Les Jeux Sont Faits – Sartre, from the mid-forties – a dismal book about what you can do to make things better in this world. Good luck with that – the book is about how things in this life are already in motion, and always have been, and you can’t go back and fix a damned thing, and maybe you never could in the first place. There was never one clean moment of decision. Freedom is illusory and all that sort of thing. But you do what you can to save the day. Of course there is not much of anything you can do. The plays have been made – what the words mean in French – things had been set in motion long ago and you adapt as best you can. That’s all you can do. Hell, the two main characters in the book are slow to understand they’re dead, meeting for the first time in the afterlife. You don’t read Sartre for fun.
But that odd little man with his pipe was onto something. Others rolled the dice, or someone did, or everyone did, or maybe no one did – but they rolled. Snakes-eyes or seven-come-eleven, you have to deal with the outcome.
So, as discussed here, that Spanish judge who nailed Augusto Pinochet is going after key officials in the Bush Administration for war crimes – as the inevitable has now happened.
One detail bears comment, regarding how the lawsuit in Spain specifically targets lawyers:
But if you go after the lawyers, because they disgraced their profession, you’re just going to have to involve their clients. Someone requested a legal justification, and for a reason. You know the answer lawyers give to who is right and who is wrong on any thorny legal issue. Who is paying me?
And does this mean the AMA will go after the doctors who advised how to inflict the most possible, sustained pain short of death, and then treated those gravely injured by what was done to them so more of the same could be done again and again? And will the American Psychological Association go after the psychiatrists and psychologists who advised how to disassemble a prisoner’s sense of reality and self but keep them just this side of total personality collapse and full-blown permanent madness? You might want to deal with who requested those services. This may come to that.
If you missed it, a reader added this:
First, I’d like to put in a good word for psychiatrists and, yes, lawyers. The psychiatrists’ professional association declared it a violation of its ethical standards for a psychiatrist to assist in the torture of prisoners, including at Guantanamo. Most psychiatrists complied with this rule. The psychologists’ association refused to adopt a parallel statement, and many psychologists continued to assist in interrogations.
As for lawyers, it is a violation of professional ethics to assist a client in violating the law. Thus, there have been serious proposals for bringing disbarment proceeding against Yoo and the others.
More significantly, one reason Guantanamo was finally exposed to the world for what it is, is that a number of the nation’s leading lawyers devoted thousands of hours of their time, pro bono, and many of their firms’ dollars (mostly on security-cleared translators and travel), to combat what they recognized as an attack by the Bush administration on the constitution. This work was undertaken by lawyers of all political stripes. It was not publicized only because firms did not want to alienate their paying clients. It turns out that the legal establishment in the United States believes in the rule of law.
It’s important to add that much of the credit for exposing Guantanamo should also go to some dedicated journalists, who overcame both government obstruction and resistance from editors who wanted more popular stories.
Finally, Wilkerson’s comments about the numbers of innocent prisoners at Guantanamo, and the absurdity and injustice of the “mosaic” intelligence strategy advanced for continuing to hold them, are fully consistent with my observations as counsel for 8 prisoners from Afghanistan. It is important to emphasize that, even today, many innocent men remain imprisoned at Guantanamo.
Okay, yes, I was being unfair – and being a tad dishonest, as I knew about the AMA’s position and had been following the professional groups for the psychologists being in a bit of disarray over the matter. And I have, in many previous columns, lauded the work of the law students, and law faculty, at Seton Hall, who have been on top of the truth about Gitmo it seems like forever (see this from 2007, among others). I oversimplified for effect. I should watch that.
And this reader, an old classmate from college, is fighting the good fight. Someone else rolled the dice. That doesn’t mean you can’t do anything useful and good now.
But one can get a bit carried away, as what has happened is serious business. In Religion Dispatches, Sarah Sentilles explains it well:
The interrogation room is an intimate space. Other than a bedroom or an operating room, there is perhaps no more physically intimate space. Unlike a pilot who drops a bomb on a city far below, the torturer touches his victim, talks to him, looks him in the eye, hears him scream. In 1985’s The Body in Pain – a groundbreaking study of torture, war, and human creativity – Elaine Scarry writes that torture happens in three sequential steps. First, the torturer inflicts pain. Second, the pain is objectified (that is, made visible to those not experiencing pain). Third, the torturer denies that another human being is in pain.
It’s not that the torturer doesn’t see the pain or realize that the person is in pain; rather, the torturer denies the pain by turning it into something else. The torturer transforms another person’s pain into a symbol – a symbol of strength, of empire, of sacrifice, of righteousness, of power. And because of this transformation, because of this denial, the torturer can return to step one, inflicting ever-increasing amounts of pain on the person standing right next to him.
You get a closed loop of endless self-righteous sadism, renamed again and again as something other than sadism, and that gathers its own momentum and intensity. And it makes you, at first, stupid, and then casually evil, and then has you asking others to be in awe of your moral courage, the courage to abandon the childish restrictive old rules. You’re an adult, tempered by steely-eye realism. It’s a new day – 9/11 changed everything. You scoff at those who persist in thinking you’re a fool who made a bad decision and got trapped in its consequences. You don’t see it that way at all. But then, you cannot easily step outside the loop, can you? See Sartre’s book – things are in play, and perspective is dearly won, if it is ever won.
But then someone outside the loop forces some perspective on your action. It could be a judge in Spain, or the curious case of Abu Zubaydah. You may not remember him, but he was supposed to be the key guy, the one we captured in 2002, who knew just everything there was to know about the bad guys.
Andrew Sullivan here gave a good synopsis of how Ron Suskind reported, two years ago, that the torture of Abu Zubaydah gave us no intelligence worth anything. The man wasn’t the big bad guy we wanted him to be, he was clearly deeply disturbed, if not just nuts, and, when the pain was the very worst it could be, he told fantastic stories of planned massive terrorist attacks, which had us sending folks all over to stop those before hundreds of thousands died. But we couldn’t find them. They weren’t there. He’d made it all up to stop the pain, or to mock us, or to be a martyr – or any combination and mixture of the three you’d like. Or maybe he was nuts, and thought he was telling the truth.
The Suskind item got a little play, then faded. Bush and Cheney were saying we hadn’t been attacked since 2001 and that was because what they did to this guy – yes, it was waterboarding, and all the rest, and yes, some call that torture, even if they didn’t think it was. They said it worked. It seems we wanted to believe that. That’s another closed loop, of course.
Then, on Sunday, March 29 – two years later – the Washington Post confirms the Suskind story:
In the end, though, not a single significant plot was foiled as a result of Abu Zubaida’s tortured confessions, according to former senior government officials who closely followed the interrogations. Nearly all of the leads attained through the harsh measures quickly evaporated, while most of the useful information from Abu Zubaida – chiefly names of al-Qaeda members and associates – was obtained before waterboarding was introduced, they said.
Moreover, within weeks of his capture, U.S. officials had gained evidence that made clear they had misjudged Abu Zubaida… None of [their earlier claims] was accurate, the new evidence showed.
Abu Zubaydah was not who President Bush wished he was. Bush had declared him chief of operations for al Qaeda, but Zubaydah was far more peripheral.
Yeah, and the only good information they got from him, such as it was, came before they had at him with the rough stuff.
But the interesting thing the Post reports on is the closed loop, as Sullivan calls it, the critical dynamic:
As weeks passed after the capture without significant new confessions, the Bush White House and some at the CIA became convinced that tougher measures had to be tried. The pressure from upper levels of the government was “tremendous,” driven in part by the routine of daily meetings in which policymakers would press for updates, one official remembered. “They couldn’t stand the idea that there wasn’t anything new,” the official said. “They’d say, ‘You aren’t working hard enough.’ There was both a disbelief in what he was saying and also a desire for retribution – a feeling that ‘He’s going to talk, and if he doesn’t talk, we’ll do whatever.’ ”
This is the rabbit hole you disappear into once you bring torture into the equation. Notice how very far this is from any ticking time-bomb scenario, the one routinely hauled out by Bush apologists.
Notice how revenge is never easily separated from intelligence-seeking when it comes to torture. Notice the unintended consequences.
This particular torture led to the torture of another person, Jose Padilla, an American citizen who also turned out to be far less significant a figure than the Bush administration suspected. It also led to dozens of false leads, wasted time, and bad information. (Remember how the critical bad information that Saddam and al Qaeda were connected came from torture as well.) Cheney and his apparatchiks continue to insist that they got reliable and vital information from these torture sessions, but they can never verify it.
Or they refuse to verify it, as the Post notes:
Since 2006, Senate intelligence committee members have pressed the CIA, in classified briefings, to provide examples of specific leads that were obtained from Abu Zubaida through the use of waterboarding and other methods, according to officials familiar with the requests. The agency provided none, the officials said.
They say that is for security reasons. Sullivan doesn’t buy it – “We sold our souls for lies.”
And two years ago Sullivan had described that rabbit hole:
Bush, putty in Cheney’s hands, never wanted torture, but was so cowardly and lazy he never asked the hard questions of what was actually being done. He knows, of course, somewhere in his crippled fundamentalist psyche. But this is a man with clinical – Christianist and dry-drunk – levels of reality-denial, whose interaction with reality can only operate on the crudest levels of Manichean analysis. All he needs to be told is that whatever it is they’re doing, it isn’t torture. He won’t ask any more questions. They’re evil; we’re good; so we can’t torture. Even when they were totally busted at Abu Ghraib, his incuriosity and denial held firm. After all, what if he were to find out something he didn’t want to know? His world might collapse.
But torture gives false information. And the worst scenarios that tortured detainees coughed up – many of them completely innocent, remember – may well have come to fuel US national security policy.
And of course they also fueled more torture. Because once you hear of the existential plots confessed by one tortured prisoner, you need to torture more prisoners to get at the real truth.
So you get a closed loop, a world that includes much of what might have been pure fantasy:
We do not know what actual intelligence they were getting, and Cheney has ensured that we will never know. But it is perfectly conceivable that the torture regime – combined with panic and paranoia – created an imaginationland of untruth and half-truth that has guided US policy for this entire war. It may well have led to the president being informed of any number of plots that never existed, and any number of threats that are pure imagination. And once torture has entered the system, you can never find out the real truth. You are lost in a vortex of lies and fears. In this vortex, the actual threats that we face may well be overlooked or ignored, as we chase false leads and pursue non-existent WMDs.
That’s a hell of a way to run a war. And Sullivan had warned us:
We may have entered a world, in other words, where the empirical reality of our national security is less important than the imaginationland that every torture regime will create. We may therefore be sacrificing our liberties for a phantasm created by brutality spawned by terror. We don’t know for sure, of course. But that’s what torture does: it creates a miasma of unknowing, about as dangerous a situation in wartime as one can imagine.
All you needed was the Dynamic Duo:
This hideous fate was made possible by an inexperienced president with a fundamentalist psyche and a paranoid and power-hungry vice-president who decided to embrace “the dark side” almost as soon as the second tower fell, and who is still trying to avenge Nixon. Until they are both gone from office, we are in grave danger – the kind of danger that only torturers and fantasists and a security strategy based on coerced evidence can conjure up. And since they have utter contempt for the role of the Congress in declaring war, we and the world are helpless to stop them. Every day we get through with them in power, I say a silent prayer of thanks that the worst hasn’t happened. Yet. Because we sure know they’re looking in all the wrong places.
As for the Post confirming Suskind, long after Bush and Cheney are gone, Digby is a bit blunter:
Dick Cheney is going to hell. But we knew that. And so are Bush and Rice and all the rest who insisted on torturing Abu Zubaydah, a brain-damaged man who was so desperate that he made up fantastical terrorist plots just to make the torture stop. They not only committed a war crime, they made us all less safe by sending investigators all over the world on wild goose chases.
This story was always pooh-poohed by administration officials, who insisted that the information this man with serious memory problems gave under torture was vital in stopping many terrorist attacks. But they lied.
As for the pressure the White House put on those they ordered to take-off-the-gloves when there was nothing new each day, Digby says this:
Like the mediocre, hack bureaucrats they are, they decided that they would gauge success or failure – certainly they would report to the White House success or failure – based upon the sheer numbers of raids, arrests, interrogations, reports, confessions and breakdowns achieved, regardless of whether any of it resulted in good intel or enhanced security anywhere.
This was the only metric they could conceive of and in order to get those numbers up they had to detain large numbers of innocent people and torture them for false information to fill the endless reports of success on the ground in Afghanistan, Gitmo and Iraq. They could hoist up a huge pile of paper in a meeting with their president and say, “look at how much intelligence we’re getting. We’re really getting somewhere.”
And she says that in the case of Zubaydah there was the other obvious element:
They were desperate to keep up the fiction that Al Qaeda was the outsized foe they’d built them up to be. If they were merely a dangerous little gang of criminals rather than a deadly global army of super-villains, it would be hard to justify the spending of trillions on unnecessary wars and suspending inconvenient portions of the constitution. These Vietnam chicken-hawks didn’t want to hear anything that would imply that they weren’t fighting the war of all wars.
They knew these were false confessions and fictional plots and cynically used them to keep up the sense of panic – even among themselves – that fueled their global ambitions and fed their damaged egos. Ultimately they failed in that, not because they actually did anything that kept the babies safe, but because the American people just don’t have the attention span to stay panicked about anything for very long. Once the spell broke, there was nothing left but the metrics.
Or to put it another way, closed loops have a way of breaking open. Maybe it’s just entropy, or, as Digby says, we have the attention span of a gnat and the stories of the glory and wonder of torture just got old, fast.
As for the other way of looking at this, Marc Thiessen, in the National Review, says this:
The Left is desperate to discredit the efficacy of this program, and they have launched a desperate campaign to destroy it. Last week it was the leak of an ICRC document describing some of the techniques allegedly used in the program – one of the most damaging leaks of classified information since the war on terror began because it allows al Qaeda to train against the techniques. And now we have this highly uninformed front-page story in the Washington Post.
All of this is incredibly damaging to the security of the United States. And if America is attacked again, those responsible for the disclosure of this information will bear much of the blame.
Yep, they’ll attack us if they know how stupid we are, and how easily duped by nonsense.
No, he didn’t mean that, although why anything from Suskind or the Post would make us less secure is unclear. They learn of our techniques, which don’t work, and never worked, and which we will no longer use. And the problem with that is what, exactly?
As for the strange man behind all this, the fellow who established the closed loop, Dick Cheney, he’s still trapped. Aside from this item – it seems that between the election and Obama’s inauguration Cheney communicated with the Israelis and told them that Obama wasn’t exactly on Israel’s side and would betray them to the Palestinians, and Obama wasn’t really in the mjor leagues anyway, and so on – he doesn’t get it. Someone else rolled the dice, and another game is in play, as Andrew Sullivan explains:
Barack Obama’s most underrated talent is his ability to get his enemies to self-destruct. It takes a lot less energy than defeating them directly, and helps maintain Obama’s largely false patina of apolitical niceness.
Obama is about as far from apolitical as you can get; and while he is a decent fellow, he is also a lethal Chicago pol. His greatest achievement in this respect was the total implosion of Bill Clinton around this time last year: Hillary was next. Then came John McCain, merrily strapping on the suicide bomb of Sarah Palin. With the fate of all these formidable figures impossible to miss, one has to wonder what possessed Dick Cheney, the former vice-president, to come lumbering out twice in the first 50 days of the Obama administration to blast the new guy on national television.
Growling and sneering, Cheney accused the new president of actively endangering the lives of Americans by ending the detention and interrogation programs of the last administration, and vowing to close Guantanamo Bay. It’s hard to overstate how unseemly and unusual this was.
It is fine for a former vice-president to criticize his successor in due course. But there is a decorum that allows for a new president not to be immediately undermined by his predecessor. To be accused of what amounts to treason –a willingness to endanger the lives of Americans is simply unheard of.
Bush and Rice both came out and said they’d say nothing – Obama deserves our silence and our loyalty. Dick is still in that closed loop, and Sullivan imagines Cheney knows he’s in trouble:
This fear has been created by Obama, but indirectly. Obama has declined to launch a prosecution of Cheney for war crimes, as many in his party (and outside it) would like. He has set up a review of detention, rendition and interrogation policies. And he has simply declassified many of the infamous torture memos kept under wraps by Bush.
He has the power to do this, and much of the time it is in response to outside requests. But as the memos have emerged, the awful truth of what Cheney actually authorized becomes harder and harder to deny. And Cheney is desperately trying to maintain a grip on the narrative before it grips him by the throat.
There are new memos on the way – more of what was authorized. He knows it has all fallen apart:
It is unclear whether he will actually ever be prosecuted, but the facts of his record will wend their way inexorably into the sunlight. That means he could become a pariah. Even though the CIA actively destroyed the videotapes of torture sessions, it could not destroy the legal and administrative record now available to the new administration.
So Cheney is reduced to asserting that what he did saved countless lives and averted many plots. He is reduced to asserting the same Manichean view of the world that gave us Guantanamo, Bagram and the Iraq war: fighting terrorism is “a tough mean, dirty, nasty business”, he told Politico, an American political website. “These are evil people. And we’re not going to win this fight by turning the other cheek.”
But no one is urging that we turn the other cheek: they are simply saying the West has to obey the laws of war and the rule of law in its battle against jihadist terrorism. By coming out so forcefully and so publicly so soon after he left office, Cheney is intent on asserting that the torture program he set up was legal, moral and defensible. Like many of Obama’s former foes, he may come to regret making that move in his own defense.
Ah, if Sartre were still around he’d write another novel about this. Or he’d find it boring. It’s over – and Cheney is like Pierre Dumaine in Les Jeux Sont Faits. He doesn’t yet realize he’s dead, and existentially irrelevant.