Obama And Torture: The Record Gets Worse


We are still, of course, waiting for the Senate Intelligence Committee Report to be released to the public. It’s been forever since it was finished, and forever since the CIA managed to respond, and the endless process goes on and on – even after John Brennan’s attempt to spy on the very committee supposed to oversee his out-of-control agency, and then lie about it. The very fact that Brennan is still in his job – after displaying utter contempt for the Constitution and the American people – tells you all you really need to know about where Obama really stands on this question. He stands for protecting the CIA – and Denis McDonough, his chief-of-staff, has become the CIA’s indispensable ally in enabling not only its immunity from any prosecution for war crimes, but from even basic democratic accountability.

So it does not, alas, surprise me to find this anecdote in Leon Panetta’s memoir:

The extent of the Obama’s fury over the [Senate Committee’s] study was revealed in a memoir by former CIA Director Leon Panetta that was released this month. The president, he wrote, was livid that the CIA agreed in 2009 to give the committee access to millions of the agency’s highly classified documents. “The president wants to know who the f— authorized this release to the committees,” Panetta recalled then-White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel shouting at him. “I have a president with his hair on fire and I want to know what the fuck you did to fuck this up so bad!”

We don’t have merely passive indifference to the CIA’s record on torture, we have active opposition to the entire inquiry from the very beginning of Obama’s term in office. If you want to know why we are still waiting for the report almost two years since it was finished, and if you want to know why the White House refused to provide mountains of internal documents that would have added to the report’s factual inquiries, just absorb the anecdote above. And if you want to know why the White House did nothing to discipline the CIA after it hacked into the Senate Committee’s own computers, ditto. It’s impossible not to conclude that Obama wants as little of this material made public as possible. His pledge for the most transparent administration in history ends, it seems, at Langley.

The question is: why? The answer, I’d wager, is pretty simple and deeply depressing. From the very beginning, Obama was told (and apparently believed) that if he attempted to investigate or cooperate in any inquiry into the CIA’s war crimes, he would “lose the agency,” as they say in Washington. It’s a curious phrase when you come to think about it: “lose the agency”. In what other branch of abu_ghraib_thumbgovernment would cooperating with a Congressional investigation into alleged misconduct risk “losing the agency”? There’s an implicit sense here that the CIA can and will retaliate against presidents who dare to hold it to account. And that kind of conventional wisdom is what led Emanuel and now McDonough to protect the CIA at nearly any cost.

The current battle – in which McDonough is apparently indistinguishable from John Brennan – is over the extent of the redactions in the report. They’re already voluminous, but the CIA is now asking for unprecedented concessions in order to make the report as hard to understand as possible and to render critical narratives impossible to follow. So, for example, they are objecting to the use of pseudonyms to identify individuals who crop up often in the report, alleging that they somehow risk agents’ lives.

But the pseudonyms in the report are not the pseudonyms that agents use to protect their actual identities; they are merely completely fictional names in order to clarify an individual’s role over time in the torture program. Without them it could become close to impossible to make sense of the torture narrative. In the past, moreover, all sorts of reports that have emerged from government inquiries – from the Church Committee to Iran-Contra – have used real names for some individuals, and pseudonyms for others, in laying out their conclusions. But not this time, apparently. And even from the CIA’s perspective, this battle makes little sense. If all identifying pseudonyms are turned into black spaces, it can lead to the impression that the agency as a whole was responsible for various war crimes, as opposed to pseudonymous individuals within it. Removing pseudonyms actually paints the entire CIA with a much broader and darker brush than it deserves – for there were many in the CIA appalled and shocked by the amateurish brutality of the program, and many who were integral to ending it.

Then there is an attempt to redact parts of the report that include the history of intelligence before the torture program was put into effect. The CIA wants this removed as irrelevant, but in the context of the report, it can be highly relevant. If, for example, it can be shown that a certain piece of intelligence was already known in the CIA before the torture program, and a torturer subsequently claimed it was discovered in a torture session, then it is highly relevant for that history to be known. For it proves that torture was not necessary and that many of the claims for its success were without key context and therefore deeply misleading.

Yesterday’s McClatchy story leads with the notion that the report does not follow the trail of responsibility up to Bush, Cheney, Tenet, Rumsfeld et al, and is thereby somehow toothless.

But the committee was an investigation specifically into the CIA’s records on the program, to get a full accounting of what happened within that agency. It was not tasked with the essentially political job of holding the White House responsible. And it may be, in fact, that even some of the most powerful individuals in the Bush administration were actually unaware of what was really going on, or that they were merely repeating what the CIA was telling them, and the CIA was lying to cover its ass. That does not minimize the political responsibility of president Bush and others for presiding over such a grotesque torture program; but it’s essential context for understanding what actually happened.

That’s what this Committee report is really about. It is not about assigning responsibility for torture. It is merely the legislative branch’s completely legitimate inquiry into how on earth a democratic society could have sunk so low so fast in the war on Jihadist terrorism. It is the beginning of that process of truth and accountability, not its end. But even that minimal task of fact-finding has been stymied, obstructed and foiled by the CIA from the very beginning. And in that process, the president has been one of the CIA’s strongest defenders and enablers.

In no way does that mean that Obama bears the responsibility for this hideous stain on this country’s integrity and values. It does mean, however, that we have a government agency that is effectively beyond any democratic accountability – even when it commits war crimes. Something is rotten in this national security state. And it is our duty to expose it – and do what we can to make it better.

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

Obama Is Now Covering Up Alleged Torture, Ctd


But not any more:

A Federal District Court judge on Friday ordered the public disclosure of 28 classified military videotapes showing the forced cell extraction and forced feeding of a hunger-striking Guantánamo Bay detainee, rejecting the Obama administration’s arguments that making the videos public would endanger national security. The New York Times and 15 other news organizations had petitioned to unseal the videos. In a 28-page opinion, Judge Gladys Kessler of the United States Court for the District of Columbia cited the First Amendment in overriding the government’s arguments for keeping them secret, most of which, she said, were “unacceptably vague, speculative,” lacking specificity or “just plain implausible.”

In order to judge whether the government is engaged in a form of torture, it’s essential that we see what it is doing to prisoners. Words are not enough. If the photos from Abu Ghraib had never been released, we would have only the euphemisms of “long-time standing” or “stress positions” to understand the brutality and inhumanity involved. And we know why the CIA destroyed the video evidence of its brutal torture of José Padilla (an American citizen) or Khaled Sheikh Muhammed (one of the masterminds of 9/11). They would have shocked the conscience and made the reassurances of our highest officials that the United States has not committed offenses usually associated with dictatorships transparently false.

There are credible claims that the kind of force-feeding inflicted on prisoners goes beyond medical needs to brutality. Here’s part of what is alleged:

At Gitmo, they began to use tubes that were too big for Hassan’s nostrils. Rather than leaving them in place, they would insert and remove them twice a day. Prisoners were force-fed in what Hassan called “the Torture Chair.” Hands, legs, waist, shoulders and head were strapped down tightly. The men were also force-fed constipation drugs, causing them to defecate on themselves as they sat in the chair being fed. “People with hemorrhoids would leave blood on the chair and the linens would not always be changed before the next feeding.” They’d be strapped down amid the shit and blood for up to two hours at a time–though quicker wasn’t always better.

There are claims that this agony was on display to deter others from hunger-striking. It seems to me particularly important for a president committed to ending torture to prove that he isn’t continuing it – even if it is for the sake of keeping someone alive. For my part, I see suicide by hunger strike to be a perfectly rational response to the Kafkaesque vortex these men are in – and a violation of their core human dignity to prevent them from seeking the only way out of their nightmare that Gitmo can give them.

Lots of previous Dish debate on force-feeding here. The above photo is from a series of government photos from the Gitmo hunger strike.

We Tortured. It Was Wrong. Never Mind.

I’ve wondered for quite a while what Barack Obama thinks about torture. We now know a little more:

Even before I came into office I was very clear that in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 we did some things that were wrong.  We did a whole lot of things that were right, but we tortured some folks.  We did some things that were contrary to our values.

torturefoia_page3_full.gifI understand why it happened.  I think it’s important when we look back to recall how afraid people were after the Twin Towers fell and the Pentagon had been hit and the plane in Pennsylvania had fallen, and people did not know whether more attacks were imminent, and there was enormous pressure on our law enforcement and our national security teams to try to deal with this.  And it’s important for us not to feel too sanctimonious in retrospect about the tough job that those folks had.  And a lot of those folks were working hard under enormous pressure and are real patriots.

But having said all that, we did some things that were wrong.  And that’s what that report reflects.  And that’s the reason why, after I took office, one of the first things I did was to ban some of the extraordinary interrogation techniques that are the subject of that report.

And my hope is, is that this report reminds us once again that the character of our country has to be measured in part not by what we do when things are easy, but what we do when things are hard.  And when we engaged in some of these enhanced interrogation techniques, techniques that I believe and I think any fair-minded person would believe were torture, we crossed a line.  And that needs to be — that needs to be understood and accepted.  And we have to, as a country, take responsibility for that so that, hopefully, we don’t do it again in the future.

What to make of this?

I don’t think it’s that big a deal that he used the English language to describe what was done, in any fair-minded person’s judgment. He’s said that before now. And his general position hasn’t changed. Let me paraphrase: We tortured. It was wrong. Never mind. So he tells the most basic version of the truth – that the US government authorized and conducted war crimes – and hedges it with an important caveat: We must understand the terribly fearful circumstances in which this evil was authorized. But equally, he argues that the caveat does not excuse the crime: “the character of our country has to be measured in part not by what we do when things are easy, but what we do when things are hard.”

This latter point is integral to the laws against torture – but completely guts his first point. As I noted with the UN Convention, the prohibition is absolute:

No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture.

Cheney, Bush, Tenet, and Rumsfeld all knew this from the get-go. That’s why they got their supine OLC to provide specious justifications for the legally prohibited. That’s why they won’t use the word “torture,” instead inventing an Orwellian euphemism. And, of course, the president’s excuse for them – that “in the immediate aftermath of 9/11,” we did wrong things – is deeply misleading. This went on for years abughraibleash.jpgacross every theater of combat. What about what Abu Ghraib revealed about the scope of torture in the battlefield much later on? What about 2005 when they secretly re-booted the torture program? This was a carefully orchestrated criminal conspiracy at the heart of the government by people who knew full well they were breaking the law. It cannot be legally or morally excused by any contingency. It cannot be treated as if all we require is an apology they will never provide.

Yet that’s what the president’s acts – as opposed to his words – imply. And that’s what unsettles me. It is not as if the entire country has come to the conclusion that these war crimes must never happen again. The GOP ran a pro-torture candidate in 2012; they may well run a pro-torture candidate in 2016. This evil – which destroys the truth as surely as it destroys the human soul – is still with us. And all Obama recommends for trying to prevent it happening again is a wistful aspiration: “hopefully, we don’t do it again in the future.” Hopefully?

Then there’s the not-so-small matter of the rule of law.

Call me crazy but I do not believe that the executive branch can simply allow heinous crimes to go unpunished just because they were committed … by the executive branch. It seems to me, to paraphrase the president on agabuse.jpgFriday, that the rule of law “has to be measured in part not by what we do when things are easy, but what we do when things are hard.” How many times does the United States government preach about international law and Western values? On what conceivable grounds can we do so when our own government can commit torture on a grand and brutal scale for years on end – and get away with it completely?

Either the rule of law applies to the CIA or it doesn’t. And it’s now absolutely clear that it doesn’t. The agency can lie to the public; it can spy on the Senate; it can destroy the evidence of its war crimes; it can lie to its superiors about its torture techniques; it can lie about the results of those techniques. No one will ever be held to account. It is inconceivable that the United States would take this permissive position on torture with any other country or regime. Inconceivable. And so the giant and massive hypocrisy of this country on core human rights is now exposed for good and all. The Bush administration set the precedent for the authorization of torture. The Obama administration has set the precedent for its complete impunity.

America has killed the Geneva Conventions just as surely as America made them.

(Photo: a page on enhanced interrogation techniques via a FOIA request.)

Why Hasn’t John Brennan Resigned?

CIA Director John Brennan Speaks At The Council On Foreign Relations

I offer you a simple set of facts: under the Bush administration, the CIA set up a program that indisputably contained torture techniques; in due course, the Senate Intelligence Committee investigated the program in order to get some clarity as to its intent, its techniques, its authorization and its results; as the Committee was doing its work, the CIA hacked its computers in order to craft its own defense and suss out what the Committee had discovered. When Senator Feinstein publicly accused the CIA of this grotesque interference in its affairs, and assault on the constitutional separation of powers, the CIA chief, John Brennan said:

As far as the allegations of, you know, CIA hacking into, you know, Senate computers, nothing could be further from the truth. I mean, we wouldn’t do that. I mean, that’s—that’s just beyond the—you know, the scope of reason in terms of what we would do.

At the time I wrote: “Either Brennan or Feinstein isn’t telling the truth. ” We now know it was Brennan who wasn’t telling the truth, as the CIA itself has now acknowledged in its own internal report that it did exactly that – something “beyond the scope of reason”. Indeed it is beyond the scope of reason. It was also beyond the scope of reason that the CIA would import the torture and brain-washing techniques of Communist China in order to glean intelligence from captured enemy combatants. And yet they did that as well. But the attempt to obstruct justice by hacking into the Senate’s computers adds something else to the original crime. Let’s recall what DiFi said back in March:

Here’s her conclusion:

I have grave concerns that the CIA’s search may well have violated the separation of powers principles embodied in the United States Constitution, including the speech and debate clause. It may have undermined the constitutional framework essential to effective congressional oversight of intelligence activities or any other government function. … The CIA’s search may also have violated the Fourth Amendment, the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act as well as Executive Order 120003, which prohibits the CIA from conducting domestic searches or surveillance.

This is not a minor matter – it is a hugely important matter in terms of the constitution and the rule of law. We’re talking here about crimes and deception. How are we supposed to believe another word that comes out of Brennan’s mouth? And how desperate must the CIA have been to cover up its crimes that it took this extraordinary step of spying on the Senate that oversees it?

I submit that either Brennan knew nothing of what was going on and had no grip on his own agency; or he knew full well and was brazenly lying in public. In either case, under his watch, the CIA tried to subvert a critical Congressional report on its own criminal history.

I’m with David Corn:

Brennan owes the nation an explanation for his own actions. Why did he put out a false cover story? Was he bamboozled by his own squad? Was he trying to stonewall?

The CIA conducts much of its business in secrecy; and most of Congress’ vetting of the CIA likewise occurs out of public view. Effective oversight requires trust and cooperation between the two—and there must be that trust and cooperation for the public to have confidence that the oversight system works. But there also has to be public trust in those who lead the CIA. Brennan’s initial public statements about this scandal severely undermine his credibility. He owes the public a full accounting. If he remains in the job, President Barack Obama will owe the public an explanation for why he retained an intelligence chief who misled the public about CIA misconduct.

(Photo: Central Intelligence Agency Director John Brennan takes questions from the audience after addressing the Council on Foreign Relations in in Washington, DC on March 11, 2014. Brennan denied accusations by U.S. senators who claim the CIA conducted unauthorized searches of computers used by Senate Select Committee on Intelligence staff members in an effort to learn how the committee gained access to the agency’s own 2009 internal review of its detention and interrogation program, undermining Congress oversight of the spy agency. By Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.)

John Brennan’s Latest Lie

The torture-defender and CIA loyalist insisted earlier this year that the CIA never deliberately hacked the Senate Intelligence Committee to undermine its vital report on war crimes under Bush and Cheney. Here’s what he said:

When the facts come out on this, I think a lot of people who are claiming that there has been this tremendous sort of spying and monitoring and hacking will be proved wrong.

Really? So here are the facts on this:

An internal investigation by the Central Intelligence Agency has found that its officers improperly penetrated a computer network used by the Senate Intelligence Committee in preparing its report on the C.I.A.’s detention and interrogation program. In a statement issued Thursday morning, a C.I.A. spokesman said that agency’s inspector general had concluded that C.I.A. officers had acted inappropriately by gaining access to the computers. The statement said that John O. Brennan, the C.I.A. director, had apologized to the two senior members of the Senate Intelligence Committee and that he would set up an internal accountability board to review the matter.

Brennan apologized this week to Senators. I doubt he will ever apologize to the American people.

The Torturers’ Non-Defense

As we await the release of the Senate Intelligence Committee report on the Bush-Cheney torture program, some of those likely to go down in history as war criminals are gearing up for a self-defense. George Tenet, we are told, is among them. Here is how he once defended himself:

Mr. Tenet flashed his anger at these accusations in 2007, when he was asked about the interrogation program during an interview with the CBS program “60 Minutes.” Wagging a finger at the correspondent, Scott Pelley, Mr. Tenet said over and over, “We don’t torture people.”

“No, listen to me. No, listen to me. I want you to listen to me,” he went on. “Everybody forgets one central context of what we lived through: The palpable fear that we felt on the basis of that fact that there was so much we did not know. I know that this program has saved lives. I know we’ve disrupted plots.”

There are two defenses here: it wasn’t torture (even though it looks like it); and it was justified given the terrible intelligence failures of Tenet’s CIA operatives, who had no idea where the next attack might be coming from. It’s worth recalling in that context the actual words of the UN Convention Against Torture, which was signed by Ronald Reagan and torn to shreds by Dick Cheney. It guts both lines of Tenet’s purported defense. First up, there can be no attempt to craft techniques that are close to torture but designed to slip through a legal loophole. The Treaty’s full title is, for example, “Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment“. The definition of torture is this:

any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity. It does not include pain or suffering arising only from, inherent in or incidental to lawful sanctions.

Intimidation and coercion are also expressly forbidden, when implemented and authorized by an officer of state. President Reagan included the broad definition in his signing statement:

The United States participated actively and effectively in the negotiation of the Convention. It marks a significant step in the development during this century of international measures against torture and other inhuman treatment or punishment. Ratification of the Convention by the United States will clearly express United States opposition to torture, an abhorrent practice unfortunately still prevalent in the world today.

In other words, the entire point of the Convention is to prevent any wriggle room around what torture is and to include inhumanity. And if you don’t believe that stretching people till their limbs break, near-drowning them hundreds of times, hounding them day and night with sleep deprivation, or subjecting them to freezing temperatures, mock executions and amount to inhumanity, you are no longer human. In a court of law, Tenet would be out of luck.

Just as important, the context is irrelevant. Tenet’s plea to understand the context he was working in has no place here:

No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture.

Get that? Read it again.