CIA Doctors Complicit in Torture and Human Subjects Research, Say Medical Experts

In a detailed analysis of the Senate’s torture report, Physicians for Human Rights – a US-based rights group – found that CIA medical personnel might have committed war crimes by monitoring and approving the use of torture, and by conducting research on prisoners.

Some outlets had already noted the prominence of health professionals in the Senate’s summary, but PHR‘s new report, authored by a host of experienced medical professionals, offers the most thorough treatment of this subject so far. Based on its analysis of the summary, PHR finds that “health professionals played not only a central, but an essential role in the CIA torture program – to an extent not previously understood…Without the participation of health professionals, this illegal program might have been prevented.” Although the torture started with psychologists, it involved three medical professions: psychologists, physicians (including psychiatrists), and physician assistants. PHR enumerates eight categories of abuse by health professionals “that violate their ethical and legal obligations.”

For instance, the summary shows that medical professionals designed, directed and profited from the torture program. SERE psychologists James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen (referred to in the text by the pseudonyms Swigert and Dunbar) devised a list of “enhanced interrogation techniques” for CIA in the summer of 2002. These techniques were based on Dr Martin Seligman’s theory of “learned helplessness” and adopted from various tactics inflicted on trainees at the US military’s SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape) school, where Mitchell and Jessen had both worked.

The summary provides the fullest description yet of “the scope of Mitchell’s and Jessen’s involvement in the torture program,” according to PHR. They performed psychological assessments of prisoners prior to their torture, drew up brutal interrogation plans and then administered the techniques themselves. And they did not do this for free, either: the summary shows that Mitchell and Jessen profited handsomely from the torture program, eventually launching their own company (Mitchell, Jessen & Associates) and bagging $81 million of a mammoth $180 million contract from CIA. By 2007, the torture program was overwhelmingly outsourced to contractors (many of them from Mitchell, Jessen & Associates, according to the summary). Some CIA personnel protested about conflicts of interest, noting how Mitchell and Jessen would evaluate the effectiveness of techniques they themselves administered and stood to profit from, cashing in to the tune of $1800 per day (four times the pay of other interrogators). A racket, in other words.

In his new book, Pay Any Price, published just before the Senate released its executive summary, reporter James Risen drew on the example of Mitchell and Jessen to show how greed and ambition drove US counter-terrorism policies in the wake of 9/11. However, Risen makes clear that the psychologists were not lone rangers, but part of a much broader constellation of doctors and behavioral scientists working for the US government. In a recent article, Jeff Kaye shows that Mitchell and Jessen were closely involved with the intelligence community before they concocted “enhanced interrogation techniques”. In early 2002 they appeared with other carefully-selected scientists and intelligence professionals at a conference sponsored by the FBI and American Psychological Association (now under investigation thanks to revelations of CIA collusion published in Risen’s new book). Far from being an outsider, plucked randomly out of a hat, Mitchell was already part of the counter-terrorism fold before the Agency sent him to Thailand for Abu Zubaydah’s interrogation. Some have placed excessive blame on the contractors, implying they hijacked a panicky, innocent CIA and conned its officials into adopting torture.

Back to the summary, PHR explains that doctors inflicted harm on captives, most clearly in their use of “rectal feeding” and “rectal rehydration” (I wrote a detailed post about this recently). They also helped give legal cover for the torture program: Office of Legal Counsel lawyers had argued, in an August, 2002 memo, that “enhanced interrogation techniques” would be safe and lawful provided doctors were present to safeguard the prisoners’ health. The doctors therefore monitored torture sessions to make sure CIA’s abuses stayed within the broad legal limits laid down by the Justice Department, limits which – according to PHR – were meaningless and permitted torture and cruelty.  By assessing prisoners before and during interrogation, and deeming them to be mentally and physically fit, the doctors were effectively approving their torture. The analysis gives various examples from the Senate’s summary to support this point, including the case of two CIA detainees who broke their feet during an escape attempt. The medics initially recommended they not be placed in stress positions but, two weeks later, a physician assistant, with the approval of other OMS doctors, determined that the prisoners’ wounds were “sufficiently healed to allow being placed in the standing sleep deprivation process.” The summary also shows that doctors were present throughout the waterboarding of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Abu Zubaydah, recommending the former be waterboarded with saline solution to forestall the possibility of water intoxication, and suggesting the latter be transferred to a liquid diet as he was vomiting copiously in response to the waterboarding. Former CIA Director Michael Hayden insisted that Abu Zubaydah had been switched to Ensure because he was recovering from abdominal surgery. “If this were the case,” PHR states, “it raises the question of why an individual recovering from abdominal surgery would be subjected to waterboarding, to the point of vomiting and losing consciousness.”

As PHR writes, doctors should never participate in torture and to do so constitutes a gross violation of domestic and international law, along with their ethical obligation to “do no harm” . Dr Atul Gawande of Harvard Medical School responded to the revelations of medical complicity in torture with a series of fierce tweets, such as:

Even more alarming is PHR‘s contention that CIA doctors were conducting human subjects experimentation. They collected data from the interrogations and analyzed it with a view to improving the safety of the techniques; they shared this information with the Justice Department who then incorporated it into their memos legitimizing the torture. Although the doctors were, in theory, working to protect the prisoners, they were, in effect, facilitating their abuse by helping Bush lawyers justify waterboarding and other brutal practices. PHR extracts various sections in the summary where medical personnel express concern about playing this role. For example, two officers were asked to perform an independent review of the program, and responded: “… that it would not be possible to assess the effectiveness of the CIA’s enhanced interrogation techniques without violating “Federal Policy for the Protection of Human Subjects” regarding human
experimentation.” (p. 13) As Dr Steven Reisner said during a recent discussion at Al Jazeera’s The Stream, “In their zeal to protect the government against charges of torture, they actually committed an equally heinous crime, which was human subjects research.” Such research is prohibited by domestic statute and also by the Nuremberg Code (created in response to the Nazi medical experiments at Auschwitz and elsewhere). PHR writes, “If further investigation establishes that human subjects research without consent was performed systematically on detainees then such activities are violations of the Nuremberg Code and could constitute a crime against humanity.”

These assertions are not new. PHR had already raised concerns in 2010 that doctors were conducting research on prisoners and a bipartisan report found last year that doctors working for the military and CIA were complicit in torture. Moreover Mitchell’s and Jessen’s importance as architects of “enhanced interrogation” had emerged gradually in the last several years, thanks to reporting by Jane Mayer (in her book The Dark Side, for example) and Katherine Eban at Vanity Fair (see here and here). But new evidence gleaned from the Senate’s summary provides compelling proof that doctors played an indispensable role in the torture program and violated numerous laws and ethical codes in the process. In fact, as human-rights researcher Nathaniel Raymond said on Al Jazeera, “Health professionals, in their engagement in this program, actually violated more laws and ethics than the other personnel involved”. That being so, PHR calls on President Obama to establish a blue-ribbon federal commission, with full subpoena powers, to investigate the role of medical professionals in CIA torture and, if appropriate, recommend those culpable for prosecution (last week PHR had still not received a response from the administration). Given Obama’s refusal, throughout his presidency, to hold Bush-era torturers accountable for their crimes, such an inquiry is unlikely to get off the ground, effectively meaning that the egregious legal and ethical violations documented by PHR will go unpunished. This not only has grave implications for the rule of law in America, but also increases the likelihood that such atrocities will repeat themselves.

UPDATE

Democracy Now hosted a long discussion today about the role of health professionals in the CIA torture program. The show featured Nathaniel Raymond – one of the co-authors of PHR‘s analysis – who described the involvement of doctors in torture after 9/11. Raymond also talked about the ongoing (and aforementioned) investigation into the American Psychological Association which, he says, was “potentially engaged in racketeering related to its relationship with CIA and White House officials”.

Tortured Semantics: Media Still Equivocating on Use of the Word “Torture”

Yesterday former Vice President Dick Cheney faced interviewer Chuck Todd on NBC’s “Meet the Press” for a twenty-minute chit-chat about the Senate’s summary of its 6000-page Torture Report. While much of the media coverage has focused on Cheney’s unapologetic defence of torture and kidnapping, I was struck more by the following Tweet from the interviewer himself:

Note the caveat: “what some have dubbed“. The interview itself contained a lengthy back-and-forth over the definition of torture, Cheney denying the CIA’s practices deserved that label, insisting they were authorized by the Justice Department (he ignored the Senate summary’s well-documented finding that CIA had provided Justice with inadequate information on which to base their legal opinions, but Todd didn’t mention that). For many, dare I say most, of us this “debate” ended long ago, if it ever happened in the first place. Waterboarding, alone, is a blatant criminal offence, even if – as Karl Rove said on Fox recently – the CIA tipped up the prisoners’ legs to stop water getting into their lungs (in fact, they did this so that more water entered their airways through the nostrils). And, now, whatever doubt there once was is unsustainable: the summary documents numerous acts of hardcore, Gestapo-variety torture, from chaining people’s hands over their heads for hours on end, to stripping them naked, to drowning them, to threatening them with drills and guns, to stuffing purified food up their rectums, to blasting them with music and depriving them of sleep for days on end, while making them stand, in some cases, on broken or injured limbs. But the media is still hesitant to call a spade a spade. It is no surprise to see Fox sticking to its guns and denying the methods amounted to torture. More striking is how supposedly “liberal” outlets, like CNN, NBC, NPR and others, are still relying on euphemisms or run-arounds to avoid using the t-word. Here are some examples. In August the New York Times changed its editorial policy, deciding to apply the word “torture” to Bush-era practices, but as I wrote in a new piece at British Journalism Review, they still won’t use the word in its full legal sense (which would mean branding the Bush, CIA torturers as criminals). But the Times has been reluctant to use “torture” even in the legally-neutral, watered-down sense it deems acceptable. So its reporter Peter Baker, in stories about the Senate’s report soon after its release, rarely used the word torture, in one case mentioning “techniques widely considered to be torture”. Scott Shane, another Times reporter (and, I should add, one of the best national security journalists in the US) also avoided the word, preferring “measures long considered torture”, although he did say John McCain was “tortured” by the North Vietnamese (in other words, foreigners torture, we don’t). In general, Times news correspondents have tip-toed awkwardly around a word they are now supposed to be using routinely. When “torture” does appear in their reporting – which it does – the word is mainly confined to headlines, footers below photographs, linked articles, or opinions attributed to others. It’s as if, by inserting “torture” into a headline, the paper is grandly proclaiming its liberal credentials, only to roll them back throughout the ensuing story. However, despite the paper’s hesitant deployment of the ‘t-word’, its public editor, Margaret Sullivan, recently opined: “Whether to use the term torture as opposed to, for example, harsh interrogation techniques, is now pretty obvious…And earlier this year, the executive editor, Dean Baquet, made a policy change, authorizing the use of the term. Clearly now, that judgment — while it should have come sooner — was right.” But, as the above demonstrates, policy has not really translated into practice. While the Times might have changed its ways to some degree, the Washington Post has explicitly refused to use “torture” when discussing American crimes. As FAIR Media‘s Peter Hart observed, a recent report by Greg Miller and Julie Tate (again, outstanding reporters) only applied the word once to CIA practices, and even then it was hedged with the usual “measures, deemed torture by program critics”. This was no coincidence, but company policy, as the Post‘s Philip Bump overtly acknowledged soon after the report’s release. Bump quotes the paper’s former national security editor (and current national editor), Cameron Barr: “”After the use of the term ‘torture became contentious,” Barr said, “we decided that we wouldn’t use it in our voice to describe waterboarding and other harsh interrogation techniques authorized by the Bush administration. But we often cited others describing waterboarding as torture in stories that mentioned the technique.”” Bump states, “That continues to be The Post’s policy”.

Article in British Journalism Review about the New York Times’ New Torture Policy

I have an article just out in British Journalism Review, “Let’s Call a Crime by its Real Name”, scrutinizing the New York Times’ new editorial policy on use of the word “torture” when referring to US interrogation policy. Here’s a link: http://www.bjr.org.uk/data/2014/no4_stone.

Obviously this is a topical subject, in light of the Senate’s release of its Torture Report last week, and I’ll be following up with some more media criticism on this blog (including a look at how the Times and other outlets are deploying the t-word).

Stay tuned!

Doctors vs Michael Hayden: “Rectal Rehydration” Unnecessary, Amounts to Torture, Rape

Of the many gruesome details revealed in the Senate’s summary of its 6000-page report on the CIA’s post-9/11 torture program, perhaps the worst is the Agency’s use of “rectal rehydration” and “rectal feeding” on at least five detainees. In case, like me, you had never heard of these methods before, they denote, respectively, the insertion of water and food into an individual’s anus by tube or enema. The summary shows that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was rectally hydrated, that Abu Zubaydah was given Ensure (a liquid nutrient) via his backside, that Majid Khan was fed with Ensure, and that once his plate of hummus, pasta with sauce and pine nuts was pureed and “rectally infused” (Khan later tried to self-harm, chewing into his own elbow).

The report states that these procedures were used “without medical necessity” in an attempt to control and coerce the detainees. Rehydration is described, in the summary, “as helping to ‘clear a person’s head’ and effective in getting KSM to talk.” (page 83), and is discussed as a means of “behavior control” (footnote 584 on page 100 gives voluminous evidence).

You would think that even Michael Hayden, who has appeared numerous times in public to rebut the torture allegations, would not stoop so low as to defend these practices. But in an interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper last Thursday, he did just that. Tapper naively assumed that the rectal rehydration was an “unauthorized” form of abuse carried out by rogue CIA sadists deviating from Agency guidelines. But Hayden cut in, “No, stop, that was a medical procedure…The people responsible there for the health of these detainees saw that they were becoming dehydrated.” Tapper then replied incredulously, “Pureeing hummus and pine nuts?” “Jake, I’m not a doctor and neither are you,” Hayden said, “but what I am told is this is one of the ways that the body is rehydrated. These were medical procedures.”Tapper still wasn’t convinced: “Are you really defending rectal rehydration?”

It is unclear who “told” Hayden these were medical procedures, but a number of highly-qualified doctors have challenged his comments. In interviews with the International Business Times both Dr Steven Miles and Dr. J Wesley Boyd of Harvard Medical disputed the necessity of rectal feeding and hydration. Boyd said it was “totally false” that rectal hydration was a legitimate medical procedure. “We hydrate people normally by handing them water, handing them a glass or bottle of water and you drink it. If you’re unconscious and unable to drink fluid, in those instances we would place an IV in your arm and run fluids into you that way. That is a legitimate medical procedure. … Rectal feeding is full-on 100 percent torture, period. It’s about humiliation, it’s about degradation and exerting control and obviously about inflicting pain.”

This view was echoed in a factsheet compiled by the US-based rights group Physicians for Human Rights. The document states that, “Rectal hydration is almost never practiced in medicine because oral and intravenous routes of fluid administration are more effective.” While the large colon has the “capacity to absorb fluids”, it has a “very limited capacity to absorb nutrients. Pureed food and nutritional supplements, such as Ensure, should never be administered rectally.” Rectal hydration is only used in very rare circumstances, with wounded soldiers or terminally ill patients, when oral or intravenous access is not possible.

Professor Thomas Burke of Harvard Medical School is quoted as saying, “For all practical purposes, it’s never used. No one in the United States is hydrating anybody through their rectum. Nobody is feeding anybody through their rectum.” Burke told the Washington Post that he polled several of his colleagues and found that none of them had ever used these methods. In its June 2013 rebuttal to the Senate’s summary the CIA insisted the rectal feeding and hydration were applied partly because they were “safer” than using IV needles with uncooperative prisoners, and more efficient than conducting oral procedures. But, according to Burke, “Every day in the United States, health workers encounter uncooperative, belligerent or mentally disturbed patients who need hydration or sustenance. “And [in] none of them do we put a tube in their bottom,” he said.”

Dr Steven Field, of NYU’s School of Medicine, adds, “In over 30 years of gastroenterology practice I never used rectal hydration. Also, rectal feeding simply doesn’t make physiologic sense. The colon cannot absorb even pureed food.”

As the factsheet shows, it is clear from the Senate’s summary that these methods were used without medical necessity, to coerce and humiliate the prisoners. It concludes by stating unequivocally that “Insertion of any object into the rectum of an individual without their consent constitutes a form of
sexual assault.”

Dr Allen Keller, Director of the NYU/Bellevue Program for Survivors of Torture, said, “This was done not solely for therapeutic reasons but as another form of abuse or humiliation”. Keller added, “Given the circumstances, this is sodomy with the intention of humiliation under the guise of medical treatment.”

Dr Howard Markel, of the University of Michigan, told PBS that rectal feeding and hydration are “almost never done”, as they are antiquated, inefficient methods dating back to the 18th and 19th centuries. ““It’s annoying and humiliating to have it done to you,” Markel wrote, adding, “If the fluids you are infusing into the rectum and colon are not the right balance of electrolytes, etc., your bowels could violently — and painfully — expel the contents all over you and the floor. Speaking as a physician, there is no place [for this] in medical treatment today. It’s a barbaric way to feed, let alone rehydrate anyone in the 21st Century [my emphasis].””

In a separate piece, Cornell Law Professor Michael Dorf writes that “there was no medical reason why the CIA chose rectal feeding and hydration for its prisoners”. He continues, “The CIA used rectal feeding and rectal hydration–rather than some less instrusive method of forced feeding or no forced feeding at all–specifically for the purpose of inflicting pain and humiliation on the prisoners. Put more starkly, in addition to threatening to rape the mothers of some of its prisoners, the CIA used rectal feeding and rectal hydration to anally rape prisoners.” According to international law (from the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia and the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda) “systematic use of rape or other serious sexual violence is a war crime and/or a crime against humanity,” Dorf writes.

According to Hayden, the notion that rectal feeding and hydration were used to control or coerce detainees was based on “one half-ass, unwarranted comment in one email” in the Senate’s report. But the summary is amply documented: footnote 584, relating to the procedures, is so replete with evidence that it occupies most of page 100, for example. And, besides, the full report is about 6000 pages long and presumably contains more information. Senate Committee Chair Dianne Feinstein put out a statement on her website, “CIA’s Use of Rectal Hydration, Feeding Not Medical Procedures”, detailing the numerous instances from the report showing these methods were applied to control the detainees.

In short, Hayden is scraping the barrel. The procedures used by CIA were unnecessary, criminal and unethical: they constitute torture and sexual assault. As J Wesley Boyd told International Business Times, “”Medical personnel should only work toward the health and betterment of people.” He added later, “Whatever state boards of medicine these physicians are licensed through, they should certainly take action against them.””

UPDATE I

Dick Cheney has weighed in on the rectal feeding and hydration controversy with predictable delicacy this afternoon during an interview with Chuck Todd on Meet the Press. Todd asked him if the insertion of pureed food into Majid Khan’s anus amounted to torture. Cheney said it was not one of the approved techniques and believes “it was done for medical reasons”. Todd shot back that the medical community disputed his view. Cheney then referred to the CIA’s rebuttal (debunked by the doctors in question). It’s not entirely clear, given the lack of concrete detail in Cheney’s remarks, that he has read a) the summary b) the CIA’s rebuttal or c) knows anything about the doctors’ criticisms of rectal feeding. Might is right.

UPDATE II

While specific attention has been paid to the revolting, sadistic nature of rectal infusions, forced-feeding has not only been used by CIA, but was (and still is) applied by the military at Guantanamo Bay. While the stated purpose of military forced-feeding is to keep prisoners alive, it is likely that the extreme force and cruelty of the procedure – involving violent cell extractions, restraint chairs and repeated insertions of feeding tubes – is intended to break prisoners into ending their hunger strikes. Back in 2006 General Craddock admitted as much to the New York Times‘ Eric Schmitt and Tim Golden:

“On Tuesday, General Craddock said he had reviewed the use of the restraint chairs, as had senior officials at the Department of Defense, and they concluded that the practice was “not inhumane.” General Craddock left no doubt, however, that commanders had decided to try to make life less comfortable for the hunger strikers, and that the measures were seen as successful. “Pretty soon it wasn’t convenient, and they decided it wasn’t worth it,” he said of the hunger strikers. “A lot of the detainees said: ‘I don’t want to put up with this. This is too much of a hassle.’ ”

So, grisly though rectal hydration might be, it is not the only example of humiliating forced-feeding procedures used to coerce and control prisoners.

CIA Director Responds to Senate Torture Report

This afternoon CIA Director John Brennan gave a rare press conference at Langley Headquarters to address the Senate’s recently-released summary of its report on the Agency’s Rendition, Detention and Interrogation Program.

In a short introductory speech, Brennan evoked the panic and confusion caused by the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, which plunged the US into a “seemingly never-ending war” against terrorism. When asked by President Bush to detain terror suspects, CIA was at first unprepared for the task. “Precious few of our officers were trained interrogators,” Brennan told reporters.

He insisted that the Bush Justice Department had determined EITs to be “lawful”, but acknowledged that the CIA’s conduct of the program was a “legitimate oversight issue”. Despite criticizing the Senate’s methodology – failing to interview Agency personnel, in particular – he nonetheless praised the Committee for its efforts in sorting through “millions of documents”. Many aspects of their conclusions were “sound and consistent with our own prior findings”, he said, accepting that some Agency staff had used “abhorrent methods” in excess of the “guidance issued” by CIA.

However, he refrained from referring to the CIA’s actions as torture, telling one reporter that he would “leave it to others” how they want to “label those activities”. Asked about his own involvement in the EIT program – as Deputy Executive Director on 9/11 – Brennan said he “was aware” of the program but had no “management oversight” role.

Brennan conceded that CIA did not hold some officers accountable for violations, saying that “we simply failed to live up to the standards that we set for ourselves”. However, he assured reporters that reforms had been made to ensure “those mistakes never happen again”. He took issue with the Senate’s finding that the Agency had systematically misled White House and the Congress, while acknowledging that briefings needed improvement. The Senate’s report suggested there might have been more detainees subjected to waterboarding than the three previously confirmed. Asked if he could “categorically say” there were only three such cases, Brennan said that, to the best of his knowledge, three was the correct number.

He insisted the RDI program produced valuable intelligence that led to Osama Bin Laden, although it was ultimately “unknowable” if this information could have been acquired through other means. He believes that “non-coercive” methods of interrogation are sufficient and do not compromise US “national security and international standing”. When asked by a reporter if CIA would consider resuscitating the program, he said the Agency no longer detained suspects and had no plans to reintroduce EITs. However, he said he deferred “to the policymakers in future times when there is going to be the need to ensure that this country stays safe”, prompting this tweet from MSNBC‘s Chris Hayes:

Questions were largely general in scope, and avoided specific details in the report. For example, no one asked Brennan if CIA had in fact provided the Justice Department with misleading information when it assessed the legality of the techniques, as the summary alleges. And Daily Beast‘s Josh Rogin tweeted:

In a statement posted to her website the Committee’s Chairman Dianne Feinstein commented: “CIA Director Brennan’s comments were not what I expected. They showed that CIA leadership is prepared to prevent this from ever happening again—which is all-important.” But, she added, “I disagree that it is ‘unknowable’ whether information needed to stop terrorist attacks could be obtained from other sources. The report shows that such information in fact was obtained through other means, both traditional CIA human intelligence and from other agencies.” She also live tweeted throughout his presentation, using the hashtag #ReadTheReport:

ACLU Director Anthony Romero responded to the press conference on the group’s website:

“As the Senate report shows, the CIA used methods that have long been understood to amount to torture. If we don’t hold officials accountable for ordering that conduct, our government will adopt these methods again in the future. The fact that President Obama’s CIA director believes that these methods remain a policy option for the next administration shows why we need a special prosecutor. We have to ensure that this never happens again.”

And Amnesty International’s Naureen Shah commented:

“Words like these do not reflect the full gravity of torture and enforced disappearances. They downgrade this program of systematic human rights violations to a series of unforeseen complications. They make torture seem like a bad choice – instead of the crime that it is.”

UPDATE

In a story just out this evening McClatchy’s star intelligence correspondent, Jonathan Landay, reports:

“CIA officials said they couldn’t recall a similar instance when a director of the notoriously secretive Central Intelligence Agency appeared in a nationally televised news conference in which he responded to questions from reporters assembled at CIA headquarters in suburban Washington.”

For Obama, criminals are the “real patriots”

At a press conference earlier this month President Obama made some comments about the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence’s mammoth 6000+-page report on the CIA’s RDI (Rendition, Interrogation and Detention) program post-9/11. He said, “Even before I came into office I was very clear that in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 we did some things that were wrong.  We did a whole lot of things that were right, but we tortured some folks.  We did some things that were contrary to our values.” His frank admission that “we tortured” sent shockwaves through the media, with pundits gasping that the President had uttered the ‘t’ word. However, he had done this several times before – recently at a 2013 speech at the National Defense University – so this was hardly a novelty. More bizarre was his use of “folks”, a cosy, casual word which served to banalize and sugar-coat the issue at hand. As if that wasn’t enough, Obama then attempted to make excuses for the CIA, saying we should not be too “sanctimonious” to the torturers, who were “real patriots” doing a “tough job” after the atrocities of 9/11.

In a brilliant piece for the LA Times (“America’s real patriots fought to expose and end torture”), Jameel Jaffer and Larry Siems expose the absurdity of these remarks. They point out that “patriotism isn’t a defense to criminal conduct” and, indeed, neither the US laws prohibiting torture nor the relevant international treaties provide any exemption for “patriots doing a tough job”. But, they write, “The deeper problem with the president’s account is that it consigned to obscurity the true heroes of the story: the courageous men and women throughout the military and intelligence services who kept faith with our values, and who fought to expose and end the torture.” These “true heroes” were FBI agents, like Ali Soufan, who refused to participate in brutal interrogations, CIA agents who complained noisily about the abuses, military lawyers, like Alberto Mora, who rejected the legal rationale behind “enhanced interrogation”, and military prosecutors, like Lt. Col. Darrel Vandeveld, who resigned over the use of evidence gained from torture.

To their list we could add others: Col. Morris Davis, the chief prosecutor at Guantanamo who resigned over political interference in the military commission process, Lt. Col. Stuart Couch, another military prosecutor who refused to participate in a trial because the defendant had been tortured, the decorated military interrogator Matthew Alexander who banned his team from using coercive methods in Iraq, FBI agent Jim Clemente who protested against the abuses he saw at Guantanamo, Philip Zelikow, former adviser to Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, who wrote an internal memo suggesting that some of the enhanced techniques were illegal, law enforcement veteran Mark Fallon who resisted the introduction of harsh techniques at Guantanamo, Col. Steven Kleinman, a senior military interrogator who disobeyed a direct order to teach soldiers how to torture prisoners in Iraq, or former CIA agent John Kiriakou who first publicly confirmed that waterboarding was official US government policy (since jailed by the Obama administration for leaking classified information). The list goes on and on. But, for Obama, those who rejected torture and put their careers on the line are ignored or, in Kiriakou’s case, jailed. It’s the torturers who are the “real patriots”.

To hear these words from the mouth of an American president is nothing short of staggering. Let’s remember that Bush always insisted the interrogation program was lawful: it did not amount to torture in the eyes of his administration. So, at least by his logic, CIA agents who brutalized prisoners were acting within the letter of the law. But, for Obama, “enhanced techniques” like waterboarding constitute torture, so they are criminal and unconstitutional. That’s why he banned some – though not all – of those techniques soon after taking office. Now, part of the President’s job – as stated in Article II.3 of the US Constitution – is to ensure the “laws be faithfully executed”. To publicly praise lawbreakers as patriots counts as a remarkable betrayal of this role. Far from upholding the law, he is extolling those who, by his own reasoning, broke it.

This has been his approach since taking office. Despite outlawing the enhanced methods, Obama refused to prosecute any of the Bush torturers, saying repeatedly that we must “look forward, not back”. Moreover, he has rejected and suppressed all other forms of accountability besides criminal prosecution, blocking a bipartisan “truth commission” like the 9/11 inquiry, invoking the state secrets privilege to quash civil litigation, even pressuring foreign governments to drop their investigations into the torture regime. Of course this sits uneasily with his belief that the techniques constitute torture and amount to criminal violations under domestic and international law, while also breaching the US’ treaty obligations as a signatory to the Geneva Conventions and UN Convention Against Torture, which require that all state parties prosecute credible allegations of torture. It does explain, though, why he made excuses for the torturers at his press conference: yes, they “tortured”, but they were “real patriots”, so let’s cut them some slack and move on.

Obama wants to have it both ways: to admit to torturing prisoners, while protecting the torturers from liability; to gratify his liberal supporters, while placating the national security state; to utter sweet words about “change”, while preserving the status quo. In this warped, paradoxical world, criminals do a “tough job” and torturers become “patriots”. Such is the logic of the Nobel Peace Prize recipient and constitutional law professor, Obama. And they say Bush was the crazy one?

UPDATE 

I want to flag two splendid articles not linked into the text above. Ryan Cooper at The Week penned a blistering attack on Obama’s torture stance, describing torture as “an absolute evil” that “only a complete idiot” would use to gather intelligence. And Falguni Sheth at Salon took issue with Obama’s notion that “we” tortured, when so many Americans (such as the individuals mentioned in my post) never endorsed torture in the first place.