March 17, 2009
The recent emergence of the 2007 report by the Red Cross confirming, in copious detail, the widespread, systematic use of criminal torture by the Bush Administration is a welcome development. Although its facts will doubtless be drowned, or at least waterboarded, by the usual diversions -- faux shock in the Beltway over Wall Street fat cats paying themselves big bonuses with the free money that Washington knowingly gave them, for example -- it is still good to see the long-known record of this belching of filth by the nation's leaders dragged out into the light momentarily again. Every small nugget of truth that makes it through the heavy mesh of obfuscation that surrounds the workings of the Empire is to be lauded, hoarded and added to the fragments we have shored against our ruins. Every piece that gets out remains out, somewhere, for someone to find again and make use of. That's the hope anyway, and I think it is a substantive one.
The best article so far on the Red Cross report is Mark Danner's lengthy piece in the New York Review of Books. Danner has been on the torture case for years, and presents an excellent history and summary of the Bush torture system, along with its craven approval by the Democratic-controlled Congress in the notorious -- and never-repealed -- Military Commissions Act of 2007. [For more on this act and other authoritarian encroachments, see here , here and here.] Danner also lets the tortured speak for themselves, in the harrowing testimonies they gave to the Red Cross. Danner's entire article deserves a close reading -- but it should be remembered that while the article and the Red Cross report focus on the treatment of 14 "high-value detainees" in CIA custody, many if not most of the same torture techniques used on these "hard cases" were also employed on countless other captives swept up by the thousands in the Terror War dragnets. Remember too that according to the Red Cross, at one time up to 70 to 90 percent of the thousands of captives held by the Americans in Iraq were innocent of any crime whatsoever. For torture, like rain, falls on both the just and the unjust.
I was glad to see that Danner emphasizes a point that is almost always, well, obfuscated when our higher media and political types display their shock and umbrage at each new "revelation" about the torture system: the fact that the American state's official embrace of torture was never a secret. It was openly proclaimed, even bragged about, for years. This is something I have been writing about for years, beginning in early 2003, drawing on straightforward news stories published in the mainstream press. Danner quotes two of the seminal texts of the public embrace of torture by the American establishment, a Washington Post story from December 2002 and a New York Times story from March 2003 -- stories I have referenced here and in the Moscow Times over and over. He also notes the morally hideous piece by Jonathan Alter in November 2001, another landmark in the American acceptance of torture. From Danner:
And yet what is "secret" exactly? In our recent politics, "secret" has become an oddly complex word. From whom was "the secret bombing of Cambodia" secret? Not from the Cambodians, surely. From whom was the existence of these "secret overseas facilities" secret? Not from the terrorists, surely. From Americans, presumably. On the other hand, as early as 2002, anyone interested could read on the front page of one of the country's leading newspapers:
US Decries Abuse but Defends Interrogations: "Stress and Duress" Tactics Used on Terrorism Suspects Held in Secret Overseas Facilities
Deep inside the forbidden zone at the US-occupied Bagram air base in Afghanistan, around the corner from the detention center and beyond the segregated clandestine military units, sits a cluster of metal shipping containers protected by a triple layer of concertina wire. The containers hold the most valuable prizes in the war on terrorism—captured al Qaeda operatives and Taliban commanders....
"If you don't violate someone's human rights some of the time, you probably aren't doing your job," said one official who has supervised the capture and transfer of accused terrorists. "I don't think we want to be promoting a view of zero tolerance on this. That was the whole problem for a long time with the CIA...."
This lengthy article, by Dana Priest and Barton Gellman, appeared in The Washington Post on December 26, 2002, only months after the capture of Abu Zubaydah. A similarly lengthy report followed a few months later on the front page of The New York Times ("Interrogations: Questioning Terror Suspects in a Dark and Surreal World"). The blithe, aggressive tone of the officials quoted—"We don't kick the [expletive] out of them. We send them to other countries so they can kick the [expletive] out of them"—bespeaks a very different political temper, one in which a prominent writer in a national newsmagazine could headline his weekly column "Time to Think About Torture," noting in his subtitle that in this "new world...survival might well require old techniques that seemed out of the question."
As I noted in a Moscow Times piece back in March 2005:
In the heady months after the September 11 terrorist attacks, the chickenhawks of the Bush Regime were eager to flash their tough-guy cojones to the world. Led by the former prep-school cheerleader in the Oval Office, swaggering Bushists openly bragged of "kicking ass" with macho tactics like torture and "extraordinary rendition."
....In that same [Washington Post] article, other Bush honchos boasted about withholding medical treatment from wounded prisoners; knowingly sending prisoners to be tortured in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Morocco and Jordan ("I do it with my eyes open," said one top agent); and breaking international law as a routine part of interrogations by U.S. operatives. "If you're not violating someone's human rights," said an interrogation supervisor, "you're probably not doing your job." These freely admitted violations included beatings, hooding, exposure, sexual humiliation and the medieval barbarism of strappado: chaining a prisoner with his arms twisted behind his back and suspending him from the ceiling, where the weight of his own body tears at his sockets and sinews.
Again, there was nothing secret about this. Indeed, the December 2002 story was part of a series of similar admissions Bush officials cheerfully made to the mainstream press. Beginning in October 2001, we were told – by Bush officials – that Bush had signed "secret" executive orders granting himself the power to assassinate anyone on earth whom he arbitrarily declared a "terrorist suspect;" that he had extended this unlimited license to kill to CIA agents in the field, who no longer needed to clear their secret murders with the White House; and that he had expanded his unrestricted, arbitrary powers of arrest without charge, indefinite detention and extra-judicial killing to cover American citizens, as well as designated foreign "enemies." Thus, long before Attorney General Alberto Gonzales officially declared to Congress this year that wartime presidential powers cannot be constrained in any way by U.S. or international law, the Bush Regime was unashamedly asserting its embrace of torture, lawlessness and arbitrary rule.
Indeed, I first wrote about Bush's assertion of his power to kill anyone on earth in November 2001. In another 2005 Moscow Times column, I detailed the growth of the American "Sacred Terror" regime:
On Sept. 17, 2001, President George W. Bush signed an executive order authorizing the use of "lethal measures" against anyone in the world whom he or his minions designated an "enemy combatant." This order remains in force today. No judicial evidence, no hearing, no charges are required for these killings; no law, no border, no oversight restrains them. Bush has also given agents in the field carte blanche to designate "enemies" on their own initiative and kill them as they see fit.
The existence of this universal death squad -- and the total obliteration of human liberty it represents -- has not provoked so much as a crumb of controversy in the American establishment, although it's no secret. The executive order was first bruited in The Washington Post in October 2001. We first wrote of it here in November 2001. The New York Times added further details in December 2002. That same month, Bush officials made clear that the edict also applied to U.S. citizens, as The Associated Press reported.
The first officially confirmed use of this power was the killing of a U.S. citizen in Yemen by a CIA drone missile on Nov. 3, 2002. A similar strike occurred in Pakistan this month, when a CIA missile destroyed a house and purportedly killed Abu Hamza Rabia, a suspected al-Qaida figure. But the only bodies found at the site were those of two children, the houseowner's son and nephew, Reuters reports. The grieving father denied any connection to terrorism. An earlier CIA strike on another house missed Rabia but killed his wife and children, Pakistani officials reported.
But most of the assassinations are carried out in secret, quietly, professionally, like a contract killing for the mob. As a Pentagon document unearthed by The New Yorker in December 2002 put it, the death squads must be "small and agile" and "able to operate clandestinely, using a full range of official and non-official cover arrangements to ... enter countries surreptitiously."
The dangers of this policy are obvious, as a UN report on "extrajudicial killings" noted in December 2004: "Empowering governments to identify and kill 'known terrorists' places no verifiable obligation upon them to demonstrate in any way that those against whom lethal force is used are indeed terrorists. ... While it is portrayed as a limited 'exception' to international norms, it actually creates the potential for an endless expansion of the relevant category to include any enemies of the State, social misfits, political opponents, or others."
It's hard to believe that any genuine democracy would accept a claim by its leader that he could have anyone killed simply by labeling them an "enemy." It's hard to believe that any adult with even the slightest knowledge of history or human nature could countenance such unlimited power, knowing the evil it is bound to produce. Yet this is what the great and good in America have done. Like the boyars of old, they not only countenance but celebrate their enslavement to the ruler.
This was vividly demonstrated in one of the most revolting scenes in recent U.S. history: Bush's State of the Union address in January 2003, delivered to Congress and televised nationwide during the final frenzy of war-drum beating before the assault on Iraq. Trumpeting his successes in the war on terror, Bush claimed that "more than 3,000 suspected terrorists" had been arrested worldwide -- "and many others have met a different fate." His face then took on the characteristic leer, the strange, sickly half-smile it acquires whenever he speaks of killing people: "Let's put it this way: They are no longer a problem."
In other words, the suspects -- and even Bush acknowledged they were only suspects -- had been murdered. Lynched. Killed by agents operating unsupervised in that shadow world where intelligence, terrorism, politics, finance and organized crime meld together in one amorphous mass. Killed on the word of a dubious informer, perhaps: a tortured captive willing to say anything, a business rival, a personal foe, a bureaucrat looking to impress his superiors, a paid snitch in need of cash, a zealous crank pursuing ethnic, tribal or religious hatreds -- or any other purveyor of the garbage data that is coin of the realm in the shadow world.
Bush proudly held up this hideous system as an example of what he called "the meaning of American justice." And the assembled legislators applauded. Oh, how they applauded! They roared with glee at the leering little man's bloodthirsty, B-movie machismo. They shared his contempt for law -- our only shield, however imperfect, against the blind, ignorant, ape-like force of raw power. Not a single voice among them was raised in protest against this tyrannical machtpolitik: not that night, not the next day, not ever.
I've still not heard any official condemnation, from either party -- and certainly not from Bush's successor -- of this global murder ring. Seymour Hersh has offered some tantalizing hints of more details of the operation, but he has not published them.
Danner sums up a few of the definitive statements we can now make about the torture program:
1. Beginning in the spring of 2002 the United States government began to torture prisoners. This torture, approved by the President of the United States and monitored in its daily unfolding by senior officials, including the nation's highest law enforcement officer, clearly violated major treaty obligations of the United States, including the Geneva Conventions and the Convention Against Torture, as well as US law.
2. The most senior officers of the US government, President George W. Bush first among them, repeatedly and explicitly lied about this, both in reports to international institutions and directly to the public. The President lied about it in news conferences, interviews, and, most explicitly, in speeches expressly intended to set out the administration's policy on interrogation before the people who had elected him.
3. The US Congress, already in possession of a great deal of information about the torture conducted by the administration—which had been covered widely in the press, and had been briefed, at least in part, from the outset to a select few of its members—passed the Military Commissions Act of 2006 and in so doing attempted to protect those responsible from criminal penalty under the War Crimes Act.
4. Democrats, who could have filibustered the bill, declined to do so....
And the Democrats are still providing cover for the torture system -- this time from the redoubt of the White House itself. I noted back in 2005 that the Bush Regime was facing real danger, for the first time, over torture -- not from Congress, of course, but from the captives themselves, aided by several courageous lawyers and human rights groups like Reprieve:
....But Bush is facing something far more dangerous than the occasional hiccup of bad PR or toothless probes by his Senate bagmen. There are now several lawsuits afoot filed by innocent survivors of the "rendition" system set up at Bush's direct order. These cases could not only expose the ugly guts of his gulag, but also produce direct evidence of criminal culpability on the part of Bush and his minions under U.S. and international law.
The Regime has responded with draconian ruthlessness to this genuine threat. In the main rendition case – and in an unrelated lawsuit concerning officially confirmed evidence of terrorist infiltration of the FBI before 9/11 – Bush is invoking the rarely-used, extraconstitutional "state secrets privilege." This nebulous maneuver, unanchored in law or legislation, allows the government to suppress any evidence against it merely by asserting, without proof, that disclosure of the truth might "harm national security." Evidence "protected" in this way cannot even be heard by a judge in secret – a well-established practice used successfully in numerous other national security cases over the years. It is simply buried forever, and the case collapses.
As we all know, the Obama Administration is now fighting strenuously in court to uphold this cynical Bush strategy (and others) to cover up high crimes -- capital crimes -- by the leaders of the government. Obama has offered the excuse that he is fighting for Bush in court because he doesn't want to do anything that "would undermine or weaken the institution of the presidency." But how would applying the law of the land "weaken the institution of the presidency"? Why do the president and his minions need the "power" to commit crimes and get away with them? For make no mistake: in these court cases, this is precisely the "power" that Obama is seeking to preserve.
Why does he want that power, and the "state secrets" get-out-of-jail-free card that goes with it? The answer seems obvious: because he wants to use that power for himself, and to pass it on to subsequent managers of the empire. For Obama is an intelligent man: he knows that the empire cannot be managed, maintained -- and expanded -- without recourse to criminal actions on a vast scale.
In 2005, I noted:
It is almost certain that Bush's invocation of this "night-and-fog" measure will be upheld. So let us be clear about the consequences. It will mean that any crime committed by a government official – torture, rendition, murder, state terrorism, even treason – can be sealed in permanent darkness. The justice system itself will be "rendered" into a black hole.
Was this too "shrill"? And hasn't the world been changed by the election of Barack Obama? Well, consider this headline from last week: Obama Justice Dept. defends Rumsfeld in torture case. As Raw Story notes:
Language used in the brief of the individual defendants in the case, including Rumsfeld, having a "clear entitlement to qualified immunity" casts doubt on the hopes of civil and human rights activists that the Justice Department will take up calls to launch criminal prosecutions into the architects and policy designers of some of the most criticized Bush policies such as waterboarding, extraordinary rendition and warrantless wiretapping.
Or as Danner puts it:
We think time and elections will cleanse our fallen world but they will not... The decisions that [President Bush] made, especially the monumental decisions taken after the attacks of September 11, 2001—decisions about rendition, surveillance, interrogation—lie strewn about us still, unclaimed and unburied, like corpses freshly dead.
Even if we concede the unsupported and unprovable assumption held by so many progressives that Obama, in his cuddly heart of hearts, wants to "do good," the fact remains that he has willingly, eagerly embraced the worst aspects of the imperial system -- its aggressive militarism, its slavish service to the financial elite, and its lawlessness, secrecy and unaccountability. If he indeed wishes to do good, he has nonetheless quite openly and unashamedly adopted criminal means to justify his cuddly ends.
And in the end, what difference does intention make, when the action itself is evil and malign?
Those corpses Danner speaks of will continue to fester and rot as Obama fights to preserve, protect and defend the tyrannical powers that Bush championed and expanded. The Red Cross, alas, will have more work to do in these putrid fields in the years to come.