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Bush White House’s repeated torture denials made CIA torturers very nervous

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Dan Froomkin reports in The Intercept:

The Bush administration was so adamant in its public statements against torture that CIA officials repeatedly sought reassurances that the White House officials who had given them permission to torture in the first place hadn’t changed their minds.

In a July 29, 2003, White House meeting that included Vice President Dick Cheney and National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, CIA Director George Tenet went so far as to ask the White House “to cease stating that US Government practices were ‘humane’.” He was assured they would.

The memo describing that meeting is one of several documents that were unclassified last year but apparently escaped widespread notice until now. Georgetown Law Professor David Cole called attention to the trove of documents on the Just Security blog.

The documents were apparently posted in December at, a website formed by a group of former senior intelligence officials to rebut the newly released Senate report that documented the horrors that CIA officers inflicted upon detainees and the lies about those tactics’ effectiveness that they told their superiors, would-be overseers and the public.

The new documents don’t actually refute any of the Senate report’s conclusions – in fact, they include some whopper-filled slides that CIA officials showed at the White House. But they do call attention to the report’s central flaw: that it didn’t address who actually gave the CIA its orders.

As Cole writes:

The overall picture that the new documents paint is not of a rogue agency, but of a rogue administration. Yes, the CIA affirmatively proposed to use patently illegal tactics — waterboarding, sleep deprivation, physical assault, and painful stress positions. But at every turn, senior officials and lawyers in the White House and the Department of Justice reassured the agency that it could — and should — go forward. The documents reveal an agency that is extremely sensitive to whether the program is legally authorized and approved by higher-ups — no doubt because it understood that what it was doing was at a minimum controversial, and very possibly illegal. The documents show that the CIA repeatedly raised questions along these lines, and even suspended the program when the OLC was temporarily unwilling to say, without further review, whether the techniques would “shock the conscience” in violation of the Fifth Amendment. But at every point where the White House and the DOJ could have and should have said no to tactics that were patently illegal, they said yes.

The documents also illustrate how CIA officials, just like journalists and members of the public, had to decide whether to take the White House’s disavowals of torture at face value. Apparently the CIA, like many others, couldn’t believe the White House was flat-out lying.

Tenet, in a July 3, 2003, letter to Rice, requested that White House officials reaffirm that waterboarding and other so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques” were being done on their orders. Tenet cited a June 2003 Washington Post story headlined U.S. Pledges Not to Torture Terror Suspects. . .

Continue reading.

Do read the whole thing. It is astonishing that they were able to get away with this, but that is thanks in large part to Obama’s own decision to facilitate the cover-up. Later in the article, the specific persons whom Obama should have prosecuted for war crimes are identified:

The July 3 letter from Tenet to Rice reminded her that the White House had been in on all this since the beginning: “The Vice President, National Security Advisor, Deputy National Security Advisor, Counsel to the President, Counsel to the National Security Adviser, and the Attorney General were consulted in August 2002 in advance of implementing use of the techniques with a particular detainee and concurred in its implementation as a matter of law and policy.”

Written by LeisureGuy

2 March 2015 at 3:46 pm

Six who said no to torture

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An interesting column at by Rebecca Gordon, describing six Americans who resisted the torture program that George W. Bush and Dick Cheney created—not because it was ineffective (not the issue) but because it was immoral and illegal and a war crime. The column begins:

Why was it again that, as President Obama said, “we tortured some folks” after the 9/11 attacks? Oh, right, because we were terrified. Because everyone knows that being afraid gives you moral license to do whatever you need to do to keep yourself safe. That’s why we don’t shame or punish those who were too scared to imagine doing anything else. We honor and revere them.

Back in August 2014, Obama explained the urge of the top figures in the Bush administration to torture “some folks” this way: “I understand why it happened. I think it’s important, when we look back, to recall how afraid people were when the twin towers fell.” So naturally, in those panicked days, the people in charge had little choice but to order the waterboarding, wall-slamming, and rectal rehydration of whatever possible terrorists (andinnocents) the CIA got their hands on. That’s what fear drives you to do and don’t forget, at the time even some mainstream liberal columnists werecalling for torture. And whatever you do, don’t forget as well that they were so, so afraid. That’s why, says the president, “It’s important for us not to feel too sanctimonious,” too quick to judge the people in the Bush administration, the CIA, and even the U.S. military who planned, implemented, and justified torture.

The president has vacillated about just how long this period of exculpatory fear was supposed to last. Sometimes he seems to suggest that it’s just the responses in the more or less immediate aftermath of those attacks we shouldn’t feel too sanctimonious about. Sometimes it’s all those “years after 9/11” during which America’s leaders had to face “legitimate fears of further attacks” and therefore kept on torturing people.

However long the panic lasted, the important point is that, as Obama insisted in 2009, and again at the end of 2014, no one should be prosecuted for torture, because everyone was scared.

Anyone in President George W. Bush’s position would have declared that the Geneva Conventions, which are supposed to protect prisoners of war from mistreatment, don’t cover prisoners taken in the “war on terror.” Anyone would have told the pundits on “Meet the Press,” as Vice President Dick Cheney did less than a week after 9/11, that the attacks meant we would now have to work “the dark side.” Anyone in CIA Director George Tenet’s shoes would have agreed with Cheney when he said that “a lot of what needs to be done here will have to be done quietly, without any discussion, using sources and methods that are available to our intelligence agencies.”

And any attorney in the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel would naturally have written the “torture memos” that John Yoo and Jay Bybeecreated in 2002, in which they sought to provide legal cover for the CIA’s torture practices by redefining torture itself more or less out of existence. For some act to count as “severe physical suffering” and therefore as torture, they wrote, the pain inflicted would have to be of a sort “ordinarily associated with a… serious physical condition, such as death, organ failure, or serious impairment of bodily functions.”

Wouldn’t anyone do what these men did, if they, too, were frightened out of their wits? Actually, no. In fact, the sad, ugly story of the U.S. response to the criminal acts of 9/11 is brightened by a number of people who have displayed genuine courage in saying no to and turning their backs on torture. Their choices prove that Bush, Cheney, & Co. could have said no as well.

Though you’d never know it here, no level of fear in public officials makes acts of torture (or the support of such acts) any less criminal or more defensible before the law. It’s remarkably uncomplicated, actually. Torture violates U.S. and international law, and those responsible deserve to be prosecuted both for what they did and to prevent the same thing from happening the next time people in power are afraid.

Some of those who rejected torture, like CIA official John Kiriakou and an as-yet-unnamed Navy nurse, directly refused to practice it. Some risked reputations and careers to let the people of this country know what their government was doing. Sometimes an entire agency, like the FBI, refused to be involved in torture.

I’d like to introduce you to six of these heroes.

Sergeant Joseph M. Darby: If it hadn’t been for a 24-year-old soldier named Joe Darby, we might never have heard of the tortures and abuses committed at Abu Ghraib, 20 miles outside Baghdad. It had once beenSaddam Hussein’s most notorious prison and when the U.S. military arrived in 2003, they put it to similar use.

Early on, however, the Defense Department was unhappy with the quality of “intelligence” being produced there, so Major General Geoffrey Miller was dispatched from his post as commandant of the jewel in the crown of the Bush administration’s offshore system of injustice, Guantánamo, to Iraq with orders to “Gitmo-ize” Abu Ghraib.

Joe Darby was a member of the Military Police assigned to that prison. One day early in 2004, Army Specialist Charles Graner handed him a couple of CDs full of photographs, thinking perhaps that Darby would enjoy them as much as he did.

Graner was one of the people in charge of the Army Reservists responsible for “softening up” prisoners before they were handed over for interrogation to Military Intelligence and the “Other Government Agency” (a euphemism for the CIA and its private contractors). Prisoners being softened up were stacked in pyramids like cordwood, paraded like dogs on leashes, bitten by actual dogs, and in at least one case,raped in the anus “with a chemical light and perhaps a broom stick.”

When Joe Darby saw the photographs, unlike Graner, he was not amused. He was horrified. He recognized them as evidence of crimes and, after three weeks of internal debate, handed them to Special Agent Tyler Pieron of the U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Command, who was working at Abu Ghraib. From there, the photos made their way up the chain of command, via a leak into the hands of New Yorker reporter Seymour Hersh, and eventually into U.S. living rooms on 60 Minutes II one Tuesday evening at the end of April 2004.

Darby hoped to remain anonymous, but he soon gained international renownfor what he had done. With exposure came threats to him and to his family. In the immediate aftermath of the disclosures, while still stationed at Abu Ghraib, he feared — he told the BBC — that he might be murdered in his sleep. Still, he doesn’t consider what he did anything special. As he said, when accepting the Kennedy Library’s Profiles in Courage award, “It just seemed like the right thing to do at the time.” Joe Darby may have felt fear, but he didn’t go along with a torture regime.

Major General Antonio M. Taguba: . . .

Continue reading.

It’s important to recognize how severely punished were those who refused to torture, while those who were willing to torture suspects (some of whom were innocent) faced no reprisals and no accountability at all, thanks to President Obama and his Department of “Justice.”

Written by LeisureGuy

23 February 2015 at 4:56 pm

How the CIA avoids accountability and has become a rogue agency

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Scott Horton has an extract in Salon from his book Lords of Secrecy: The National Security Elite and America’s Stealth Warfare:

On March 11, 2014, California Sen. Dianne Feinstein stepped to the well of the Senate to deliver a speech exposing in stark terms a struggle between congressional investigators and their oversight subject: the Central Intelligence Agency. Feinstein was an unlikely critic of the practices of the intelligence community. The wife of investment banker Richard C. Blum, who managed enormous capital investments in corporations serving the American defense and intelligence communities, Feinstein had distinguished herself among Senate Democrats as a staunch CIA defender. In her long service on the Senate Intelligence Committee, which she had chaired since 2009, Feinstein established close personal ties with key senior agency figures—championing the candidacy of former deputy director Stephen Kappes to head the agency after Barack Obama was elected.

Patiently and meticulously, Feinstein unfolded the string of events that led her committee to launch the most exhaustive congressional probe of a single CIA program in the nation’s history. “On December 6, 2007, a New York Times article revealed the troubling fact that the CIA had destroyed video tapes of some of the CIA’s first interrogations using so-called enhanced techniques,” she stated.

CIA director Michael Hayden had assured congressional overseers that they had no reason to be concerned: routine written field reports, what Hayden called CIA operational cables, had been retained. These documents, Hayden said, described “the detention conditions” of prisoners held by the CIA before it decided to shut down the program as well as the “day-to-day CIA interrogations.” Hayden offered the senators access to these cables to prove to them that the destruction of the tapes was not a serious issue. Moreover, he reminded them that the CIA program was a historical relic: in the fall of 2006 the Bush administration ended the CIA’s role as a jailer and sharply curtailed its program of “enhanced interrogation techniques” (EITs)—specifically eliminating techniques that most of the international community, including the United States in the period before and after the Bush presidency, had viewed as torture, such as waterboarding.

Nevertheless, the Senate committee had never looked deeply into this program, and Hayden’s decision to offer access to the cables opened the door to a careful study, which was accepted by then-chair Jay Rockefeller. Early in 2007, two Senate staffers spent many months reading the cables. By the time they had finished in early 2009, Feinstein had replaced Rockefeller as committee chair, and Barack Obama had replaced George W. Bush as president. Feinstein received the first staff report. It was “chilling,” she said. “The interrogations and the conditions of confinement at the CIA detention sites were far different and far more harsh than the way the CIA had described them to us.”

This first exploration of the dark side of CIA prisons and torture led committee members to recognize a serious failure in its oversight responsibilities. The committee resolved with near-unanimity (on a 14–1 vote) to launch a comprehensive investigation of the CIA program involving black sites and torture.

But the CIA was not simply going to acquiesce to a congressional probe into the single darkest and most controversial program in the organization’s history. Since it could not openly do battle with its congressional overseers, the agency turned to a series of tactics that it had honed over the difficult decades following the Church Committee inquiries of the mid-1970s. Throughout the subsequent decades, the CIA complained loudly about the burdens of oversight and accountability—while almost always getting its way.

Indeed, the dynamics had changed dramatically after the coordinated terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001. In the ensuing years, the CIA’s budget ballooned to more than double its pre-2001 numbers. Moreover, it got the go-ahead to launch programs previously denied or sidetracked, and clearance to encroach on the Pentagon’s turf through extensive operations using armed predator drones. Washington, it seemed, had forgotten how to say no to Langley. Still, the operation of the black site and EIT program involves a strikingly different dynamic—because the spring that fed it came not out of Langley but from the office of Vice President Dick Cheney, inside the White House.

Senior figures in the CIA, including the agency’s senior career lawyer, John Rizzo, fully appreciated that the black sites and the EITs presented particularly dangerous territory. Exposure of these programs could damage some of the agency’s tightest points of collaboration with foreign intelligence services—authoritarian regimes such as Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Pakistan, Thailand, and Yemen, as well as among new democracies of Eastern Europe, like Lithuania, Poland, and Romania. British intelligence had been deeply involved and feared exposure, considering the domestic political opposition and the rigorous attitude of British courts.

CIA leadership was also focused on the high likelihood that the program, once exposed, would lead to a press for criminal prosecutions under various statutes, including the anti-torture act. It therefore moved preemptively, seeking assurances and an opinion from the Justice Department that would serve as a “get out of jail free” card for agents involved in the program. But when those opinions were disclosed, starting hard on the heels of photographic evidence of abuse at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq—much of it eerily similar to techniques discussed in the Justice Department opinions—a political firestorm erupted around the world. The Justice Department was forced to withdraw most of the opinions even before George W. Bush left Washington.

Leon Panetta, arriving at the CIA in 2009, found top management preoccupied with concerns about fallout from this program.

The CIA chose to react to plans for a congressional probe cautiously, with a series of tactical maneuvers and skirmishes. Its strategy was apparent from the beginning: slow the review down while hoping for a change in the political winds that might end it. And from the outset it made use of one essential weapon against its congressional overseers—secrecy. For the agency, secrecy was not just a way of life; it was also a path to power. It wielded secrecy as a shield against embarrassing disclosures and as a sword to silence and threaten adversaries. It was an all-purpose tool.


The agency’s first line of defense was . . .

Continue reading. There’s a lot more, and it’s clear the CIA is seriously out of control.

The CIA gets away with this because Obama has protected the CIA and resisted the efforts of Congress to exercise oversight.

Written by LeisureGuy

21 February 2015 at 11:52 am

The Punisher: Jeb Bush and the Schiavos

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In the New Yorker Amy Davidson writes to remind us of recent history:

March 18, 2005, the House and Senate subpoenaed Terri Schiavo, ordering her to appear as a witness before committees in both chambers. No one in Congress was waiting to hear what she had to say—everyone knew that Schiavo couldn’t say anything. She had been in what doctors called a persistent vegetative state for fifteen years, although her husband, Michael, had long said that she wouldn’t have wanted to be kept alive in such a condition. When, a couple of weeks later, she finally, indisputably died, at a hospice in Pinellas Park, Florida, an autopsy found that her brain was so atrophied that it was probably less than half the size it had once been. Instead, the point of the subpoenas, pushed by the Republican leaders Bill Frist and Tom DeLay, was to theatrically invoke federal “witness protection” laws to threaten anyone who removed her feeding tubes with the crime of obstructing her appearance before Congress. Republican aides told reporters that thepenalty might be five years in prison.

DeLay and Frist were just late-game entrants in the fight for Schiavo’s body, or, rather, the fight to turn what was left of it into a political object. The politician who had the most to say about Terri Schiavo was Jeb Bush, who was governor of Florida then and now seems to be running for President. In 2003, when a court affirmed Michael Schiavo’s right, as Terri’s guardian, to have her feeding tube removed, Jeb Bush pushed a law through the Florida state legislature giving him the power to overrule the court—and so “stormed to the brink of a constitutional crisis,” as the Tampa Bay Times put it in a review of the case earlier this year, going “all in on Schiavo.” The bill was called “Terri’s Law,” but, in terms of decision-making, it was all Jeb’s. He then issued an executive order and, as Michael Kruse described it in an piece for Politico last month, “A police-escorted ambulance whisked her from her hospice in Pinellas Park to a nearby hospital to have her feeding tube put back in.” When a judge overturned Terri’s Law, and the Supreme Court let that ruling stand, Bush turned his efforts to lobbying Congress, at a time when his brother was President.

Bush’s new campaign has brought Schiavo’s story back. E-mails about the case were among those he recently released, and last week Michael Schiavo wrote a letter to the editor of the Miami Herald, warning voters against “trusting” Bush, who Schiavo said “abused the powers” he had as governor. “He made life miserable for my family, the doctors and staff at the nursing home, the police—all because he wanted to involve himself in something that both the law and common human decency told him that no government official should have gotten involved in,” he wrote. Schiavo is giving other interviews as well.

There are those for whom the case is seen not as an embarrassment for Bush but as a conservative credential. The video images of Schiavo remain vivid—in a hospital room, as her parents attempt to get her to look at a balloon and exhort her to show that she realizes that they are there and that they love her. Her parents saw the videos as evidence of her mind’s presence, and proof that she should be kept alive. Many viewers, looking into Schiavo’s drifting eyes, had a sense only of the power of wishful affection to see something that was not there. The doctors who examined her saw nothing else. Schiavo’s parents came to despise her husband, whose intentions they impugned. Their supporters called Michael Schiavo a murderer. The family was Catholic, and their religious beliefs were taken as an irrefutable license to levy such attacks. After Congress, on a March weekend, passed another dubious bill, DeLay decided to call it the “Palm Sunday Compromise.” (A judge soon dispensed with DeLay’s witness-protection ploy.) Much of the passion had to do not with Schiavo, or even the right to die, but with an issue for which her case was taken as a proxy: abortion. Hendrik Hertzberg wrote at the time, “Her lack of awareness actually increased her metaphoric usefulness. Like a sixty-four-cell blastocyst, she was without consciousness. Unlike the blastocyst, she was without potential. If letting her body die is murder, goes the logic, then thwarting the development of the blastocyst can surely be nothing less.”

The abortion debate, which has hardly abated, is just one of the ways that the Schiavo case retains its emotional resonance. (As governor, Jeb Bush worked torestrict reproductive rights, at one point trying to get a guardian appointed for the fetus of a disabled rape victim.) There are others: . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

18 February 2015 at 5:07 pm

On not learning from experience: US decides to wade into yet another war

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Kevin Drum has a post nicely summarized in its title: “Since 9/11, We’ve Had 4 Wars in the Middle East. They’ve All Been Disasters.” The post begins:

So here’s my scorecard for American military interventions since 2000:

  • Afghanistan: A disaster. It’s arguable that Afghanistan is no worse off than it was in 2001, but after losing thousands of American lives and spending a trillion American dollars, it’s no better off either.
  • Iraq: An even bigger disaster. Saddam Hussein was a uniquely vicious dictator, but even at that there’s not much question that Iraq is worse off than it was in 2003. We got rid of Saddam, but got a dysfunctional sectarian government and ISIS in return.
  • Yemen: Yet another disaster. After years of drone warfare, Houthi rebels have taken over the government. This appears to be simultaneously a win for Iran,which backs the rebels, and al-Qaeda, which may benefit from the resulting chaos. That’s quite a twofer. . .

There’s more at the link, but that’s enough to set the context for Charles Simic’s NY Review of Books article that begins:

Jon Stewart: “Right now, the Middle East is spiraling out of control. What should America do about this?”

Bassem Youssef, Egyptian comedian and satirist: “Well, how about… nothing.”

The Daily Show, February 9, 2015

Since we rarely see real images of our wars today and have to fall back on simulated ones in Hollywood movies that make us look good, I wonder what Americans would say if they were shown graphic footage of the results of US drone attacks, some of the many wedding parties or funerals we mistook for gatherings of terrorists and reduced to “bug splats,” in the parlance of those dispatching our missiles. The idea that wiping out a bunch of innocents along with a few bad guys will make us safer at home and not make us more enemies everywhere is nuts, and so is the argument that the atrocities we find appalling in others are acceptable when perpetrated by us.

All this ought to be obvious to our leaders in Washington, but apparently it isn’t. President Obama’s new request for war authorization, now pending before Congress, to fight ISIS over the next three years with further airstrikes and “limited” combat operations, despite the complete failure of all our previous attempts in Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen to do any good, may make our wars legal, but no less foolish.

What Czeslaw Milosz said of the last century is unfortunately already true of this one: Woe to those who think they can save themselves without taking part in a tragedy. Millions of Americans certainly continue to think so, even after September 11 and all the wars we have fought since and are still fighting. Television footage and newspaper photographs do not convey the scale of destruction and death in New York City on that day. One needed to have stood at least once under the twin towers to grasp their immense height and magnitude. Although I did, it took me days and months to comprehend fully what had occurred. Even after the second airliner struck the towers, it didn’t cross my mind that they might collapse. When they did, my mind had trouble accepting what my eyes were seeing. It was like a movie, people said afterward. We’d exit the dark movie theater with a shudder and go back to our lives. I thought Americans would finally begin to understand what being bombed is like.

What has always amazed me about countries at war is the way the killing of the innocent in foreign lands is ignored. People who wouldn’t step on an ant at home have no interest in finding out what horrors their country is perpetrating abroad. This heartless attitude becomes even more offensive when one thinks back to those terrified people in New York running through fire and smoke from the collapsing towers. In the days after the attacks, our pundits and politicians clamored for a quick and brutal retaliation that would not be overly concerned with distinguishing the innocent from the guilty. In other words, let’s just start bombing the bastards and not worry about who gets killed—or about the likelihood that the bombed might want to have their own revenge one day.

Things will never be the same in this country people kept saying after September 11, and that has proved to be true. What hasn’t changed is our belief that we can eradicate evil in the world. We’re more likely to see the Taliban shave their beards and let their wives and daughters wear miniskirts than our own leaders break their addiction to militarism. Accordingly, there is no thought given in Washington to the harm our engagement in the Middle East and elsewhere has done to the societies and countries we have attacked, nor to what has caused the hatred and the desire for vengeance against us in the Muslim world. In our version of history, the September 11 hijackers who brought so much tragedy to so many people did what they did and went to their deaths because they loathed our freedoms and our values, while the tragedies we have caused in other countries are nothing more than the collateral damage of our sincere effort to liberate those countries. It’s lucky we Americans have learned to close our eyes to what we do to others; otherwise we’d be in danger of losing our cherished view of ourselves as exceptionally virtuous and innocent people and instead begin to think of ourselves as vile hypocrites. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

17 February 2015 at 4:40 pm

Damage persists from US torture regime

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Carol Rosenberg reports for the Miami Herald and McClatchy:

A defense lawyer for an alleged 9/11 plotter said Thursday that his Saudi client had been rectally abused while in CIA custody — and that he continues to bleed now, at least eight years later.

Attorney Walter Ruiz made the disclosure in open court in a bid to get a military judge to intervene in the medical care of Mustafa Hawsawi, 46, accused of helping the Sept. 11 hijackers with travel and money.

Hawsawi, who was captured in March 2003 with alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed, 49, was subjected to unauthorized “enhanced interrogation techniques” at the CIA’s secret prison, according to the recently released so-called Senate Torture Report. He got to Guantánamo in September 2006.

The 5-foot-4-inch man has sat on a pillow over years of pretrial hearings in the death-penalty trial of five men accused of conspiring in the terror attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people on Sept. 11, 2001. Thursday was the first time that Ruiz was permitted to explain it under a loosening of censorship at the court that lets lawyers talk about the released, redacted524-page portion of the 6,200-page Senate report.

“It started somewhere between 2003 and 2006 by members and agents of our government who violated our laws and tortured. It is our responsibility now to provide the adequate medical care,” said Ruiz. He also added that, although these are death penalty proceedings, the court is obliged to ensure adequate healthcare.

Guantánamo’s prison spokesmen say war-on-terror captives get the same level of care as U.S. service members. . . [Though presumably we do not torture US service members. – LG]

Continue reading.

President Obama has gone to some lengths to ensure that those who set up and ran the US torture program, including the torturers themselves, will never face justice. I do not understand his full-hearted defense of those who broke laws and committed war crimes. It will be a part of his legacy of which he should be ashamed.

Written by LeisureGuy

12 February 2015 at 5:37 pm

“Close approximation of evil”: Why Cheney’s post-9/11 state should worry us all

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A very interesting interview with Scott Horton on his new book:

History is sometimes bitterly ironic. (One of the last things President John F. Kennedy heard before he was murdered was the wife of then-Gov. John Connally saying, “Mr. President, you can’t say Dallas doesn’t love you,” for example.) And when future Americans look back on this era, it’s likely that they’ll be struck by one irony in particular: The growth of the national security state and the proliferation of national security secrets is one of the major stories of our time — but by its very nature has for the most part transpired without our noticing. And like what is probably the biggest story of the day, climate change, it’s doubtful that we’ll be able to notice the secrecy tipping point until we’ve long passed it.

That, in part, is the subject of “Lords of Secrecy: The National Security Elite and America’s Stealth Warfare,” the new book from lawyer, writer and Harper’s magazine contributing editor Scott Horton, who’s been doggedly covering the rise of the U.S. national security state — and the accompanying decline of U.S. democracy — for most of the past 15 years. Recently, Salon spoke with Horton over the phone about his book, the power of secrecy, the dangers of bureaucracy, and why a German sociologist who died nearly 100 years ago saw all of this coming. Our conversation is below and has been edited for clarity and length.

To begin, I’d like to ask you about the motivation behind writing this book. There’s been an increasing focus on the national security state lately, a lot of good work from good journalists and policy experts and intellectuals. But was there an element to the story that you felt wasn’t quite being told yet — or at least not in as much depth as you wanted?

That’s absolutely the case. I sat and looked back at a number of high-profile, important national security issues that have arisen in the course of the last 10 or 15 years — drones, attack on whistle-blowers, the way we were going to war in case after case, the media management that was going on, etc. — I saw the theme of secrecy really floating through all of that and dictating the conduct of the government in a way that I thought really was not being fully appreciated, even by many of the most expert national security writers. So I thought it really had to be developed.

Also, if you just look at how the issue of secrecy comes up here in the press, we hear these threatening, menacing statements from senior press spokesmen for the Department of Defense and the CIA and other agencies about what a dire threat is presented to the security of every American and every uniformed soldier on the battlefield as a result of any breach of secrecy [by whistle-blowers to the press]. That’s presented very, very aggressively, dramatically … but you never hear any discussion of what’s the downside of all these claims of secrecy. In fact, that’s almost uniformly given a value of zero, which then permits the sweeping mistakes in favor of secrecy all the time. It just seemed to me that’s obviously not correct.

Where do you think that mistake is coming from? Is it philosophical? Intellectual? Political?

The failing starts with a very basic appreciation of what it means to have democracy. The theory of our democratic society has always been information freedoms. We’re a knowledge-based democracy. If you take away knowledge and information you start eroding the foundation of the democracy. … The absolute core area for decision making in democratic societies, from the beginning, has always been national security matters: whether you’re going to war, committing troops, or [engaging in] hostilities with another nation. That’s the essence of democratic franchise. The people have to be involved in that. I see us drifting far away from our historical understanding of democracy — and secrecy is the reason.

So what is secrecy, as it’s defined in the book? Why is it so powerful and dangerous to a democracy?

I’m a firm believer that political science and sociology have a lot to say about this. There is an enormous literature that provides us key insights that are absolutely true and that have been clearly validated by things that have happened in the last 15 years. So my key mission in this book was to prove Max Weber knew what he was talking about. Everything he said was going to happen has happened. The remedies to it are actually even more serious that he ever contemplated, and we’re in a very difficult position.

So, for those who don’t know, what were Weber’s thoughts on secrecy?

It really starts with a global study of bureaucracy and how bureaucracies behave.

What he and other prominent sociologists found — and this is about a hundred years ago, roughly — was that bureaucracies love secrecy. They use secrecy in some completely predictable ways. They’ll use it for entirely appropriate purposes; to maintain military secrets or diplomatic secrets or private or confidential information of individual citizens, yes. But then they will use it in all sorts of completely inappropriate ways, and largely this has to do with the natural striving of a bureaucracy to get more money, to increase staff levels, to have a greater say on key issues in society, and to have the upper-hand in inter-bureaucratic struggles with other bureaucracies.

One of the things that was established very early on was that bureaucracies that have the right to make secrets come out on top of bureaucracies that don’t have that right every single time. And why is that? They put a secret stamp on their assessments and their recommendations and nobody can criticize them — except people who have access to that information. So it’s a great way to go forward. One of the consequences of that is it creates, ultimately, a government that is dumber, less competent, more inclined to be corrupt and even criminal from time to time, because it creates a matrix in which all of those things thrive.

So in the beginning of the book, you focus on the recent contretemps between the CIA and the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SCCI) over the so-called torture report, which I thought was a great way to see how these issues play out in the real world. Can you tell me a bit more about why that episode was so revealing? . . .

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Written by LeisureGuy

6 February 2015 at 5:56 pm


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