My Turn: Fighting modern battles with ancient methods

Posted: Thursday, September 28, 2006

President Bush proposes to fight "the ideological battle of the 21st century" using the tools and methods of the Middle Ages, including torture and the Star Chamber.

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Nearly all the experienced officers in the CIA, FBI, the military and experts from around the world agree that torture yields totally unreliable information. Yet Bush continues to endorse the practice and to brag about its dubious results.

One of his favorite examples is Abu Zubaydah, the first to be interrogated using the "alternative set of procedures." In his recent June 2006 book, "The One Percent Doctrine," Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Ron Suskind describes the events around Zubaydah's capture and "debriefing." The first thing the FBI and CIA examined was his diary. They quickly realized that he was seriously mentally ill, from a head wound suffered in Afghanistan while fighting for the CIA-backed mujahadeen in the late 1980s. The diary consists of trivial nonsense, from the perspective of three distinct personalities. He had nothing to do with operations, at best he was a "travel agent" or "greeter." Dan Coleman, the FBI's top al-Qaida expert ("the man who introduced Osama bin Laden to America" in the mid-1990s) told one of his bosses, "This guy is insane, certifiable, split personality," an opinion shared by the CIA. Bush reacted by telling his CIA chief, George Tenet, "I said he was important. You're not going to let me lose face on this, are you?"

"No sir, Mr. President," Tenet dutifully replied. The torture of the crazy man yielded up plots to attack everything from supermarkets, malls and banks, to the Statue of Liberty and Brooklyn Bridge. Suskind writes, "Thousands of uniformed men and women raced in a panic to each flavor of target. ... The FBI generally kept its various alerts secret. But word drifted out to the media, time and again, considering the thousands who were involved."

How much did this worthless "intelligence" cost in wasted energy and money? Who knows? But it wasn't worthless to one man: It was very valuable to a president whose power rests on successfully bamboozling an ever decreasing minority with an atmosphere of fear and shifting color codes.

In 1904, the many-talented American writer, Edgar Lee Masters (at the time he was a law partner of Clarence Darrow) wrote, "In the Star Chamber the council (cabinet) could inflict any punishment short of death, and frequently sentenced objects of its wrath to the pillory, to whipping and to the cutting off of ears. ... With each embarrassment to arbitrary power the Star Chamber became emboldened to undertake further usurpation. ... It spread terrorism among those who were called to do constitutional acts."

As far as I can see, the only difference between Bush's military tribunals and King Charles' Star Chamber is that the death penalty is not excluded. On the other hand, hopefully, there will be no ear-lopping.

The argument that these people are "evil terrorists" and therefore not entitled to fundamental human and legal rights falls flat on its face, given that thousands of detainees have been released after going through the torture mills at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo. The case of Canadian Maher Arar, who was sent by the United States to Syria, where he was tortured for a year, is one recent example. He has been completely vindicated by a Canadian court, which roundly condemned the "extraordinary rendition" by U.S. authorities.

Many others continue to languish in the illegal prisons. Some, like the "Algerian Six" are known to be innocent, but their release would constitute an admission of a grave error.

Until now, most of the victims of "extraordinary rendition" and "alternative interrogation" have been dark-skinned persons, whose culture and language are "foreign." How soon will it be before people with names like Ratigan are subject to torture and Star Chamber justice?

• Bill Ratigan is a retired ferry worker and resident of Juneau.

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