Torture Team

By Jim Miles

Torture Team – Deception, Cruelty and the Compromise of Law. Philippe Sands. Allen Lane, Penguin. New York. 2008.

"Only a few pieces of paper can change the course of history. On Tuesday, 2 December 2002 Donald Rumsfield signed on that did." From such a singular beginning Philippe Sands writes the history of U.S. attempts to abrogate international laws and conventions on the use of torture and the inhumane treatment of prisoners of war. This is the memo Rumsfield approved with the sarcastic comment about standing: “However, I stand for 8-10 hours a day. Why is standing limited to 4 hours?” Perhaps Rumsfield should have been subjected to the other seventeen “techniques” that accompanied the memo to see if his limits for them were any better. 

Torture Team begins carefully, reviewing and structuring the trail of evidence and the chain of command. Most of the participants in the chain of command were interviewed, some more willingly than others, and good portraits of their characters come through. They varied from casually ignorant and insouciant to defensively firm in their self-perspectives on the various papers, actions, and events that occurred. Through it all, the only groups/people that appear to be relatively ‘clean’ in these events are the military themselves and the FBI. All others, politicians (starting at the top with Bush, Rumsfield, Douglas Feith, Wolfowitz et al), government lawyers and advisors (Gonzales, Haynes, Jay Bybee, John Yoo et al), medical personnel, psychologists, anthropologists – pretty much anyone who had a hand in the interrogation – become complicit in war crimes under international law. 


As with the one action paper signed by Rumsfield, much of the evidence comes from a singular detainee, Detainee 063 (Mohammed al-Qahtani) whose record of torture is described in an Interrogation Log over a period of several months. Around the one piece of paper and the one detainee is a history of the attempted subversion of international law, and the evasions and rationales used by the chain of command to avoid culpability. 

As another singularity, much of the argument is based on Common Article 3 – labelled so because it appears in each of the four Geneva Conventions – prohibiting “cruel treatment and torture, as well as ‘outrages upon personal dignity, in particular, humiliating and degrading treatment.” A violation of this article “would be a war crime, leading to possible investigation in many countries,” in deed it is incumbent on signatory countries to prosecute war crimes. Further “There are no exceptions to Common Article 3 – not even necessity or national security,” making anyone who contravenes it “an international outlaw.”

A final singularity appears later in the book when Sands discusses the situation in comparison with Nuremberg and a particular Nazi government official, a lawyer, whose argument acted within the same parameters as those presented to Douglas Feith. While Sands agrees that the actual actions are not comparable on scale, the arguments presented as lawyers trying to avoid culpability are similar. 

Feith and U.S. Exceptionalism

Douglas Feith (apparently pronounced ‘Fife’), Undersecretary of Defence for Policy, is one of the main characters in the history. He is one of the “chicken hawk” neocons advocating for a new world order, arguing that the war on terror is a “new kind of war.” The Bush administration and its many other neocon supporters argue that the world changed on 9/11, that the U.S. was fighting a new type of war, against non-state actors. An external view of the situation more correctly identifies that the world remained essentially the same, as non-state insurgents and jihadists had been active for some time, propelled to their modern image by the U.S. itself in liaison with Pakistan during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Yes, something in the U.S. changed, but not its record of foreign military interventions, but its outward attitude that now it could what it wanted openly against the terrorists. 

Feith claims that the U.S. is “entitled to moral authority,” that it is “one of the few governments that actually is entitled to moral authority.” As this is a self-professed, self-claimed authority, it has no claim to reality, to any moral superiority over any other country or culture. It is another of the many claims to U.S. exceptionalism, most of which are self-proclaimed and contrary to evidence – the actions taken do not support the grand rhetoric and jingoism that go with them.


Sands continues with his arguments carefully, arriving at the conclusion that the “most senior lawyers bear direct responsibility for decisions that led to violations of the Geneva Conventions.” He notes that they have “immunity from criminal process [as] built into US law, and to which several of these lawyers contributed.” 

Complicity in the war crimes reaches much deeper than that. In consultation with European sources, Sands reveals the extent of that complicity. The development of war crimes conventions after World War II made a doctrine from which “there would be no refuge for the torturer or the international criminal,” with duties imposed “on every person who was involved in the decision-making process.” As for the legal advice, any writing that “had opened the door to abuse or even torture…on specific individuals, then in theory the responsibility would go back to the author of the legal advice….” Avoiding the issue does not help either, as “contributing to the avoidance of an investigation of a crime could itself give rise to complicity.” 

The societal impact of 9/11 on U.S. culture in its broadest sense was enormous. Having long before ‘won’ the Cold War with the Soviet Union, “a pervasive sense of threat…hung in the air a year after the September 11 attacks.” Much of that “palpable and real” fear was created deliberately under the neocon culture that could now focus the U.S. citizen’s worries on the new ‘global war on terror.’ 9/11 “gave rise to a conscious decision to set aside international rules constraining interrogation.  Along with that “A new culture of cruelty had been unleashed,” one that captured Europe as well, as the “CIA’s programme of ‘extraordinary rendition’ was the product of the same mindset, and it seems to have ensnared various European and other countries in a culture of complicity.”

The actions taken were not “mere accident or oversight,” but were “motivated by a combination of factors, including fear and ideology and an almost visceral disdain for international obligations.” 

Into the Future

Starting from a few singularities Sands draws broad sweeping conclusions on the complicity of many levels of the U.S. government and its advocates and advisors. It reaches overseas into NATO’s (and other nation’s) complicity in the rendition program. It is also the cause of the actions taken at Abu Ghraib in Iraq. Many in the Bush administration and those that served them fall into Sand’s description of complicity in war crimes. 

It leaves a lingering question – if “contributing to the avoidance of an investigation” results in complicity, wherein do the actions of Barak Obama fall? He has given a deadline for the termination of the Guantanamo detention centre, he has sworn that within the U.S. torture will not be used, but nothing has apparently changed with overseas renditions, and he has indicated that he would not “look back” and prosecute anyone for war crimes. The final chapter Torture Team has yet to be written, but it is a valuable and strongly researched work up to that point.

– Jim Miles is a Canadian educator and a regular contributor/columnist of opinion pieces and book reviews for The Palestine Chronicle. Miles’ work is also presented globally through other alternative websites and news publications.

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