My recent posts on Star Trek brought me more readers than anything else I’ve written in months, but unfortunately I don’t have anything new to say about that right now.

My posts about politics, by contrast, usually draw markedly less traffic than the ones about pop culture. Nevertheless, I enjoy the topic, and certainly don’t intend to stop writing about it.

The problem with writing about politics, however, is perhaps the same one that leaves my readership diminished:  there’s already so much other good political analysis out there in the blogosphere. The conventional wisdom found in the corporate media punditocracy, especially on television, is seldom worth the attention of thinking people, of course… but while it’s easy enough to ignore David Broder or Chris Matthews, David Brooks or Joe Klein, there’s a lot of genuinely sharp, insightful political commentary being done online these days. It often seems that by the time I’ve informed myself sufficiently about some new development to form an opinion, Glenn Greenwald or Jane Hamsher or Digby or any of a dozen others has already said everything I could, in pithier style and with better documentation.

(And then there are the folks spouting off from the other side, whose arguments are seldom as thorough but frequently much more infuriating. They too make demands on one’s time. Or, as one of my favorite cartoons puts it…) ->>

So it’s hard to keep on top of breaking news… but looking back later to consolidate information and analysis isn’t necessarily easier (think “drinking from a fire hose”), and still leaves me wondering whether such reflections really offer any fresh insight.

Here’s a For Instance. For several weeks now, I’ve been meaning to write about the subject of the OLC torture memos, and the furor both before and after their release, in light of how it reflects on the Obama administration’s lamentable hesitancy to repudiate some of the worst excesses of the previous administration. Let’s review.

Way back on March 3, things were looking good. On the very same day it was revealed that the CIA, back in 2005, had deliberately destroyed 92 interrogation videotapes in violation of a court order… we also learned that Attorney General Eric Holder had not only formally denounced waterboarding but also released nine previously secret Bush-era memos, in which John Yoo and other OLC apparatchiks asserted remarkable expansions of executive power, such as (e.g.) that the president’s “power to suspend treaties is wholly discretionary,” and that the Fourth Amendment (prohibiting search and seizure without probable cause) does not apply to domestic military operations. 

The ACLU (which had filed FOIA requests on both the videotapes and the memos) hailed the release, but insisted that for a full accounting of the previous administration’s excesses, “dozens” of other even more incendiary memos still needed to be released. And less than three weeks later, it appeared that at least some of them would be forthcoming, as on March 21 Newsweek‘s Michael Isikoff and Mark Hosenball reported that

Over objections from the U.S. intelligence community, the White House is moving to declassify—and publicly release—three internal memos [from 2005] that will lay out, for the first time, details of the “enhanced” interrogation techniques approved by the Bush administration…

And that’s when the shit really hit the fan.

It was the right thing to do, of course. The policies had been changed, and there was no legal rationale for keeping them classified. And government transparency isn’t just good campaign rhetoric, it’s an essential ingredient of democracy, especially in times like these. But that didn’t stop past and present members of the “intelligence community” (which had obviously long been busy covering its ass, per the videotape story, among others) from protesting that the release would somehow compromise national security.

The Beltway establishment, media and politicos alike, of course went into full furor mode, descending on the “controversy” like flies on rotting meat. Apparently Defense Secretary Gates, JCS Chief Mullen, DNI Director Blair, and AG Holder all supported the release… but no less than five CIA directors (past and present) all opposed it, arguing that it would somehow reveal important “sources and methods.” But what really caught my attention, as the White House delayed a final decision for two weeks, was Scott Horton’s report that GOP Senators were threatening to derail Obama’s own legal counsel appointees Dawn Johnsen and Harold Koh unless he kept the memos covered up.

People For The American Way called it blackmail, but that’s not quite right. Blackmail is when you threaten to expose someone else’s secrets. What this was was actually extortion—threatening to harm someone unless they do as you demand. In this case the “someone” being threatened was not just Obama but the entire justice system, and the demand wasn’t about exposing anything but rather keeping wrongdoing from exposure.

As leverage, of course, it didn’t make much sense—if Obama got approval for nominees who supported transparency by keeping secrets, he’d look like a hypocrite, whereas if the memos were released and made the GOP look bad, the attempt to cover them up would just make them look worse. Obama had nothing to hide; the GOP did. In the end, the White House once again made the right decision, and on April 16 the four now-infamous “torture memos”were released.

As the story developed, Greenwald covered it in impressive detail. He pointed out, for instance, that

…these documents are not intelligence documents.  They are legal documents and, more specifically, they constitute what can only be described as secret law under which the U.S. was governed during the Bush era. …

This renders blatantly frivolous the Bush-mimicking excuse … that non-disclosure is compelled by the Safety of the American People.  Aside from the fact that the “enhanced interrogation techniques” which these memos authorized are supposedly barred from use by President Obama’s own Executive Order — thus rendering any national security claims for concealment of “operational details” absurd on their face — how can it be the case that legal opinions about what is and is not legal in the view of the Government should be kept secret?

Other than redactions to protect the identity of intelligence agents and (arguably) cooperating foreign governments, the only conceivable reason to suppress information of Bush’s torture regime is to hide evidence of the crimes committed by government officials.  No debate should be necessary to demonstrate that that concern is not a legitimate reason for secrecy.

He also mentioned along the way that one of the very people making that point most forcefully was Dawn Johnsen, in Senate testimony last year—the same Dawn Johnsen that the GOP had threatened to block. And he wrote about the memos themselves in some detail, quite accurately summing up that “they are unbelievably ugly and grotesque and conclusively demonstrate the sadistic criminality that consumed our government.”

He followed up by discussing Obama’s declaration that he would not prosecute the interrogators involved (apparently the “just following orders” defense has more currency now than it did at Nuremberg) and his resistance to investigating officials higher up the decision chain, making a balanced argument that 

I think the significance of Obama’s decision to release those memos — and the political courage it took — shouldn’t be minimized. There is no question that many key factions in the “intelligence community” were vehemently opposed to release of those memos…  The disgusting comments of former CIA Director Mike Hayden on MSNBC yesterday — where he made clear that he simply does not believe in the right of citizens to know what their government does and that government crimes should be kept hidden– is clearly what Obama was hearing from many powerful circles. …

[A]s a matter of political reality, Obama had to incur significant wrath from powerful factions by releasing these memos, and he did that. That’s an extremely unusual act for a politician, especially a President, and it deserves praise. …

[And] it is not Obama’s sole responsibility — or even his decision — to prosecute. As a strictly legal matter, that is a decision for the Attorney General, independently, to make; it is Eric Holder who has the obligation to enforce the law, independent of anything Obama wants or says and regardless of what public opinion demands. 

But more crucially, it is also the responsibility of the citizenry to demand that this happen.

Of course, the public debate quickly shied away from anything balanced or nuanced, and focused on the matter of torture itself. Waterboarding—simulated drowning—is the “interrogation” practice that has received the most attention, perhaps because of its long history of being prosecuted as torture anywhere and everywhere it’s been used in the past. (Although as Steven Bradbury wrote in one of the memos, “Certain of the techniques the United States has condemned [in other countries] appear to bear some resemblance to some of the CIA interrogation techniques… [but] diplomatic relations with regard to foreign countries are not reliable evidence of United States executive practice and may be of only limited relevance here.” Can you imagine a more explicit endorsement of a hypocritical double-standard?) But waterboarding isn’t the only thing covered; the memos also approve of slamming people into walls, hanging them indefinitely from their arms, depriving them of sleep for days on end, and worse. 

It’s clear to anyone capable of reading that the behavior described in these memos was not merely unconscionable but outright revolting. Significant numbers of “detainees” have died in U.S. custody, often attributable directly to treatment like this. (And remember, all of this was being done not necessarily to “terrorists” or even people caught “on the battlefield” but to anyone the Bush administration chose to subject to it, prisoners held without any charges being pressed or any evidence proffered against them.) 

Nevertheless, that simple truth apparently beyond a great many people who find it convenient to mouth rhetoric about “moral clarity” but unable to recognize it, at least on their own side of the aisle. There remains no shortage of people willing to defend the indefensible, to insist that torture not only “works” but actually saved lives, and moreover that it was only done for the greater good of the nation. Oh, and that it wasn’t torture anyway—because the OLC lawyers said so! (The most strident will go so far as to argue that anyone not willing to do such things, to set aside his principles in the face of inchoate fears, is a traitor to his country.)

There is no evidence for any of this, of course. Indeed, what evidence we have shows quite the opposite:  actual intelligence agents have testified that traditional, non-torture interrogation is a more reliable source of accurate information, and that one of the key motives for torture was actually to elicit evidence of (nonexistent) links between Al Qaeda and Iraq; and a detailed Senate Armed Services Committee investigation showed that the Bush administration began planning for torture shortly after 9/11, before there were even any detainees on which to practice it, much less legal fig leaves to excuse it.

But all of that is largely beside the point. Indeed, even engaging in a debate framing the issue as whether torture “works” cedes needless rhetorical ground to is apologists. Whether an immoral and illegal practice “works” (even if only under certain special circumstances unlike those in which it was actually practiced) is frankly irrelevant.

The fact is, as discussed by Greenwald and others, that torture is one of a category of offenses (along with genocide, slavery, piracy, and a handful of others) defined as “peremptory norms” under international law:  offenses considered so heinous that no affirmative defense (including “national security”) is acceptable, no public official is immune from prosecution, and countries party to these treaties have not only a right but an obligation to investigate and prosecute those responsible.

There are no excuses. There are no justifications. There are no loopholes. This has been a settled matter among civilized people for generations now. Only people whose values prize power and disdain justice can imagine it otherwise.

Unfortunately, such values are not rare in Washington, and not only among alumni of the Bush administration. There’s an attitude in the Beltway (lapped up and echoed uncritically in talk-radio land, as well) that certain government officials, and indeed U.S. actions in general, are quite simply —although they don’t say it in so many words—above the law. Accountability is a quaint notion; “personal responsibility” makes good rhetoric but is strictly for the hoi polloi. (Greenwald (again) has amply documented this mindframe, as have The Atlantic‘s Ta-Nahesi Coates and TAP’s Adam Serwer. And we’re not just talking about Dick Cheney here; we’re talking about MSM hacks like Joe Klein and Roger Cohen and David Ignatius.)

The general public doesn’t buy it. Not that public opinion is any more relevant to clearly documented law than right-wing excuses, but FWIW a Gallup poll showed (even before these memos were released) that nearly two-thirds of Americans favor official investigations of Bush administration torture policies, and 38% favor criminal probes. Certainly there are sufficient grounds for indictments against memo authors Yoo, Bradbury, and Jay Bybee, not to mention the officials above them. But inside the Beltway, that’s just not Serious Thinking; caring about the rule of law is an attitude that the complicit media caricatures as belonging only to the “hard left.” Inside the Beltway, these are nothing worse than “policy differences,” and any attempt to investigate would be mere partisan score-settling. Inside the Beltway, people actually care what Dick Cheney has to say. 

And this attitude informs, indeed permeates, the environment in which Obama operates. And that’s one of the reasons why, along with good principled decisions like those discussed above, he has already made so many disappointing ones—balking at the idea of criminal investigations or even a truth commission into the policies exposed by these memos, for instance, asserting that “This is a time for reflection, not retribution.” (It brings us full circle back to Michael Isikoff, still covering the manufactured “controversy,” who reported yesterday that the torture issue has driven a wedge between Obama and major (unnamed) human rights and civil liberties groups.) And then there’s the matter of state secrets. And his reversal on releasing detainee photos. And the latest flap over Guantanamo, complete with his endorsements of military tribunals and even of indefinite detentions without charge.

On which I’ll have more to say in my next post. Coming soon…

(Although as described up top, I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface on this, and merely echoed what others have said and everyone already knows…)

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One Response to “The politics of torture, secrecy, and extortion”
  1. phil from new york says:

    For the record, I enjoy your political essays and miss them when you don’t post. And speaking of torture, I read where one of your Chicago talk radio guys who apparently didn’t believe waterboarding was torture underwent waterboarding. He called it off after about six or seven seconds. He now agrees with all sane people that waterboarding is, indeed, torture.

    My favorite quote of the week was from Jesse Ventura, the former governor and former Navy SEAL who underwent waterboarding as part of his training: “You give me a waterboard, Dick Cheney, and one hour, and I’ll have him confessing to the Sharon Tate murders.”

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