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.)

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.

The Truth About Torture, Revisited

[Re-posted from earlier today]

Nine years ago, Charles Krauthammer wrote an essay in The Weekly Standard defending the use of torture by the United States. I responded with the essay excerpted below in The New Republic. I went back and read that debate this morning, just to see how it holds up in the wake of the mass of evidence we now have from the CIA itself about the torture that the US actually authorized and practiced under the Bush administration.

And what strikes me is how admirably emphatic Charles was about the gravity of the issue nine years ago. Here is a sentence and a sentiment I have yet to read in the various commentaries on the right since the report was published yesterday:

Torture is a terrible and monstrous thing, as degrading and morally corrupting to those who practice it as any conceivable human activity including its moral twin, capital punishment.

It seems to me that in a civilized and decent society, this is not something open to much caviling. Even if you believe, as Charles did, that torture was defensible in some very exacting circumstances, it is still a monstrous, morally corrupting evil. And yet that sentiment is strangely nowhere to be found on the current right. Which is itself proof of the statement. What we once instinctively regarded with moral horror has, over the years, become something most Americans are comfortable with. This is what torture does. In the words of Charles Krauthammer, it degrades and morally corrupts those who practice it. And so it has:

Torture Support

Notice that Krauthammer’s maximal position in 2005 is now dead last in public opinion: his view that torture should be used extremely rarely commands less than 20 percent support and is beaten by those Americans who now believe that torture should be employed often. Yes: often. And this, of course, is not an accident. When a former president and vice-president openly back torture, and when the CIA has been engaging in a massive p.r. campaign to argue – against what we now know are incontrovertible facts from the CIA’s own records – that it saved thousands of lives, it will affect public opinion. There are always atavist and repellent sentiments in war time. The difference now is that a huge section of the elite endorses them.

Whom should we torture? Krauthammer rules torture out of bounds for prisoners of war; permits it in the case of very few high-value terrorists; and then offers up a difficult category of torture victims – those with information about a “ticking time-bomb”:

Third, there is the terrorist with information. Here the issue of torture gets complicated and the easy pieties don’t so easily apply. Let’s take the textbook case. Ethics 101: A terrorist has planted a nuclear bomb in New York City. It will go off in one hour. A million people will die. You capture the terrorist. He knows where it is. He’s not talking … Question: If you have the slightest belief that hanging this man by his thumbs will get you the information to save a million people, are you permitted to do it? Now, on most issues regarding torture, I confess tentativeness and uncertainty. But on this issue, there can be no uncertainty: Not only is it permissible to hang this miscreant by his thumbs. It is a moral duty.

Now consider what we now know about whom we tortured under the torture program under Bush and Cheney. First off, we tortured 26 people who were cases of mistaken identity. We tortured 26 innocent people. This is so far outside any of the parameters that even Krauthammer allowed for that it beggars belief. Amy Davidson:

Footnote 32, the same one that outlines the motives for holding Nazar Ali, has a devastating litany, starting with “Abu Hudhaifa, who was subjected to ice water baths and 66 hours of standing sleep deprivation before being released because the CIA discovered he was likely not the person he was believed to be,” and including many others, such as,

“Gul Rahman, another case of mistaken identity.… Shaistah Habibullah Khan, who, like his brother, Sayed Habib, was the subject of fabrications.… Haji Ghalgi, who was detained as “useful leverage”…. Hayatullah Haqqani, whom the CIA determined “may have been in the wrong place at the wrong time”…. Ali Jan, who was detained for using a satellite phone, traces on which “revealed no derogatory information”.… Two individuals—Mohammad al-Shomaila and Salah Nasir Salim Ali—on whom derogatory information was “speculative”.… and Bismullah, who was mistakenly arrested … and later released with $[redacted] and told not to speak about his experience.”

It seems to me that proponents of torture should be horrified by this revelation. If torture is a monstrous thing, if it corrupts all who do it, as Krauthammer believes, what incalculable damage has been done by the US torturing innocents, in one case to death? Where was there any remorse – yes, remorse – expressed by the CIA yesterday for this compounding of a crime and a mistake?

Now consider Krauthammer’s view of who should be doing the torturing:

The exceptions to the no-torture rule would not be granted to just any nonmilitary interrogators, or anyone with CIA credentials. They would be reserved for highly specialized agents who are experts and experienced in interrogation, and who are known not to abuse it for the satisfaction of a kind of sick sadomasochism Lynndie England and her cohorts indulged in at Abu Ghraib.

We now know that the CIA contracted out the torture to two individuals without “specialized knowledge of al Qaeda, a background in counterterrorism or any relevant cultural or linguistic experience.”  They had never interrogated anyone – yet they got a $181 million contract to run the program. They were sadists:

John Rizzo, the acting CIA general counsel who met with the psychologists, wrote in his book, “Company Man,” that he found some of what Mitchell and Jessen were recommending “sadistic and terrifying.” One technique, he wrote, was “so gruesome that the Justice Department later stopped short of approving it.”

They had a pecuniary interest in the criminal enterprise. And they were making things up as they went along:

One email from a CIA staff psychologist said “no professional in the field would credit” their judgments. Another said their “arrogance and narcissism” led to unnecessary conflicts in the field. The director of interrogations for the CIA called their program a “train wreck” and complained that they were blending the roles of doctor and interrogator inappropriately.

So the architects of the torture program also violated a core part of Krauthammer’s defense of torture. And shockingly so. Why aren’t the defenders of torture horrified by this amateurism? Where are the Republican voices of outrage that a serious torture program was handed out to amateur contractors who had no idea what they were doing and no moral compass at all?

Krauthammer also described two torture techniques he would approve of. One was the injection of sodium pentathol – which, given the rank brutality of the actual torture sessions – would have been a mercy, but was not widely used (so far as we know). The second technique was waterboarding, the torture perfected by the Communist Chinese, and for which previous US servicemembers were prosecuted. But notice what Charles says waterboarding is:

Less hypothetically, there is waterboarding, a terrifying and deeply shocking torture technique in which the prisoner has his face exposed to water in a way that gives the feeling of drowning. According to CIA sources cited by ABC News, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed “was able to last between two and 2 1/2 minutes before begging to confess.” Should we regret having done that? Should we abolish by law that practice, so that it could never be used on the next Khalid Sheikh Mohammed having thus gotten his confession?

We now know that those CIA sources were lying. KSM was waterboarded 183 times over a matter of weeks. And the waterboarding was not just 2 1/2 minutes of panic. It was full-fledged, endless, soul-breaking, body-destroying torture of a kind practiced in the past by totalitarian or authoritarian police states:

Within days of the Justice Department’s approval to begin waterboarding the prisoner, Abu Zubaydah, the sessions became so extreme that some C.I.A. officers were “to the point of tears and choking up,” and several said they would elect to be transferred out of the facility if the brutal interrogations continued. During one waterboarding session, Abu Zubaydah became “completely unresponsive with bubbles rising through his open, full mouth.” The interrogations lasted for weeks, and some C.I.A. officers began sending messages to the agency’s headquarters in Virginia questioning the utility — and the legality — of what they were doing. But such questions were rejected.

Krauthammer argued that the torture should “not be cinematic and ghoulish.” I wonder if he regards the following as non-ghoulish:

The interrogators didn’t know the languages that would have been useful for real intelligence, but they did come up with a lexicon of their own: “walling,” which meant slamming a person against a wall; “rough takedown,” in which a group would rush into a cell yelling, then drag a detainee down the hall while punching him, perhaps after having “cut off his clothes and secured him with Mylar tape”; “confinement box,” an instrument to make a prisoner feel he was closed in a coffin (the box came in large or small sizes); “sleep deprivation,” which might mean being kept awake for a hundred and eighty hours before succumbing to “disturbing hallucinations”; the ability to, as the report put it, “earn a bucket,” the bucket being what a prisoner might get to relieve himself in, rather than having to soil himself or being chained to a wall with a diaper (an “image” that President Bush was said to have found disturbing); “waterboarding,” which often itself seems to have been a euphemism for near, rather than simulated, drowning; “rectal rehydration as a means of behavioral control”; “lunch tray,” the assembly of foods that were puréed and used to rectally force-feed prisoners.

This is what the talk of family could look like: “CIA officers also threatened at least three detainees with harm to their families—to include threats to harm the children of a detainee, threats to sexually abuse the mother of a detainee, and a threat to ‘cut [a detainee’s] mother’s throat.’ ” The interrogation of Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri included “implying that his mother would be brought before him and sexually abused.”

What this report proves – not asserts, but proves – is that the torture the US inflicted on prisoners was of an uncontrolled, nightmarish quality whose impact was so great that even the junior grunts on the night beat at Abu Ghraib knew what they were supposed to do. Remember what so many Republicans said after Abu Ghraib? They were horrified, when they could blame it on someone at the very lowest rung of the totem pole. But when it was sanctioned by the very highest levels of the CIA – and inflicted on two dozen innocents – it was kosher.

In a civilized society, there really would be no debate over this. And before 9/11, there wasn’t. Ever since, this country has slid and then fallen out of the civilized world and out of the core American traditions of humanity and legal warfare. Krauthammer can be seen as emblematic of that slide – someone whose early abhorrence at torture and defense of it only in its mildest and rarest forms has slowly succumbed to a full-fledged defense of a program that violated every rule he said should be in place to protect us from the abyss. This is not surprising. When you start to torture, the sheer evil of what you are doing requires that you believe ever more in its value. You can never admit error, because it would mean you have committed crimes against humanity without even the defense of acquiring any useful intelligence. You are revealed as monsters – and you cannot accept that of yourself or of those you know. And so you insist – with ever-rising certainty – that the torture worked – even though that’s irrelevant as a matter of morality and of law, and even though your own internal documents prove that it didn’t.

And so you become the monster you were supposed to be fighting. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.

How Obama Backed Impunity For War Crimes

President Obama And Family Arrive In Berlin

Former CIA director Michael Hayden uses the DOJ not bringing charges against any interrogators as evidence of the CIA’s innocence:

John Durham, a special independent prosecutor, over a three-year period investigated every known CIA interaction with every CIA detainee. At the end of that the Obama administration declined any prosecution. [In 2012, the Justice Department announced that its investigation into two interrogation deaths that Durham concluded were suspicious out of the 101 he examined—those of Afghan detainee Gul Rahman and Iraqi detainee Manadel al-Jamadi—would be closed with no charges.] So if A is true how does B get to be true? If the CIA routinely did things they weren’t authorized to do, then why is there no follow-up? I have copies of the DOJ reports they’re using today. The question is, is the DoJ going to open any investigation and the DoJ answer is no. You can’t have it both ways. You can’t have all this supposed documentary evidence saying the agency mistreated these prisoners and then Barack Obama’s and Eric Holder’s Department of Justice saying no, you’ve got bupkis here.

This is evidence that Obama’s weakness and vacillation on the question of torture has done great damage. Hayden is using the Obama DOJ’s own white-washing report to minimize the war crimes in the Senate report. One of the ironies in this, of course, is that Hayden has been criticizing the Senate Report’s failure to interview the CIA torturers themselves, even though the Durham investigation legally precluded that for three years. But the Senate Report had an obvious alternative to such interviews: it had the CIA’s own internal documents, its very internal conversations, in which it is perfectly clear that as they were practicing torture, they knew what they were doing could not be described by anyone as “humane”.  These documents alone are more than sufficient proof of the claims made in the report. They are definitive. More to the point, no documents were included from any other source – either to buttress or to contradict the findings. But in the Durham “investigation”, the torturers were interviewed but not the victims – a clearly rigged process designed to exculpate the war criminals.

There should, in my mind, be no debate about prosecutions for war crimes. Seriously, can you imagine the US opposing such prosecutions if they were in a foreign country? Besides, the US’ clear international and domestic legal obligations admit of no exception for the prosecution of those credibly accused of torture – let alone of those, like Cheney, who have openly bragged about it. It specifically bars any exception in the case of national emergency. Not to prosecute because of such an emergency is therefore to end the Geneva Conventions  – which is what Obama has effectively done. He must not be let off the hook for that fateful step – and what it does to the core meaning of the United States.

From now on, the US is a human rights violator of the first order under international law, a rogue state that has explicitly tortured innocent people and never held anyone legally responsible. I know that sounds terribly harsh. But how is it untrue? And to refuse to prosecute war crimes is to condone war crimes. Not burglary or robbery – but the gravest crimes against humanity that we can imagine. The perpetrators walk among us, many still in the CIA, and some holding presidential Medals of Freedom. Whatever absurd self-congratulations about this report, we should be in no doubt that this makes us no better in this respect than some South American junta before the transition to democracy.

And the fact that we are the most powerful country on earth makes this about much more than just us. It casts a dark and long shadow over humanity. It makes torture everywhere more likely, and more pervasive. It legitimizes evil. It removes from us any moral standing when it comes to Americans being tortured by these very same techniques – as they already have been in Syria, and as they will be in the future. When an American prisoner is tortured by an enemy power in the future, we will have no grounds to complain. Can we just face up to that instead of engaging in so much avoidance and denial? We didn’t just break Iraq; we broke the very structure of basic human rights that this country fought two world wars to establish.

Eric Posner thinks it’s “plain that CIA agents who tortured detainees, and higher government officials who authorized torture (up to President Bush), violated the law.” But he argues that convictions would be nearly impossible:

[T]he CIA agents were told by government lawyers that the law permitted them to use waterboarding and other coercive techniques. And they were acting in the arena of national security, under conditions of great uncertainty about the extent of their powers. The Obama administration has used a legal doctrine called the state secrecy privilege to prevent victims of torture from using evidence of torture in civil actions against government officials. If secrecy concerns driven by national security justify constraints on civil actions, then they justify constraints on criminal actions as well.

David Luban agrees that the “cases would be nearly impossible to win and terrible to lose”:

The law requires proof that interrogators intended to inflict severe pain or suffering. But since the Justice Department’s discredited torture memos assured them that the suffering was not “severe,” it would be nearly impossible to prove that interrogators met the legal test of intent.

Attorney General Holder announced in 2012 that a special prosecutor who investigated 101 cases found that “the admissible evidence would not be sufficient” to convict beyond a reasonable doubt. Perhaps he felt that crucial evidence would have disclosed state secrets, or concluded that victim testimony by accused terrorists would never convince an American jury.

The greatest danger of jury trials would be a string of “patriotic acquittals” of defendants who would say they acted to save American lives, which would create terrible pro-torture precedents to haunt us for years.

That’s by far the best argument against doing so, along with much deeper partisan divisions and political polarization. I see the logic of it – but it is based on an acquiescence to and appeasement of evil.

It also means that countless torture victims – even completely innocent ones – are doubly assaulted: not only did these human beings endure unimaginable suffering, but they are now deemed beneath even a modicum of justice. This is why not prosecuting is such a grave decision. In what other context would we ever decide that an individual who tortured an innocent person to death should receive no legal consequences for it? I submit that it would be inconceivable. That such acts are protected if they are committed by those entrusted with all the might of government power and coercion makes this all the more chilling. By not prosecuting, we are creating an incentive for such awful things to be done again. We are empowering the Leviathan to torture prisoners in future knowing it can get away with anything.

Far from ensuring that these awful crimes never happen again, Obama has all but ensured that they will. That will be part of his legacy: the sounds of a torture victim crying in the dark, and knowing that America is fine with it. It is, in that sense, the end of America as much of the world has known it. As someone who has chosen this country because I revere it and love it so, it breaks my heart, and tears incessantly at my soul.

Liberalism, Conservatism, Skepticism

Thanks to the Washington Post, Tom Maguire and Hanna Rosin, we have a glimpse of what might have actually happened to UVA’s “Jackie”:

A group of Jackie’s close friends, who are advocates at U-Va. for sex-assault awareness, said they believe that something traumatic happened to her, but they also have come to doubt her account. A student who came to Jackie’s aid the night of the alleged attack said in an interview late Friday night that she did not appear physically injured at the time but was visibly shaken and told him and two other friends that she had been at a fraternity party and had been forced to have oral sex with a group of men. They offered to get her help and she said she just wanted to return to her dorm, said the student, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.

That’s a horrific story, if it pans out. The failure of the school to investigate more assiduously remains salient. The climate for young women on a campus where many readily believed the gang-rape-broken-glass-“grab it by its leg” version does not cease to be a pressing issue. The truth could be damning enough.

So why did an inflammatory, lurid, and apparently fallacious story get into print – with only one source and no corroboration – breaking most basic journalistic rules in a serious publication? Rich Bradley is surely right: it was a too-good-to-check story that echoed what many truly wanted to hear. It managed to suggest that the “rape culture” we are now told is endemic is even worse than you could possibly imagine, and ignored in plain sight. It implicated individuals in various stigmatized groups (among many journalists and activists) – i.e. the dreaded evil trifecta of “white”, “men” and “Southern”. Its details – from the shattered glass and the beer bottle sodomy – had an irresistible allure. Questioning it was like questioning whether Saddam Hussein actually did have WMDs – it seems as if you are excusing an evil figure, or being terminally naïve, or minimizing the danger. We believe what we want to believe – and, in our public debates, we also keep searching for the perfect anecdote or fact or story to refute our opponents for good and all.

Both sides do this. Republicans couldn’t accept the already-damning and uncontested facts about Benghazi – that the danger to the consulate was under-estimated, security was lax, and people died as a consequence. They had to make the story fit a bigger narrative – of treachery and betrayal at the highest levels, a story that could dispatch Obama and Clinton in one news cycle swoop. And so they have made an ass of themselves as much as Rolling Stone has. I’ve done this too – in 2002 and 2003, when I simply did not see what was in front of my nose on Iraq. So I don’t think that the lesson of this latest embarrassment is that we do not have a grave problem of campus rape; or that anything more than a tiny fraction of those claiming rape are fraudulent. I think the lesson is to be more skeptical of things you want to believe than of almost anything else.

This is difficult, especially when you believe you are in the vanguard of social justice – and the ends can justify the means. It is much easier, for example, to believe that the vicious murder of Matthew Shepard vindicates a worldview where every straight man is a gay-basher until proven otherwise, and that the hatred of gays is close-to-pathological in its fury. It is much harder to absorb a still-terrible but much more complicated story of a horrible mixture of homophobia, the meth subculture and petty criminality.

This is why liberalism matters as much as progressivism, which is on my mind a little as the demise of TNR has sunk in. For many, TNR’s legacy of airing internal dissent, its controversial questioning of progressive shibboleths, its inclusion of some conservatives in its ranks, its constant sallies against liberals as well as conservatives, and its airing of taboo subjects, make it a risibly racist/sexist/homophobic/classist institution that deserves to die. I dissent. What it long represented was the spirit of liberalism in the American tradition – a spirit of fearless inquiry, serious argument, and a concern for the truth. That TNR failed in some of these attempts does not damn it. Not to try to confront feelings with reason, or ideology with fact is a far worse inclination. In fact, as so many instant hysterical and self-serving stories flicker across our screens and phones, we need TNR’s beleaguered liberal spirit as badly as we always did. We need it among publications on the right as well as the left. In these polarized, self-cocooning days of Facebook “likes” and doxxing, of intensifying groupthink and moral posturing, of Twitter lynch-mobs and instant fads, we need  more voices willing to question their own “side”, more turds in more punchbowls, more writers willing to be open to facts that undermine their own ideology, to express skepticism precisely in those areas where dogmatism is creeping in.

We try to do that every day here at the Dish – because, in part, I was trained and influenced and formed by some of the best minds in this great liberal tradition in American letters, and because I have tried to learn from my own errors. It isn’t easy and it isn’t fool-proof. But that tradition must not die; or, sooner rather than later, our democracy will.

(Thumbnail image cropped from a photo by Bob Mical)

Will The Torture Report Be Buried After All?

CIA Report

This is an outrage:

Secretary of State John Kerry personally phoned Dianne Feinstein, chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Friday morning to ask her to delay the imminent release of her committee’s report on CIA torture and rendition during the George W. Bush administration, according to administration and Congressional officials. Kerry was not going rogue — his call came after an interagency process that decided the release of the report early next week, as Feinstein had been planning,  could complicate relationships with foreign countries at a sensitive time and posed an unacceptable risk to U.S. personnel and facilities abroad.

First, the Obama administration set up a white-wash, in the form of the Durham investigation; then they sat back as the CIA tried to sabotage the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence; then Obama’s chief of staff prevented the report’s publication for months, by insisting on redactions of the report to the point of it being near-unintelligible; and now, with mere days to go, the administration suddenly concludes  that a factual accounting of this country’s descent into barbarism poses “an unacceptable risk” to US personnel abroad. Now, after this report has been stymied for two years; now, just days before its scheduled publication; now, because if the administration can prevent its publication this month, they know full well that the Republicans who will control the committee in January will bury the evidence of grotesque and widespread torture by the US for ever.

Of course this complicates relationships with foreign countries; of course it guts any remaining credibility on human rights the US has; of course the staggering brutality endorsed by the highest echelons in American government will inflame American enemies and provoke disbelief across the civilized world. But that’s not the fault of the report; it’s the fault of the torture regime and its architects, many of whom have continued to operate with total impunity under president Obama.

Make no mistake about it: if this report is buried, it will be this president who made that call, and this president who has allowed this vital and minimal piece of accountability to be slow-walked to death and burial, and backed the CIA every inch of the way. But notice also the way in which Kerry’s phone-call effectively cuts the report off at its knees. If it is released, Obama will be able to say he tried to stop it, and to prevent the purported damage to US interests and personnel abroad. He will have found a way to distance himself from the core task of releasing this essential accounting. And he will have ensured that the debate over it will be about whether the report is endangering Americans, just as the Republican talking points have spelled out, rather than a first step to come to terms with the appalling, devastating truth of what the American government has done.

I’m genuinely shocked by this last-minute attempt to bury the truth. Does anyone doubt that one agency in that inter-agency review is the CIA itself? And can anyone seriously believe that if this moment passes, we will ever know what happened? I have confidence in Senator Feinstein’s backbone on this. I wish I had confidence in the president’s.

So let me make one last appeal: Mr President, make the right call. Release the report. Let the facts be in the sunlight. It’s what you promised. And it’s the least this country deserves.

Update from a reader:

I think you may be interested in what Democratic Senator Mark Udall told Esquire in an interview conducted on November 21 and scheduled to run in the January 2015 issue. Esquire decided to release a portion of it today:

… obviously, if it’s not released, then I’m gonna use every power I have, because it’s too important. It’s too historic. And we can’t afford to repeat the mistakes to let this slide.

(Photo by Charles Ommanney/Getty Images)

Prepping For The Torture Report

CIA Report

I’m told we could finally have the definitive account (so far) of the Bush-Cheney torture program as soon as early next week. The Senators eventually had to cave to the Obama administration’s insistence on rendering large parts of the report unintelligible through redactions – or risk having the report buried for ever. That’s how hardball Obama was in protecting the war criminals he still employs. As a result, it will be very hard to follow how various CIA officials crafted, spun and lied about this barbarism over time. The result, ironically, is that the entire CIA is tarred with this brush, when so many in that agency did what they could to stop this brutal betrayal of this country’s core alleged values. But that is what Obama wanted: no actual accountability for any actual human being. When it comes to the gravest crimes, no perpetrator must be named, let alone punished. If you want one sign of how the CIA is a law unto itself, more powerful than any president, ponder Obama’s inaction over the last six years.

Dan Froomkin has a helpful guide today of what to look for in the report. I’d emphasize the following points.

It’s amazing that we managed even to get this. Obama has been determined, we now know, to protect the perpetrators of torture from the get-go, and to ensure that there was minimal transparency on such a vital issue. The Justice Department’s own investigation of some of the more astonishing acts of barbarity was, accordingly, a farce. The Durham report never interviewed a single victim of the torture, while finding that we should all move on, nothing to see here, etc. In fact, the only reason we have any transparency at all is because CIA honcho Jose Rodriguez destroyed the tapes of the waterboarding sessions in a brazen act of destroying potentially criminal evidence. When challenged on this, the CIA insisted that there was other evidence proving that the torture sessions were not, in fact, torture at all. And that’s how the Senate Committee started pulling at the threads.

We owe John McCain and Lindsay Graham some sincere thanks. I’ve had plenty to say about their unreconstructed neocon view of foreign policy, but on this core question of the rule of law and basic American principles, they have not wavered. They will give this report the bipartisan cover it needs, and which much of the GOP wants to deny it.

The report is very limited. What it details is drawn entirely from internal CIA documents, and nothing else. No one was interviewed – either torture victims or torturers or their enablers. GTMO is not in the report; the broader military is not in the report; only the CIA’s torture sessions in its own black sites are in the report – a tiny fraction of the vast apparatus of prisoner abuse that was set in motion by president Bush’s early and fateful decision to waive Geneva protections for terror suspects. So what we will read was just one small aspect of the barbarism this country inflicted on so many in its custody.

The report doesn’t assign any blame either. It does not prove who in the political branch authorized this or who should be held responsible for it. It will therefore disappoint many who want to see proof of, say, Cheney’s or Addington’s direct responsibility – or any form of actual accountability. What it will show, rather, is far more shocking evidence of far worse torture than we have previously been aware of (so I am told), and proof that the CIA knew that the program was ineffective.

This is what will have to do the work: the internal deliberations of the war criminals, in their own notes and documents, about both the scale of the barbarity and the astonishing deception about it that the CIA kept perpetrating. That deception was not only of the public, but also, it appears, of the political branch. We may well find out that Bush and Cheney didn’t fully know what was going on, either because Bush did not want to know or because they were consistently misled about it. In other words, it might even exonerate the political branch in some limited ways.

We must not fall victim to the drip-drip-drip nature of the revelations over the last decade of the torture program. It can inure us to the shock we once felt after Abu Ghraib first revealed the nature of the abuse. Here, for example, is what NRO’s Jonah Goldberg said in the wake of the Abu Ghraib revelations:

The damage this does to the image of America is huge. How do we look when we denounce Saddam’s torture chambers now? How many more American soldiers will be shot because of the ill will and outrage this generates? How do we claim to be champions of the rule of law?

Well, there is one way. This needs to be investigated and prosecuted. If there’s more to the story — whatever that could conceivably be — let’s find out. But if the story is as it appears, there has to be accountability, punishment and disclosure. Indeed, even if this turned out to be a prank, too much damage has already been done and someone needs to be punished. Under Saddam torturers were rewarded and promoted. In America they must be held to account.

But no one has been held to account, except, shamefully, for a few powerless individuals at the very bottom of the chain of command as scapegoats. If what we now know is far worse than Abu Ghraib, then it will be interesting to see what Jonah’s response will be.

The Dish, of course, will throw every resource we have at explicating the report. So stay tuned.

(Photo: The CIA symbol is shown on the floor of CIA Headquarters, July 9, 2004 at CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia. By Charles Ommanney/Getty Images)

The CDC vs Penises

The latest federal medical guidelines for circumcision are now out, and they emphatically want to return to the era in which infant boys are routinely subjected to the surgical removal of their foreskins – and even adolescent and adult men encouraged to cut their penises. A couple of things need to be emphasized, it seems to me. The core argument is about lowering the risk of HIV infection:

“The first thing it’s important to know is that male circumcision has been associated with a 50 to 60 percent reduction of H.I.V. transmission, as well as a reduction in sexually transmitted infections such as herpes, bacterial vaginosis and the human papilloma virus (H.P.V.), which causes penile and cervical cancer,” Dr. Jonathan Mermin, director of the CDC’s National Center for HIV/AIDS, told The New York Times.

The evidence for this is entirely with respect to heterosexual sex, and in sub-Saharan Africa, where, unlike in the US, heterosexual sex accounts for the vast majority of HIV infections. It refers, moreover, only to those cases where men are infected by HIV-positive women – a small fraction of the total HIV cases in the US. You wouldn’t know this from Mermin’s statement – which seems to me designed to scare parents with the HIV boogeyman, rather than present them with a clear sense of the tiny potential health benefits involved. (There’s no evidence that circumcision can reduce the chances of HIV infection in gay sex, which accounts for the big majority of US HIV infections.)

To flesh out its case, the CDC cites a statistic that estimates that 10 percent of HIV infections in men can be attributed to female-to-male transmission in the US. It’s worth reiterating that these statistics are estimates, not actual numbers. And the actual number of men estimated to be at risk from this kind of infection is a mere 4,000 a year. Around 2 million boys are born in the US every year. So the future risk of an infant boy getting infected with HIV by a woman, using the CDC’s own argument, is 0.2 percent, or two in a thousand baby boys. And remember, we cannot know that these men were infected by women – it’s an inference – and self-reporting on the matter is extremely unreliable.

We have some other circumstantial data with respect to HIV transmission and circumcision in the West. The AIDS epidemic was far worse in the US – with much higher rates of circumcision – than in Europe, where the infant mutilation was far less prevalent. We’ve also seen a major shift downward in circumcision rates in the US and no sudden upsurge in infection rates. Then there’s the simple fact that we now have a non-surgical preventative daily pill that prevents HIV infection, as well as condoms, providing a way for men to protect themselves from HIV without permanently scarring their dicks.

Somehow, none of this context is spelled out in the recommendations. Neither is any non-medical concern – such as not having your body permanently mutilated without your consent. The impact on sexual sensitivity is also unmentioned – because pleasure has no place in assessing mere medical costs and benefits. The reductions in the risk of getting herpes or HPV are also minimal. If I were to offer any recommendations for the final report on this, it would be for the real and minuscule potential medical benefits of circumcision to be spelled out more clearly, and the non-medical costs to be weighed at least in part. When the potential benefits of this are so marginal, the case for doing nothing – and doing no actual harm – seems to be a powerful one.

(Cropped sidebar image by Flickr user Shira Gal)

Ebola, ISIS, Putin: Meep Meep Watch

President Obama Departs White House En Route To Colorado

Cast your mind back, if you can bear it, to the frenetic last days of the campaign in the mid-terms. The world, the GOP kept insisting, was coming undone – and everything was Obama’s fault. Somehow, Obama had fumbled the response to Ebola, letting infected people into the country, and risking a huge and fatal pandemic. At the same time, ISIS represented a grave threat to American security, was expanding with no limits in sight, proving that Obama had lost Iraq or thrown “victory” away in an act of reckless disengagement. And for good measure, Russia’s Putin was running rings around the president, creating a new world order in the Caucasus, while Obama fecklessly wrung his hands.

As a piece of political performance art, you have to hand it to the Republicans. They rolled up so many base-tingling themes into one hellish, end-times scenario: Obama as Carter, unable to stand up to the Soviets Russians; Obama as secret Muslim terrorist, standing by as Islamists terrorized Iraq and Syria; Obama as a dangerous import from Africa, which is why, we were told, the “O” in Ebola stood for Obama.

Funny, isn’t it, that almost all these themes evaporated after the election. And we now, moreover, have more time and evidence to judge how the president has responded to these different, emergent challenges. There have been no new Ebola cases in the US since the election; and the demon doctor who went bowling is now cured. Today, Obama touted some other measures of progress:

The administration announced Tuesday that it has set up a network of 35 roadrunnerhospitals across the country to deal with Ebola patients. It also said that the number of labs that can test for Ebola has increased from 13 in 13 states in August to 42 labs in 36 states. The White House said the administration has also increased the deployment of civilians and military personnel in West Africa, bumping the U.S. presence to about 200 civilians and 3,000 troops. It said the U.S. has opened three Ebola treatment units and a hospital in Liberia …

NIH researchers last week reported that the first safety study of an Ebola vaccine candidate found no serious side effects, and that it triggered signs of immune protection in 20 volunteers. U.S. health officials are planning much larger studies in West Africa – starting in Liberia in early January – to try to determine if the shots really work.

The downside? The GOP is unlikely to apportion enough money to keep the progress up. Concern about Ebola seems to be acutely timed to election campaigns. Afterwards? No longer that worried.

Then the campaign against ISIS. I’m still opposed to what the administration has done. But it behooves me to note today’s key measure of real progress – the new Iraqi prime minister’s deal with the Kurds on oil revenues:

In reaching a deal, Mr. Abadi, who has been prime minister for less than three months, has further distanced his government from a legacy of bitter sectarian and ethnic division under his predecessor, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki. As prime minister, Mr. Maliki deeply alienated the Kurds and enraged Iraq’s Sunni Arab minority with his confrontational personality and policies that were seen as both exclusive and abusive. “The new team, under Abadi, is a cooperative team, a positive team,” said Mr. Zebari, a Kurdish politician who was also Iraq’s foreign minister in the Maliki government.

This is the easy part, compared with an attempt to include the currently revolting Sunnis into a genuinely multi-sectarian government, and to roll back the territorial gains of the Islamic State. But it’s a start. My own skepticism about whether Abadi was truly a unifying figure deserves provisional retirement. And the IS has been rolled back in several key areas. And Kobani has not fallen. If you take Obama’s posture at face value – that he was trying to prevent much worse happening in Iraq and laying out a years-long strategy to nudge Iraq’s democracy along – I can’t see clear evidence that he has failed. Within the very limited goals he set, he has so far succeeded.

Then Putin.

The right was all aglow either with envy of the diminutive tantrum-thrower or with disgust that he had so easily rolled the West on Ukraine. Many found the slow, undramatic unfolding of sanctions as pathetically weak in the face of such unvarnished aggression. But, again, look where Putin is now. I’m with Kevin Drum:

Ukraine is more firmly allied to the West than ever. Finland is wondering if it might not be such a bad idea to join NATO after all. The Baltic states, along with just about every other Russian neighbor, are desperate to reinforce their borders – and their NATO commitments. Russia has been dumped from the G7 and Putin himself was brutally snubbed by practically every other world leader at the G20 meeting in Brisbane. Economic sanctions are wreaking havoc with the Russian economy. China took advantage of all this to drive a harder bargain in negotiations over the long-planned Siberian gas pipeline. Even Angela Merkel has finally turned on Putin.

Russia, meanwhile, is headed for an outright recession next year, hobbled by sanctions and the collapsing oil price (caused in part by America’s shale oil revolution in the Obama years). Now, as with Ebola and ISIS, there are obvious caveats. Obama’s successful cornering of Putin could mean the dictator could get even more reckless; Ukraine remains torn apart in the East. But from the perspective of now, does Putin seem the stronger strategist or does Obama?

I point this out because the conservative media-industrial complex is really about delivering news that can work as political messaging. When the news doesn’t fit that template, they move swiftly on to something else that does. But reality tells us something different: that you should judge a presidency not by short-term panics, but by long term progress in the face of contingent events. Six years after the worst recession since the 1930s, we have accelerating growth, a collapsing deficit, falling healthcare costs and universal health insurance; a decade after the Federal Marriage Amendment, we have over 30 states with marriage equality; six years since Obama took office, we have the toughest new carbon regulations yet on the books and an agreement with China.

I’ll say it again. Meep meep.

(Photo: Win McNamee/Getty)

The Schumer Consensus

Sen. Chuck Schumer

You can barely click on a link these days without reading someone arguing that Obama’s decision to pursue healthcare reform in 2009 – 2010 was the fatal flaw of his administration. As Chuck Schumer put it, putting healthcare before economic recovery sent the wrong message to working-class whites, who have been fleeing the party in droves ever since. Today, Charlie Cook offers up the same message about white flight:

An argument can be made that it is because Democrats have subordinated their traditional focus on helping lower- and working-class Americans move up the economic ladder in favor of other noble priorities, such as health care, the environment, and civil rights.

I’ve heard this a million times now and I simply don’t understand it. In terms of chronology, Obama did put the economy first. With TARP and the stimulus and the auto-bailout, the key measures to shore up a flat-lining economy were taken in short order. You could plausibly argue, I think, that in retrospect, Obama should have gone bigger, and produced a much more ambitious stimulus. But, as someone who observed this close-up and in real time, the odds of that actually happening were close to zero. And if it had happened, the stimulus would have been even less popular – and more easily demagogued – than it actually was. The problem was not the timing or the seriousness of the response; it was the seriousness of the problem. When an economy has a near-death experience, on top of huge public and private debt, the recovery will tend to be exactly what this recovery was: long, sad at first, and later … well, we don’t know yet, do we?

More to the point, healthcare was itself a response to the wounded economy. Here’s why. It’s very hard to see how the white working classes can ever see the kind of income gains they enjoyed for much of the mid-twentieth century in the new global economy. Tax redistribution can only do so much to counteract the enormous forces depressing those wages. But one way in which the working poor can tangibly be helped is by providing access to health insurance, something everyone needs, and something that costs a huge amount for a struggling blue-collar worker. You could argue – and I would – that universal health insurance in America – is actually the most effective measure available to counteract soaring social and economic inequality. Far from being a distraction from the core Democratic task of helping the working family, it’s one of the most effective policies for that goal that’s available.

I suspect that what is really going on is a matter of perception – which, of course, does matter in politics.

The healthcare debate in 2009 and 2010 was more spirited and fierce than the debates over many other issues. The GOP decided to make it their first boogeyman of the Obama years, and organized the 2010 mid-terms around it. And politically, especially against a typically feeble Democratic messaging campaign, that made cynical sense. Even though Obama had put the economy first, the GOP could alter the debate to make it seem as if he had put healthcare before jobs. And since his healthcare proposal was successfully distorted by the right as a redistribution scheme from the white elderly to poor blacks and browns, you can see why this might lead to white flight.

My point is not that this didn’t happen in the public consciousness. My point is simply that this wasn’t because of Obama’s skewed priorities. And to blame Obama for the distortions and demagoguery of the ACA on the right is to cement the cynics’ victory twice over. But that’s what Democrats of Schumer’s era always tend to do. It’s the kind of defensive crouch that the Clintons perfected over the years. What Obama deserves criticism for is not the substance, but the inability to sell and explain and communicate the core principles and purposes of the ACA. He was so busy trying to get something through the Congress he took his eye off the ball in public opinion. And since there appears to be almost no one in Democratic ranks who can make the case except Obama, it turned into a political failure.

But that, again, is not a foregone conclusion. We are still in the very early stages of the ACA’s existence, the period when opposition is likely to be strongest, when glitches remain, when the benefits have yet to be fully or widely felt. Sure, the polling has been relentlessly negative since the ACA was passed – but that is not unusual for new and large government programs. If the economy continues to improve in the next two years, moreover, the impact might begin to reach those white working classes who increasingly view the Democrats as alien. And if the ACA brings tangible benefits to the struggling poor who are its primary beneficiaries,and as the minimum wage debate continues, the politics of class might shift again. When the debate is about removing health insurance from large numbers of the working poor – as the Republicans propose – the self-interest of the white working class might begin to work in the Democrats’ favor.

Well, we’ll see, won’t we?

(Photo: Senator Chuck Schumer waits to speak at the National Press Club on Tuesday, November 25, 2014, on what went wrong for Democrats in the 2014 midterm elections and what they must do to succeed in 2016. By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)