Secrecy and Torture

Torture, Secrecy, and the Bush Administration
By Scott Horton

04/16/07 “Harpers” 04/14/07 — — I want to give a bit of pre-constitutional history, and share with you the story of John Lilburne, an Englishman born in the early 1600s because his story—the story of an agitator who directly challenged the English legal system—has a great deal to tell us about the issues we’re facing today. Lilburne’s story explains why these matters—torture and secrecy—were not issues to the Founding Fathers, and it helps us understand the true nature of a government which, like the current administration, thrives in that matrix of torture and secrecy.


Secrecy was what the Roundheads found most odious about the Stuart monarchs’ justice. Certainly unjust practices accompanied some of our Puritan forefathers to this country; we can’t forget the Salem witch trials, for instance. But so too, did a healthy contempt for the abuses practiced by the Stuart monarchs, starting with the notions of torture and secret courts with secret evidence. The contempt was reciprocal of course—they say that King Charles’ lip would curl at the very mention of the word “Massachusetts,” and seven of the ten members of the first graduating class of Harvard—the class of 1642—returned to England to enlist in the Model Army and fight against the King. The practice of secret courts. The use of torture to secure confessions. The receipt of secret evidence. The exclusion of the public from proceedings. The offering of evidence in the form of summaries delivered to the judges, without the defendant being able to confront the evidence or conduct a cross-examination. These practices were the definition of tyrannical injustice to the Puritan fathers and the Founding Fathers. We thought them long-banished a hundred years and more before our own revolution. And now suddenly here they are again.

Secrecy has reemerged just as torture has made its comeback, being justified on the public stage, by government officials for the first time since the famous gathering at the Inns of Court in 1629 at which the judges declared “upon their and their nation’s honor” that torture was not permitted by the common law.

The two fit together, hand in glove: torture and secrecy. Torture and secrecy. Where one is used, the other is indispensable.

Torture is no longer a tool of statecraft. Today it is a tool of criminals, though sometimes of criminals purporting to conduct the affairs of state. Having resorted to these “dark arts,” to quote Dick Cheney, the torturers now have the dilemma faced so frequently by criminals. They seek to cover it up. And so the path flows from torture to secrecy, the twin dark stars of the tyrannical state.

If we look quickly at the proceedings that held the world’s attention down in Gitmo over the last two weeks, we see what the secrecy is all about.

When the Combat Status Review Tribunal process commenced, the Pentagon told us that the proceedings would not be open to the public. Instead, it said, a transcript would be offered up to the public a few days later, giving the Pentagon an opportunity to redact “classified national security” information from the transcripts. Pete Yost of the Associated Press gave me a ring just as this came out and asked: what do you suppose they think is going to require censoring? I said the answer is clear based on submissions the Department of Justice has made in four or five cases: they will take the position that any evidence of torture must be censored or expunged, because the testimony would disclose the specific torture techniques which have been applied, and that would divulge highly classified national security data. Why do you think the DVDs of the treatment of Jose Padilla, all two dozen copies, mysteriously disappeared? Why, as Colonel Couch recently told the Wall Street Journal’s Jess Bravin, did the recording devices inexplicably malfunction whenever torture incidents occurred? Yes. Why indeed. Of course, I was relying not only on what was said and done in Padilla, El-Masri, Arar and other cases, but also on Terry Gilliam’s movie, “Brazil,” in which all of this morally deviant thinking is taken to its logical conclusion. What the Bush Administration has created in Gitmo is “Brazil,” minus, of course, any pretense of humor.

Read all of it here.

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1 Response to Secrecy and Torture

  1. I enjoyed this one as well…being the Harpers addict that I am, the hobby as of late is to research concepts like torture or fighting insurgencies. On the latter, I was able to dig up the following:

    French Fighters in Africa (Feb 1895)

    On the topic of this thread, I’m sure you’re aware of Maher Arar’s story, but in case you’re not, or you’re interested in reading something I wrote a little while ago on it:

    The Murder of Maher Arar

    I’m really a big fan of your blog, and have linked to it on deadissue. I’d really appreciate it if you could post a link as well.

    Peace – DI

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