Honoring Those Who Said No to Torture
In January 2004, Spec. Joseph M. Darby, a 24-year-old Army reservist in Iraq, discovered a set of photographs showing other members of his company torturing prisoners at the Abu Ghraib prison. The discovery anguished him, and he struggled over how to respond. “I had the choice between what I knew was morally right, and my loyalty to other soldiers,” he recalled later. “I couldn’t have it both ways.”
So he copied the photographs onto a CD, sealed it in an envelope, and delivered the envelope and an anonymous letter to the Army’s Criminal Investigation Command. Three months later — seven years ago today — the photographs were published. Specialist Darby soon found himself the target of death threats, but he had no regrets. Testifying at a pretrial hearing for a fellow soldier, he said that the abuse “violated everything I personally believed in and all I’d been taught about the rules of war.”
He was not alone. Throughout the military, and throughout the government, brave men and women reported abuse, challenged interrogation directives that permitted abuse, and refused to participate in an interrogation and detention program that they believed to be unwise, unlawful and immoral. The Bush administration’s most senior officials expressly approved the torture of prisoners, but there was dissent in every agency, and at every level.
There are many things the Obama administration could do to repair some of the damage done by the last administration, but among the simplest and most urgent is this: It could recognize and honor the public servants who rejected torture.
In the thousands of pages that have been made public about the detention and interrogation program, we hear the voices of the prisoners who were tortured and the voices of those who inflicted their suffering. But we also hear the voices of the many Americans who said no.
Some of these voices belong to people whose names have been redacted from the public record. In Afghanistan, soldiers and contractors recoiled at interrogation techniques they witnessed. After seeing a prisoner beaten by a mysterious special forces team, one interpreter filed an official complaint. “I was very upset that such a thing could happen,” she wrote. “I take my responsibilities as an interrogator and as a human being very seriously.”
Similarly, after Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld told interrogators that they could hold Guantánamo prisoners in “stress positions,” barrage them with strobe lights and loud music, and hold them in freezing-cold cells, F.B.I. agents at the naval base refused to participate in the interrogations and complained to F.B.I. headquarters.
But some of the names we know. When Alberto J. Mora, the Navy’s general counsel, learned of the interrogation directive that Mr. Rumsfeld issued at Guantánamo, he campaigned to have it revoked, arguing that it was “unlawful and unworthy of the military services.” Guantánamo prosecutors resigned rather than present cases founded on coerced evidence. One, Lt. Col. Stuart Couch of the Marines, said the abuse violated basic religious precepts of human dignity. Another, Lt. Col. Darrel J. Vandeveld of the Army, filed an affidavit in support of the child prisoner he had been assigned to prosecute.
There were dissenters even within the C.I.A. Early in 2003, the agency’s inspector general, John L. Helgerson, began an investigation after agents in the field expressed concern that the agency’s secret-site interrogations “might involve violations of human rights.” Mr. Helgerson, a 30-year agency veteran, was himself a kind of dissenter: in 2004 he sent the agency a meticulously researched report documenting some of the abuses that had taken place in C.I.A.-run prisons, questioning the wisdom and legality of the policies that had led to those abuses, and characterizing some of the agency’s activities as inhumane. Without his investigation and report, the torture program might still be operating today.
Thus far, though, our official history has honored only those who approved torture, not those who rejected it. In December 2004, as the leadership of the C.I.A. was debating whether to destroy videotapes of prisoners being waterboarded in the agency’s secret prisons, President Bush bestowed the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, on George J. Tenet, the former C.I.A. director who had signed off on the torture sessions. In 2006, the Army major general who oversaw the torture of prisoners at Guantánamo was given the Distinguished Service Medal. One of the lawyers responsible for the Bush administration’s “torture memos” received awards from the Justice Department, the Defense Department and the National Security Agency.
President Obama has disavowed torture, but he has been unenthusiastic about examining the last administration’s interrogation policies. He has said the country should look to the future rather than the past. But averting our eyes from recent history means not only that we fail in our legal and moral duty to provide redress to victims of torture, but also that we betray the public servants who risked so much to reverse what they knew was a disastrous and shameful course.
Those who stayed true to our values and stood up against cruelty are worthy of a wide range of civilian and military commendations, up to and including the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Honoring them is a way of encouraging the best in our public servants, now and in the future. It is also a way of honoring the best in ourselves.
Jameel Jaffer is a deputy legal director at the American Civil Liberties Union. Larry Siems is the director of the Freedom to Write program at the PEN American Center.