Twelve years after the crimes at Abu Ghraib were revealed, long-time peace and justice activist Rebecca Gordon wants to indict several high-ranking US officials for war crimes.
In her recent book, American Nuremberg, Gordon names the people who helped facilitate America’s torture and assassination programs. And, as she explains to WhoWhatWhy’s Jeff Schechtman, naming the war criminals is merely a first step. Her mission is to work with several human rights groups to formally charge those officials who have broken human rights laws.
She says that the United States helped establish the international principles guiding the prosecution of war crimes — starting with the Nuremberg tribunal following World War II, when Nazi officials were held accountable for their crimes against humanity.
Her efforts are a call to put our own officials on trial — those who constantly refuse to apply these same international principles to the War on Terror.
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Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from American Nuremberg (Hot Books) and Barack Obama (Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff / Flickr)
Full text transcript of audio:
Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to Radio Whowhatwhy, I’m Jeff Schechtman. All the terrorist attacks in the world during the past decade have amounted to less deaths than one year of driving on our nation’s streets, less than we’ve seen through the misuse of guns. And yet the terror agenda not only drives our policy, the fear that it has generated has short-circuited our conscience and our morality. At a time when human beings should be embracing the advances of modern society, both technological and psychological, to evolve to a higher moral understanding, we seem to be doing exactly the opposite. To the point where we have serious contenders for president of the United States advocating for torture, war crimes, and the abrogation of some of our most fundamental international rules on the conduct of conflict and human affairs. But this didn’t just happen. The current election campaign and current terror attacks are not the beginning. We’ve been heading in this direction as a country for some time. 9/11 was perhaps the apotheosis. To talk about this I’m joined today by my guest Rebecca Gordon. Rebecca is the author of the previous book Mainstreaming Torture. She teaches philosophy at the University of San Francisco. She spent decades as an activist in peace and justice movements in Central America, South America and the United States. It is my pleasure to welcome Rebecca Gordon to Radio Whowhatwhy.
Rebecca Gordon: Good morning. It’s a pleasure to be with you.
Jeff : It’s great to have you here. Is it possible to talk about the current situation, what’s happened since 9/11, in terms of government policy and government action, without looking at the long history of American action, in these regards?
Rebecca : Absolutely not. You make a very important point, which is that, although there were some departures after 9/11, some things changed, there are some things that are complete continuities with past US practice and especially, not just especially, but certainly since the end of WWII, one of the things that we see in particular which has been well documented by historian Alfred McCoy is the CIA’s work to understand how to destroy a human being. And they paid for lots of academic research, especially on the East Coast of the United States and in Canada in the 1950s and ‘60s, in order to understand how to use a combination of physical and psychological approaches to create what they called “a complete regression to infancy”. Now this was of course in service of a larger policy in the context of what the US saw at the end of WWII as its fundamental struggle with the Soviet Union. So in that context, of course, we also see a history of direct operations in which the United States removed democratically elected governments: Tehran, to Chile, to Argentina, no not Argentina, forgive me, to a number of other countries, and Guatemala for example under Arbenz, and this was all part of a larger political and geo-political project to defeat the Soviet Union.
So what we saw after 9/11 though, was a big change. Because after September the eleventh it was really the first time the US had experienced an attack from outside its borders or had felt anything like what war is like – and of course it wasn’t war, it was a criminal act – since the Civil War, since the 1860s. So it was a terrible shock to the country. And one of the things that happened as a result of that shock, is that for the very first time since the end of the Viet Nam war, there began to be a public discussion about whether or not torture was ever morally or legally permissible in response specifically to the attacks against NewYork and DC on September 11th. Suddenly, what had been forbidden was out there in the public realm being discussed as a necessary and perhaps even obvious response, to the fact that there had been an attack on US soil, the response was: ‘well then, someone needs to be tortured.’
Jeff : And to what extent has there been a positive development, that there has at least been this national conversation or some semblance of one with respect to these issues?
Rebecca : I would say it’s not been a positive development because it hasn’t been an honest and open discussion. What we’ve had is a series of euphemistic statements from the eight years of the Bush administration. What was straight-up torture was described as enhanced interrogation techniques. In fact, following the attempt to hide what they were doing, when some of it was revealed to the public, then they began explaining how important it was to do this – in the name of national security – that this was something that was going to protect us. In the context of that, both on the right and on the left, unfortunately, the whole question of torture got bottled into the question of ‘does it work?’ Now there are a number of answers to that question and I’m happy to talk about it. For the most part, the answer is usually no, with the exception of torture that is enacted over a large, large group of people, as the French did in Algiers in 1954, but in general, torture doesn’t work. That isn’t the question. The question is, is it right? And is it legal? And the answers to both of those questions are ‘no’. And so what happens is, that the whole discourse, the whole conversation about torture, even the piece of the central intelligence report – which we have been able to see, just the executive summary, which itself is redacted – even it says simply that the main contention against the CIA is that the CIA lied to them about how effective torture is. The fact is, it’s illegal.
Jeff : What is it about the nature of the current threat, the nature of what’s transpired since 9/11 that has caused so much discussion about this idea of torture? Certainly we’ve had threats in the past, we’ve had attacks in the past, we’ve had warfare in the past. This particular conversation has not moved to the front of the line. What is it about the nature of this conflict?
Rebecca : I think that’s a really good question. So what I would say is that this is another piece of conversation that has been framed for us in such a way so that we can’t really understand what’s been happening. The Bush administration decided on September 12 that they were going to frame what had happened as an act of war and that the United States was now at war in a global war on terror. Donald Rumsfeld a few days later went out and explained that there were at least sixty countries where our various enemies, terrorist enemies were located. And not only that. In the context of the war, the war was not against a particular enemy or group of people. It was described as a war basically on a tactic, a war on terrorism, later shortened to terror because it’s hard to say terrorism. A war on a tactic, not on people. And so once you declared war on a tactic, you can be at war anywhere in the world. The problem is, it’s not the kind of war that you fight for the most part – we’ll be talking about Afghanistan and Iraq, I imagine, in a minute – but for the most part it’s not a war that’s fought with armies. It’s a war that is fought by going to places and kidnapping, grabbing up specific individuals, or very often the wrong individuals, or people that somebody told somebody told somebody was an individual who should be picked up and then figuring out how to find out what that person knows. And there’s a great deal of research that shows that the best way to get information from some captive, hostile person is to get a rapport with that person and gradually get that person to trust you and reveal what he or she knows. And in fact that is the approach the FBI takes which is why, when they were working with the CIA in Guantanamo and in Afghanistan, they finally became so frustrated with the CIA’s methods which they thought were ineffective, that they left. The truth is that torture is not really about getting information. If it were, then we would use methods that are more effective, proving to be effective. Torture is about creating terror. It’s about creating fear, not only in the people you’ve identified as your enemy, but frankly also in our own population. The attacks of September 11 happened and then nothing else happened in the United States except of course for the many almost daily mass shootings that have more personal reasons that go on every day in this country. But nothing happened of terrorist nature. And in order to remind us that we were in terrible danger the government had to do terrible things. Because if our government is a good government, if it’s the leader of this world, the only reason it could be forced to do such terrible things and for the news to leak out somehow, is in order to keep us afraid, to remind us of how terrible the danger is, and how the government is the only thing that stands between us and that danger.
Jeff : It‘s interesting that this is all as you describe it on both sides, it is about fear. It’s about the fear that terror inherently generates. And as you say the fear that is activated in response to that.
Rebecca : Yes, that is exactly right. And this is why my original title of my first book, which the publisher thought was a little over the top, was A Nation of Cowards. But I honestly believed that in the eight years of the Bush administration there was a deliberate attempt to remind people in this country over and over again of just how scared we ought to be. So you’d go to the airport, you take off your shoes, you take off your belt, you deposit your liquids into an exactly quart-sized baggy, no smaller. You put your computer in a separate bin, all of this, you walk through the x-ray machine. All of this is what many people have called security theater. It’s to remind us that we need to be afraid. The funniest example of this I ever saw was when I took a ferry from Cape Cod to Martha’s Vineyard Island in Massachusetts, Atlantic Coast, and it was, I think, still in 2011. No, it was in 2012, the summer of 2002, so the year after September 11, and we’re on the ferry and I looked on either side of us and I saw there these fifty foot Coastguard boats and each one had a 50-caliber machine gun mounted on the bow and as our ferry left the harbor, these two boats were escorting us. I looked at them and I burst out laughing. And a tall gentleman nicely coiffed standing next to me looked at me and said: “Well, I don’t know about you, but it makes me feel more secure.” And I thought, first of all, the most dangerous thing, and it’s not very likely, that could be on this boat would be a bomb and those boats aren’t going to do anything for us. Secondly, as soon as we got in the deep water where we’d presumably be attacked, might be likely to happen, those two boats turned around and went back to the harbor. So theater, designed to remind us that we need to be afraid. And of course now we’ve had another bad attack in San Bernardino, we are beginning to see – and I hope we won’t see more of them – we saw what terrible thing happened, you know, at the Boston Marathon – and as a former distance runner myself, I certainly do not want to be blown up when I’m crossing the finish line for a race – but the reality is that what the government has been selling us is almost like a promise of immortality. Let us do whatever we need, torture some people over here, do mass surveillance on your email and your telephone. Let us do whatever it takes and in return we promise that you will be secure. That is almost like a promise of immortality. It’s a lie. There is no such thing as a hundred percent security. As long as there are disaffected young men who are willing to risk their own lives in order to kill other people, we cannot be one hundred percent safe. And what we need to do is figure out what kind of nation do we want to be, in the context of a world that can never be made a hundred percent secure. And my answer to that is when we think about national security, we’re thinking about the security, I hope, of a nation that we think is worth preserving. And what is it that makes us worth preserving? Not, presumably, our willingness to torture, or to assassinate people with drone aircraft. I hope what’s worth preserving is a set of values that have indeed advanced freedom in some ways in the world and gradually and slowly and with great difficulty here in our own country. That’s what’s worth preserving.
Jeff : Further to your book American Nuremberg, what is it in the context of what you are talking about, that crosses the line from bad policy, from ineffective policy, from inefficient policy to, as you see it, war crimes?
Rebecca : That’s a really important question because it goes to the crux of what the book is about. Essentially, my point in the book is, that in a world that has the kind of powerful weapons that exist today, in a world of nuclear weapons, in a world where my country has the largest military in the world, the largest nuclear arsenal in the world, really the only protection for the world is some kind of rule of international law that the United States like every other country in the world must be held to the treaties that we sign, to the laws that we pass in our own country … by the way when we sign a treaty in the States, under the Constitution, Article Six, that treaty becomes the supreme law of this land. So those treaties are not something that you can disregard because they’re only international law. If you prefer American law, they’re also American law. Part of the reason the United States has continued, even after 9/11, even after the end of the Bush administration, and now after eight years almost of the Obama administration, part of the reason that we see people like Donald Trump, Ted Cruz and Ben Carson promising to commit war crimes as part of their campaign speeches is because nobody has been held responsible for the crimes that were committed under the Bush administration. So in the book, what I do, I look at three different kinds of crimes. I look at crimes against peace, war crimes, and crimes against human rights. In 1945 when the United States, Russia, France and England got together to create the Nurnberg tribunals, they started with the highest Nazi officials. There was an argument among these four so-called great powers about whether or not it was a crime for Nazis who had invaded Poland and to have gone into acts of war against Czechoslovakia, against England, against France. Some people were saying that by saying that’s a crime, you’re creating an ex post facto crime, a crime that wasn’t a crime when they did it. The point is that at the time, there were international treaties that Germany had signed, that said that they would never launch an unprovoked attack. And the United States also was a signatory, and the name of that treaty was the Kellogg-Briand Treaty. So they put as Crime Number 1 at Nuremberg: making an aggressive war. And so as I was thinking about American Nuremberg, I realized that there is a sense in which the war in Iraq is also the fundamental source of so many of the other crimes that have been committed. Even the torture, even the torture before we invaded Iraq, much of it in the early days was directed towards trying to get someone to say that Saddam Hussein had had a connection with Al Qaeda; that Saddam Hussein had trained and armed Al Qaeda which had attacked the United States. None of this was true but that’s why, for example, Donald Rumsfeld wrote his now famous memo to the people of Guantanamo, detailing the things that could be done to prisoners at Guantanamo. In order to get someone to say the result that they wanted which was that there was a connection between Al Qaeda and Iraq. There wasn’t. This war then, this war in Iraq, which was planned before September 11 ever happened, was planned as early as the 1990s, but was directly planned in March of 2001, months before the 9/11 attack. When Dick Cheney, Vice-President Dick Cheney, met with key oil executives in the White House, part of what they discussed was the plan for taking out Saddam Hussein. And so this was already on the cards. But the plan goes back even further. It goes back to the project for a New American Century at the time when Bill Clinton was President. All of these same people who ended up in the Bush White House, including Elliott Abrams, including Paul Wolfowitz, Dick Cheney, as early as 1996, were trying to sell to President Clinton the idea that we needed to remake the entire Middle East in an image that would be more satisfying to the United States. Starting with taking out Saddam Hussein. Next to go
destabilize Syria and then on to a number of places, and there was a whole picture of who they would have in place to replace the rulers who were currently in those positions. Bill Clinton said “no, thank you, this is not something I want.” But the same plan and the same people came into the Bush White House years later and we’ve now seen the results. And the results have been the worst refugee crisis the world has seen since World War II, it has seen millions of people killed, it’s very hard to get a fix on the number of people who have died in the Iraq war, but it’s a war that continues… just today there was another terrorist bombing in Bagdad. We cover what happened in Brussels, with Brussels coverage, and they were terrible, horrendous attacks. But these things are going on every day. In Iraq, in a country that we completely broke. So that’s Crime Number 1.
Jeff : Is it more difficult to make the case for war crimes in a situation where the policy that resulted from it has been such an abject failure?
Rebecca : That’s an interesting question. And I’m not convinced that those who led that policy believe it’s been an abject failure. The only extent to which it has been an abject failure from their point of view is that they haven’t been able to get their hands on oil, and the fact that the price of oil has plummeted so much and that the prize is not what they thought it would be. But you’ve got a point. I think it may be harder. Although frankly, the people who end up getting hauled in front of the international criminal court are usually the losers. Right?
We’ve seen, for example, just recently Radovan Karadzic being sentenced at The Hague. He didn’t win his war. I’m not sure, and when you think about it, in the end, the very original Nuremberg in 1945, one of the worries was that the victors would try give it [ ], and what we would do would look like victors’ justice. So I’m not convinced that that’s the problem. Rather that justice, whoever is the strongest, rather than whoever is right. So I am not convinced that that’s the problem. I think that the problem is the opposite, that the United States still wields too much power in the world for its officials to be tried in any kind of international venue.
Jeff : The other aspect of it is the degree to which public opinion is as been not in any way of the mind to really address this issue in the context that we’re talking about.
Rebecca : You’re absolutely right about that. In fact, every time a new poll is released about US comfort with torture, the numbers continue to rise. There are more people today who are comfortable with torture under certain circumstances or many circumstances than they were immediately in the aftermath of the attacks of September 11. Support, in fact, has only grown in the last fifteen years. Now I need to fault President Obama to some extent for this because his approach has been since the day he took office, that we need to look forward and not backwards. That we need to go forward and to end the processes of the past but not to look back at the processes of the past. I honestly believe that setting that tone from the very highest office, you know, however troubled his presidency has been, and however many people have not been willing to accept a black president, honestly, I think setting that tone from day one was a mistake. I have an idea why that mistake was committed and I suspect that, in order to get the CIA to comply with his demands that they shut down their black site, he probably had to give a quid pro quo, which was ‘and there will be no prosecutions’. Now I have no way of knowing that but it looks likely to me. But I think that because this idea that those things are in the past and they don’t need to examine them, was put forward at the highest level of the government. There’s been no public appetite for looking any deeper.
Jeff : Given that it is unlikely that there’ll be ever prosecution for any of this, what is in your view the best way to begin to address this as a country? To have a conversation about it?
Rebecca : So as you say, it’s probably never going to be addressed at the level of any kind of criminal court, either federal or international. There are some immediate things that we could do, that the federal government could do, in order to help and in order to demonstrate that – as a friend of mine says – we have developed a certain amount of political maturity so, thing number one, we could end our use of torture permanently, those in any kind of overseas settings but also in our jails and prisons where it goes on in plain sight every day. We should pass and enforce the federal law, that we’re required to pass under UN Convention Against Torture that makes torture illegal not only outside the US, but inside the US because our current law only makes it illegal outside the United States for peculiar reasons which I could go into but… Number Three which should join the international court of criminal justice which we have never done and in fact under the Bush administration needed to show and to inform the UN that we were the people behind the [ ] that we were not only not going to ratify it but we were withdrawing our signature. We should stop resisting torture victims attempts in civil court in the US to get some kind of restitution. And we should cooperate with, rather than resisting, the desire of other countries to extradite their torturers from the United States. But beyond that, what I propose in the book, is that if we can’t get our government to do this, that we the citizens of this country lead a tribunal, sort of like, you know, that Jean Paul Sartre and Bertrand Russell put on at the height of the Viet Nam War. They were held in Denmark and Sweden and they involved some of the greatest names of the day. James Baldwin, people, high intellectual and political figures from all over the world. We need to do the same thing here in the United States. What I envision is a serious tribunal, with serious evidence put forward with people involving from both political parties, with members of Congress, with people who have highly respected positions, to genuinely examine the records of US behavior in the so-called War On Terror. And to pronounce if not punishment, at least judgment. My friends who work with torture victims, say that the thing that people want first when they think about justice is a simple acknowledgment of what was done to them. And this is what I think we need. They’re a model. A few years ago, a group called the Constitution Project which included William Sessions, the former director of the FBI, Ada Hutchinson, a number of very highly placed Republican and Democratic politicians, issued a report about the US use of torture, said that there should be prosecutions and named some of the highest officials in the land, including Dick Cheney and George W. Bush. This could be the nucleus, the starting place for such a tribunal. I am willing and eager to do whatever I can to assist the formation of such a body. I imagine that it would take a year or two of work to actually issue the kind of reports that I believe that some parts of it should be held, all if anybody would want to watch it, in public, so that the people of this country can understand really what has been done and continues to be done in our name.
Jeff : Rebecca Gordon. Her book is American Nuremberg. Rebecca , thank you so much for spending time with us at Radio whowhatwhy.
Rebecca : Thank you so much. This was wonderful.
Jeff : Thank you.