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Retired Canadian Astronaut & Author
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Preventing Another Abu Ghraib

Question: Whom do you\r\nblame for the ethical breakdown at Abu Ghraib?

\r\n\r\n

Nancy Sherman: I\r\nthink it was a breakdown from high up, breakdown from the top down.  There were attempts, we know, from the\r\ntorture memos that came from the Office of Legal Council, Jay Bybee and \r\nJohn\r\nYoo, to figure out ways that we could permissibly, legally, torture by \r\nsome\r\nother name.  And it was through\r\nCheney and through President Bush that there really was an attempt to do\r\n this. And it trickled down.  So, there\r\nwere commanders who gave permission, or turned their head. \r\n And we also used forces in interrogation\r\nthat weren’t fully trained.  Some\r\nof them had been in other environments and they were told to kind of get\r\ncreative.  And also there is a\r\nfeeling of lack of respect for the enemy. \r\nOnce you degrade the enemy to just being a thing, all bets are \r\noff as to\r\nwhat you can do to them.  And as my\r\nyoung interrogators told me, the temptation to get information out of \r\nsomeone\r\nwho you’re—when you get so frustrated and it’s been days and days and \r\ndays and\r\nyou’re not making any breakthroughs and you know that there may be some \r\nhigh\r\nintelligence that may be gathered. \r\nYou run the risk of harming this person, of doing something you \r\nought\r\nnot to do.  

\r\n\r\n

And in his case, he said there was a moment where \r\nhe saw a\r\nfellow U.S. officer, who was a woman, a woman pilot who had been mangled\r\n by the\r\nenemy, and that really got his ire up, and he really wanted to do \r\nsomething to\r\nbe able to prevent that kind of incident in the future.  And\r\n that’s when he knew that his\r\nconscience really in high gear, hold back.  That’s\r\n the temptation you have to be prepared to fight\r\nagainst. 

\r\n\r\n

And I don’t think—that’s a very reflective, \r\nconscientious,\r\nvery humanistic interrogator.  Not\r\nall are like that.  I went to\r\nGuantanamo as part of the medical observer team, not a physician, but we\r\n were\r\nlooking at psychiatric and psychological conditions of the detainees \r\nfrom the\r\nside of care and also from the side of interrogation and also for hunger\r\nstrikers.  And there was an attempt\r\nto even then when they wanted to bring an observer team out to ask us to\r\n try to\r\nfind a legal loophole for separating the kinds of professionals, the\r\npsychologists who were involved in the interrogation from the kind of\r\npsychiatrists clinicians involved in treatment.  And\r\n if the one is involved in an interrogation never do the treatment,\r\nthen maybe they could be a little bit more aggressive or don’t have to \r\nworry\r\nabout the same restrictions as the ones on the treating side.  And that, you could already see, that’s\r\na way of eroding the responsibilities we have to the care of the \r\ndetainees who\r\nwere supposed to be treated as if they were American forces when they \r\nare in\r\nPOW situations.

\r\n\r\n

Question: What ethical\r\nloopholes still need to be closed in the war on terror? 

\r\n\r\n

Nancy Sherman: Oh\r\nwell, the legal situation is very complicated.  As\r\n you know, Eric Holder is really, the Attorney General, is fraught and \r\nthere’s lots of internal debates in the Obama Administration\r\nthat I can’t begin to chronicle about whether there are military \r\ntribunals or\r\ncivilian sorts of tribunals and where to have the trials, as you know, \r\nNew York\r\nor other places, and who should be released and who not. \r\n But there is certainly a commitment, I\r\nbelieve, to efficiently closing Guantanamo, and also a sense that \r\ntorture is a)\r\nwe know it’s not effective, it’s not instrumental.  It\r\n does not get you the information you want.  And \r\nb) it’s just flat out wrong.  And so there is that\r\n recognition I\r\nthink.  How it gets played out,\r\nespecially when you have TV programs like “24” making it very real, or \r\nmaking\r\nthe notion of “no holds barred” in interrogation, that’s really rough. 

\r\n\r\n

And I know cadets at West Point and my young \r\ninterrogator\r\nwatch these in amusement and voyeurism and whatnot, but I also know that\r\n the\r\nSuperintendent, or the Commandant of West Point have gone out to speak \r\nto the\r\nproducer of this program and say, this isn’t how it works, we don’t want\r\n this\r\npropaganda, you’re really making it harder for us because these aren’t \r\nthe\r\nrules that we are telling to abide by. \r\nAnd so that’s really tricky. \r\nSo, it certainly an awful education that we’ve had to go through,\r\n but I\r\nthink we’re coming out of it.

The military ethicist believes Abu Ghraib represented an ethical breakdown "from the top down." But have things changed under Obama?

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