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America’s embrace of war crimes (if done by the US)

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Tom Englehardt writes at

Let’s take a moment to think about the ultimate strangeness of our American world.  In recent months, Donald Trump and Ted Cruz have offered a range of hair-raising suggestions: as president, one or the other of them might order the U.S. military and the CIA to commit acts that would include the waterboarding of terror suspects (or “a hell of a lot worse”), thekilling of the relatives of terrorists, and the carpet bombing of parts of Syria.  All of these would, legally speaking, be war crimes.  This has caused shock among many Americans in quite established quarters who have decried the possibility of such a president, suggesting that the two of them are calling for outright illegal acts, actual “war crimes,” and that the U.S. military and others would be justified in rejecting such orders.  In this context, for instance, CIA Director John Brennan recently made it clear that no Agency operative under his command would ever waterboard a suspect in response to orders of such a nature from a future president.  (“I will not agree to carry out some of these tactics and techniques I’ve heard bandied about because this institution needs to endure.”)

These acts, in other words, are considered beyond the pale when Donald Trump suggests them, but here’s the strangeness of it all: what The Donald is only mouthing off about, a perfectly real American president (and vice president and secretary of defense, and so on) actually did.  Among other things, under the euphemistic term “enhanced interrogation techniques,” they ordered the CIA to use classic torture practices including waterboarding (which, in blunter times, had been known as “the water torture”).  They also let the U.S. military loose to torture and abuse prisoners in their custody.  They green-lighted the CIA tokidnap terror suspects (who sometimes turned out to be perfectly innocent people) off the streets of cities around the world, as well as from the backlands of the planet, and transported them to the prisons of some of the worst torture regimes or to secret detention centers (“black sites”) the CIA was allowed to set up in compliant countries.  In other words, a perfectly real administration ordered and oversaw perfectly real crimes.  (Its top officials even reportedly had torture techniques demonstrated to them in the White House.)

At the time, the CIA fulfilled its orders to a T and without complaint. A lone CIA officer spoke out publicly in opposition to such a program and was jailed for disclosing classified information to a journalist.  (He would be the only CIA official to go to jail for the Agency’s acts of torture.)  At places like Abu Ghraib, the military similarly carried out its orders without significant complaint or resistance.  The mainstream media generally adopted the euphemism “enhanced interrogation techniques” or “harsh techniques” in its reporting — no “torture” or “war crimes” for them then.  And back in the post-2001 years, John Brennan, then deputy executive director of the CIA, didn’t offer a peep of protest about what he surely knew was going on in his own agency. In 2014, in fact, as its director he actually defendedsuch torture practices for producing “intelligence that helped thwart attack plans, capture terrorists, and save lives.”  In addition, none of those who ordered or oversaw torture and other criminal behavior (a number of whom would sell their memoirs for millions of dollars) suffered in the slightest for the acts that were performed on their watch and at their behest.

To sum up: when Donald Trump says such things it’s a future nightmare to be called by its rightful name and denounced, as well as rejected and resisted by military and intelligence officials.  When an American president and his top officials actually did such things, however, it was another story entirely. Today, TomDispatch regular Rebecca Gordon catches the nightmarish quality of those years, now largely buried, in the grim case of a single mistreated human being. It should make Americans shudder. She has also just published a new book, American Nuremberg: The U.S. Officials Who Should Stand Trial for Post-9/11 War Crimes, that couldn’t be more relevant.  It’s a must-read for a country conveniently without a memory. Tom

The Al-Qaeda Leader Who Wasn’t
The Shameful Ordeal of Abu Zubaydah
By Rebecca Gordon

The allegations against the man were serious indeed.

* Donald Rumsfeld said he was “if not the number two, very close to the number two person” in al-Qaeda.

* The Central Intelligence Agency informed Assistant Attorney General Jay Bybee that he “served as Usama Bin Laden’s senior lieutenant. In that capacity, he has managed a network of training camps… He also acted as al-Qaeda’s coordinator of external contacts and foreign communications.”

* CIA Director Michael Hayden would tell the press in 2008 that 25% of all the information his agency had gathered about al-Qaeda from human sources “originated” with one other detainee and him.

* George W. Bush would use his case to justify the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation program,” claiming that “he had run a terrorist camp in Afghanistan where some of the 9/11 hijackers trained” and that “he helped smuggle al-Qaeda leaders out of Afghanistan” so they would not be captured by U.S. military forces.

None of it was true.

And even if it had been true, what the CIA did to Abu Zubaydah — with the knowledge and approval of the highest government officials — is a prime example of the kind of still-unpunished crimes that officials like Dick Cheney, George Bush, and Donald Rumsfeld committed in the so-called Global War on Terror.

So who was this infamous figure, and where is he now? His name is Zayn al-Abidin Muhammad Husayn, but he is better known by his Arabic nickname, Abu Zubaydah. And as far as we know, he is still in solitary detention in Guantánamo.

A Saudi national, in the 1980s Zubaydah helped run the Khaldan camp, a mujahedeen training facility set up in Afghanistan with CIA help during the Soviet occupation of that country. In other words, Zubaydah was then an American ally in the fight against the Soviets, one of President Ronald Reagan’s “freedom fighters.”  (But then again, so in effect was Osama bin Laden.)

Zubaydah’s later fate in the hands of the CIA was of a far grimmer nature.  He had the dubious luck to be the subject of a number of CIA “firsts”: the first post-9/11 prisoner to be waterboarded; the first to be experimented on by psychologists working as CIA contractors; one of the first of the Agency’s “ghost prisoners” (detainees hidden from the world, including the International Committee of the Red Cross which, under the Geneva Conventions, must be allowed access to every prisoner of war); and one of the first prisoners to be cited in a memo written by Jay Bybee for the Bush administration on what the CIA could “legally” do to a detainee without supposedly violating U.S. federal laws against torture.

Zubaydah’s story is — or at least should be — the iconic tale of the illegalextremes to which the Bush administration and the CIA went in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. And yet former officials, from CIA head Michael Hayden to Vice President Dick Cheney to George W. Bush himself, have presented it as a glowing example of the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” to extract desperately needed information from the “evildoers” of that time.

Zubaydah was an early experiment in post-9/11 CIA practices and here’s the remarkable thing (though it has yet to become part of the mainstream media accounts of his case): it was all a big lie. Zubaydah wasn’t involved with al-Qaeda; he was the ringleader of nothing; he never took part in planning for the 9/11 attacks. He was brutally mistreated and, in another kind of world, would be exhibit one in the war crimes trials of America’s top leaders and its major intelligence agency.

Yet notorious as he once was, he’s been forgotten by all but his lawyers and a few tenacious reporters.  He shouldn’t have been.  He was the test case for the kind of torture that Donald Trump now wants the U.S. government to bring back, presumably because it “worked” so well the first time. With Republican presidential hopefuls promising future war crimes, it’s worth reconsidering his case and thinking about how to prevent it from happening again. After all, it’s only because no one has been held to account for the years of Bush administration torture practices that Trump and others feel free to promise even more and “yuger” war crimes in the future.

Experiments in Torture

In August 2002, a group of FBI agents, CIA agents, and Pakistani forces captured Zubaydah (along with about 50 other men) in Faisalabad, Pakistan. In the process, he was severely injured — shot in the thigh, testicle, and stomach. He might well have died, had the CIA not flown in an American surgeon to patch him up. The Agency’s interest in his health was, however, anything but humanitarian. Its officials wanted to interrogate him and, even after he had recovered sufficiently to be questioned, his captors occasionally withheld pain medication as a means of torture.

When he “lost” his left eye under mysterious circumstances while in CIA custody, the agency’s concern again was not for his health. The December 2014 torture report produced by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (despite CIA opposition that included hacking into the committee’s computers) described the situation this way: with his left eye gone, “[i]n October 2002, DETENTION SITE GREEN [now known to be Thailand] recommended that the vision in his right eye be tested, noting that ‘[w]e have a lot riding upon his ability to see, read, and write.’ DETENTION SITE GREEN stressed that ‘this request is driven by our intelligence needs [not] humanitarian concern for AZ.’”

The CIA then set to work interrogating Zubaydah with the help of two contractors, thepsychologists Bruce Jessen and James Mitchell. Zubaydah would be the first human subject on whom those two, who were former instructors at the Air Force’s SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape) training center, could test their theories about using torture to induce what they called “learned helplessness,” meant to reduce a suspect’s resistance to interrogation. Their price? Only $81 million.

CIA records show that, using a plan drawn up by Jessen and Mitchell, Abu Zubaydah’s interrogators would waterboard him an almost unimaginable 83 times in the course of a single month; that is, they would strap him to a wooden board, place a cloth over his entire face, and gradually pour water through the cloth until he began to drown. At one point during this endlessly repeated ordeal, the Senate committee reported that Zubaydah became “completely unresponsive, with bubbles rising through his open, full mouth.”

Each of those 83 uses of what was called “the watering cycle” consisted of four steps:

1) demands for information interspersed with the application of the water just short of blocking his airway 2) escalation of the amount of water applied until it blocked his airway and he started to have involuntary spasms 3) raising the water-board to clear subject’s airway 4) lowering of the water-board and return to demands for information.

The CIA videotaped Zubaydah undergoing each of these “cycles,” only to destroy those tapes in 2005 when news of their existence surfaced and the embarrassment (and possible future culpability) of the Agency seemed increasingly to be at stake. CIA Director Michael Hayden would later assureCNN that the tapes had been destroyed only because “they no longer had ‘intelligence value’ and they posed a security risk.” Whose “security” was at risk if the tapes became public? Most likely, that of the Agency’s operatives and contractors who were breaking multiple national and international laws against torture, along with the high CIA and Bush administration officials who had directly approved their actions.

In addition to the waterboarding, . . .

Continue reading.

Of course, the CIA torturers have been protected by Obama’s refusal to follow the law specified in the Convention Against Torture, which as a treaty signed and confirmed by the US, is the law of the land.

Written by LeisureGuy

24 April 2016 at 3:18 pm

Andrew Bacevich and America’s Long Misguided War to Control the Greater Middle East

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I hope Hillary Clinton reads this article by Roger Hodge in The Intercept:

THE CONVICTION that invasion, bombing, and special forces benefit large swaths of the globe, while remaining consonant with a Platonic ideal of the national interest, runs deep in the American psyche. Like the poet Stevie Smith’s cat, the United States “likes to gallop about doing good.” The cat attacks and misses, sometimes injuring itself, but does not give up. It asks, as the U.S. should,

What’s the good
Of galloping about doing good
When angels stand in the path
And do not do as they should

Nothing undermines the American belief in military force. No matter how often its galloping about results in resentment and mayhem, the U.S. gets up again to do good elsewhere. Failure to improve life in Vietnam, Lebanon, Somalia, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya stiffens the resolve to get it right next time. This notion prevails among politicized elements of the officer corps; much of the media, whether nominally liberal or conservative; the foreign policy elite recycled quadrennially between corporation-endowed think tanks and government; and most politicians on the national stage. For them and the public they influence, the question is less whether to deploy force than when, where, and how.

Since 1979, when the Iranians overthrew the Shah and the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, the U.S. has concentrated its firepower in what former U.S. Army colonel Andrew Bacevich calls the “Greater Middle East.” The region comprises most of what America’s imperial predecessors, the British, called the Near and Middle East, a vast zone from Pakistan west to Morocco. In his new book, America’s War for the Greater Middle East, Bacevich writes, “From the end of World War II until 1980, virtually no American soldiers were killed in action while serving in that region. Within a decade, a great shift occurred. Since 1990, virtually no American soldiers have been killed anywhere exceptthe Greater Middle East.” That observation alone might prompt a less propagandized electorate to rebel against leaders who perpetuate policies that, while killing and maiming American soldiers, devastate the societies they touch.

Bacevich describes a loyal cadre of intellectuals and pundits favoring war after war, laying the moral ground for invasions and excusing them when they go wrong. He notes that in 1975, when American imperium was collapsing in Indochina, the guardians of American exceptionalism renewed their case for preserving the U.S. as the exception to international law. An article by Robert Tucker in Commentary that year set the ball rolling with the proposition that “to insist that before using force one must exhaust all other remedies is little more than the functional equivalent of accepting chaos.” Another evangelist for military action, Miles Ignotus, wrote in Harper’s two months later that the U.S. with Israel’s help must prepare to seize Saudi Arabia’s oilfields. Miles Ignotus, Latin for “unknown soldier,” turned out to be the known civilian and Pentagon consultant Edward Luttwak. Luttwak urged a “revolution” in warfare doctrine toward “fast, light forces to penetrate the enemy’s vital centers” with Saudi Arabia a test case. The practical test would come, with results familiar to most of the world, 27 years later in Iraq.

The Pentagon, its pride and reputation wounded in Vietnam as surely as the bodies of 150,000 scarred American soldiers, was slow to take the hint. The end of compulsory military service robbed it of manpower for massive global intervention. Revelations of war crimes and political chicanery from the Senate’s Church Committee and the Pike Committee in the House added to public disenchantment with military adventures and intelligence meddling in other countries’ affairs. It would take years of effort to cure America of its “Vietnam Syndrome,” the preference for diplomatic before military solutions.

In the Middle East, President Gerald Ford saw no reason to rescind his predecessor’s policy, the Nixon Doctrine of reliance on local clients armed by the U.S. to protect Persian Gulf oil for America’s gas-hungry consumers. Nothing much happened, though, until one of the local gendarmes, the Shah of Iran, fell to a popular revolution and the Soviets invaded Afghanistan. . .

Continue reading.

Read the whole thing: definitely worthwhile.

Written by LeisureGuy

23 April 2016 at 11:45 am

Judge Grants Torture Victims Their First Chance to Pursue Justice

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Jenna McLaughlin offers some good news in The Intercept:

A civil suit against the architects of the CIA’s torture program, psychologists James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, will be allowed to proceed, a federal judge in Spokane decided on Friday.

District Judge Justin Quackenbush denied the pair’s motion to dismiss a lawsuit launched against them on behalf of three victims, one dead, of the brutal tactics they designed.

“This is amazing, this is unprecedented,” Steven Watt, a senior staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union representing the plaintiffs told The Intercept  after the hearing. “This is the first step towards accountability.”

What’s so unprecedented is that this is the first time opponents of the program will have the chance to seek discovery evidence in the case unimpeded by the government. In every other past torture accountability lawsuit, the government has invoked its special state-secrets privileges to purportedly protect national security.

But since the extraordinarily detailed and revealing executive summary of the Senate’s torture report was published in 2014, after years of investigation, the government now says almost everything is declassified already.

The three plaintiffs are Suleiman Abdullah Salim, Mohamed Ahmed Ben Soud, and the estate of Gul Rahman, who died at a CIA black site known as the “Salt Pit.” Each was kidnapped and subject to extreme physical and psychological torture and experimentation, though none was ever charged with a crime.

The two living plaintiffs were not at the hearing, but Watt said he was thrilled to text his client Abdullah Salim, now living in Tanzania, the good news. “When I first met with him, I told him the likelihood we’d get as far as we have so far was highly unlikely. To tell him that we won today—you know, it’s historic.”

Mitchell and Jessen’s proposed framework for “enhanced interrogation” involved trying to drive detainees to a point of “learned helplessness” through unbearable suffering, to the point they would be willing to totally comply. The theories behind the tactics were drawn from the psychologists’ experiments on dogs decades prior. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

22 April 2016 at 1:30 pm

The Wall Street Journal lies to its readers yet again

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It’s amazing that such easily provable “4-Pinnochio” lies are so readily accepted. Is the truth not of interest? Kevin Drum explains in this post.

Written by LeisureGuy

13 April 2016 at 10:53 am

Losing hearts and minds: Young Iraqis overwhelmingly consider the US their enemy

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And it makes perfect sense: the US invaded their country and killed hundreds of thousands of them, and they are supposed to consider the US a friend?? That makes no sense.

Murtaza Hussain reports in The Intercept:

More than 90 percent of young people in Iraq consider the United States to be an enemy of their country, according to a new poll.

After years spent justifying the war as a “liberation” of the Iraqi people, the survey casts further doubt on the success of that endeavor.

The poll was conducted by Penn Schoen Berland, a public relations and market research firm co-founded by controversial strategist Mark Penn, and was sponsored by a Dubai-based affiliate of Burson Marsteller, once described as “the PR firm for evil.” Still, the undertaking, as described by organizers, sounds ambitious. It included 250 face-to-face interviews in three Iraqi cities, plus another 3,250 interviews in 15 other countries throughout the Arab world, all with men and women ages 18-24 “selected to provide an accurate reflection of each nation’s geographic and socio-economic make-up.” It claims an error rate of plus or minus 1.65 percent.

The survey found that overwhelming majorities of young people in Iraq, Yemen, and the Palestinian Territories consider the U.S. to be an enemy. In Gulf Arab states, on the other hand, perceptions of the United States were far more positive. Roughly 85 percent of those living in the Gulf say that they consider the U.S. to be an ally, with another 66 percent expressing the same view in North Africa. . .

Continue reading.

And it’s not just Iraq. Later in the article:

In Yemen, too, where the U.S. conducted an assassination campaign via drones and special forces, and where for the past year the U.S. has supported bloody Saudi bombings, over 80 percent of respondents described the U.S. as an enemy. These figures are particularly worth noting since the Obama administration has repeatedly cited Yemen as a counterterrorism success story. In recent months, that country has been pummeled by American weapons that have blown up weddings, marketplaces, and rural villages. Far from aiding stability, attacks on the country have in fact helped al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, according to recent reports.

Written by LeisureGuy

13 April 2016 at 10:23 am

Charlie Savage looks at the Obama stance: Rule of law, not civil rights

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In the NY Review of Books David Luban has an excellent review of Charlie Savage’s new book:

Power Wars: Inside Obama’s Post-9/11 Presidency
by Charlie Savage
Little, Brown, 769 pp., $30.00


Over the past decade, Charlie Savage has become an indispensible reporter of US counterterrorism. He won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for his articles on presidential signing statements, an obscure legal device the George W. Bush administration frequently used to reject legislation that in its eyes encroached on the president’s power. Savage’s first book, Takeover, was a broad study of executive overreach by the Bush administration.1In Power Wars: Inside Obama’s Post-9/11 Presidency, Savage pursues the same themes in the Obama administration. Power Wars is a long and comprehensive book, covering in intricate detail nearly every major issue in Obama’s national security policy: detainees, military commissions, torture, surveillance, secrecy, targeted killings, and war powers. Its behind-the-scenes story will likely stand as the definitive record of Obama’s approach to law and national security.

Savage offers a distinctly lawyer’s-eye view of his topics. The major participants in his story are not politicians and planners, but top lawyers in the White House, the Justice Department, and the security apparatus—what Savage calls the “national security legal-policy team.” They work mostly behind the scenes, veiled by lawyer–client confidentiality; no more than half a dozen of the more than fifty lawyers described in the book have names that readers are likely to recognize. Their domain is the arcane network of laws that constrain the president as he wages what continues to be, at least in US eyes, an endless war against al-Qaeda and its offshoots.

One reviewer has complained that much of Power Wars will interest national security professionals and law students but not a broader audience.2 That misses the real importance of Savage’s work. His main interest is presidential power in its perennial struggle with Congress and the courts. Ultimately, the stakes are high: whether we will continue to have, in John Adams’s words, “government of laws, and not of men.”3

Savage focuses on executive branch lawyers because they play a central part in restraining the presidency—or not restraining it, as the case may be. Lawyers are trained to pose two questions whenever they interpret laws: What did the legislature mean, and what would the courts say? Metaphorically speaking, Congress and the courts have automatic stakes in the deliberations of any competent lawyer, including lawyers for the executive branch. And if the president’s lawyers tell him that a policy is illegal, he will have a hard time carrying it out. Even an adventurous president willing to say “Do it anyway!” would find too many other officials who won’t sign off on an illegal action. If, on the other hand, the lawyers are yes-men and women, the result may be an “executive unbound.”4 John Ashcroft nicknamed Bush administration lawyer John Yoo, of torture memo fame, “Dr. Yes.” It was not a compliment.

Savage delves deeply into the administration’s legal debates about the War Powers Act during the Libya intervention in 2011, as the campaign approached the sixty-day deadline after which the act requires presidents to get approval from Congress. But he never touches on the decisions to launch the intervention in the first place and then escalate it into a de facto (even if unacknowledged) war to bring about regime change. This was surely one of the biggest blunders of Obama’s foreign policy: the campaign left Libya a fractured and chaotic haven for terrorists, and the escalation probably doomed any future UN-backed humanitarian interventions. Here, focusing on the lawyers rather than the planners seems mistaken.

Even in the Libya case, though, the legal story matters. Savage depicts lawyers scrambling for a legal theory to avoid bringing Libya before a skeptical Congress at a moment when France and the UK were counting on US military help. Tellingly, the lawyers didn’t think the solution they eventually came up with was the best reading of the law, merely that it was “legally available”—a dubious category that apparently means little more than “not laughably off the wall.” It was the closest they ever came to acting as Dr. Yes. Readers might well wonder why legal arguments that are not right but merely “available” deserve any of the respect we accord to law. And one can’t help wondering whether some congressional skepticism was exactly what was needed.

On other issues the legal story clearly deserves emphasis, because the contours of the law critically shaped the policy. This is most notable in decisions about who can or cannot be targeted for drone strikes. Lethal drones are weapons of war, not of law enforcement, so the questions of where and with whom the United States is at war are decisive. Obama’s lawyers interpreted Congress’s 2001 authorization to use military force to apply not only to al-Qaeda but also to “associated forces”; but not every jihadist group is associated with al-Qaeda. In 2010, Jeh Johnson, then general counsel of the Defense Department, concluded that al-Shabaab in Somalia was not an associated force. He “stunned his Pentagon colleagues” by countermanding a strike that Special Operations Forces wished to launch against Shabaab militants. This was an example where the law made a real difference.


Barack Obama took office promising to end the perceived lawlessness of the Bush administration, manifested most vividly in the torture of detainees at CIA black sites. True to his promise, on his third day in office Obama issued an executive order ending torture and revoking all the Bush administration legal opinions that authorized it. His supporters were elated.

Three weeks later, though, Obama’s lawyers entered a California courtroom and, to the surprise of the judges, defended one of the Bush administration’s most aggressive tactics, the invocation of state secrets, in order to dismiss a lawsuit that might expose ugly facts about CIA cooperation with other nations in the program of rendition and torture. Much of the cheering stopped. As it happened, Savage tells us, nobody had informed the president about the Justice Department’s decision to maintain the Bush legal position, and Obama was furious. But evidently he got over his fury, for the Justice Department continued to assert the state secrets defense in that case and all other pending cases where the Bush administration had invoked it.

Gradually, other points of continuity between the national security policies of Bush’s second term and the Obama administration became evident. Obama revived the military commissions charged with conducting trials of detainees. He continued to classify the struggle against al-Qaeda as a war to be fought under military rules. He also increased drone strikes, maintained the NSA’s secret surveillance programs, and prosecuted whistleblowers with greater zeal than any administration in history. What happened?

Savage offers an explanation. Obama’s supporters on the left thought he was a civil libertarian, but they were wrong. What Obama cares about, Savage argues, is not civil liberties, but the rule of law. Confusing the two is understandable, for both are central to American constitutionalism. But they are fundamentally different. Civil liberties are substantive rights; the rule of law is about legal legitimacy. What Obama’s team aimed to do was provide a firm legal foundation for his policies, including those that civil libertarians oppose—policies like preventive detention, targeted killings, and extensive surveillance. . .

Continue reading. It’s well worth the click. Later in the review:

. . . However, Savage himself reports plenty of cases that don’t fit his neat dichotomy between civil liberties and the rule of law. For one thing, civil liberties concerns did drive some important decisions. The administration took enormous political flak for granting Miranda rights to Umar Abdulmutallab, the “underwear bomber”—a civil liberties victory that also turned out to be an intelligence success, since Abdulmutallab continued volunteering information after being informed of his right to remain silent. The administration’s unsuccessful efforts to try the September 11 suspects in civilian court rather than in the shambolic military commissions were at least partly based on respect for civil liberties.

In a few striking cases, however, the administration took positions that violated both civil liberties and the rule of law. Chief among these are Obama’s refusal to hold torturers accountable, his plans for Guantánamo, and his administration’s use of secret law, coupled with unprecedented vigilance in going after leakers. These may be exceptions rather than the rule, but they are exceptions that matter. . .

Written by LeisureGuy

10 April 2016 at 6:03 pm

A first memoir from a US torturer

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Michiko Kakutani reviews a memoir in the NY Times:

The infamous photos of torture at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq that became public in the spring of 2004 — a pyramid of naked prisoners, a hooded man forced to stand in a crucifixionlike pose, a cowering man on a dog leash — were evidence not of just a “few bad apples” among the prison guards but, as an Army investigation found, documentation of a systemic problem: Military personnel had perpetrated “numerous incidents of sadistic, blatant, and wanton criminal abuses.” The abuses had roots in decisions made at the highest levels of the Bush administration, which asserted that the United States need not abide by the Geneva Conventions in its war on terror.

Powerful and damning accounts of the Bush administration’s determination to work what Vice President Dick Cheney called “the dark side” and its elaborate efforts to legalize torture (including arduous attempts to narrowly define torture as leading to “serious physical injury so severe that death, organ failure or permanent damage” is likely to result) can be found in two essential books, “The Torture Papers: The Road to Abu Ghraib,” edited by Karen J. Greenbergand Joshua L. Dratel, and “Standard Operating Procedure,” by Philip Gourevitch and Errol Morris. An important personal perspective is now provided by Eric Fair’s candid and chilling new book, “Consequence,” which is at once an agonized confession of his own complicity as an interrogator at Abu Ghraib and an indictment of the system that enabled and tried to justify torture.

Mr. Fair, who worked for CACI, a private contractor that provided interrogation services at the prison, participated in or witnessed physical abuse, sleep deprivation and the use of what he calls “the Palestinian chair” (a monstrous contraption that forces a prisoner to assume an excruciating “stress position”). He sees naked men handcuffed to chairs, stripped of their dignity and their clothes. He and his colleagues “fill out forms and use words like ‘exposure,’ ‘sound,” ‘light,’ ‘cold,’ ‘food’ and ‘isolation’” — ordinary words that become shorthand for methods of inflicting fear and pain. He rips a chair out from underneath a boy and shoves an old man, head first, into a wall.

Of the Abu Ghraib torture photos broadcast by “60 Minutes” in April 2004, Mr. Fair writes: “Some of the activities in the photographs are familiar to me. Others are not. But I am not shocked. Neither is anyone else who served at Abu Ghraib. Instead, we are shocked by the performance of the men who stand behind microphones and say things like ‘bad apples’ and ‘Animal House’ on night shift.’”

In 2007, Mr. Fair says, he confessed everything to a lawyer from the Department of Justice and two agents from the Army’s Criminal Investigation Command, providing pictures, letters, names, firsthand accounts, locations and techniques. He was not prosecuted. “We tortured people the right way,” he writes, “following the right procedures, and used the approved techniques.”

Mr. Fair, however, became increasingly racked by guilt. He begins having nightmares. Nightmares in which “someone I know begins to shrink,” becoming so small “they slip through my fingers and disappear onto the floor.” Nightmares in which “there’s a large pool of blood on the floor” that moves as if it’s alive, nipping at his feet.

His marriage starts to unravel. He drinks heavily despite a heart condition that threatens his health. When his best friend from Iraq, Ferdinand Ibabao, is killed by a suicide bomber in Baghdad, Mr. Fair thinks that maybe he, too, deserves to die there. He returns to Iraq for another tour — this time, in a job with the National Security Agency.

Mr. Fair recounts all this in understated, staccato prose. He tells us about the important role the church played in his childhood in Bethlehem, Pa. He tells us about his dreams of becoming a police officer, or maybe a pastor. And he tells us about the odd twists and turns that took him to Iraq as an interrogator.

Continue reading the main story

Having come from “a long line of Presbyterians who valued their faith and marched off to war,” Mr. Fair enlisted in the Army in 1995, stumbled into one of its language programs and became an Arabic linguist. The diagnosis of a heart condition in 2002 would mean he could not continue in his postmilitary career as a police officer or re-enlist in the Army when the invasion of Iraq began in early 2003. Working for CACI, which requested no medical exam, was a way for him to ensure that he didn’t miss out on the war.

Mr. Fair draws an alarming portrait of CACI as “disorganized and unprofessional” in its deployment of civilians, not to mention “dangerous and irresponsible”: “as former soldiers and marines, none of us were comfortable with the lack of planning, lack of support and lack of proper supplies,” he writes. “No weapons, no communications equipment, no maps and nothing for first aid. We all expect something to go wrong very soon.”

Things are chaotic at Abu Ghraib, where Mr. Fair is assigned to a team tasked with debriefing former associates of Saddam Hussein. He writes that it is “never entirely clear how the Army determines whether any of us have the proper security clearance,” and the shortage of interrogators means “there are thousands of detainees who will never be processed.”

Those detainees “are given no information about their status,” he observes, “and they have no way of knowing when or if they will see their families again. Some of them are guilty; some of them are not. All of them are jailed under intolerable circumstances.” Military intelligence officers would tell the Red Cross that an estimated 70 percent to 90 percent of the detainees had been arrested by mistake.

Some of Mr. Fair’s descriptions of Abu Ghraib and the National Security Agency facilities at Camp Victory recall the absurdities of “Catch-22” and “Animal Farm,” but here the sense of the absurd is infused with real horror and injustice. He writes that he and his colleagues were encouraged by supervisors to be “creative,” that they often struggled to understand what detainees were saying because of dialect problems, and that they learned to justify “the use of different forms of torture by calling them enhanced techniques and filling out the appropriate paperwork.” . . .

Continue reading.

It will be interesting to see whether the torturers within the CIA, who sometimes tortured their victims to death, will be publishing memoirs. Indeed, it would be interesting if the Senate’s report on US torture was ever to be released. Too much of what our government does is kept secret from the citizens in whose name the deeds are done. And President Obama has done everything he can to increase the level of secrecy and discontinue disclosure and open government—and to protect the torturers.

Written by LeisureGuy

8 April 2016 at 1:22 pm


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