Tony Abbott’s and Chris Kenny’s holiday camp(ODT)
Tony Abbott’s and Chris Kenny’s holiday camp(ODT)
Bilal Kayed was supposed to be released from Israeli prison after serving a nearly 15-year sentence. Instead, he was placed under indefinite detention without charges or trial. Photos and text by Ahmad al-Bazz/Activestills.org Palestinian prisoner Bilal Kayed was meant to be released from Israeli prison on Monday after serving 14.5 years. Instead Israeli military authorities decided to put him in administrative detention for a period of six months, which means he will be held indefinitely without charge or trial. [tmwinpost] On Tuesday dozens of Palestinians took part in a solidarity protest in the West Bank city of Nablus. Kayed’s detention came as a…
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem is one of the most sacred places in the world for Christianity. Yet Israel does not officially recognize it as a holy site, a new report reveals.…
Palestinians stage hunger strikes against solitary confinement, cruelty
Responding to a right-wing campaign accusing it of torturing ‘Jewish terrorism’ suspects, Israel’s domestic intelligence agency basically admits doing so, and insists it is acting within the law. Last week’s episode of “This American Life”…
“There is no longer any doubt as to whether the current administration has committed war crimes. The only question that remains to be answered is whether those who ordered the use of torture will be held to account.”
— Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba, June 2008
We’ve seen it in Ferguson, Missouri, with Darren Wilson getting off scot-free for killing Michael Brown. And we’ve seen it again in Staten Island, with Daniel Pantaleo getting off scot-free for killing Eric Garner. So why shouldn’t scores of CIA agents, contractors, higher-ups and other government officials—including former President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney—get off scot-free for torturing hundreds of detainees, including some complete innocents? That, apparently, is the reigning logic following the release of the Senate torture report.
But just as genuine legal experts have been appalled by the perversion of normal and normative legal process in the grand jury proceedings in St. Louis County and Staten Island, there’s been a sharp line drawn by human rights lawyers and advocates in response to the Senate torture report, calling for prosecutions to match the crimes. A 2011 report from Human Rights Watch, “Getting Away With Torture: The Bush Administration and Mistreatment of Detainees,” argued, among other things, for the criminal prosecution of former President Bush, Vice President Cheney, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld and CIA Director George Tenet. Nothing has changed since then, HRW executive director Kenneth Roth told Salon.
“We believe in 2011 and we believe just as strongly today that senior U.S. leaders have a case to answer for torture and war crimes,” Roth said. Although the Senate report’s focus is narrower than that earlier report—ignoring the issue of renditions and everything done by military as well—where it does focus, it has only reinforced what HRW has been arguing.
“I would say the evidence becomes even stronger for [prosecuting] the CIA leadership, because it’s clear that they were turning a purposely blind eye even to reports of torture,” Roth continued. “The report talks a lot about how the CIA lied and covered up, but it doesn’t change the fact that the basic practices were authorized, you know, waterboarding, sleep deprivation, things like that.” But also, “George Bush approved waterboarding by his own admission, he approved the CIA renditions program,” while Cheney “was the driving force behind many of the illegal detention and interrogation policies to begin with.”
As for the legal obligations involved, “The torture convention requires that acts of torture be referred to the competent authority for the purpose of prosecution,” Roth said. “The United States has an obligation to prosecute torture.” Ben Emmerson, the U.N. special rapporteur on counter-terrorism and human rights, agreed. “The individuals responsible for the criminal conspiracy revealed in today’s report must be brought to justice, and must face criminal penalties commensurate with the gravity of their crimes,” he said.
Woven through such calls for the pursuit of justice, there’s a similar subtext: that the welter of information presented needs to be carefully and critically sifted through in the light of our highest values, as well as the principles of international law, which America has done so much to help create based on those same values.”What would it mean to be a nation committed to the rule of law, if we don’t hold people responsible for crimes of this magnitude?” ACLU deputy legal director Jameel Jaffer asked on MSNBC.
The need for such action is only made more urgent by the fact a new Pew poll shows 56 percent of Americans believe the lie that torture provided intelligence that helped prevent terrorist attacks, and relatedly that 51 percent think that “the CIA’s interrogation methods … were justified.”
As the Intercept’s Dan Froomkin tweeted, “If 56 percent of Americans think ‘CIA interrogation’ was effective, all that tells us is that they’ve been misled,” adding, “Just like 70 percent of Americans once though Saddam was behind 9/11, now 56 percent think torture worked. This is a massive indictment of the U.S. media.” But it’s not just the media. America’s entire elite infrastructure is indicted in this state of affairs, which is why America so desperately needs to have broad-based, high-profile torture trials on the model of the Nuremberg Trials following World War II—trials that will both hold those responsible accountable for what they’ve done, and force the whole nation to engage in a profound moral reorientation, on the order of what Martin Luther King Jr. once called for. This is not an easy path, to be sure, but it’s far easier than decade after decade of endless war in which America’s moral purpose becomes increasingly lost in the shadows of our own unconfronted fears.
Al-Qaida’s whole aim with the 9/11 attacks was to draw the U.S. into a self-destructive conflict in the Middle East, and to expose and exploit our contradictions. And thanks primarily to the Bush/Cheney delusional response (and Obama’s limited willingness to alter direction), that’s exactly what has happened. We did not narrowly focus on bringing those who attacked us to justice—we swiftly attacked Afghanistan, short-circuiting any chance of negotiating to swiftly put bin Laden and his associates on trial, we then let bin Laden escape, while becoming enmeshed in Afghan internal conflicts, after which Bush said he was “truly … not that concerned” about bin Laden. We then invaded Iraq—which had nothing to do with 9/11, and was profoundly hostile to al-Qaida—and set off a series of internal conflicts which eventuated in the creation of ISIL, which is far more dangerous and has far more international support than al-Qaida ever dreamed of.
In short, everything the U.S. has done since 9/11 has been seriously misguided at best, and Obama’s policy changes have merely trimmed around the edges of what Bush and Cheney started, because he has been obsessed with trying to quickly unify the country, papering over profound differences, rather than facing up to the genuine deep difficulties of overcoming them. We saw this, for example, when he released a set of torture memos in response to a lawsuit in April 2009, and said:
This is a time for reflection, not retribution. I respect the strong views and emotions that these issues evoke. We have been through a dark and painful chapter in our history. But at a time of great challenges and disturbing disunity, nothing will be gained by spending our time and energy laying blame for the past. Our national greatness is embedded in America’s ability to right its course in concert with our core values, and to move forward with confidence. That is why we must resist the forces that divide us, and instead come together on behalf of our common future.
Just how we were supposed to “move forward with confidence” without reexamining how we had gone wrong, Obama never bothered to explain. It would be hard enough were mere mistakes involved, but we’re talking about grave crimes that undermine the very idea of America—just as al-Qaida intended when it attacked us on 9/11.
Those mistakes cried out for correction, but instead Obama invoked the shameful, discredited Nazi Nuremberg Defense (“I was only following orders”), when he said:
In releasing these memos, it is our intention to assure those who carried out their duties relying in good faith upon legal advice from the Department of Justice that they will not be subject to prosecution.
Not only is this an insult to the real heroes, who spoke out against the barbarism they were tasked with, the Nuremberg Principles, which came out of the Nuremberg Trials, explicitly rejected this defense:
The fact that a person acted pursuant to order of his Government or of a superior does not relieve him from responsibility under international law, provided a moral choice was in fact possible to him.
They also rejected the notion that those who give the orders are exempt:
The fact that a person who committed an act which constitutes a crime under international law acted as Head of State or responsible government official does not relieve him from responsibility under international law.
These two principles aren’t that hard to grasp, for anyone familiar with TV crime dramas. Both the hit man and the man who orders the hit are guilty of murder. Street crimes, suite crimes, international war crimes—the same logic applies equally to all of them.
As already noted, earlier reports have already made it clear that crimes were committed. The Senate report’s greatest value lies in the light it sheds on competing “theories of the crime”—explanatory accounts of what happened and why, which are also familiar from TV crime dramas, particularly ones like “Law and Order,” which got so much mileage out of shifting and competing theories of the crime, from the initial crime scene and eyewitness accounts to the final verdict and last comments made on it. A theory of the crime creates a context for understanding how all the different pieces fit together. It has to make sense in a how-things-work kind of way, what I’ve referred to before as the explanatory mode of “logos,” but it also serves to make sense by giving them meaning, the explanatory mode of “mythos.”
When 56 percent of Americans say they believe that torture provided intelligence that helped prevent terrorist attacks, they’re making a claim that torture worked—which says something both about the real-world, logos–type effects that were produced, as well as about the mythos–type nature of what those engaged in torture were doing. The need to believe in the mythos involved routinely trumps the logos side of the equation. And yet, on five key points where arguments have been prominently pushed , evidence in the torture report and elsewhere clearly contradicts theories of the crime that would let torturers off the hook—along with those who gave the orders. Evidence also suggests several neglected theories of the crime that provide a profoundly different view of what our recent history has been—and what our future could be, by way of contrast.
It Wasn’t About Getting Information
For example, the day before the Senate torture report was released, national security blogger/journalist/author Marcy Wheeler pointed out it’s a mistake to assume that getting information was the primary aim of torture, by which it should be judged. This wasn’t just her opinion—it was actually a matter of record:
As the Senate Armed Services Committee Report on torture (released over five years ago, in far less redacted form than tomorrow’s summary will be) makes clear, the Bush regime embraced torture not for “intelligence” but for “exploitation.” In December 2001, when DOD first started searching for what would become torture, it was explicitly looking for “exploitation.”
The term “exploitation” includes intelligence-gathering, but it also includes spy recruitment and propaganda—politically useful, often false information, such as “the case of Ibn Sheikh al-Libi, whose torture-induced claim al Qaeda had ties to Iraq’s WMD programs helped drag us into Iraq,” and “Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri [who] claimed his torturers told him he had to claim Osama bin Laden had nukes, among others. When you consider all these cases, she writes:
Then it raises the really horrible possibility that Cheney pushed torture because it would produce the stories he wanted told. It would be difficult to distinguish whether Cheney believed this stuff and therefore that’s what the torture produced or whether Cheney wanted these stories told and that’s what the torture produced.
Difficult, indeed. But either way, it reminded me of what George Lakoff told me about the concept of “reflexivity”:
It has to do with the fact that thought is part of the world. That when you’re thinking, it’s not separate from reality, it’s part of reality. And if your understanding of the world is reflected in what you do, then that thought comes into the world through your actions. And then through your actions, if many people have the same ideas, those ideas are going to spread, and they’re going to come back and reinforce themselves, because they will change the world.
This adds another layer to the theory of the crime that Wheeler draws our attention to. Given that conservatives are much more sensitive to perceived threats in the world, it’s not surprising that reflexivity on their part creates a more dangerous world, even as they pound their chests and proclaim their superiority in dealing with the very dangers they create. We see the same process at work with the killers of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and Eric Garner—the mere presence of a black male sends them into a panic, even though they’re the ones who are actually armed and dangerous. This sort of irrational fear places their behavior outside the standard of reasonableness on which a justifiable homicide theory of the crime depends, and the same can be said about the entire Bush/Cheney response to 9/11, of which the torture program was just one part.
The lack of discipline, oversight, reliability and candor that permeated the torture program, as revealed in the Senate torture report, has been seen by some as proof that Bush, in particular, was not in charge, ergo not responsible. But all that flowed directly from Bush and Cheney’s unhinged response to 9/11—they were in control by being out of control, because they couldn’t be otherwise. And—like the killer cops referred to above—they actively resisted normal processes that would have curbed their dangerous, deadly excesses.
In a similar abnormal fashion, Bush even tried to get Congress to authorize going to war against Iraq without bothering to have the CIA do a national intelligence estimate, the traditional formal document used to integrate all the available intelligence data into a single comprehensive analysis. “An intelligence official says that’s because the White House doesn’t want to detail the uncertainties that persist about Iraq’s arsenal and Saddam’s intentions,” USA Today reported on Sept. 10, 2002.
In that same forgotten blockbuster of a story, USA Today reported that the decision to invade Iraq had been made within weeks of 9/11, but without any formal decision process:
The decision to target Saddam “kind of evolved, but it’s not clear and neat,” a senior administration official says, calling it “policymaking by osmosis.”
“There wasn’t a flash moment. There’s no decision meeting,” national security adviser Condoleezza Rice says. “But Iraq had been on the radar screen — that it was a danger and that it was something you were going to have to deal with eventually … before Sept. 11, because we knew that this was a problem.”
This same mind-set of panic-driven deliberate carelessness characterized the Bush administration approach to every major aspect of the war on terror, making it exceeding difficult to pin down responsibility for anything—which is precisely the point. And yet, their responsibility is clear: Through reflexivity, Bush and Cheney’s unhinged panic drove the entire process off the rails. Yet, even today they and their defenders continue to pretend that they were the tough guys, the realists, the ones who protected us. They need to stand trial in part simply so that this lie can be publicly put to rest. But the same goes for five points mentioned above, the five false theories of the crime, which need to be publicly replaced with their opposites.
The purpose of the sorts of trials we need is twofold: first, on the logos side, is to sort through competing theories of the crime, to which hold up and which do not, and to judge individuals accordingly. Second, on the mythos side, is to alter our collective understanding of the past, so that we can move forward having learned our lessons deeply, in ways that reshape us for the better forever. With that in mind, let’s consider each of the different theories of the crime in turn.
First Theory of the Crime: There was a crime. We tortured people.
The first theory of the crime in any case concerns whether one even occurred. Was something stolen, or lost? Was a person murdered, or did they commit suicide? Or die accidentally? In this case, were people tortured in violation of U.S. and international law? Many torture apologists say there was no crime, but there’s already an abundance of evidence to the contrary, even before the Senate torture report. The most significant evidence it provides on this score includes:
At least five CIA detainees were subjected to “rectal rehydration” or rectal feeding without documented medical necessity. The CIA placed detainees in ice water “baths.” The CIA led several detainees to believe they would never be allowed to leave CIA custody alive, suggesting to one detainee that he would only leave in a coffin-shaped box. One interrogator told another detainee that he would never go to court, because “we can never let the world know what I have done to you.” CIA officers also threatened at least three detainees with harm to their families—to include threats to harm the children of a detainee, threats to sexually abuse the mother of a detainee, and a threat to “cut [a detainee’s] mother’s throat.”
On September 27, 2001, CIA Headquarters informed CIA Stations that any future CIA detention facility would have to meet “U.S. POW Standards.”
… In early November 2001, CIA Headquarters further determined that any future CIA detention facility would have to meet U.S. prison standards and that CIA detention and interrogation operations should be tailored to “meet the requirements of U.S. law and the federal rules of criminal procedure,” adding that “[s]pecific methods of interrogation w[ould] be permissible so long as they generally comport with commonly accepted practices deemed lawful by U.S. courts.
There are others examples of the second sort, including one cited by Business Insider here. But these two passages are sufficient, from a logos-based point of view, to establish probable cause that a crime was indeed committed—and not just a single crime, but a widespread deliberate pattern of them. Of course there will still be strong mythos-based resistance, but that’s to be expected—and it’s precisely what a Nuremberg-style trial is for.
Second Theory of the Crime: Torture Was Not Effective
Despite widespread beliefs to the contrary revealed in Pew’s poll, this is the most thoroughly proven point of the Senate report. In her press release, Sen. Dianne Feinstein wrote that “The study’s 20 findings and conclusions can be grouped into four central themes, each of which is supported extensively in the Executive Summary,” the very first of which was “The CIA’s ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ were not effective.” What’s more, the second finding was that we have been lied to about the effectiveness: “The CIA provided extensive inaccurate information about the operation of the program and its effectiveness to policymakers and the public.” If the program really were effective, there would be no need to lie about it, so all the evidence of misleading the public and policymakers is further evidence of ineffectiveness as well.
Most significantly, Feinstein points out, “The committee reviewed 20 of the most frequent and prominent examples of purported counterterrorism ‘successes’ that the CIA has attributed to the use of its enhanced interrogation techniques. Each of those examples was found to be wrong in fundamental respects.”
This is particularly true of one of the most widely known claims, that torture was vital in developing key intelligence about Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti, Osama bin Laden’s courier, the key figure in eventually locating Osama bin Laden. This is debunked in a section, “Information on the Facilitator that Led to the UBL Operation,” from page 378 to 400 in the report.
Feinstein makes several other key points demolishing the effectiveness claim:
Remember, the pre-trial standard is probable cause, and with these points the report establishes probable cause for prosecuting crimes, and specifically refutes the theory of the crime that the effectiveness of the methods used justified them, regardless of how horrific they were. Those accused may still want to argue otherwise—but they should do so at trial, not to avoid it.
Third Theory of the Crime: Torture Was Not Necessary
From a logos-based point of view, torture couldn’t be necessary if it were ineffective—unless, of course, the purpose of torture was something else entirely—as, indeed, we now know it was. But the naive, stand-alone claim that torture was necessary, regardless of whether it was effective in gaining accurate intelligence, cannot be sustained logically. So there’s really no logical need to discuss evidence related to this claim.
But because it’s a prominent part of the public debate, more is required. We need to consider the claim as a matter of pure mythos—in terms of what it may mean to people. First, we should note that the claim can have significant psychological appeal, particularly to those who1) feel deeply threatened, 2) feel helpless and 3) are psychologically incapable of admitting their fearfulness and helplessness. Torture may “work” psychologically for them, and the broader claim that it worked to stop terrorist attacks is simply an affirmation that, thanks to torture, they now feel back in control. Confronting and replacing this element of mythos in our national psyche is one of the key purposes that Nuremberg-style trials would serve.
Second, we should note that even if it were the case that “torture worked” in some cases (which hasn’t been shown) alternatives clearly were available, which means that it still was not necessary. As he has testified to Congress, then-FBI Agent Ali Soufan was getting valuable information using traditional interrogation techniques when Abu Zubaydah—the first high-value al-Qaida target—was first captured, before ineffective torture techniques were begun by the CIA. Thus, in this very first case, even if torture had been effective, it still would not have been proven necessary.
As already noted, there has never been a ticking-time-bomb threat that was thwarted by the use of torture—except of course, on Fox’s “24,” where it happens all the time. This is clearly an extremely satisfying fantasy for some, and it’s not hard to understand why. But it is a fantasy—an example of mythos with no grounding in logos, and one of the main reasons for holding Nuremberg-style trials is precisely to force us to relinquish such enticing, but dangerously mistaken fantasies.
Fourth Theory of the Crime: Torture Was Carefully Calibrated
The claim of careful calibration is also, ultimately, logically dependent on the claim of effectiveness. Carefully calibrated futility is still futile, and the fact that it’s futile renders the careful calibration utterly meaningless, if not Monte Python-style absurd. Still, one could at least argue for starting out with prudential guidelines of some sort, regardless of whether they could ultimately be grounded in any measure of effectiveness. Perhaps one could be right for the wrong reason … right?
The moral significance of this argument is that a calibrated approach to torture would be evidence of a morally serious purpose, as opposed to anything from boredom and incompetence to sadism. Add to that a sincere—though misguided—belief in torture’s effectiveness, and you just might wriggle out of a criminal charge, claiming a lack of criminal intent.
All that is why it matters that the CIA’s torture program was not carefully calibrated—and that the CIA lied about it as well. Indeed, the third of Feinstein’s four main groupings of findings was that “The CIA’s management of the program was inadequate and deeply flawed” and one of the points under this heading specifically dealt with severe personnel inadequacies:
The CIA did not employ adequately trained and vetted personnel. The CIA deployed individuals without relevant training or experience. CIA also deployed officers who had documented personal and professional problems of a serious nature—including histories of violence and abusive treatment of others—that should have called into question their employment, let alone their suitability to participate in the sensitive CIA program.
What’s more, under Feinstein’s fourth main finding, that “The CIA program was far more brutal than the CIA represented to policymakers and the American public,” the report directly refutes the calibration frame:
Records do not support CIA representations that the CIA initially used an “an open, non-threatening approach,” or that interrogations began with the “least coercive technique possible” and escalated to more coercive techniques only as necessary. Instead, in many cases the most aggressive techniques were used immediately, in combination and nonstop. Sleep deprivation involved keeping detainees awake for up to 180 hours, usually standing or in painful stress positions, at times with their hands shackled above their heads. The CIA led several detainees to believe they would never be allowed to leave CIA custody alive, suggesting to one detainee that he would only leave in a coffin-shaped box.
Of course, the accused should be free to dispute these findings. That’s what a trial is for. But the Senate’s findings clearly contradict the “carefully calibrated” theory of the crime, and constitute probable cause that criminal conduct was involved.
Fifth Theory of the Crime: Torture Was Carried Out in Good Faith
The good faith argument is not usually made by torture apologists, but it has been made by President Obama, as noted above. Beyond running afoul of the Nuremberg Principles, there’s plenty of evidence in the Senate torture report that people were not acting in good faith.
As pointed out above, the CIA itself was aware from the beginning that there were standards for it to uphold—standards it would then go on to violate. There was also evidence of careless mistreatment of prisoners, gross mismanagement, lying to Congress, misleading the White House—the list goes on and on—all of which is simply incompatible with the notion of people “acting in good faith.” Again, there may be individuals who were acting in good faith—although this still doesn’t change the Nuremberg Principles. But the proper place to sort that out is at trial.
This is yet another case in which the power of mythos is much stronger than logos. In particular, mythos often expresses a hunger for heroes, which is clearly at play here. In the message cited above, Obama said:
The men and women of our intelligence community serve courageously on the front lines of a dangerous world. Their accomplishments are unsung and their names unknown, but because of their sacrifices, every single American is safer. We must protect their identities as vigilantly as they protect our security, and we must provide them with the confidence that they can do their jobs.
This may be so. Or it may be the case that our intelligence community is largely responsible for making it a much more dangerous world than it otherwise would be. They certainly made Iran and its environs more dangerous by helping to depose the lawfully elected Mosaddegh government back in 1953, and replacing him with the shah, for example. Still, there are surely many individuals who deserve the praise Obama offers, whatever our quibbles with the wording. The problem is, by protecting those who’ve betrayed our values, Obama is praising precisely the wrong “heroes.” At the Nation, historian Jon Weiner wrote a piece highlighting some of the real heroes of this era, who are mentioned in the Senate report. One I’ve already mentioned—Ali Soufan. Here’s a bit of what Weiner said about some of the others:
Another hero: Alberto Mora. As general counsel of the Navy in 2004, Jane Mayer reported, he tried to stop the torture program. He told his superiors at the Pentagon that the Bush torture policy violated the Geneva Conventions’ prohibition of torture and “outrages upon personal dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment.” He described the Bush program as “unlawful” and “dangerous”….
Some of the heroes were ordinary soldiers, like Sgt. Joe Darby, who first revealed the Abu Ghraib abuses. As a result,” Luban points out, he “had to live under armed protection for six months.” Others were high officials, like Philip Zelikow, an adviser to Condoleezza Rice, who, Luban reports, wrote an “anti-torture memo” that the White House “attempted to destroy”….
Finally we have the case of Guantánamo prosecutor Lt. Col. Darrel Vandeveld, who refused to prosecute a teenager who had been abused in US detention in Afghanistan and Guantánamo. For that decision, Jameel Jaffer and Larry Siems report, Vandeveld was “barred from the prosecutors’ office, confined to his residence and threatened with dismissal from the Army.”
While there’s no doubt that Nuremberg-style trials would be difficult for us as a nation, those trials would not be all doom and gloom. Heroes such as these would also play a part in the proceedings. Their voices would be heard, their stories would be told, their shining examples of fidelity to America’s highest values under the most difficult of conditions would provide us with exactly the sort of heroes that we need to write the next chapter of America’s ongoing quest for perfection. They are the ones who will help us craft a mythos that’s in harmony with the logos of the underlying facts, not twisted and distorted in direct contradiction of them. They are one more powerful reason that we as a nation need to hold Nuremberg-style trials—not just to exorcise the demons we have allowed to grow in our midst, but also to affirm and empower those who fight against them—and to ensure that their numbers will grow in the days that lie ahead.
Paul Rosenberg is a California-based writer/activist, senior editor for Random Lengths News, and a columnist for Al Jazeera English. Follow him on Twitter at @PaulHRosenberg.
It took years until the executive summary of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s torture report — which shows not only that the CIA’s torture regime was larger and more vicious than understood, but that the agency repeatedly lied about it to the White House and Congress — was finally released to the public. But it only took hours before President Obama was once again urging the nation to look forward, not back. “Rather than another reason to refight old arguments,” read a White House statement, “I hope that today’s report can help us leave these techniques where they belong — in the past.” When members of the media asked whether that meant the White House considered torture to be ineffective, as the report claims, an anonymous official said Obama would not “engage” in the ongoing “debate.” On the issues of rape, waterboarding and induced hypothermia, apparently, reasonable minds can differ.
Glenn Greenwald, the Intercept’s Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and longtime critic of the war on terror, disagrees. “There’s no debate,” he told Salon. “Everything that we did,” he continued, “in terms of how we treated detainees, has [long] been viewed as morally vile and inexcusable and criminal.” Greenwald has little doubt, however, that Washington will turn torture into yet another partisan squabble. It’s the go-to move, he says, when America’s political and media elite decide they’d rather look the other way. “That’s just the ritual Washington engages in,” Greenwald said.
Speaking with Salon from his home in Brazil (or at least we assumed as much, given the barking in the background) Greenwald discussed what surprised him about the summary, what we still don’t know, why expressions of shock and horror from Congress are disingenuous, how President Obama is culpable, too, and why America’s leaders are “sociopathic.” Our conversation is below and has been edited for clarity and length.
One thing I want to establish as much as we can is who was involved in the lead-up to this release, and what role they played. So why did it take so long for this to be released?
Well, first of all, there was a major war between the Senate [Intelligence] Committee and the CIA over access to the information [the committee] wanted. That took years.
Secondly, there was a huge conflict between the committee and the White House, which, on its own, tried to stifle and suppress all kinds of vital material. In fact, there were 9,000 documents that the CIA and the White House — together, as part of the executive branch — refused to give to the committee.
So much of it was just grappling over access to information (which is ironic, since this committee is supposed to exercise oversight of the CIA …)
Also, the material was complicated. There were raw reports from all over the world, and it can take a long time to sort through that and put together a comprehensive report. So, I don’t think it’s surprising that it took this long.
And did anything in the summary surprise you? Or was it more or less what you expected after covering this for so many years?
Honestly, there wasn’t really anything that surprised me in terms of the disclosures.
There’s obviously new details about some of the more brutal interrogations; there are details and lots of corroborating pieces of evidence about the extent to which the CIA just outright lied, publicly, and to Congress. Part of what surprised me was how overt and unflinching the report was about essentially accusing people like [former CIA head] Gen. Hayden of being pathological liars.
But the broad strokes of the program and what the CIA did have long been known — for years — and I think what was more important about Tuesday was the ritual of official Washington finally admitting it.
Yeah, what’s striking to me about the lying is just how clearly it shows that the CIA in many ways is operating outside the system of democratic accountability. It’d be wrong to say it’s like the CIA runs the country, since there’s a bunch of stuff they don’t really care about besides intelligence and so forth, but it certainly looks like they don’t really answer to anyone.
The CIA cares about a lot more than just intelligence. They care a lot about private contracts (because so many of their colleagues work at those very lucrative private contracting jobs where a lot of them hope to go when they leave the CIA); they care about militarism and the assertion of force in the world (they run the drone program); they do all kinds of military activities beyond just the gather of intelligence. But you’re obviously right that the CIA exists beyond democratic accountability — and has for decades.
If I had to identify one key point from Tuesday, the thing that bothered me most about the narrative: Yes, the CIA goes off on its own and does things that political officials don’t know about; and yes, they mislead and lie to the committees that oversee them; and they do all these horrible things, the details of which are sometimes unknown to the political branches — but that’s how Washington wants it.
They’ve always wanted it that way. That’s what the CIA does. The CIA does the dirty work of the political branches of Washington and when they get caught, publicly, the ritual is that official Washington pretends that it was just these rogue CIA officers doing this without anyone’s knowledge or approval. It’s exactly what happened in the Iran-Contra scandal, which was ordered at the highest levels of the White House by President Reagan … but when they got caught, they said: Oh, it was Oliver North and these rogue CIA officers who were doing this without our knowledge!
That’s just the ritual Washington engages in; the CIA is kind of like their wild pit bull that they purposely let off leash. They don’t want to see the mauling but they know that it’s happening, and pretend they don’t know. And when it gets reported, they pretend that they’re horrified.
Along those lines, I saw a lot of people on Tuesday respond with a kind of amazement at how little President Bush knew about the program, according to the report. But that’s not really so weird when you remember that Cheney and Rumsfeld were his top advisers, and that the main lesson they learned from their time in the Nixon administration and from Watergate was to insulate the president from this kind of dirty work as much as possible —
Right, Watergate and Iran-Contra. Remember: Dick Cheney wrote the dissenting minority report of the House investigation of Iran-Contra, in which he basically laid out his vision for this unilateral presidency.
But I think it goes way beyond that. I actually went back and read a lot of the stuff I wrote about torture in 2006, eight years ago, especially surrounding the Military Commissions Act that passed in October of that year by a large, bipartisan majority in Congress — the primary purpose of which was to endorse what was happening at Guantánamo with military commissions and to protect torturers from liability for violating the Geneva Conventions — and it was incredibly clear then that there was a systematic and savage regime of torture that had been implemented.
The American media largely acquiesced to it, and leading members of both parties more or less just kind of went along with it. And that’s what’s so bothersome about the reaction on Tuesday: Everybody’s noses got rubbed in [the torture program] by this report, so people couldn’t pretend it wasn’t there any longer, they were forced to admit it, but a lot of the outrage and shock is very artificial. It’s really just a self-serving reaction designed to erase their own culpability.
The more you look at just how many people and institutions were involved (either actively or by looking the other way) — the doctors, the psychiatrists, the media, members of Congress — the more it starts to sound like a society-wide failure. It reminds me of what Arendt wrote about Germany (and Europe in general) in the interwar and World War II periods, how she described it as a kind of civilizational collapse. Tell me if you think I’m going too far.
I think there are several similar dynamics. For one thing, after World War II, when the full history got told, lots of people who had every way to know what was happening under their noses pretended they didn’t because the recognition of their complicity was just too painful. So they denied it and pretended they didn’t know and claimed that, had they known, they would have reacted a lot more strongly. That reminds me a lot of Tuesday’s reaction on the part of political and media circles in the United States.
And I also agree with your observation that the way in which values get jettisoned and standards get violated is incremental. It’s the frog in the boiling pot analogy; it just incrementally and slowly but inexorably keeps moving away from this point where you think you’re at [vis-à-vis norms and values], but because it’s incremental you feel like you’re always close enough to the prior point that you don’t actually feel like it’s a radical departure. And that has been the story of the United States not just under the Bush administration but for the last 13 years, where everything that happens that seems shocking becomes the justification for the next step.
So what do we still not know, now that this summary is released?
It’s hard to know because we only have seen 600 pages of a 6,000-page report. Presumably there are a lot more details; and, really, what’s harrowing are the details. It’s reading the specific treatment to which helpless detainees in American custody were subjected that is so disturbing. And so there are a lot of facts like that that are still suppressed, there are facts about who was complicit — and at some point that full report has to be disclosed.
To your point about the horrible details, as well as how people don’t want to look directly at these crimes because their own complicity is so painful: The detail I found the most disturbing in the whole report was about Abu Zubaydah and how he was literally trained to get himself in position for more waterboarding. To me, that is the most horrifying thing in here, that is truly staring-into-the-abyss-level evil; and if I’m writing the news, that’s one of the first things I bring up to establish the character of this program. But most American media has focused more on the incidents of sexual assault or beatings — which are obviously still heinous, but are less of an affront to Americans’ sense of themselves as inherently noble.
The reason that story is so horrifying is because it’s the process of dehumanization. It’s literally removing what is human about us. There was a detailed account of what happened in what they called “the Salt Pit” — the prison in Afghanistan, where they literally froze people to death — and [the report] talked about how visitors to that prison observed it was actually more like a dog kennel than it was a prison where human beings were kept. Whenever anyone would walk by, [the prisoners] would literally quiver, they would jump up out of fear, because they had been so conditioned to expect extreme levels of punishment.
Psychological torture is, [it’s believed] pretty much by consensus, worse than physical torture if it’s done at an extreme level. John McCain said that for him, by far, the worst part of captivity in North Vietnam was the isolation and the psychological torment — not the physical torture to which he was subjected quite extensively. There are studies about how people go insane if they’re kept in solitary confinement in American prisons in a way that doesn’t happen if the soles of your feet are beaten or you’re forced into stress-positions. And so much of this [program] was about dehumanization. It had nothing to do with interrogation; it was about exploitation and control. It was about the assertion of power.
And that’s what makes it so evil. Detainees are, by definition, helpless; they’re captive. So to completely brutalize them and remove their humanity is really worse than anything you could do to someone physically, including killing them. It’s basically like being dead while alive.
A lot of people don’t know this but one of the most effective torture techniques the Soviets used in the Stalinist era — especially during the Great Purge — wasn’t some kind of horrific physical abuse or mutilation. It was sleep deprivation.
Oh, yeah, I’ve written about this before. Andrew Sullivan, to his credit, found this Gestapo manual about these interrogation tactics, and the parallels — you don’t even have to search for them, they’re just right there for anyone to see. They’re obvious and self-evident. And they’re not ancillary similarities; they’re central. The way they talk about the techniques and the objectives.
And this is what makes the fact that there’s even something called “the torture debate” so ridiculous. This debate, quote-unquote, has been settled not for decades but centuries. Everything that we did as part of the war on terror, in terms of how we treated detainees, has [long] been viewed as morally vile and inexcusable and criminal, pretty much across cultural and social lines. (And the United States has prosecuted people as war criminals for doing things we did.)
So it’s not even a debate. There’s no debate. [The program’s] defilement [of the United States] is self-evident and indisputable.
When I hear people argue against the anti-torture position, like Nicolle Wallace did Tuesday on “Morning Joe,” I often want to say, “Look, your fight’s not really with me right now, it’s with the Enlightenment.”
Exactly. Although, I have to say, one of the benefits of Tuesday, despite all my frustrations with the process, is that it has prevented anybody from denying that America tortured — and not just in the three cases of waterboarding. It actually has been a disinfectant of that central lie. I mean, for a long time, that was the debate; it wasn’t “Is torture good?” it was “These things aren’t torture!” Dick Cheney described [waterboarding] as dunking people’s head into water.
What was really annoying for those of us who were actually [covering] this is that the waterboarding was almost the least of it. It was the easiest case to call torture because there was a whole body of law calling waterboarding torture; but [the larger issue] was the entire regiment of techniques that they were using that clearly constituted torture — not on dozens or even hundreds but thousands of people, and not just at Guantánamo but around the world. It was a systematic regime of torture, and I think yesterday’s report has prevented that from being denied any longer.
And that’s why people like Nicolle Wallace and others are now resorting either to “Yes, we tortured, and we should have!” (which I think is a healthy thing to force them to say) or “Yes, we tortured, and we shouldn’t have, but we’re still the greatest thing ever to exist.”
I’d like to get your response to a couple of things Gen. Hayden said in the Politico interview that came out the day after the summary’s release. He didn’t say anything particularly new, but what is very clear is that he’s leaning heavily on the Department of Justice’s decision in 2012 not to prosecute the CIA agents involved in the deaths of two detainees. Does he have a point in saying, well, if this was so bad then how come the DOJ gave it a pass?
I don’t blame him for making that argument; and it was totally predictable that that argument would be made. That’s what made what President Obama did [by not prosecuting torturers] so disgraceful and why he does bear a very significant part of the culpability and why this will be a huge, dark mar on his legacy. It’s so predictable that if you prevent not just criminal prosecutions but even civil liability or international investigation for America’s torturers — which is exactly what he did; he not only blocked criminal investigations but used the state secrets privilege to prevent civil liability, and then bullied and coerced other countries in Europe not to investigate — the message that’ll be sent is that [torture] is not actually a crime, that it was a policy dispute.
And, yes, he is on the other side of the Republicans in this policy dispute, and he thinks we shouldn’t torture — because it doesn’t work, because it’s inefficient, because it’s contrary to our values — and Republicans can believe it should. But this was never a policy dispute; these are war crimes, among the most atrocious war crimes. And when the Justice Department decides that nobody should pay any price, legally, for what was done, the message President Obama sent was: At worst, this is just a policy error. So of course people like Dick Cheney and Michael Hayden are going to say, well, if we’re really such brutal war criminals, why aren’t we being prosecuted?
I tried to get at this in a recent piece but one of the consequences of having torture now be a policy dispute is that all this talk of the report chronicling a dark chapter in our history and so forth is misleading, because it’s not like the torture era has actually ended. It’s just on pause, at best.
The United States is still torturing people — and continued to torture people well into the Obama administration. It didn’t do it by following legal memos from the Justice Department about these specific techniques, but the abuse of prisoners is well-documented at Bagram, in Iraq and even at Guantanamo. For years after president Obama’s inauguration, according to reporting from Jeremy Scahill, there were torture chambers in Somalia.
And the United States didn’t just torture on its own. We sent — we “rendered” — people to these tyrants that we claim to hate the most now, like Mubarak in Egypt and Assad in Syria and Gadhafi in Libya, in order to be tortured as well. And this has gone on for decades; obviously the CIA has supported all kinds of torturing squads around the world. So torture is a tool that the U.S. government has used pretty openly and continuously for decades — but especially since the war on terror. And nobody [in Washington] was surprised about learning that on Tuesday, although they pretended to be.
The other thing Hayden said that I’d be interested to hear you respond to was a comment that came near the end of the interview, which I guess was kind of darkly funny in a not-funny way. He basically says, If Congress said I lied to them, that’s not true, because I was just communicating what subordinates had told me, so it’s really their fault. It’s like a twisted, reverse Nuremberg defense — instead of just following orders from above, the claim is that you’re just passing along information from below.
You’re right entirely in what you just said, but I actually think that that’s what people like Sen. Dianne Feinstein are doing as well — or, for that matter, people in the U.S. media. They’re saying, look, we didn’t raise alarms about what the CIA was doing and about the torture they were engaging in because they were telling us that it was working, or that it wasn’t as brutal as it actually turned out to be. We were just misled. It’s exactly what people like Hillary Clinton do to justify their very vocal and public support of the Iraq War …
At some point, this blame-shifting has to stop. It should become apparent just how deeply corrupt, toxic and sociopathic the Washington political and media class is. I mean, it would be one thing if this was some isolated aberration, but this is a reflection of what the United States government in so many different ways around the world for a long time — but certainly since the war on terror, when it was intensified. And all of this faux indignation and shock and anger over discovering it is really unconvincing and disingenuous.
The reality is that people were comfortable with this and now all the truth has come out and they’re embarrassed about what they’ve done. That’s what this is about.
Last question: What do you think about this idea being floated around that Obama should issue a blanket pardon of torturers before he leaves office? The idea is that a pardon would represent an acknowledgment that laws were broken, which would in turn reestablish the norm of torture as an illegal act?
I hate that idea. I mean, I stand second to nobody in my admiration for the ACLU, but I thought the Op-Ed in the New York Times by Anthony Romero advocating that was really unconvincing, to put it generously.
For one thing, the world and certainly the overwhelming majority of the American public views a pardon as an expression of [the belief that] someone is deserving of leniency and protection from punishment — not as an admission of guilt. The lawyers at the ACLU might understand that a pardon is actually a formal declaration of guilt, but the rest of the world wouldn’t see it that way.
Secondly, all these people who’d get pardoned would have to do is just rhetorically reject the pardon and mock it and say they don’t need the pardon because they did nothing criminal. So the whole message would be destroyed anyway, and the only message that would come from it is that the people who tortured are being protected by President Obama from criminal liability (which happens to be the case anyway).
And thirdly, President Obama would never do it. He’s made it completely clear that he won’t risk an iota of his political capital in order to enforce U.S. legal obligations and treaty obligations to make clear that torture is a crime. The last time he talked about torture he talked about it like it was just the most casual thing in the world; he said, “We tortured some folks.” And then he told us not to be sanctimonious about it because these [torturers] were great patriots who were doing it with good hearts.
So it’s an unrealistic proposal and an incredibly unconvincing one. It’s very, very misguided.
A grim picture of the US and Britain’s legacy in Iraq has been revealed in a massive leak of American military documents that detail torture, summary executions and war crimes.
Almost 400,000 secret US army field reports have been passed to the Guardian and a number of other international media organisations via the whistleblowing website WikiLeaks.
The electronic archive is believed to emanate from the same dissident US army intelligence analyst who earlier this year is alleged to have leaked a smaller tranche of 90,000 logs chronicling bloody encounters and civilian killings in the Afghan war.
The new logs detail how:
• US authorities failed to investigate hundreds of reports of abuse, torture, rape and even murder by Iraqi police and soldiers whose conduct appears to be systematic and normally unpunished.
• A US helicopter gunship involved in a notorious Baghdad incident had previously killed Iraqi insurgents after they tried to surrender.
• More than 15,000 civilians died in previously unknown incidents. US and UK officials have insisted that no official record of civilian casualties exists but the logs record 66,081 non-combatant deaths out of a total of 109,000 fatalities.
The numerous reports of detainee abuse, often supported by medical evidence, describe prisoners shackled, blindfolded and hung by wrists or ankles, and subjected to whipping, punching, kicking or electric shocks. Six reports end with a detainee’s apparent death.
As recently as December the Americans were passed a video apparently showing Iraqi army officers executing a prisoner in Tal Afar, northern Iraq. The log states: “The footage shows approximately 12 Iraqi army soldiers. Ten IA soldiers were talking to one another while two soldiers held the detainee. The detainee had his hands bound … The footage shows the IA soldiers moving the detainee into the street, pushing him to the ground, punching him and shooting him.”
The report named at least one perpetrator and was passed to coalition forces. But the logs reveal that the coalition has a formal policy of ignoring such allegations. They record “no investigation is necessary” and simply pass reports to the same Iraqi units implicated in the violence. By contrast all allegations involving coalition forces are subject to formal inquiries. Some cases of alleged abuse by UK and US troops are also detailed in the logs.
WikiLeaks says it is posting online the entire set of 400,000 Iraq field reports – in defiance of the Pentagon.The whistleblowing activists say they have deleted all names from the documents that might result in reprisals. They were accused by the US military of possibly having “blood on their hands” over the previous Afghan release by redacting too few names. But the military recently conceded that no harm had been identified.
Condemning this fresh leak, however, the Pentagon said: “This security breach could very well get our troops and those they are fighting with killed. Our enemies will mine this information looking for insights into how we operate, cultivate sources and react in combat situations, even the capability of our equipment.”