Friday July 25th, 2014, 6:17 pm (EDT)

Torture can never be justified

On Sunday, while putting the finishing touches to the Reflection on Haiti, I was listening to the television report on the ceremony commemorating the Battle of Pichincha that took place in Ecuador on May 24, 1822, 187 years ago. The background music was beautiful.

I stopped what I was doing to observe the bright, colorful uniforms of the era and other details of the commemoration event.

So many emotional recollections related to the heroic battle that was decisive for Ecuador’s independence! The ideals and dreams of the epoch were present at that event. Together with Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa, were the guests of honor Hugo Chávez and Evo Morales – who are reliving today the yearning for independence and justice for which the Latin Americans patriots fought and died. Sucre was the main protagonist of that immortal deed, impelled by the dreams of Bolívar.

That struggle has not ended. It is arising once again under very different conditions; conditions that perhaps were not dreamed of at that time.

What came to mind was a speech by Dick Cheney that I read on Saturday; it was about national security and had been delivered at 11:20 on the previous Thursday at the American Enterprise Institute and was broadcast by CNN in Spanish and English. It was a response to the speech given by U.S. President Barack Obama on the same issue at 10:27 that same day, and to which he was adding an explanation on the closure of the Guantánamo prison. I had heard him when he spoke that day.

Mention of this piece of forcibly-occupied national territory struck me, in addition to my logical interest in the subject. I didn’t even know that Cheney would be speaking right after that. That is unusual.

Initially, I thought that it could be an open challenge to the new president, but when I read the official version I understood that the rapid response had been put together beforehand.

The former vice president had written his speech with great care, in a respectful and, at times, sugarcoated tone.

But what characterized Cheney’s speech was his defense of torture as a method of obtaining information under certain circumstances.

Our northern neighbor is a center of planetary power; it is the richest and most powerful nation, possessing a number of nuclear warheads that ranges from 5,000-10,000 that can be made to explode on any place in the planet with utmost accuracy. One would have to add the rest of its military equipment: chemical, biological and electromagnetic weapons as well as a huge arsenal of equipment for ground, naval and air combat. Those weapons are in the hands of those who claim they have the right to use torture.

Our country has sufficient political culture to analyze such arguments. Many people around the world likewise understand the meaning of Cheney’s words. I shall make a brief synthesis selecting his own paragraphs, accompanied by brief commentaries and opinions.

He began by criticizing Obama’s speech: “It is obvious that the president would be sanctioned in a House of Representatives because in the House we have the rule of a few minutes,” he said jokingly, even though he for one spoke at considerable length; the translated official version runs for 31 pages, 22 lines per page.

“Being the first vice president who had also served as secretary of defense, naturally my duties tended toward national security. I focused on those challenges day to day…Today, I’m an even freer man…no elections to win or lose, and no favor to seek.

“And though I’m not here to speak for George W. Bush, I am certain that no one wishes the current administration more success in defending the country than we do.”

“Today I want to set forth the strategic thinking behind our policies. I do so as one who was there every day of the Bush Administration –who supported the policies when they were made, and without hesitation would do so again in the same circumstances.

“When President Obama makes wise decisions, as I believe he has done in some respects on Afghanistan, and in reversing his plan to release incendiary photos, he deserves our support. And when he faults or mischaracterizes the national security decisions we made in the Bush years, he deserves an answer.

“Our administration always faced its share of criticism, and from some quarters it was always intense. That was especially so in the later years of our term, when the dangers were as serious as ever, but the sense of general alarm after September 11th, 2001 was a fading memory.”

He then gives an account of terrorist attacks on the United States over the past 16 years, both inside and outside its borders, listing half a dozen of them.

Cheney’s problem was to broach the thorny issue of torture, so frequently condemned by official U.S. policy.

“Nine-eleven made necessary a shift of policy, aimed at a clear strategic threat – what the Congress called “an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States.”… We were determined to prevent attacks in the first place,” he stated.

He mentioned the number of people who lost their lives on September 11. He compares it to the attack on Pearl Harbor. He does not explain why the complex action was relatively easy to organize, what previous intelligence reports Bush possessed, or what he could have done to avoid it. Bush had been president for almost eight months. It is well-known that he worked very little and rested a lot. He was constantly going off to his ranch in Texas.

“al-Qaeda was seeking nuclear technology, and A. Q. Khan was selling nuclear technology on the black market. We had the anthrax attack from an unknown source. We had the training camps of Afghanistan, and dictators like Saddam Hussein with known ties to Mideast terrorists.

“As you might recall, I was in my office in that first hour, when radar caught sight of an airliner heading toward the White House at 500 miles an hour. That was Flight 77, the one that ended up hitting the Pentagon. With the plane still inbound, Secret Service agents came into my office and said we had to leave, now. A few moments later I found myself in a fortified White House command post somewhere down below.”

Cheney’s version makes it clear that nobody had foreseen that situation and he pays lip service to U.S. pride in assuming that someone holed up in a cave some 15,000 or 20,000 kilometers away could force the president of the United States to occupy his command post in the White House basement.

“In the years since,” Cheney goes on, “I’ve heard occasional speculation that I’m a different man after 9/11. I wouldn’t say that. But I’ll freely admit that watching a coordinated, devastating attack on our country from an underground bunker at the White House can affect how you view your responsibilities.

“But since wars cannot be won on the defensive, we moved decisively against the terrorists in their hideouts and sanctuaries.

“We did all of these things, and with bipartisan support.

“We didn’t invent that authority. It is drawn from Article Two of the Constitution.

“And it was given specificity by the Congress after 9/11, in a Joint Resolution authorizing “all necessary and appropriate force” to protect the American people.

“…through the Terrorist Surveillance Program, which let us intercept calls and track contacts between al-Qaeda operatives and persons inside the United States.

“The program was top secret, and for good reason, until the editors of The New York Times got it and put it on the front page. After 9/11, the Times had spent months publishing the pictures and the stories of everyone killed by al-Qaeda on 9/11.

“It impressed the Pulitzer committee, but it damn sure didn’t serve the interests of our country, or the safety of our people.

“In the years after 9/11, our government also understood that the safety of the country required collecting information… that could be gained only through tough interrogations.

“I was and remain a strong proponent of our enhanced interrogation program.

“The interrogations were used… after other efforts failed.

“They were legal, essential, justified, successful, and the right thing to do.

“Our successors in office have their own views on all of these matters.

“By presidential decision, last month we saw the selective release of documents relating to enhanced interrogations. This is held up as a bold exercise in open government, honoring the public’s right to know.

“…the public was given less than half the truth.

“It’s hard to imagine a worse precedent… than to have an incoming administration criminalize the policy decisions of its predecessors.

“One person who by all accounts objected to the release of the interrogation memos was the Director of Central Intelligence, Leon Panetta.”

Reaching this point however, Cheney had to explain what happened at the Abu Ghraib prison, which filled the world with horror.

“At Abu Ghraib, a few sadistic prison guards abused inmates in violation of American law, military regulations, and simple decency.

“We know the difference in this country between justice and vengeance…[we] were not trying to … simply avenge the dead of 9/11.

“From the beginning of the program, there was only one focused and all-important purpose. We sought…information on terrorist plans.

“For the harm they did, to Iraqi prisoners and to America’s cause, they deserved and received Army justice.

Apart from the thousands of young Americans killed, maimed and wounded in the Iraq War and the huge funds invested there, hundreds of thousands of children, young and old people, men and women who were not to blame for the attack on the Twin Towers have lost their lives in that country after the invasion ordered by Bush. That enormous mass of innocent victims did not even receive a mention in Cheney’s speech.

He skips that and goes on:

“If liberals are unhappy about some decisions, and conservatives are unhappy about other decisions, then it may seem to them that the President is on the path of sensible compromise.

“But in the fight against terrorism, there is no middle ground, and half-measures keep you half exposed.

“When just a single clue goes unpursued that can bring on catastrophe.

“On his second day in office, President Obama announced that he was closing the detention facility at Guantanamo. This step came with little deliberation and no plan.

“The administration has found that it’s easy to receive applause in Europe for closing Guantanamo. But it’s tricky to come up with an alternative that will serve the interests of justice and America’s national security.

“In the category of euphemism, the prizewinning entry would be a recent editorial in a familiar newspaper that referred to terrorists we’ve captured as, quote, “abducted.”

“…and a major editorial page makes them sound like they were kidnap victims…

“The enhanced interrogations…and the terrorist surveillance program have without question made our country safer.

“When they talk about interrogations, he and his administration speak as if they have resolved some great moral dilemma in how to extract critical information from terrorists.

“Instead they have put the decision off, while assigning a presumption of moral superiority…

“Releasing the interrogation memos was flatly contrary to the national security interest of the United States.

“The harm done only begins with top secret information now in the hands of the terrorists…

“Across the world, governments that have helped us capture terrorists will fear that sensitive joint operations will be compromised.

“President Obama has used his declassification power to reveal what happened in the interrogations…

“President Obama’s own Director of National Intelligence, Admiral Blair, has put it this way: “High value information came from interrogations in which those methods were used and provided a deeper understanding of the al-Qaeda organization that was attacking this country.”

“Admiral Blair put that conclusion in writing, only to see it mysteriously deleted in a later version released by the administration…

“…the missing 26 words that tell an inconvenient truth. But they couldn’t change the words of George Tenet, the CIA Director under Presidents Clinton and Bush, who bluntly said: “I know that this program has saved lives. I know we’ve disrupted plots. I know this program alone is worth more than the FBI, the Central Intelligence Agency, and the National Security Agency put together have been able to tell us.

“If Americans do get the chance to learn what our country was spared, it’ll do more than clarify the urgency and the rightness of enhanced interrogations in the years after 9/11.

“We focused on getting their secrets, instead of sharing ours with them.

“It is a record to be continued until the danger has passed. Along the way there were some hard calls. No decision of national security was ever made lightly, and certainly never made in haste.

“As in all warfare, there have been costs – none higher than the sacrifices of those killed and wounded in our country’s service.

“Like so many others who serve America, they are not the kind to insist on a thank-you.”

His attacks on the Obama administration were really fierce but I don’t wish to voice my opinions on that subject. I will however recall that terrorism did not come out of the blue: it is also the method that has been used by the United States to combat the Cuban Revolution.

General Dwight Eisenhower himself, president of the United States, was the first one to use terrorism against our homeland and this wasn’t just a group of bloody actions against our people but dozens of events beginning in 1959 itself, later escalating to hundreds of acts of terrorism every year, using flammable substances, high-power explosives; precision infrared-ray sophisticated weapons; poisons such as cyanide; fungi, hemorrhagic dengue, swine fever, anthrax; viruses and bacteria that attacked crops, plants, animals and human beings.

There weren’t just attacks on the economy and the people; they were also aimed at eliminating the leaders of the Revolution.

Thousands of people were affected, and the economy, whose objective is to sustain alimentation, healthcare and the most basic services for the people, has been submitted to a relentless blockade that is being applied in extraterritorial terms.

I am not inventing these facts. They are on record in declassified U.S. government documents. In our country, despite the very serious dangers that have threatened us for decades, we have never tortured anyone to obtain information.

However painful the actions against the people of the United States on September 11, 2001 – actions that everybody condemned – torture is a cowardly and shameful act that can never be justified.

Fidel Castro Ruz
May 27, 2009
12:54 p.m.