A “Beacon Light” Into Black Sites

Our answer to secret torture prisons ought to be the rule of law.

“America is a shining city upon a hillwhose beacon light guides freedom-loving people everywhere.”
—Ronald Reagan, echoing John Winthrop’s 1630 sermon

From the earliest days of our republic, Americans have been drawn to the idea of their nation as different, exceptional, an example for others. Sometimes that view has been shared by outsiders who really did strive to be guided by our “beacon light,” and sometimes not. Never mind: We came up with the notion of ourselves as an exception, and over time, we have become exceptional—though not because we are morally superior to anyone else. We are exceptional because we periodically feel obliged to hold our most senior leaders to standards with which others might not comply. We made Nixon resign. We made Clinton testify. Sooner or later, we will also have to hold accountable the American leaders who ordered American citizens to torture prisoners they had captured in Afghanistan and elsewhere, in violation both of our own Constitution and of international conventions we ratified long ago.

I say “American leaders” deliberately: Before any investigation has taken place, it is pointless to name names and to politicize needlessly what should, in principle, be a neutral legal process. That there were crimes committed is no longer in doubt. Mark Danner, writing in the New York Review of Books, has just printed excerpts from a previously confidential report, by the International Committee of the Red Cross, on interrogation methods used by the CIA in its “black site” prisons. Unlike Guantanamo Bay in its current incarnation, these prisons never officially existed. They are, or were, in the cellars of military bases in Afghanistan, perhaps, or maybe in the back rooms of Thai jails, or at the edge of Eastern European airfields.

They may not have held hundreds or even dozens of prisoners. The Red Cross report is based on interviews with only 14 detainees that ICRC officials conducted in 2006. But the horror of the CIA interrogation tactics in these places lies not in their scale but in the doggedness with which they defied American and international law. Water-boarding is one of the more benign methods on a list of “other methods of ill-treatment,” interrogation approaches that also included many hours of forced standing, nudity, beating and kicking, confinement in a box, sleep deprivation, and exposure to cold temperatures. Detainees also spoke of being “strapped to a bed, in a very white room,” of being smashed “repeatedly against the hard walls of the room,” of being forced to listen to unbearably loud music and deprived of solid food. Describing these techniques, Red Cross officials deliberately use the word torture with all of its legal and moral connotations.

These techniques, horrific in and of themselves, did deep political damage. As I’ve written previously, and as Danner concurs, there is still no evidence that information obtained through torture was of any special value: People under extreme physical stress will say anything to make the pain stop. On the other hand, there is plenty of evidence that the use of torture damaged some of the central goals of what I am still happy to call the war on terror. Certainly, they made it impossible to try those 14 black-site prisoners publicly, allowing the whole world to hear of their horrific crimes and feel disgust for their cause. The confessions of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed—mastermind of Sept. 11 and one of the 14 “high-value” detainees—were widely ignored two years ago precisely because many people assumed, rightly, that these confessions were obtained using torture. Certainly, the knowledge that Americans use torture alienated millions of potential allies, both in the Muslim world and outside it, convincing them that America is no different from the fanatics it is fighting. As Danner puts it, “[W]e freely chose to become the caricature they made of us.”

But the political rights and wrongs of this failed policy are no longer the point. What matters now is that our laws be enforced. America is not and never was a fascist state, and the CIA prisons were not the Gulag. These 14 prisoners were not tortured as part of an ordinary and accepted routine, in other words, but according to special rules and procedures, set up at the highest level of government by leaders who surely knew that they were illegal, or they would not have limited them so carefully. What we need now, therefore, is not an endless, politicized circus of a congressional investigation into every aspect of George W. Bush’s White House but a very specific, carefully targeted legal investigation of the CIA’s invisible prisons: Who gave the orders to use torture, who carried the orders out, what exactly was done, who objected? The guilty, however senior, should be named, forced to testify, and called to account—because the rule of law, and nothing else, is what makes us exceptional.