Mark Danner

American Torture: Danner v. Cheney

Author: Charles Kaiser


When the history of this era is written more honor will be attached to Mark Danner than to most other journalists.

One week ago the author and UC Berkeley journalism professor printed the details of a hitherto secret report made by the International Committee of the Red Cross after its representatives interviewed detainees at Guantánamo.

The report is shameful reading for every American. The index on the very first page tells you why:

Arrest and Transfer 1.2 Continuous Solitary Confinement and Incommunicado Detention 1.3 Other Methods of Ill-treatment 1.3.1 Suffocation by water 1.3.2 Prolonged Stress Standing 1.3.3 Beatings by use of a collar 1.3.4 Beating and kicking 1.3.5 Confinement in a box 1.3.6 Prolonged nudity 1.3.7 Sleep deprivation and use of loud music1.3.8 Exposure to cold temperature/cold water 1.3.9 Prolonged use of handcuffs and shackles 1.3.10 Threats 1.3.11 Forced shaving

These brief excerpts give the flavor of the “non-torture” authorized by George Bush and his willing minions:

I was only allowed to get up from the chair to go [to] the toilet, which consisted of a bucket. Water for cleaning myself was provided in a plastic bottle.

I was given no solid food during the first two or three weeks, while sitting on the chair. I was only given Ensure [a nutrient supplement] and water to drink.

At first the Ensure made me vomit, but this became less with time.

The cell and room were air-conditioned and were very cold. Very loud, shouting type music was constantly playing. It kept repeating about every fifteen minutes twenty-four hours a day. Sometimes the music stopped and was replaced by a loud hissing or crackling noise.

The guards were American, but wore masks to conceal their faces. My interrogators did not wear masks…

I would be strapped to a special bed, which could be rotated into a vertical position. A cloth would be placed over my face. Cold water from a bottle that had been kept in a fridge was then poured onto the cloth by one of the guards so that I could not breathe….The cloth was then removed and the bed was put into a vertical position. The whole process was then repeated during about one hour. Injuries to my ankles and wrists also occurred during the water-boarding as I struggled in the panic of not being able to breath. Female interrogators were also present…and a doctor was always present, standing out of sight behind the head of [the] bed, but I saw him when he came to fix a clip to my finger which was connected to a machine. I think it was to measure my pulse and oxygen content in my blood. So they could take me to [the] breaking point…

The beatings became worse and I had cold water directed at me from a hose-pipe by guards while I was still in my cell. The worst day was when I was beaten for about half an hour by one of the interrogators. My head was banged against the wall so hard that it started to bleed. Cold water was poured over my head. This was then repeated with other interrogators. Finally I was taken for a session of water boarding. The torture on that day was finally stopped by the intervention of the doctor. I was allowed to sleep for about one hour and then put back in my cell standing with my hands shackled above my head.

As Danner puts it at the beginning of his blockbuster piece, which was printed in full in theNew York Review of Books and excerpted on the op-ed page of The New York Times, “We think time and elections will cleanse our fallen world but they will not.”

Danner has been way ahead of most other reporters on the subject of torture for a long time. Four years ago, on the occasion of Alberto Gonzales’s confirmation hearing to become Attorney General, Danner wrote, “We are all torturers now,” in The New York Times. He continued,

The senators are likely to give full legitimacy to a path that the Bush administration set the country on more than three years ago, a path that has transformed the United States from a country that condemned torture and forbade its use to one that practices torture routinely. Through a process of redefinition largely overseen by Mr. Gonzales himself, a practice that was once a clear and abhorrent violation of the law has become in effect the law of the land.

So for those who have been following this subject closely, there is nothing really surprising about the new details in the Red Cross report. And yet, there is something newly numbing about their specificity, and their repetition.

The only “official” American reaction to Danner’s disclosure came from an anonymous “U.S. official familiar with the ICRC report” who “noted that the claims of abuse were made by the alleged terrorists themselves.” That is true, of course, but the report points out that many prisoners described identical experiences, even though all of them have been kept in solitary confinement, and none of them has had a chance to check their stories with each other. That is one reason to believe their accounts are credible.

Danner’s piece got plenty of coverage from The Washington Post, the Christian Science Monitor, the Cuban, IslamOnline, and the Australian and Xinhua (Chinese) press agencies—but no mention on  any of the evening network news broadcasts, or in the news pages of The New York Times.

Deputy Washington bureau chief Douglas Jehl explained the news judgement of the Timesto FCP this way:

We did look closely at the Mark Danner material, both what first appeared in the Times op-ed on Sunday and what appeared in the New York Review of Books. Our judgment was that it didn’t merit an additional news story, and that the op-ed sufficed for our readers.  Based on the disclosure in Jane Mayer’s book, we had already reported in the times last July that ICRS investigators had[said that] the treatment of high-value detainees amounted to torture, based on interviews with those detainees. That New York Timesarticle,  published on July 11, 2008, also included specific details of their treatment as described in Ms. Mayer’s book.

What Mr. Danner wrote included some new details but not enough to merit an additional news story, in our careful consideration.

Jehl’s position is understandable. But by not writing any story,  at the very least, the Timesmissed the fact that Danner’s scoop had substantially increased the pressure on Congress to pursue the kind of truth commission that Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy has been championing.

The same day Danner’s excerpted piece appeared in The New York Times, former Vice President Cheney was giving yet another despicable performance on CNN. In an interview with John King, Cheney asserted that the Obama administration was making the country more vulnerable to attack, by announcing its intention to close Guantánamo, and by banning the lovely interrogation techniques described above.

In a short news story about Cheney’s appearance, the Times once again credulously repeated the former vice president’s claim that “those programs were absolutely essential to the success we enjoyed of being able to collect the intelligence that let us defeat all further attempts to launch attacks against the United States since 9/11″—and once again failed to point out that no less an authority than F.B.I. director Robert Mueller has saidthat there is no evidence that torture has prevented any attacks on America.

And as Scott Horton noted in a Harper’s piece, “In the view of the Washington press corps…the controversy about the Cheney interview stemmed not from the pathetic performance that King put in, but from events of the following day.”

When White House spokesman Robert Gibbs ridiculed Cheney’s remarks, this was the echoed reaction of network news correspondents at the White House: “Can I ask you, when you referred to the former vice president, that was a really hard-hitting, kind of sarcastic response you had,” said Chip Reid of CBS. “This is a former Vice President of the United States. Is that the attitude—is that the sanctioned tone toward the former vice president off the United States from this White House now?”

But let’s give President Obama the last word on Cheney’s outrageous claim. This is what the president said about the torture/terror issue on 60 Minutes yesterday:

I fundamentally disagree with Dick Cheney. Not surprisingly. You know, I think that Vice President Cheney has been at the head of a movement whose notion is somehow that we can’t reconcile our core values, our Constitution, our belief that we don’t torture, with our national security interests. I think he’s drawing the wrong lesson from history.

The don’t facts bear him out. I think he is, that attitude, that philosophy has done incredible damage to our image and position in the world. I mean, the fact of the matter is after all these years how many convictions actually came out of Guantánamo? How many terrorists have actually been brought to justice under the philosophy that is being promoted by Vice President Cheney? It hasn’t made us safer. What it has been is a great advertisement for anti-American sentiment. Which means that there is constant effective recruitment of Arab fighters and Muslim fighters against U.S. interests all around the world.