Known and Forgotten

March 7, 2011

By Matthew Alexander, Former Senior Military Interrogator and Amnesty Volunteer

Simulated waterboarding © Amnesty International

It would have been a better title for former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s recently released memoir.  There are things Rumsfeld remembers and things he has conveniently forgotten.  What we called in the interrogation room “selective memory.”  What’s most striking about the memoir, however, is the blatant hypocrisy.

Take for instance, his assertion in Chapter 39 (page 582) that “None of the authorized interrogation methods…involved physical or mental pain.  None were inhumane.”  What planet are we on? The Category I techniques he approved include stress positions for up to four hours.  Anyone who’s been through basic training knows that maintaining a stress position for four hours would be the very definition of pain.  But apparently, for Mr Rumsfeld, there’s no difference between standing at your work podium in your cushy Pentagon office and squatting for four hours straight.  No pain, indeed.

Rumsfeld also doesn’t consider it painful to be confronted with one’s phobias, for instance to have aggressive dogs placed inches from one’s face.  To Rumsfeld, that’s probably just a fun way to spend a Saturday.  Of course, this is from a guy who’s made a career out of Washington’s steak rooms.

He also approved, in Category II, forced grooming and forced nudity.  Rumsfeld would like us all to forget that the prohibition per military regulations is not against torture.  It’s against Cruel, Inhumane, and Degrading treatment.  So Mr Rumsfeld, how about strolling once around the halls of the Pentagon in your birthday suit?  Then you can explain to us how forced nudity is not humiliating.  Not all of us share your selective memory.

But the most appalling part of Rumsfeld’s memoir is the twisted logic and McNamara-like pompousness that led to the tragedy of Abu Ghraib.  The logic goes like this.  He says he rejected waterboarding for military use because the technique might be appropriate if used by a few, highly trained CIA agents, but:

“Tight limits on interrogation, such as those contained in the Army Field Manual, are appropriate for the U.S. military.  Tens of thousands of detainees passed through U.S. military custody in Afghanistan and Iraq.”

So according to the former SecDef, if he had allowed waterboarding, it would have corrupted the forces and led to the widespread torture and abuse of detainees.  But the same logic doesn’t apply to the torture and abuse techniques that he approved.

Worse, in the same chapter (again page 582) he admits that the interrogation of Muhammed al-Qahtani did go beyond the interrogation techniques he approved.  Why?  Precisely because he set the precedent that breaking the rules once in a while is okay, as long as it keeps us safe.  It’s a point he makes over and over again.  So if the Secretary of Defense, the highest ranking official in the Department of Defense, approves rule-breaking in limited cases and people then exceed those limits, it’s not the same logic that he used to reject waterboarding.  It’s insanity.  And then it gets more insane.

Indulge me for a moment.  Do a search for in this chapter on interrogations for the word “future” or the words “long-term.”   You won’t find them because not once does Donald Rumsfeld, with his many years of experience in strategic decision-making, ever consider the long-term future ramifications of approving the torture and abuse of prisoners in U.S. custody.  You won’t find any discussion of the fact that it became Al Qaeda’s number one recruiting tool (a fact I witnessed, and my Task Force tracked, while I oversaw interrogation of foreign fighters in Iraq).

You won’t hear Rumsfeld discuss how future adversaries will think twice about surrendering to U.S. troops as they have in past conflicts like World War II and the first Gulf War.  That will have a real cost in U.S. lives.  And you want read any discussion about how some of our allies have hesitated to work with us because they don’t want to be involved in U.S. policies on detention.  You certainly won’t hear what I heard in Iraq.  That is, detainees saying from the very start of the interrogation that we were all torturers, an obstacle that made all of our jobs much more difficult.  Who knows how much intelligence information we never received because of Rumsfeld’s decision to make torture and abuse official policy?   That certainly had a cost in lives too.

What you also won’t read in Chapter 39 is the term “World War II.”  Because what Rumsfeld and the other torture supporters consistently fail to acknowledge is that we made it through that war, facing much graver threats to our national security, without using Category I or II techniques.

Rumsfeld’s final grave sin, however, is to cite retired General Michael Hayden, the former Director of the CIA, in saying that the waterboarding of Khalid Sheikh Mohammad was justified because he provided half of all we know about Al Qaeda, a claim that has been thoroughly debunked.  Ninety percent of what Hayden and Rumsfeld claim KSM gave us was the same information he gave to an Al Jazeera reporter two years earlier in Pakistan.  What an amazing revelation.  And absent from this discussion is the glaring failure of 183 waterboarding sessions.  KSM never gave up the one thing that any good interrogator would have said was the key objective of those interrogations – the location of Osama bin Laden.

There are actions that former Secretary Rumsfeld accomplished that have had significant positive impact on the U.S. military’s ability to fight future conflicts, such as ridding us of obsolete weapon systems and preparing us for future small scale wars.  But along with this kudos, we must place the blame for one of the worst stains in the history of the United States Military – the torture and abuse of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of prisoners, precisely where it belongs.  This was a complete selling out of the very principles so many Americans have died defending.  And the blame belongs squarely on the former Secretary’s shoulders.

Amnesty International continues to campaign for Donald Rumsfeld and other members of the Bush administration who authorized the use of torture to be held to account for their actions and to gain justice for those wrongly detained and abused. Take action and add your voice to those demanding that President Obama follow through on his campaign commitment to make this the anti-torture Presidency.