Johann Hari: Tortured logic and twisted arguments

He saw feet being smashed with axe heads and flesh being burned with lighters
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The Independent Online

There are no trussed victims of torture being bundled through British airports on CIA-Air flights to Cattle Prod Central in Cairo, Riyadh or Tripoli. There are no American soldiers fighting alongside Brits in Afghanistan and Iraq who have been ordered to stab lighted cigarettes into the ears of detainees or make them sit on exhaust pipes until they burn. The 90 people (at least) who, according to Colin Powell's former chief of staff, seem to have been tortured to death during US interrogations from Gitmo to Abu Ghraib are ... what? Non-existent? Victims of rogue agents?

That's Tony Blair's position. And how does he know? Has he studied the hefty piles of documentation and witness statements provided by human rights groups? No - his reasoning is more simple. Condoleezza Rice told him so. At Prime Minister's Questions last week, he responded to Charles Kennedy's questions about CIA torture flights by saying, "I do not know what the Right Honourable Gentleman is referring to." He added quickly, "I accept entirely Secretary of State Rice's assurances," rubber-stamping her statement that the US "never" uses torture. Not in Iraq, not in Afghanistan, not when "rendering" terrorists to tyrannical allies.

Tony, you should talk to the former US Army special interrogator Tony Lagouranis. He was sent to Iraq after the Abu Ghraib scandal, and he found officially sanctioned torture at every US detention facility he served in. He explains: "We used hypothermia as a means of interrogating a lot. It was very cold up in Mosul at that time, it was raining a lot, so we would keep the prisoner outside, so they would be freezing."

The Navy Seals he worked with were more efficient: "They would use ice water to lower the body temperature of the prisoner and they would take his rectal temperature in order to make sure he didn't die." In other centres, he saw feet being smashed with axe-heads, and flesh being burnt with lighters. Gradually, he realised who he was torturing: "They were just picking up farmers. These guys were totally innocent and that's why we weren't getting intel."

Tony, you should talk to Sergent Frank Ford, a counter-intelligence agent in the California National Guard. He witnessed so much torture in Iraq - against children as young as 15 in some cases - that he approached his commanding officer to request an investigation. He was told to lie down on a gurney, strapped in, loaded on to a military plane, and shipped out of the country on the ground that he was suffering from "combat stress".

Several psychiatrists said there was nothing wrong with him. But Colonel CTsai, a military doctor who examined Ford, told Spiegel Television there was "nothing surprising" about this case: he has treated several US soldiers who had complained about officially sanctioned torture and were swiftly shipped off to hospital.

Tony, you should speak to Khaled al-Masri. He is a German citizen who was kidnapped by the CIA while he was on holiday in Macedonia two years ago. He was forced into a plane wearing nothing but a nappy and shipped to Afghanistan, where he was tortured. Forensic analysis of his hair shows that he suffered from severe malnutrition. It was only after five months that the CIA realised Khaled's only crime had been to have a similar name to an associate of one of the 9/11 hijackers. They held him for another two months, and then dumped him in a wood in Albania.

And Tony - one last phone call - you should speak to Senator John McCain. He was even more hawkish against Saddam Hussein than you and I were. And he understands torture: he was held for four years by the Viet Cong, and he still can't comb his own hair because they shattered his arms so badly. He inspected the evidence and realised that torture has become "endemic". He saw that the Bush administration actually admits to using practices like "waterboarding", where they hold a suspect under water so they think they are drowning. That's why McCain persuaded his fellow senators to vote 90-9 to ban all "cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment" by the US military.

So what was the reaction of these people - Bush, Cheney, Rice - who you take at their word, Tony? Surely, if they were not using torture, they would embrace McCain's Senate resolution as a simple statement of existing practice? Instead, Bush said he would use his presidential veto to block the resolution becoming law.

The debate about the Bush administration's decision to systematically, routinely use torture has a weird air of unreality, just like the debate about their decision to use chemical weapons in the crowded civilian city of Fallujah was a few months ago.

Blatant lies - like Condi's claims last week - are reported as fact, and waved as a defence by our own Prime Minister. And the moral debate - both here and in the US - is dominated by far-fetched hypotheses: would you torture a suspect if you knew they had planted a bomb that would annihilate Chicago is twenty minutes' time? On the basis of these fanciful scenarios, proposals to officially legalise torture and issue court warrants for it are being touted in the Bush administration's in-house journal, the Weekly Standard, and even by Harvard professors such as Alan Dershowitz.

But behind these philosophy-undergraduate thought-experiments, there are innocent Iraqi farmers tortured to death. That's why I am reluctant to enter into the arguments about ticking bombs: it turns flesh-and-lots-of-blood people into fake rationalist devices. But let's assume - for the sake of argument - that one or two ticking-bombs were genuinely among the tens of thousands of people who have been tortured since 9/11, and that torturing them produced something more than a cascade of desperate gobbledygook. How many did it save? Ten? Twenty? A 7/7 - more than 50 people? That is still far fewer than the numbers torture has beaten and broken. For every ticking bomb, there will be a thousand Khaled al-Masris.

And Tony, that is a recipe for losing this war. We are fighting against an idea - jihadi fundamentalism - and at the heart of this philosophy is the idea that democracy is a fiction, a sweet sugar-coating that quickly melts away to reveal a torture chamber. Over the past three years, your buddy George Bush has made this claim ring true in every home in the Muslim world. Instead of choking off the recruits to al-Qa'ida, he is trying to rather more literally choke them. So why are you cowering on a runway below a CIA flight, holding your hands in your ears, humming Condi's denials until the plane - and the screams of its passengers - are far, far away?