by Lisa Hajjar
Bradley Manning, the Army intelligence analyst accused of leaking a massive trove of classified material to WikiLeaks, has been imprisoned since May 2010. The treatment to which he has been subjected, including protracted isolation, systematic humiliations and routinised sleep deprivation, got more extreme last week when the commander of the brig at Quantico, Virginia, imposed on him a regime of forced nakedness at night and during an inspection of his cell every morning until his clothing is returned.
These types of abusive tactics were authorised by the Bush administration for use on foreign detainees captured in the war on terror, on the theory that causing "debilitation, disorientation and dread" would produce "learned helplessness" and make them more susceptible and responsive to interrogators' questioning.
Reports about Manning's treatment indicate that the Pentagon has continued to utilise reverse-engineered SERE (survival, evasion, resistance, extraction) techniques that were developed during the Cold War to train US soldiers in case they were captured and tortured by regimes that do not adhere to the Geneva Conventions.
The use of such methods in 2011 signals that the American torture playbook hasn't been retired; it's gone into a new printing. In the years between 9/11 and mid-2004, the actual policy of torture was still largely secret. Before the lid was peeled back by the Abu Ghraib photos and the first batch of "torture memos", the touchstone of the public debate was the hypothetical ticking bomb scenario.
Torture advocates opined that the use of non-maiming techniques (i.e., "torture lite") is a lesser evil, and might be legitimately employed by American interrogators to break a recalcitrant terrorist suspected of possessing valuable intelligence (e.g. the whereabouts of that ticking bomb) in order to keep Americans safe. In those years, torture advocates never envisioned the use of such tactics on a US soldier, for if they had, their claims would not have gotten such traction in the mainstream media (or been fetishised in the Jack Bauer character of the popular television program 24).
Yet, today here we are, subjecting an American soldier to some of the techniques that were cleared for use by the CIA on Abu Zubaydah in 2002. The panoply of tactics applied to Abu Zubaydah includes many that Manning has been spared, such as waterboarding and the confinement box.
This development was hardly unforeseeable. Opponents of torture had staked their positions in the early debate with warnings not only that torture is illegal and ineffective, but also with historic evidence that states which authorise the torture of enemies embark down a slippery slope.
In the Bush administration's inner circle, officials who opposed the authorisation and use of interrogational abuse as illegal and counterproductive to national security were excluded from decision-making. Interrogation policy was guided and gassed by the presumptions that violence and degradation would work to elicit true information, a claim that in the American case has been proven patently false - but still gets trumpeted as true by those who resist being encumbered by facts and evidence.
Presumptions of efficacy and rightlessness had the predictable effect of expanding the universe of those deemed to be torturable in the quest for actionable intelligence. Over the last decade, thousands of foreign prisoners taken into US custody in Afghanistan, Guantanamo and Iraq were subjected to systematic and wanton abuses, the vast majority of whom were either entirely innocent (arrested by mistake, rounded up in sweeps through villages or sold for bounty) or who had no meaningful intelligence.
This universe continues to expand because there has been no serious and sustained effort to confront the abject failures and high costs of the torture policy. Rather, the false presumptions of efficacy and rightlessness continue to be persuasive to those who make or endorse US interrogation policy.
Defining the slippery slope
The subjection of Manning to tactics originally authorised for foreign terror suspects proves that torture opponents were correct about the slippery slope, as they were about everything else. Putting Manning through the "learned helplessness" regimen makes president Barack Obama's day-one promise to "end torture" and "restore the rule of law" even more of a mockery than the "looking forward, not backward" commitment to unaccountability for crimes perpetrated by officials of the previous administration. The torturous treatment of soldier/citizen Manning is even occurring on the Nobel Peace Prize-winning no-to-torture-president's watch.
But in Manning's case, the rationale that undergirded the authorisation of interrogational abuse - the legitimate need for actionable intelligence to keep Americans safe - is entirely missing.
Manning has already been charged and faces court martial for providing classified information to a legally undefined enemy - a conundrum that will pickle the process of his prosecution.
The classified information that Manning gathered and leaked because he felt that the public had a right to know includes: over 260,000 diplomatic cables, including ones revealing the lengths to which the US went in trying to thwart torture investigations in allied countries; tens of thousands of intelligence reports about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, some of which contradict the public discourse about what US forces are doing in those countries; and two videos that expose military targeting of unarmed civilians.
The actual act of leaking has already happened and is over. Manning has been charged. Why, then, is his abuse continuing and intensifying?
There is a slippery slope answer to this, too. States that utilise torture inevitably expand the reasons to justify its use. Manning is being abusively instrumentalised for the goal of trying to implicate WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange as an active procurer of the leak in order to seek Assange's extradition to the US.
No evidence has come to light that WikiLeaks or Assange influenced or aided Manning to leak before the fact. But the political beast wants to feast on Assange's head, and so Manning’s interrogational abuse continues.
Lisa Hajjar teaches sociology at the University of California - Santa Barbara and is a co-editor of Jadaliyya.
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