Wednesday, May 20, 2009

What the Torturer Knew


     The FBI interragotor Ali Soufan recently reported in testimony to the Senate that he connected with  Abu Zubaydah by treating his wounds and talking to him.  Abu Zubaydah gave him information which led to the capture of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed.  As Soufan testified in answer to  Senator Lindsay Graham from South Carolina who tried to defend Vice President Cheney, outsmarting people for information is tougher than beating them to a pulp. Graham used to know this – he once opposed torture.  But now he said “these techniques have been used since the Middle Ages”; there must be, he tried to suggest, a reason. Thuggery – scaring the life out of many people by randomly brutalizing whomever one can lay one’s hands on – is, I am afraid, the ordinary reason of corrupt kings and princes.   Waterboarding has been used since the Inquisition, as was burning Jewish teenagers at the stake (see Montesquieu, Spirit of the Laws, book 26).  Thus, the mark of law and civilization at all – as opposed to tyranny – is the absolute ban on waterboarding and torture.  The rump elements of the Republican Party have zealously become the partisans of Torquemada. 

      In one of now “Judge” Jay Bybee’s torture memos released recently by Obama, it reports that Khalid Shaikh Mohammed was waterboarded 183 times in a month.  This was plainly crazy even for torturers and the CIA men who did the job apparently complained about it.  Zubaydah was waterboarded over 80 times.  But Soufan had procured the only information Zubaydah had.  What the torturer wanted wasn’t information from Zubaydah; what the torturer wanted was what the torturer already knew.

     Vice President Cheney wanted Zubaydah or anybody else (didn’t matter who) to give up the information that Al-Qaida had ties with Saddam.  The fact that this claim was untrue and bizarre – Al Qaida is a fanatical offshoot of the Sunnis and Saddam was secular and locked up and killed fanatical and other Sunnis and Shia – did not interfere.  Cheney is way smart compared to most bureaucrats and politicians, but he works best through silence and intimidation. His own ignorance was not obstacle.  If he forced enough torture, he could get a “justification” for aggressing against Iraq.  And Cheney knew with a passion that this must be right.  He even went down into the lower floors of the CIA to breathe on  lower level CIA officers and get the information he wanted.  He would break his subordinates in order to break the prisoners. 

      Cheney, Rice and Bush are all still quick to summon up 9/11.  But not only did they give up the search for Osama Bin Laden; they used “enhanced interrogation,” that is torture, to try to force what they already knew out of the tortured.  That is the only thing torture is good for. Note the particular criminality of the torture – it was not a bizarre response to 9/11; it was an obsessively calculated action to justify a long planned aggression against Saddam.  All the excuses for the criminals cannot hide the fact that what they did was not an attempt to gain information about 9/11.  That was not what Cheney knew, and Ali Soufan had already done this. Note: even the threadbare rationalizations for torture of the American establishment and the Democratic Party (these people were desparate and had lost their bearings because of 9/11) do not justify this policy. Gaining information to prevent an attack from Al-Qaida had nothing to do with the torture.  Instead, it was designed to confirm a war which the “Cheney-Rumsfeld” cabal had determined on long before 9/11.  Secretary of Commerce Paul O’Neill in his book with Ron Suskind, The Price of Loyalty tells the fascinating story that he walked into his first cabinet meeting with Bush and the others were discussing the tactics of going to war with Iraq.  Weren’t you supposed, he wondered, to discuss whether and why to go to war first?  He had been in the Ford and Reagan administrations and also wondered what happened to cabinet discussions of policy.  Under the influence of Rove and Cheney, cabinet discussions under George W. Bush only focused on politics.  Perhaps that is a reason for the singular disasters in every aspect of public policy which the Bush-Cheney regime achieved.  In any case, what the torturer did to these “high value detainees in secret prisons” later became the American way at Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo and Bagram.  The torturer used  naked power to enact his own fantasies, which had nothing to do with protecting the United States against another 9/11. 

       In addition,  the use by the CIA of the techniques of the psychologists Mitchell and Jesson, who advised the SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape) program for American soldiers who might be captured was also an offshoot of Cheney’s move to “dark side.” But as sloppy as Cheney (instilling fear substitutes for finding out anything) or perhaps a blowhard intimidated by Cheney, CIA chief George Tenet could not be bothered to find out whether either of these “psychologists” had ever done an interrogation.  They hadn’t.  The FBI agent Ali Soufan knew how to get information.  In contrast, the torturer knew already what he would elicit from prisoners.  Questioning suspects had nothing to do with it.  He would see to it that the screws were applied to them until they gave up what he knew. 

       The CIA did not succeed with Zubaydah (though apparently they made him quite crazy) or Khalid Shaikh Mohammed.  It did succeed with Al-Libi, who recently died in a prison in Syria under mysterious circumstances.   Under torture, Al-Libi told the CIA what Cheney wanted to hear.  Colin Powell then prepared his February 16, 2003  UN speech, trying to weed out some believable claim among the Cheney/neocon fantasies by going to CIA headquarters for four days and throwing away papers in disgust.  Powell tried to resist the craziness, but his obsequiousness to the President meant that he had ultimately to choose something that the torturer knew.  He settled on Al-Libi’s words under torture (he may or may not have known that Al-Libi was tortured).  He gave a speech in which the only true things he said were his name and that he was Secretary of State of the United States.  As his assistant in the State Department, Richard Haas (one of many decent civil servants who resigned from the Bush administration) later said, “It was the most embarrassing speech he gave in his life.” 

        The torturer knew what he wanted.  But there was a huge anti-war movement of which I was a part, largely unaddressed in the mainstream press.  The invasion of Iraq – an act of aggression, without even a UN Security Council sanction – was never a popular war.  Even the initial blitzkrieg and careful close-up photographing of the toppling of a statue of Saddam deeply impressed only the mainstream or access media, the talking heads who all say what will get the President and Vice-President to give them access.  The New York times via Judith Miller printed the words of Ahmed Chalabi (the corrupt Iraqi exile the neocons, especially Cheney relied on) on the front page.  Cheney then invoked the New York Times on Meet the Press the same day: “Even the Times agrees.”  Everyone needs to say what the Vice President already knew. 

        There is something deeply dishonorable about a war waged at all costs, with threadbare stories justifying it.  The administration could not find weapons of mass destruction.  It could not find ties to Al-Qaeda.  Still what the torturer knew possessed others even prestigious Democratic Senators like Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden who feared to be thought weak on "national security."  What the torturer knew passed for American wisdom even in the mainstream news downplaying and distorting  protests.   Months and months passed, and later there was a stolen election (exit polling which has never been wrong in Presidential elections indicated that Kerry had won).  For another four years, the torturer sailed on.

     What the torturer knew was a lie that served the torturer.  What the torturer knew betrayed what had been decent in American policy (at least the CIA tortured in the dark, though foreign minions) and had made America comparatively respected in the world.  What torture obtains is the fantasy that the torturer knew.  That is the only truth in the show “24.” which is television for the torturer.  That torture elicits only the torturer's fantasies is the truth about torture. That it reveals only the degradation of the torturer - Cheney strove long to remain silent and hidden -  is also the truth about torture. Unless President Obama appoints a bipartisan commission to gather the facts or Attorney General Holder appoints a special prosecutor, torture will remain the truth about the United States of America.  Barack Obama is decent and knows better than this. He courageously released the 4 torture memos unredacted over the yelps of four former CIA heads.  The legal side of the case – that American officials plainly tortured and that the legal advice on which they supposedly authorized the torture was thrown together after the torture had already been ordered and occurred, and would not, if a student had thrown it together hastily late at night, have passed a beginning law school class - is now clear internationally and even here at home.  It remains to be seen whether Obama  will reveal more information about torture, or whether the Democrats will slide back into acquiescence.  Will what the torturer knew be enshrined in an American police state in which citizens can be indefinitely detained and tortured at the whim of a President – as Jose Padilla was turned “into a chair” according to his lawyers in his three and a half years under torture in a West Virginia brig?  Or will we the people, finally, demand that the law to take its course?

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