Gary Younge writes: A couple of weeks ago, the Republican presidential hopeful Jeb Bush was asked in an interview with Fox News whether, knowing what he knows now, he would have invaded Iraq. It’s the kind of predictable question for which most people assumed he would have a coherent answer. They were wrong. Jeb blew it. “I would have [authorised the invasion],” he said. “And so would have Hillary Clinton, just to remind everybody. And so would almost everybody that was confronted with the intelligence they got.”
For the next few days, as he was hammered from left and right, he flailed around like a four-star general in search of a plausible exit strategy. In a number of do-overs, he answered the same question with “I don’t know”, “I didn’t understand the question”, and “no” before finally falling back on the perennial Republican default of blaming everything on Barack Obama.
“You can tell a true war story by the way it never seems to end. Not then, not ever,” writes Tim O’Brien in his novel about Vietnam, The Things They Carried. “In a true war story, if there’s a moral at all, it’s like the thread that makes the cloth. You can’t tease it out. You can’t extract the meaning without unravelling the deeper meaning.”
Iraq is one such story. The troops may have left, but the fallout from the conflict lingers in the American polity, clinging to its elites like stale cigarette smoke to an Aran sweater – it stinks, and they just can’t shake it. Not only did it trip Jeb up, it remains the abiding, shameful legacy of his brother George Bush’s administration. And, as Jeb hinted, it dogged Clinton during her 2008 presidential bid, too.
Back then, she claimed if she’d known what George Bush would do with the authority to go to war (ie go to war with it) she would never have given it to him. That didn’t fly. Now she concedes her vote was an unqualified “mistake”.
Extracting a moral from this disaster would demand “unravelling the deeper meaning” of America’s military impulses, the popular consent it enjoys and the craven political assent it is accorded.
It would require an assessment of why so many Americans supported the war for so long, how an ostensibly independent media not only failed to challenge the state but actively capitulated to it, and why nobody has paid the price for any of these mistakes. In short, it would demand a reckoning with American power – how it works, as well as whom it works for, and to what end. [Continue reading…]
C.J. Chivers reports: The toxic vapors acted quickly against the Second Platoon of the 811th Ordnance Company, whose soldiers were moving abandoned barrels out of an Iraqi Republican Guard warehouse in 2003. The building, one soldier said, was littered with dead birds.
As the soldiers pushed the barrels over and began rolling them, some of the contents leaked, they said, filling the air with a bitter, penetrating smell. Soon, many were dizzy and suffering from running noses and tearing eyes. A few were vomiting, disoriented, tingling or numb.
After the soldiers staggered outside for air, multiple detection tests indicated the presence of nerve agent. Others suggested blister agent, too. The results seemed to confirm the victims’ fear that they had stumbled upon unused stocks of Iraq’s chemical weapons.
From Camp Taji, where the barrels had been found, more than 20 exposed soldiers were evacuated in helicopters to a military hospital in Balad, where they were met by soldiers wearing gas masks and ordered to undress before being allowed inside for medical care.
“They drew a box in the sand and had armed guards and were like: ‘Do not get out of that box. Do not get out of that box,’ ” said Nathan Willie, a private first class at the time. “I was kind of freaked out.”
Since last fall, the United States military has acknowledged that American soldiers found thousands of abandoned chemical weapons in Iraq, and that hundreds of troops notified the military medical system that they believed they had been exposed to them. The military acknowledged the exposures after years of secrecy — and of denying medical tracking and official recognition to victims — only after an investigation by The New York Times.
Even then, the affliction of the 811th Ordnance Company had quietly remained one of the unsolved mysteries of the Iraq war, and a parable of what several of the victims describe as the corrosive effects of the government’s secrecy on troop welfare and public trust. [Continue reading…]
Center for Public Integrity: U.S. Army Specialist Stephanie Charboneau sat at the center of a complex trucking network in Forward Operating Base Fenty, near the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, that daily distributed tens of thousands of gallons of what soldiers called “liquid gold”: the refined petroleum that fueled the international coalition’s thirsty vehicles, planes, and generators.
A prominent sign in the base read: “The Army Won’t Go If The Fuel Don’t Flow.” But Charboneau, 31, a mother of two from Washington state, felt alienated after a supervisor’s harsh rebuke. Her work was a dreary routine of recording fuel deliveries in a computer and escorting trucks past a gate. But it was soon to take a dark turn into high-value crime.
She began an affair with a civilian, Jonathan Hightower, who worked for a Pentagon contractor that distributed fuel from Fenty, and one day in March 2010, he told her about “this thing going on” at other U.S. military bases around Afghanistan, she recalled in a recent telephone interview.
Soldiers were selling the U.S. military’s fuel to Afghan locals on the side, and pocketing the proceeds. When Hightower suggested they start doing the same, Charboneau said, she agreed.
In so doing, Charboneau contributed to thefts by U.S. military personnel of at least $15 million worth of fuel since the start of the U.S. war in Afghanistan. And eventually she became one of at least 115 enlisted personnel and military officers convicted since 2005 of committing theft, bribery, and contract rigging crimes valued at $52 million during their deployments in Afghanistan and Iraq, according to a comprehensive tally of court records by the Center for Public Integrity. [Continue reading…]
Huffington Post: On May 1, 2003, President George W. Bush delivered a now-infamous speech aboard an aircraft carrier in which he declared that “major combat operations in Iraq have ended” and that “in the battle of Iraq, the United States and our allies have prevailed.” That speech, given less than two months after the U.S. initiated combat operations in Iraq, has been derisively labeled “Mission Accomplished” after the banner used as a backdrop.
The truth is that the American role in Iraq was far from finished, with the overwhelming majority of deaths occurring and most of the money spent since that speech 12 years ago today.
In the years since “Mission Accomplished,” some 149,053 civilians have been killed, compared to about 7,412 prior to the speech, according to the website Iraq Body Count. Since the speech, 4,637 military members in the Iraq War coalition led by the U.S. have lost their lives, versus 172 prior, according to the Iraq Coalition Casualty Count. As of September 2014, total U.S. expenditures on the war in Iraq totaled $815.8 billion, about 93 percent of which was spent after 2003. That cost is more than 16 times the Bush administration’s original projection.
The New York Times reports: The American Psychological Association secretly collaborated with the administration of President George W. Bush to bolster a legal and ethical justification for the torture of prisoners swept up in the post-Sept. 11 war on terror, according to a new report by a group of dissident health professionals and human rights activists.
The report is the first to examine the association’s role in the interrogation program. It contends, using newly disclosed emails, that the group’s actions to keep psychologists involved in the interrogation program coincided closely with efforts by senior Bush administration officials to salvage the program after the public disclosure in 2004 of graphic photos of prisoner abuse by American military personnel at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.
“The A.P.A. secretly coordinated with officials from the C.I.A., White House and the Department of Defense to create an A.P.A. ethics policy on national security interrogations which comported with then-classified legal guidance authorizing the C.I.A. torture program,” the report’s authors conclude. [Continue reading…]
Bloomberg: Former U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales misled Congress by downplaying a dispute between George W. Bush’s White House and the Justice Department over the legality of the National Security Agency’s warrantless spying program, according to previously classified documents.
The documents released Saturday from the inspectors general of the Defense Department, Justice Department, Central Intelligence Agency, National Security Agency and Office of the Director of National Intelligence concerned their investigations of the surveillance programs initiated by then-President Bush after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
They show that intelligence and law-enforcement agencies had mixed views toward Bush’s emergency order authorizing the NSA’s bulk collection of telephone and Internet data. For example, agencies other than the NSA had difficulty accessing information on terrorism suspects because of secrecy surrounding the program, lack of training and the large volume and confusing structure of the data.
Joshua Keating writes: “Rather than another reason to refight old arguments, I hope that today’s report can help us leave these techniques where they belong — in the past.” That was President Obama, last December, after the release of a Senate panel report on the CIA’s use of torture against terrorism detainees. Obama’s statement encapsulated both his confidence that the brutal interrogation techniques of the Bush era had been brought to an end by the executive order he issued banning them upon taking office, and his reluctance to probe more deeply into abuses that occurred or prosecute any of the offenders.
But a new report issued this morning by Amnesty International charges that the Obama administration has effectively granted impunity to the practitioners of torture, and that its reluctance to address the issue “not only leaves the USA in serious violation of its international legal obligations, it increases the risk that history will repeat itself when a different president again deems the circumstances warrant resort to torture, enforced disappearance, abductions or other human rights violations.” [Continue reading…]
Jason Leopold reports: Thirteen years ago, the intelligence community concluded in a 93-page classified document used to justify the invasion of Iraq that it lacked “specific information” on “many key aspects” of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction (WMD) programs.
But that’s not what top Bush administration officials said during their campaign to sell the war to the American public. Those officials, citing the same classified document, asserted with no uncertainty that Iraq was actively pursuing nuclear weapons, concealing a vast chemical and biological weapons arsenal, and posing an immediate and grave threat to US national security.
Congress eventually concluded that the Bush administration had “overstated” its dire warnings about the Iraqi threat, and that the administration’s claims about Iraq’s WMD program were “not supported by the underlying intelligence reporting.” But that underlying intelligence reporting — contained in the so-called National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) that was used to justify the invasion — has remained shrouded in mystery until now. [Continue reading…]
In a recent speech, Chas W. Freeman said: I want to speak with you today about the Middle East. This is the region where Africa, Asia, and Europe come together. It is also the part of the world where we have been most compellingly reminded that some struggles cannot be won, but there are no struggles that cannot be lost.
It is often said that human beings learn little useful from success but can learn a great deal from defeat. If so, the Middle East now offers a remarkably rich menu of foreign-policy failures for Americans to study.
• Our four-decade-long diplomatic effort to bring peace to the Holy Land sputtered to an ignominious conclusion a year ago.
• Our unconditional political, economic, and military backing of Israel has earned us the enmity of Israel’s enemies even as it has enabled egregiously contemptuous expressions of ingratitude and disrespect for us from Israel itself.
• Our attempts to contain the Iranian revolution have instead empowered it.
• Our military campaigns to pacify the region have destabilized it, dismantled its states, and ignited ferocious wars of religion among its peoples.
• Our efforts to democratize Arab societies have helped to produce anarchy, terrorism, dictatorship, or an indecisive juxtaposition of all three.
• In Iraq, Libya, and Syria we have shown that war does not decide who’s right so much as determine who’s left.
• Our campaign against terrorism with global reach has multiplied our enemies and continuously expanded their areas of operation.
• Our opposition to nuclear proliferation did not prevent Israel from clandestinely developing nuclear weapons and related delivery systems and may not preclude Iran and others from following suit.
• At the global level, our policies in the Middle East have damaged our prestige, weakened our alliances, and gained us a reputation for militaristic fecklessness in the conduct of our foreign affairs. They have also distracted us from challenges elsewhere of equal or greater importance to our national interests.
That’s quite a record.
One can only measure success or failure by reference to what one is trying achieve. So, in practice, what have U.S. objectives been? Are these objectives still valid? If we’ve failed to advance them, what went wrong? What must we do now to have a better chance of success? [Continue reading…]
The post-9/11 moment offered them their main chance to transform their dreams into reality and they seized it by the throat. They wanted to “take the gloves off.” They were convinced that the presidency had been shackled by Congress in the Watergate era and that it was their destiny to remove the chains. They believed in a “unitary” presidency: an unchained executive with unfettered power to do whatever he wanted, preemptively and in any fashion he cared to. And in their own fashion, they were visionaries in their urge to establish a Pax Americana first in the Greater Middle East and then planet-wide.
Anything, they thought, was possible, given a nation shocked and terrified by the apocalyptic vision of those towers coming down, even if the damage had been done by just 19 hijackers armed with box cutters who belonged to a terror organization capable, at best, of mounting major operations every year or two. “[B]arely five hours after American Airlines Flight 77 plowed into the Pentagon… [Secretary of Defense Donald] Rumsfeld was telling his aides to come up with plans for striking Iraq,” CBS News reported, even though he was already certain that al-Qaeda had launched the attack, not Saddam Hussein. (“‘Go massive,’ the notes quote him as saying. ‘Sweep it all up. Things related and not.'”)
And, of course, from Afghanistan to Iraq and beyond, they did “sweep it all up.” As a group, George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, and many other top figures in the administration were in love with the U.S. military. They were convinced that a force with no peer on the planet could bring various “rogue powers” instantly to heel and leave the U.S. dominant in a way that no power in all of history had ever been. Throw in control over the flow of oil on a global scale and their dreams couldn’t have been more expansive. But when you write the history of this particular disaster, don’t forget the fear, either.
As was said over and over again at that moment, 9/11 “changed everything.” That meant they felt themselves freed to do all the mad things we now know they did, from preemptive wars and occupations to massive programs of torture and kidnapping, as well as the setting up of a global penal system that was to be beyond the reach of any law or the oversight of anyone but those under their command. They green-lighted it all, but don’t for a second think that they weren’t afraid themselves. To touch that fear (bordering on paranoia), you only have to read Jane Mayer’s book The Dark Side where she describes Vice President Dick Cheney in that post-9/11 period being “chauffeured in an armored motorcade that varied its route to foil possible attackers.” In the backseat of his car (just in case), she added, “rested a duffel bag stocked with a gas mask and a biochemical survival suit.” And lest danger rear its head, “rarely did he travel without a medical doctor in tow.”
Yes, they were on top of the world and undoubtedly chilled to the bone with fear as well. And fear and impunity turned out to be an ugly combination indeed. Both the fear and the sense of license, of the freedom to act as they wished, drove them fiercely. Take Michael Hayden, then head of the NSA, later of the CIA. Of that moment, he recently said, “I actually started to do different things. And I didn’t need to ask ‘mother, may I’ from the Congress or the president or anyone else. It was within my charter, but in terms of the mature judgment about what’s reasonable and what’s not reasonable, the death of 3,000 countrymen kind of took me in a direction over here, perfectly within my authority, but a different place than the one in which I was located before the attacks took place.” In other words, on September 10, 2011, he was simply the director of the NSA. On September 11th, without ever leaving the NSA, he was the president, Congress, and the chief justice of the Supreme Court all rolled into one.
Given what, as Hayden (and others) suggest, they couldn’t help but do, it’s good to know that there were some people who could. It’s a point that TomDispatch regular Rebecca Gordon, author of Mainstreaming Torture: Ethical Approaches in the Post-9/11 United States, makes in a particularly moving way today. Tom Engelhardt
Saying no to torture
A gallery of American heroes
By Rebecca Gordon
Why was it again that, as President Obama said, “we tortured some folks” after the 9/11 attacks? Oh, right, because we were terrified. Because everyone knows that being afraid gives you moral license to do whatever you need to do to keep yourself safe. That’s why we don’t shame or punish those who were too scared to imagine doing anything else. We honor and revere them.
From the point of view of the U.S. military and the national security state, the period from September 12, 2001, to late last night could be summed up in a single word: more. What Washington funded with your tax dollars was a bacchanalia of expansion intended, as is endlessly reiterated, to keep America “safe.” But here’s the odd thing: as the structure of what’s always called “security” is built out ever further into our world and our lives, that world only seems to become less secure. Odder yet, that “more” is rarely a focus of media coverage, though its reality is glaringly obvious. The details may get coverage but the larger reality — the thing being created in Washington — seems of remarkably little interest.
That’s why websites like TomDispatch matter. They offer the larger picture of a world that’s being built right before our eyes but is somehow seldom actually seen — that is, taken in meaningfully. America’s Special Operations forces are a striking example of this phenomenon. The commando is, by now, a national culture hero, the guy who stands between Hell and us. But what special ops forces really do all — and I mean all — over the planet, doesn’t seem of any particular interest to Americans in general or the mainstream media in particular. The way those “elite” forces have parlayed their popularity into a staggering growth rate and just what that growth and the actions that go with it actually mean in terms of, say, blowback… well, that’s something you’re simply not going to read much about, other than at a website like this one.
In fact, we’ve focused on the spectacular growth of this country’s special forces outfits, what that has meant globally, and the ethos of the organization for years now. Nick Turse, in particular, has in the past and again today done the kind of reporting on and assessment of special forces operations that should be the coin of the realm, but couldn’t be rarer in our world. If you want to know, for instance, just how many countries special forces operatives have set foot in from 2011-2014 (150 on a planet with only 196 nations), this is the place to come, not the giant media outfits that straddle the consciousness of the planet. Tom Engelhardt
The golden age of black ops
Special ops missions already in 105 countries in 2015
By Nick Turse
In the dead of night, they swept in aboard V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft. Landing in a remote region of one of the most volatile countries on the planet, they raided a village and soon found themselves in a life-or-death firefight. It was the second time in two weeks that elite U.S. Navy SEALs had attempted to rescue American photojournalist Luke Somers. And it was the second time they failed.
On December 6, 2014, approximately 36 of America’s top commandos, heavily armed, operating with intelligence from satellites, drones, and high-tech eavesdropping, outfitted with night vision goggles, and backed up by elite Yemeni troops, went toe-to-toe with about six militants from al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. When it was over, Somers was dead, along with Pierre Korkie, a South African teacher due to be set free the next day. Eight civilians were also killed by the commandos, according to local reports. Most of the militants escaped.
That blood-soaked episode was, depending on your vantage point, an ignominious end to a year that saw U.S. Special Operations forces deployed at near record levels, or an inauspicious beginning to a new year already on track to reach similar heights, if not exceed them.
What is torture?
Torture is like rape and pornography. Even though lawyers might argue over the definition, everyone knows what it is.
The timidity of American journalists around using the term torture has little to do with the mystery of how it’s defined and everything to do with their obsequious deference to political power.
Imagine if Bill Cosby was to respond to the allegations swirling around him and said: “Sure, I drugged several women and then had sex with them, but I didn’t rape them,” would he then have interviewers asking him how he defined rape?
Of course not. Likewise, it’s irrelevant how Dick Cheney defines torture.
Cheney can hide behind definitions conjured up by the Office of Legal Counsel no more legitimately than Adolf Eichmann could use his “just following orders” defense for his role in the Holocaust.
Did the CIA engage in torture?
Suppose there was no evidence — nothing more than unsubstantiated allegations that the CIA had engaged in torture — then it would be reasonable to ask whether these allegations had any basis. But the evidence is abundant and comes from official records.
The fact that this question is still even being raised shows the extent to which the CIA and its defenders have successfully manipulated political discourse around this issue.
Does torture work?
Torture defenders, recognizing that despite the efforts of Cheney and others to deny that torture was used by the CIA, have mostly moved on to their second line of defense: it saved lives. For legal reasons they will not explicitly confirm that torture was used, but they do so implicitly by asserting this justification, that it “saved lives.”
The media and many in Congress have bitten the hook in this argument by legitimizing the question: does torture work?
If torture can be shown to “work,” its alleged efficacy reinforces the claim that its use is imperative.
This then becomes an emotive argument of necessity. It suspends any serious analysis of the morality of torture by appealing to the simplistic, populist rationale that desperate times call for desperate measures.
Torture’s an ugly thing, but when the future of America was at stake, sacrifices had to be made — so the argument goes.
In an interview broadcast this weekend, former CIA director Michael Hayden said: “This was done out of duty. I mean, it’s hard to suppress your humanity.”
In other words, those who engaged in torture had such a deep sense of duty to their country that they were indeed able to suppress their humanity.
Aside from the question as to whether it’s ever a virtue for patriotism to trump a sense of humanity, the purported sense of necessity which legitimized torture apparently never actually rose to the level that anyone was willing to knowingly break the law. In other words, no one came to this conclusion: We have no choice but to break the law and engage in torture because we put the interests of our nation above our own.
On the contrary, the apparent necessity of using torture was made contingent on guarantees that those who authorized its use and those who engaged in it, would not place themselves in legal jeopardy.
So those who now trumpet their patriotism by declaring that they did what they had to do in order to save lives, should really be saying, we were willing to do whatever we could to save lives without risking losing our jobs.
For American torturers and their overseers, job security and legal impunity were more important than national security.
And let’s be clear: President Obama understands that this was the deal and he is glad to keep his end of the unspoken bargain not only to honor the expectations of those who tortured in the line of duty, but also because he expects for himself similar protection in the future. That is to say, Obama currently shields torturers from prosecution, so that a decade from now he will not be charged with murder — having ordered hundreds of summary executions through drone strikes, this being Obama’s alternative to the legally messy problem of handling suspected terrorists.
Did the CIA’s use of torture prevent future attacks?
Cheney says that the fact that the U.S. has not faced another large-scale attack since 9/11 is proof that the program “worked.”
Anyone with half a brain should be able to see that this is a bogus line of reasoning. The absence of such an attack can be attributed to multiple causes, such as improved airline security, improved surveillance, and the diminished abilities of al Qaeda to organize such an attack. Yet the fact that there hasn’t been another 9/11 for thirteen years doesn’t preclude there being another surprise attack tomorrow. If that happens, then the alleged success of Cheney’s program will instantly be exposed as a delusion.
The only way in which future attacks can be shown to have been foiled is by plans and planners being intercepted. In and of itself, the absence of another 9/11 proves nothing.
Were innocent people tortured?
Paradoxically, this is a question that perhaps more than any other legitimizes torture since it implies that the greatest injustice in torture is for it be applied unfairly — to the innocent. Thus, those who were not innocent could, it seems, perhaps justifiably have been tortured.
The insidious effect of this question is evident in the fact that in the midst of a massive amount of media attention on the subject of CIA torture, the focus of that attention has been on the perpetrators rather than the victims of America’s torture programs.
Torture is in the spotlight and yet somehow the victims remain in the shadows.
It came from the top and that’s never been a secret. The president authorized the building of those CIA “black sites” and the use of what came to be known as “enhanced interrogation techniques” and has spoken of this with a certain pride. The president’s top officials essentially put in an order at the Department of Justice for “legal” justifications that would, miraculously, transform those “techniques” into something other than torture. Its lawyers then pulled out their dictionaries and gave new meaning to tortured definitions of torture that could have come directly from the fused pens of Franz Kafka and George Orwell. In the process, they even managed to leave the definition of torture to the torturer. It was a performance for the ages.
Last week, former Vice President Dick Cheney, who only days after 9/11 claimed that the Bush administration was going to “work the dark side,” once again championed those techniques and the CIA agents who used them. It was a handy reminder of just what a would-be crew of tough-guy torture instigators he and his cohorts were. The legal veneer spread thinly over the program they set in motion was meant to provide only the faintest legal cover for the “gloves” they bragged about taking off, while obscuring the issue for the American public. After all, few in the rest of the world were likely to accept the idea that interrogation methods like waterboarding, or “the water torture” as it had once been known, were anything but torture. Even in this country, it had been accepted as just that. The Bush administration was, of course, helped in those years by a media that, when not cheerleading for torture, or actually lending the CIA a helpful hand, essentially banished the word from its vocabulary, unless it referred to heinously similar acts committed by countries we disliked.
All in all, it was an exercise in what the “last superpower,” the world’s “policeman,” could get away with in the backrooms of its police stations being jerry-built around the world. And some of the techniques used with a particular brutality were evidently first demonstrated to top officials in the White House itself.
Then, of course, the CIA went out and applied those “enhanced techniques” to actual human beings with abandon, as the newly released (and somewhat redacted) executive summary of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s “torture report” indicates. This was done even more severely than ordered (not that Cheney & Co. cared), including to a surprising number of captives that the CIA later decided were innocent of anything having to do with terror or al-Qaeda. All of this happened, despite a law this country signed onto prohibiting the use of torture abroad.
Although what I’ve just described is now generally considered The Torture Story here, it really was only part of it. The other part, also a CIA operation authorized at the highest levels, was “rendition” or “extraordinary rendition” as it was sometimes known. This was a global campaign of kidnappings, aided and abetted by 54 other countries, in which “terror suspects” (again often enough innocent people) were swept off the streets of major cities as well as the backlands of the planet and “rendered” to other countries, ranging from Libya and Syria to Egypt and Uzbekistan, places with their own handy torture chambers and interrogators already much practiced in “enhanced” techniques of one sort or another.
Moreover, those techniques migrated like a virus from the CIA and its “black sites” elsewhere in the U.S. imperium, most notoriously via Guantanamo to Abu Ghraib, the American-run prison in Iraq, where images of torture and abuse of a distinctly enhanced variety then migrated home as screensavers. What was done couldn’t have been more criminal in nature, whether judged by U.S. or international law. In its wake, its perpetrators, both the torturers and the kidnappers, were protected in a major way. Except for a few low-level figures at Abu Ghraib and one non-torturing CIA whistleblower who went to prison for releasing to a journalist the name of someone involved in the torture program, no American figure, not even those responsible for deaths at the Agency’s black sites, would be brought to court. And of course, the men (and woman) most responsible would leave the government to write their memoirs for millions of dollars and defend what they did to the death (of others).
It’s one for the history books and, though it’s a good thing to have the Senate report made public, it wasn’t needed to know that, in the years after 9/11, when the U.S. government created an offshore Bermuda Triangle of injustice, it also essentially became a criminal enterprise. Recently, Republican hawks in Washington protested loudly against the release of that Senate report, suggesting that it should be suppressed lest it “inflame” our enemies. The real question isn’t, however, about them at all, it’s about us. Why won’t the release of this report inflame Americans, given what their government has done in their names?
And in case you think it’s all over but for the shouting, think again, as Rebecca Gordon, TomDispatch regular and author of Mainstreaming Torture: Ethical Approaches in the Post-9/11 United States writes today. Tom Engelhardt
American torture — past, present, and… future?
Beyond the Senate torture report
By Rebecca Gordon
It’s the political story of the week in Washington. At long last, after the endless stalling and foot-shuffling, the arguments about redaction and CIA computer hacking, the claims that its release might stoke others out there in the Muslim world to violence and “throw the C.I.A. to the wolves,” the report — you know which one — is out. Or at least, the redacted executive summary of it is available to be read and, as Senator Mark Udall said before its release, “When this report is declassified, people will abhor what they read. They’re gonna be disgusted. They’re gonna be appalled. They’re gonna be shocked at what we did.”
So now we can finally consider the partial release of the long-awaited report from the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence about the gruesome CIA interrogation methods used during the Bush administration’s “Global War on Terror.” But here’s one important thing to keep in mind: this report addresses only the past practices of a single agency. Its narrow focus encourages us to believe that, whatever the CIA may have once done, that whole sorry torture chapter is now behind us.
The Washington Post reports: CIA officials questioned in the run-up to the Iraq War in 2003 whether key intelligence cited by President George W. Bush’s administration as a reason for a military invasion was faulty, according to a newly declassified CIA letter released Thursday by the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
The letter was sent March 13 of this year from CIA Director John Brennan to Sen. Carl Levin, the outgoing committee chairman, and introduced on the Senate floor on Thursday. Brennan confirmed that CIA field operatives “expressed significant concern” whether Muhammad Atta, one of the airliner hijackers in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, could have met with a former Iraqi intelligence officer, Ahmad Khalil Ibrahim Samir al-Ani, in Prague about five months earlier.
The so-called “Prague connection” was used by the Bush administration as a way of tying the 9/11 attacks to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. The intelligence has been questioned for years, but the new CIA letter raises anew questions about why the Bush administration took the United States into the Iraq War despite concerns repeatedly being raised by U.S. intelligence officers about whether there was a tie between 9/11 and the Iraqi government. [Continue reading…]
James Ross writes: So the CIA doesn’t consider “waterboarding” — mock execution by near drowning — to be torture, but the U.S. State Department does.
State Department reports from 2003 to 2007 concluded that Sri Lanka’s use of “near-drowning” of detainees was among “methods of torture.” Its reports on Tunisia from 1996 to 2004 classified “submersion of the head in water” as “torture.” In fact, the U.S. military has prosecuted variants of waterboarding for more than 100 years — going back to the U.S. occupation of the Philippines in the early 1900s.
If you want to know whether the U.S. government considers the “enhanced interrogation techniques” described in the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report summary on the CIA’s interrogation program to be torture, you could read President Barack Obama’s 2009 statement rejecting the use of waterboarding — or you could click on the State Department’s annual Country Reports on human rights conditions. It turns out that all those methods carried out by the CIA would be torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment if committed by other governments.
The grotesque and previously unreported “anal feeding” and “anal rehydration” discussed in the Senate report may not have been used elsewhere, but the State Department has reported on analogous sexual assault of prisoners as a form of torture. Its 2012 report on Syria described as custodial torture the “forcing of objects into the rectum.”
Stress positions and forced standing also can amount to torture. The State Department’s 2006 report on Jordan said that subjecting detainees to “forced standing in painful positions for prolonged periods” was torture. It also described as torture the Iranian practice of “suspension for long periods in contorted positions.”
The same holds true for sleep deprivation and blaring music. In State Department reports on Indonesia, Iran, Jordan, Libya, and Saudi Arabia, sleep deprivation was classified as torture. The 2002 report on Turkey lists “loud music” as a torture method. [Continue reading…]
Fred Kaplan writes: Of all the shocks and revelations in the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on CIA torture, one seems very strange and unlikely: that the agency misinformed the White House and didn’t even brief President George W. Bush about its controversial program until April 2006.
The question of the claim’s truth or implausibility is not trivial or academic; it goes well beyond score-settling, Bush-bashing, or scapegoating. Rather, it speaks to an issue that’s central in the report in the long history of CIA scandals, and in debates over whether and how policy should be changed: Did the torture begin, and did it get out of hand, because the CIA’s detention and interrogation program devolved into a rogue operation? Or were the program’s managers actually doing the president’s dirty business?
If the former was the case, then heads should roll, grand juries should be assembled, organizational charts should be reshuffled, and mechanisms of oversight should be tightened. If the latter was the case, well, that’s what elections are for. “Enhanced-interrogation techniques” were formally ended by President Obama after the 2008 election, and perhaps future presidents will read the report with an eye toward avoiding the mistakes of the past.
But which was it? Were the CIA’s directorate of operations and its counterterrorism center freelancing after the Sept. 11 attacks, or were they exchanging winks and nods with the commander-in-chief?
The annals of history suggest the latter, and in a few passages, so does the report. [Continue reading…]
Noa Yachot from the ACLU writes: This International Human Rights Day – as we consider how we went so dramatically off course, and how we can make amends – let’s especially remember the victims and survivors of the U.S. torture program. They haven’t found recourse in U.S. courts, and they weren’t interviewed for the Senate report. Some remain detained without charge or trial, and many are still coping with the deep psychological scars and physical consequences of torture. But their stories can still be told, and the Senate report goes into laudable detail on what they endured.
Four such stories, based almost exclusively on information taken from the Senate torture report, are shared below. They don’t include the detainees forced to stand on broken legs, endure ice water baths, or undergo “rectal rehydration” (in reality, rape) at the hands of interrogators, at least one of whom had anger management issues while another “reportedly admitted to sexual assault.” These stories represent just a fraction of the prisoners profiled in the report, including at least 26 individuals wrongfully detained even according to the CIA’s unlawful standards.
But together, they represent many of the worst elements of the program – the abuse itself, the breakdown in oversight, the preference for merciless brutality over credible intelligence gathering, and the complicity of the highest levels of government. [Continue reading…]
What’s wrong with torture?
That might sound like a question that doesn’t need asking, yet given that there are so many answers circulating right now, it’s worth treating this as a question whose answer is not obvious. Moreover, the question needs to be broken down since we need to examine its two components: wrong and torture.
In their public statements, Bush administration officials always tried to duck the issue by claiming that their use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” did not involve torture. The spineless American press corps was complicit in facilitating this PR maneuver by also refraining from using the term torture.
But even while the administration denied approving the use of torture, it simultaneously developed a legal defense on the basis that torture might be a necessity for saving lives.
Despite the fact that for years, American journalists acted like dummies incapable of labeling something as torture unless given permission to do so by the political establishment, there was never much real debate inside the administration about whether its interrogation practices involved torture. The only question was whether they could use torture without risking prosecution.
The so-called “necessity defense” was one that attempted to absolve torturers of moral and legal responsibility for their actions by claiming that they had no choice — that they needed to torture in order to “save lives.”
As soon as the question gets raised — does torture work? in the sense that it might yield life-saving intelligence — the question of the morality of torture has been muddied.
The implication is that if torture could be shown to work, then even if it might be deemed wrong it is nevertheless justifiable because the wrong serves a greater good.
In this regard, many among the American Right — which otherwise postures as the stronghold of moral absolutists — turn out to be moral relativists.
The bipartisan argument against torture is one rooted in nationalism posturing as morality. Thus in her introduction, Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Chairman Dianne Feinstein, writes:
The major lesson of this report is that regardless of the pressures and the need to act, the Intelligence Community’s actions must always reflect who we are as a nation, and adhere to our laws and standards. It is precisely at these times of national crisis that our government must be guided by the lessons of our history and subject decisions to internal and external review.
Instead, CIA personnel, aided by two outside contractors, decided to initiate a program of indefinite secret detention and the use of brutal interrogation techniques in violation of US. law, treaty obligations, and our values.
In its use of torture, the CIA failed to “reflect who we are as a nation,” and it betrayed “our values.”
Torture is wrong — supposedly — because it is un-American.
Ironically, one of the distinguishing features of American values is that they are frequently cited yet rarely articulated.
This habit of invoking American values without spelling out what they are, indicates that to a significant degree, American values are not so much values as they are a form of national vanity.
To offer, “because we are American,” as an explanation for anything is to offer no explanation at all but rather to assert that there is some special virtue in being American.
No doubt, all those who now assert that the use of torture conflicts with our values would say that those values dictate that prisoners should be treated humanely.
Yet to suggest that humane treatment is in some sense a distinctively American virtue implies that it cannot be expected to prevail elsewhere.
Given the lack of human rights across much of the world, there is indeed some commonsense truth to this assumption — but there is also a contradiction.
The contradiction is this: a sense of what is humane rests on a sense of humanity, which is that on a fundamental level human beings are all endowed with the same capacities, and yet if there is a distinct virtue in being American, then supposedly Americans are in an important way different from everyone else.
If America must abstain from torture because it conflicts with America’s self-image, does a non-torturing America assume that torture will continue elsewhere — business as usual in a world that can’t be expected to live up to American values?
Even while the Bush administration refused to acknowledge that it had institutionalized torture, according to an Open Society report published in 2013, it nevertheless managed to win the cooperation of 54 countries in the following ways:
[B]y hosting CIA prisons on their territories; detaining, interrogating, torturing, and abusing individuals; assisting in the capture and transport of detainees; permitting the use of domestic airspace and airports for secret flights transporting detainees; providing intelligence leading to the secret detention and extraordinary rendition of individuals; and interrogating individuals who were secretly being held in the custody of other governments. Foreign governments also failed to protect detainees from secret detention and extraordinary rendition on their territories and to conduct effective investigations into agencies and officials who participated in these operations.
Those countries were:
Afghanistan, Albania, Algeria, Australia, Austria, Azerbaijan, Belgium, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Canada, Croatia, Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Djibouti, Egypt, Ethiopia, Finland, Gambia, Georgia, Germany, Greece, Hong Kong, Iceland, Indonesia, Iran, Ireland, Italy, Jordan, Kenya, Libya, Lithuania, Macedonia, Malawi, Malaysia, Mauritania, Morocco, Pakistan, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, South Africa, Spain, Sri Lanka, Sweden, Syria, Thailand, Turkey, United Arab Emirates, United Kingdom, Uzbekistan, Yemen, and Zimbabwe.
That the U.S. could find so many willing partners is clearly a reflection of American power and the fears that many governments justifiably harbor about being penalized if they were to resist American pressure.
But this also says a lot about prevailing attitudes towards torture. It’s use is always seen as expedient (or inexpedient) and the harm it does tends to be measured more in terms of how it will politically harm the perpetrators rather than the actual victims.
A few months ago, Congress received another report on torture, but this one gained only a fraction of the media and public attention that is being given to the current report.
That lack of attention followed from the fact that neither the torturers nor their victims were American — they were Syrian.
In July, the Daily Beast reported:
The regime of Syrian President Bashar al Assad is holding 150,000 civilians in custody, all of whom are at risk of being tortured or killed by the state, the Syrian defector known as “Caesar” told Congress on Thursday.
According to a senior State Department official, his department initially asked to keep this hearing — in which Caesar displayed new photos from his trove of 55,000 images showing the torture, starvation, and death of over 11,000 civilians — closed to the public, out of concerns for the safety of the defector and his family. Caesar smuggled the pictures out of Syria when he fled last year in fear for his life. Caesar’s trip had been in the works for months.
There was no audio or video recording allowed at the hearing; the House Foreign Affairs Committee said that decision was made in consideration of Caesar’s safety. He sat at the witness table disguised in a baseball cap and sunglasses, with a blue hoodie over his head. “We recommended to Congress a format for today’s briefing that would have allowed press access while addressing any security concerns,” said Edgar Vasquez, a State Department spokesman. A committee staffer alleged State had tried to prevent the hearing from happening at all.
The packed committee room sat in silent horror as new examples of Assad’s atrocities were splashed on the large television screens on the wall and displayed on large posterboards littered throughout the hearing room. Caesar spoke softly to his translator, Mouaz Moustafa, the executive director of the Syrian American Task Force, a Washington-based organization that works with both the Syrian opposition and the U.S. State Department.
“I am not a politician and I don’t like politics,” Caesar said through his translator. “I have come to you honorable Congress to give you a message from the people of Syria… What is going on in Syria is a genocidal massacre that is being led by the worst of all the terrorists, Bashar al Assad.”
The international community must do something now or the 150,000 civilians still held in regime custody could meet the same bleak fate, Caesar said. America had been known as a country that protected civilians from atrocities, he argued, referring to past humanitarian crises such as ethnic cleansing in Yugoslavia.
Following the release of the Senate report on torture, President Obama said: “I hope that today’s report can help us leave these techniques where they belong — in the past.”
Move on, don’t look back, and ignore the rest of the world — these are the prevailing American values and they express no guiding morality, but instead an abiding indulgence in ignorance.