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.

Throwback Thursday, 9/11 Edition

Here’s my essay from the tenth anniversary of 9/11. Virtually nothing has changed, except that we now know a lot more about what the NSA has been up to. What we’ve learned has only strengthened what I wrote below.


I thought my country was going crazy before 9/11. Turns out I was still young, and “crazy” was one of those things I had to learn as I got older.

I can work up a case for pre-9/11 crazy. I was appalled by Ruby Ridge and Waco. I doubted the wisdom of Balkan nation building. I thought the National Security Homeland Industrial Complex Administration was already taking a little too much lebensraum. For my taste, anyway. Ah, to be alive, and young, when politics was only a matter of taste!

So what was what, back in the way-back-when? Vince Foster. The most important individual in politics, until that woman. Earnest college Republicans pressed their it-wasn’t-a-suicide conspiracy theories on me, in e-mails that still unselfconsciously bore a chain of “Fwd: FWD: Re: Fwd:”s in the subject. Like grandma, but creepier. It was one of the many reasons I wouldn’t ever be a College Republican.

And then The Day. Oh, The Day. I hate to sound like I’m belittling a genuine and horrible act of evil, with all of the associated loss. It was evil. For thousands of families, it was an awful and permanent loss.

But for a nation, 9/11 was perilously close to Aunt Ada Doom seeing something narsty in the woodshed. America, can you spare a Nagasaki? A Dresden? A London blitz?

9/11 wasn’t a tenth the size of the blitz, my dear countrymen. It wasn’t 1/300th of Auschwitz.

Grim calculus invites a cynical reply: Do we really have to wait until things get that bad before we get pissed off? Of course not. 9/11 deserved a forceful response. Even a pissed-off response. It didn’t deserve a crazy response—nothing does—but crazy is exactly what we got.

On the morning of 9/11, I opened Netscape to check out the New York Times. It was down, but stuff was down all the time in 2001. No biggie. I headed for class at Johns Hopkins. I first heard the news in the car.

Class was cancelled, so I headed to the Anne Arundel County Property Tax Office for an errand. It too was closed—the Anne Arundel County Property Tax Office being the terrorists’ next obvious target.

Things went downhill fast after that. This September 20, 2001 Reason interview with Robert Higgs is uncannily prescient:

[W]hen a crisis of major significance occurs–something as large-scale and pervasive as the Great Depression or the World Wars–there’s an overwhelming public demand for government to act. In the 20th century, every national emergency has seen federal government take unprecedented action to somehow allay the perceived threat to our security. These actions have taken a great many forms, but the common denominator is that they all entail the increased exercise of power by government over society and the economy. When the crisis ends, many of the emergency actions cease. But not all of them. Each emergency ratchets up the size and scope of the federal government. In some cases, agencies that had a very strict relation to the emergency transform to take on new missions…

We can expect thousands of reservists to be called to active duty and taken away from their ordinary jobs. We can expect the assignment of military forces to some unprecedented duties. It appears that some military units are going to be used for domestic police activities. It is clearly going to be the case that the FBI will become far more active in surveillance activities. The government will mount a variety of overseas actions requiring the armed forces, and perhaps a number of civilian employees, to attempt to kill, to disable, or to damage what are taken to be terrorist camps, facilities, or cadres. It is also fairly clear that the government is going to have to bail out the airline industry and maybe the insurance industry. When the government takes large-scale, unprecedented actions of this sort, unanticipated consequences always occur. Then the government has to expand even further to deal with those consequences.

I also share Jim Henley’s view that the anthrax letters changed America’s mindset permanently and for the worse:

When historians recollect the first decade of the 21st Century in tranquility, they will find it impossible to overstate the political impact of America’s most conveniently unsolved crime. The September 11, 2001 massacres were bad, but it was the anthrax attacks the following month that ramped up the “madness” … 9/11 was a shock. The anthrax attacks made terrorism feel like a siege. I think it’s possible that, absent the anthrax attacks, the Bush Administration might have failed to gin up the entirely equivocal support for the Iraq War that it managed.

Within the month, we had the USA-PATRIOT Act, a law that passed with only one dissenting vote in the Senate, though few if any legislators had read it at the time, and whose “USA” didn’t even stand for “United States of America.” Which was fitting, somehow. The sneak-and-peek provision of the USA-PATRIOT Act—necessary, we were told, only for this existential terrorist threat—is nowadays overwhelmingly used to search for drugs. Emergency powers become ordinary. But have we ever, even once, been granted an emergency freedom?

It was around the same time that Maureen Dowd went from a catty gossip columnist who didn’t really belong on the Times op-ed page—to a gibbering, Cipro-popping paranoiac with a yearning for big, manly, Republican politicians who would cuddle her in their burly arms after punching out a few terrorists and throwing back a slug of whiskey. Now she really didn’t belong on theTimes op-ed page. But there she would stay, column after sordid column. If Osama bin Laden had subscribed to the Times, he would have been a happy man indeed. (I hear Tom Friedman is better in translation. He’d have to be.)

What was next? A thick green vapor would envelop New York, suffocating millions. Now, chemical weapons can’t actually do this; powers of three are unkind to volumetric, air-dispersed agents. So are wind, sun, rain, and time. Chemical weapons are a hellish poison, in Churchill’s phrase, but they aren’t nukes. A massive, well-organized, extremely lucky chemical attack kills several thousand at the outside, not millions. A more responsible government might have pointed this out, rather than advising the millions to buy duct tape. Which would have been, and was, useless in any case.

Still, people were scared, and “scared” needed a place to hang its hat. For a few weeks, duct tape was unavailable. Thousands got their first experience with sketchy online pharmacies. C-SPAN radio became even more of a freak show, which I hadn’t thought possible. Time magazine suggested gas masks, antibiotics, and hazmat suits, even atropine, but stopped short of Drager’s Civil Defense Set—able to sniff out airborne nerve gas, and yours for a cool $2,995. “It’s not just chatter, it’s a pattern,” said Senator Pat Roberts. A pattern of what? Chemicals, germs, nukes, radiologicals, UAVs, assassinations. When? After the hajj. Soon. Sometime. Right now. Who knows? Does it matter?

Travel changed, of course. A couple of weeks before 9/11, I had returned from a research trip in France. That flight would prove the last for me in a saner era. On my return to France post-9/11, a passenger overheard two tan-skinned men discussing something quietly in a foreign language. He notified an attendant. American fighter jets followed us over the Atlantic.

I tried to document this on the web. Since 9/11, there have been so many fighter jets scrambled for false alarms that I couldn’t even find my own.

We were detained at de Gaulle for many hours afterward. Our luggage was searched, crudely. Mine disappeared for days. I deplaned after business hours and couldn’t get my fellowship certified. Without so much as a toothbrush on hand, I went to the dorm where I’d hoped to live. Fast talk and pity got me a bed for the night. I was no stranger to France, but it was the first time anyone had pitied me for being an American.

September 11 was the day “Orwellian” stopped being an argument against anything. It became a checklist. My country started collecting various-sized bits of Nineteen Eighty-Four like so many grim commemorative postage stamps. Constant surveillance. Constant warfare. Constant suspicion. Last week’s enemy is this week’s friend, is next week’s enemy, and woe is you if you can’t keep up—Gadhafi, Putin, Arafat, Chirac. Censorship? Making steady progress. We didn’t get Victory Gin, but we did get Freedom Fries; close enough for government work. Oh yes, and torture. Because we are the greatest hegemonic power, and because we can do no wrong, and in the end, just because we fucking can, okay?

Who though is this “we”? It is the deepest, most festering wound of 9/11.

Someone does something shameful, somewhere, maybe just once, usually in secret. Someone’s data mining. Someone’s spying on citizens. Someone imprisons, with neither an indictment nor any other cover of law. Someone puts people on a secret plane, to a place where electrodes and power drills are the standard interrogation protocol. Someone cuts out the middleman and just tortures in place. Someone orders American citizens assassinated. Someone starts an illegal war.

In a braver time, these acts would have kindled a revolution.

Someone, however, is an agent of the state. Therefore someone wasn’t the real actor. No, we did it—that’s the core of the lie, right here, that that someone is us. Sooner or later, we find out about the thing we did. We say, in the awful light of morning, that we did it because we are fighting a dirty enemy, and maybe we have to embrace the dark side just a little bit if we’re going to win.

But really we did it because we were afraid. But really, we didn’t do it. But really, the ones who did it will keep right on doing it.

That’s what’s changed, post-9/11. In the end, we didn’t have the will to fight. We fought the terrorists, sure, and plenty of others who didn’t even attack us. But we didn’t have the will to fight as they took our civil liberties away. We didn’t even have the will to punish them afterward. The word “we” is the pawl on the ratchet of state power. It’s the little catch that ensures there’s no backsliding. The we clanks ever onward. The sun shines, the rain falls; the economy is good, or it’s bad. It doesn’t matter. The abuses haven’t gone away. We’ve mostly just gotten used to them.