The war in Iraq refuses to be dismissed. Its ongoing cost in blood and treasure will be at or near the top of our concerns for as long as it lasts. It stays there no matter how much political elites want us to look elsewhere or media elites want to keep from highlighting the painful, ongoing slog. I believe the vast majority of us grieves a little each time we hear the day’s price. If it is nothing more than a dry recitation of the latest handful of dead in the latest attack, if the report is stuck at the end of a segment or broadcast, if it is treated with the same numerical curiosity as a minor fluctuation of the stock market - it still casts a long shadow with us. We understand that they died by our command, and we feel the weight of the morality that decision has had and continues to have. The “chickenhawk” epithet has some validity in the following sense: Those who advocate forcefully for war without having participated in one up close may be fairly questioned on whether they regard the inevitable horrors (intended and otherwise) too lightly. I believe the lack of such experience among our civilian leaders - and indeed their affirmative action to avoid it - has led them to run the armed services with a shocking lack of empathy or humanity. Those of us with no pride on the line or vanity at stake are justified in questioning its continuation with each new piece of tragic news.
When America goes to war it expands the power of the executive almost by its very nature, and our leaders have been eager to take advantage. In wartime all eyes turn to the President; s/he can use the attention as a powerful platform. Presidents are more likely to make extraordinary claims (our most celebrated President suspended habeas corpus during the Civil War) and citizens are more likely to tolerate them out of a sense of patriotism and national emergency. Our current President has used commander in chief as a title, not a role, and seems to regard himself as a kind of modern proconsul. In the best of times a domineering head of the military can cow his ostensible coequals. This is even truer in a time of war, more so still when there is a failure of courage and leadership among those charged with checking abuses. We have lived through both these past six years, and one key part of the administration’s campaign of intimidation was an orchestrated effort to fill the media with partisans posing as objective analysts.
David Barstow described the effort in the New York Times on Sunday. It was well beyond the usual stuff; every White House tries to shape opinion and get its surrogates talking up the latest spin. His report raises new questions. For example, is there any generally accepted practice for how closely retired military officers may be to the Pentagon when they lobby for its favored policies? How trustworthy is a recently retired general in analyzing the plans and performance of officers of long and fond acquaintance? There is a waiting period between leaving Congress and starting work as a paid lobbyist - is there any similar requirement for the military? Is it acceptable for them to pursue military and intelligence contracts immediately upon leaving? How does the administration justify using taxpayer funds to pay for its sympathizers to travel back and forth to Iraq? Barstow mentions “three Pentagon-sponsored trips to Iraq” for one supporter, and in a follow up Q & A article noted that
when a group of analysts were taken to Iraq in 2003, they were flown each morning on military transport planes from their hotel in Kuwait to Baghdad, and then back to Kuwait at day’s end. They traveled around Iraq in heavily guarded convoys. In recent years, the Pentagon has paid the commercial airfare of some analysts who participated in trips to Iraq.
Forget about custom or the appearance of impropriety, is it even legal for us to be paying for executive branch cheerleaders to go back and forth to Iraq?
Could anyone ask some of these questions of the candidates? Will they take a position on the revolving door between the Pentagon and the defense industry? How about publicly funded junkets for favored partisans? Are there any war-related claims of power that trouble them? If they take a position will it include a promise of concrete action or will it just be feel-good blather that has wiggle room for continuing the status quo? These may seem like just so many abstract ideas but they have had real world consequences. Continuing national support for the war deserves to be based on a clear understanding of these new revelations. The soldiers who suffer and die in our name, and their loved ones, deserve at least that much honesty.
Philippe Sands’ Vanity Fair article has provided lots of detail on how we became a state sponsor of torture. The decision making process at the top comes across as appallingly mundane, which seems consistent with other implementations of institutionalized evil. The most vivid anecdotes are from farther down the chain of command, such as the following from Lieutenant Colonel Diane Beaver:
The first year of Fox TV’s dramatic series 24 came to a conclusion in spring 2002, and the second year of the series began that fall. An inescapable message of the program is that torture works. “We saw it on cable,” Beaver recalled. “People had already seen the first series. It was hugely popular.” Jack Bauer had many friends at Guantánamo, Beaver added. “He gave people lots of ideas.” The brainstorming meetings inspired animated discussion. “Who has the glassy eyes?,” Beaver asked herself as she surveyed the men around the room, 30 or more of them. She was invariably the only woman present—as she saw it, keeping control of the boys. The younger men would get particularly agitated, excited even. “You could almost see their dicks getting hard as they got new ideas,” Beaver recalled, a wan smile flickering on her face. “And I said to myself, You know what? I don’t have a dick to get hard—I can stay detached.”
Which makes this a good time to remind ourselves that the right wing scoffed at the idea of a TV show inspiring torture. Another of the handmaidens. It also is a good opportunity to revisit CIA director Michael Hayden’s contention that “torture” is a legal term and using it clouds the debate. No - the play, pause and explain strategy clouds the debate. There is no ambiguity except that which you try to bring to the subject. And please don’t forget the Pentagon may try to time the torture tribunals for political benefit. Just in case you thought it was all about protecting us.
Michael Chertoff checked in from his home planet to let us know fingerprints aren’t personal data because we leave them around everywhere. I believe we need a Manhattan Project type program to develop sufficiently powerful levels of sarcasm to properly characterize the clowns that are in charge these days.
Finally, Marie Gottschalk quotes Winston Churchill: “The mood and temper of the public in regard to the treatment of crime and criminals is one of the most unfailing tests of the civilization of any country.” Is it possible our continuing use of the death penalty and “law and order three strikes and lock them up forever” attitude are indicative of a kind of collective callousness and vengeance-mindedness that lets us also quietly accept a systematic torture regime?
Last week a remarkable truth emerged - we need to have a torture debate. On Friday the President admitted that we are now a state sponsor of torture and an amazing thing happened: Nothing. TV news coverage was dominated by the Democratic primary, and if news outlets acknowledged it at all it was in a summary or somewhere in the back pages. I am on record with my deep revulsion for torture, but a critical mass of our upper political and media levels does not consider it worthy of sustained focus. Maybe if we change the terms of the debate we can make it more visible.
I understand some possible objections: Engaging it at all dignifies the pro-torture position, and doing so in a talk show back-and-forth format trivializes it. On the other hand, we do not have much to show for our current approach. Maybe we would have more if we discussed torture warrants, as Alan Dershowitz proposed shortly after 9/11. What if judges could legally authorize torture? It would create a formal paper trail and regulate the process. Applicants would probably be very reluctant to come forward and judges equally reluctant to grant them (I assume most people would not want their names attached to it). Further, it puts accountability into the system. No one wanted to contemplate such a gruesome bureaucracy at the time but now maybe we should. What we have right now is the worst of all possible worlds - we torture, the President denies it, everyone knows it is happening but no one wants to know the details. Torture warrants would document them. Maybe we could also address the following: Those in favor of torture refer to only using it for ticking time bomb scenarios. But we already have tortured, and where were the ticking time bombs? You may rest assured such an event would have been extremely well publicized.
I believe the fundamental motivation behind systemic torture is not defending us against a threat to our nation’s very existence but the macabre fantasies and fevered dreams of evil men. Human nature dictates that vast new powers with no oversight get abused, but even if we somehow reformed that part of our nature it would not prevent sadistic leaders from creating unconscionable horrors when presented with a frightened populace in a time of uncertainty. Proponents must either postulate such results as part of their position or admit they would prefer not to seriously address torture. Maybe then they would go to the sidelines with their intellectual cousin Alberto Gonzales, whom Rosa Brooks memorably described as “the handmaiden of torture”. The apologists have been allowed to tread lightly for too long. Maybe torture warrants would force them to either engage for real or give up.
We could also mention some of the unintended consequences. At the moment it looks like the President will go to the Olympics’ opening ceremony despite calls for him to boycott it to protest the occupation of Tibet. Given his native affection for strongmen he likely doesn’t see any problem, except maybe that the abuses have been so obvious they have attracted a great deal of attention (i.e. the problem lies not in the concept but in the execution). But imagine for a moment that he was deeply troubled by it. Before his first statement of concern had finished translating the leaders in China would rightly ask how we can criticize them in light of our own human rights abuses. We simply have no moral credibility in that area any more.
Or consider the theocrats who rule Iran. It is especially galling to see their news agencies crowing over how lousy we are on the issue. If Iraq is any guide we can soon expect the cheerleaders for an Iran war to conflate opposing armed conflict with support of their rulers. Allow me to beat them to the putsch: It is possible to both be extremely critical of them and not want war with them. And some of us find it shameful to see them looking down on us for our wretched treatment of some of those in our care.
If we could get the pro-torture side to engage any of this we could begin having a real debate and public awareness would be raised. At the moment those of us who believe a civilized nation does not torture under any circumstances are largely talking amongst ourselves. We have failed to get our message across to a wider audience. Waiting for its self-evident hideousness to drive the discussion doesn’t appear to be working. Approaching it from some slightly different angles might change that, and it is something we should at least consider.
According to its web site the recently-created National Applications Office (NAO) has its roots in the Civil Applications Committee, an agency created in 1974 that “facilitated requests by civil agencies to make use of space-based imaging and remote sensing capabilities for purposes such as monitoring volcanic activity, environmental and geological changes, hurricanes, and floods.” Presumably that is how it was used; if it had been directed against citizens or for political advantage we would have found out before too long. Either the results of the abuse would have led back to it or someone would have spilled the beans somehow. Humans’ marvelous imperfection makes it all but impossible to sustain a long-term and far-reaching secret (which is also why I nearly automatically reject conspiracy theories). Of course, our native impulse to get as much as we can made it almost inevitable that someone would eventually try.
Enter the Department of Homeland Security. It describes the NAO (via the NAO site) as “the executive agent to facilitate the use of intelligence community technological assets for civil, homeland security and law enforcement purposes within the United States” and wants to use those satellites to do so. By now the executive branch doesn’t get the benefit of the doubt on any information gathering process. In fact it has earned the opposite - the presumption of bad faith. In fairness we should take that approach towards any exercise of government power because that kind of skepticism is what gets safeguards, documentation and transparency built in. On the other hand, it’s one thing to put them in place as a hedge against the worst case scenario and another to see the worst case scenario routinely play out before your eyes.
When the NAO was created last summer it was applauded on the right with a remarkable display of anti-reasoning: “Government officials refuse to talk about specific capabilities, but the performance of the satellites that the NAO will help coordinate are closer to those that power Google Earth than to anything imagined by the script writers of 24. Moreover, the administration has promised to employ safeguards that will protect basic civil liberties.” While this looks positively enlightened compared to the authoritarians’ recent attempts to rationalize torture it is still not very credible. The editors say, we don’t know what the new powers are, but they aren’t too extensive. What about the first half of the sentence qualifies them to make the claim in the second? Their defense kicks off with a sentence that contradicts itself, and if you cannot extend your logic past the first clause you might want to work on it a little more. And on what evidence can anyone seriously claim a promise to “employ safeguards that will protect basic civil liberties” will be kept? Everything we know from the last seven years suggests the opposite.
The NAO web site is not very helpful either. As of this writing its most recent update is August 15th of last year and it is filled with Newspeak phrases such as saying it provides “robust access to needed remote sensing information to appropriate customers”. At the bottom is a section titled “Protecting Civil Liberties and Privacy” that provides absolutely zero detail on either. Given that the new powers the President wants to claim will likely be abused there is every reason to ask some questions, including: What will the collection consist of? Will it be yet another indiscriminate data sweep? If not, under what circumstances will it be turned on? Will a warrant be required? Will there be any kind of regular review or oversight to see if it is being abused? Leaving aside the expansion and abuse of power, why are our existing intelligence capabilities unable to safeguard us? (Keep in mind we had all the intelligence we needed to prevent 9/11, we just didn’t process it correctly.) What is an example of the kind of intelligence you would expect this to uncover?
Fortunately these questions can still be asked since NAO is not yet up and running. On the other hand it has begun advertising to fill its newly created positions so we don’t have all the time in the world. While it is encouraging that Reps. Bennie Thompson, Jane Harman and Christopher Carney have begun asking questions we should not expect the administration to be responsive. We saw when the Protect America Act expired that public pressure, Congressional pushback and a bit of good fortune can foil attempts to frighten us into giving away our rights (the PAA battle is still not over, of course [LATE UPDATE: It looks promising though (via)]). I sincerely hope we are ready to bring the first of those to bear once again as the President attempts to force through this latest infringement.