And The CIA Gets Away With It Yet Again


The agency that committed war crimes on a vast and horrific scale has emerged from the Senate Intelligence Committee report with what it has gotten since the 1970s: total impunity and the option to reinstate torture at any time under a future president. No consequences for torture will follow – on the president’s orders. And it can come back – thanks to the president’s backing of John Brennan who does not rule it out in the future.

But there are consequences for those who violate the CIA code, even if there are none for CIA officials who violate the law. And so the only person actually prosecuted in the entire saga was a whistle-blower. So this is no big surprise either:

The CIA’s internal watchdog will resign at the end of January, a departure that comes just months after his office found that the spy agency had hacked into computers used by Senate staffers to investigate its Bush-era “enhanced interrogation techniques,” the CIA said Monday. David Buckley will leave the agency on Jan. 31 to “pursue an opportunity in the private sector,” the CIA said in a statement.

Buckley proved that John Brennan is a liar, when he denied any such hacking. And so he is now gone. As for those CIA employees who violated basic constitutional norms and hacked into the computers of their Senate over-seers, as discovered by Buckley? What will their punishment be? Well, no surprise there either:

A panel investigating the Central Intelligence Agency’s search of a computer network used by staff members of the Senate Intelligence Committee who were looking into the C.I.A.’s use of torture will recommend against punishing anyone involved in the episode, according to current and former government officials. The panel will make that recommendation after the five C.I.A. officials who were singled out by the agency’s inspector general this year for improperly ordering and carrying out the computer searches staunchly defended their actions, saying that they were lawful and in some cases done at the behest of John O. Brennan, the C.I.A. director.

Their defense is that Brennan told them to do it – and then lied about it, and then had to apologize for the lie. This is no defense. And if true, it surely requires the president to fire Brennan for both subverting the Senate’s constitutional oversight role and also lying about it. And so we end up again at Barack Obama’s desk, where he will quietly put it out with the trash. As war criminals walk the corridors at Langley and the CIA chief who defended every last one of them sails forward with impunity. And the beat goes on.

(Photo: Director of Central Intelligence Agency John Brennan takes questions from reporters during a press conference at CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, December 11, 2014.  By Jim Watson/AFP/Getty.)

Americans Learn To Stop Worrying And Love Torture, Ctd

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

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

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

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

Read all the recent Dish on torture here.

Americans Learn To Stop Worrying And Love Torture, Ctd


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

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

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

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

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

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

Another is more nuanced:

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

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

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

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

Another reader:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Americans Learn To Stop Worrying And Love Torture


Those are tough statistics to absorb:

A majority of Americans think that the harsh interrogation techniques used on terrorism suspects after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks were justified, even as about half of the public says the treatment amounted to torture, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll. By a margin of almost 2 to 1 — 59 percent to 31 percent — those interviewed said that they support the CIA’s brutal methods, with the vast majority of supporters saying that they produced valuable intelligence. In general, 58 percent say the torture of suspected terrorists can be justified “often” or “sometimes.”

This is neoconservatism’s biggest victory since the invasion of Iraq. It means, first of all, a culture immune to fact. The Senate Report concludes from a mountain of CIA documents that no good intelligence was procured through torture – and yet by 2 – 1, Americans prefer to believe a fantasy, peddled only by the torturers themselves. The only fantasy many are prepared to abandon is that the CIA’s program was not somehow “torture”. For that admission, those of us who have tried to exhume and explain the grisly facts can receive some credit. But that credit is instantly wiped out by the fact that even when it is torture, most Americans support it.

In this struggle, we always knew we could never undo the horrors of the past. What we were trying to do was to expose a criminal conspiracy at the heart of the American government to subvert the law and adopt the tactics of totalitarian states toward prisoners – in order to prevent any of it ever happening again. We achieved the one at the expense of the other. No one can seriously doubt that there was a conspiracy, that it involved the knowing subversion of the rule of law, that it committed acts of absolute evil, and that it sunk America’s international reputation to unprecedented lows. Yet a majority of Americans endorse all of it. Because 9/11.

And the staggering levels of support for torture by Christians merely reveals that very few of them are Christians at all. Torture is not a gray area for Christians. It is the darkest stain there is. And the fact that 65 percent of white Catholics back torture tells you a lot about the terribly weak leadership of the bishops on this core and central issue. They were more interested in how to stop women getting contraceptives than standing up and being counted on torture.

Several factors play into this: the shameless and relentless campaign by the torturers to insist they did nothing wrong and even, against all the evidence, “saved lives”; the impact of CIA-blessed popular culture fantasies like “24” or “Zero Dark Thirty” which made torture seem heroic; the fathomless pragmatism of president Obama, utterly in hock to the CIA; the bureaucratic skills and sabotaging of the report by John Brennan; the broader polarization that meant that if one political party endorsed war crimes as a policy, roughly half the population would fall in line; the paranoia and panic that Bush and Cheney spread after 9/11; and the underlying American propensity for rationalizing revenge and violence, especially against anyone with dark skin and a funny name.

As an immigrant to America, this is a bit of a gut-check, to say the least. A reader channels some of what I’m feeling:

I’m a naturalized US citizen, as is my wife and kids. My wife and I were born and raised in Ireland, our kids born in London but we moved to US when they were very young. Even before this thoroughly depressing week of news on torture and politics in general, both my kids (now in college) made uncoordinated separate comments that they are now not sure if they see any future in staying in the US. My son has even opted to go to college in Canada, he feels so strongly about it.

As I read more and more of your coverage on the torture debate and the denials, it is starting to feel like I have been thrown into a dark dank pit and left to rot.

We’ve chosen this country at a moment when it has chosen to embrace torture as an instrument of policy. And that all but inverts the meaning of America.

For me, America has always been about freedom. You can criticize this country all you want, and of course it has its flaws. But that it gives countless millions a new chance at life, that it embraces hard work and new voices, that it values experimentation and exploration, that it churns with an individualism and a vibrancy found almost nowhere else is indisputable. It’s why I fell in love with America almost as soon as I got here.

But the embrace of state-enforced torture against prisoners is not just a flaw in that freedom; it is its utter negation. If a state can torture anyone – including an American citizen like Jose Padilla – limited government is over. Torture gives the torturer the ability to create fact and evidence, to enable further torture and further new “facts” to perpetuate whatever public line a government wants to propagate. It is the most extreme example of how the power of the state can utterly destroy the agency of a human being. It is tyranny in its most concentrated and totalist form. It is the negation of the Constitution. The expulsion of it from Western Europe over the last few centuries was a sine qua non for the emergence of democratic life and culture. And yet America has now reinstated it as a core part of the republic. If we ever allow a Republican to be president again, it could well return.

Despair is one option. But it is a weak one. Becoming or being an American seems to me to be to embrace a struggle, not to bask in perfection. What we have to do now is very hard. It is not to allow this to be put in the rear-view mirror, as president Obama shamelessly wants us to do; it is not to acquiesce to a government which has no effective way to regulate or control its own deep state; it is not to wallow in cheap contempt for most Americans’ comfort with barbarism, as long as it is their barbarism. It is, quite simply, to keep pursuing the facts and to keep pursuing the war criminals. What we need is a careful strategy for first firing and then prosecuting these criminals still walking the halls at Langley. There are no statutes of limitations on these grave crimes against humanity. The only limit to securing justice in this is our patience and fortitude. And we need to have copious supplies of both.

Torturing Her Way To The Top

by Dish Staff

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

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

Jane Mayer comments:

Her story runs through the entire report.

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

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

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

America’s Pro-Torture Cult

by Dish Staff

Ambinder bets that “Cheney would still have us torturing innocents, even today”:

I can only think of Cheney now as the personification of the Cult of Terror, that September 11th, 2001 political construct that gave Americans license to act outside the stream of history instead of at its headwaters, and to suppress dissent in the name of state security. What makes this scarier, even, and why I feel justified in calling it a cult, is that it also suppresses, denigrates, and stigmatizes the moral and political foundations that it seeks to protect. It’s an American cult, because it plays to our own biases about what makes us special. It is not unique or exceptional.

Chait also examines the pro-torture mindset. He contends that “admiration for the methods used by totalitarian states is … embedded in the torture program created by the Bush administration”:

Three decades ago, right-wing French intellectual Jean-François Revel published a call to arms entitled How Democracies Perish, which quickly became a key text of the neoconservative movement and an ideological blueprint for the Reagan administration. Revel argued that the Soviet Union’s brutality and immunity from internal criticism gave it an inherent advantage over the democratic West — the United States and Europe were too liberal, too open, too humane, too soft to defeat the resolute men of the Iron Curtain.

“Unlike the Western leadership, which is tormented by remorse and a sense of guilt,” wrote Revel, “Soviet leaders’ consciences are perfectly clear, which allows them to use brute force with utter serenity both to preserve their power at home and to extend it abroad.” Even though Revel’s prediction that the Soviet Union would outlast the West was falsified within a few years, conservatives continue to tout its wisdom. And even as Revel’s name has faded further into the backdrop, recent events have revealed the continuing influence of his ideas.

Will Torture Return?

by Dish Staff

Frederick Schwarz Jr. fears so:

[B]y making the story narrowly about how torture didn’t work in these instances rather than that torture doesn’t work at all and, more fundamentally, that it should never be used by any White House because it is immoral and illegal––as well as harmful to America’s reputation and the safety of American captives––there is greater risk a future administration faced with peril will say: “Well, we can do it better.”

Itamar Mann compares America to Israel:

The endurance of forceful interrogation in Israel, even after the Israeli Supreme Court seemingly banned it, reflects an inability to abolish such methods.

This reality has been documented by several important Israeli human right organizations, chiefly the Public Committee Against Torture, who initially brought the 1999 case to court. The most important question about torture and other abusive interrogation is not whether it is “civilized” or not. It is what kind of political reality it makes possible, and what kind of political reality it preserves. In the Israeli context, this was and remains an intractable political reality of undemocratic military control over a civilian population.

Thirteen years after 9/11, leading legal academics decry America’s “forever war” (as Harold Koh called it). The perpetrators of torture remain immune from prosecution. And somewhat surprisingly, last week CIA director John Brennan refused to say that the agency will no longer engage in torture. All these reflect a similar inability to move forward. The future of torture in America is all but guaranteed.

Dick Cheney’s Moral Standard, Ctd

by Dish Staff

Damon Linker is perturbed at what Cheney – “along with a distressingly large number of Americans – understands by patriotism: a willingness to do just about anything to advance the interests of the United States and decimate its enemies”:

Cheney’s hardly the first person to defend such a position. Machiavelli advocated a version of it in The Prince. It’s been favored by some of the most ruthless nationalists and totalitarians in modern history. And it’s expressed in Book 1 of Plato’s Republic by the character Polemarchus (the name means “leader in battle”), who defines justice as helping friends (fellow citizens) and harming enemies (anyone who poses a threat to the political community). This is what patriotism looks like when it’s cut off from any notion of a higher morality that could limit or rein it in. All that counts is whether an action benefits the political community. Other considerations, moral and otherwise, are irrelevant.

The problem with this view, which Socrates soon gets Polemarchus to see, is that amoral patriotism is indistinguishable from collective selfishness. It turns the political community into a gang of robbers, a crime syndicate like the mafia, that seeks to advance its own interests while screwing over everyone else. If such behavior is wrong for an individual criminal, then it must also be wrong for a collective.

Chait helpfully dismantles Cheney’s defense of torture. And Waldman focuses on his refusal to define the term:

[E]ven after this repeated questioning, we still don’t know how Dick Cheney or any other torture advocate defines it. Why not? It seems pretty clear. There is simply no definition that anyone could devise that wouldn’t apply to things like stress positions or waterboarding. Try to imagine one. Torture is the infliction of severe physical or mental suffering to obtain information or a confession — but only if it leaves a mark? Or only if it’s done by non-Americans? Any such definition would be absurd on its face.

So when people like Cheney are asked what the definition of torture is, they say, “September 11!” When asked what definition of torture wouldn’t apply to the particular techniques the CIA employed, they just repeat, “We didn’t torture” over and over. They not only defend torture as a means of obtaining intelligence, they sing its praises and insist that it was spectacularly successful, all without having the courage to call the thing by its true and only name.

Froomkin is concerned that, for Cheney, his Meet The Press appearance “was still a win – at least in the short term, until history passes a more considered verdict”:

Because our elite political media is unwilling to call out the morally abhorrent self-interested ravings of a torturer, Cheney’s statements effectively push the envelope for what is treated as legitimate debate. So while we finally have this long-awaited Senate Intelligence Committee report, full of achingly detailed descriptions of abuse and lies even more depraved and duplicitous than any of us had imagined, the media just sees the “revisiting of a debate” about torture.

Previous Dish on Cheney’s MTP appearance here. Andrew’s take here.

A Republican Pop Quiz

by Dish Staff

A reader sent this in:

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

On Obamacare:

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

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

3. Bill O’Brien, New Hampshire state representative

4. Michele Bachmann, congresswomen

On torture:

1. Marco Rubio, senator

2. Palin

3. Peter King, congressman

4. Steve King, congressman

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

Dick Cheney’s Moral Standard

by Dish Staff

Like Andrew, Conor Friedersdorf is deeply troubled by it:

Once 9/11 happened, Dick Cheney ceased to believe that the CIA should be subject to the U.S. Constitution, statutes passed by Congress, international treaties, or moral prohibitions against torture. Those standards would be cast aside. In their place, moral relativism would reign. Any action undertaken by the United States would be subject to this test: Is it morally equivalent to what Al Qaeda did on 9/11? Is it as bad as murdering roughly 3,000 innocent people? If not, then no one should criticize it, let alone investigate, charge and prosecute the CIA. Did a prisoner freeze to death? Were others anally raped? Well, what if they were?

If it cannot be compared with 9/11, if it is not morally equivalent, then it should not be verboten.

That is the moral standard Cheney is unabashedly invoking on national television. He doesn’t want the United States to honor norms against torture. He doesn’t want us to abide by Ten Commandments, or to live up to the values in the Declaration of Independence, or to be restrained by the text of the Constitution. Instead, Cheney would have us take Al Qaeda as our moral and legal measuring stick. Did America torture dozens of innocents? So what. 9/11 was worse.