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Archive for the ‘Bush Administration’ Category

The Opioid Crisis Is About More Than Corporate Greed

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Zachary Siegel reports in the New Republic:

“Just like Doritos keep eating. We’ll make more.”

“It’s like people are addicted to these things or something. Oh, wait, people are…”

These lines are from emails sent between opioid manufacturers and distributors, recently pried loose by attorneys general suing Big Pharma for its role in fueling a massive wave of overdose deaths. Similar to the damning internal memos revealing that Big Tobacco knew that cigarettes indeed caused cancer, these emails appear to show that Big Pharma knew that a significant share of their product was landing in the street, feeding addiction. And yet they kept shipping out obscene quantities to rural towns across America, creating even more demand.

Nearly every step of the pharmaceutical supply chain is implicated in the soaring death rate. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, prescription opioids killed 218,000 people from 1999 to 2017. Many of the companies—from Johnson & Johnson to obscure distributors like Cardinal Health—are listed as defendants in hundreds of lawsuits filed by nearly every state in the country. The government thinks these corporations should pay up and treat the addiction their products caused. But the companies claim to have been acting legally and in compliance with federal regulators like the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). Was it all, technically, legal?

What the opioid crisis illustrates is not that there are a few bad apples in the pharmaceutical industry, but that the country’s entire health care system is driven by profit at the expense of public health and safety. Drug manufacturers, pharmacy chains, drug distributors, and insurance companies got rich while people, especially people lower down the income ladder, suffered—and the DEA, through neglect or incompetence or a mix of both, watched it all happen.


While there are significant similarities between Big Pharma and Big Tobacco, there is also a key difference that makes today’s story of corporate malfeasance even worse: namely, that the supply chain for tobacco is much simpler than opioids, which are, theoretically, tightly controlled substances that pass through a dizzying array of actors and regulators.

First, a doctor must write a prescription, which must be filled at a pharmacy, and is likely paid for by an insurance company. Depending on the needs of their customers, pharmacies place orders for these drugs (customers, it turns out, need a lot of them). Shipping companies then go between the pharmacy and the drug manufacturers. Overseeing this entire system is the DEA, which sets the quota for how many opioids a company is allowed to manufacture, and tracks where those pills go.

While politicians are making hay out of Big Pharma’s wanton greed and recklessness, far less attention has been paid to the DEA. Attorneys general suing Big Pharma recently unearthed a database that both the corporations and the government—each for their own self-interested reasons—fought to keep sealed, called the Automation of Reports and Consolidated Orders System (ARCOS). Mammoth in size and granular in detail, ARCOS tracks the shipments of every single controlled substance, from the company that manufactured it, to the company that shipped it, to the pharmacy that received it. It is the world atlas for how the opioid crisis began.

All told, from 2006 to 2012, roughly 76 billion oxycodone and hydrocodone pills criss-crossed America, according to a Washington Post analysis. While many of these pills went to legitimate patients, millions more were showered on troubled communities with a voracious thirst for pain relief. While drug manufacturers produced more and more opioids (approved by the DEA), and distributors shipped those pills to pharmacies all over the country (tracked by the DEA), drug companies saw record profits—and America’s overdose death rate soared off the charts.

“I think this [database] brings home what we all knew,” says Corey Davis, an attorney and public health expert at the Network for Public Health Law. “This wasn’t just incompetence on the part of the DEA and the Department of Justice, it was knowing and intentional failure to do what most people think is their jobs.”

What is the DEA’s job, exactly? Its first task, and the one most associated with the agency, is the Sicario-esque disruption of illicit flows of drugs coming into the U.S. from abroad, like intercepting speedboats filled with cocaine. Its other major responsibility is controlling licit pharmaceuticals. “The whole goal of the prescription system is to make sure that patients are getting their medications, and that medications are not going to those who aren’t patients,” which is called “diversion,” says Bryce Pardo, a drug policy researcher at the RAND Corporation. “That’s the whole point of the system, which was invented a hundred years ago. Clearly, the system broke. The system failed.”

Pardo points out, in the DEA’s defense, the story of a so-called DEA whistle-blower blaming a pharma-backed piece of legislation passed by Congress in 2016, which prevented agents from stopping suspicious shipments of opioids, and stunted investigations into the very corporations that are now being villainized and sued. Just as DEA agents were working their way up the pharmaceutical supply chain, much as they would in a case against any transnational crime organization, Congress hamstrung their enforcement efforts.

Or so the story goes—but that’s not the whole of it. “These companies, often times acting legally, were asking for preclearance from the DEA to go about their business,” says Leo Beletsky, a professor of law and health sciences at Northeastern University (where I’m currently a journalism fellow). “Now, the DEA is saying their hands were tied when, in fact, their hands were not tied. They were completely asleep at the wheel. And by the time the DEA began constricting the [prescription] supply and targeting certain doctors and distributors, it was too late.”


In drug policy scholarship, there is a concept called the “balloon hypothesis.” When one end of a balloon gets squeezed, the air inside, rather than disappearing, rushes to fill the other end of the balloon. The balloon hypothesis is used to describe, often critically, America’s drug enforcement strategy. If cocaine production in Colombia is stamped out, production will shift to, say, Peru. If the Dark Web’s Silk Road gets shut down, a new Dark Web market pops up. The air has to go somewhere.

The balloon hypothesis also applies to the ever-shifting demand for drugs. “Over a period of 20 years, the DEA provided the green light to a 39-fold increase in the oxycodone quota and a 12-fold increase in the hydrocodone quota, even as our opioid epidemic unfolded,” Senator Dick Durbin wrote in a letter to the editor to The Washington Post. 

In other words, the prescription balloon expanded, under the DEA’s watch, big time. But starting in 2011, the prescription market finally began to shrink after Purdue Pharma reformulated its blockbuster drug OxyContin with so-called abuse deterrent technology, and pill mills serving the black market were shut down. The supply was squeezed. The air still had to go somewhere, and it rushed to deadlier opioids like heroin spiked with illicit fentanyl. With enforcement focused on prescription opioids, the overdose crisis got worse.

Dan Ciccarone, a physician-researcher at the University of California, San Francisco who studies heroin use, says the crisis unfolded in three waves:  . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more, including some pertinent observations on reducing demand (which ultimately is the only solution).

Facebook and agnotology

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From Azeem Azhar’s Exponential View newsletter this morning:

Facebook co-founder, Chris Hughes, says with great clarity what so many now believe: Facebook should be broken up.

Facebook’s dominance is not an accident of history. The company’s strategy was to beat every competitor in plain view, and regulators and the government tacitly — and at times explicitly — approved.

I don’t blame Mark for his quest for domination. He has demonstrated nothing more nefarious than the virtuous hustle of a talented entrepreneur. Yet he has created a leviathan that crowds out entrepreneurship and restricts consumer choice. It’s on our government to ensure that we never lose the magic of the invisible hand. How did we allow this to happen?

This is more than simply restricting consumer choice. Facebook’s quest for growth has also spread Zuckerberg’s dorm room cultural values across the globe. It has become an interface between people as citizens (not merely as “consumers”) and the resources they need to access. Facebook has also been instrumental in the growth of agnotology as a business and societal disease.

🕳️ danah boyd on how social media fosters agnotology, the ‘strategic and purposeful production of ignorance’ and is a ‘tool of oppression by the powerful.

What’s at stake right now is not simply about hate speech vs. free speech or the role of state-sponsored bots in political activity. It’s much more basic. It’s about purposefully and intentionally seeding doubt to fragment society. To fragment epistemologies. This is a tactic that was well-honed by propagandists.

One nuance I would add is that while actors within these platforms may act to purposefully spread ignorance, I think the platforms themselves have apathetic positions on epistemologies. Rather this emerges as a result of chasing engagement and the ad-supported business model. (We first covered agnotology in EV#24.)

Written by LeisureGuy

12 May 2019 at 6:14 am

Guantánamo’s Darkest Secret

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Ben Taub writes in the New Yorker:

The Guard

In 2004, Steve Wood was deployed to Guantánamo Bay, as a member of the Oregon National Guard. He and his comrades were told that many of the detainees were responsible for 9/11 and, given the opportunity, would strike again. “I just remember being super excited, because I thought, I’m going to be doing something important,” Wood told me. For two weeks, he worked as a guard in the cellblocks, monitoring men who had been captured on the battlefields of Afghanistan. Then a sergeant major pulled him aside for a brief interview, and assigned him to work the night shift in Echo Special, a secret, single-occupancy unit that had been built to house the United States military’s highest-value detainee. The International Committee of the Red Cross—which has access to many of the world’s most notorious detention sites, some of them in countries where there is no rule of law—had recently sent representatives to Guantánamo, but the base commander, citing “military necessity,” had refused to allow them into Echo Special. The man confined there was referred to by his detainee number, 760. When Wood tried to search for 760 in Guantánamo’s detainee database, he found nothing.

Wood was the second of three boys. His father died in a plane crash when he was three years old, and his mother brought him and his brothers up in Molalla, Oregon, a lumber town about an hour south of Portland. His mother dated a string of alcoholics and addicts, and took the children to an evangelical church on Sundays; Pat Robertson’s sermons blasted from the living-room TV. In 1999, shortly after graduating from high school, Wood started a job at the local sawmill. Several of his co-workers were missing fingers, and the manager took every opportunity to denigrate the staff. After a few months, he signed up for the Oregon National Guard, on the military-police track. He sought structure and discipline—a life of pride, purpose, and clarity of mission.

After 9/11, patriotism eclipsed restlessness as Wood’s primary motivation to serve. He had spent the morning of the worst terrorist attack in American history lying on his mother’s couch, high on painkillers after a tonsillectomy, but when he emerged from the haze he was angry, focussed, and longing for deployment. He didn’t harbor any particular animosity toward Muslims, but he had absorbed his mother’s belief: “If it’s not from Jesus then it must be from the Devil.” After completing the requirements to become an M.P., Wood enrolled in a criminal-justice program at a nearby community college. He recalled his political views as being “whatever Fox News told us.” He didn’t know the difference between a Hindu, a Sikh, and a Muslim—he had never met one.

Before his first shift in Echo Special, Wood was told to place a strip of electrical tape over the name on his uniform, and to use only nicknames inside the cell, so that if 760 were to somehow sneak a message out of the camp he couldn’t issue fatwas against his guards or their families. “Never turn your back,” the sergeant major warned him. Wood, who was twenty-three, had recently learned that his girlfriend was pregnant. He wouldn’t take any chances. “You trust the handcuffs and everything, but, no matter what, we’d never be with him one on one—there would always be a partner,” Wood told me. Until recently, the guards and the interrogators had worn Halloween masks inside the cell. Wood walked through the camp to Echo Special proud to be part of a serious national-security operation. He thought, It must be somebody really important—the most dangerous person in the world, perhaps—to have this special attention, a guard force just for him.

Echo Special was a trailer that had been divided in two. Wood walked into the main area, which housed the guards; through a door was the prisoner’s sleeping space. A government report describes the facility as having been “modified in such a way as to reduce as much outside stimuli as possible,” with doors that had been “sealed to a point that allows no light to enter the room.” Inside, the walls were “covered with white paint or paper to further eliminate objects the detainee may concentrate on.” There was an eyebolt for shackling him to the floor, and speakers for bombarding him with sound.

An M.P. explained to Wood that the current guard force called Detainee 760 “Pillow,” because when they had arrived, several months earlier, a pillow was the only object in his possession. Then one of them shouted, “Pillow, you can come out now!” A short man in his mid-thirties stepped into the guards’ area, unshackled. He wore a broad smile and a white jumpsuit, and moved cautiously toward Wood. The detainee introduced himself as Mohamedou Salahi, then reached for a handshake, and said, “What’s up, dude?”

Wood is six feet three, with a shaved head, a shy, stoic manner, and the musculature of an élite bodybuilder. Although he towered over Salahi, he hesitated before taking his hand, and when he did he noted how delicate Salahi was. “Nice to meet you,” Wood said. But he thought, What the fuck is this? This is the exact opposite of what’s supposed to happen.

The fragmented image of Mohamedou Salahi that United States military, law-enforcement, and intelligence agencies assembled in a classified dossier was that of a “highly intelligent” Mauritanian electrical engineer, who, “as a key al-Qaida member,” had played a role in several mass-casualty plots. Other men carried box cutters and explosives; Salahi was a ghost on the periphery. The evidence against him lacked depth, but investigators considered its breadth conclusive. His proximity to so many events and high-level jihadi figures could not be explained by coincidence, they thought, and only a logistical mastermind could have left so faint a trail.

The U.S. government gathered that in 1991, when Salahi was twenty, he swore allegiance to Osama bin Laden, and the following year he learned to handle weapons at an Al Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan. Later, Salahi moved to Germany, where, the Americans assessed, “his primary responsibility was to recruit for al-Qaida in Europe.” Among his alleged recruits were three of the 9/11 hijackers, all of whom served as pilots on separate planes. A fourth was Ramzi bin al-Shibh, the attack coördinator; while in C.I.A. custody, bin al-Shibh named Salahi as the man who had arranged his travel to Afghanistan and his introduction to bin Laden.

In 1998, shortly after Al Qaeda detonated truck bombs outside the U.S. Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, Salahi took a call from a phone number belonging to bin Laden. Then, and on at least one other occasion, a member of Al Qaeda’s Shura Council—its leadership—wired some four thousand dollars to Salahi’s bank account in Germany; Salahi withdrew the cash and handed it to men who were travelling to West Africa, to facilitate what the Americans assessed to be money-laundering and telecommunications “projects for al-Qaida.”

In 1999, the Shura member called Salahi, but U.S. intelligence didn’t know what his instructions were. In November of that year, Salahi moved to Montreal, where he began leading prayers at a prominent mosque. Soon afterward, a jihadi who had attended the same mosque—and who the Americans believed had met Salahi—attempted to smuggle explosives in the trunk of a car across the U.S. border; his plan was to detonate suitcases inside Los Angeles International Airport, in what became known as the Millennium Plot. Canada’s Secret Intelligence Service began a surveillance operation focussing on Salahi and his associates, but Salahi noticed two pinhole cameras poking through his apartment walls and left the country. The U.S. government concluded that he was “the leader of the Montreal-based al-Qaida cell.”

In Guantánamo, Salahi admitted to this and other allegations. “I came to Canada with a plan to blow up the CN Tower in Toronto,” Salahi wrote, in one of his many confessions. He listed his accomplices and added, “thanks to Canadian Intel, the plan was discovered and sentenced to failure.” After years of holding out in interrogations, he had become what the classified dossier described as a “highly cooperative” font of intelligence—“one of the most valuable sources in detention.” He described Al Qaeda’s financial involvement in credit-card fraud and drug smuggling, and also the group’s “investment in unwitting companies in Bosnia, Canada, Chechnya, Denmark, England, Germany, Mauritania, and Spain.” He drew organizational charts, with the names and operational roles of key figures, and supplied intelligence on jihadi cells and safe houses all over Europe and West Africa. Owing to his expertise as an electrical engineer, the dossier concludes, Salahi was also able to describe Al Qaeda’s elaborate communications systems, “including radio relay, couriers, encryption, phone boutiques, and satellite communication links to laptops.” But the U.S. government was sure there was more to be gleaned from him; the dossier says that he “still has useful information” on a variety of subjects, including the 9/11 attacks, and lists twenty-two additional “areas of potential exploitation.” Military officials considered him “the poster child for the intelligence effort at Guantánamo.”

As a result of Salahi’s coöperation, his private cell was now stocked with what the government referred to as “comfort items.” After the pillow came soap, towels, a prayer cap, and prayer beads—by the time Steve Wood arrived, Salahi also had books, a television, a PlayStation, and an old laptop, on which he killed time playing chess and watching DVDs. Eventually, Salahi would be allowed access to a small patch of soil outside his trailer, where he tended sunflowers, basil, sage, parsley, and cilantro. “What I was told was that his information had saved thousands of American lives,” Wood said, “and this is what they’d given him to keep talking.”

Salahi was taken into custody when he was thirty years old, but he had already lived on four continents, and spoke fluent Arabic, French, and German. English was his fourth language. Since he had learned it in captivity, some of his earliest phrases were “I ain’t done nothing,” “cavity search,” “fuck this,” and “fuck that.” “My problem is that I had been picking the language from the ‘wrong’ people—namely, U.S. Forces recruits who speak grammatically incorrectly,” he wrote on a scrap of paper inside his cell. “English accepts more curses than any other language, and I soon learned to curse with the commoners.”

As a matter of professionalism, Wood resolved from the outset to bury in the back of his mind what he had heard of Salahi’s past. “It’s hard to sit there and laugh and chat with the guy, if he’s actually that bad,” Wood told me. The night shift was twelve hours, and he never saw Salahi shackled or restrained. Other Guantánamo prisoners threw punches and feces and urine, but, according to the classified dossier, Salahi’s only disciplinary infraction was that, on May 11, 2003, he “possessed an excessive amount of MRE food.”

Salahi often appeared sullen and withdrawn. But, when he wanted to engage, he spoke with a worldly, provocative humor that Wood found appealing. He liked to rile his guards into debating equality, race, and religion, and he wielded a sophisticated understanding of history and geopolitics to chip away at their beliefs. Before meeting Salahi, Wood had never heard of Mauritania; Salahi told him that, to his great embarrassment, slavery was still practiced there, even among people close to him. Salahi also pushed him to research Western foreign-policy blunders—for example, that in 1953 the American and the British intelligence services had orchestrated a coup in Iran, overthrowing a popular Prime Minister in order to prop up a tyrannical, pro-Western Shah. “Have you heard of Nelson Mandela?” Wood recalled Salahi saying. “Look him up, dude. Look up the prison on Robben Island. See if you think his captivity was just. See what it did to his family.”

A job posting depicts life as an intelligence officer in Guantánamo Bay as “a rewarding challenge with incredible surroundings”—sunsets, beaches, iguanas, pristine Caribbean blue. “After a hustled day of tackling a myriad of issues and directly contributing to the global war on terrorism,” it reads, “fun awaits.” Officers could partake in pottery classes, paintball, rugby, tennis, and softball, or exercise in several pools and gyms. The local dive shop offered gear and certifications for sailing, water-skiing, snorkelling, scuba diving, and more: “No experience, no problem. . . . Relaxing is easy.”

In practice, many military-police officers killed time by watching movies and getting drunk at the Tiki Bar; they also took flights to Afghanistan, to pick up more detainees. But Wood spent his days in the base library, researching topics that Salahi had brought up in the cell. He devoured volumes on history, foreign affairs, politics, civil rights—“pretty much any type of book you could think of, other than, like, romance novels,” he said. “I was educating myself on the world.” But, because Salahi’s trailer was a national secret, Wood kept a cordial distance from most of the other guards. “I’d come home and iron my uniform, and my roommates didn’t know a thing,” he said. “They’d ask me, ‘Who’s in there?,’ and I’d say, ‘I don’t know, probably somebody famous.’ ”

In time, Wood began to think of everything he had known before meeting Salahi as a narrow-minded myth of American superiority, notable for its omissions of overseas misadventures. Meanwhile, the Bush Administration’s pretext for invading Iraq was collapsing, and so was Wood’s trust in government. It was the spring of 2004. There were no weapons of mass destruction. The “mission” had not been “accomplished.” When Wood watched the evening news, he saw photographs of American M.P.s torturing and sexually humiliating Iraqi detainees at Abu Ghraib. He began to wonder whether the case against Mohamedou Salahi was as flimsy and politically motivated as that for the invasion had been. “I was, like, What else have they lied about?” he said.

Salahi underwent daily interrogations. The sessions Wood witnessed were calm and courteous, with Salahi attempting to answer everything asked of him. “It was the pretty blond interrogator bringing in these disks with footage from Al Qaeda and Taliban training camps in Afghanistan,” Wood recalled. The videos had been pulled from jihadi Web sites, or captured by intelligence officers during raids, and Salahi’s role was to identify the people in them. But sometimes, after coöperating, “he’d get depressed and anxious, and say, ‘I’m a bad Muslim,’ ” Wood told me. “And I’d say, ‘No matter what you did in the past, man, you’ve saved thousands of lives.’ I’d always say that, and he’d just shake his head, like, ‘Bullshit.’ ”

One night, when Salahi was asleep, Wood heard sounds that reminded him of a child having a nightmare. He walked into the sleeping area and found Salahi lying in the fetal position, shaking. No adult in Wood’s life had ever looked so frightened and so vulnerable. He gently held Salahi’s shoulder, and said, “Everything’s O.K.” Salahi shook his head, and clicked his tongue in disagreement, but refused to speak. The next day, Wood pressed him to talk about the episode, but Salahi wouldn’t elaborate. He just said, “Dude, they fucked me up.”

The night terrors kept coming. Salahi was on a diet of Ensure nutrition shakes and antidepressants. One day, he complained to Wood that the interrogators were demanding information on events that he couldn’t possibly know about, because they had taken place while he was in custody.

Although Wood had introduced himself to Salahi as Stretch, his nickname from the sawmill, Salahi had quickly learned his real name, as well as those of the other guards. “The tape would fall off our uniforms,” Wood recalled. “We’d try to cover it back up, real quick, but eventually we were, like, fuck it. We knew he wasn’t a threat.” Where once he had struggled to forgive himself for enjoying Salahi’s company, he now felt bad about having to lock the door at the end of each shift. He walked into the morning sunlight in a daze, unable to reconcile his impression of the man in Echo Special with the depiction of the terrorist in the dossier. Had Wood remained as a regular guard, in one of the regular cellblocks, he might have finished his deployment with his understanding of the global war on terror more or less intact. Instead, he began to wonder whether what he was actually protecting at Guantánamo was one of the government’s darkest secrets: that its highest-value military detainee was being held essentially by mistake, and that his isolation in Echo Special was intended to cover up the hell that had been inflicted upon him.

One day, Salahi started requesting paper from his guards. As the result of a recent court ruling, Guantánamo detainees had access to legal representation, and so, during the next several months, Salahi drafted a diary of his detention as a series of harrowing letters to his lawyers, Nancy Hollander, Sylvia Royce, and Theresa Duncan—four hundred and sixty-six pages, sealed in envelopes and mailed to a classified facility near Washington, D.C. No guards or interrogators were allowed to read Salahi’s work. For the first time, he described his experiences without fear of retribution. On one page, he recalled the day he got his nickname, when an interrogator brought him a pillow. “I received the present with a fake overwhelming happiness, and not because I was dying to get a pillow,” he wrote. “No. I took the pillow as a sign of the end of the physical torture.”

The Detainee

Mohamedou Ould Salahi was born in late December, 1970, the ninth child of a Mauritanian camel herder and his wife. Like most countries in West Africa, Mauritania had gained independence from France a decade earlier. Few locals spoke French, but since the country had been arbitrarily drawn up as a vast, mostly desert territory, populated by numerous ethnic groups who spoke different languages, there was no alternative for official documentation. When a nurse, who spoke only Hassaniya Arabic, filled out Mohamedou’s birth certificate in the Latin alphabet, she omitted a syllable from his last name. Salahi became “Slahi.” So began a life in which governments treated Salahi in accordance with their own mistakes. . .

Continue reading.

There’s much more.

Written by LeisureGuy

15 April 2019 at 12:55 pm

The Priest of Abu Ghraib

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The Smiethsonian has a long and thoughtful article that is very much worth reading. It’s by Jennifer Percy and it begins:

Joshua Casteel was 24 years old when he learned he would be sent to Iraq as an interrogator with the 202nd Military Intelligence Battalion. This was his first deployment. It was June 2004, and the war in Iraq had been going on for a little more than a year. Casteel packed a copy of the Book of Common Prayer and didn’t stop reading until he saw the lights of Baghdad in the desert below. From Ali Al Salem Air Base, outside Kuwait City, he took a military bus overnight to Baghdad International Airport. Out his window he saw oil fires, roadside weddings, sand that went on forever.

The next day, he suited up in body armor, strapped on his M-16, and took a heavily armored three-vehicle convoy 20 miles outside Baghdad to Abu Ghraib prison. On the way, he was thinking about Pope John Paul II, who wrote about suffering, human dignity and the nature of personhood and its relationship to the divine. Then the commander asked about newcomers: “Who has never done this before?” Casteel raised his hand. The commander explained that they didn’t fire warning shots. “If you move your selector level from ‘safe’ to ‘semi’ automatic, you shoot to kill,” he said.

Casteel stood 6-foot-1 and weighed 240 pounds. He was a blond, blue-eyed evangelical Christian from Cedar Rapids, Iowa. The deployment came six weeks after the revelation of prisoner torture and abuse at Abu Ghraib shocked the world. An Army intelligence officer and a patriot who’d long dreamed of serving his country in uniform, Casteel also had doubts about the morality of the so-called war on terror. Two weeks before he got his assignment letter from the Army, he was accepted to seminary school. He chose Iraq.

His mother, Kristi Casteel, could never picture her son as an interrogator. “He just wasn’t cruel to anyone,” she told me. She worried the job would change him. Casteel tried to rationalize. “Better that they have someone like me in the interrogation room,” he told her, “than someone who doesn’t care about the Geneva Conventions, or just wants to drop bombs.”

Abu Ghraib was already a prison before the Americans arrived, where Saddam Hussein incarcerated, tortured and executed Iraqi dissidents. When Saddam’s regime collapsed, the Americans took the place over and replaced Saddam’s portrait with a banner that read “America is the friend of all Iraqi people.” There was hardly any vegetation, just expanses of dirt and mud between buildings. “At the prison’s edge is a teetering skyline—minaret, palm trees, the mosaic dome of a mosque, rooftops,” Casteel wrote home to his parents. “At sunset I can hear the calls to prayer from the south and from the east. At times it may even appear as if in a round, like choirs of a cathedral, one folded atop the other. But always a few hours after the sun has fallen there is the intermittent echo of small-arms fire, the howling of dogs.” The complex, which now also housed a U.S. military base, had a chapel, a couple of cafeterias, an entertainment shed. When Casteel got to his sleeping quarters, everything was covered in ash. Outside, he saw a plume of smoke from a giant trash pile. The pit burned 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Sometimes the smoke blew right through Casteel’s sleeping quarters.

Casteel was told that the military’s top priority, above even the search for Osama bin Laden, was to hunt down Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq, and nicknamed the “Sheik of the Slaughterers.” Casteel’s job would be to interrogate prisoners to learn more about Zarqawi’s chief lieutenant, a man named Omar Hussein Hadid, whose army of insurgents had killed 95 Americans with rocket-propelled grenades and crude bombs during the Battle of Fallujah.

For the first week Casteel sat in on interrogations. There were six booths on each side of a long hallway; down the center was a two-way mirror that didn’t always work well, and when it didn’t, the prisoners watched you watch them. The rooms held little beyond plastic chairs, cheap tables, maybe zip ties on the chair legs. Sometimes a steel hook was attached to the floor. Every now and then prisoners were led to a more comfortable room, to confuse them, make them relax. The goal was to make them slip up. Sometimes Casteel saw men kept naked. Sometimes they were handcuffed to chairs.

During lessons, Casteel’s supervisors explained how to use fabricated stories and charges of homosexuality to shame the prisoners and manipulate them. The commanders were clear about who they were dealing with, Casteel remembered.

“These men,” they said, “are the agents of Satan, gentlemen.”

* * *

I met Casteel in 2009, when we were both graduate students in the writing program at the University of Iowa. We took a class together on the art of memoir, and on the side, Casteel told me, he took courses in philosophy and theology. I was surprised when I learned he had been an interrogator at Abu Ghraib prison. He wasn’t like any soldier I had ever met. He loved to sing solos from Les Misérables and gave frequent sermons at local churches. I often saw him in a corduroy blazer, books piled under one arm.

A few years later, I contacted Casteel’s mother, Kristi, because I wished I had gotten to know him better. She invited me to her home in Cedar Rapids and gave me access to a Dropbox account containing Joshua’s many writings and files. The folders had titles like “Heidegger and the Mystery of Pain,” “Flesh and Finitude,” “Heidegger and Sartre on God and Bodies,” “Technologies of Humanness” and “The Rhetoric of Pain.”

Kristi said, “Joshua had a complexity about his life.”

There were folders for academic papers, diary entries, plays—Casteel got a dual master’s degree in playwriting and nonfiction writing—and many jotted-off musings. A small publisher, Essay Press, had put out a short book by Casteel in 2008 titled Letters from Abu Ghraib, composed of selected emails he wrote to friends and family during his six-month deployment. And there were a lot of unfinished projects, including a memoir called No Graven Images.

Peeking into Casteel’s files felt a little like having a conversation with him, even if it was one-sided. But there was so much I still wished to know. Casteel often made difficult and even contradictory choices, which to many people who knew him seemed incomprehensible. He was constantly trying to make sense of how his Christianity fit with the war and his time in Iraq. For him, questioning this paradox at the heart of his life was analogous to figuring out the mystery of Christ. “If Jesus is anything,” Casteel wrote in the introduction to his unfinished memoir, “he is incomprehensible. This is my story of wrestling with that incomprehensibility.”

* * *

Casteel was born into a family of evangelists and raised in Cedar Rapids. His father was an ordained minister with River of Life Ministries, and both of his parents worked as Christian marriage therapists. Joshua was the youngest child of three, and the only boy. For years Casteel soaked up the ecstasy of Pentecostalism, spoke in tongues, attended miracles. On Sundays, he listened to sermons, Scriptures, hymns, and learned about the fight between good and evil.

He was a kid driven by questions of meaning and significance. He lived with what people now like to call “intentionality.” He told his mother he wanted to give himself up to a higher cause—either his country, or God, or both. He even told his mother that his calling might include the ultimate sacrifice. He covered his bedroom walls with cutouts from Army brochures and Marine recruiters, the American flag and the U.S. Constitution, and a large wooden cross.

He attended his first presidential caucus events at age 7, and in high school became president of the local chapter of the Young Republicans. In his parents’ garage he would hold press conferences in a White House built from cardboard, wearing a suit and clip-on tie, his hair parted like Ronald Reagan’s. He got his first gun at 11, during the Gulf War—a 22-caliber rifle with a long-range scope. Rush Limbaugh was a constant presence. So was Billy Graham and Ralph Reed, then head of the Christian Coalition. “On the one hand,” Casteel wrote in his memoir, “the political banter of our ‘fundamentalist’ Christian household hovered around familiar conservative themes: family values, small government, private enterprise (Dad was an entrepreneur). But also always present was what Thomas Friedman refers to as the invisible fist behind the invisible hand in the economy: strong national defense.”

Casteel was consumed by feelings of loyalty to America and believed in America as a “Shining City on a Hill.” His father had been a captain in the Army, and his grandfather had fought in World War II, Korea and Vietnam. At his grandfather’s funeral, Joshua placed an old West Point badge in his casket.

One summer, at Bible camp, when Casteel was 14 years old, a man named Steve, a self-declared prophet, had a revelation that Casteel was destined to be a powerful and historically significant man. When Steve was kicked out of the ministry for false prophecy, Casteel asked the camp pastor whether the prophecy was still worth anything. “It doesn’t mean it wasn’t true,” the pastor said. “God can speak through a false prophet.”

* * *

Kristi Casteel describes her son as a happy and affectionate child, obedient as they come. The two forged a close and trusting relationship right from the beginning. One day when Casteel was 3 years old she found him sobbing uncontrollably. He brought her outside. “It’s really bad,” he said. “A little worm is dead.” The worm had dried out in the sun. Casteel dug a tiny grave and buried it. “Jesus loves the little wormies,” he told his mother. “All the little wormies of the world.” As a teenager he made small but symbolic acts in the name of God. He torched his collection of unholy CDs. He anointed the high school doorways and baseball dugouts with oil from the Christian bookstore. He blew a shofar from centerfield.

His mother said he could sometimes get lonely, staying home on weekends rather than partying or socializing with other teenagers. He didn’t drink or do drugs. Some of his friends took to calling him “Mama’s Boy.” Other classmates thought he was gay because many of his friends were girls, because he acted in school plays and musicals, because he had a hormone imbalance called gynecomastia that gave him breasts. For years, until he had surgery, he was teased in the locker room, and refused to take off his shirt to swim or change backstage during school plays.

He and his mother talked about everything—faith, friendships, girls, dreams, disappointments, fears, philosophy, theology, art, literature, music. “We were very much alike in many ways, and just naturally connected on a deep level,” Kristi told me. Joshua was never as close to his father, Everett, who didn’t share his son’s temperament or interests. (In 2010, Everett Casteel died from complications related to a brain tumor.) With his mother, Joshua was always sweet. He gave her a tiny crystal swan, a ragged cotton bunny (she collected bunnies), a pink chiffon blouse, a large print of an angel that he thought looked like her, and a framed poem he wrote about her and the meaning of her name. Casteel was always praying to Mary, the mother of God. For Kristi, it made sense. “We identified with Mary and Jesus—it just seemed to naturally evolve,” she says. “People mentioned his likeness to Christ again and again.”

Kristi had always worried that God would take her son. She had gone into his bedroom at night when he was a few weeks old and heard God talking: Give him back to me. You need to let him go. She tried to make sense of it. She later thought of the story of Isaac, when Abraham raised a knife above his son’s head to prove his faith in God.

“Whenever that fear entered my mind,” she told me, “I reminded myself that all of our children are on loan to us, and I shouldn’t live in fear of something I couldn’t know would happen.”

* * *

Casteel never forgot Steve’s prophecy, and a month after he turned 17 he enlisted as an Army reservist in Iowa City under the delayed entry program, in part to help his chances of getting accepted to West Point. That summer, between junior and senior year of high school, . . .

Continue reading. There’s a lot more.

Written by LeisureGuy

9 January 2019 at 3:13 pm

Did CIA Director Gina Haspel run a black site at Guantánamo?

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I certainly would not be surprised. She seems totally comfortable with torturing suspects (aka extreme interrogation techniques). Carol Rosenberg reports for McClatchy:

An attorney for the accused architect of the Sept. 11 attacks told a judge in a secret session last year that CIA Director Gina Haspel ran a secret agency outpost at Guantánamo, an apparent reference to a post-9/11 black site, according to a recently declassified transcript.

The claim by Rita Radostitz, a lawyer for Khalid Sheik Mohammed, appears in one paragraph of a partially redacted transcript of a secret hearing held at Guantánamo on Nov. 16. Defense lawyers were arguing, in a motion that ultimately failed, that Haspel’s role at the prison precludes the possibility of a fair trial for the men accused of orchestrating the 9/11 attacks who were also held for years in covert CIA prisons.

Neither the public nor the accused was allowed to attend the hearing but, following an intelligence review, the Pentagon released portions of its transcript on a war court website.

Haspel reportedly ran a CIA black site in Thailand where two terror suspects were waterboarded, probably before her arrival there. The unverified statement that she had a similar assignment at the terror-detention center at the U.S. Navy base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, would reveal a never-before disclosed chapter of the spy chief’s clandestine career.

The CIA declined to comment on the claim.

But in the transcript of a discussion about CIA torture and restrictions on the lawyers for the alleged plotters of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, Radostitz notes that prosecutors claim they are “not trying to cover up the torture … But the one thing that they’re not willing to talk about is the names of the people involved in the torture.” Then, after a large censored section, she says, “it makes it impossible for people at Guantánamo, who may have seen her when she was here as chief of base, to identify her and talk about it.”

Chief of base is a CIA term for the officer in charge of a secret foreign outpost. A 2014 Senate study of the CIA’s network of secret overseas prisons, called black sites, said the CIA had two such secret prisons at Guantánamo in 2003 and 2004 — apart from the Pentagon’s Guantánamo prison known as Camp Delta. While the military prison commanders’ names were disclosed, those who served as CIA chief of base were not.

The CIA sent the alleged 9/11 conspirators and other “high-value detainees” to military detention at Guantánamo in September 2006 after the captives spent three or four years in secret spy agency custody. But at least one 9/11 defendant, Ramzi bin al Shibh, was earlier held at Guantánamo, according to the public portion of the 6,200-page Senate Intelligence Committee study of the CIA’s overseas prison program, known as the torture report.

It says the agency operated two black sites there — code named Maroon and Indigo — from September 2003 to April 2004 then spirited them away for fear their captives might be entitled to attorneys.

Former CIA counterterrorism officer John Kiriakou told McClatchy that he was offered theGuantánamo chief of base position in late 2002 or early 2003 — and declined. “Nobody wanted the job,” he said. So they resorted to sending people on temporary duty assignments ranging from six weeks to nine months, he said.

“If it was during one of those periods when they couldn’t find somebody to fill the billet it would’ve made sense that she would’ve been there a short period of time,” Kiriakou said, describing a Gitmo stint as essentially a ticket punch for some agents associated with the black site program. “So when I read it, although I was surprised by it, I kind of believed it.”

Former CIA analyst Gail Helt, now a professor of Security and Intelligence Studies at King University in Tennessee, said there’s been “a lot of shadiness” with the way the spy agency has spoken about Haspel’s agency career.

An official CIA timeline of Haspel’s 33-year career notes that the agency won’t disclose 30 short-term, temporary duty assignments she held over the course of her career, suggesting they were covert. “Was one of those at Guantánamo for a couple of months?,” said Helt. “I don’t have personal knowledge of that, and couldn’t discuss it if I did. But it doesn’t surprise me.” . . .

Continue reading. There’s more.

Written by LeisureGuy

8 January 2019 at 6:54 pm

Lest we forget: “Vice” vs. the Real Dick Cheney

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Nicholas Lemann writes in the New Yorker:

Adam McKay, the director of “Vice,” has an exuberant and fantastic filmmaking style that inoculates him against the kind of indignant fact-checking to which Hollywood depictions of history are often subjected. Who wants to be an old grump and point out that, for example, there is no evidence that Dick Cheney, the movie’s antihero, suggested to the President that they head out to the White House lawn for a round of circle jerk, or that Dick and Lynne Cheney spoke to each other in bed in mock-Shakespearean pentameter? But “Vice” isn’t asking to be judged purely as a work of fiction, either; its implicit claim is that it plays around with the facts about Cheney in order to get closer to the truth.

By that standard, there’s no problem about the regular flights into speculation and satire, but there is one major false note in “Vice.” That’s when a young Cheney rather plaintively asks his mentor, the congressman turned White House aide Donald Rumsfeld, “What do we believe in?” Rumsfeld bursts into uncontrollable laughter, turns away, and disappears into his office. Through the closed door we can still hear him cackling. Actually, it’s clear that Cheney, even that early, was a deeply committed and ideological conservative—one whose phlegmatic demeanor and eagerness to master the details of government masked who he really was for a very long time.

In the early nineteen-sixties, Cheney dropped out of Yale twice, but one professor there made a deep impression on him. That was H. Bradford Westerfield, a diplomatic historian who believed that it was possible that the United States would fall victim to a Communist takeover. “Ominously, the infectious defeatism drifts across the Atlantic and begins to insinuate itself into the mind of America,” he warned in his book “The Instruments of America’s Foreign Policy.” Another crucial experience for the Cheneys—both of whom were children of career federal civil servants—was their brief tour of duty in Madison, Wisconsin, at the height of the sixties, when they were enrolled in graduate school, at the University of Wisconsin.

Many years later, Lynne Cheney told me, “I distinctly remember going to class, and having to walk through people in whiteface, conducting guerrilla theatre, often swinging animal entrails over their heads, as part of a protest against Dow Chemical. And then the shocking thing was that you would enter the classroom and here would be all these nice young people who honestly wanted to learn to write an essay.” Dick Cheney, during an internship in Washington, D.C., took a delegation from Capitol Hill to a Students for a Democratic Society meeting in Madison, so that they could see the unvarnished face of student radicalism, and also to a faculty meeting, where he was struck by the professors’ lack of alarm over the left’s activities. Cheney and Rumsfeld’s first jobs in a Presidential Administration were at the Office of Economic Opportunity, during Richard Nixon’s first term—Rumsfeld was the director and Cheney was his deputy. This is presented in “Vice” as an anodyne bureaucratic assignment, but, because the O.E.O. had been created to carry out Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty, their jobs entailed dismantling the most sixties-infused agency of the federal government. From Cheney’s point of view, the work had the quality of removing the serpent from the breast of state.

The episode that best foreshadowed the Cheney we came to know in the years after the 9/11 attacks occurred at the end of his service as Secretary of Defense, under George H. W. Bush—another job that “Vice” understands in terms of power, not ideas. As the Soviet Union was collapsing, Cheney, with the help of aides such as Lewis (Scooter) Libby and Paul Wolfowitz, who later joined him in the George W. Bush Administration, commissioned a study with the bland title “Defense Planning Guidance.” It envisioned a post-Cold War world in which there would only ever be one superpower, the United States: “Our first objective is to prevent the re-emergence of a new rival,” the document said. It was skeptical of power exercised by the United Nations and other multinational alliances, as opposed to that exercised by the United States unilaterally. Cheney’s circle did not support the first President Bush’s decision to conclude the Gulf War without toppling Saddam Hussein and installing a new government in Iraq. The 9/11 attacks provided Cheney and his allies with an unexpected opportunity to enact their long-standing views.

“Vice” treats conservatism as a combination of resistance to the civil-rights movement, the Koch brothers’ eagerness to reduce taxes and regulations, and pure opportunism. Cheney’s conservatism, at heart, is none of these. It is what might be called threatism. Powerful, determined, immensely destructive forces—the Soviet Union, radical Islam, the domestic left—want to destroy American freedom and democracy. Complacent politicians, especially liberal ones, are incapable either of understanding this or of summoning the will to combat it. For the small cadre who do understand, it is imperative to use power unusually quietly, expertly, and aggressively. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

5 January 2019 at 2:34 pm

‘But Mr. Trump had not read the letter’: Television is running the country

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Eric Wemple writes in the Washington Post:

The resignation letter of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis runs just shy of 600 words. For the average reader, digesting such a missive is an undertaking of about three minutes, maybe a bit less. Way too much, in other words, for the president of the United States.

If President Trump had wanted just the CliffsNotes version of the letter, he could have read merely these three sentences: “My views on treating allies with respect and also being clear-eyed about both malign actors and strategic competitors are strongly held and informed by over four decades of immersion in these issues. We must do everything possible to advance an international order that is most conducive to our security, prosperity and values, and we are strengthened in this effort by the solidarity of our alliances. Because you have the right to have a Secretary of Defense whose views are better aligned with yours on these and other subjects, I believe it is right for me to step down from my position.”

That’s about 100 words, or about a half-minute of investment for the average reader. Again, that’s asking a lot for this particular fellow. The New York Times reports:

But Mr. Trump had not read the letter. As became apparent to the president only after days of news coverage, a senior administration official said, Mr. Mattis had issued a stinging rebuke of Mr. Trump over his neglect of allies and tolerance of authoritarians. The president grew increasingly angry as he watched a parade of defense analysts go on television to extol Mr. Mattis’s bravery, another aide said, until he decided on Sunday that he had had enough.

Indeed: On Sunday, Trump declared that Mattis would be leaving his post on Jan. 1, not in February, as Mattis had intended.

The snap decision resulted from a policymaking “process” governed by television. Here was a letter addressed to the president himself. Instead of reading it and sorting out its tone and message, he outsourced that job to the people on whom he relies the most. Commentators on cable news and other media, that is.

The list of precedents highlighting this depraved dependency is getting unruly. Just think back to the shutdown drama, as Trump knuckled under to the likes of Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter and people on Fox News who knocked him for caving on wall funding. Or all the times that he derived governmental policies based on the programming of “Fox & Friends.” Or the time he vowed to get to the bottom of the land-reform situation in South Africa based on an error-laden presentation by Fox News host Tucker Carlson. Or the fact that his communications director — Bill Shine — is a former Fox News guy and a buddy of host Sean Hannity. Or the fact that he adjudges former Fox News presenter Heather Nauert sufficiently qualified to serve as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.

On one level, Trump’s approach to the resignation of his defense secretary makes sense. Early in the presidential campaign, Trump was asked where he got his military advice: “Well, I watch the shows. I mean, I really see a lot of great — you know, when you watch your show and all of the other shows and you have the generals,” he said. For such a dedicated liar, that was a moment of honesty, not to mention a campaign promise fulfilled: Instead of reading Mattis’s letter, he turned to television to figure out what this general had to say.

And then he became enraged. That makes a lot of sense, too: Cable news is designed to tweak you, to bait you, to titillate you and, sometimes, to anger you. It’s a dangerous formula even for folks who read a lot and who are not president of the United States. It’s a lethal formula for a guy who doesn’t read and who is president of the United States.

Written by LeisureGuy

26 December 2018 at 3:24 pm

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