From The Annals Of CIA Incompetence

Dexter Filkins highlights an example – the gross mishandling of “Asset X”, the mysterious figure who eventually led the CIA to KSM:

Asset X was willing to help, for a price, the e-mail said. Then something went wrong. The C.I.A. agent who was meeting Asset X recommended that Asset X be paid a certain amount of money for his help, but the request was denied. Asset X disappeared. … Nine months later, the C.I.A. found Asset X, and he was still willing to help. Then something went wrong again: Asset X’s original C.I.A. handler had been transferred, and his replacement didn’t know Asset X’s real value. The replacement agent wrote several cables to C.I.A. headquarters seeking guidance and got no response. His cables were “disappearing into a ‘black hole’,’’ the agent later recalled.

With nothing to go on, the C.I.A. officer prepared to terminate his relationship with Asset X. While he was explaining his dilemma to a colleague, another C.I.A. officer—this one visiting from out of town—overheard him and explained that Asset X in fact was extremely valuable. Shortly thereafter, with no advance warning and no C.I.A. permission, Asset X travelled to Pakistan and unexpectedly met [Khalid Sheikh] Mohammed. Asset X went into a bathroom and sent a text message to his C.I.A. handler: “I M W KSM. Within hours, the C.I.A. and Pakistani intelligence agents stormed the Rawalpindi compound and captured Mohammed.

After which KSM, of course, was tortured over and over again, with “no information provided by [him leading] directly to the capture of a terrorist or the disruption of a terrorist plot.” However, as Judith Levine reminds us, it shouldn’t ultimately matter whether torture “worked” or not:

“No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment,” pronounces Article 4 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  No one. That’s the thing about human rights. Everybody has them—civilian, combatant, citizen, stateless migrant, innocent or criminal. Eichmann had human rights. Osama bin Laden had them. You can’t even waive your human rights. They are inalienable.

To torture is to strip a person not only of rights but of the humanity to which they attach. Dehumanization is torture’s definition, its prerequisite.

Is torture effective? The question is akin to asking if slavery is good economic policy or forced sterilization is an effective means of slowing population growth. Even if torture does work, it is still wrong. And the minute we start considering it as a tool to select to get the job done—like a wrench or a pliers to turn a bolt, a spade or pickax to dig a hole—then we do not only dehumanize those we torture, we cease to be human ourselves.

Americans Learn To Stop Worrying And Love Torture, Ctd

Mark Danner reflects on the politics of torture following the release of the Senate report:

In 2005, when the program, still secret, was beginning to wind down, a major poll found that 38 percent of the public agreed that torture could and should be used on certain occasions; now that number, depending on the poll, has risen to about 50 percent. This means that the original argument, in defense of “enhanced interrogation techniques” or—in President Bush’s phrase—the “alternative set of procedures,” has led us down an increasingly dark dead end. For what is the conclusion here? If torture was such a good idea, if it was so necessary, if it saved so many thousands of lives when nothing else could, then why did we stop doing it? Why aren’t we doing it right now? And I think on the Republican side, some arguments lately have come very close to asserting this. So we have torture as a policy choice whose popularity is growing.

It’s a deeply perverse situation that goes beyond the original choice to use torture itself. It’s also a result of the ambivalent way this choice was treated by Barack Obama and his administration. Though President Obama formally abolished torture with an executive order on his second day in office, his refusal to take other steps—to approve investigations, prosecutions, or at least a bipartisan commission—means that only his signature on that executive order stands between us and the possibility of more torture in the future.

If this issue is raised in the Republican primaries in 2016, I’d expect that most politicians on that stage will declare themselves firmly in favor of “enhanced interrogation techniques.” We may not torture now, but because torture has become a recognized policy choice, it is perfectly conceivable that our political masters, depending on who they are, might well decide to do so in the future. This is where we find ourselves, a dozen years after Abu Zubaydah first was strapped down to that waterboard.

Read all the recent Dish on torture here.

Americans Learn To Stop Worrying And Love Torture, Ctd


Many atheists are surely passing around this post. One writes:

Dear Andrew (welcome back!), Chris et al: What jumped out at me in the chart accompanying your post is that the ONLY group of Americans in which a majority do not consider US torture justified is people with no religion. Hmmm. I thought that there was no morality without religion?

American religion is in pretty bad shape – or its leaders are terrible communicators, or it’s been totally hijacked by the RWNJ media – when Godless atheists exhibit more traditional morality than either Protestants or Catholics.  That 40% of atheists approve of torture is appalling to this atheist, but I’ll take it over the huge majorities of “believers.”

Another non-believer sends the above graphic. Another piles on:

I’m proud of my group (non-religious people)’s views on torture being the most enlightened. It’s a big reason why I ran from Christianity.

I wholeheartedly agree that most American Christians are not Christians in the slightest. It’s another reason I despise most American Christians – they claim to be inherently better than everyone else, especially Atheists and Agnostics – yet are obviously not. They support our modern Rome blindly; they put money ahead of everything; they support torture; they support persecution of minorities; they believe that supporting war is Christian; they don’t know their holy texts as well as Atheists and Agnostics do; etc.

Another is more nuanced:

Can we finally put an end to the notion that humans need God or religion in order to be moral? There is perhaps no act more morally corrupt than torture, but we find that the only religious group to disapprove of torture was: the non-religious. Protestants and Catholics considered torture justified by a margin of more than three to one. If the numbers were reversed, we would hear no end that this proves that without religion, you can’t have a true moral compass.

I won’t make the opposite claim – that religion is morally corrupting – because I think the actual relationship between religiosity and morality is essentially nil.

I appreciate your writing in part because you are unapologetically devout and at the same time profoundly respectful of non-believers. I would like to see more atheists extend the same respect toward the believers. Yet I still get the sense at times that you and other believers can’t quite grasp how an atheist‘s morality can be quite as good as yours. And so you resort to writing, “the staggering levels of support for torture by Christians merely reveals that very few of them are Christians at all.” Poppycock. They are Christians who have given in to fear and/or rage – something to which all of us, whether Christian, Hindu, Muslim or atheist are vulnerable.

So I repeat: Enough of the notion that without God or religion we can’t be truly moral. Letting go of that belief will take us another step toward truly religiously tolerant society where men and women are judged by their actions, not by their religious garb.

Another reader:

I sent your recent post on torture to my dad, who is a professor at a theological seminary in the U.S. My dad and I don’t usually see eye-to-eye on political or religious issues (me being a socialist atheist, him being a conservative evangelical), but our beliefs converge when it comes to torture. He responded to my e-mail with the following:

Thanks for this. I’m going to print off a copy and include a new topic on “torture” in my Old Testament Biblical Theology class notes on “Torah and Ethics.” It will also fit under my lectures on “image of God,” which are in two classes.

Last but not least, a dissent from a theology professor:

The US Catholic bishops have made plenty of mistakes, but overlooking torture is not one of them, as you claim in your post.  They did “stand up and be counted” on this issue, starting in 2005 right up to the present. Here‘s the resource page. And here is the 2008 study guide “Torture is a Moral Issue”.

Now, could they have done more?  Sure.  But you have to admit that the Catholics in the pews don’t respond very well to the top-down moral preaching that the bishops advise already.  The support of Catholics for torture thus indicates the complete assimilation of white Catholics to the general American population, not some lack of advocacy on the part of priests and bishops.

The USCCB was strong on this issue. Evangelical flagship Christianity Today was strong on this. Most leading figures were strong on this. Sadly, none of it could overcome our combination of nationalism and fear.

I’m aware of their efforts and indeed of the National Religious Campaign Against Torture. I’m a big admirer of their work. But it remains true that on such a profound issue, it’s scandalous that Catholics of all people can defend the torture of human beings. I don’t think the hierarchy have broken through the general noise. And I have never heard a word about it from the pulpit in the last ten years. Maybe Francis will come through.

Torturing Her Way To The Top

by Dish Staff

Matthew Cole reports on a key torture apologist at the CIA who “repeatedly told her superiors and others – including members of Congress – that the ‘torture’ was working and producing useful intelligence, when it was not”:

The expert was not identified by name in the unclassified 528-page summary of the [torture] report, but U.S. officials who spoke with NBC News on condition of anonymity confirmed that her name was redacted at least three dozen times in an effort to avoid publicly identifying her. In fact, much of the four-month battle between Senate Democrats and the CIA about redactions centered on protecting the identity of the woman, an analyst and later “deputy chief” of the unit devoted to catching or killing Osama bin Laden, according to U.S. officials familiar with the negotiations.

Jane Mayer comments:

Her story runs through the entire report.

She dropped the ball when the C.I.A. was given information that might very well have prevented the 9/11 attacks; she gleefully participated in torture sessions afterward; she misinterpreted intelligence in such a way that it sent the C.I.A. on an absurd chase for Al Qaeda sleeper cells in Montana. And then she falsely told congressional overseers that the torture worked.

Had the Senate Intelligence Committee been permitted to use pseudonyms for the central characters in its report, as all previous congressional studies of intelligence failures, including the widely heralded Church Committee report in 1975, have done, it might not have taken a painstaking, and still somewhat cryptic, investigation after the fact in order for the American public to hold this senior official accountable. Many people who have worked with her over the years expressed shock to NBC that she has been entrusted with so much power. A former intelligence officer who worked directly with her is quoted by NBC, on background, as saying that she bears so much responsibility for so many intelligence failures that “she should be put on trial and put in jail for what she has done.”

Instead, however, she has been promoted to the rank of a general in the military, most recently working as the head of the C.I.A.’s global-jihad unit. In that perch, she oversees the targeting of terror suspects around the world. (She was also, in part, the model for the lead character in “Zero Dark Thirty.”)

A Republican Pop Quiz

by Dish Staff

A reader sent this in:

unnamed (25)

Can you answer which Republican figure said each quote? Answers after the jump:

On Obamacare:

1. Sarah Palin, former half-term governor of Alaska, vice-presidential nominee, reality show star

2. Ben Carson, surgeon and 2016 presidential contender. (Though his exact words were: “the worst thing that has happened in this nation since slavery.”)

3. Bill O’Brien, New Hampshire state representative

4. Michele Bachmann, congresswomen

On torture:

1. Marco Rubio, senator

2. Palin

3. Peter King, congressman

4. Steve King, congressman

(Though the following quote from Dick Cheney would have made a better pick: “What are we supposed to do kiss him on both cheeks and say ‘please, please tell us what you know’?”)

Torture’s Partisan Divide

by Dish Staff

It’s massive:

Torture Partisan

Jane Mayer fears that “torture is becoming just another partisan issue”:

This wasn’t always the case—it was Ronald Reagan who signed the U.N. Convention Against Torture, in 1988. But polls show both a growing acceptance of the practice and a widening divide along party lines. “It’s becoming a lot like the death penalty,” [political science professor Darius] Rejali said.

The 1975 Church Committee report, which was conducted following revelations of, among other things, covert operations to assassinate foreign leaders, was, until now, the best-known public airing of C.I.A. practices. According to Loch K. Johnson, a professor of political science at the University of Georgia, who was a special assistant to Senator Frank Church, its findings were broadly accepted across the political spectrum. “No one challenged it,” he said.

She argues “there was a way to address the matter that might have avoided much of the partisan trivialization”:

In a White House meeting in early 2009, Greg Craig, President Obama’s White House Counsel, recommended the formation of an independent commission. Nearly every adviser in the room endorsed the idea, including such national-security hawks as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, and the President’s chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel. Leon Panetta, the C.I.A. director at the time, also supported it.

Obama, however, said that he didn’t want to seem to be taking punitive measures against his predecessor, apparently because he still hoped to reach bipartisan agreement on issues such as closing Guantánamo.

And look at how well that turned out. Allahpundit, looking at the above chart, ponders the partisan split:

Both sides are way more comfortable with sleep deprivation and hitting a prisoner than they are with sticking one in a de facto coffin for a week or rectally feeding hunger-strikers. You can tease out a certain logic to that. Practices that the average joe can relate to, like being slapped or deprived of sleep, are more acceptable; practices that are more baroque, like trapping a guy in a box for days on end, or that involve some sort of sexual humiliation, like forced nudity or threats of sexual violence, are out of the ordinary and more likely to be seen as sadistic. (Note how there’s more support in both parties for actual violence against a detainee than threatening to use physical or sexual violence against him. It’s the “sexual” part of the question that produces that result, I bet.)

The one outlier is waterboarding, another baroque practice but one that’s acceptable to many Republicans and a bit more acceptable to Democrats than the box is. Why is that? Maybe it’s because waterboarding’s become familiar over time after so much public debate about it. Maybe it’s because GOPers know it’s closely linked to Bush and Cheney and feel a partisan tug to defend it. Or maybe it’s that lots of righties remain unconvinced that being waterboarded is as terrible as it’s supposed to be, at least compared to being enclosed in a coffin-sized crate for days.

As things stand, Steve M. bets that the next Republican president will torture:

I don’t know if the gloves are going to come off again on the first day of the next GOP presidency, but if we have a Sidney siege with a Republican in the White House and any of the perpetrators are captured alive, it seems likely to me that the waterboarding equipment is coming out of mothballs.

Waldman wants the question raised during the next primary:

My guess is that if asked directly, the GOP presidential candidates would say, “That’s all in the past.” But at the very least, we ought to get them on record now making clear whether they would ever consider using torture again.

The Best Of The Dish This Weekend


I’ve been really heartened by many Christians’ responses to the Torture Report’s cataloguing of evil done in our name and behind our backs. The Catholic Bishops need to do much more, but this was a start:

The Catholic Church firmly believes that torture is an ‘intrinsic evil’ that cannot be justified under any circumstance. The acts of torture described in the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report violated the God-given human dignity inherent in all people and were unequivocally wrong … We have placed ourselves through our history as a beacon of hope, a beacon of reason, of freedom: and so, this recent chapter in our history has tarnished that.” He went on to say, “It is not something that can be easily regained, but I think that the publishing of this report begins the cleaning up of that tarnishing of our reputation as a nation that is on sound moral footing.

Today, we also noted one Christian now refusing to say the Pledge Of Allegiance, with sentiments, to my mind, completely appropriate to this moment:

From reading the report, it should now be crystal clear to anyone who has read the teachings of Jesus as found in scripture that one cannot swear their allegiance to America while simultaneously giving our allegiance to the alternate way of Jesus. Absolutely, positively, impossible. The contents of the report reveal what the US has done, and what has been done is anti-Christ – pure, absolute evil.

The crucifixion of those with already broken limbs should surely have a resonance, even among white evangelicals.

I also sense a slight opening for a way forward. There is no question in my mind that these grotesque human rights violations will require justice – if only compensation for torture victims. I agree with Harold Koh that not prosecuting open war crimes is equally intolerable in a democratic society – and sends a terrible message to all dictators and thugs across the planet that they can now torture at will. But there’s also an obvious next step: give Michael Hayden what he wants.

The Intelligence Committee should insist on interviewing all the torture suspects who are busy complaining they didn’t get to give their take (even though interviews with them from the CIA’s internal review is in the report, as are the CIA’s full, considered response). For good measure, the Obama administration should provide to the committee all the documents it has on the torture program. In other words: let’s update the report with as much data as we can possibly find. I sincerely doubt that it will turn up anything less incriminating than the CIA’s own records, but this is so grave and foundational a matter, we should make every effort to have the equivalent of a Truth Commission. The SSCI report is a great start.

Some relief from the weekend: Niebuhr on the temptations of mixing religion and politics; Wieseltier on the social peace among argumentative Jews; the grand tradition of drunk professors; the last wondrous video stores; and lesbian graffiti in ancient Pompeii.

The most popular post of the weekend was Watching Cheney: He’s Got Nothing. Runner-up: this Mental Health Break celebrating New York City.

21 more readers became subscribers this weekend. You can join them here – and get access to all the readons and Deep Dish – for a little as $1.99 month. Gift subscriptions are available here (you purchase one today and have it auto-delivered on Christmas Day). Dish t-shirts are for sale here and coffee mugs here. A final email for the week:

I want to thank you for the writing you’ve done about the way we treat animals in the factory farm system.  Before reading your blog, I was vaguely aware that there was controversy, but I will admit that I was not as thoughtful about where my food came from pigsas I ought to have been.  It was your blog that introduced me to these horrifying maternity pens, which sent me looking for more information, and pretty soon after that I decided that I couldn’t be part of a system that included such cruelty.  I don’t think there’s anything morally wrong with raising animals for meat; I just think that before they are humanely slaughtered, there ought to be some recognition that these are living creatures who can feel pain, both physical and emotional.

Anyway, I stopped buying pork from the grocery store, found two local farms that raise and slaughter their animals in humane conditions, and then stopped buying meat from the grocery store all together (because what the farming system does to chickens and cows might not be as bad as what it does to those poor sows, but it’s not much better).  It’s undeniably more expensive, so we eat quite a bit less meat, which in the long run is probably a big win for my family’s overall health and small win for the environment.  So, even if there’s nothing you and your staff can do to convince Christie to buck political forces and do what’s right for these animals, you’ve inspired at least one of your readers to do what little she can by taking her dollars elsewhere.  Thanks, and keep up the great work!

I’m taking next week off blogging to deal with other pressing Dish business. Michelle Dean and Will Wilkinson will be guest-blogging, alongside our regular Dish team. I may post on torture and a few other topics, so I won’t be off-grid. Just trying to keep the Dish alive and well.

The rest of us will see you in the morning.

(Photo: The shadow of a protester in a hoodie is seen in the glow of police lights on the wall of a church during a ‘Millions March’ demonstration protesting the killing of unarmed black men by police on December 13, 2014 in Oakland, California. The march was one of many held nationwide. By Elijah Nouvelage/Getty Images.)