Friday, April 24, 2009

Mormon Church members helped shape Bush torture program

Hey folks, thanks for visiting the new site. Fair warning, this first post is a long one. Hope you'll stick with me.

I was raised Mormon and served a mission in Japan. I learned everything I know about honesty, service and loving thy neighbor as thyself in LDS Sunday School. The church’s members (which include most of the people in my extended family) are some of the most sincerely decent people I know. So I’m having a harder time than most understanding how Jay Bybee, returned Mormon missionary and honors graduate of BYU Law, could have authored the most clinical and most terrifying of the “torture memos” released by the Obama administration on April 16.

You know about Bybee. Facing a choice of whether to faithfully interpret the law or appease his superiors in the Bush administration, Bybee chose the latter. In a memo dated August 1, 2002, he invented a twisted justification for waterboarding, a controlled drowning technique used by torturers from Augusto Pinochet to the Khmer Rouge. The memo shows a man with a powerful ability to see what he wants to see: even though Bybee acknowledges that waterboarding constitutes a “threat of imminent death,” he concludes that it is not torture because it does not cause “mental harm lasting months or years.”

As the Washington Post reported, though, the people who oversaw the program from which the “enhanced interrogation” tactics were derived, the Joint Personnel Recovery Agency, knew what these tactics were. In a memo dated July 2002, the JPRA referred to the practices as torture and warned that they would only yield “unreliable information.” Presumably Bybee never saw this memo, but its existence demonstrates that there was no doubt in the minds of those who had seen the program at work that it constituted torture, contrary to Bybee’s opinion.

Moreover, Bybee must have known that the CIA was implementing a broadening dragnet to locate and detain terror suspects, and that some of the people caught up in this effort would likely be innocent. By creating a rationale for waterboarding and other brutal techniques out of thin air, Bybee’s opinion enabled the torture of those suspects as well.

In photos, the clean-cut Bybee looks like he could have been one of my Cub Scout leaders growing up. Many who know him, including Orrin Hatch, consider him a good and decent person. There’s evidence that he regrets his involvement in justifying torture, and may even oppose it personally. According to one of his former clerks on the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, when news of his involvement in the “enhanced interrogation” program first surfaced in 2004, Bybee remarked at a staff meeting, “When the republic would countenance the use of torture as an instrument of forging policy, truly the spirit of liberty has gone out of us.”

Yet the documents he authored are now disclosed for the world to see, and to paraphrase Andrew Sullivan, they are a window on how a democracy dies. I really don’t understand how any citizen of a democracy could write what Bybee did, much less a practicing member of the LDS church. Didn’t Christ say, “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these, my brethren, ye have done it unto me”?

At this point you may be asking, rightly, “What does Bybee’s religion have to do with anything?” His opinions presumably stem from his own reasoned understanding of the law, regardless of his faith. To attribute one of those opinions, right or wrong, to Bybee’s religious background would be to engage in blatant anti-Mormon bigotry. I get it, and I agree. Unfortunately, Bybee was not the only Mormon involved in these atrocities. Members of my former faith figured prominently at every stage in the development of the Bush / Cheney torture regime.

Bybee seems to have been recruited for his post at the Office of Legal Counsel by Tim Flanigan, a lawyer in the Bush White House Counsel’s Office who was also Mormon and was a friend of Bybee’s. As a member of a group of lawyers that called themselves “The War Council,” Flanigan was involved in early discussions on how to handle Abu Zubaydah, the high-value detainee who became the first US prisoner subjected to the torture program. So far Flanigan has flown under the radar in the scandal, but all the other members of the “War Council” – including David Addington, John Yoo, Alberto Gonzalez and William Haynes – were indicted by Spanish prosecutors earlier this month for their roles in the torture of five Spanish citizens held at Guantanamo. (Bybee was also named in that indictment.)

There’s more. It’s been widely reported that the tactics outlined in the Bybee memo were imported by the CIA from a military training program called SERE, for “Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape.” The SERE program subjects US soldiers and aviators to techniques used by the North Koreans in the Korean War to elicit false confessions from captured US military personnel. These tactics include waterboarding, sleep deprivation and excruciating stress positions; they’re the techniques addressed in the JPRA memo in July 2002. Military lawyers (per opinions written later in 2002) also believed that these techniques violated US law and the Geneva Conventions. But after Abu Zubaydah was captured, a Mormon contractor for the CIA named James Mitchell decided – possibly at the direction of those further up the chain of command – to use many of these brutal tactics to wring information out of Zubaydah anyway, despite protests from the FBI. Mitchell’s partner, Bruce Jessen, is also LDS and was also involved in implementing the torture tactics. The techniques Mitchell and Jessen introduced are now at the core of the debate on whether America will allow itself to become a torturing nation or not. In fact, Mitchell and Jessen feature prominently in the Senate Armed Services Committee report on US treatment of detainees that was declassified on April 21.

What’s going on here? How did four members of the LDS faith come to find themselves at the forefront of the unfolding war on terror, literally writing the rules as they went along? More importantly, how did they convince themselves, in each case, that the most extreme path was the right one? Why didn’t their common religious background provide an ethical barrier against the use of illegal interrogation tactics? I can only speculate, but I have some ideas. One possible answer (or at least, one source of insight) may come from understanding how many Mormons get into government service in the first place.

It is common knowledge that LDS church members are prized recruits for the CIA and FBI. Time Magazine reported in 1997 that both agencies have formal recruiting programs targeted specifically at Mormons. The intelligence and law enforcement communities – and presumably other sectors within the government – value LDS recruits for their honesty, work ethic and ability to pass background checks with flying colors. Their language skills (many are returned missionaries) are also coveted for translation and interrogation work. But many believe that LDS church members are valued by these agencies for another reason: their highly developed sense of obedience.

Mormonism works as both a belief system and a tightly structured social system, with each reinforcing the other. For young men, social status (and even status within one’s own family) depends on achieving certain milestones within the priesthood every few years: deacon at twelve, teacher at fourteen, priest at sixteen, elder at eighteen, then serving a mission at nineteen. Each promotion or calling is conditioned on strict obedience to LDS doctrine and the guidance of leadership. Miss a scheduled promotion and Mormon girls literally will not date you (after they turn sixteen, of course).

Church members are also told that they will forfeit God’s protection, both spiritual and physical, if they are disobedient. The myriad stories of faithful members saved from gunfire by their temple garments basically imply that, unless you have a valid temple recommend, you’re on your own the next time you get into a shootout at the OK Corral. There is also the bit about being separated from your family for eternity unless you live right, reinforced by “disciplinary councils” for those who go seriously astray. Add it all up and you have a group of people who know how to toe the line. (There are varying degrees of this “obedience bias” among the church’s members, of course, but compliance with doctrine and leadership is a ubiquitous refrain at all levels of LDS education.)

Republicans are better positioned to capitalize on this “obedience bias” among Mormons, since GOP views on social issues, leadership by prayer / divine guidance and the quasi-religious nature of the Constitution mesh with LDS social and doctrinal beliefs. The LDS tendency toward compliance with authority (particularly Republican authority), in conjunction with the sense of crisis that pervaded the White House throughout 2002 and the Bush culture of slavish loyalty, could help to explain why Bybee was willing to go so far over the line in his legal justification for torture. It may also partly explain why Flanigan failed to use his position to rein in Addington and Cheney as the torture program took shape. As for the ghoulish Mitchell and Jessen…I have no idea. Good luck with that “final judgment” thing, fellas. I personally think you’re screwed.

I want to point out that I am not questioning the relationship between LDS church members and their leaders. Mormons believe that their leaders are inspired by God to give the proper guidance to their respective congregations. Obedience to this guidance is a foundational principle of the faith, and I respect that. Nor is it my intention to cast aspersions on the church itself. What I am saying is that Mormons, particularly those in government, need to be careful not to allow their culturally-reinforced tendency to follow authority to permeate their view of the law or their professional responsibilities. This is especially true when your boss holds himself up as a pseudo-religious leader, as George W. Bush did. Your boss can be wrong – sometimes criminally wrong – even if he goes to church on Sunday.

The obvious counterpoint to all this is that there are hundreds of Mormons who serve and have served honorably in government. (I believe that ethically strong Mormons are more the rule than the exception, actually; we only hear about them when they skirt the line or cross it outright.) Brent Scowcroft, National Security Advisor to both George H.W. Bush and Gerald Ford, is an example of an LDS official who faced down countless difficult challenges during his career and managed to keep his values and ethics intact. If W had followed Scowcroft’s advice in 2002, we might have been spared the shameful and dishonest war in Iraq. (Incidentally, Bush and Cheney’s frustration at the absence of a link between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda appears now to have been a driving force behind the torture program.)

So, to young Mormons considering working for the CIA, or the Justice Department, or even the White House: ask yourselves why Uncle Sam wants you. Is it because you can be counted on to honor the laws and institutions of the United States and come up with the right answer in a time of crisis, even if it means saying “no” to those in power? Or is it because you can be trusted to “work the dark side,” as Cheney put it, even if some of your other cherished values get tossed aside along the way? Does the CIA or DOJ really want you for your honesty and intellect, or do they simply think you can be counted on to follow orders without pushing back? If you answered “yes” to part B of any of these questions, consider becoming a mob lawyer instead; it pays more and you’ll hurt fewer people.

UPDATE: Alyssa Peterson, the Arabic interpreter who killed herself after refusing to take part in "enhanced interrogations" of prisoners in Iraq, was also LDS. She had been reprimanded for showing empathy to torture victims. Thanks to Glen Warchol at the Salt Lake Tribune.


Anonymous said...

Don't forget that Ezra Taft Benson, the thirteenth president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, served as the Secretary of Agriculture in President Eisenhower's administration. How does this impact the presidential campaigns of Mormon politicians like Orrin Hatch and Mitt Romney?

green libertarian said...

Fascinating commentary, really really insightful.

Tod Robbins said...

A great analysis of Mormons in the government. I believe your argument about obedience and situational pressure is pretty much a good thesis to go with. I also am aghast at the actions of Mitchell & Jessen. Wow.

LWC said...

All: Just wanted to say thanks for your comments! I'm just starting with this blogging thing, so your feedback is much appreciated. Hope you'll come back and check out future posts.

Ken Knickerbocker said...

I heard Jayne Mayre, author of The Dark Side, speak last summer and then read the book. Her book was like a punch in the gut.

How could the people I go to church with, who listen to the same General Conference talks and Sunday School lessons I hear each week come to such radical and obscene conclusions on torture?

Having thought about it for close to a year I've come to two conclusions that help me understand the actions of the individuals involved as well as our culture that appears to harbors pro-torture sentiments.

Conclusion 1: The individuals involved in sanctioning torture were "seduced" by the access to power and their influential role. In this state of seduction they lost their way and made decisions, that if the article in the Washington Post over the weekend can be believed, they now regret.

Conclusion 2: For all our talk about being a Christ centered church, we as a people do a poor job incorporating the Savior's teachings into our cultural DNA.

Compare and contrast our religious culture with that of the Amish in Pennsylvania. When a lone gunman killed or maimed 10 of their daughters in an unprovoked attack in a one-room school house in Lancaster County, the adults in the community neither expressed bitterness nor sought retribution. Rather and quite remarkably, by the end of the day community Fathers had expressed a willingness to abide God's will and reached out to the widow of the perpetrator in a bid to comfort her and her children. To those of us who live amongst the Amish, this remarkable response was predictable. I've seen it happen not just once during this horrific event but over and over again. How do they do it? They do it because its what they believe God wants them to do.

I suspect I'll grapple with this for a number of years. I am both embarrassed by these individuals and sympathetic toward them at the same time.

wkm said...

Not to mention Orrin Hatch's cheerleading for GWB's illegal surveillance and torture programs, and the First Presidency of the Church who time and time again voiced support for the wars during General Conference over the past 8 years when they should have advocated for a more Christlike position. For me the topper was when they invited Cheney to speak at the BYU commencement ceremony because, you know, he's such a good example for young Mormons to follow. (And don't get me started on Romney...)

Greg said...

Insightful. Makes me think of "truth and reconciliation" in S. Africa. We must recognize the evil in all of us and accept it to defeat it. Hits closer to home when we can't say "O he's a 'fill in the blank', not one of us".


Brian said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Brian said...

Blogger Brian said...

Wow! Great post. As a former faithful afflicted with an incurable case of "Teh Gay," I've witnessed the LDS Church rally the troops here in California to take a stand against homosexuality and vote in favor of prop. 8.
Their silence on the morality of torture and war is deafening.
Meanwhile, Chad Hardy is excommunicated for publishing a Mormon Missionary Beefcake calendar.

Benjamin said...

Makes me sick. The Church needs to excommunicate these guys. Wasn't Christ himself tortured? Isn't that ENOUGH reason to say "Hell no!" Alyssa Peterson will at least show up in heaven. I hope the other guys have their conscience tortured in hell if the Church won't discipline them. They are NOT CHRISTIAN and are scourge on the image of the Church. I would hope the Church would start taking a more proactive role against abuse, war and promoting social justice. But with the grip the Grand Old Pederasts have on them, it will be difficult, especially for those of us who are in the Church's left-wing. While I am angry and rankled, let me recommend another candidate for excommunication: Arizona State Senator Russell Pearce for his racist legislation!

Menno said...

In responding to your blog, I'll briefly introduce myself: I'm an active, but critical LDS in The Netherlands. I knew Alyssa Peterson as a missionary in my country, while I myself was a Mission leader in a Ward where she served. I knew her as a serious and dedicated missionary. I think it is very tragic how her life came to such an early end - and even more because she was deceived to participation in the Iraq war.

I found your blog while reading the comments in the article on torture by LDS in the Salt Lake Tribune. This once more proves a point about which I wrote an extended essay (over 60 pages) on , illustrating how the LDS Church has apostatized, as was prophesied by early Church leaders. Dialogue refused to publish my essay, because it might upset somebody; Sunstone didn't even respond to my invitation. Yet you might be interested. Maybe it gives you a new perspective.

Anonymous said...

In my opinion you are not right. Let's discuss. Write to me in PM.

Anonymous said...

As time marches on. Since this article was written, one assistant to torture (Bruce Jessen) was approved by the First Presidency, and even confirmed by all members of the ward's congregation to be a Bishop.
I too grew up Mormon and am extremely disgusted.

Excellent piece!