Dick Cheney

Photograph: Kate Renkes / Flickr via Creative Commons

OK that’s it.

I’ve been procrastinating for ages about turning my social media rants into blog posts, but ex-US Vice President Dick Cheney has got me typing.

That man must either be extremely sure – probably rightly – that he is untouchable in the United States and probably even abroad. Or he’s a complete fucking idiot who needs to consult with lawyers before opening his mouth.

In case you’ve been living under a rock the last week or so, the US Senate has released a portion of a report on “enhanced interrogation techniques” – torture to everyone else, as even Dianne Feinstein in the forward to the report admits:

Even so, existing U.S. law and treaty obligations should have prevented many of
the abuses and mistakes made during this program. While the Office of Legal
Counsel found otherwise between 2002 and 2007, it is my personal conclusion
that, under any common meaning of the term, CIA detainees were tortured. (Foreward, p 4)

The report admits that as well as being immoral and illegal, the torture was also ineffective at providing actionable intelligence from captured suspected Islamist militants. Unsurprisingly, most people who are tortured will say whatever they think their captors want to hear. Even if they are innocent, as the report acknowledges many detainees were.

The report apparently claimed – against all previous evidence, including George W. Bush’s own auto-biography – that the White House wasn’t fully informed about the nature of the CIA’s interrogation techniques, Dick Cheney – instead of going along with scapegoating the CIA – was in the newspapers and on the TV insisting the CIA wasn’t rogue and that the Bush administration was fully informed.

For a flavour of Cheney’s statements on the subject:








Whilst it’s admirable that Cheney is being (partially) honest rather than scapegoating the CIA, only a few commentators seem to realise that if the United States had the rule of law for its most powerful people he’s actually putting a noose around his neck – or at least confessing to crimes punishable by (at his age) spending the rest of his life in federal prison, or even lethal injection considering the CIA detainees who were tortured to death.

Cheney is stating, clearly, that the treatment of prisoners held by the CIA in the war on terror was known about – indeed authorised – at the highest level of the administration in which he is the second highest official. Now, it doesn’t take much understanding of the principle of command responsibility established by the Allies at Nuremberg (and expanded by the Medina standard in a US court martial on the My Lai massacre) to realise why that’s exactly what a lawyer would tell him NOT to say.

Now Cheney, Dubbya and their other partners in crime from the Bush administration – including corrupted jurists who went along with Bush’s executives orders that tried to water down the definition of torture despite US federal, military and state laws – still ridiculously insists that half-drowning detainees, beating them, forcing them to stand in the same position for hours, force-feeding them up their rectums somehow aren’t quite torture or inhumane and degrading treatment, and were legal.

And some claim because there’s controversy about what torture is, or Cheney etc insist what they did wasn’t torture, then Cheney and Bush hasn’t really confessed to torture. As far as the general consensus of international law goes, much of it written by the British and Americans after the Second World War, this argument is utter bollocks.

It is like claiming that if a Nazi war criminal who had confessed to “exterminating Jewish vermin” isn’t guilty of murder because the Third Reich had given legal cover for his behaviour and Jews weren’t considered human. Or that if the British Parliament passed a law allowing the killing on sight of people with blond hair, you wouldn’t be committing murder when you killed them.

Except amongst the Bush administration’s supporters and hangers on, and the torture apologists of the American right-wing media – most of whom have backtracked since the days of the Bush administration – there is very little controversy in real legal circles about what constitutes torture and inhumane and degrading treatment – at least as far as the most extreme and revolting techniques are concerned. Even on the right, former presidential candidate Senator John McCain – himself a victim of torture and inhumane treatment (to the extent that he attempted suicide) as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam (a description is here, with a shorter version here) – is unambiguous with his condemnation.

There are whole treaties and conventions ratified by the United States, the whole Western world and – in theory – most other countries banning torture. And importantly, unlike killing people or detaining them without charge or trial or blowing things up – all of which states are allowed to do under certain conditions in war – torture is one thing they are NEVER allowed to do.

The Convention Against Torture – an utterly uncontroversial document in the West before 9/11 – is unequivocal:

“No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat or war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture.” – Article 2(2)

With torture defined as:

any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity  – Article 1(1)

Now if waterboarding (i.e. simulated drowning), beatings, holding naked prisoners in freezing cold cells, stress positions, threatening prisoners’ families, locking them in boxes with insects they are told are lethal, sleep deprivation etc aren’t the above – or at least inhumane and degrading treatment (also banned under international law) – then what the hell is?

For anyone interested, US federal law on torture can be found here in 18 USC 2340 – 2340B . If carried out in an armed conflict it can also be punished as a war crime under 18 USC 2444  [1]. And of course if committed within the United States is also various felonies under state laws.

It is also important to point out may countries have universal jurisdiction over torture. The United States has a limited type if a torturer is found to be in the United States which led to Charles Taylor Jr being jailed for 97 years, whilst the law (S134 of the Criminal Justice Act 1988) in Britain is similar if not stronger (it can be read here) and has been used against a Nepalese colonel and an Afghan warlord.

1. 18 USC [number] means “Title 18 of the US Code, Section [number]”, referring to the US federal penal code.