No Comment — August 6, 2007, 4:10 pm

The Darkening

Since I’ve spent so much time lately panning Newhouse newspapers, I should rush to note a positive example of exposé journalism from a publication owned by the S.I. Newhouse family. There is one must-read article for this week; indeed, this month. It’s Jane Mayer’s “The Black Sites” in this week’s The New Yorker. No secret has been held more tightly by the Bush Administration than this. Those involved in the program are routinely warned that they will suffer the most severe consequences if they squeal. Dana Priest, writing in the Washington Post, got us our first glimpse into the creation of the black sites and what goes on there. A European investigatory commission finally reached under the covers and exposed a host of U.S. Government dissembling and outright lies on the subject. But Jane Mayer has charted the territory more thoroughly than anyone else. Her article is compelling reading.

If, particularly if you’re one of those 24% of Americans who still has faith in your government, I’d highly commend reading—no, studying—this article. It will tell you what your government is doing in your name. And it leaves little doubt. This Government is quick to claim secrecy and to throw up security classifications at every corner. Does this reflect a genuine national security concern, or something else?

Read Mayer’s piece and tell me what you think. You’ll find many compelling illegitimate reasons for the secrecy, but no legitimate ones. But here’s my walk-through: the most essential pieces of an article that doesn’t have an ounce of fat about it.

She starts and ends her story with the family and friends of Daniel Pearl, a Wall Street Journal writer. Pearl was brutally murdered in Pakistan, and from the outset one of the black site prisoners, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, was linked to his killing.

In March, Mariane Pearl, the widow of the murdered Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, received a phone call from Alberto Gonzales, the Attorney General. At the time, Gonzales’s role in the controversial dismissal of eight United States Attorneys had just been exposed, and the story was becoming a scandal in Washington. Gonzales informed Pearl that the Justice Department was about to announce some good news: a terrorist in U.S. custody—Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the Al Qaeda leader who was the primary architect of the September 11th attacks—had confessed to killing her husband…

Pearl was taken aback. In 2003, she had received a call from Condoleezza Rice, who was then President Bush’s national-security adviser, informing her of the same news. But Rice’s revelation had been secret. Gonzales’s announcement seemed like a publicity stunt. Pearl asked him if he had proof that Mohammed’s confession was truthful; Gonzales claimed to have corroborating evidence
but wouldn’t share it. “It’s not enough for officials to call me and say they believe it,” Pearl said. “You need evidence.”

But of course, Alberto Gonzales had none. The “confession” had been extracted under torture, in discussions in which Mohammed had confessed to a long list of things that analysts knew he did not, in fact, do. The Gonzales call was very revealing of Gonzales and his team: everything was eligible to be used for political effect; nothing was sacred.

When Gonzales and David Addington cobbled together the Military Commissions Act (“MCA”) in September 2006, they spoke with Karl Rove. He had the perfect plan. We’ll assemble hundreds of family members of the victims of 9/11 in the White House and have Bush announce the MCA before them, with a thundering demand for justice for the victims. One wonders, of course, where that demand for justice for the victims had been for the last five years. Evidently it only became important within eight weeks of a midterm election. Rove saw this as the opening volley of the 2006 election campaign. And on September 6, 2006, President Bush appeared dramatically before a lectern in a room filled with 9/11 family members to do just than. And in the days that followed, no one in the media pointed out the crass political manipulation that the White House had pulled off. The media never did. But by the first Tuesday in November, the American public had come to conclusions quite different from the mainstream media. The tactic didn’t work.

“We do not torture.” This is the president’s mantra. It has been ever since the first photographs from Abu Ghraib were spread across the screen. But the truth is quite different. The truth is that, under intense pressure from the White House (and particularly Vice President Cheney and his sidekick David Addington), and against substantial resistance from the intelligence services, a cruel, carefully calculated and methodical system of torture was introduced beginning within weeks of 9/11. In press conferences, Cheney spoke about the “dark arts” and he spoke about techniques used by “our friends in the Middle East.” Mayer teases out substantial detail in this process: who was involved, how it was done, and who “our friends” were whose torture expertise so impressed the vice president. It turns out to be Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia.

The C.I.A.’s interrogation program is remarkable for its mechanistic aura. ‘It’s one of the most sophisticated, refined programs of torture ever,’ an outside expert familiar with the protocol said. ‘At every stage, there was a rigid attention to detail. Procedure was adhered to almost to the letter. There was top-down quality control, and such a set routine that you get to the point where you know what each detainee is going to say, because you’ve heard it before. It was almost automated. People were utterly dehumanized. People fell apart. It was the intentional and systematic infliction of great suffering masquerading as a legal process. It is just chilling.’

The Red Cross is the watchdog of these rules. It conducted interviews and studies for years, piecing together all the techniques used and drawing on a variety of sources, including studies done by the bar in which I was involved. The Red Cross quickly reached fairly obvious conclusions. First, that the techniques used were “tantamount to torture.” And second, that the Administration officials who were involved in introducing and approving this system—a group that includes Alberto Gonzales, Dick Cheney, David Addington, John Yoo and numerous others—had committed serious crimes.

Mayer wades deep into the Kafkaesque perversions of the torture system. The Administration has argued that all aspects of its torture regime are compartmentalized and extremely sensitive national security secrets. In fact of course, there is nothing remotely secret about any of these techniques—they are all well known, have been published and discussed extensively at conferences and in the media for months. More than this, these “secrets” are of course known to the people on whom they are used.

The Administration claims secrecy about this process for one imperative reason: if the techniques used are considered “torture,”—a conclusion which is broadly accepted with respect to at least four elements (waterboarding, long-time standing, hypothermia and sleep deprivation in excess of two days)—then their use is a felony, and those who use them are susceptible to being charged and tried for criminal misconduct. By affixing the label “secret,” an effort is undertaken to shield those who are perpetrating them. Prosecutors in the future may very well use a joint criminal enterprise theory with respect to this scheme, in which case the classification process itself may be a part of the overall scheme.


However, this rationalization is used to justify the continued indefinite detention of persons who have been tortured. But then we come to the second twist: this process also constitutes “disappearing”—the holding of prisoners without charges or due process for indefinite periods of time for improper or unlawful purposes. And that is also a felony. So one crime inspires a second crime. A process well known in the criminal world. But a chilling one when you recognize that the culprits here are public officials purporting to act in the name of the American government.

The program has been extraordinarily “compartmentalized,” in the nomenclature of the intelligence world. By design, there has been virtually no access for outsiders to the C.I.A.’s prisoners. The utter isolation of these detainees has been described as essential to America’s national security. The Justice Department argued this point explicitly last November, in the case of a Baltimore-area resident named Majid Khan, who was held for more than three years by the C.I.A. Khan, the government said, had to be prohibited from access to a lawyer specifically because he might describe the “alternative interrogation methods” that the agency had used when questioning him. These methods amounted to a state secret, the government argued, and disclosure of them could “reasonably be expected to cause extremely grave damage.”

Mayer confirms the use of most of the unlawful techniques: waterboarding, stress positions, the use of “dog cages,” prolonged nakedness and hypothermia. The use of some of these techniques was punished as a war crime justifying the death penalty at the end of World War II. Prison guards and interrogators who used them were in fact executed. And, perhaps more justifiably, so were government officials who authored or facilitated the system that permitted these techniques to be used.

Mayer also reports the regular use of a technique which constitutes the crime of rape by instrumentality under the law of several American states:

A former member of a C.I.A. transport team has described the ‘takeout’ of prisoners as a carefully choreographed twenty-minute routine, during which a suspect was hog-tied, stripped naked, photographed, hooded, sedated with anal suppositories, placed in diapers, and transported by plane to a secret location. A person involved in the Council of Europe inquiry, referring to cavity searches and the frequent use of suppositories during the takeout of detainees, likened the treatment to ‘sodomy.’ He said, ‘It was used to absolutely strip the detainee of any dignity. It breaks down someone’s sense of impenetrability. The interrogation became a process not just of getting information but of utterly subordinating the detainee through humiliation.’ The former C.I.A. officer confirmed that the agency frequently photographed the prisoners naked, ‘because it’s demoralizing.

The full force and power of the Executive has been brought to bear to support this program of torture and abuse. And the institutions of the nation crumble before it. Mayer catalogues a long list of professionals who have folded and accepted the “program:” the list includes intelligence professionals (there was a wave of resignations at the Agency when the process started), lawyers and even medical professionals. Indeed, the Administration has asserted in closed Congressional hearings that medical professionals are involved in supervising the entire process of torture. One wonders exactly who these people are. Obviously they don’t care much for their professional oath.

In one sense, Mayer is writing the history of the black sites. In another she is giving us the chronicle of the self-immolation of the greatest democracy that mankind has yet brought forth. It makes for painful, but essential reading.

Single Page

More from Scott Horton:

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