A hot-button issue at the time of President Obama’s 2009 inauguration, the torture debate has faded from U.S. public discourse, supplanted by debates over gun control, immigration, and the economy. Until recently that is, when Zero Dark Thirty reignited discussion with its controversial depiction of U.S. torture during the War on Terror. Larry Siems, Director of the Freedom to Write and International Programs at PEN American Center, is an expert on the topic. His recent exposé, The Torture Report, is at once disturbing and difficult to put down, and as good an entry point as any for those looking to learn more about the U.S. torture program under the Bush administration. Ahead of our event with him next week, PEN Canada spoke with Siems about the book, his thoughts on the current administration’s approach to the torture, and what he made of the reaction to Zero Dark Thirty.
Why do you describe your undertaking as something “every American citizen should be doing”?
The principals who orchestrated the torture program continue to sell books and collect speaking fees for saying the same things they said when the program was secret. They must think we don’t care enough to know the truth. Personally, I’m offended by that
For several years after 9/11 we didn’t have access to information that could answer these questions; we were systematically deceived, and torture was carried out in a system with layers upon layers of secrecy. Now we not only have these tens of thousands of declassified documents, but the American Civil Liberties Union has put them all in a searchable database so that anyone, anywhere, can read the record. It’s not a perfect record—parts have been destroyed, like the videotapes of black site interrogations, and key parts remain redacted, like descriptions of what those tapes contain—but it’s more than enough to put those crucial questions to rest.
I think reading the record and answering those questions for ourselves is more than a matter of carrying out our individual responsibility to be informed about what we collectively have done. Otherwise we’re basically consenting to being lied to. The principals who orchestrated the torture program continue to sell books and collect speaking fees for saying the same things they said when the program was secret. They must think we don’t care enough to know the truth. Personally, I’m offended by that.
And I think to ignore the record is to do something even worse: it is to leave just a few of us to bear the burden of conscience for this. We have all these documents thanks largely to courageous individuals in the military and intelligence services who objected to torture. To me, it’s almost unbearable to think of these people, who represented our core values and enduring principles at considerable personal risk, looking to the future, counting on us to affirm their actions and our principles, and finding we’re not there—finding that we’re not even willing to sort out for ourselves what happened and how we feel about it.
How has the release of documents evolved to the point where you can construct the narrative in The Torture Report?
I started working on the Torture Report project in the fall of 2009. By then, almost all of the documents you can find on the ACLU’s torture database had been released. It had been a six-year battle that the New York Times has called “among the most successful in the history of public disclosure,” beginning when the ACLU filed a FOIA request in 2003 that the government ignored completely. The ACLU and other civil and human rights organizations went to court a year later, when the Abu Ghraib photographs surfaced, and fought round after round of litigation to pry these documents free.
My job, as you say, was to construct a narrative from what was, by 2009, an incredible trove of everything from handwritten incident reports to the most classified legal opinions and memos. By then, thanks to the work of a number of great journalists, bloggers, lawyers, and legal investigators, the broad contours and many of the story lines in The Torture Report were well known. What I did, really, was follow these trails through the documents themselves, and let the documents tell the stories. What the documents brought to the stories was more than just the certainty that accompanies the primary-source record—they brought two groups of voices that had effectively been censored by the detention and interrogation regime: the women and men who objected to the program, and the detainees themselves.
There has been a reluctance to investigate or prosecute Bush administration officials who were complicit in torture. Is there precedent for them to be charged with international war crimes?
It seems to me at that point we’re not just weakening the rule of law in our own country, but undermining it everywhere. I don’t see how that contributes to either a more just or a more secure world
It is bad enough to shirk our own responsibilities under the Convention Against Torture and U.S. laws codifying its terms; it’s even worse to interfere with the efforts of other countries to abide by CAT’s requirements that they investigate any involvement they might have had in the U.S.-led torture program. It seems to me at that point we’re not just weakening the rule of law in our own country, but undermining it everywhere. I don’t see how that contributes to either a more just or a more secure world.
President Obama came out strongly against torture when he took office in 2009, announcing his intention to close Guantanamo Bay. Where has he moved on torture since, and what should his priorities be going forward?
So even if the torture program has been dismantled, the structures that allowed it and justified it remain in place—above all, a structure in which there is no accountability for official actions that are, in fact, illegal
There are still thousands of photographs of abuse that we have not seen. The Obama justice department has repeatedly invoked a “state secrets” privilege to derail lawsuits brought by victims of the rendition, detention, and interrogation program. And like the Bush administration, the Obama administration has secret legal opinions justifying potentially illegal actions—not torture now, but targeted killings. So even if the torture program has been dismantled, the structures that allowed it and justified it remain in place—above all, a structure in which there is no accountability for official actions that are, in fact, illegal.
It’s late in the game now, but if we really do mean what we say not just about torture but about the rule of law, the administration should commit itself to cooperating with all remaining investigations and judicial processes involving the torture of prisoners in U.S. custody since 9/11. It should support the release of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s exhaustive investigation into the “enhanced interrogation” program. It should provide restitution to those we tortured, as domestic and international law requires. And it can, and should, publicly recognize the real heroes of The Torture Report, the men and women on the inside who fought so hard to end the torture program.
The film Zero Dark Thirty has stirred up controversy for its depiction of torture. Is there, perhaps, something to be said about its role as lightning rod for renewed debate, or is there a danger that the movie could “shape American public opinion in a disturbing and misleading manner,” as several U.S. Senators have put it?
But what if the movie’s implication that torture helped locate Bin Laden were correct? Would that affect how we feel about the torture scenes at the beginning of the film? Or how we feel about torture in general?
But what if the movie’s implication that torture helped locate Bin Laden were correct? Would that affect how we feel about the torture scenes at the beginning of the film? Or how we feel about torture in general? One thing that can be said for the film is that everyone who sees it agrees that what they’re seeing in the early scenes is torture; we’re dropping the ridiculous “enhanced interrogation” euphemism in all these discussions. That’s progress, it seems to me.
Remember, the Bush administration insisted that EITs were not torture; it insisted this because it knew that, as the Convention Against Torture so beautifully and simply puts it, “No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture.” That includes claims that torture led to Bin Laden.
In fact, though I know from reading the documents and from conversations with accomplished interrogators that torture produces bad, not good, information, I’m prepared to believe that at some points in the long and ugly human history of torture, the abuse produced information that the torturers were seeking. We—the world—knew this when we banned torture. We banned it irrespective of whether it ever “works.” We can’t pretend now to be discovering a new and singular exception to the rule.
So for me, the debate about whether the movie’s suggestion that torture was effective is accurate is just a symptom of our failure to reckon with the record of torture as a question of fact and as a legal and moral question. The movie makes it graphically clear we tortured. The one discussion we’re required to have after seeing it—required by laws we’ve promoted and by principles we’ve espoused all around the world—is who is responsible for these violations, and what do we owe those who we abused.
Join us on February 6th at Ryerson University as Larry Siems speaks about The Torture Report.
Photo credit #1: Nubar Alexanian (www.huffingtonpost.com)
Photo Credit #2: Fernando Botero (Abu Ghraib series)
Photo Credit #3: Shawn Michelle Smith (http://shawnmichellesmith.com)