So Now We Know

The Bush administration, a dozen or so years ago, was masterful in its use of dire warnings. Yes, there was no “smoking gun” that proved that Saddam Hussein actually had any weapons of mass destruction, but we couldn’t wait for a smoking gun, because the smoking gun might come in the form of a mushroom cloud. They said that often enough. Those words seemed to get locked in an endless loop on Fox News, and we were off to war – eight full years of it – and the dire warning turned out to be nonsense. That called for a change in direction, and the dire warnings disappeared. The whole idea had been something else all along – setting up a modern secular democracy in Iraq, which would show all the nations in the region that it was far more sensible for them to run their countries the way we run our country. Spreading democracy was what we were doing, because democratic nations don’t go to war with each other, or with themselves, internally. That may or may not be true, but the Bush administration told us about spreading democracy later, when the dire warning became, well, inoperative. That was a little awkward, but they said they hadn’t lied about anything, really. The whole weapons-of-mass-destruction thing was, you see, a minor matter. There were bigger issues to consider. There was no reason for anyone to get all hung up on the previous dire warnings being nonsense. That was being petty and small-minded. That was a minor matter. Look at the big picture.

People did look at the big picture, and they saw that spreading democracy was hard and really didn’t do much good over there. Iraq, once a repressive Sunni dictatorship, ended up a repressive Shiite dictatorship. The Palestinians in Gaza, in a free and open election, elected Hamas to run things there. The Israelis warned us not to call for that election, but we had our theory. Condoleezza Rice spent a lot of time over there eating crow, presumably kosher crow. The Israelis are still paying for that one. Perhaps we should have stuck to dire warnings about mushroom clouds. Dire warnings make things simpler.

Dire warnings, however, are almost always nonsense. The same crowd – and John Kerry this time too – told us that if the Senate Intelligence Committee released that report on the CIA and torture, dire things would happen – our embassies would be attacked, our troops everywhere in the world would be attacked, the terrorists would blow up Boston or Butte, or both. This would enrage the Muslim world – and then the Senate Intelligence Committee released that report and nothing at all happened. Everyone already knew what we had been doing since 2002 at Guantanamo and those black sites. Now we were talking to ourselves, about ourselves, about what we had done long ago, and about what we should do about it, if anything. The enraged Muslim world was no more or no less enraged with us than before we finally started to talk with each other about torture as national policy, before the release of this report. They probably found that amusing. Let the Americans scold each other, with all their talk about patriotism and what kind of country they think they really are. That’s an internal matter. No one else cares.

This was another instance of using a dire warning for other purposes. No Republican wanted this report to be released. Bush was their guy and Dick Cheney is still their hero, and this happened on their watch. These dire warnings were used to paint the Democrats as irresponsible and unpatriotic, the party that hates America. They were a tool. The issue was something else. When the whole world wasn’t outraged, by something they already knew, the Republicans dropped the whole thing. There was damage-control to do.

The New York Times explains why:

The Senate Intelligence Committee on Tuesday issued a sweeping indictment of the Central Intelligence Agency’s program to detain and interrogate terrorism suspects in the years after the Sept. 11 attacks, drawing on millions of internal CIA documents to illuminate practices that it said were more brutal – and far less effective – than the agency acknowledged either to Bush administration officials or to the public.

The long-delayed report delivers a withering judgment on one of the most controversial tactics of a twilight war waged over a dozen years. The Senate committee’s investigation, born of what its chairwoman, Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, said was a need to reckon with the excesses of this war, found that CIA officials routinely misled the White House and Congress about the information it obtained, and failed to provide basic oversight of the secret prisons it established around the world.

The CIA in the Bush years was obviously a moral and legal mess, and that will take some explaining, but Obama has a problem too:

The release of the report was severely criticized by current and former CIA officials, leaving the White House trying to chart a middle course between denouncing a program that President Obama ended during his first week in office, and defending a spy agency he has championed.

Mr. Obama welcomed the release of the report, but in a written statement made sure to praise the CIA employees as “patriots” to whom “we owe a profound debt of gratitude” for trying to protect the country. But in a later television interview, he reiterated that the techniques “constituted torture in my mind” and were a betrayal of American values.

“What’s clear is that the CIA set up something very fast without a lot of forethought to what the ramifications might be,” he told Telemundo, adding: “Some of these techniques that were described were not only wrong, but also counterproductive because we know that oftentimes when somebody is being subjected to these kinds of techniques, that they’re willing to say anything in order to alleviate the pain.”

Obama has to walk a fine line here, but something went terribly wrong:

The report also said that the CIA’s leadership for years gave false information about the total number of prisoners held by the CIA, saying there had been 98 prisoners when CIA records showed that 119 men had been held. In late 2008, according to one internal email, a CIA official giving a briefing expressed concern about the discrepancy and was told by Mr. Hayden, then the agency’s director, “to keep the number at 98” and not to count any additional detainees.

The committee’s report concluded that of the 119 detainees, “at least 26 were wrongfully held.”

It said, “These included an ‘intellectually challenged’ man whose CIA detention was used solely as leverage to get a family member to provide information, two individuals who were intelligence sources for foreign liaison services and were former CIA sources, and two individuals whom the CIA assessed to be connected to Al Qaeda based solely on information fabricated by a CIA detainee subjected to the CIA’s enhanced interrogation techniques.”

The program became self-referential and self-generating, and the CIA had no idea who was who after a time. The Washington Post has an interactive feature of the main findings here – and it comes down to this. What the CIA was doing was (1) “not an effective means of acquiring intelligence” and (2) the whole thing “rested on inaccurate claims of their effectiveness” and was (3) “brutal and far worse than the CIA represented” and (4) “conditions of confinement for CIA detainees were harsher” and (5) what they did “repeatedly provided inaccurate information” and (6) they “actively avoided or impeded congressional oversight” and (7) “impeded effective White House oversight” and (8) the whole thing “complicated, and in some cases impeded, the national security missions” and (9) the CIA “impeded oversight by the CIA’s Office of Inspector General” and (10) “coordinated the release of classified information to the media” and was (11) “unprepared as it began operating” and (11) the whole thing was “deeply flawed throughout the program’s duration” and (13) the CIA “overwhelmingly outsourced operations” and (14) used “coercive interrogation techniques that had not been approved” by anyone, and (15) “did not conduct a comprehensive or accurate accounting of the number of individuals it detained” and (16) “failed to adequately evaluate the effectiveness” of anything they were doing and (17) “rarely reprimanded or held personnel accountable” and (18) “ignored numerous internal critiques, criticisms, and objections” and (19) the effort was “inherently unsustainable” and (20) “damaged the United States’ standing in the world.”

At the Washington Post site you can click on anything in quotes and the relevant text from the report pops up, if you want the details, but the whole thing is stunning, unless it’s not. Kevin Drum is not stunned:

The torture was far more brutal than we thought, and the CIA lied about that. It didn’t work, and they lied about that too. It produced so much bad intelligence that it most likely impaired our national security, and of course they lied about that as well. They lied to Congress, they lied to the president, and they lied to the media. Despite this, they are still defending their actions.

The rest of the report is just 600 pages of supporting evidence. But the core narrative that describes a barbarous, calculated, and sustained corruption of both our national values and our most fundamental moral principles is simple. We tortured prisoners, and then we lied about it. That’s it.

That supporting evidence, however, is damning when put in narrative form as Michael Isikoff does here:

After days of brutal interrogations, in which he was slammed against walls, slapped in the gut, and repeatedly waterboarded – “near drownings” that caused him to vomit – 9/11 architect Khalid Sheikh Mohammed told his CIA interrogators he was “ready to talk.”

The story he told in March 2003: He had sent an al-Qaida operative to Montana to recruit African-Americans for terrorist attacks inside the U.S. The alarming new claim sent FBI agents scrambling to find evidence of the plot, but they came up with nothing.

And for good reason: KSM later admitted he had fabricated the story – that because he was being subjected to such rough measures, he “simply told his interrogators what he thought they wanted to hear,” according to an internal agency cable quoted in the mammoth Senate Intelligence Committee report released on Tuesday by the panel’s chair, Sen. Dianne Feinstein.

There was a lot of that:

“The methods in question… regularly resulted in fabricated information,” the report states in its key findings. And the CIA itself at times was hoodwinked: “During the brutal interrogations, the CIA was often unaware the information was fabricated, leading CIA officers or contractors to falsely conclude that they were acquiring unique or actionable intelligence when they were not.”

And the mess got worse:

U.S. ambassadors in some of the countries where CIA black sites were built were never told about what was taking place on their own turf. Then FBI Director Robert Mueller was denied access when he tried to get his own agents to question KSM.

Among those also initially kept out of the loop: Secretary of State Colin Powell. “The WH (White House) is extremely concerned that (Secretary) Powell would blow his stack if he were to be briefed on what’s been going on,” a CIA lawyer wrote in July 2003.

Cheney was hiding things from Powell, and it’s unclear what Bush knew at all, and none of it was pretty:

The first “high-value detainee” taken to a black-site prison was waterboarded so many times that he lost consciousness at one point and “became completely unresponsive, with bubbles rising through his open, full mouth.”

At least five detainees in CIA custody experienced disturbing hallucinations during prolonged sleep deprivation – which in some cases went on for up to 180 hours. A CIA prison in Afghanistan (known as the Salt Pit but referred to as COBALT in the report) was described in CIA cables as a “dungeon” where hooded prisoners were kept in complete darkness and shackled in isolated cells with loud noise or music – and only a bucket to use for human waste. One of the detainees died from hypothermia after being left naked from the waist down.

There was a lot of that going on:

The committee report examined 20 “case studies” in which agency officials had claimed they had thwarted plots or rounded up suspects based on aggressive interrogations. These assertions, the panel found, were “inaccurate and contradicted by the CIA’s own records.” For instance, the trail that led to the capture of KSM in Pakistan began not with the harsh tactics of the CIA but rather with FBI agents who used traditional “rapport building” techniques to get information from Abu Zubaida before the rough stuff began. So too did the information that led to the arrest of Jose Padilla on charges that he had been dispatched to set off a nuclear “dirty bomb” inside the U.S. – another frightening claim the CIA made to justify its program and which some of the agency’s own officials soon concluded were wildly inflated, if not false.

And there’s more:

According to the report, “Numerous CIA interrogators and other CIA personnel associated with the program had either suspected or documented personal and professional problems that raised questions about their judgment and CIA employment. This group of officers included individuals who, among other issues, had engaged in inappropriate detainee interrogations, had workplace anger management issues, and had reportedly admitted to sexual assault.”

We hired unhinged sadists to do the work, and this is what we got:

Several detainees, including Marwan al-Jabbur, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, and Abu Zubaida, underwent “rectal rehydration” or “rectal fluid resuscitation,” and detainee Majid Klian’s “lunch tray,” consisting of hummus, pasta with sauce, nuts, and raisins, was “pureed” and rectally infused.

According to CIA medical officers, “while IV infusion is safe and effective, we were impressed with the ancillary effectiveness of rectal infusion on ending water refusal.”

Those who admit to sexual assault do that sort of thing. The list goes on and on:

Detainee Abu Zubaydah spent 266 hours in a “large confinement box” that looked like a “coffin.” He spent an additional 29 hours in an even smaller box, which was 21 inches wide, 2.5 feet deep and 2.5 feet tall.

Zubaydah was placed “in complete isolation for 47 days,” then subjected to “enhanced interrogation techniques on a near 24-hour-per-day basis.” During waterboarding sessions, he “cried, begged, pleaded, and whimpered” but denied having any information. At one point, he “became completely unresponsive, with bubbles rising through his open, full mouth.” …

Even after the interrogation team told CIA headquarters that it was “highly unlikely” he had the information they were looking for, interrogators continued to waterboard Abu Zubaydah, who “coughed, vomited, and had involuntary spasms of the torso and extremities'” during the procedure.

During one waterboarding session, Zubaydah began convulsing. According to CIA records, “it seems the collective opinion that we should not go much further.” Several on the team were “profoundly affected,” “some to the point of tears and choking up.”

An interrogator intimidates a detainee with power drill, and another detainee is told his wife and kids will be killed right in front of him if he doesn’t talk, and on and on and on, and John McCain gave an impassioned speech on the Senate floor:

Mr. President, I rise in support of the release – the long-delayed release – of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s summarized, unclassified review of the so-called ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ that were employed by the previous administration to extract information from captured terrorists. It is a thorough and thoughtful study of practices that I believe not only failed their purpose – to secure actionable intelligence to prevent further attacks on the U.S. and our allies – but actually damaged our security interests, as well as our reputation as a force for good in the world.

I believe the American people have a right – indeed, a responsibility – to know what was done in their name; how these practices did or did not serve our interests; and how they comported with our most important values. …

The truth is sometimes a hard pill to swallow. It sometimes causes us difficulties at home and abroad. It is sometimes used by our enemies in attempts to hurt us. But the American people are entitled to it, nonetheless.

They must know when the values that define our nation are intentionally disregarded by our security policies, even those policies that are conducted in secret. They must be able to make informed judgments about whether those policies and the personnel who supported them were justified in compromising our values; whether they served a greater good; or whether, as I believe, they stained our national honor, did much harm and little practical good.

What were the policies? What was their purpose? Did they achieve it? Did they make us safer? Less safe? Or did they make no difference? What did they gain us? What did they cost us? The American people need the answers to these questions. Yes, some things must be kept from public disclosure to protect clandestine operations, sources and methods, but not the answers to these questions.

By providing them, the Committee has empowered the American people to come to their own decisions about whether we should have employed such practices in the past and whether we should consider permitting them in the future.

This is about us, not about them:

I think it is an insult to the many intelligence officers who have acquired good intelligence without hurting or degrading prisoners to assert we can’t win this war without such methods. Yes, we can and we will.

But in the end, torture’s failure to serve its intended purpose isn’t the main reason to oppose its use. I have often said, and will always maintain, that this question isn’t about our enemies; it’s about us. It’s about who we were, who we are and who we aspire to be. It’s about how we represent ourselves to the world.

We have made our way in this often dangerous and cruel world, not by just strictly pursuing our geopolitical interests, but by exemplifying our political values, and influencing other nations to embrace them. When we fight to defend our security we fight also for an idea, not for a tribe or a twisted interpretation of an ancient religion or for a king, but for an idea that all men are endowed by the Creator with inalienable rights. How much safer the world would be if all nations believed the same. How much more dangerous it can become when we forget it ourselves even momentarily.

Our enemies act without conscience. We must not. …

Now, let us reassert the contrary proposition: that is it essential to our success in this war that we ask those who fight it for us to remember at all times that they are defending a sacred ideal of how nations should be governed and conduct their relations with others – even our enemies.

Those of us who give them this duty are obliged by history, by our nation’s highest ideals and the many terrible sacrifices made to protect them, by our respect for human dignity to make clear we need not risk our national honor to prevail in this or any war. We need only remember in the worst of times, through the chaos and terror of war, when facing cruelty, suffering and loss, that we are always Americans, and different, stronger, and better than those who would destroy us.

Digby (Heather Parton) notes this:

I don’t know if he knows it, but according to his cohorts on the right this makes him a traitor who doesn’t know how to keep America safe.

Yes, and this was inevitable:

That the CIA used interrogation methods on detainees that bordered on torture isn’t a particularly new story, but the report released today by the Senate Intelligence Committee was the first one to describe it in brutally graphic detail. But Fox News’s Andrea Tantaros challenged that narrative, asking on “Outnumbered” why is it that the Democrats want to portray America as not awesome?

“Dianne Feinstein wants to get this off her desk,” she argued, pointing out that the Californian Senator would no longer be Chairwoman of the Committee in January, and that the Democrats were likely using the torture report for political reasons.

“The United States of America is awesome,” she continued. “We are awesome. But we’ve had this discussion. We’ve closed the book on it. The reason they want the discussion is not to show how awesome we are. It’s to show us how we’re not awesome. They apologized for something.”

“They don’t like this country,” Tantaros added, firmly establishing herself as pro-awesome. “They want us to look bad and all this does is have our enemies laughing at us.”

The National Review is more formal about this:

Defined by selective accounts and distorted by a partisan agenda, this Senate Intelligence Committee report is intelligence birtherism. Conspiring against truth, it sacrifices American patriots and America’s security in an “Oldspeak” – style of purging the record of any truth. Unconcerned by the propaganda victory they’ve given to U.S. enemies (contemplate how ISIS will manipulate this report), or the cost for liaison-intelligence relationships (foreign services will worry that future cooperation will be misrepresented), the Senate Intelligence Committee has shamed itself and the citizens it claims to serve.

Maybe so, but the UN Rapporteur on Human Rights, Ben Emerson, says this:

It is now time to take action. The individuals responsible for the criminal conspiracy revealed in today’s report must be brought to justice, and must face criminal penalties commensurate with the gravity of their crimes. The fact that the policies revealed in this report were authorized at a high level within the US Government provides no excuse whatsoever. Indeed, it reinforces the need for criminal accountability.

International law prohibits the granting of immunities to public officials who have engaged in acts of torture. This applies not only to the actual perpetrators but also to those senior officials within the US Government who devised, planned and authorized these crimes.

As a matter of international law, the US is legally obliged to bring those responsible to justice. The UN Convention Against Torture and the UN Convention on Enforced Disappearances require States to prosecute acts of torture and enforced disappearance where there is sufficient evidence to provide a reasonable prospect of conviction. States are not free to maintain or permit impunity for these grave crimes.

And Andrew Sullivan cites Ronald Reagan’s signing statement on the ratification of the UN Convention on Torture:

The United States participated actively and effectively in the negotiation of [this] Convention. It marks a significant step in the development during this century of international measures against torture and other inhuman treatment or punishment. Ratification of the Convention by the United States will clearly express United States opposition to torture, an abhorrent practice unfortunately still prevalent in the world today.

The core provisions of the Convention establish a regime for international cooperation in the criminal prosecution of torturers relying on so-called ‘universal jurisdiction.’ Each State Party is required either to prosecute torturers who are found in its territory or to extradite them to other countries for prosecution.

Sullivan also says this:

If the Obama administration refuses to bring these war criminals to justice, it will effectively render moot any international efforts to curtail torture anywhere in the world. It will be arguing that crimes as grave as these need have no legal consequences. That, simply speaking, ends the United States’ participation in the civilized world, and removes any standing for us to criticize any foul despot anywhere who uses torture techniques as hideous as the ones we are now reading about.

Is that the legacy Obama wants? That he made the world safe for torturers? At some point, even he will have to acknowledge the gravity of these facts beyond his callow, off-hand admission that “we tortured some folks” but that the torturers were patriots and we shouldn’t get too “self-righteous” about them. Does the recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize really want to go down in history as the president who made sure that war criminals are only punished if they are not American?

And notice too that the US is legally obliged to prosecute Bush and Cheney as well. Or become a rogue state at the UN and in the Geneva community of democracies. Both Bush and Cheney have celebrated their deployment of torture and taken full responsibility for it in public. It is simply impermissible to allow these men to escape justice. The only alternative is to pardon them.

Anthony D. Romero, the head of the ACLU, has suggested just that:

The spectacle of the president’s granting pardons to torturers still makes my stomach turn. But doing so may be the only way to ensure that the American government never tortures again. Pardons would make clear that crimes were committed; that the individuals who authorized and committed torture were indeed criminals; and that future architects and perpetrators of torture should beware. Prosecutions would be preferable, but pardons may be the only viable and lasting way to close the Pandora’s Box of torture once and for all.

What, the only way we can even acknowledge that a crime was committed is to pardon the people who committed it?

This is only the beginning. But at least we now know what happened. No one knows what’s next.


About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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One Response to So Now We Know

  1. Rick says:

    Andrew Sullivan, as usual, is right. And John McCain, with soaring rhetoric worthy of Barack Obama at his best, is also right — very right, in fact — which is very un-usual.

    Having been a tortured POW does not make McCain the foreign policy expert he often seems to imply that it does, but it does give him a uniquely expert perspective on torture. He knows, from having been on the other side of the program, how easy it is for someone going through it to invent any sort of inanity to feed his tormentors, just to buy a little respite from the pain.

    But his viewpoint is mainly aimed at those who can’t figure it out on their own, which, in many cases, shouldn’t be that hard to do. For example, just in case you missed this:

    “Khalid Sheikh Mohammed told his CIA interrogators he was ‘ready to talk.’ The story he told in March 2003: He had sent an al-Qaida operative to Montana to recruit African-Americans for terrorist attacks inside the U.S. The alarming new claim sent FBI agents scrambling to find evidence of the plot, but they came up with nothing.”

    To Montana?? To recruit African Americans?? Okay, granted, this was intelligence they probably would not have obtained through less brutal means, but it still sounds like something out of a Woody Allen routine.

    I understand Obama has said the Justice Department has decided not to prosecute anyone, but with some folks at the UN waking up out of a long nap, I doubt we’ve heard the end of this. So far, Obama seems to have found what he thinks is a way to keep this in check, but at some point it will likely get away from him.

    And I doubt very much that issuing Gerald Ford-type pardons will have the desired effect the ACLU guy seems to think they would, but in fact, would probably only make things much worse for us around the world. After all, people in other countries fully comprehend the concept of CIA operatives torturing people, and also them later getting off scott free, while, in fact, all that Watergate business in the 1970s just seemed to bewilder them.

    As to those who claim this is just partisan foolishness on the part of Dianne Feinstein and Democrats, I say show us your proof. Hell, just show us your evidence, not just your ruminations, that the probe was unfair and that the findings are wrong.

    And yes, it’s not that any of this is new information that we hadn’t heard before, the story is that someone in actual authority conducted an official and thorough investigation of the claims, sorting out which was true and which was urban legend, and reported on what they found. And what they found confirmed what many experts had warned us ahead of time — that torture either doesn’t work at all, or at least doesn’t work nearly as well as tried-and-true “interviews” in which suspects are handled with kid gloves. Yes, we don’t get to inflict pain on the enemy, but counter-intuitively, it’s been proven to work much better.

    And to that 35-year-old (exactly half my age!), Andrea Tantaros at Fox News, who is mad at Democrats because, by releasing this report, they are just trying to show the world how “un-awesome” this country is, I say the obvious:

    Your beef is not with those people in our government who are reaffirming that America is the kind of “awesome” country that doesn’t believe in torturing people, it’s with those in government who have abandoned and ignored those traditional American values we learned about as kids and that we all grew up with, by doing their best to make sure America is not so much “awesome” as it is “awful”.

    Forget appearances, this is about reality! And this means, of course, that, instead of blaming Dianne Feinstein, you really want to be going after Dick Cheney.

    But you should probably move fast. If you wait to long, someone will beat you to him.


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