"When you cross over that line of darkness, it's hard to come back. You lose your soul. You can do your best to justify it, but it's well outside the norm. You can't go to that dark a place without it changing you."
The Dark Side may be the most disturbing book I've ever read about my own country. Not because of the accounts of torture, as bad as they were, but because it became clear after 360 pages of accumulating detail and revealing interviews, that the United States of America under the Bush administration had bureaucratized and institutionalized torture. The memos and reports released in the last week only confirm this tragic and terrifying state of affairs.
It is one thing to cross over into the dark side in the heat of the moment. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, given the horrible nature of what happened and the genuine concern about additional attacks, it's not hard to imagine some interrogators getting out of control. (Ironically, the experienced and highly trained FBI agents conducting interrogations in late 2001 and early 2002 did not get out of control but conducted several crucial and legal debriefing sessions that revealed highly valuable information. They were subsequently removed by the CIA, with blessings from the highest levels of government, and, when it became clear that detainees were being tortured, FBI Director Robert Mueller forbade his agents from participating in further interrogations. For a good description of this devastating turn of events, see "My Tortured Decision," an op-ed by former FBI interrogator Ali Soufan, who was directly involved in the initial, pre-torture, debriefing of Abu Zubaydah.)
It is another thing altogether, however, to systematically and rationally develop a torture program, to intellectually lay out legal groundwork over a period of years for making torture the established norm. In that case, we have crossed the line of darkness and employed logic and reason to justify our new-found citizenship on the other side. We have embraced evil and legally changed its name to "light."
"[Torture] has become bureaucratized. . . . Brutalization doesn't work. We know that. Besides, you lose your soul."
What has genuinely puzzled and disappointed me in the past week has been Barack Obama's inconsistent pronouncements on torture, especially his vague and weak call for the country to move on, to look toward the future, by basically sweeping Bush's illegal program under the rug. Apart from the fact that a torture program violates numerous national and international laws and treaties, and the president doesn't even have the legal right to decide what can and cannot be investigated; apart from the horrible international precedent of the United States willfully refusing to investigate its own involvement in torture; I am stunned that Obama doesn't recognize what a crucial moment this is in our nation's history.
You cannot cross over the line of darkness and then hope to move forward simply by ignoring that you're on the other side now.
If individual interrogators in the CIA and FBI are speaking publicly about losing one's soul from torturing others, where does that leave us as a country, when we implemented a systematic torture program and used our legal system to justify it?
If the United States of America doesn't deal honestly and responsibly with the Bush torture program, we are betraying the very ideals upon which this nation was founded. We may "move on" by ignoring what we've done, but it won't be in the right direction.
In a 2005 piece in the Los Angeles Times, "America's Anti-Torture Tradition," Robert Kennedy, Jr. wrote:
"In 1776," wrote historian David Hackett Fischer in "Washington's Crossing," "American leaders believed it was not enough to win the war. They also had to win in a way that was consistent with the values of their society and the principles of their cause. One of their greatest achievements … was to manage the war in a manner that was true to the expanding humanitarian ideals of the American Revolution."Perhaps the most disturbing piece of news that has come out in the last few days is that a number of detainees were tortured not to gain information to prevent an impending terrorist attack, but to prove the non-existent link between Al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein, in order to justify the administration's poorly conceived invasion of Iraq. That is, the Bush administration tortured people simply to satisfy their own political agenda.
The fact that the patriots refused to abandon these principles, even in the dark times when the war seemed lost, when the enemy controlled our cities and our ragged army was barefoot and starving, credits the character of Washington and the founding fathers and puts to shame the conduct of America's present leadership.
Fischer writes that leaders in both the Continental Congress and the Continental Army resolved that the War of Independence would be conducted with a respect for human rights. This was all the more extraordinary because these courtesies were not reciprocated by King George's armies. . . . Captured Americans were tortured, starved and cruelly maltreated aboard prison ships.
Washington decided to behave differently. After capturing 1,000 Hessians in the Battle of Trenton, he ordered that enemy prisoners be treated with the same rights for which our young nation was fighting. In an order covering prisoners taken in the Battle of Princeton, Washington wrote: "Treat them with humanity, and let them have no reason to Complain of our Copying the brutal example of the British Army in their treatment of our unfortunate brethren…. Provide everything necessary for them on the road."
John Adams argued that humane treatment of prisoners and deep concern for civilian populations not only reflected the American Revolution's highest ideals, they were a moral and strategic requirement. His thoughts on the subject, expressed in a 1777 letter to his wife, might make a profitable read for Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld as we endeavor to win hearts and minds in Iraq. Adams wrote: "I know of no policy, God is my witness, but this — Piety, Humanity and Honesty are the best Policy. Blasphemy, Cruelty and Villainy have prevailed and may again. But they won't prevail against America, in this Contest, because I find the more of them are employed, the less they succeed."
Rachel Maddow and Ron Suskind discussed this issue last Wednesday, in one of the better segments I've seen on the torture program revelations:
"They were torturing people. No question. They did disgusting things to people. Their attitude was, 'Laws? Like who the fuck cares?'"
As usual with systematic programs of torture and brutalization, the most troubling and creepy aspect is how many innocent people became victims.
The CIA, concerned about the paucity of valuable information emanating from [Guantánamo], in the late summer of 2002 dispatched a senior intelligence analyst, who was fluent in Arabic and expert on Islamic extremism, to find out what the problem was. The report he wrote up from this sensitive, early reconnaissance mission is classified top secret. But after he left the Agency, he described what he found. . . . [H]e concluded that an estimated one-third of the prison camp's population of more than 600 captives at the time . . . had no connection to terrorism whatsoever. . . .Several detainees, including ones with no connection to terrorism, were killed during interrogations. Other innocent people were tortured in secret prisons for months or even years. Mayer writes at length about one detainee, Khaled el-Masri, a car salesman from southern Germany (and a German citizen), who was detained while on holiday in Macedonia because he had a similar name to an Al Qaeda terrorist. After being tortured for a few months, it became clear that the CIA had made a mistake. Yet they refused to release him. Someone at Langley was sure he was holding out on them. Finally, after six months, the CIA flew Masri to Albania, drove him blindfolded down a long road, and kicked him out of the car. He was later flown back to Germany.
A later study by a team of law students and attorneys at Seton Hall University Law School bolstered the CIA officer's impressions. After reviewing 517 of the Guantánamo detainees' cases in depth, they concluded that only 8% were alleged to have associated with Al Qaeda. Fifty-five percent were not alleged to have engaged in any hostile act against the United States at all, and the remainder were charged with dubious wrongdoing, including having tried to flee U.S. bombs.
He had lost so much weight, and looked so haunted and aged, the airport authorities accused him of using someone else's passport. When he arrived at his apartment, it was deserted and ransacked. His wife and sons, he learned later, had assumed themselves abandoned and moved [to] Lebanon.There's so much to talk about. I haven't even touched on the bizarre reverse-engineering of the military's SERE program, which was developed to help American soldiers withstand torture, into our own torture program. In a surreal and typically incompetent Bush administration twist, we took a communist program intended to produce false confessions for propaganda purposes and tried to use it to extract useful information from detainees. As Rachel Maddow said before her interview with Colonel Steve Kleinman, former military interrogator, "What could possibly go wrong?"
What gave me hope while reading The Dark Side was the brave conduct of many people in the U.S. military, the FBI, various intelligence agencies, and within the Bush administration itself, who refused to participate in the administration's torture program and who tried to stop what was happening.
The right-wing and even the mainstream media may try to paint those who are against torture as being "on the left" or "liberals," but the reality is that the push-back against the Bush torture program began among people who were usually conservative, some of them very conservative. But they believed in the U.S. Constitution and knew it was being damaged.
In one of many examples Mayer details in her book:
"The senior uniformed lawyers for the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines . . . all sent extraordinary memos of dissent to Haynes. . . .Mayer writes in the Afterword of The Dark Side:
The Defense Department promptly classified them as a secret. In 2005, Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican of South Carolina, who had been a military judge advocate general himself, publicly revealed the passionate memos. He noted that the authors were 'not from the ACLU. These are not from people who are soft on terrorism, who want to coddle foreign terrorists. These are all professional military lawyers who have dedicated their lives, with 20-plus year careers, to serving the men and women in uniform and protecting their Nation. They were giving a warning shot across the bow of the policymakers that there are certain corners you cannot afford to cut because you will wind up meeting yourself.'
The memos from the uniformed lawyers to the politically appointed general counsel were brimming with barely concealed disbelief at the direction the Justice Department was proposing for the soldiers to take.
[W]hat began on September 11, 2001, as a battle for America's security became, and continues to be, a battle for the country's soul.So where do we go from here? It's hard to tell.
In looking back, one of the most remarkable features of this struggle is that almost from the start, and at almost every turn along the way, the Bush Administration was warned that the short-term benefits of its extralegal approach to fighting terrorism would have tragically destructive long-term consequences both for the rule of law and America's interests in the world. These warnings came not just from political opponents, but also from experienced allies, including the British Intelligence Service, the experts in the traditionally conservative military and the FBI, and perhaps most surprisingly, from a series of loyal Republican lawyers inside the administration itself. The number of patriotic critics inside the administration and out who threw themselves into trying to head off what they saw as a terrible departure from America's ideals, often at an enormous price to their own careers, is both humbling and reassuring.
I don't know what to make of President Obama. On one hand, he released the four torture memos. On the other, he seems irritated by having to deal with the repercussions of releasing the memos. One day he makes declarative statements about not prosecuting CIA interrogators who conducted the torture, even though he has no legal or constitutional right to make that decision. Then, after people point out that he doesn't have the authority to make that decision - despite Rahm Emmanuel and Robert Gibbs declaring otherwise - he rightfully says it's in the hands of the Justice Department. Then, the next few days, he tries his best to quash investigations.
On such a grave and important issue, Obama has been indecisive and inconsistent, failing his first real test of leadership in an unplanned crisis. When he released the memos, he should have declared without hesitation that the United States of America would follow the law and investigate the Bush torture program. Period.
It's not a political issue. It's the law. If a Republican robs a liquor store, arresting him is not a partisan act. If a Democrat cheats on her taxes, arresting her is not a partisan act. Obama could've said he would pardon CIA interrogators if they were found guilty of torture, but by trying to supersede the power of the Attorney General and saying there wouldn't even be an investigation, he sent all the wrong messages. By bungling the release of the memos, equivocating when he should've been clear and strong (trying to placate too many people?), Obama has now turned the issue of the Bush torture program into a political one.
Even worse, the media narrative, fueled in large part by Washington insiders and often stunningly ignorant pundits, has devolved into chatter about the "politics" of releasing the torture memos and what it means for Obama. Perhaps in this age of impunity, when so many people have gotten away with so much, the media can only discuss the politics of breaking the law. Instead of recognizing the legal issues involved, or discussing the serious repercussions of a supposedly civilized country developing a torture program in the 21st century, we get to watch Sean Hannity offering to be waterboarded for charity and the smug Meet the Press crowd echoing Obama's empty "we need to move forward" mantra.
One of the notable exceptions to the glassy-eyed media drones has been Glenn Greenwald at Salon. His writing on this topic has been informtive, knowledgable and politically astute in a deep way. Yesterday's column, "Democratic Complicity and What 'Politicizing Justice' Really Means" was another excellent read.
But what happens if we don't investigate?
Already, as Mayer points out in The Dark Side, countries that torture are now pointing to the United States and saying, "See, they do it, too!"
Meanwhile, corrupt and repressive states, including Egypt, Sudan, and Zimbabwe, have all justified their own brutality by citing America's example. Egyptian president-for-life Hosni Mubarak declared that the U.S. treatment of detainees proved that "We were right from the beginning in using all means . . . to combat terrorism."So, we've abandoned George Washington and John Adams for Hosni Mubarak and Robert Mugabe? Is that what America has spent the last 230 years working towards? Are we to usher in a new age of torture and barbarism at the beginning of the 21st century? Will that be our legacy?
I suggest you write to Attorney General Eric Holder (AskDOJ@usdoj.gov) and ask him to investigate. I suggest you write to your Senators and U.S. Representatives and tell them how important this matter is. And write to the President himself.
There are a myriad of critical reasons to investigate the Bush torture program. But there is also a spiritual principle involved. We as a nation crossed over the line of darkness. We are torturers now. The only way back from from the dark side is some form of confession and repentance. Acknowledgment. The cosmos/life/G-d/karma - whatever you want to call it - doesn't put up with sweeping things under the rug. Until we deal honestly and justly with what we have done, we as a nation will never be able to move forward.