Sands dissects influence of ‘torture team’

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Tuesday, September 16, 2008

How did the United States government come to authorize the interrogation techniques used at Guantanamo Bay – the removal of clothing, threat to families and exposure to extreme temperatures – despite the fact that it violated international rules against torture? Philippe Sands, author of “Torture Team: Rumsfeld’s Memo and the Betrayal of American Values,” tried to answer the question in a Monday lecture to a full Joukowsky Forum.

“We stand for justice, truth and the value of a single human being,” he said, borrowing words from the film “Judgment at Nuremberg” to introduce his lecture.

Both a member of the faculty at University College London and a practicing barrister in the United Kingdom, Sands has worked for “promoting academic study of international adjudication” and has a “long record” in the practice of international law, said David Kennedy ’76, interim director of the Watson Institute for International Studies, who introduced him.

Sands briefed the audience on the documents that had provided the basis for his book, a set of memoranda that lead to the authorization of 15 interrogation techniques at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

In writing the book, he was trying to understand how this authorization occurred, especially since the United States had once been on the forefront of establishing international standards against torture, Sands said.

Sands said he was fascinated by the role of the “ideologically driven” lawyers involved in the process of authorizing these techniques and how “a legal environment in which certain individuals have no legal rights” was created.

Sands said that the Bush administration’s explanation of how these interrogation techniques came to be authorized seemed “too well-scripted, too carefully scripted.”

During his research for the book, Sands tried to interview everyone who had been involved in the decision-making process, joking that his pursuits were so thorough that he even e-mailed many of their spouses.

His conclusions, he said, were concrete. “Were crimes committed? There’s no question.”

To stress his point that the United States must confront the atrocities committed after it essentially legalized torture, he shared advice he had given to the United States House of Representatives Judiciary Committee: “If you do nothing, others will do it for you. The do-nothing option is simply not available.” Since a 2006 Supreme Court decision granted immunity to many involved in the authorization of torture, their cases are now more pressing for international investigation, Sands said.

The authorization of torture is a “breakdown of constitutional government,” Sands said. The next American president would “be wise to find a means of saying … ‘we made a mistake.'”

The event was part of the Director’s Lecture Series on Contemporary International Affairs which, according to the Watson Web site, is aimed at bringing “leading public intellectuals” to campus for the purpose of “bridging the gap between the academy and the public on topics such as war, ethnic conflict, self-determination and the global economy.”

Julia Potter ’12 said she particularly appreciated Sands’ discussion of “the popular opinion in America” about the issue of torture.

She said she found the international view of the issue particularly interesting, especially Sands’ ideas as an international lawyer.

Not being American, Sands said he doesn’t feel comfortable giving a governing body in the United States specific advice on the matter, though he does offer general advice.

But he added: All over the world, “my view is a mainstream view.”