How the Susan Crawford interview changes everything we know about torture.

The law, lawyers, and the court.
Jan. 14 2009 7:44 PM

The Turning Point

How the Susan Crawford interview changes everything we know about torture.

When Vice President Dick Cheney told the Weekly Standard last week, "I think on the left wing of the Democratic Party there are some people who believe that we really tortured," he probably wasn't thinking about Susan J. Crawford, convening authority of the military commissions at Guantanamo Bay. Crawford, a retired judge who served as general counsel for the Army during the Reagan administration and as Pentagon inspector general, is hardly the kind of hippie moonbat Cheney would like to poke fun at. And that's why everything changed this morning when the Washington Post published a front-page interview by Bob Woodward, in which Crawford stated without equivocation that the treatment of alleged 20th Sept. 11 hijacker Mohammed al-Qahtani at Guantanamo Bay was "torture."

You're wondering how it is that Crawford's claim that the United States authorized torture (not "coercive interrogation" or "enhanced interrogation" or other "nontorturous forms of interrogation" or "abuse," but torture) changes anything. After all, the Senate armed services committee issued a report just last month pointing the finger of responsibility for the military interrogations at then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and his general counsel Jim Haynes. The committee did not use the T-word, however. And Crawford is hardly the first high-ranking military official to use the word. Alberto J. Mora, former general counsel of the U.S. Navy, wrote in a letter to the Navy's inspector general: "The interrogation techniques approved by the Secretary [of Defense] should not have been authorized because some (but not all) of them, whether applied singly or in combination, could produce effects reaching the level of torture." The 84-page log of al-Qahtani's interrogation has long been a matter of public record, and there is now little dispute that the treatment it describes rose to the level of torture. As described in Torture Team, London-based clinical psychiatrist and trauma specialist Dr. Abigail Seltzer studied the log and concluded that al-Qahtani had been tortured.

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It's also not an accident that Crawford is a military lawyer. From the very outset of the Bush torture regime, it was the military attorneys who warned him—if they were given a chance—that his program was illegal.

What changes as a result of Crawford expressly using the word torture? First, the administration can no longer hide behind parsing the language of the Geneva Conventions and the torture statute. Whether or not Michael Mukasey is willing to call water-boarding torture—as the president-elect did on Sunday—a reputable senior military official has put that label on conduct that is arguably not as bad and has been widespread in Afghanistan and Iraq. In her interview, Crawford acknowledges that it was "the combination of the interrogation techniques, their duration and the impact on Qahtani's health that led to her conclusion. 'The techniques they used were all authorized, but the manner in which they applied them was overly aggressive and too persistent. … This was not any one particular act; this was just a combination of things that had a medical impact on him. … It was that medical impact that pushed me over the edge' to call it torture." What Crawford has done here is astounding. She has repudiated the formalistic (and perennially shifting) definitions of torture as whatever-it-is-we-don't-do. She has admitted that there is a medical and legal definition for torture and also that we have crossed the line into it.

The consequences go further. Crawford also told Woodward that the charges against al-Qahtani were dropped because he was tortured. This has devastating consequences for the Bush administration's entire rationale for the new techniques of interrogation: that they would make the United States safer by producing intelligence and keeping dangerous individuals off the streets. We now know they do neither. The torture produced no useful information from al-Qahtani, and the cruelty heaped upon him will make it more difficult, if not impossible, to justify his long-term incarceration.

There is a third major consequence to the Crawford interview: Her principle objection to detainee abuse is not ephemeral or spiritual, but a damning indictment of the impact it will have on American troops and the prospects for America's authority abroad: "If we tolerate this and allow it, then how can we object when our servicemen and women, or others in foreign service, are captured and subjected to the same techniques? How can we complain? Where is our moral authority to complain? Well, we may have lost it."

But even these three consequences do not in themselves bring a turning point. Whatever her reasons for speaking now—the fact that she chose to do so with a journalist whose name resonates around the globe and is indelibly associated with presidential criminality—itself changes the terms of the debate. Whether torture occurred and who was responsible will no longer be issues behind which senior members of the administration and their lawyers and policymakers can hide. The only real issue now is: What happens next?

The answer to that question takes you to a very different place when the act is torture, as Crawford says it is. Under the 1984 Torture Convention, its 146 state parties (including the United States) are under an obligation to "ensure that all acts of torture are offences under its criminal law." These states must take any person alleged to have committed torture (or been complicit or participated in an act of torture) who is present in their territories into custody. The convention allows no exceptions, as Sen. Pinochet discovered in 1998. The state party to the Torture Convention must then submit the case to its competent authorities for prosecution or extradition for prosecution in another country.

The former chief judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces and general counsel for the Department of the Army has spoken. Her clear words have been picked up around the world. And that takes the prospects of accountability and criminal investigation onto another level. For the Obama administration, the door to the do-nothing option is now closed. That is why today may come to be seen as the turning point.

Dahlia Lithwick writes about the courts and the law for Slate. Follow her on Twitter.

Philippe Sands QC is professor of law at University College London and a barrister at Matrix Chambers. His new book is Torture Team: the Rumsfeld Memo and the Betrayal of American Values.

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