Only about 20 years ago, the United States was the preferred destination for dissidents tortured and incarcerated in secret prisons in the Soviet Union and satellite states in Eastern Europe. Pictures of the brief journey on foot by the Soviet dissident, Anatoly Scharansky, across the Glienicke bridge to West Berlin in February 1986 have acquired a permanent place in the annals of Cold War history. Scharansky, a Soviet Jew, settled in Israel, but Alexander Solzhenitsyn and many others made the United States their home upon escaping persecution.
As the Iron Curtain was blown, who could have imagined that barely a decade after, the United States would commit large-scale acts of kidnapping, torture and murder beyond its territory and send people, based on mere suspicion or hearsay, to secret prisons in ex-Soviet bloc countries for interrogation under torture, euphemistically called ‘extraordinary rendition’?
The unimaginable two decades before happened during the presidency of George W Bush. In the shadow of 9/11, innocent, vulnerable people, some as young as 13 and as old as 93 years of age, were kidnapped and handed over to American military and intelligence officers for bounties by local players in countries where the United States had no legal jurisdiction. Among them were Pakistan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Morocco – allies of America.
To neoconservatives in the corridors of power in Washington, the fact that many of the detainees were condemned to extreme acts of torture and humiliation in friendly dictatorships was of no consequence. Laws had to be broken, justice denied, human dignity violated, individual liberties curtailed at home and abroad to ‘defend freedom’. That all this was perpetrated under a president who was previously governor of a US state (Texas) with the worst record of judicial executions is worth noting. The number of inmates on Death Row in Texas showed a steady increase during the governorship of George W Bush from 1995 to 2000.
The campaign of abductions and unlawful detention, torture, harassment and surveillance against people around the world, including many in the United States, under the Bush administration dwarfs what was done during the McCarthy era to Americans accused of being communists or communist sympathizers, without proper regard for evidence, in the 1950s. America was haunted by the McCarthyite witch-hunts for years thereafter. Painful self-examination had to follow. Despite pressure for a similar self-examination into what has occurred in the name of the ‘global war on terror’, President Obama wants to ‘look ahead’ for whatever reason, but introspection will come eventually.
From this dark perspective, Christopher Pyle’s book, Getting Away with Torture, is a welcome addition to the growing body of literature on the subject. He joins the ranks of distinguished legal experts like Professor Philippe Sands, QC, and Clive Stafford Smith, who are known in the United States and Britain for their work on human rights. Pyle is certainly qualified to write this book. He is a professor of constitutional law and civil liberties at Mount Holyoke College. Once a captain in army intelligence, he disclosed, in 1970, the military’s surveillance of civilian politics and worked with Senator Sam Ervin’s Subcommittee on Constitutional Rights and Senator Frank Church’s Select Committee on Intelligence to end the practice.
As can be expected from an author of such distinction, Getting Away with Torture is an exceptionally well-sourced book. He follows the paper trail of torture memos leading to abuses at Guantanamo, in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere in meticulous detail. He demonstrates that, despite attempts to blame a few ‘bad apples’, the chain of abuse of the US Constitution and international law started from the White House, President Bush and his Vice President, Dick Cheney.
Seven years after Bush declared his ‘global war on terror’, many despicable acts have come to light in spite of attempts to suppress them. But, as Pyle says, much remains to be learned about the mistreatment of suspected terrorists. He concludes that torture was intended from the start. That is why the President authorized the secret prisons and military commissions that could admit evidence based on torture. And that is also why he suspended the Geneva Conventions on the treatment of prisoners of war.
Pyle emphatically makes the point that the Bush administration did great harm at home and abroad. And, in the concluding chapter, he calls for the restoration of the rule of law, citing Martin Luther King, Jr, who said: “To ignore evil is to become an accomplice to it.” Pyle notes President Obama’s executive order soon after inauguration to close the Guantanamo detention center, but says this is easier said than done. US lawmakers, aware of strong opposition from sections of the electorate, are resistant to any idea of having Guantanamo detainees transferred to prisons in their own states. And the book laments the insistence of Nancy Pelosi, speaker of the House of Representatives, in 2007 that there would be no effort to impeach Bush or Cheney for violating the American constitution.
Even if Guantanamo were to be closed as President Obama wants by January 2010, Pyle says in his book that US federal courts have yet to confront the question who should be detained and why. They have to address the issue of mistreatment of prisoners. “To restore the Geneva Conventions,” Pyle continues, “Congress should begin by repealing the Military Commissions Act of 2006.” In that law, Congress granted the president the exclusive authority to define what constitutes the war crime of ‘cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment’.
More than six months into the Obama presidency, we know that the military commissions will continue, albeit with some modifications. Curbing government secrecy will be a long, often frustrating, battle as suggested by the administration’s policy reversals on calls for greater openness about what happened under President Bush. And establishing a truth and reconciliation commission like in South Africa after the apartheid era, or congressional hearings, will require a degree of moral courage and foresight that is sadly lacking at least for now. These depressing trends make it imperative that Pyle’s book is read as widely as possible.
This review appeared in the History News Network (George Mason University, Virginia) Book Review Section on August 11, 2009.