On banana republics, torture, and war crimes

I don't have a link for this yet, but I was watching CNN at the gym just now, and saw Arlen Specter say that we can't prosecute people in the previous administration for committing torture or war crimes, because "that's what banana republics do."

Meanwhile, after hearing that we waterboarded Khalid Sheikh Mohammed 183 times, we learn that administration officials and members of Congress discussed torture but didn't know anything about the history or efficacy of the techniques. I had certainly heard of waterboarding before 9/11, thanks to reading about the Spanish Inquisition.

In a series of high-level meetings in 2002, without a single dissent from cabinet members or lawmakers, the United States for the first time officially embraced the brutal methods of interrogation it had always condemned.

This extraordinary consensus was possible, an examination by The New York Times shows, largely because no one involved � not the top two C.I.A. officials who were pushing the program, not the senior aides to President George W. Bush, not the leaders of the Senate and House Intelligence Committees � investigated the gruesome origins of the techniques they were approving with little debate.

According to several former top officials involved in the discussions seven years ago, they did not know that the military training program, called SERE, for Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape, had been created decades earlier to give American pilots and soldiers a sample of the torture methods used by Communists in the Korean War, methods that had wrung false confessions from Americans.

Even George J. Tenet, the C.I.A. director who insisted that the agency had thoroughly researched its proposal and pressed it on other officials, did not examine the history of the most shocking method, the near-drowning technique known as waterboarding.

The top officials he briefed did not learn that waterboarding had been prosecuted by the United States in war-crimes trials after World War II and was a well-documented favorite of despotic governments since the Spanish Inquisition; one waterboard used under Pol Pot was even on display at the genocide museum in Cambodia.

They did not know that some veteran trainers from the SERE program itself had warned in internal memorandums that, morality aside, the methods were ineffective. Nor were most of the officials aware that the former military psychologist who played a central role in persuading C.I.A. officials to use the harsh methods had never conducted a real interrogation, or that the Justice Department lawyer most responsible for declaring the methods legal had idiosyncratic ideas that even the Bush Justice Department would later renounce.

The process was �a perfect storm of ignorance and enthusiasm,� a former C.I.A. official said.

The graphic accompanying the New York Times article (click to see it larger) would make a great list of people to prosecute if we could have our own Nuremberg trials. That list includes Nancy Pelosi.


Banana republics are the kind of states that torture people, and many democracies in Latin America are now prosecuting former officials for their crimes while in office, such as Peru's conviction of Fujimori.

We are the banana republic in this case.

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