Working the Dark Side

David Bromwich writes about torture

A week before the release of the Senate Intelligence Committee report on the CIA, a Staten Island grand jury chose not to return an indictment for the police killing of Eric Garner – a large black man standing on the sidewalk of a street in New York City. The attention of millions had been transfixed by a video that showed the fatal attempt to arrest Garner. Looking on wearily as he saw the police approach, Garner told a cop that he was doing nothing wrong, in fact he had just broken up a street fight (which was why the police were called). They were always harassing him, he said. In the foreground of the image, a cop hung back from Garner at arm’s length, then closed in (with an eye on other police at the edge of the picture); he began to poke Garner, to trick him into a response and occupy his hands while a second cop surprised him from behind with a choke hold – ‘a take-down move’ he would later testify he had learned at the academy. There were five of them, and they piled onto the unresisting Garner as if they were wrestling a steer at a rodeo. The one applying the choke hold kept it tight while the others pressed Garner face down on the sidewalk. He said ‘I can’t breathe,’ and repeated it many times before he died as the police were fumbling with handcuffs. It was this spectacle – more than the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, after a violent altercation – that set off the demonstrations which continue in many American cities to protest against the mistreatment and killing of citizens with impunity.

The Senate Select Committee report on CIA detention and interrogation was published on 9 December; and it seemed part of the same story as the video of Garner. The agency co-operated minimally with the committee. It had declined, in the words of Senator Dianne Feinstein, to ‘compel its workforce to appear before the committee’. Almost all the Republicans in Congress, with the distinct exception of John McCain, opposed the publication of the findings, and their highest card was the absence of testimony by agents. Yet written materials of sufficient quantity and authority may have a credibility that only the most reliable of witnesses could claim. The committee staff reviewed more than six million pages of CIA documents, while also drawing on an earlier CIA inspector general’s report. A wrangle over agency requests for censorship began in February 2013 and was never resolved. But after the midterm loss of the Democrats’ Senate majority, Feinstein, as chairman of the committee, decided to publish the findings before the party of Bush and Cheney could vote to seal them for ever.

The total report exceeds six thousand pages. We have been shown only the 525-page summary, but any American can read it, and the director of the CIA, John Brennan, offered no challenge to the facts. Exactly 119 detainees were held at CIA sites in various countries from 17 September 2001 to 22 January 2009. It is the first official tally since Michael Hayden, a CIA director under Bush and Cheney, ordered that no matter how the facts changed the reported numbers should never climb above 98. Of all who were held and interrogated, 22 per cent were found to be innocent. There was no process for freeing them.

Some of the methods employed were atrocious in ways that are scarcely imaginable. One prisoner was subjected to forced ‘rectal feeding’. Another was chained to a wall for 17 days. A third, subjected to sensory and sleep deprivation and chained to a concrete floor, died of hypothermia. The secret programme was placed under the guidance of two former instructors in resistance to torture, James E. Mitchell and Bruce Jessen. Like the agents they supervised, Mitchell and Jessen are protected by pseudonyms, but earlier reporting in their case has made it possible to penetrate the disguise. Their strategy was to ‘reverse engineer’ the pedagogic methods of resistance training. Selling themselves to the government as experts on the psychology of terrorism, they were paid $80 million over the years of the Bush-Cheney administration when the programme was in force. Occasionally in that period, the press had hints of the abuse which it declined to follow up. The Washington Post disclosed the existence of the torture programme in November 2005. As early as 2002 the New York Times had a story in preparation about a secret prison in Thailand, but agreed at Cheney’s request not to publish it. How were the journalists cowed? ‘Termination of the programme’, according to the CIA, would ‘result in loss of life, possibly extensive’. The same thing is now being said about the committee report. No disgrace is deep enough, it seems, to stand up to the knock-down question: will it be good for America if people learn the truth?

The US national security state is the lengthened shadow of Dick Cheney. He made himself a master of the levers of government when he was secretary of defence under George H.W. Bush. His sense of rightful authority will have been confirmed by his regular participation in the continuity-of-government exercises: a yearly ritual enactment of the government’s response to a national catastrophe, begun in the Reagan years and put aside under Clinton, in which the lives of important members of the government and military were preserved at a fortress hideaway, and a design was worked up and executed for a post-constitutional order. An account of these exercises is given in James Mann’s excellent Rise of the Vulcans (2004); a curious detail is that Cheney and his associate Donald Rumsfeld stayed on as participants even when they held no government office.

After the real catastrophe of September 2001, Cheney succeeded in changing America’s idea of itself. He did it with a tireless diligence of manipulation behind the scenes, commonly issuing his orders from a bunker underneath the Naval Observatory in Washington. The element of fear in Cheney is strong: a fact that is often lost in descriptions of him as an undiluted malignity. His words and actions testify to a personal fear so marked that it could project and engender collective fear.

Cheney worked hard to eradicate from the minds of Americans the idea that there can be such a thing as a ‘suspect’. Due process of law rests on the acknowledged possibility that a suspect may be innocent; but, for Cheney, a person interrogated on suspicion of terrorism is a terrorist. To elaborate a view beyond that point, as he sees it, only involves government in a wasteful tangle of doubts. Cheney concedes from time to time that mistakes can happen; but the leading quality of the man is a perfect freedom from remorse. ‘I’d do it again in a minute,’ he said recently of the plan for the interrogation programme and the secret prisons which the office of the vice president vetted and approved.

In a Daily Mail interview concerning details of the programme, Mitchell was prompted to recall that he saw British agents at some of the CIA black sites. Add his testimony to what is known of the collaboration between MI6 and the CIA in preparing the ground for regime change in Libya in 2011 – add also the surveillance-sharing agreement by the ‘Five Eyes’ partners (Britain, the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand) – and the evidence suggests that Anglo-Saxon democracies in our time have influenced each other chiefly in the cause of social control and illegal violence. In effecting this rupture of morale, Tony Blair had an importance second only to Cheney. After 2001, Blair’s words carried a weight with respectable opinion in the US unrivalled by any American politician. His demeanour lent to the campaign for war a presumption of humility that Cheney could never have supplied. His pledge of fidelity to the ‘sense of justice that makes moral the love of liberty’ was a much-needed supplement to the Cheney imperative of ‘working the dark side’; and the combination of Blair and Cheney seems to have relieved George W. Bush of any last residue of doubt that he was right to set the entire Middle East on the path of war. Two wise and experienced politicians, so different yet speaking now in a single voice: how could they be wrong?

Cheney has dogged the Obama administration from its earliest days, and he has continued in interviews that seek to discredit the committee report. He is a team player to the death, and the team he plays for is the greatest power. It was Cheney’s indifference to any other standard of right and wrong that made him more than a match for opponents like Senator Patrick Leahy, the head of the judiciary committee in 2007-8, or Jay Rockefeller, the head of the intelligence committee in those years. Leahy and Rockefeller had their chance to subject him to investigation when the Democrats became the majority party in 2006. They chose to do nothing. No Senate hearings of any substance were conducted during the last two years of the Bush-Cheney administration.

Most of the relevant indications and considerable earlier documentation appeared in Seymour Hersh’s Chain of Command (2004), Mark Danner’s Torture and Truth (2004), Alfred McCoy’s A Question of Torture (2006), Jane Mayer’s The Dark Side (2008), Philippe Sands’s Torture Team (2008) and Barton Gellman’s Angler: The Cheney Vice Presidency (2008). Before Obama became president, he seems to have had some exposure to this literature. He denounced torture and implied, early on, that the practices fomented by Bush and Cheney fitted the international definition of torture; yet Obama also told workers at the CIA, in early 2009, that under no circumstances would they be prosecuted. He paired the words of responsible acknowledgment with a policy of non-accountability. This show of forbearance was high-sounding in its way – hate the crime, pardon the criminal – but if it makes a generous line to take with vices such as a gambling habit or heavy drinking, the hands-off resolution seems radically unsuited to crimes such as rape, torture and murder. Obama was leaving someone like Feinstein to do the investigative work of justice when he declared his recognition of a crime and in the same breath avowed that he would stand in the way of its being punished as a crime.

At the very outset of his government, he pulled into the White House an ambiguous figure from the Bush-Cheney years, John Brennan. As a high official of the CIA under George Tenet, Brennan had registered a dissenting view of the interrogation techniques in 2001 and 2002, but took care to do so in a way that would maintain his status. He quit the agency in the second term of Bush-Cheney and offered his services to Senator Obama. Brennan was Obama’s first choice to serve as director of the CIA, but in 2009 he was judged a bad fit for confirmation: his role in the actions of the agency under Tenet was too fresh in the public mind.

Yet Obama was unwilling to part with an insider so potentially useful in dealing with the CIA, and he elected to move Brennan inside the national security apparatus of the White House itself. Brennan took charge of the ‘kill lists’ for drone strikes which would replace torture as the technique of choice for the new president. (Bush ordered fifty drone strikes; Obama has ordered four hundred.) The reliance on a different secret policy and the man he chose to control it were Obama’s signal to the CIA and the armed forces that he, too, was willing to transgress the boundaries of conventional war.

Brennan has defended the drone strikes in terms as wildly improbable as those Cheney used in defending the CIA protocols for torture. The CIA, as Cheney tells it, squeezed, smashed, deafened, hounded, shocked and drowned its inmates into giving up truths that assisted the US effort to fight al-Qaida. Looking back on his time in command of a virtual CIA inside the White House, Brennan claimed in June 2011 that the drone strikes of the preceding year had caused not a single ‘collateral death’: every missile hit its designated target and nothing else. Later, slowly, he revised that estimate. In recent days he has also tempered his response to the Senate committee report whose publication he resisted. Brennan seems to have read it with care (where Cheney boasts of not having read it at all) and the findings have prompted him to alter the agency explanation that the torture of Hassan Ghul produced the lead that opened the trail to Bin Laden.

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The emerging line among the members of the ‘deep state’ seems to be this. A misguided love of our country and a justified panic caused many persons – between 2001 and 2008 especially, and with decreasing intensity thereafter – to do things which if rightly understood would naturally be forgiven. This was the alibi endorsed in January 2010 by David Margolis, the Justice Department official who reviewed the recommended censure of the ‘torture memos’ by the lawyers John Yoo and Jay Bybee and upgraded the evaluation of their actions from ‘professional misconduct’ to ‘poor judgment’. Like the interrogators who were spared any penalty, the lawyers who twisted the law were said to have done their best to serve the president in a time that was hard on everyone.

The promise of impunity that has greeted the lawless conduct of government officials obeys the ancient maxim fac et excusa. The deeds in fact are free to recur because the excuses are potentially limitless. We are all patriots – Obama’s word for CIA interrogators – and under enemy attack, we respond as patriots do. The truth of course is that we know nothing about the motives of the torturers or the motives of those who wrote up the exculpating rationale for torture before the fact. Selfless patriotism may be part of it. Sadistic self-indulgence may also be part of it. Who can say in what proportions they were mixed? A principle such as an unconditional ban on torture is tested precisely by its observance in a fear-engendering crisis. If your belief in the principle gradually disintegrates, it was never a solid belief.

There was, in any event, a traceable motive for the brutality of the interrogations apart from the quest for clues about al-Qaida. The CIA counterterrorism organiser Jose Rodriguez, who destroyed the torture videotapes and has been effusively praised by Cheney, may have had more than one reason for eliminating the record of interrogations. As Sam Husseini noticed in a commentary for the website Common Dreams, a main purpose of the torture was achieved whether the things the prisoners said were true or not. Bush and Cheney in early 2002 were hell-bent on a war against Iraq; essential to the case for war was the production of quotable sentences (truth or lie would do equally well) concerning the links between al-Qaida and Iraq, and the possession of WMD by Iraq. A groan of assent of the relevant kind was extorted from the prisoner Ibn Shaykh al-Libi, as footnote 857 of the report clearly says. Additional materials seem to have been drawn from other prisoners, and in that sense the use of torture was a success. The stainless Colin Powell would cite al-Libi’s confession in his presentation to the UN in February 2003.

The record of illegal violence, dissimulation and suppression of evidence runs very deep. The torture of Abu Zubaydah lasted for weeks; objections by officers who questioned the procedure were unavailing. (Rodriguez told the disturbed agents to scrub all language about legality from their communications.) And the programme seems to have thoroughly penetrated the ‘culture’ of the spy agency. In April this year, Brennan was told by the new head of counterterrorism that more than two hundred people still working for the agency were at one time involved in the detention and torture programme. To dispose of even a quarter of those agents would be a significant purge. This has been suggested to Obama by Senator Mark Udall, but Obama can be relied on not to do it, for reasons that are tactical, politic and implicit in his decision to grant all agents immunity.

So a conspiracy of silence to muffle the crimes of the past now encompasses members of two administrations – not least because of the continuity between them. Much of Brennan’s utility to Obama came from his status as an insider to the torture arrangements. If Obama called in Brennan the former agent in large part to protect himself from the agency, Brennan on his side must have been wary of still-active agents. There were things they could divulge about him if they chose. The silence regarding torture until now was a predictable consequence of this web of mutual fears. As for the posture of Obama toward the contents of the report, it has been fairly consistent. He acted so as to be able to tell the intelligence community that he had done the most he could to slow down its release and muffle its impact. At the same time, he could tell his own party that he did his best, after all, to assure its publication in some fashion.

Apologists for torture come in two sorts. There are the contingent defenders (‘We were beside ourselves in a time of emergency; understand us and forgive us!’). And there are the unabashed (‘War is hell and we play by the rules of hell’). A whole subset of the argument on torture has asked whether it works – whether any confession extracted by such means can supply a useful lead or serve as reliable evidence at a trial. With the same propriety, one might ask whether slavery works. It is said that people have always tortured. Indeed they have, and so, too, have people always had an appetite for slavery. But the judgment of slavery in the 21st century is very different from what it was in the 19th; and before 2001, the same had come to be true of torture: it was understood as an atrocious practice which no one should defend and no one should want to get away with. This was the recent heritage that Bush and Cheney tore to shreds.

The object of torture is a slave as long as the infliction lasts; a slave has no recourse against torture so long as the master chooses to inflict it. To suppose that slavery is a matter of ownership is a half-truth that misses the political basis of the oppression. The evil consists in the ability to dominate other persons without check, the ability to do with them what you will, armed with assurance of impunity. Such a custom of acquittal or habit of non-accountability may have broad consequences in the treatment by the state of its own people – the treatment, for example, of a large black man on the streets of New York by a huddle of police who are determined to subdue him. The suspect becomes a rightless subject and not a person who bears the inalienable rights of a citizen.