Remembering Bush’s “Gulag” and Policies of Torture

The Los Angeles Times columnist Tim Rutten found an appropriate way to commemorate the ninth anniversary of 9/11 on Saturday.  In an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times, titled A Post- 9/11 Betrayal Endures, Rutten wasted little time in inveighing against the actual murderers of 3,000 Americans and the heinous ideology that brought about their deaths on that clear September morning.

Instead Rutten filled the space identifying the true villains of the 9/11 era –  the Bush Administration with its establishment of the Guantanomo “Gulag” and its sanctioning of policies of torture.

”  The story of how the Bush- Cheney administration rushed to make torture an instrument of national policy in its ” war on terror” and how it created an international gulag in which to abuse prisoners is well known.,  Less remarked on  – for reasons that do nobody credit – is the fact that President Obama and his administration have embraced the secrecy and usurpations of power that made possible the Bush- Cheney betrayal of American values.”

It is  convenient, I suppose, for a mudslinger such as  Rutten to reach for  the nearest accessible clump of vitriol and fling it for all its worth at Bush’s historical record.  Leftists such as this old curmudgeon still believe that there is mileage to be pumped out of flaying the previous Administration, certain it will expiate the country of its lingering sins.

I wonder if he has ever considered that the succeeding Obama Administration kept much of the Bush anti- terror campaign in place because it found that not only was it legal,  but also extraordinarily effective.

The fact is that the CIA interrogation program at Guantanomo did not inflict torture by any reasonable standard  – whether that of the Geneva Convention, the guidelines set by the European Court of Human Rights or American Law.   The only instance in which torture, as it is defined internationally, could possibly be said to have taken place was in the water boarding of three high level al Qaeda operatives.

But water boarding in itself is not illegal under American law.  The report of the CIA Inspector General found that ” on 29 July 2003 , the Agency secured Department of Justice concurrence on water boarding.” The interrogators checked to see that it was legal – and it was.  The Obama Administration has not brought any prosecutions against either the Department of Justice officials who approved the water boarding, nor against those CIA agents who administered it, precisely because they know that no case against them could succeed in any American court of law.

We can also not ignore that the water boarding  of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, al Qaeda’s second-in-command, produced such a rich trove of intelligence that it is rightfully credited as having averted the next 9/11.   By the time his interrogators had finished with him, Mohammed was spilling the beans, without much prompting from his interlocutors, on al Qaeda’s operational structure, its financing,  its communications and its logistics  – giving rise, in the process, to over 6,000 intelligence reports.

He identified al Qaeda travel routes and safe havens, and helped intelligence officers make sense of documents and travel records seized in terrorist raids.   This invaluable information was used by British officials in August, 2006 to interdict a plot of  two dozen terrorists to blow up seven trans-Atlantic flights , scheduled to depart Heathrow within hours of each other.

And what of Guantonomo itself ?  Can it really be compared to a Gulag –  the Soviet penal labor camp system that has become historically synonymous with the very concept of Hell ?

Well lets see:   Between 1929 and 1953  more than 14 million people passed through the Gulag with a further 6 to 7 million being deported and exiled to remote areas of the USSR.  According to a 1993 study of  archival Soviet data, a total of 1,053,829 people died in the Gulag from 1934 to 1953. More complete data puts the death toll for this same time period at 1,258,537, with an estimated 1.6 million casualties from 1929 to 1953.  These estimates exclude those who died shortly after their release but whose death resulted from the harsh treatment in the camps, which was a common practice.  The total population of the camps varied from 510,307 (in 1934) to 1,727,970 (in 1953).

Although conditions varied from camp to camp and place to place, the large majority of prisoners at most times faced meagre food rations, inadequate clothing, overcrowding, poorly insulated housing, poor hygiene, and inadequate health care. The overwhelming majority of prisoners were compelled to perform harsh physical labor. In most periods and economic branches, the degree of mechanization of work processes was significantly lower than in the civilian industry: tools were often primitive and machinery, if existent, short in supply. Officially established work hours were in most periods longer and days off were fewer than for civilian workers.  Often official work time regulations were extended by local camp administrators.

This is how Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in The Gulag Archepeligo described his camp:

“Philosophers, psychologists, doctors, writers could have observed in our camps more than in anywhere else in all the versatility and in full details the specific process of narrowing of man’s mental and intellectual horizon, decline of a man to the level of an animal and his process of dying alive.”

This , on the other hand, is how  Guantanomo was described by Judy Reiss, whose son Joshua was killed in the World Trade Center on 9/11, described the detention facility.  Reiss had opposed the Iraq War and was appalled by stories of abuse at Guantanomo:

” I expected it to look like a broken down prison, like I had heard in the news.  But let me tell you, its the Guantanomo Bay Resort and Spa.   If they even have a pimple, they will fly a dermatologists down to make sure its not cancer.  They can stop the court proceedings if they need to pray.  They eat a more varied and selective diet than either you or I.”

Indeed, they do. According to Marc A. Thiessen, author of  Courting Disaster: How the CIA Kept America Safe, at one time the military spent $125,000 on baklava to feed the prisoners on each night of Ramadan.  The chef in charge of catering showed Thiessen how she prepared exotic Middle Eastern meals according to the Middle East standard of halal.  Each meal is prepared in a variety of ways to satisfy the dietary restrictions of the inmates – ” regular meal”, soft meal”, ” high fiber meal,” vegetarian meal” , vegetarian meal with fish”  and ” bland meal”.  One nurse told Thiessen that  “the biggest problem the terrorists face is from excessive consumption of food on their 6,500 calories per day diet.”

To stay in shape and avoid this ” Gitmo gut,” the prisoners have access to elliptical trainers. They can view  satellite television, with access to al -Jazeera and Arabic news and sports channels.   They receive language and art classes – and handheld video games in order to help them pass the time.

An independent review by Navy Inspector General Admiral Albert T. Church III  found that:

” Detainees wee more likely to suffer injury from playing soccer or volleyball during recreation periods than from interactions with interrogators or guards.  Almost without exception, therefore, GTMO detainers have been treated humanely.”

Why is none of this information more popularly known?   Why does  ” Gitmo” still maintain  such a hold  on the national consciousness as a place where American values were betrayed – as indelibly imprinted as the attacks of 9/ 11 themselves.

Clearly there is still much political juice to be squeezed from the indictment and even today, as Rutten so ably demonstrates, it makes good copy.

One can only wonder what the reaction of readers  would have been in the decade following the attacks on Pearl Harbor in 1941, that the only thing a commentator could recall was how unlawfully we treated the men responsible for the attack.

But those who still remember that it was not the U.S. Government that sent 19 young men on planes on that September morning to kill thousands of innocent Americans, but Islamists driven by a deep hatred for our values and ideals, will regard journalists such as Rutten for what they are -malcontents, more committed to nursing a  sense of grievance against the United States ( of whatever administration) and identifying Americans’  “malevolent impulses”,  than true pride and gratitude for the achievements of its government over nine difficult  years in keeping Americans safe.


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