What Did Congress Know?

David Ignatius believes that the torture report “should have addressed Congress’s own failure to oversee these activities more effectively”:

A CIA review of “contemporaneous records” shows that [a 2002] briefing to Sens. Bob Graham and Richard Shelby and Reps. Porter Goss and Nancy Pelosi included “a history of the Zubaydah interrogation, an overview of the material acquired, the resistance techniques Zubaydah had employed, and the reason for deciding to use the enhanced measures,” along with a description of “the enhanced techniques that had been employed.”

Did the members of Congress push back hard, as we now realize they should have? Did they demand more information and set stricter limits? Did they question details about the interrogation techniques that were being used? It appears that, with rare exceptions, they did not.

I agree with David that the role of the Congress in acquiescing to torture needs far more attention. But, again, secrecy makes that very hard. I’d like to ask Pelosi on the record what she was actually told. When you absorb the full report and see the CIA’s relentless campaign of deceit about the program, it’s an open question whether they were lying to the Senators as well. There are euphemisms for torture techniques that do not convey the reality. That doesn’t excuse the Senators one bit. But maybe they did ask for more details. Maybe they wanted to stop it. But what options did they actually have? PM Carpenter asks:

The CIA’s “covert” torture program was by definition top secret. Had, for instance, Nancy Pelosi strenuously objected to the gruesome details she was hearing in the CIA’s briefings, just what, precisely, could she have done about it? She possessed no legal authority to go to the press and certainly none to effectively commit treason by blaring her horrified knowledge from the floor of the House–and taking complaints to the war-criminal Bush administration would have been like exposing unsavory extortion rackets to the Gambino family.

And it’s hard to imagine Congress g0t a complete briefing when even top CIA officials claim they were unaware of some of these abuses:

Working from CIA documents, the report said detainees were made to stand on broken limbs, or forced to take in food or water rectally. But Jose Rodriguez, head of the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center at the time, said the newly revealed abuses caught him off-guard, too. “I have no knowledge of people forced to stand with broken bones,” Rodriguez said in an interview the day after the Senate Intelligence Committee Democrats, led by Chairman Dianne Feinstein, released its report after five years of delays.

Nor was he aware of detainees being given water or food via their rectum. “Rectal hydration thing sounds like a medical procedure, but it was not part of the approved and sanctioned techniques that were given to us by our guys and approved” by the Justice Department, he said. (Former CIA Director Michael Hayden made similar remarks Wednesday on CNN, saying that he hadn’t heard of the practice, but that it sounded like a medical procedure.)

And the beat goes on.

The War Crimes The CIA Has Admitted


Yesterday, Brennan acknowledged that, “in a limited number of instances, agency officers used interrogation techniques that had not been authorized, were abhorrent, and rightly should be repudiated by all.” Friedersdorf asks why those officers are going unpunished:

If CIA officers did abhorrent things that even their waterboarding colleagues managed to avoid, exceeding the orders and legal strictures they were given, why haven’t they been prosecuted for torture as a duly ratified treaty compels the U.S. to do? Why hasn’t Brennan ever remedied the failure to hold those men accountable? Why has he allowed people even he regards as criminals to remain at the CIA?

The reason is that he does not believe the rule of law should apply to the CIA.

Dick Cheney, Michael Hayden, and Brennan make a big show of invoking the legal cover given by John Yoo and others, as if they respect the rule of law. But beneath the posturing, they oppose jailing CIA officers no matter what, perhaps because those officers know things that could put them in prison. Among torturers, there can be only one code: Stop Snitchin’. Do you think that I exaggerate? As The Week notes, the only person in jail over CIA torture is a man who tried to expose it.

The CIA is above the law. It can do anything because it can also hide anything. It took years of extraordinary hard work and political struggle to get the Senate Report out – and the CIA did all it could to derail it. It was delayed for two years as the CIA objected and objected and redacted and redacted. The president, through John Kerry, tried to kill it at the last minute. And when it is revealed that 26 human beings were tortured – because of mistaken identity – no one is disciplined. No one. When someone is tortured to death, the officer in charge of the torture camp is promoted. There is simply no other institution that exists that has this level of utter impunity under the law. And that puts the CIA in a more powerful position even than the president. If the president breaks the law, he can be prosecuted and even impeached. If the CIA does, it can hide that fact, and even if it is exposed, can escape any consequences.

What I simply don’t understand is how conservatives – those most skeptical of the power and reach of big government – are not appalled by this state of affairs. It is the biggest threat to our liberty and constitution around. And yet they defend it. And find excuses for it. And even celebrate it.

(Photo: CIA director John Brennan speaks during a press conference at CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, December 11, 2014. By Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images)

America’s History Of Torture


Beinart wants us to face it:

In the 19th century, American slavery relied on torture. At the turn of the 20th, when America began assembling its empire overseas, the U.S. army waterboarded Filipinos during the Spanish-American War. As part of the Phoenix Program, an effort to gain intelligence during the Vietnam War, CIA-trained interrogators delivered electric shocks to the genitals of some Vietnamese communists, and raped, starved, and beat others.

He argues that “when you claim that the United States is intrinsically moral, and torture therefore represents an aberration, you undermine the fight against such practices”:

Being a successful American politician today requires declaring that America is different, blessed, exceptional. Thus, when other countries torture, it reflects their basic character. When we torture, it violates ours. But the wisest American thinkers have found a way to reconcile this need to feel special with the recognition that, as human beings, Americans are just as fallen as everyone else. In the mid-20th century, men like Schlesinger and Reinhold Niebuhr argued that, paradoxically, the more Americans recognized their sinfulness, and restrained it within systems of law, the more America would prove its superiority over those totalitarian systems that refused such restraints.

(Caption from The New Yorker: “A picture of a “water detail,” reportedly taken in May, 1901, in Sual, the Philippines. “It is a terrible torture,” one soldier wrote. Credit attributed to Corporal George J. Vennage/Ohio State University Rare Books and Manuscripts Library)

Watching Cheney: He’s Got Nothing

[Re-posted from earlier today]

His interview last night is worth revisiting again. He says what he has previously said – adding nothing to the factual record, and addressing none of the specifics in the report. But he is also clearly rattled. He is used to proclaiming categorical truths about things he knows will never be made public. He is used to invoking what he says he knows from secret intelligence without any possibility of being contradicted. This interview is the first time he has made statements about torture that can be fact-checked by the record. And, he is proven to be a liar, as shown below.

When someone presents a public official with a large tranche of the CIA’s own documents and operational cables and internal memos, and that paper-trail contradicts previous statements by the public official, he has a couple of options. The first is to point out where any particular allegation is factually wrong, to show a flaw in the data, to defend himself factually from the claims presented. The second is to flail around, dodge any specifics and double-down on various talking points that evade the central facts at hand.

Cheney picked the second path. That tells you a huge amount, it seems to me. He doesn’t address abugrahib4_gallery-dish-SDthe mountain of evidence. He is simply ruling it out of bounds – after admitting he hasn’t even read it! If you had a two-bit tax evader who is presented by the IRS with a tranche of his own tax records proving he was delinquent, and he simply insisted that he hadn’t read them and still emphatically denies the charge, he’s self-evidently guilty. Why is this not self-evidently the case with Cheney?

His response to the facts as documented is simply: I know otherwise. He gives no specifics. He merely invokes other CIA official denials as an authority – when they too are charged with war crimes. That’s like a gangster claiming he is innocent on the basis of his gang-members’ testimony. He blusters on. In a court of law, his performance would be, quite simply, risible as an act of self-defense. It becomes some primal scream version of “Because I said it worked!”

Now look at what else he said. He describes this as a classic example of politicians throwing the “professionals” under the bus. One is forced to ask: what professionals? All the professionals in interrogation in the military and the FBI were kept out of the torture program, which was assigned to two contractors, who assessed themselves, who had never interrogated anyone in their lives, and who had no linguistic or interrogation backgrounds. What this report does is throw the amateurs under the bus, and among those rank amateurs is Dick Cheney.

When Cheney is asked about a prisoner chainedAbu_Ghraib_56 to the ceiling in a cell and forced to defecate on himself in a diaper, he says “I’ve never heard of such a thing.” As if that is relevant. If he hadn’t heard of such a thing, he should have. And if he hadn’t until this week, he could have read about it in the report. And then, revealingly, he immediately gets angry. He expresses no regret and no remorse about another human being’s unimaginable suffering. He cites the alternative to torture – legal powerful, effective interrogation that the report proves gave us great intelligence – as “kiss him on both cheeks and tell us, please, please tell us what you know”. Again, this is risible as an argument.

In fact, it is prima facie evidence that torture was used as a first resort, and it was a first resort because Cheney already knew it was the only way to get intelligence. How he knew we don’t know. No one in professional interrogation believed or believes it. So you have clear evidence that the decision to torture was taken early on – and nothing was allowed to stand in its way. This was an ideological decision – not a policy judgment based on evidence.

Here’s the truly revealing part. Cheney is told about a prisoner, Gul Rahman, who died after unimaginable brutality – beaten, kept awake for 48 hours, kept in total darkness for days, thrown into the Gestapo-pioneered cold bath treatment, and then chained to a wall and left to die of hypothermia. The factors in his death included “dehydration, lack of food, and immobility due to ‘short chaining.” This is Cheney’s response:

3,000 Americans died on 9/11 because of what these guys did, and I have no sympathy for them. I don’t know the specific details … I haven’t read the report … I keep coming back to the basic, fundamental proposition: how nice do you want to be to the murderers of 3000 Americans?

But Gul Rahman had nothing whatsoever to do with the 9/11 plot.

He had engaged in no plots to kill Americans. He was a guard to the Afghan warlord, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, part of an organization that began by fighting the Soviets in occupied Afghanistan. It had alliances with al Qaeda at the time, but subsequently engaged in peace negotiations with the Karzai government. His brother claims Rahman was even involved in rescuing Hamid Kharzai in 1994.  To equate him with individuals who committed mass murder of Americans or who were actively plotting against Americans is preposterous. He was emphatically not a threat to the US. Yet we tortured him to death. And the man running the torture camp was promoted thereafter.

To put it more bluntly, Cheney’s response is unhinged. It is suffused with indiscriminate rage which is indifferent to such standards as whether the prisoner is innocent or guilty, or even if he should be in a prison at all. He is acting out a revenge fantasy, no doubt fueled in part by the understanding that 3,000 Americans lost their lives because he failed to prevent it – when the facts were lying there in the existing surveillance and intelligence system and somehow never got put together.

What we have here is a staggering thing: the second highest official in a democracy, proud and unrepentant of war crimes targeted at hundreds of prisoners, equating every single one of the prisoners – including those who were victims of mistaken identity, including American citizens reading satirical websites, including countless who had nothing to do with any attacks on the US at all – with the nineteen plotters of one terror attack. We have a man who, upon being presented with a meticulous set of documents and facts, brags of not reading them and who continues to say things that are definitively disproved in the report by CIA documents themselves.

This is a man who not only broke the law and the basic norms of Western civilization, but who celebrates that. If this man is not brought to justice, the whole idea of justice in this country is a joke.

(Photos: scenes from Abu Ghraib prison, showing the results of torture techniques pioneered by Dick Cheney.)

John Brennan Is Still Lying


I watched the CIA Director’s speech today, in which he actually described the CIA as an agency “speaking truth to power.” He got that the wrong way round. There is no organization in the US government that exercises the kind of power the CIA does – over the presidency, and the Congress, and the media. It is unimaginable that any other agency in government could commit war crimes, torture innocents, murder people, wreck this country’s moral standing … and yet escape any consequences for their actions. There is no other government agency that launches elaborate public relations campaigns to discredit and undermine its Senate oversight committee. There is no other organization whose head can tell blatant lies about spying on its overseers and receive the president’s wholehearted support. There is no other agency where you can murder someone already in your captivity and get away with it. That is incredible power – and there is no greater power than the power to torture.

As for the truth part, Brennan has to concede what the CIA has already conceded: that they lied to the president and to the Congress many, many times on the efficacy of torture. But Brennan describes these lies, as the CIA did in its formal response to the report, as “imprecision”. It was therefore merely “imprecise” that, to take one of many examples, the “Second Wave” attack was discovered thanks to torture. But either something was procured through torture, or it wasn’t. That’s not imprecise; it’s an either/or. And it was presented by the CIA as a categorical product of torture – which played a part in devising the legal memos that gave these crimes a patina of temporary formal legality. That is not imprecision; it is misrepresentation.

Here’s the most we’ll ever get from our dark side overlord:

CIA officers’ actions that did comport with the law and policy should neither be criticized nor conflated with the actions of the few who did not follow the guidance issued. At the same time, none of these lapses should be excused, downplayed or denied. In some instances, we simply failed to live up to the standards that we set for ourselves, that the American people expect of us.

Translation: the bulk of the torture was perfectly acceptable; a small part of it wasn’t. Have there been any consequences for those who committed the war crimes outside those allowed for by the spurious legal memos? Nope. Has anyone been fired? Not that we know. Are most of the people involved in these war crimes still walking the halls at Langley? You bet they are. And Brennan admitted today that he knew full well what was going on as the torture program was constructed.

Now this weird circumlocution on a central question:

I have already stated that our reviews indicate that the detention and interrogation program produced useful intelligence that helped the United States thwart attack plans, capture terrorists and save lives. But let me be clear: We have not concluded that it was the use of EITs within that program that allowed us to obtain useful information from detainees subjected to them. The cause and effect relationship between the use of EITs and useful information subsequently provided by the detainee is, in my view, unknowable.

So we are now in Rumsfeld’s post-modern universe. What Brennan has repeatedly said was that we got intelligence from those in the program, but now he is saying that the intelligence was not provably a result of the torture. What he is trying to insinuate is that long after being tortured, some suspects may have given intelligence under legal and humane interrogation that helped. All I can say is that the report meticulously demonstrates that this is not the case. Or let me allow Dianne Feinstein to put it succinctly:

This is a simple matter: before or after? In the coming days, the Dish is going to go through critical cases in the report to show that Brennan is still lying about this, seeking refuge in bullshit notions of “unknowability” because what we do know from the CIA’s own documents absolutely refutes his case.

And notice the only reason Brennan objects to torture:

I believe effective, non-coercive methods are available to elicit such information; methods that do not have a counterproductive impact on our national security and on our international standing.

Brennan goes on to lie again that torture helped us find Osama bin Laden. This is disproved – not challenged or questioned, but disproved – in the report. And continuing to suggest – against the evidence – that torture may have helped get that monster is an invitation for such an evil to be imported back into the the US in the future. And, indeed, Brennan concedes that it is perfectly possible that torture will return:

I defer to the policymakers in future times when there is going to be the need to be able to ensure that this country stays safe if we face a similar type of crisis.

We have a CIA whose head believes in the efficacy of torture, and that the only reason to refrain from it is that it hurts our national security and international standing. We have a CIA head who will not rule out the use of torture in the future. We have a CIA head who believes that much of the torture conducted in the Bush-Cheney years was legal. And we have a CIA head prepared to argue in public that the facts and documented evidence in a summary of the CIA’s own documents are untrue. Because he says so.

And he wants us to end this debate and move. He has to be kidding.

(Photo: Director of the Central Intelligence Agency John Brennan talks with the Director of National Intelligence James Clapper  before US President Barack Obama spoke about the National Security Agency and intelligence agencies surveillance techniques at the US Department of Justice on January 17, 2014. By Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images.)

Darkness Visible: Your Thoughts, Ctd

Below are more emails from you on a range of things related to the Senate report:

I’ve been a registered Republican since ’84, the year I became eligible to vote.  Although since the GW Bush era I’ve voted and thought much more like an independent, I had never gotten around to re-registering as an independent for a variety of reasons, mostly inertia.

Until today.

I am so repulsed by many Republicans’ support for torture and their general reaction to this torture report, that I am unable to align myself with them any more.  On a chat board today, I read a description of McCain as a “RINO and a scumbag” for his having denounced torture, and the poster was unaware of how damning this was of the GOP.  You reminded me of how conservative stalwarts like Starr, Buckley and Will unequivocally rejected torture just a few short years ago, and compared it to McConnell’s and Butters’ reflexively cynical response to the report. Oh how fast and far we have fallen!

I just went on-line and re-registered as an independent.  I’ll be writing Reince Preibus to let him know why. I feel a bit cleaner now.

Send one to the White House as well. Another reader:

There’s something I haven’t ever seen you address but that I now see all the more clearly with the publication of this report: why we really did it.  It was NOT for the value of the information gained.  That much is clear.  So, what then? This was not a Foucauldian effort to scare the potential terrorists.  It happened because we feel that these people deserve some form of punishment deeper than prison.  Until we really call that out and confront it, I don’t think there is much point in the discussion at all.  We tortured because it felt good.

Another would agree:

Go back and watch the Jose Rodriguez 60 Minutes interview. When asked explicitly whether waterboarding Khalid Sheikh Mohammad 183 times was justified (or, rather, being subjected to 183 “pours” in a half dozen sessions), he replies:

Can I say something about Khalid Sheikh Mohammed? He’s the one that was responsible for the death of Danny Pearl, the Wall Street reporter. He slit his throat in front of a camera. I don’t know what type of man it takes to cut the throat of someone in front of you like that, but I can tell you that this is an individual who probably didn’t give a rat’s ass about having water poured on his face.

It wasn’t about collecting intelligence.  It was about punishment and revenge.

Moreover, another turns to popular culture:

Reading through your live-blog post of the torture report was surreal.  Really, that’s the only word I can use.  You commented at one point that if we were watching this in a movie, the perpetrators would be Nazis.  Sadly, I think that’s wrong in today’s America.

Think of the network TV that we have been fed since 9/11.  Jack Bauer’s 24, Criminal Minds, Stalker – a plethora of violence that is somehow “ok” because it’s gotten past network censors, because the censors are far more concerned with a kid seeing a naked body part or hearing a person say “shit” than letting the kid watch a serial killer kidnap someone and, yes, torture them for a solid hour of TV.

Beyond what this report says about America and our indescribably stupid paranoia and fear post 9/11, it is a reflection of what we’re seeing in popular culture every day.  We are celebrating people who torture people, whether it’s the government calling them patriots because they were willing (and some probably enjoyed) seeing a man repeatedly almost drowned, or it’s the media-consuming public who make Criminal Minds (a torture porn show if I’ve ever seen one) or 24 top-rated television shows.

We’ve simply become immune to abject violence. Combine that with the idea that was pounded into our heads for the last 13 years that EVERYONE is out to get us and we must do ANYTHING to stop them and I can sadly understand how this happened, how this was justified, and how everyone who should’ve known better turned a blind eye to what we as a people were becoming.

Another sees abject violence carried out by our current administration:

I am usually a bleeding heart, but as horrific as the details in the report are, I feel mostly ambivalent and I’m tying to figure out why. I think there are a few reasons. After Bush, the Pentagon, CIA, and White House have switched from black sites and EIT to signature strikes and a disposition matrix. The fact that innocent people were caught up in the black sites and tortured is the worst part of the program, but thousands have been incinerated or torn to pieces by hunks of metal because they were standing too close to a person the White House wanted permanently disposed of.

Another turns back to the previous administration:

Why won’t Bush or Rubio call Lynndie England a patriot? She seems to fit the bill now right? Her and 10 others were court-marshaled for doing their job according to Bush and Cheney.

Another has a bit of dark humor:

Oh, how I would have loved to have heard Hitch respond to a Vanity Fair editor asking him to try rectal-feeding after waterboarding.

Another is just dark:

I can’t say that I disagree with why you’re feeling such anguish.  I certainly feel it, and I don’t know how anyone with any heart at all couldn’t feel it after reading about what happened in those dank torture chambers and rape rooms.  Who’d have ever thought we’d be talking about American rape rooms?

But I think your (and your reader’s) immigrant love of America is a bit too forgiving of this country.  We are a country founded on slavery; we believed in Manifest Destiny and destroyed the indigenous population (because we could); we acquiesced to Jim Crow after a bloody Civil War; we dropped nuclear weapons on civilians; our own CIA had already perpetrated illegal acts on humans in the name of interrogating and torturing them; we had assassination units, and it wasn’t the first time.  When you express shock about the CIA treating the human body as an experimental subject, I think of how they’ve done that on American civilians.  When you are surprised about a PR campaign for torture by the CIA, I can’t help but think how it makes sense, because they have such practice at media manipulation.  The list goes on and on.

To only see the United States as a shining city on a hill is a mirage.  It has never been that.  We are a gray capital, compromised and stitched together as a kludge.  This is not “America hating” or self loathing.  We simply are what we are.  This isn’t an excuse for torture; it’s context for our national capacity for depravity.

We’re a great country.  And we’re criminal fuck ups.  That our tax dollars paid the CIA to torture innocents is not “the end of America as much of the world has known it.”  It’s just America.  It’s the United States removed from its ludicrous bumper-sticker sentimentality and empty words.  It’s our truth.  I hate that, but it’s our truth.

Another reader, however, looks at the glass half full:

Like most, I’m horrified by what the torture report reveals. I also worry how the report will influence how Americans are treated in other countries and by other regimes – whether they will use the report to justify their treatment of our soldiers. Of course that’s exactly how we should determine whether we think something is torture – if we would deem it so if it was how captured Americans were treated. (There, I think there’s little question.) I’m also angered by the response by many on the right.

BUT, I think the one bright spot in all of this is the very fact of the report and that it’s being publicly released (albeit in redacted form). As much as other countries may justifiably complain about what this says about our own human rights and asking what right do we now have to question theirs, can anyone imagine that countries like China, North Korea, Russia, Syria, etc. would ever release such a report. Hopefully, this report is what will push us to correct our behavior. Without such reports, what would provoke other countries to ever correct theirs.

Another also tries to stay positive:

Patience, patience. I do believe that prosecutions are better handled internationally and those prosecutions will take time.  Will all the bad actors be prosecuted no, but just as Nazis are still hunted and tracked US War Criminals will be hunted down and some will be brought to justice.  Look at the length of time it has taken dictators in other countries to be brought to justice, often it takes decades. Personally, I am unhappy that this is the political reality, but I do know that these kinds of crimes are likely to be punished, probably within my lifetime.

However,  often the punishment is not what brings healing and stability.  It is telling the truth and honoring the victims that brings healing.  The Senate Committe did what it had to do: oversee the CIA, and the world has not crumbled overnight.  I am willing to bet that the world will not crumble and that as others see that the truth can be told,  more and more secrets will come to light in the future. Eventually we will be able to move away from the paranoid world-view these torturers let loose.

Darkness Visible: The View From Abroad

Ugh. On top of its illegality, moral bankruptcy, and utter uselessness, the torture program under the Cheney administration was a disaster for US foreign policy, providing grade-A propaganda fodder to our enemies and rivals, infecting our allies, and making it difficult for the US to be taken seriously as an advocate of human rights. The reactions to the Senate report from around the world make these depressing facts even more obvious. Here’s China, thumbing its nose at us:

State news agency Xinhua’s website dedicated a special page to coverage of the Senate report, titled: “How long can the US pretend to be a human rights champion?” A commentary carried by several mainland news portals, originally from the Beijing-backed Hong Kong newspaper Ta Kung Pao, said that while the excessive use of torture by the CIA had been widely known, the report showed some of the methods were “almost medieval”. Turning to the question of how its release would damage the social and constitutional values the US prides itself on, and whether it would cause the country’s moral high ground to erode more rapidly, the author said that in any case “so-called ‘human rights’ were merely a veil and the excuse to put pressure on others”. The report was a heavy blow to the credibility and global image of the US, it added.

Russia joins in:

“The information that has been publicized is yet another confirmation of gross and systemic human rights violations on the part of the American authorities. Despite the fact that this Inquisition-style torture was carried out by CIA agents outside U.S. territory, this does not exempt them from principal responsibility for such deliberate actions. Simultaneously, the question arises about the involvement in these crimes of the governments of those countries (their names have been prudently erased from the report) that agreed to host the secret prisons,”[said Konstantin Dolgov, Foreign Ministry Commissioner for Human Rights, Democracy, and the Rule of Law].

And jihadists are having a field day:

“Read [the Senate report] my brother and stick your shoe in the mouth of those who say that the Islamic State distorts Islam,” one Isis supporter tweeted. Another, a Syrian, wrote: “Getting beheaded is 100 times more humane, more dignified than what these filthy scumbags do to Muslims.” Hani al-Sibaei, a prominent radical Islamist scholar, commented: “American politicians consider CIA report on torture of Muslim detainees a disgrace to America! Damn you! Your entire history is a stain on the face of humanity.” Nabil Naim, a former Egyptian jihadi leader, announced that he was ready to raise a 10,000 strong force of suicide bombers to attack America. Isis itself issued no official response.

The torture apologists will spin this as proof that Dianne Feinstein is somehow giving aid and comfort to our enemies, but the fallacy at work here is so transparent as to barely merit a response. It was the architects of this program, not the people who brought its horrors to light, who handed this talking point to our enemies.

Then there’s the reaction from our allies and clients. Hanna Kozlowska reports on how officials in Poland, which hosted one of the CIA’s black sites, is responding to the news of just how dirty their hands are:

The report, which US president Barack Obama and Polish prime minister Ewa Kopacz discussed ahead of its release, put Poland’s involvement back in the spotlight. At yesterday’s press conference, former president [Aleksander] Kwaśniewski conceded that the US had asked for a “quiet site” where they could “obtain information” from cooperative suspects. But neither he nor then-prime minister Leszek Miller, also at the press conference, said they were aware of the harshness of the interrogations. …

Among the new, alarming details revealed by the report is that the US offered Poland payment for its role in the CIA program after the detention site was up and running. According to the report, the CIA offered Poland an undisclosed sum and refused to sign an agreement with Poland outlining the CIA’s role and responsibilities at the site. Polish officials said at yesterday’s press conference that the memorandum included demands to guarantee humane treatment of the prisoners. “What country will respect us if it turns out that our authorities will agree to anything for several million dollars, even if it is against the Polish constitution?” Polish member of parliament Łukasz Gibała wrote on his Facebook page.

Poland was not the only European country complicit in the torture regime. Natalie Nougayrède wonders whether these countries will own up to it:

European countries failed to conduct effective investigations into the agencies and officials who facilitated the CIA’s work. Sweden is the only country to have paid compensation to victims of extraordinary renditions. Italy is the only country where officials have been convicted by a national court for their involvement in the CIA programme.


According to information compiled by Open Society Foundations, at least 54 governments cooperated with these CIA activities. Twenty-one of those are European, of which 17 were at the time members – or soon to become members – of the European Union. In addition to the countries above, the list of European states that were complicit in CIA rendition flights and other unlawful activities includes Lithuania (there are strong indications that this country also had a “black site”), the UK, Germany, Spain, Portugal, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Austria, the Czech Republic, Greece, Cyprus, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Albania.

While Canada’s Stephen Harper bragged that his country had nothing to do with the torture program, some Canadian intel experts say otherwise:

“It gives us a good conscience” to be able to deny participation in torture, but “it doesn’t take away the fact that we’re as guilty as them,” says Michel Juneau-Katsuya, a former senior intelligence officer with CSIS, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service. As Juneau-Katsuya sees it, Canada’s spy agencies have a tremendously close relationship with the CIA and probably had a pretty good idea how the intelligence was generated. Adds security expert Wesley Wark, “When Prime Minister Harper says it’s an American problem with an American issue with no Canadian ramifications, that’s not really accurate – or oversimplified on any number of fronts. We tapped that intelligence. We relied on that.”

In Afghanistan, where our abuse of detainees is coming under additional scrutiny from the ICC, President Ashraf Ghani didn’t mince words:

“This is a vicious cycle. When a person is tortured in an inhumane way, the reaction will be inhumane,” Ghani told a specially convened news conference in Kabul. “There can be no justification for these kinds of actions and inhumane torture in today’s world.” His announcement was a reminder of how the impact of a programme that was shut down in 2008 is still felt in Afghanistan – and how news of abusive detention still fuels anger. In part this is because it spawned a wider culture of abuse among other US security forces stationed in the country, human rights activists say, with reports of torture and extrajudicial killings by special forces as recently as last year.

Egypt’s government has remained tight-lipped, but the official line is leaking out:

Those who did react said the report highlighted the hypocrisy of the US, who have often condemned Egypt’s recent human rights abuses. “America cannot demand human rights reports from other countries when this proves they know nothing about human rights,” said a pro-regime television host, Tamer Amin, on his show.

However, not everyone was quick to denounce the torture program. The French far-right superstar and Putin admirer Marine Le Pen had this to say:

The rising leader of the Front National (FN) party said that she “did not condemn” the use of torture when questioning terror suspects, in an interview with BFMTV. “Of course [torture] can be used,” she said. “It’s been used throughout history.”

“I believe that the people responsible for getting information out of terror suspects that can save civilian lives do a responsible job,” she added. “There are times, such as if a bomb is about to go off, when it is useful to get a suspect to talk…by any means.” However, she later backtracked saying on Twitter that her words had been “misinterpreted”[.]

Unlikely that endorsement will be appearing in the CIA’s PR packet anytime soon.

Dissents Of The Day

Hijacked Planes Hit World Trade Center

A reader writes:

I’m a Republican subscriber to the Dish and a frequent yeller at my computer screen as a result – and I’ll stay an enthusiastic subscriber because you’ve got passion and smarts and personality, and that’ll more than do. But honestly, not one reference, throughout your ongoing commentary about the Senate torture report, to the 2,996 victims of the 9/11 attacks? They went to work that morning and died in horror and never knew why – surely there’s some mitigating context that deserves at least a mention alongside the allegations (and yes, ugly truths) about America’s security efforts in the wake of that attack.

Another quotes me:

All I want you to do is imagine if you were witnessing this scene in a movie. The interrogators would be Nazis, wouldn’t they? And now they are us.

No, they would not have be Nazis.  They could be Jack Bauer from 24, a critically acclaimed show that millions loved to watch for nearly 200 episodes.  Maybe you think that proves your point?  I say the opposite of course – that war is hell, that in every war bad things are done that MUST be done, and that the vast majority of decent Americans understand this as well, despite you’re preachy moralism on the Dish to the contrary. We do not, unfortunately, live in world where we get to decide between two ideals, but often we only get to decide between actions, and outcomes, that are “really bad” and “even worse”, and even then reasonable people will disagree on what should have been done. Thus some still call Truman a monster for dropping the bombs.     

Another criticizes us at length:

Dish reporting on the Senate report is not unlike Amanda Marcotte et al’s take on campus sexual assault: everything bad ever said about the CIA/Bush/Cheney is uncritically taken as true, any dissent or contradiction is dismissed/vilified out of hand.  All up, not the Dish’s finest hour. To clear up a couple of things:

1) Water boarding is torture.

2) Not all torture is the same.  Hot irons are not the same as slapping someone or verbal threats of physical punishment.  Plain and simple.  Loud music and cold-water immersion are not the same as wrenching off toe nails.  We aren’t talking nuance; we are talking intellectual honesty and reasoned examination.  It may be ugly, and it make be torture, but there levels, degrees, etc of abuse and pretending otherwise is effective only when preaching to the choir.

At least three glaring errors in the Dish’s side of this argument:

1) “Michael Hayden Unravels” – Ok, I watched it. He didn’t unravel. He did unravel the allegations in the Senate report.  This is an editing error, at best, or indicative of a very lax standard for criticizing the opposition.  You might say that Hayden was unresponsive in some respects.  That would be fair.  But that he unraveled?  No way.

2) You quote Larison, as follows, with approval: “Torture is absolutely wrong and absolutely useless, and demonstrating the truth of both statements will make clear how completely bankrupt its defenders’ arguments really are.”  The first part might be true, but the second part is debatable and by no means objectively established.  Repeatedly asserted but not objectively established.

More to the point, how does one establish that torture is “absolutely useless” without actually using torture on a systematic basis and finding out whether, in fact, it works (which itself is a subject analysis).  Because a Senate report says so?  Because others say so?  Crap.  We get that all the time, where there is some asserted, final word on some topic that turns out to be crap.  What is really at play here is a very desperate need by the Dish and its side to establish this “fact” as beyond question.  Why?  Because if torture, in some applications, does work, the absolutist argument becomes less compelling if innocent lives are in the balance and if the torture subject is shown to be in possession of valid intelligence.

I realize this is an unlikely and somewhat contrived scenario, but I am not the one making blanket statements.  If a blanket statement is universally true, then there shouldn’t be any demonstrable exceptions.  But regardless, the assertion that torture doesn’t work seems outright stupid to me.  It might not work on some people, but it will absolutely work on others.  For example, threaten my wife or my children and watch me puke up whatever you might want to know.  Truthfully, it would take less effort than that.  The fact that spies are created by blackmail indicates that relatively low levels of coercion are effective on some people.  For a different spin, imagine Peter King being able to maintain his position that water boarding isn’t torture after spending five minutes under the bucket.

3) Here’s another good one, from someone like me yet not like me: “You can be for torture, but you can’t be for torture and then claim that it’s somehow inappropriately barbaric for ISIS to crucify the innocent.”  Seriously?  So, if the only people being water boarded are known associates of ISIS John the Beheader and the sole purpose of the water boarding is to locate and neutralized ISIS John, that is really no different than randomly rounding up innocent bystanders and lopping off their heads?  Brilliant.

This isn’t a debate.  It isn’t a discussion.  It’s an echo chamber.

For the record, I think torture is wrong in almost nearly every application (and that, if used in exceptional circumstances, the law, not people, should say when and if some specified means of coercion may be applied – we don’t do any of that).  The process of asking for forgiveness in hindsight rather than permission in advance is wrong.  I think allowing one exception makes it easier to allow the next and easier still to allow the one after that.  I think the whole thing is a hellish conundrum and would rather debate marginal tax rates.

But what I don’t think is that it is as straight up clear cut as your howling would have it.  Like I said, not the Dish’s finest hour.

(Photo: A man falls to his death from the World Trade Center after two planes hit the twin towers September 11, 2001. By Jose Jimenez/Primera Hora/Getty Images)

Imaginationland Revisited


One aspect in the Senate Report that hasn’t gotten enough attention is its exposure of the actual “threats” that, we have been told, were so great that the US had to leave the civilized world and commit war crimes to defend itself. This threat would therefore have to be greater than the Nazis or the Japanese, because in the Second World War, the US never violated its core values as it did after 9/11.

So what exactly were these threats, according to the CIA? I mentioned the “Second Wave” plot earlier today. It was never operational – and in fact, one version of it had been canceled in December 2001. The other version of it never got a stage where it could even clearly be called “disruptive.” Now let’s go to the alleged “Dirty Bomb” plot – which permitted the government to seize and brutally torture an American citizen, Jose Padilla, with no due process at all. The NYT summarizes the CIA’s own findings:

For all the publicity the Bush administration gave Mr. Padilla, the committee revealed that the government never took his dirty bomb plot seriously. It was based on a satirical Internet article titled “How to Make an H-Bomb,” and the plot involved swinging a bucket full of uranium over one’s head for 45 minutes. One internal C.I.A. email declared that such a plot would most likely kill Mr. Padilla but “would definitely not result in a nuclear explosive device.” Another called Mr. Padilla “a petty criminal” and described the dirty bomb plot as “lore.”

We tortured a petty criminal to the point of his complete psychological and physical breakdown … because of a satirical Internet article? Adam Taylor provides more:

According to the CIA report, Padilla and Mohammed later told investigators that the dirty bomb plot was a ruse to get out of Pakistan and avoid fighting in Afghanistan. It doesn’t seem to have been taken seriously by al-Qaeda at any point.

Then there is the case of the alleged attempt to destroy the Brooklyn Bridge:

KSM said that he had once tasked Mr. Faris with finding tools to loosen the bolts of American suspension bridges, but that Mr. Faris had been unable to do so. The F.B.I. had already been following Mr. Faris at that point, and when agents approached him, he talked voluntarily, the report showed. Separately, C.I.A. officials played down the likelihood of the bridge attack. “We risk making ourselves look silly if the best we can do is the Brooklyn Bridge,” one official wrote in 2005.

The plot to attack Canary Wharf and Heathrow in London? Another dud:

The plot was labeled “not imminent” because Al Qaeda had not identified pilots for the mission.

Do you see a pattern here? Everything we were told about the imminence of terrifying terror attacks after 9/11 was a huge exaggeration of the actual risks we faced. Which means that the torture program was set up to prevent a fantasy built on fear and panic – not on real threats to the homeland, let alone thousands of American lives. What you get from this report is a clear sense that on 9/11, thanks in part to incompetence at the CIA, the Jihadists got lucky. That’s all. It was not the beginning of a wave of terror; it did not reveal the existence of a massive clandestine plot to attack the US with WMDs or flocks of suicide bombers. We were fighting a menace that was a pathetic shadow of what we actually believed. And the people who are supposed to have an adult assessment of the risks, the men in charge of the US government, threw out any skepticism, trashed any contrary analysis, and went head-first into this astonishing campaign of torture, bombing and invasion in what history will surely judge was the most grotesque over-reaction to a threat in American history.

Douthat also concludes that the threats against America were exaggerated:

I’ve read enough to be confident that torture is often ineffective, but also to doubt the (frankly, convenient) certainty with which that ineffectiveness is touted. But my point here is that whether those tactics gained us something or not, the absence of a single successful domestic attack in the years when they were employed is still a strong indicator that the decision to use extraordinary measures, at least one of them intrinsically torturous and some of them likely to be abused in ways that made them torturous in fact, was based on an overestimation of the threat we faced — and an even stronger indicator is the absence of a successful domestic attack in all the long years (eleven or ten or nine, depending on how you count) since they’ve been discontinued. …

Yes, maybe our intelligence agencies are miraculously maintaining a perfect record, relying on intelligence cleaned exclusively in a narrow window, against a genuinely fearsome foe. But the preponderance of the evidence, plus everything we know about American government, suggests that this perfection has to reflect our enemy’s weakness-cum-incompetence more than any extraordinary effectiveness on our part, and that whatever tactics we allow ourselves to use against him, our foe is just not so fearsome after all.

But the key thing about a torture program is that, once you have crossed the Rubicon into barbarism, it’s psychologically impossible to believe it was to defuse … basically nothing. So what happens is that you have leading figures simply denying reality. This is a function of the denialism all too common among torturers of all kinds. Froomkin:

A fascinating footnote to the Padilla case involves the CIA’s refusal to admit its error, even years later. In 2008, the Intelligence Committee sent the CIA a question: “Why was this information [related to Padilla], which was not obtained through the use of EITs, included in the ‘Effectiveness Memo’?”

Committee investigators found that one CIA official drafted a response admitting that the agency had “simply inadvertently reported this wrong. Abu Zubaydah provided information on Jose Padilla while being interrogated by the FBI.”

But someone higher up on the foodchain had that draft killed. The truth was simply too much of a threat.

Too much of a threat to the cognitive dissonance required to defend the indefensible. Seven years ago, trying to make sense of what we then knew, I wrote:

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.

I’ve had occasion on this blog to note the many times I have been wrong about something. But on this, I was clearly right. And the CIA’s internal documents now prove it.

This is therefore an astonishing moment in American history. The rationale of an entire war has been debunked. There were no threats even close to existential, and none that were imminent. We invaded two countries, caused the deaths of tens of thousands of innocents, killed nearly 5,000 American servicemembers and maimed countless more, destroyed our moral standing in the world, and wrecked our alliances .. to prevent a few unrealised, often-amateur Jihadist plots. I struggle to think of any fuck-up in American history that rivals this. And none on this scale in which no one is held accountable.

(Photo: a rare glimpse of the total sensory deprivation inflicted on an American citizen Jose Padilla, a man tortured until his body and soul were broken because of a satirical Internet article.)

What Did Bush Know And When Did He Know It?

For me, the question remains a fascinating one. The revelation that the first briefing that Bush got on waterboarding was in 2006 is a staggering finding. His own book contradicts this. But the CIA has no records of briefings other than that. And their internal response to his 2006 speech showed how distant they were. When he indicated that no inhumane practices were being used, the CIA wondered if their program had been suspended without their knowledge!

But Fred Kaplan doesn’t buy the claim that Bush didn’t know what was going on:

[L]et’s take a close look at the committee’s claim that Bush wasn’t briefed on the program until it had nearly run its course: “According to CIA records,” the report states, “no CIA officer, up to and including CIA Directors George Tenet and Porter Goss, briefed the president on the specific CIA enhanced interrogation techniques before April 2006.”

I’ve italicized two words in this passage, for emphasis. The second word is key: Bush wasn’t briefed on the “specific” techniques till 2006. Under the well-known rules of plausible deniability, he would not have wanted to know too much about these specifics. As indicated in the station chief’s presentation, it’s not that the CIA didn’t tell the president certain details; it’s that the president didn’t want the CIA to tell him.

I think that’s easily the best explanation. Bush was briefed the way we all were about “enhanced interrogation” in language designed to obscure the reality. “Long-time-standing,” for example, sounds relatively mild. It does not fully convey the fact that prisoners with broken legs and feet were put in stress positions – the kind of torture you’d expect from ISIS. But there was surely also a desire not to know, not to have direct and explicit knowledge of what was actually being done, because of the immense gravity of the crimes. Who protected him? Almost certainly Alberto Gonzales. Maybe Condi.

Here’s my best guess after puzzling about this for a decade. Bush made the fateful decision to waive core Geneva protections from prisoners suspected of terrorism early on. That was his signal. He told everyone in the CIA (and beyond) in a moment of extreme emotion that you could do anything to these prisoners you wanted. In that sense, Bush is completely and personally responsible for every act of torture on his watch. He is as responsible as the men who decided to waterboard a prisoner until hardened operatives choked up and walked away.

But he then disappears in the CIA records – and Obama refused to give the Senate Committee the White House records that could have cleared it up (another instance of Obama covering up evidence of war crimes). Cheney presumably handles it all – with Addington doing clean-up – giving Bush the reassurances that a) the torture was giving up vital information saving lives (a lie) and b) that it was all legal (only by making an ass of the law in memos that were subsequently rebuked and rescinded). I suspect that this was all Bush decided he wanted to know: it works and it’s legal. And the famously incurious president didn’t want to know any more. I remember in 2005 asking a very senior administration official if we were torturing prisoners. The carefully parsed response, after looking down and away from me: “The president doesn’t believe we’re torturing people.” They were crafting a way to insulate him from war crimes done in his name.

Serwer likewise finds it “hard to believe that the Bush administration couldn’t have had any clue about what was really going on at the CIA”:

Less than a week after the 9/11 attacks, Bush signed an order allowing the CIA to detain and interrogate terror suspects, and in February 2002, he signed “a memorandum stating that the Third Geneva Convention did not apply to the conflict with al Qaeda and concluding that Taliban detainees were not entitled to prisoner of war status or the legal protections afforded by the Third Geneva Convention,” according to a 2008 Senate Armed Services’ Committee investigation.

So: Mere months after the 9/11 attacks, the Bush administration was already rewriting the law to make it easy to torture detainees in U.S. custody. You don’t start declaring exceptions to the Geneva Convention if all you’re planning to do is play a competitive game of spades.

The CIA is not “a rogue elephant,” in the deathless phrase of Senator Frank Church, who ran the pioneering congressional investigation of the agency four decades ago. If the beast tramples people, it’s the mahout, the elephant driver, who is to blame. There was clearly one person driving this program, whether he knew what the elephant was doing in his name or not.

The mahout in the Senate report is the president of the United States.

And he stands accused of war crimes in front of the whole world.