Politics

How Bush Rules: Torture and The Quest For Unfettered Power

How Bush Rules CoverWe do not torture,” President Bush has said time and again. But Bush has approved techniques that are defined as torture under the Geneva Conventions. In fact, he abrogated U.S. compliance with Article 3 of the Conventions that specifically prohibits torture. Indeed, his then White House counsel and now attorney general Alberto Gonzales contemptuously referred to the Conventions as “quaint.”

In the infamous memo of August 1, 2002 written by the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, the so-called “Bybee memo,” after Jay Bybee, its director and since appointed by Bush to a federal judgeship, the Conventions were shoved aside and the definition revised. Rather than the Conventions stipulations against “cruel, inhumane and degrading” treatment of prisoners and “outrages upon personal dignity, in particular, humiliating and degrading treatment,” the administration adopted new standards: “Physical pain amounting to torture must be equivalent to intensity to the pain accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death.” The Bush administration’s new torture policy prompted the export of torture technique from Guantanamo to Abu Ghraib.

Bush’s torture policy is a centerpiece of his effort to concentrate unfettered power in the executive, an overarching change justified by an executive order declaring that in his role as commander-in-chief in wartime he can make and enforce laws at will. In my new book, “How Bush Rules: Chronicles of a Radical Regime,” I present and analyze the history of Bush’s radical attempt to impose an imperial presidency.

Now, after the Supreme Court has ruled that Bush’s dismissal of the Geneva Conventions and his kangaroo court military commissions for detainees are illegal, the president is trying to force the Congress to reinstate them through legislation. Republicans on the Senate Armed Service Committee are in revolt, and former Secretary of State Colin Powell issued a public letter saying that Bush’s position throws into “doubt” the “moral” basis of his “war on terror.”

The FBI forbids its agents from participating in any way in interrogation of detainees because of agents’ experience of what they considered torture. One agent in an email to bureau officials on August 2, 2004 described what he witnessed at the Guantanamo detainee prison camp: “On a couple of occasions, I entered interview rooms to find a detainee chained hand and foot in a fetal position to the floor, with no chair, food or water. Most times they had urinated or defecated on themselves, and had been left there for 18 to 24 hours or more.” In one case, he said, “The detainee was almost unconscious on the floor, with a pile of hair next to him. He had apparently been literally pulling his own hair out throughout the night.”

Bush claims are these methods that are “not torture” are necessary because they produce valuable intelligence on terrorism activities. Yet an FBI agent involved in the interrogations wrote on December 5, 2003, “These tactics have produced no intelligence of a threat neutralization nature to date and . . .”

The U.S. Army agrees emphatically. On September 6, the same day that Bush unveiled his new plan for torture and kangaroo courts, Lieutenant General John F. Kimmons, the Army’s Deputy Chief of Intelligence, in his presentation of the Army’s new field manual on interrogation that specifically encoded the Geneva Conventions rules against torture, said directly: “No good intelligence comes from abusive interrogation practices.”

The debate over Bush’s insistence on the use of torture is not a weird aberration, but central to his entire radical project to transform the American constitutional system, create an unaccountable executive, and operate outside the rule of law if he so decides. I describe at length the origins, history and politics of Bush’s ruthless coercion of the senior military, the intelligence community and congressional Republicans to accept torture and comply with his idea of an imperial presidency in “How Bush Rules: Chronicles of a Radical Regime.” Once the background is understood it will not come as a surprise that Bush has provoked a revolt by traditional Republicans and the senior military, pushed into the position of defending American values against Bush’s radicalism. The outcome is by no means obvious.

— Sidney Blumenthal