What does the US, as self-styled moral compass of Western political philosophy, want us to think it really thinks about torture? Given that Guantanamo remains open, it seems reasonable to ask. Trump famously said that torture “absolutely” works, because the CIA told him so. This seemed odd even at the time, given that they had told the Senate Intelligence Committee that enhanced interrogation (torture) had produced no useful intelligence, and that they had concluded, like Napoleon, that if you abuse a man enough he will tell you anything you seem to want. They also admitted that their interrogation approach had been based on the antics of Jack Bauer in ‘24’, which aired on Trump’s favourite channel. Still, the doctor hoped that Trump, and the CIA, had dropped torture not only on grounds of utility but also through concern regarding America’s international standing, given the condemnation of Guantanamo by the UN, the Red Cross, and everyone else who didn’t base their ethical judgement on Fox. Events on the Hill this week suggest we don’t relax just yet.
41 detainees remain at Guantanamo. Many have neither been charged, nor seen their families in person, for over a decade. 26 have been declared ‘forever prisoners’. Torture there seems to have stopped since the Red Cross got full access to detainees. However, readers may recall that their 2006 report detailed interrogation techniques including waterboarding and prolonged stress positioning, authorised by the White House, from whom anxious interrogators had repeatedly requested confirmation that such treatment did not fall foul of international law. An infamous memo to the CIA in May 2005 assured them that waterboarding, even when used simultaneously with sleep deprivation, did not impose enough distress to amount to “severe physical suffering.”
This and other similar memos were signed by one Steven G Bradbury who must, the doctor assumed, possess deep medical and philosophical understanding both of the medical effect of waterboarding and the nature of severe pain and suffering. After all, the UN torture expert and doctor Bent Sørensen listed the consequences of waterboarding as including pain, immediate and extreme fear of death, possible heart attack from stress or lung and brain damage, and lasting PTSD. Senator John McCain, who was stress positioned in Vietnam, says ‘most people have never been tightly bound, made to remain in a stress position, and deprived of sleep for 48 hours. Let me assure my colleagues: anyone who has suffered such treatment will know they’ve been tortured.”
How extraordinary, then, that this same Steven G Bradbury has just been confirmed by the Trump administration as chief counsel to the Department of Transportation. This was after a tight Senate vote in which all bar two Republican Senators supported his appointment, and despite profound opposition from McCain who said, “we are now endorsing violations of the Geneva Conventions. The conventions govern the rules for war. That will be a disgraceful chapter.” Perhaps time, then, to check what the US administration really wants us to think it thinks about torture. Again.