First an apology (a real apology, not one of my snarky non-apologies). On a number of occasions I have written that I thought torture accusations at Gitmo were overheated and a distraction from the real issue -- unlimited incarceration by executive order.
It turns out that what I would very much describe as torture has occurred at Gitmo.
Torture of detainees at Guantanamo Bay has been systematic, extensive and a matter of deliberate policy, says a report originally prepared in 2007 by the International Committee of the Red Cross. Obtained by journalist Mark Danner, the report, which detailed the complicity of medical personnel in the mistreatment of detainees, has been posted online (PDF) by the New York Review of Books.
Techniques practiced at Guantanamo and elsewhere on the 14 detainees examined in the 41-page report include suffocation by water, prolonged standing with arms chained above their heads, beatings, confinement in a box, sleep deprivation and other tactics that involve both physical and psychological abuse. While written in somewhat technical terms, the report emphasizes that the detainees' treatment "amounted to torture and/or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment."
I am not unaware that the world is a dangerous place, and is filled with people who want to do us harm no matter how nice we are, precisely because we are nice (and rich of course). But there is a line we draw in a free society over which we do not cross, even at the risk of our own safety, because it imperils our own humanity. I believe the treatment described in this report crosses that line.
That being said, it is increasingly clear that I was right in one sense - the focus on torture has completely occluded the detainment issue, so much so that Obama appears to be getting away with actually adopting an even more onerous detainment policy than the Bush administration.
The Obama administration said Friday that it would appeal a district court ruling that granted some military prisoners in Afghanistan the right to file lawsuits seeking their release. The decision signaled that the administration was not backing down in its effort to maintain the power to imprison terrorism suspects for extended periods without judicial oversight.
Back in February, the Obama administration shocked many civil libertarians by filing a brief in federal court that, in two sentences, declared that it embraced the most extremist Bush theory on this issue -- the Obama DOJ argued, as The New York Times's Charlie Savage put it, "that military detainees in Afghanistan have no legal right to challenge their imprisonment there, embracing a key argument of former President Bush's legal team." Remember: these are not prisoners captured in Afghanistan on a battlefield. Many of them have nothing to do with Afghanistan and were captured far, far away from that country -- abducted from their homes and workplaces -- and then flown to Bagram to be imprisoned. Indeed, the Bagram detainees in the particular case in which the Obama DOJ filed its brief were Yemenis and Tunisians captured outside of Afghanistan (in Thailand or the UAE, for instance) and then flown to Bagram and locked away there as much as six years without any charges. That is what the Obama DOJ defended, and they argued that those individuals can be imprisoned indefinitely with no rights of any kind -- as long as they are kept in Bagram rather than Guantanamo.