Commentary

Bukhara on the Potomac

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During the days of the “Great Game,” when Russian and British adventurers and intelligence operatives sought to outdo and thwart each other’s imperial ambitions in central Asia, one of the most notorious incidents concerned the “bug pit” of Bukhara.

Queen Victoria was but a teenager when Great Britain sent the Army of the Indus into Afghanistan and quickly captured Kabul. A British officer named Charles Stoddart was sent on to Bukhara, in what is now Uzbekistan, to assure the emir he had nothing to fear from Britain, and to try and make an alliance against the Russians. Known for his depravity and cruelty, the emir had Stoddart thrown into a 20-foot pit filled with insects and other vermin.

A couple of years later, a fellow officer named Arthur Conolly made his way to Bukhara in the hopes of obtaining Stoddart’s release, only to be thrown in prison himself. After the disastrous British defeat and retreat from Afghanistan in 1842, Stoddart and Conolly were dragged up into the sunlight and beheaded.

Fast forward 160 years, and there is another foreign army in Afghanistan — an American one.

This time the Americans have caught an Al Qaeda operative whose importance they were to greatly exaggerate. Abu Zubaydah had given the FBI and the CIA what he knew, but the Americans still thought he was holding out. And so the torture began, the slamming against walls, the keeping him naked in a freezing room — an old technique from Vietnam days — and water-boarding.

Somehow his tormentors found out that Abu Zubaydah, who may have been suffering from mental illness, was afraid of insects. And so came the idea worthy of the old khanates of central Asia: Put Zubaydah in a small, dark “containment box" with an insect he thinks is poisonous.

The suggestion was sent up the line to the emirs of the Bush Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel. Jay Bybee, who is now a judge for the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, approved the bug box, as we now know, but the technique was never actually used.

I have no idea whether Jay Bybee, John Woo, Alberto Gonzales, David Addington, then-Vice President Dick Cheney, or any others in the pro-torture business at the time knew anything about Stoddart and Conolly and the incident that was considered barbaric throughout the civilized world. But Bybee’s ruling was partly based on intent. “To violate the (torture) statue an individual must have the specific intent to inflict severe pain or suffering,” Bybee opined. “The absence of specific intent negates the charge of torture.”

If so, history will have to reverse its judgment of the emir of Bukhara.

He may never have intended to make Stoddart and Conolly miserable. Unlike the Americans who interrogated Zubaydah, the emir probably had no idea whether or not the two English officers were averse to insects. That most human beings would be afraid of being put in bug pits or boxes was enough for the emir, but not for the Office of Legal Counsel. After all, not all bugs bite. That you could possibly be allowed to bounce prisoners against walls without having the intent to hurt them is a mystery to me, but not to Bush’s Office of Legal Counsel. But then perhaps, too, the emir thought in terms of “enhanced interrogation” in his treatment of prisoners, rather than torure.

I believe that President Barack Obama made the right decision not to prosecute CIA officers who were told by the Bush administration that what they were doing was acceptable. It would be unfair and demoralizing to the intelligence community to persecute them, except for those who went even further beyond the bounds. There is the Nuremberg precedent that says just following orders is not an acceptable excuse, of course. On balance, however, I think Obama’s decision was the right one.

But short of prosecution, some sort of truth commission might be in order to plumb the depravity of what was ever more clearly Bukhara on the Potomac in those years. Obama was also right that the higher-ups not be called to account for their actions in regard to torture.

This country’s political system has no room for that. Perhaps a Spanish judge somewhere will make them subject to arrest if they leave the country, to impose a kind of national house arrest.

The bug box is but a bizarre footnote in the long night of the Bush-Cheney administration. As the president said: “We have been through a dark and painful chapter of our history,” and we are learning more and more about just how dark and painful it all was.

More GlobalPost dispatches on the torture memos:

The madness of George

More dispatches by GlobalPost columnist HDS Greenway:

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