Torture– How Could It Happen in America?

Danny Cooper*

Brisbane, December 19, 2014 (Alochonaa):Recently disclosed reports of C.I.A. torture have sparked the predictable political brawling. Does it work? Doesn’t it work? Should members of the Bush administration, including the president himself, be held to account? What about those in the justice department who provided legal justification for it, or those who actually carried out the deeds? Who’s responsible?

These questions will stalk Americans for many years as they re-examine how best to uphold civil liberties in wartime. Yet the more interesting question is surely why these acts were able to take place in a country that prides itself on its democratic openness and reputation for moral good. I advance four reasons.

First, let’s start with the most obvious. The terrorist attacks on 9/11 created an enormous sense of vulnerability within America to which the Bush administration itself was not immune. Criticised for failing to prevent the attacks, the C.I.A. arguably over-compensated and inundated the administration with intelligence reports of apocalyptic impending attacks, reinforcing the administration’s foreboding. To acknowledge this is not to justify the acts of those who loosened (if not repudiated) U.S. interrogation methods to permit torture, as some U.S. conservatives have. It is simply to acknowledge the set of conditions that gave rise to these policies. As Cofer Black, a C.I.A. operative deeply involved in enhanced methods of interrogation, told Congress in 2002: “All you need to know is that there was a ‘before 9/11’ and there was an ‘after 9/11.’ After 9/11, the gloves came off.”

Second, the Bush administration was haunted by its failure to prevent 9/11. One need only read the memoirs of those who served to confirm this. The sense of lingering guilt for failing to connect the dots is palpable. After all, this was an administration which prided itself on its toughness. The fact that 9/11 happened on its watch was infuriating. When Vice President Dick Cheney appeared on Meet the Press just days after the attack and spoke to Tim Russert about America needing to work the “dark side,” he was signalling the administration’s intent to do whatever was necessary to forestall future attacks. For Cheney, the end justified the means.

In fact, it should not be assumed that Cheney was advancing an unpopular position. Cheney was speaking to a deeper tradition of U.S. conservative nationalism (what Walter Russell Mead would call “Jacksonian America”). A sneak attack that was carried out by crusading religious militants, killing close to three thousand Americans, was sure to provoke the American heartland. In other words, while it is easy to present Cheney as the “Darth Vader” of U.S. politics, his arguments resonated in many parts of Middle America – the American South, amongst militant Protestants, and amongst those who trace their ancestry to the warlike Scots-Irish living along the American frontier. Cheney, after all, is from Wyoming, a deeply conservative state that is very much part of the American frontier. In his exceptional work on U.S. nationalism, Anatol Lieven argues: “One of the most important legacies of the Frontier for American nationalism was a history of exceptionally ferocious warfare.” While this was often directed against Indian Americans in the nineteenth century, the attitudes, beliefs, and the sense of belonging to Anglo-Saxon “folk communities” (as Mead calls them) endured.

Third, the torture polices of the Bush administration must also be understood within the broader context of executive-legislative relations in the United States. According to the U.S. Constitution, only the U.S. Congress has the power to declare war and the U.S. president then has the power to act as Commander in Chief. However, ever since the onset of the Cold War, there has been no shortage of scholars discussing the emergence of the “imperial presidency.” When Harry S. Truman sent U.S. troops to Korea without congressional approval, arguing that he had an inherent right to do this, he set a precedent that many of his successors followed, thus marginalizing Congress. After the abuses of power in Vietnam, Congress pushed back, trying to provide greater oversight of the executive branch and agencies such as the C.I.A., F.B.I., and N.S.A. One individual who was determined to resist these attempts was the inimitable Dick Cheney, then serving as chief of staff in the administration of Gerald Ford. Cheney was a strong believer in concentrating power in the executive branch of government. Therefore, when the Bush administration came to power, it was populated by policy-makers eager to sideline Congress, making sure that in the post-9/11 world U.S. intelligence agencies would be free to do whatever was necessary to prevent another attack without worrying about irritating congressional committees. It is, therefore, nonsense to suggest that the C.I.A. acted without the encouragement of those in the most senior positions. They were prodded and pushed to act in the ways they did.

Fourth, the war between bin Laden and America became, to borrow the late Samuel Huntington’s immortal phrase, “a clash of civilizations,” a militant Islamic vanguard against a crusading president for whom the war on terror would be framed as an epic ideological struggle where the forces of good were arrayed against the forces of evil. In such a cosmic war, restraint was always going to be hard to come by. America has done a better job than its Islamist adversaries in respecting the rules of war and in observing constraints on its power (admittedly, this is probably not saying very much since groups such as al-Qaeda and the Islamic State don’t set a very high standard when it comes to complying with the Geneva Conventions!). However, as recent events illustrate, when Bush framed this war as a grand ideological struggle in which America would lead the forces of civilization against medieval religious nutcases who spend their time stoning women and homosexuals to death, he was presenting an image of the enemy as less than human and one that needed to be remade in the Western/liberal image. Notwithstanding the fact that Bush would publicly insist that this was not a clash of civilizations between the West and Islam, his actions as president – including, as Dick Cheney recently admitted on Fox News, his approval of the interrogation methods being used in U.S. “black sites” around the world – reinforced this narrative.

So, then, these are the reasons as to why the United States finds itself once again being criticised and mocked for the gap between its lofty ideals and the ugly reality of rectal rehydrations. In some ways, it also brings us back to the question of accountability. I will refrain from engaging in this debate except to say this. What enrages people the most, I suspect, about someone such as former Vice President Dick Cheney, who remains the Bush administration’s most outspoken defender of these policies, believing, as he does, that they were absolutely essential to saving more American lives, is that he shows very little evidence of having struggled with these decisions. Most people are willing to accept that in times of supreme emergency, citizens could be forgiven for giving their leaders some wiggle room to behave in ways that offend our democratic sensibilities. Most people would agree with Abraham Lincoln that sometimes “the dogmas of the quiet past” are not adequate to deal with the “stormy present.” Yet, as the famous Just War theorist, Michael Walzer, points out, we still expect to see them struggle with these decisions, to provide some evidence of their own inner struggles when it comes to abandoning cherished principles. Cheney shows none of this. Indeed, he seems to relish his reputation for toughness, often asserting that he would have no hesitation in doing this again, that these “bastards” killed nearly three thousand Americans on 9/11, that he was not interested in giving them a “kiss on the cheek.” He made all of these comments just several days ago, several years after he served as vice president and after having had ample time to reflect on some of the grim consequences of the Bush administration’s policies. One can accept in principle that leaders will have to do ugly things on occasions in our name. One should not accept, however, the institutionalisation of torture among policy-makers who seem to care so little for the laws of war and common standards of human decency.

*Dr. Danny Cooper is the Editor, American Foreign Policy ,Alochonaa. He is a senior lecturer at Griffith University in American Politics and American Foreign Policy. His book Neoconservatism and American Foreign Policy: A Critical Analysis was published in New York by Routledge in 2011. His review article Lessons from Iraq: the agony and ambivalence of an American liberal was published by the Australian Journal of International Affairs.

** is not responsible for any factual mistakes (if any) of this analysis. This analysis further is not necessarily representative of’s view. We’re happy to facilitate further evidence-based submissions on this topic. Please send us your submission at

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.