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“Normalizing Illegal Behavior”: Why Are Torturers Being Given “Balance” In The Press?

After the publication of the torture report, the torturers and their enablers have been all over the airwaves defending themselves and the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques.” These “techniques” included horrific acts of rape, threatening family members with rape and death, suspension from ceilings and walls for days on end, forcing prisoners to soil themselves in diapers, and various forms of psychological torture including sleep and sensory deprivation. In many cases the people being tortured had done nothing wrong and had no information of value.

There is simply no defense for any of this. None. “It gave us actionable intelligence” isn’t a defense. It happens to be untrue. We know that torture doesn’t produce valuable information, and it didn’t produce valuable information in any of these cases, either. But it doesn’t matter if it worked or not. Cutting the hands off of thieves works wonders to reduce theft, but we don’t do that. A moral people does not do these things. “We’re not as bad they are” isn’t a defense, either. That’s not the standard by which a moral people judges itself–and besides, most of the rest of the industrialized world does hold itself to a higher standard, despite also being victimized by Islamist terror attacks.

This stuff is obvious. And yet the TV shows and newspaper stories are full of balance given to the pro-torture side. Why? Despite objections to the contrary, journalists do not always give balance to both sides of an argument if the other side is deemed irrelevant or depraved. Whenever the deficit bugbear rolls to the forefront, almost no balance is given to the Keynesian point of view despite their predictions being consistently correct: the idea that one needn’t actually cut the deficit during a recession is treated as so outre as to require no journalistic attention.

More pointedly, when journalists write about torture and depredations of current or former regimes, journalists don’t feel the need to get the torturers’ side of the story. No one is rushing to ask Assad’s torturers in Syria if their tactics are necessary to keep “terrorists” in check. No one is asking North Korean guards if their treatment of their people is OK because some other country is worse. No one rushes to counterbalance the accounts of Holocaust victims with the justifications of Nazi guards. It simply isn’t done, any more than we “balance” stories of child sexual abuse with a hot-take counterpoint from a member of NAMBLA. The reason we don’t provide “balance” in these cases is that to do so would be to normalize those behaviors as part of legitimate discourse.

So why in the world are the torturers who subjected innocent people to anal feedings and dungeon ceiling hangings given the courtesy of “balance” in the press? Where is the line that separates issues that require balance from those that do not?

In a decent moral universe, torturers don’t get the benefit of explaining themselves to the press any more than serial killers do, except potentially out of morbid curiosity.


By: David Atkins, Political Animal, The Washington Monthly, December 14, 2014

December 15, 2014 Posted by | Journalists, Media, Torture | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“Bush’s Willful Ignorance”: Why He Wanted To Know As Little About Torture As Possible

It’s happening more than 10 years too late (and in a better world it wouldn’t need to happen at all), but now that the Senate Intelligence Committee has released its so-called torture report, the American people are finally having an informed debate over their government’s use of “enhanced interrogation” during the presidency of George W. Bush. The process is not always pretty — at times, in fact, it is downright chilling. But now that we know some of the harrowing details of what was done in our name, it’ll be easier for us Americans to step a bit closer to the mirror and see what we’ve become. As Glenn Greenwald put it earlier this week, “Everybody’s noses got rubbed in [the torture program] by this report.”

Still, the human brain has an awesome capacity to reject information it finds upsetting — like proof that one’s leaders embraced practices refined by the Bolsheviks and the Gestapo. At least that’s my explanation for why some people would rather talk about alleged partisanship than “rectal rehydration.” Or why there’s been increasing focus on the question of whether the CIA “misled”  President Bush about the effectiveness of the program, as well as its essential nature. The whining from conservatives over the Committee not interviewing CIA agents is a red herring, of course (as Chris Hayes has noted, arguments about process are almost uniformly disingenuous). But I think the chatter about Bush the Younger really being Bush the Clueless gets to something deeper.

Before we get into that, though, let’s lay out the basic thrust of the Bush-as-patsy narrative. The key data point for the argument, which the report’s authors say is based on the CIA’s own records, is the fact that Bush wasn’t officially briefed on the agency’s use of waterboarding until 2006. By that point, CIA agents had been subjecting “more than three dozen prisoners” to a series of “near drownings” for years. The report also found that when the president was told of some of the program’s details — specifically, the practice of chaining alleged “evildoers” to the ceiling and forcing them to soil themselves — he “expressed discomfort.” He was, after all, the ultimate compassionate conservative.

Admittedly, there’s much in this formulation that’s seductive, confirming as it does a few widely held beliefs about Bush and his administration. For one thing, it jibes perfectly with the trope that depicts Bush as little more than a figurehead, the emptiest of suits. For another, because the torture program has been so vociferously defended by the former vice president, the story also seems to confirm the related suspicion that, for most of the Bush era, Dick Cheney was the real president. Last but not least, the idea that Bush was kept in the dark (not literally; that was reserved for detainees) lines up with another popular Bush motif: that he was, at least for a commander-in-chief, a “regular guy,” just like us, and not a sadistic authoritarian.

To paraphrase CIA Director John Brennan’s remarks this week, what Bush knew and when he knew it is “unknowable” to the rest of us. And to some extent, depending on how much “discomfort” he feels over being a war criminal, it may not even be knowable to him. All the same, there are a few signs that the Bush-as-patsy explanation is a little too pat. And there are historical reasons to believe that he not only knew enough to be culpable, but that he purposefully avoided finding out more than the bare minimum of what he needed. As Andrew Sullivan put it recently, there was “a desire not to know, not to have direct and explicit knowledge of what was actually being done, because of the immense gravity of the crimes.”

The first, most obvious, reason to question whether Bush really knew so little is the fact that in “Decision Points,” his listicle-cum-memoir, he claims to have directly given the thumbs-up in 2002 when the CIA asked if Abu Zubaydah, a high-ranking al-Qaeda detainee, could be waterboarded. “I thought about the 2,971 people stolen from their families by al Qaeda on 9/11,” Bush writes. “And I thought about my duty to protect my country from another act of terror.” After so judiciously weighing his duty to protect Americans from harm (which up to that point he hadn’t done so well) against his obligation not to be a war criminal, Bush came to his conclusion: “’Damn right,’ I said.”

Of course, just because Bush had his ghostwriter Christopher Michel include this anecdote in his book doesn’t make it true. As a New York Times article on Bush’s response to allegedly being misled suggests, it’s quite possible that Bush is lying about giving the go-ahead to torture Zubaydah in order to shield the CIA — as well as to mitigate his embarrassment. “I suspect,” Sullivan writes in the post I mentioned previously, “Bush decided that, in his book, he had a duty to provide cover for the people who worked for him.” But even if you reject that explanation, there’s still good reason to doubt Bush was on the periphery — or, to be more precise, he was more marginalized than he may have wanted.

That reason has a name: Richard Bruce Cheney, also known as the United States’ most powerful vice president. The theory here isn’t that Cheney was doing a whole lot of dirty work behind Bush’s back, but rather that he had taken the gloves off with the tacit encouragement and approval of the president. As Cheney-watchers — especially the Washington Post’s Barton Gellman and former Cheney co-worker John Dean — have noted, Cheney’s experience in the Nixon administration during its final days did not lead him to the same conclusion as most of us, that an unchecked president is dangerous for American democracy, but instead to conclude that Watergate was proof that if you’re going to break the law, you’d better do it in a way that insulates the president. And as Greenwald noted in my interview with him this week, and historian Sean Wilentz wrote about in a 2007 New York Times op-ed, Cheney reached a similar conclusion after Iran-Contra (which, like Watergate, he believed to be a power grab by Democrats).

Plausible deniability, in other words, is the key phrase to understand what Bush “knew” about the global network of torture chambers and dungeons that will stand as one of the most enduring legacies of his tenure as president. And I suppose in a bitter, depressing way, that’s all too fitting. Because while Bush is the American who bears the most responsibility for the evil unleashed by the United States in the wake of 9/11, the truth is that all of American society let fear and panic overwhelm its values and senses; all of American society was desperately willing to believe that impossible promise: that it had nothing to fear. And when the true costs of its panic and its terror began to float to the surface, all of American society was content to ask no further questions, and to look the other way.


By: Elias Isquith, Salon, December 13, 2014

December 14, 2014 Posted by | Dick Cheney, George W Bush, Torture | , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Manifestly Immoral And Clearly Illegal”: Senate Report Shows That The U.S. Answered Evil With Evil

The “debate” over torture is almost as grotesque as torture itself. There can be no legitimate debate about the intentional infliction of pain upon captive and defenseless human beings. The torturers and their enablers may deny it, but they know — and knew from the beginning — that what they did was obscenely wrong.

We relied on legal advice , the torturers say. We were just following orders. We believed the ends justified the means. It is nauseating to hear such pathetic excuses from those who, in the name of the United States, sanctioned or committed acts that long have been recognized as war crimes.

According to the Senate intelligence committee report on the treatment of detainees after the 9/11 attacks, members of a CIA interrogation team were “profoundly affected . . . some to the point of tears and choking up” at the brutal treatment in 2002 of an important al-Qaeda detainee named Abu Zubaida.

Captured in Pakistan and whisked to a secret facility in Thailand, Zubaida was initially cooperative, willingly providing answers under normal, non-coercive questioning. But the CIA abruptly halted his interrogation, placed him in isolation for 47 days and then began a regime of astonishing and gratuitous cruelty.

Torturers slammed him against walls, confined him in coffin-size boxes for a total of nearly 300 hours and subjected him to 83 sessions of waterboarding, which simulates drowning — a practice for which Japanese war criminals were tried, convicted and harshly punished following World War II. After one waterboarding assault, according to the Senate report, Zubaida was “completely unresponsive, with bubbles rising through his open, full mouth.”

In all, 119 detainees were held in the CIA’s archipelago of secret prisons, according to the report; at least 26 of them were wrongfully detained and never should have been arrested in the first place.

The report says 39 prisoners were tortured with what the administration of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney called “enhanced interrogation techniques” — a chilling bit of Orwellian newspeak. They were kept awake for up to 180 hours, often standing, sometimes in “stress” positions designed to induce pain. Their arms were shackled above their heads. They were stripped naked and placed in ice baths. At least five prisoners were subjected to “rectal rehydration” or “rectal feeding.” While the CIA says only three detainees were waterboarded, Senate investigators found waterboarding equipment at a site where supposedly no such torture took place.

We know of two men who were tortured to death. One of them, Gul Rahman, was held at a facility in Afghanistan that the Senate report refers to as COBALT, described in a CIA memo as a “dungeon.” Rahman was put in a dank, frigid cell wearing only a shirt — no pants or underwear — and chained so that he had to sit or lie on a bare concrete floor. He was found dead the next morning, apparently of hypothermia. The other man, Manadel al-Jamadi, died in the notorious Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq after being beaten and shackled to a window.

The report seeks to demonstrate that the torture was useless because valuable information in the fight against al-Qaeda came from conventional interrogation methods, not the brutal treatment. Torture’s apologists — including Cheney, who says he’d “do it again in a minute” — claim otherwise. This dispute cannot be settled. No one can say that a name, date or phone number extracted by torture could never have been obtained by other means.

But efficacy is not the point. What matters is not whether torture produces more information or less. What matters is that torture is manifestly immoral — and clearly illegal under U.S. and international law.

The CIA says it relied on Bush administration legal opinions attesting that torture is not really torture. The Senate report shows, however, that the CIA was less than honest in its representations to the Justice Department lawyers about what was being done to the detainees. Again, this argument misses the big picture: Those who ordered and committed torture would not be so eager to hide behind a paper-thin legalistic veneer if they truly believed what they did was right.

Why would the CIA officer in charge of the program destroy all videotapes of waterboarding sessions? Why would the agency fight the Senate investigators so fiercely, at one point hacking into the committee’s computers? Why would there be such a coordinated attempt by torture’s apologists to steer the “debate” toward subsidiary questions and away from the central issue?

There is only one answer: They decided to answer evil with evil rather than with justice. And they knew it was wrong.


By: Eugene Robinson, Opinion Writer, The Washington Post, December 11, 2014

December 14, 2014 Posted by | CIA, Torture, War Crimes | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Will We Torture Again?”: The Willingness To Face An Ugly Truth And Say ‘Never Again’

Can we now say with confidence that our government will not use torture again and that Americans in the future will rise up to prevent it from doing so? In light of the reaction to the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report, I fear that we can’t.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein persisted in releasing the document in the face of opposition from the CIA and attacks by some of her colleagues because she felt a moral calling. The 81-year-old California Democrat believed she had an obligation to leave behind a sturdy ethical roadblock to the use of extreme brutality in pursuit of information — even information seen as potentially saving American lives.

“There are those who will seize upon the report and say ‘see what the Americans did,’ and they will try to use it to justify evil actions or incite more violence,” she said on the Senate floor. “We can’t prevent that. But history will judge us by our commitment to a just society governed by law and the willingness to face an ugly truth and say ‘never again.’”

Yet what might have been a moment of national reflection immediately turned into what everything becomes these days: a carnival of partisanship. Making the truth public, Feinstein’s critics argued, could endanger our nation.

“She will have to live with the consequences,” Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC), who becomes chair of the Intelligence Committee next year, said darkly.

A moving exception was Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), who has denounced torture in season and out. His biography as a prisoner of war has been a standing rebuke to those who choose to play down the consequences of these techniques for our own men and women in uniform. He dismissed the idea that the report itself would be responsible for new attacks on Americans. “Violence needs little incentive in some quarters of the world,” he said. Terrorism should be blamed on terrorists, not Feinstein.

The real objection to the release of the report, McCain argued, was that it calls into question the claims by defenders of these techniques that they produced vital information. “We gave up much in the expectation that torture would make us safer,” he said. “Too much.”

One would like to think that this is now a consensual view, and it is the formal position of our government. But the pushback against Feinstein makes clear that many involved in “the program,” as they so delicately call this departure from our own norms, would do it all over again. John McLaughlin, former CIA acting director and deputy director, took to the pages of The Washington Post to list the intelligence breakthroughs of the interrogators. McLaughlin also joined with five other former CIA directors and deputy directors in a Wall Street Journal piece that denounced the Senate report as “a poorly done and partisan attack.”

But condemning the report as “partisan” is a way of evading its implications. If the issue is partisan, why did President Obama’s CIA director, John Brennan, defend the agency by declaring that “EITs” — that would be enhanced interrogation techniques — “did produce intelligence that helped thwart attack plans, capture terrorists, and save lives”? What’s striking here is the bipartisan unity among intelligence officials.

My friend and Washington Post colleague Michael Gerson saw partisanship in the committee’s focus on the CIA interrogations that took place under President George W. Bush, but not on the drone program, which Obama has embraced and expanded. Gerson is right to note that many who oppose torture are also concerned about the extensiveness of the drone program and I, for one, would have no objection to Congress investigating the ethical and practical problems it raises.

But legitimate questions about drones do not discredit either this legitimate inquiry into the use of torture or the obligation that Feinstein and her fellow committee Democrats felt to bear witness.

Defenders of the CIA make a point that should unsettle all of us because it’s true: In the wake of 9/11, the country was so scared that it tolerated or at least entertained a variety of extreme steps to protect our security, including torture. By November of 2001, there was already a public debate about the legitimacy of torture, even if brave voices (the blogger Andrew Sullivan has been admirably persistent) pushed back in those dark times.

Feinstein, McCain and their allies are hoping they can draw a line now that can strengthen such voices in the future. I wish that the response to their efforts inspired more certainty that their line will hold.


By: E. J. Dionne, Jr., Opinion Writer, The Washington Post; Published in The National Memo, December 11, 2014

December 13, 2014 Posted by | CIA, Diane Feinstein, Torture | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Miscreants Escaping Accountability”: The Senate Torture Report; Crimes Without Punishment

With the release of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence report on the use of torture by the Central Intelligence Agency after 9/11, the final defense of the indefensible by its perpetrators, advocates, and publicists is falling apart before our eyes.

Not only did “enhanced interrogation,” the Nazi euphemism adopted by the Bush-Cheney administration, employ methods outlawed and prosecuted by our country for more than a century, such as waterboarding; and not only did those “activities,” as Dick Cheney called them, violate American law, the Constitution, the Geneva Conventions, and the conventions on torture; but we now know with great certainty that the agency executed this secret program with horrific incompetence — and that it produced nothing of significant value.

Indeed, the Senate Intelligence report concludes, contrary to the boasting of Cheney and many others, that torture was proved “not an effective means of gathering intelligence,” let alone saving millions of Americans from jihadi plots, and actually “complicated and in some cases impeded the national security missions.” The overseers of the torture program, themselves of dubious competence, were unable even to assess the impact or effectiveness of their orders.

As Micah Zenko of the Council on Foreign Relations points out, the CIA itself has admitted, in its otherwise aggressive response to the SSCI, that it lacked the “structure, expertise, and methodologies” to “systematically evaluate the effectiveness of our covert programs. They literally didn’t know what they were doing. But they were doing grave damage to themselves and to us.

Unavoidably, the Senate Intelligence report dwells on the details of these true nightmares, revealing facts that anyone would regret learning: the “rectal rehydration” of detainees by shoving food up the wrong way, with the infliction of excruciating pain; the “black sites” where detainees were held for months in total darkness, loud music constantly playing, and only a bucket for their waste; the cells where detainees suffered such freezing temperatures that at least one died of hypothermia overnight; the beatings, the near-drownings, the constant infliction of pain, hunger, and threats of rape and murder.

According to the report, some episodes of interrogation were so blatantly sadistic and so obviously criminal that the men who witnessed them actually wept. More than one officer broke down and fled, through retirement or transfer, while the White House and the Pentagon continued to lie about the extent – and the supposed necessity – of these unprecedented crimes. Those lies were designed to prevent investigations or oversight from revealing the horrific facts that are now emerging.

Yet despite a long and ongoing cover-up –and notwithstanding the specific revelations highlighted in the report – the basic outline has been known since 2009, when portions of the CIA inspector general’s report on torture were released by the Obama Justice Department in 2009.

Back then, the spy agency’s own investigation – in the words of a Bush appointee and torture enthusiast — “[found it] difficult to determine conclusively whether interrogations have provided information critical to interdicting specific imminent attacks.” In other words, the agency could never prove any instance when the sole justification for these gross violations of US and international law – breaking up a plot targeting American lives – had been fulfilled since 9/11. And unsurprisingly, that is still the case.

The searing issue we now confront, as a society governed by law, is that these lawbreakers will not be prosecuted or even required to testify publicly about their grave offenses. The Obama administration is apparently willing to expose their lawlessness, but unable to do anything to punish it. Even the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, Anthony Romero, has abandoned any hope of prosecutions, noting that the torturers have in effect been pardoned. Romero has urged President Obama to make those pardons official – which would at least stamp the actions of the torturers and their accomplices as crimes.

What we have needed for years, but evidently will never get, is a truth and reconciliation process that might have granted freedom from prosecution to witnesses who testified publicly, honestly, and completely about the crimes of the Bush administration. Instead, those miscreants will escape accountability altogether – except in the pages of history, where the Senate Intelligence report will indict them over and over again.


By: Joe Conason, The National Memo, December 10, 2014

December 11, 2014 Posted by | CIA, Senate, Torture | , , , , , | 1 Comment

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