The Senate CIA Torture Report, Live from Sunny Guantanamo Bay

Here’s a blast from the past:

WASHINGTON, Jan. 22 [2002] — Frustrated by an international outcry over the American treatment of prisoners in Cuba, Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld defended the United States’ conduct at length today and dismissed the criticism as breathless armchair hyperbole.

“I am telling you what I believe in every inch of my body to be the truth, and I have spent a lot of time on secure video with the people down there,” he told reporters, referring to the United States naval base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, where 158 prisoners from the war in Afghanistan are being jailed. “I haven’t found a single scrap of any kind of information that suggests that anyone has been treated anything other than humanely.”

…Mr. Rumsfeld said one of the complicating factors was that the Geneva Conventions give protection to prisoners from countries but not from terrorist organizations, like Al Qaeda, to which some of the prisoners apparently belong. “To give standing under a Geneva Convention to a terrorist organization that’s not a country is something that I think some of the lawyers who did not drop out of law school as I did worry about as a precedent,” he said.

Oh no, we’re not holding prisoners outside of the Geneva Conventions because we want to treat them with cruelty. Perish the thought! We’re just doing it… because those pesky Geneva Conventions won’t allow us to use them. And we wouldn’t dream of treating terrorists inhumanely.

This was an obvious lie from the very first. We might easily have declared – unilaterally – that we were extending Geneva protections to these detainees despite their irregular status. It would have required absolutely no recognition of al Qaeda as a state, a recognition that it has obviously never deserved. And it would have brought us enormous, much-needed goodwill across the rest of the world.

Instead we got suspicious glances from our friends and sneers from our enemies. Which frankly we deserved.

Now here’s another throwback. This one dated 2004:

“From the very beginning, there was a conviction that Saddam Hussein was a bad person and that he needed to go,” [Former Treasury Secretary Paul] O’Neill told CBS, according to excerpts released Saturday by the network. “For me, the notion of pre-emption, that the U.S. has the unilateral right to do whatever we decide to do, is a really huge leap.”

In the book, O’Neill is quoted as saying he was surprised that no one in a National Security Council meeting asked why Iraq should be invaded.

“It was all about finding a way to do it. That was the tone of it. The president saying ‘Go find me a way to do this,'” O’Neill said.

And it’s relevant because:

A footnote buried in the Senate Intelligence Committee’s 500-page report references a Libyan national known as Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi who “reported while in … custody that Iraq was supporting al-Qaida and providing assistance with chemical and biological weapons.”

Some of that intelligence from al-Libi was used by former Secretary of State Colin Powell during a speech to the United Nations attempting to justify the 2003 invasion of Iraq, according to the footnote, despite al-Libi later recanting the claim.

That speech by Powell, delivered on Feb. 5, 2003, was a pivotal part of the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq, wherein the secretary discussed Iraq’s “deadly weapons program” and the country’s “involvement in terrorism.”

Part of the reason for that lack of clarity is that the partially redacted footnote instructs readers to refer to a still-classified portion of the torture report for more information. Only the executive summary of the full 6,000-page report was released publicly Tuesday, and it is unlikely that other portions of the report will be declassified—though some lawyers representing Guantanamo Bay detainees have vowed to push for the full release.

It’s important to be as clear as possible on this: Torture is not an effective but immoral means of gathering intelligence. No: Torture is both ineffective and immoral. But it may very well have helped get us into the Iraq War, so in that sense it worked precisely as intended. We may very well have gotten the war that Bush wanted all along in part due to false intelligence from torture.

Let’s be clear on this: In a hypothetical world in which torture provided accurate intelligence, torture would still be barbaric. In the real world — where torture doesn’t work very well at all, but where many people firmly believe that it does — ending the actual practice of torture may require from time to time emphasizing its ineffectiveness at finding the truth: As a simple matter of logical disjunction, this speaks not at all to its morality.

Still, though, a large number of people out there have made the moral compromise on torture simply because they believe that it works. It would be delightful if we could somehow convince these folks of the principle that the ends don’t ever justify the means. But in the meantime, and as a short-run solution, we should convince them that the means at hand are ineffective. This makes advocating torture irrational, even by their own (twisted!) standards of morality.

Dan Froomkin makes that case here, citing the congressional testimony of Steven Kleinman, a military interrogator. As Kleinman testified:

[T]he most effective method for consistently eliciting accurate and comprehensive information from even the most defiant individuals — to include terrorists and insurgents — was through a patient, systematic, and culturally enlightened effort to build an operationally useful relationship. Similarly, we shared the belief that coercive tactics that relied on psychological, emotional, and/or physical pressures were, in the long run, not only ineffective but also counterproductive.

None of this will come as any surprise to Ali Soufan, the FBI interrogator who successfully secured the cooperation of the captured terrorist operative Abu Zubaydah. Just as Zubaydah began to cooperate, Soufan would see Zubaydah transferred from FBI to CIA control – and consequentially from humane interrogation to torture.

Initially hostile, Zubaydah had begun to cooperate with the FBI under Soufan’s questioning. He then provided much valuable intelligence. But when torture was applied, he stopped.

These claims were detailed and to a great degree documented in Soufan’s 2011 book The Black Banners, which has done more to inform my thinking about interrogation than almost anything else I have ever read. (Quick: How many books have you read about how to interrogate hostile detainees? And how many TV shows have you seen where the gritty hero just applies a few minutes of pain, and suddenly he gets he wants?)

Soufan’s narrative was controversial when it came out, and it’s nothing like the story Hollywood wants to tell. Which, yes, involves torture. This week, though, the Senate handed Soufan the closest thing to a full vindication that anyone ever gets in Washington: Pages 24-30 of the report by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence read like a summary of The Black Banners, even including details like the CIA taking credit for all of Soufan’s successes, while being able to replicate absolutely none of them via torture.

What do people tell under torture? Appealing lies. The lies the torturer wants to hear. The ones that will get the pain and the horror to stop. We know this from the history of Europe, where Soviet show trials were filled with the tortured depositions of loyal communists who confessed to being spies for Latvia, wreckers of engines, and spoilers of harvests. We know this from the witch trials of the early modern era, where – unless physics itself has changed in the meantime – harmless, utterly innocent women were made to confess falsely that they consorted with the devil, spoiled harvests (again!), and flew through the air on broomsticks.

I have been reminded again this week that we do these things through the power of the state. Without the state, we would not and do not do them. My thoughts have turned repeatedly to Randolph Bourne’s essay “War Is the Health of the State.” It’s difficult to summarize, so I will post a large excerpt:

Country is a concept of peace, of tolerance, of living and letting live. But State is essentially a concept of power, of competition: it signifies a group in its aggressive aspects. And we have the misfortune of being born not only into a country but into a State, and as we grow up we learn to mingle the two feelings into a hopeless confusion.

The State is the country acting as a political unit, it is the group acting as a repository of force, determiner of law, arbiter of justice. International politics is a “power politics” because it is a relation of States and that is what States infallibly and calamitously are, huge aggregations of human and industrial force that may be hurled against each other in war. When a country acts as a whole in relation to another country, or in imposing laws on its own inhabitants, or in coercing or punishing individuals or minorities, it is acting as a State. The history of America as a country is quite different from that of America as a State. In one case it is the drama of the pioneering conquest of the land, of the growth of wealth and the ways in which it was used, of the enterprise of education, and the carrying out of spiritual ideals, of the struggle of economic classes. But as a State, its history is that of playing a part in the world, making war, obstructing international trade, preventing itself from being split to pieces, punishing those citizens whom society agrees are offensive, and collecting money to pay for all…

Wartime brings the ideal of the State out into very clear relief, and reveals attitudes and tendencies that were hidden. In times of peace the sense of the State flags in a republic that is not militarized. For war is essentially the health of the State. The ideal of the State is that within its territory its power and influence should be universal. As the Church is the medium for the spiritual salvation of man, so the State is thought of as the medium for his political salvation. Its idealism is a rich blood flowing to all the members of the body politic. And it is precisely in war that the urgency for union seems greatest, and the necessity for universality seems most unquestioned. The State is the organization of the herd to act offensively or defensively against another herd similarly organized. The more terrifying the occasion for defense, the closer will become the organization and the more coercive the influence upon each member of the herd. War sends the current of purpose and activity flowing down to the lowest level of the herd, and to its most remote branches. All the activities of society are linked together as fast as possible to this central purpose of making a military offensive or a military defense, and the State becomes what in peacetimes it has vainly struggled to become – the inexorable arbiter and determinant of men’s business and attitudes and opinions. The slack is taken up, the cross-currents fade out, and the nation moves lumberingly and slowly, but with ever accelerated speed and integration, toward the great end, toward the “peacefulness of being at war,” of which L.P. Jacks has so unforgettably spoken.

The classes which are able to play an active and not merely a passive role in the organization for war get a tremendous liberation of activity and energy. Individuals are jolted out of their old routine, many of them are given new positions of responsibility, new techniques must be learned. Wearing home ties are broken and women who would have remained attached with infantile bonds are liberated for service overseas. A vast sense of rejuvenescence pervades the significant classes, a sense of new importance in the world. Old national ideals are taken out, re-adapted to the purpose and used as universal touchstones, or molds into which all thought is poured. Every individual citizen who in peacetimes had no function to perform by which he could imagine himself an expression or living fragment of the State becomes an active amateur agent of the Government in reporting spies and disloyalists, in raising Government funds, or in propagating such measures as are considered necessary by officialdom. Minority opinion, which in times of peace, was only irritating and could not be dealt with by law unless it was conjoined with actual crime, becomes, with the outbreak of war, a case for outlawry. Criticism of the State, objections to war, lukewarm opinions concerning the necessity or the beauty of conscription, are made subject to ferocious penalties, far exceeding in severity those affixed to actual pragmatic crimes…

War is the health of the State. It automatically sets in motion throughout society those irresistible forces for uniformity, for passionate cooperation with the Government in coercing into obedience the minority groups and individuals which lack the larger herd sense. The machinery of government sets and enforces the drastic penalties; the minorities are either intimidated into silence, or brought slowly around by a subtle process of persuasion which may seem to them really to be converting them. Of course, the ideal of perfect loyalty, perfect uniformity is never really attained. The classes upon whom the amateur work of coercion falls are unwearied in their zeal, but often their agitation instead of converting, merely serves to stiffen their resistance. Minorities are rendered sullen, and some intellectual opinion bitter and satirical. But in general, the nation in wartime attains a uniformity of feeling, a hierarchy of values culminating at the undisputed apex of the State ideal, which could not possibly be produced through any other agency than war. Loyalty – or mystic devotion to the State – becomes the major imagined human value. Other values, such as artistic creation, knowledge, reason, beauty, the enhancement of life, are instantly and almost unanimously sacrificed, and the significant classes who have constituted themselves the amateur agents of the State are engaged not only in sacrificing these values for themselves but in coercing all other persons into sacrificing them.

War makes us monsters. Monsters with a unified will, an underdeveloped critical faculty, and a callousness toward nearly all ordinary human values.

But it’s worse than that. It also makes us infants:

A people at war have become in the most literal sense obedient, respectful, trustful children again, full of that naïve faith in the all-wisdom and all-power of the adult who takes care of them, imposes his mild but necessary rule upon them and in whom they lose their responsibility and anxieties. In this recrudescence of the child, there is great comfort, and a certain influx of power. On most people the strain of being an independent adult weighs heavily, and upon none more than those members of the significant classes who have had bequeathed to them or have assumed the responsibilities of governing. The State provides the convenientest of symbols under which these classes can retain all the actual pragmatic satisfaction of governing, but can rid themselves of the psychic burden of adulthood.

Trust less. Rethink how much you trust the government. Trust it less than that. And trust it still less again. We have been lied to from the first. The lies haven’t gone away now that a few of them have been exposed. We are in all certainty being lied to right now – about what, we have no idea. And we remain, as ever, at war.

One thought on “The Senate CIA Torture Report, Live from Sunny Guantanamo Bay

  1. “I have been reminded again this week that we do these things through the power of the state. Without the state, we would not and do not do them. ”

    What about slavery? Government was involved, certainly, through the Fugitive Slave Act and similar measures, but it was a primarily private enterprise.

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