Monday, April 20, 2009

Exceptional Circumstances

No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture. -- Article 2.2 of the Convention Against Torture, signed for the United States by President Ronald Reagan on April 18, 1988 (21 years ago Saturday)

In this week's Sift:

  • The New Torture Memos. If you're surprised, you were probably in denial.
  • Now That You've Brought Up Thomas Paine ... I have to point out that he was a flaming liberal. Glenn Beck should read Paine's Agrarian Justice before he brings actors onto his show to play Paine.
  • Short Notes. Gloria, Newt, and the pirates. Satirists accept the challenge of "The Gathering Storm". George Will denounces blue jeans. And conservatives finally begin to understand why a surveillance state is a bad idea.

The New Torture Memos

Thursday, the Obama administration released four new memos in which the Bush Justice Department interpreted away our laws against torture. I have read one of the newly released memos and summaries of the others. What is new here is the specificity. If you were in denial about the fact that the United States of American tortured people as a matter of policy (and not just by the actions of a few over-zealous guys in the field), that denial just became a lot harder to maintain. On the other hand, if you took the previous torture memos seriously and imagined what they must mean -- this is about what you should have expected.

In the memo I read, Jay Bybee OK'd the CIA's interrogation plan for suspected terrorist Abu Zubaydah, in which he would be deprived of sleep, slapped, slammed against a wall, put into a small box with an insect he was morbidly afraid of, and waterboarded. Bybee objected to nothing the CIA proposed, and drew no line-in-the-sand that they dare not cross in the future, saying only that if the facts he had been given were to change, "this advice would not necessarily apply."

In the previously released John Yoo memos, you could imagine that the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel was engaged in an academic exercise about what the law conceivably might allow -- doing a bad job of it and grossly exagerating the power of the president, but not directly hurting anybody. That fig leaf is gone now. Bybee was one of the last links in the decision chain about whether to torture a specific man in specific ways. He had every reason to believe that if he said yes, the torture would happen. He said yes, and it happened.

In all the accounts I've read of the Bush administration and torture (many of which are collected in Jane Mayer's The Dark Side, which I reviewed last month) I can find no trace of a conversation at the Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld level about whether torture works. They just assumed it did. Lower-level people, many of them with training and experience in interrogation, tried to raise the issue that torture was not the best approach to getting information, but they were consistently told that the question had been decided already; you were either on board or you weren't.

Bush CIA Director Michael Hayden went on Fox News Sunday to claim that revealing these memos has made America less safe, because torture "really did work." Of course, we have to take his word, because all the evidence is classified. And naturally, if it were true that he had sold America's soul and gotten nothing for it, he would tell us. Right?

No one ever points out how torture costs American lives. When we've got terrorists cornered, whether in Tora Bora or in some isolated cabin in the Rockies, our best weapon is their knowledge that if they just surrender, they'll be treated well. Medical care, a warm safe place to sleep, three meals a day -- just surrender. Frag your commander if you have to, but surrender. You'll be fine. But if surrender means torture and degradation, terrorists might well decide to go out shooting and take as many Americans with them as they can.

Matt Yglesias comments:
In historical terms, you don’t look back on the Spanish Inquisition or on Stalin’s Russia and say man, those guys had some crack investigators! Rather, you see that historically the function of torture has been to extract false confessions and to inspire a general climate of fear.

Perhaps the worst thing we did to the detainees is rarely discussed, and seemed to need little justification: extended solitary confinement. American citizen Jose Padilla spent three and a half years in a military brig. For much of that time he saw no one but his interrogators -- not even guards -- and was held in a wing with no other prisoners. At least some of that time he lived in sensory deprivation.

Former interrogator Col. Steven Kleinman (retired): "I'm not a psychologist, but if he is not profoundly psychologically disturbed from that experience then he is a stronger man than me."

He's not stronger. By all acounts from people who knew him, we broke Padilla. Not in the interrogation sense of breaking his resistance, but in the human sense that he can't function in society any more.

NYT: The interrogation program Bybee approved occurred "despite the belief of interrogators that [Abu Zubaydah] had already told them all he knew" because higher-ups in the CIA had "a highly inflated assessment of his importance." Nonetheless, Bybee's memo summarizes information he had been given like this:
The interrogation tearn is certain that he has additional information that he refuses to divulge. Specifically, he is withholding information regarding terrorist networks in the United States or in Saudi Arabia and information regarding plans to conduct attacks within the United States or against our interests overseas.
This is one of many reasons why you don't want a bureaucracy handling torture. Bureaucracy is a constant game of telephone: Each player distorts things a little bit, and the distortions accumulate as information goes up and down the chain.

TPM collects the commentary about these memos on the Sunday talk shows.
Glenn Greenwald was struck by a Steven Bradbury memo that acknowledges:
Certain of the techniques the United States has condemned [when other countries do them] appear to bear some resemblance to some of the CIA interrogation techniques.
But in a footnote Bradbury says:
Diplomatic relations with regard to foreign countries are not reliable evidence of United States executive practice
In other words, we're not bound by any of that high-minded stuff we preach to other countries.

The NYT wants Bybee, now a federal appeals judge for life, impeached:
These memos make it clear that Mr. Bybee is unfit for a job that requires legal judgment and a respect for the Constitution.

A day later than Marcy Wheeler, the NYT noticed that two detainees were waterboarded a total of at least 266 times. Matt Yglesias comments that this should put to rest "the notion that some kind of ticking time bomb story lies at the heart of the Bush administration’s torture policy." There weren't 266 ticking time bombs, were there?

In a later post, Matt explained waterboarding:
Basically the idea is that if you would like to torture someone by holding them under water until they nearly drown, but your lawyer tells you that you’re not allowed to run the risk doing permanent physical harm to the torturee, “waterboarding” is a nifty method of producing all the relevant torture but without the chance of accidentally drowning the guy you’re torturing. The only reason anyone could ever reach the conclusion that this isn’t torture is that they (a) want to torture people, and (b) don’t want to admit that they want to torture people.

The Obama administration continues to oppose any accountability for torture, either at the interrogator level or at the policy level or at the top. Obama's official statement says:

This is a time for reflection, not retribution. I respect the strong views and emotions that these issues evoke. We have been through a dark and painful chapter in our history. But at a time of great challenges and disturbing disunity, nothing will be gained by spending our time and energy laying blame for the past. Our national greatness is embedded in America’s ability to right its course in concert with our core values, and to move forward with confidence. That is why we must resist the forces that divide us, and instead come together on behalf of our common future.

That's the White House line: insisting on the rule of law is just "emotion". Rahm Emanuel elaborated that this is not a time for "anger and retribution." The official statement continues:

The United States is a nation of laws. My Administration will always act in accordance with those laws, and with an unshakeable commitment to our ideals.
But this plainly is not true, as UN Special Rapporteur Manfred Nowak has pointed out:
The United States, like all other states that are part of the U.N. convention against torture, is committed to conducting criminal investigations of torture and to bringing all persons against whom there is sound evidence to court
In other words, we have an obligation under the law to prosecute torturers. By ignoring this obligation President Obama, like President Bush, is picking and choosing which laws he will live by.

In another region of the Bush legacy: Yesterday Congressional Quarterly reported a sinister series of deals centering on Democratic Congresswoman Jane Harman that allegedly happened in late 2005. (Harman denies the story and it's based entirely on anonymous sources, but CQ is a quality publication.) The first alleged deal is that Harman would use her influence with the Bush Justice Department to support two pro-Israel lobbyists accused of espionage; in exchange the pro-Israel group AIPAC would use its influence with Nancy Pelosi to get Harman appointed chair of the House Intelligence Committee if the Democrats took control of Congress in 2006.

That conversation allegedly was picked up by an NSA wiretap (directed at the Israelis, not at Harman), and the Justice Department began investigating Harman. Then CQ claims a second deal happened: Attorney General Alberto Gonzales stopped the investigation because "Gonzales wanted Harman to be able to help defend the administration’s warrantless wiretapping program, which was about break in The New York Times and engulf the White House."

Glenn Greenwald comments:
Jane Harman, in the wake of the NSA scandal, became probably the most crucial defender of the Bush warrantless eavesdropping program, using her status as "the ranking Democratic on the House intelligence committee" to repeatedly praise the NSA program as "essential to U.S. national security" and "both necessary and legal."
Josh Marshall at TPM raises the question that popped into a lot of people's minds, including mine: "Any particular reason people in the intel community would want to start talking to the press right now?" Maybe the NSA is reminding Obama that a lot of high-ranking Democrats are implicated in the Bush administration's crimes.
Wednesday, the same NYT reporters who exposed the NSA's illegal warrantless wiretapping program in the first place reported that the NSA's spying on Americans' email and phone calls "went beyond the broad legal limits established by Congress last year." Glenn Greenwald agrees with Digby: "It was so inevitable that I can't even find the energy to get worked up about it." Digby concludes:
I'm going to spend the rest of the night re-reading all the moving speeches that were made on the Senate floor just a year ago, talking about how we didn't need to look in the rear view mirror and the safeguards in the bill would solve all problems.

Now That You've Brought Up Thomas Paine ...
As Glenn Beck invokes the spirit of Thomas Paine, it becomes apparent that Beck has never read Paine's essay Agrarian Justice. Paine's ideas are both radical and simple, and our current political debates would advance considerably if everyone understood them.

Writing in the French Republic in 1795 (having recently escaped death during the Reign of Terror) Paine begins his essay by comparing civilized society to what he has seen of a hunter-gatherer culture:
The life of an [American] Indian is a continual holiday, compared with the poor of Europe; and, on the other hand it appears to be abject when compared to the rich. Civilization, therefore, or that which is so-called, has operated two ways: to make one part of society more affluent, and the other more wretched, than would have been the lot of either in a natural state.
In his characteristic cut-to-the-chase style, Paine puts his finger on civilization's key problem: the system of private property, by which the rich claim the communal inheritance of humanity.
It is wrong to say God made rich and poor; He made only male and female, and He gave them the earth for their inheritance.
Paine doesn't see how civilized society could function (and support its larger population) without private property. But he has a plan to rectify the inherent injustice of the property system. First, if we can no longer honor each person's right to a share of the Earth, at least give everybody enough capital to get started in life. He proposes:
To create a national fund, out of which there shall be paid to every person, when arrived at the age of twenty-one years, the sum of fifteen pounds sterling, as a compensation in part, for the loss of his or her natural inheritance, by the introduction of the system of landed property:
Second, start an old-age pension.
And also, the sum of ten pounds per annum, during life, to every person now living, of the age of fifty years, and to all others as they shall arrive at that age.
Funded how? By an inheritance tax -- a death tax, if you will. Paine calculates that 10% should do the trick. No one can rightfully object to such a tax, Paine reasons, because his inheritance is already the result of usurping the natural inheritance of everybody else.
Various methods may be proposed for this purpose, but that which appears to be the best ... is at the moment that property is passing by the death of one person to the possession of another. In this case, the bequeather gives nothing: the receiver pays nothing. The only matter to him is that the monopoly of natural inheritance, to which there never was a right, begins to cease in his person. A generous man would not wish it to continue, and a just man will rejoice to see it abolished.
But what of the argument often made by conservatives, that good works like this should be done by private charity, not by the government? that they should be funded by voluntary individual contributions rather than by taxes? Paine answers that the cause of poverty is inherently social, not individual. It requires a social solution.
It is not charity but a right, not bounty but justice, that I am pleading for. ... There are, in every country, some magnificent charities established by individuals. It is, however, but little that any individual can do, when the whole extent of the misery to be relieved is considered. He may satisfy his conscience, but not his heart. He may give all that he has, and that all will relieve but little. It is only by organizing civilization upon such principles as to act like a system of pulleys, that the whole weight of misery can be removed.
So I thank Glenn Beck for restoring Thomas Paine to national attention. Maybe Beck could devote an hour or two of his show to explaining the Agrarian Justice program and the liberal ideas behind it.

The Beck message from Thomas Paine repeated the invocation of the mysterious and sinister they, as in Beck's We Surround Them diatribe. According to the faux Paine (beginning at the 2:20 mark), they did a series of dastardly things we thought they wouldn't dare do: bomb Pearl Harbor, destroy the World Trade Center, attack the Pentagon, and pass the Stimulus Bill. Yep: Democrats in Congress, the Japanese Empire, and the 9-11 conspirators all go together somehow. What might they do next if we don't rise up and stop them?

Meanwhile, Texas Governor Rick Perry talked to a tea-party group about secession. (Didn't they try that once before?) Blogger Occam's Hatchet sympathizes with the encircled liberal capital of Austin, and wants to hear an updated version of JFK's "Ich Bin Ein Berliner" speech:
There are some who say that Republicanism is the wave of the future. Let them come to Austin. And there are some who say in Congress and elsewhere we can work with the Republicans. Let them come to Austin. And there are even a few who say that it is true that Republicanism is an evil system, but it permits us to make economic progress. Let them come to Austin!

Short Notes
CNN's Gloria Borger on Newt Gingrich's running twitter-commentary about Obama's handling of the pirate incident:
If Republicans can't allow that the president did his job well in this unambiguous case, why should we believe their complaints about anything else? If they can't pat him on the back for this one, why should we even listen to their arguments about the budget, about health care, about energy?

The anti-same-sex-marriage ad "The Gathering Storm" (that I linked to last week) might as well have yelled "Bring it on!" to satirists everywhere. Parodies abound. This one is pretty good. And this one was created without anyone needing to act or speak or even draw. ("If you can type," they say, "you can make movies.") And Stephen Colbert had to get into the act too.

Now somebody needs to parody George Will, who has gone into full-blown cranky-geezer mode. Having already warned us about the global-warming conspiracy, Thursday he took on a true American scourge: blue jeans. Seriously. He wrote a column in the Washington Post denouncing blue jeans. Syndicated.

A new report from Homeland Security warns local police about right-wing extremist activity and the possibility of violence. Glenn Greenwald collects comments from outraged right-wingers, but also asks where they've been these last few years. How many times, he wonders, were liberals told that if we'd done nothing wrong we had nothing to hide? "When you cheer on a Surveillance State, you have no grounds to complain when it turns its eyes on you."

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