The Gestapo Inheritance


Soon after real-time terror hit home, the president gave the CIA authority to interrogate suspected terrorists in its secret prisons, wholly outside our laws or the UN International Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment of prisoners. Eventually, hard evidence of torture kept emerging from victims of the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation techniques” (as the president likes to call them); from human-rights organizations; and from reports in the European and American press (including this column). In response, the Republican-controlled Congress gave CIA torturers immunity from prosecution in the 2006 Military Commissions Act.

Now that The New York Times, in its October 5 issue, has exposed two secret 2005 Justice Department opinions specifying the CIA acts of torture that can continue
in combination, the Democratic-controlled Congress should finally conduct penetrating investigations of these war crimes and be prepared to go all the way up to the Oval Office—if the Democrats don’t again falter in fear of being tarred as soft on terrorism at election time.

What has recently—and startlingly—been revealed are the eerie parallels between these CIA “enhanced interrogation techniques” and the
verschärfte vernehmung (German for “enhanced interrogation”) methods of persuasion used by the Gestapo.

I’m not claiming that the CIA—which has indeed studied the torture methods of the Soviet Union, Saudi Arabia, and Syria—is the equivalent of the Gestapo. Nor is George W. Bush the mirror image of Hitler. The president is an ingenuous, too often vacuous tool of such formidable advisers as Dick Cheney and Cheney’s chief of staff, David Addington, who fiercely believe that the American rule of law is far too weak to deal with the growing epidemic of terrorism.

If I’d been German and had written what follows about the verschärfte vernehmung while Hitler was in charge, I’d soon be on my way to the gas chamber. But I and others are still free to try to awaken Americans to understand why much of the world that used to respect us for our principles—however sometimes frayed—now mock our leaders’ preening hypocrisy.

For example, after the story broke of the Justice Department’s secret 2005 licenses for the CIA to continue torturing, the president habitually—and ludicrously—assured us:

“This government does not torture people. You know, we stick to the U.S. law and our international obligations. Trained personnel do the questioning—and we’ll keep on.”

Nonetheless, the parallels between our current “enhanced interrogation techniques” and the Gestapo’s have been researched and documented by the widely published libertarian Andrew Sullivan (, as well as by international human-rights lawyer Scott Horton, whom I consult often on treaties and laws that have been deep-sixed by the administration.

Sullivan’s website has links to other reports on these verschärfte parallels. He notes that the German lexicon of torture began in 1937, to be used “only on Communists, Marxists, members of the Bible-researcher sect, saboteurs, terrorists, members of the resistance . . . asocial persons, Polish or Soviet persons who refuse to work, or idlers.”

The list is taken from a directive by a Gestapo chief, identified only as Muller. No marks were to be left on subjects (an instruction, as I’ve reported, that can also be found in certain orders to CIA interrogators).

In 1948, Sullivan reports, there was a U.S.-run war-crimes trial in Norway prosecuting Nazis convicted of “enhanced interrogation techniques” in the Second World War. The victims had been “paramilitary Norwegians, operating as an insurgency, against an occupying force.” Various implements of torture were used, including “cold baths and blows and kicks in the face and all over the body.”

Previous Nazi records actually show that “the use of hypothermia and waterboarding (both later authorized by Bush and Rumsfeld) were initially forbidden” by the Nazis—but, Sullivan adds, “historians have found that all the bureaucratic restrictions were eventually broken or abridged. Once you start torturing, it has a life of its own.”

At the Norwegian war-crimes trial, “The Nazi defense of the [enhanced] techniques is almost verbatim that of the Bush administration: ‘The victims were not in uniform . . . and the acts of torture in no case resulted in death.'” (This became the Bush position in the 2002 Justice Department “torture memos” drafted by John Yoo.)

Significantly, in the Norwegian war-crimes trial, Sullivan writes, “The Court came to the conclusion that such acts, even though they were committed with the connivances of superiors in rank, or even on their orders, must be regarded and punished as serious war crimes.”

He adds that “there is no comparison between the political system in Germany in 1937 and the U.S. in 2007; what I am reporting is a simple empirical fact: the interrogation methods approved by the president are not new. . . .

“Freezing prisoners to near-death, repeated beatings, long forced-standing, waterboarding . . . stress positions (
Arrest mit Verschaerfung), withholding of medicine and leaving wounded or sick prisoners alone in cells for days on end—all these have occurred at U.S. detention camps [not only in CIA secret prisons] under the command of president George W. Bush. . . . ”

At the 1948 war-crimes trial in Norway, such methods were judged to be war crimes, and the punishment for the German torturers was death. But all Bush and his accomplices need fear is the permanent condemnation of history.

In this country, Congress is the “handmaiden of [our] torture program . . . having granted amnesty to officials who may have violated the torture and war crimes provisions of our laws; allowing a defense for future abusers if they relied on legal advice; authorizing the president to redefine cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment; and permitting the use of evidence derived from torture or coercion,” writes Michael Ratner, president of the Center for Constitutional Rights (emphasis added). The center is heavily involved in litigation against the Bush administration, particularly its contemptuous refusal to abide by the Geneva Conventions. Yet, as of this writing, the Democratic (so-called) leadership in Congress has yet to insist on a thoroughly penetrating investigation. Such an investigation cannot rely on the Justice Department, which has also been “a handmaiden” of torture—and Michael Dukasey, if he becomes attorney general, has made it clear that he believes we have to go beyond our present system of justice in dealing with terrorism.

I am aware of the danger of runaway special prosecutors, but to head that much-needed independent investigation into the torture policies of this White House, I strongly recommend the appointment of constitutional scholar Bruce Fein, a former official of the Reagan Justice Department, who has written and testified, brilliantly and insistently, on the crimes against the Constitution—up to and including war crimes—committed by the Bush administration.