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September 15, 2010

Declassified history of the U.S. response to 9/11

Scott Stockdale

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The use of what the Bush Administration called "extreme interrogation techniques" - a euphemism for torture - is not only a violation of international and U.S. laws, it's not going to make us safer, according to Tom Blanton, director of the National Security Archives at George Washington University, in Washington D.C.

Speaking in Waterloo, at the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI) Signature Lecture: Torturing Democracy: The Declassified History of the U.S. Response to 9/11, Mr. Blanton said experts have long known that they can't rely upon information extracted under torture, because detainees will say anything to stop the torture; and often they don't even remember what they've said.

“It's (torture) not about getting information. It's about macho posturing, getting revenge.”

Moreover, although former President Bush and former Vice President Dick Cheney announced that the world had changed after 9/11, as a justification for the “War on Terror,” Mr. Blanton said that in response to airplane hijackings, President Nixon declared the first “War on Terror” in 1969, replete with hoods, shackles and sensory deprivation techniques, that have become so familiar, post 9/11. And these methods of interrogation didn't stop terrorism then and they're not stopping it now.

After eight years of fighting to declassify government documents, under the Freedom of Information Act, Mr. Blanton, along with a group of lawyers and researchers, was able to get documents which outlined the Bush administration's approval of such interrogation techniques as water torture -whereby the prisoner is made to lie in an inclining position and water is poured into the prisoner's mouth each time he or she attempts to breath.

“It creates a sense of total helplessness,” said Bush's Under Secretary of State Richard Armitage, who was himself subjected to water torture so the administration could get feedback about the effects.

In excerpts from a film called Torturing Democracy, a former Guantanamo Bay prisoner – one of many released without charge – described being hung by his wrists for 22 hours a day, causing his wrists and arms to go numb.

Another former U.S. prisoner described being held in a pitch-black underground cell.

“You can't see anything or use your senses. It's as if you're inside a tomb, except for the sound of speakers which blasted around the clock for weeks so you could never fall asleep sound (sic).”

Mr. Blanton said shackling prisoners' hands and feet to the floor and leaving them in this position for many hours a day, keeping prisoners in underground cells, in Afghanistan in the dead of winter, or keeping them in these cells in Guantanamo Bay, in sweltering heat, were other interrogation methods the Bush administration authorized.

After showing a film segment of George Bush saying that Article 3 of the Geneva Convention – which states that there should be no outrages of human dignity – was vague, Mr. Blanton said that in 2006 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that violations of Article 3 were war crimes.

He then showed another film segment where George Bush announces that it is a rare act when a president can sign an order to save American lives.

“This order stripped the courts of the power to hear cases based on the Geneva Convention and it granted retroactive immunity for officials who had carried out an order of torture,” Mr. Blanton said. “Later, they also said anyone prosecuted for following the president's orders would be protected.”

He added that in 2002 the CIA started waterboarding, and then it asked the U.S. Justice Department for a legal memo to make it okay.

Mr. Blanton then showed an excerpt from the film Torturing Democracy, in which a U.S. official said U. S. servicemen will pay for decades for their government's torture policies. Meanwhile, while armchair warriors like Bush continue to say things like: “Bring them on. We can take it.”

University of Waterloo Political Science professor Adrew Thompson followed Mr. Blanton to the podium to give a Canadian perspective on some of these issues.

  1. In what Dr. Thompson said symbolized a large assault on International Human Rights law, Canada sent its intelligence officials to Guantanamo Bay in 2002, to interrogate the then 15-year-old child soldier Omar Khadr; and Canadian officials then shared their   findings with U.S. officials.

He said that in 2008, a Canadian Federal Court ruled that this was a violation of International law, as well as a violation of a Canada's  Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Notwithstanding these violations, Mr. Thompson said International law does matter.

“That's the reason why Bush administration officials sought legal cover.  Because they understood the power of international law.”

Both Mr. Blanton and Mr. Thompson said publicity is a strong weapon against such violations.

“Every time a story appears in the papers, another official says, 'I don't want to go there,'” Mr. Blanton said.

Mr. Thompson added that “Torture can take place when people have immunity; when people are not allowed to know what's going on.”

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