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The Sands “Torture Narrative” Takes a Hit

When Fantasy and Fact Collide

Doug Feith testified to the House Judiciary Committee today on his role in GWOT detainee treatment, AKA the “Torture Narrative.” According to said narrative, the officially-sanctioned policy of systematic, brutal and illegal mistreatment of captured enemies led directly to the abuses at Abu Ghraib. One of the main documents of this story is Philippe Sands’ recent publication The Torture Team. Some in Congress found Sands’ book (which got a big spread in Vanity Fair!) so persuasive that they convened the hearings, in which Feith participated today with, interestingly, Sands himself.

Sands’ narrative has rapidly become an accepted truth–even an article of faith to those who believe there are elements in our government who are eagerly awaiting their chance to torment innocents. I am sure it is titillating, even compelling in the sense that Sands seems to confirm what so many think they already know about Bush administration detainee policy.

But there’s a problem with those pesky things known as “facts,” which generally support persuasive narratives. In the course of the hearing, Rep. Trent Franks (R-AZ) asked Feith what his issues were with Sands’ story and to my count Feith reeled off seven separate articles in which Sands said one thing and the primary source record indicates something completely different. For example, Sands’ asserted that Feith had directed that no one detained at the GTMO facility should be accorded protection by the Geneva Conventions–which Sands considers a war crime. Feith said that he had not issued that directive. Sands retorted by saying he had Feith’s own damning words uttered in an ill-advised interview with the author as documentation and proceeded to read his transcript–according to which Feith said that no al-Qaida members at GTMO should be protected by Geneva (because they were not uniformed soldiers in the employ of a nation state, as stipulated by the Conventions). There’s a difference there and an important one if you care about actually applying international statutes properly because we are at war and American lives are at stake.

That was Sands’ only response to Feith’s list, but it’s worth noting another one that he left completely unaddressed: Sands claims in his book that Feith was on opposite sides of the arguement whether or not to apply Common Article 3 to the detainees from then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Richard Myers. Sands’ interpretation is Myers (war hero) supported the application of Article 3, while Feith (war criminal) was determined to withhold humane treatment whenever he got the chance. Feith took the extraordinary step of calling General Myers to get his recollection, and Myers responded that, for the record, he and Feith were on the same side.

And it goes on. Watch the testimony.

Based on this rather pitiful record, I am at a loss to understand why anyone would listen to a thing Philippe Sands has to say on this or, for that matter, any other topic until he takes the time to get his facts straight. Those who continue to trumpet the “torture narrative” need to come up with a new document if they want anyone to take them seriously. I don’t care how much you want to believe a story or how much it confirms your most cherished convictions, when the facts that support it are demonstrated to be sloppy and spurious at best, you have to rethink your position. As Feith said, Sands was completely impeached in his performance today. The Torture Team is a lurid fantasy, and has no place in our national discourse on this important subject. It seems to me our Congress might find something more productive to do with its time then hold hearings based on the tabloids.

The full testimony is available here: http://www.cspan.org/.

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