I posted an email earlier today trying to understand the extraordinary powers that president Bush has accrued to himself since the 9/11 attacks. No president has ever had so much power over the citizenry of the United States in American history – the permanent power to name anyone an enemy, detain them indefinitely and torture them into confession anywhere in the world. My reader suggested that this extraordinary shift in America’s constitutional balance – the creation of an extra-legal dictatorship within a putatively democratic society – was explicable only if you believe that the very existence of the U.S. is in peril.
I believe Cheney believes that. In the hours after 9/11, you can understand why. The question then becomes: what evidence did they have that the danger was that grave? My reader cites the following anecdote in a Graham Allison book:
"On October 11, 2001 … at the Presidential Daily Intelligence Briefing, George Tenet, the director of central intelligence, informed the president that a CIA agent code-named Dragonfire had reported that Al Qaeda terrorists possessed a ten-kiloton nuclear bomb, evidently stolen from the Russian arsenal. According to Dragonfire, this nuclear weapon was now on American soil, in New York City."
Now, obviously, this was untrue. It was untrue on a cataclysmic scale in the way that Abdallah Higazy’s conviction of being an al Qaeda member was untrue on a much smaller scale. The question in my mind is: how did they get that information? They’ll never tell us, of course. We found out that the Higazy conviction was a result of a false confession, after threatening to have his family tortured in Egypt. But the nuclear scare was a huge untruth gained by a CIA agent a month after Bush and Cheney had secretly let loose the dogs of torture. And the one thing we know about torture is that it was never designed in the first place to get at the actual truth of anything; it was designed in the darkest days of human history to produce false confessions in order to annihilate political and religious dissidents. And that is how it always works: it gets confessions regardless of their accuracy.
The longer this war goes on and the more we find out, the following scenario seems to me to be the best provisional explanation for a lot of what our secret, unaccountable, extra-legal war-government has been doing – and the countless mistakes which have been laid bare. On 9/11, Cheney immediately thought of the worst possible scenario: What if this had been done with WMDs? It has haunted him ever since – for good and even noble reasons. This panic led him immediately to think of Saddam. But it also led him to realize that our intelligence was so crappy that we simply didn’t know what might be coming. That’s why the decision to use torture was the first – and most significant – decision this administration made. It is integral to the intelligence behind the war on terror. And Cheney’s bizarre view of executive power made it easy in his mind simply to break the law and withdraw from Geneva because torture, in his mind, was the only weapon we had.
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. 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.
My original concern with torture was moral and sprang from Abu Ghraib. It never occurred to me that the US would be doing it before. Poring over all the data, it became simply impossible to deny that Abu Ghraib was not an exception to the rule, but a horrible, predictable result of an existing torture policy that spread beyond the limits Cheney and Rumsfeld wanted. My second concern with torture is that much of our actionable intelligence may have come from it. Think of what that means. Much of it may be as valid as that nuclear bomb in New York City or the notion that Abdallah Higazy was a member of al Qaeda.
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. 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.
(Photos: A ‘Tribute in Light’ illuminates the night sky over lower Manhattan near Ground Zero at the World Trade Center site, 11 September 2007 in New York, on the sixth anniversary of the 11 September 2001 attacks. By Timothy A Clary/AFP/Getty. Cheney: Alex Wong/Getty. Rumsfeld: Jim Watson/AFP/Getty. Tehran street scene: Behrouz Mehri/AFP/Getty.)