of torture in order to allow techniques of interrogation that might not normally be allowed. Is that a fair characterization?

Mr. RIVKIN: It is a technically unfair characterization in that there were certainly discussions within the administration that wrestled with very difficult definitional issues; there were some people that took a more narrow view as to what amounts to torture and inhumane and degrading treatment; there's some people who took a broader view. So it's not only unfair to say the entire administration took a very narrow view, but more importantly what is fundamentally wrong with Slate and a lot of the media critics is they assume that there is a logical nexus, if you will, between those definitional issues and what actually happened on the ground, on a battlefield, in the areas in Abu Ghraib, in Guantanamo. And that is just absolute nonsense. The whole torture narrative that links the legal and the conceptual debates to the actual behavior--it is that part, to me, that is most problematic.

CHADWICK: You know, at Abu Ghraib, the military police there were instructed at one point to, quote, "help set conditions for interrogations," to make things tough on these prisoners so that they would be more forthcoming in interrogations. I think what the critics of the Bush administration are saying is that it set conditions legally, administratively for all these bad apples, as they've been characterized, to crop up and occur in Afghanistan, at Guantanamo and within Iraq.

Mr. RIVKIN: There's several answers to that. The most compelling answer to me is this: If it is indeed the case that the Bush administration created a permissive legal and policy atmosphere for instances of abuse to occur, you would expect to have more instances of abuse than, let's say, in the previous conflicts involving American troops, like World War I, World War II, Korea and Vietnam. Nothing can be further from the truth. This is the lowest percentage of crimes and offenses and abuses including, you know, some serious abuses, some less serious ones, ever in American history. If things are worse, you would then naturally come to the conclusion there's some systemic problems and push systemic reforms. If the situation is better than in the past, it is as least empirically difficult to blame the leadership.

CHADWICK: Here's a memo that came from Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez. He was the commander of American forces in Iraq in 2003. This memo was in effect for about a month from September to early October, and then the general rescinded many of the things that he allows here. But it does allow the use of dogs to scare prisoners, albeit muzzled dogs that couldn't actually hurt them apparently; it allows the use of these stress positions where people are made to assume very uncomfortable positions for hours on end; it allows the use of lights and loud music to make people uncomfortable; it allows sleep deprivation for prisoners over a period of several days. Would it be OK with you if those kinds of techniques were used on American prisoners who were held by an enemy?

Mr. RIVKIN: I will give you the following answer. First of all, American prisoners of war who are in fact POWs, lawful combatants entitled to the best gold standard, if you will, under Geneva, have not only been subjected to these techniques, but have been tortured, abused and killed in every single conflict since World War II.

Second, a lot of those techniques are unpleasant. A lot of those techniques, however, whether or not they amount to torture and inhumane and degrading treatment, is a question of degree. Let me tell you that in basic training in the military--and everybody who's ever seen movies about basic training and sort of people joining the military and the right of passage--do you not recall scenes where your sergeant, because you didn't do something right or he just sort of wants to mold you into a new person and break down habits of civilian life, tells you to stand at parade rest for two or three hours, or go use a brush and clean the bathroom floor, or drop down and give him a hundred or 200 sit-ups? Are we torturing our own people? Modest use of sleep deprivation, when you go for Hell Week at Paris Island--people don't sleep for several days. We're not talking about pulling fingernails out here. So things like use of stress position, sleep deprivation, use of noises, use of lights and whatnot can be torture if used over a protracted period of time, or might not be that. My question would be, are we torturing our own recruits when we subject them to considerable stress? Stress is endemic to military life.

CHADWICK: David Rivkin is a lawyer in Washington who has written articles defending the policies of the Bush administration on detainees. He's a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and a former official in the administrations of President Reagan and President George Bush Sr. Mr. Rivkin, thank you for joining us on DAY TO DAY.

Mr. RIVKIN: My pleasure.

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CHADWICK: I'm Alex Chadwick. Stay with us on DAY TO DAY from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Alex Chadwick
For more than 30 years, Alex Chadwick has been bringing the world to NPR listeners as an NPR News producer, program host and currently senior correspondent. He's reported from every continent except Antarctica.