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.)