No Comment — October 4, 2007, 11:26 am

A New Task Order from the Ministry of Love

Of all the ministries, one was the most frightening. Up until the last chapters of ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four,’ Winston had never even been inside of it. It was a forbidding place—windowless, surrounded with barbed-wire and hidden machine-gun emplacements. Its shrouded guards wore black uniforms and carried jointed truncheons, which they wielded whenever it suited them to do so. One simply didn’t visit the Ministry of Love. You went there when you had orders to go. Or, as we later learned, when you were dragged there as a victim. And what transpired there? Its was the temple dedicated to the cult of torture. Death might inevitably result from being sent there, but what counted was the agonizing final days or weeks before death came. Drugs, psychological experimentation, sleep deprivation and solitude. The Ministry of Love had perfected the art of destroying the free will, the character, the persona of those who fell within its clutches. Yes, they would die. But first, they would be reconciled to Big Brother. They would come to love him again.

Today Scott Shane, David Johnston, and James Risen of the New York Times report on the construction of the new Ministry of Love. Alberto Gonzales and his loyal team of “movement conservative” lawyers set out for themselves the tasks of approving as lawful the full panoply of highly coercive interrogation techniques developed for use by the CIA. And those techniques include, among others, the practices uniformly recognized as torture which are described in George Orwell’s classic, Nineteen Eighty-Four. Here’s how it happened:

When the Justice Department publicly declared torture “abhorrent” in a legal opinion in December 2004, the Bush administration appeared to have abandoned its assertion of nearly unlimited presidential authority to order brutal interrogations. But soon after Alberto R. Gonzales’s arrival as attorney general in February 2005, the Justice Department issued another opinion, this one in secret. It was a very different document, according to officials briefed on it, an expansive endorsement of the harshest interrogation techniques ever used by the Central Intelligence Agency.

The new opinion, the officials said, for the first time provided explicit authorization to barrage terror suspects with a combination of painful physical and psychological tactics, including head-slapping, simulated drowning and frigid temperatures. Mr. Gonzales approved the legal memorandum on “combined effects” over the objections of James B. Comey, the deputy attorney general, who was leaving his job after bruising clashes with the White House. Disagreeing with what he viewed as the opinion’s overreaching legal reasoning, Mr. Comey told colleagues at the department that they would all be “ashamed” when the world eventually learned of it.

Later that year, as Congress moved toward outlawing “cruel, inhuman and degrading” treatment, the Justice Department issued another secret opinion, one most lawmakers did not know existed, current and former officials said. The Justice Department document declared that none of the C.I.A. interrogation methods violated that standard. The classified opinions, never previously disclosed, are a hidden legacy of President Bush’s second term and Mr. Gonzales’s tenure at the Justice Department, where he moved quickly to align it with the White House after a 2004 rebellion by staff lawyers that had thrown policies on surveillance and detention into turmoil.

Remember that key series of staff changes that occurred when John Ashcroft and his key team, including people like Comey and Goldsmith, were swept out, and Fredo hand-picked their successors? Remember when David Broder, that great visionary on the Potomac, told us this would be a wonderful development? The rightwing, dogmatic Ashcroft would be replaced with the wonderful, pragmatic Gonzales. Liberals can smile again, Broder told us.

In fact all that change was about illegal wiretaps and torture. Extremely conservative lawyers who, whatever their political convictions, still believed in the enforcement and application of the law, were taken out. And in came a new team of “loyal Bushies,” people who understood their sole duty to be to implement the personal will of George W. Bush. In the immortal words uttered last week by John Yoo, “Every subordinate should agree with [the President's] views so there is a unified approach to the law.” Yes. It’s called the Führerprinzip. But it sounds so much more convincing in the original German.

The authors quote me talking about the dilemma of the OLC lawyer, who can either call the law and face the wrath of the conservative movement and administration, or do Bush’s bidding and face the anger of the legal community. In my view, of course, this isn’t much of a choice. Their professional oath requires them to uphold the law. And what they have done is a betrayal of their oath and professional responsibility. It is a betrayal of the Constitution and of every citizen.

The star of the new disclosures is not John Yoo, but his successor, Steven G. Bradbury. As the Times piece tells us, Bradbury was hired on a probationary basis and was given a mission—reassure the CIA that it can torture all it likes. So Mr. Bradbury crafted the third in the Bush Justice Department Torture Memos, saying just that. And after Congress enacted more legislation making clear that torture was not permitted, and its authors took to the floor announcing that the CIA’s specific menu of techniques was unlawful, Mr. Bradbury crafted Torture Memo IV saying that the law didn’t mean what its authors said it meant. In fact, it turns out, the law didn’t mean anything at all. Of course, in the minds of all the loyal Bushies only the President is the source of Law, so none of them would have any difficulty tracking Mr. Bradbury’s thinking to its natural conclusions.

The Bush Administration has opined that torture is not torture. So what tricks remain? To say that murder is not murder? That rape is not rape? That there isn’t any extortion or kidnapping, either? Ah, but I neglected the hearings down the hall concerning the contractors in Iraq. It turns out those opinions have been given as well.

Under Alberto Gonzales, the transformation is now complete. The nation’s Justice Department, once renowned as a guardian of the nation’s freedoms and liberties as well as a swift enforcer of justice, now emerges in a new guise. It is a criminal syndicate committed to empowering the most horrendous crimes. It is a Justice Department in the fully Orwellian sense.

But considering the long track record of political prosecutions, evidence of which mounts with each passing day, and the strenuous efforts to suppress voters and corrupt the basis of democracy, why should any of this come as a surprise? It is indeed all of one piece.

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More from Scott Horton:

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