Torture: Bush and Blair try to cover their tracks

In the wake of publicity at the end of May detailing torture of detainees in Iraq and Guantanamo Bay, the US and British governments continue to pretend that this was the work of depraved individuals. Seven US soldiers and four British soldiers are facing courts martial as a result. The true situation, however, has little to do with the reckless or sadistic behaviour of prison guards or squaddies. The necessity for the torture and barbaric ill-treatment of prisoners results from the desperate need of imperialism to protect its privileges and its super-profits. In this war to maintain global dominance, anything goes.

‘The Blessings of Liberty’
Ever since ‘neo-cons’ assumed power with GW Bush’s election as US President they have been bolstering US global domination by expressly refuting international treaties and obligations on the environment, on the World Criminal Court, on mutual extradition, etc. Repudiation of the Geneva Conventions and Human Rights laws are simply following a pattern already set. With the 11 September 2001 attack on the World Trade Centre and the subsequent declaration of the War on Terrorism and invasion of Afghanistan, the US administration has adjusted its legal niceties to include indefinite detention without trial and torture for the opponents of US imperialism.

In January 2002 the US President’s Legal Counsel, Alberto Gonzales, advised Bush:

‘In my judgment, this new paradigm [the War on Terror] renders obsolete Geneva’s [the Geneva Conventions’] strict limitation on questioning of enemy prisoners and renders quaint some of its provisions’.

In August 2002 the Bush administration began redefining torture and inventing for itself a torturer’s charter: torture was now defined narrowly as the intention to deliberately inflict serious harm over prolonged periods. If this didn’t give the US enough scope to brutalise prisoners of war, the legal advisers also argued that in times of war the President could override all international treaty obligations, and indeed US domestic law itself.

Readers should not have any illusions that rogue lawyers brought this about. The power relation is the other way round: the Bush administration required these powers, the hired lawyers duly obliged with legal justifications. All it required was for the captives from Afghanistan to be declared ‘illegal combatants’ not prisoners of war, and then shipped to detention centres all over the world, not least the US Military Base in Guantanamo Bay, and the vicious circle was complete. Detainees could be tortured and interrogated at will in a legal black hole.

In December 2002 Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of Defence, authorised an experiment using torture (‘a variety of interrogation techniques’) on a selected group of Guantanamo detainees. The experiment worked but was clearly thought too monstrous by sections of the military, so the generalised use of this regime was shelved. Nonetheless, by April 2003 Rumsfeld had issued new rules for interrogation in Guantanamo Bay under the authority of Major General Geoffrey Miller who had taken over control in October 2002. What Miller did, which was crucial for the torture and ‘interrogation techniques’ to work, was to reverse the normal command structure so that Military Intelligence had control not only of interrogations, but also of conditions of detention. Prisoners could be kept in isolation, deprived of sleep and food, humiliated and ‘softened up’ for questioning.

Then came the war on Iraq, and more importantly the increasingly successful resistance to Coalition rule. The US and Britain needed better intelligence about the resistance and resorted to the methods they knew best. Despite the fact that the detainees in Iraq were clearly prisoners of war and therefore supposedly protected by the Geneva Conventions, the torturers moved in. In August 2003 Major General Miller was sent to Iraq from Guantanamo Bay to evaluate prison operations. The recent Senate investigations into the torture have revealed that Miller’s interrogation techniques were then widely circulated in Iraq ‘from documents that were posted on the walls of Abu Ghraib prison to debates among senior military lawyers in Baghdad’. Miller handed out lists of procedures to battalion commanders. The normal command structure was reversed as in Guantanamo Bay. Less than two months later in Abu Ghraib the torture photographs were taken.

Significantly, two senior officers, Brigadier General Janis Karpinski and Colonel Thomas Pappas, have both pointed the finger at Miller for the torture regime at Abu Ghraib. Both have testified to army investigators that Miller specifically urged the use of dogs. Such allegations cannot be allowed to stand, because from Miller there is a direct line of command which leads back to Rumsfeld and Bush. Karpinski has been relieved of her command.

All the President’s men are anxious to ensure that none of this affects Bush in election year. In his evidence to the Senate Armed Services Committee in May, Under Secretary of Defence, Stephen Camborne argued (ludicrously): ‘the notion that this decision [to suspend the Geneva Conventions] in some way undermined the Geneva Conventions is false.’ Bush himself has replied to all questions about torture and interrogation techniques with: ‘The authorisation issued was that anything we did would conform to US law and would be consistent with international law’. That’s OK until you realise that his administration had advised itself that US law and international law either allowed torture or were not applicable.

Despite the brutality of its treatment of detainees, let alone its entire prison system, the US still has a freedom of information act and arms of government which are willing and able to scrutinise what the President and his administration are doing. It is because of this that the details of torture in Iraq have been investigated and made public. Matters stand rather differently in the Mother of Parliaments.

Government by deception
The exposure of the Mirror torture pictures as fakes and the resignation of the Mirror editor Piers Morgan, allowed the government to claim that, unlike its Coalition partners, the British Army was above reproach. When Armed Forces Minister Adam Ingram was asked in Parliament about the progress of another inquiry into torture of Iraqi prisoners uncovered in June 2003 which had received remarkably little media coverage, he claimed not to know. The government allowed a few weeks for the fuss about torture to die down before it revealed that four of the soldiers responsible for the original and genuine torture pictures from Iraq would finally be court martialled. These pictures emerged when one of the soldiers from the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers took his war snaps to the local shop for developing and printing. The shop staff were so disturbed by the images of torture, including sexual humiliation and a naked, manacled and gagged detainee hoisted in a net from a forklift truck, that they reported it to the police. Nothing had been done until June 2004, a year later and the perpetrators still have not been suspended from their regiment.

At about the same time in June it was revealed that Parliament had been misled by an unfortunate miscalculation. The number of investigations being carried out into the mistreatment of Iraqi detainees and civilians by British troops is not 30 but 75, including 36 deaths.

In Britain, Parliament is so servile that despite the fact that Britain has been the architect of torture regimes around the world (see FRFI 179), the government does not need to work hard to cover its tracks. We know that the Guantanamo detainees have been tortured and are illegally detained. Is Parliament perturbed? Not a bit. Jack Straw, Foreign Secretary, issues blandishments every few months about talks with the US. Then they are forgotten about.

Questioned by the Intelligence and Security Committee (government appointees) about the government’s knowledge of the torture regime in Guantanamo Bay, Blair informed them:

‘On a few occasions [MI5 and MI6] staff did become aware either through their own observations or comments from detainees, that some detainees were being held in austere conditions or treated improperly. The concerns of these staff were passed on to the US authorities...’

and further in June 2003 that:

‘intelligence personnel saw hooded and shackled Iraqi detainees being interrogated’ [place not disclosed].

Did anyone ask what the ‘austere conditions’ were? Or what precisely being ‘treated improperly’ encompassed? What were the concerns of the staff and what did the US authorities do? We will never know, but we suspect that no one even asked the questions.

Ghost detainees
As a result of the fudged US Supreme Court ruling on 28 June, detainees in Guantanamo Bay, and arguably in other US detention camps in other countries, have a right to challenge their detention through the US courts. The exact extent of the detainees’ rights is yet to be made clear (see page 8). Rumsfeld is now speeding up the detention reviews which he promised over a year ago. These are military tribunals where the detainees are denied independent lawyers. The administration hopes that these tribunals will be ruled sufficient to meet the Supreme Court’s ruling. Meanwhile the lawyers for some detainees, including the British, have lodged habeas corpus hearings in US courts.

There is a long way to go before these detainees see justice. The Taguba report into Abu Ghraib prison pointed to an even worse problem:

‘Detention facilities operated by the 800th MP Brigade have routinely held persons brought to them by other government agencies (eg the CIA) without accounting for them, knowing their identities, or even the reason for their detention. The joint Interrogation and Debriefing Centre at Abu Ghraib called these detainees “ghost detainees”.’

Since the official end of the Coalition occupation the number of detainees in Abu Ghraib has fallen from 6,500 to 3,300, including three women and 22 boys under 18. No one knows if the other detainees have been released or simply transferred to another prison or another country. There is every reason to believe that there are ‘ghost detainees’ in Guantanamo Bay, and further that there are unknown prison camps across the world. Whatever the conditions these detainees are held in, the British government is just as much implicated as the US. They certainly know the truth and must be held responsible.
Carol Brickley

‘Iraq is a big place with a lot of sand’
Lord Butler

Rt Hon The Lord Butler of Brockwell, KG, GCB, CVO, educated at Harrow and Oxford University; Civil Servant and Mandarin; Private Secretary to Edward Heath and Harold Wilson as Prime Ministers; Principal Private Secretary to Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister; Secretary of the Cabinet and Head of the Home Civil Service 1988-98; Non-executive director: ICI plc, HSBC Holdings plc; Chair, Intelligence Review Committee 2004.

The British establishment is still turning out fine filibusterers, hair-splitters and loyal servants. They principally inhabit the House of Lords from whence they are hired at intervals to oversee reports on the Government’s gross turpitude and to find no-one responsible. Lord Hutton was one: Lord Butler is just such another. The Butler Report has confirmed what everyone knew, but Tony Blair was unwilling to admit: the September dossier on Iraq was fabricated rubbish. Somewhere between the intelligence operatives and 10 Downing Street a lot of doubtful ‘intelligence’ was changed into certainties. These certainties were used to bolster the argument for invasion of Iraq.1 As a result thousands of Iraqi civilians were killed in order to meet a ‘clear and present danger’ which did not exist.

But rejoice, says Tony Blair, the Iraqi people are free! The British establishment is very good at turning reality on its head. We have an Army full of fine chaps doing wondrous humanitarian work when the reality is that they are just as guilty of brutality as their US allies. We have a Prime Minister whose ‘integrity is second to none’, except that he has lied and cheated the British public into waging an illegal war. We have liberated great swathes of Afghanistan and Iraq, but unfortunately the ordinary people are living in worse poverty and misery.

We should try some regime-changing of our own.

1. There was also a second dodgy February dossier which was also a pack of lies.

FRFI 180 August / September 2004