No Comment — April 18, 2009, 10:35 pm

Revealing the Secrets in Room 101

On Thursday the spirit of George Orwell visited America, three times.

The first visit can be found in four memoranda prepared by Bush Administration lawyers which gave the actual go-ahead for the use of specific torture techniques on specific individuals, thus demolishing forever the absurd contention that the torture lawyers were ever only engaged in some abstract exercise without any direct application to incidents of torture. Here, we discover that Room 101 of the Ministry of Love (Miniluv) has been faithfully recreated by the Bush Team. In Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, Room 101 contained whatever a prisoner feared most, which would be let loose against him in an act calculated to inspire pure terror in the victim, to break him as an individual and to produce human material suitable for reconditioning. As a reminder, here’s the way the disclosure of Room 101 is realized in the excellent film version directed by Michael Radford (it begins at roughly 3:20 in the clip):

In the first of the four memos, we learn that one prisoner has been the subject of a careful psychoanalysis that had revealed a strong fear of insects, particularly stinging insects. The sudden onset of a phobia can produce automatic, uncontrollable reactions–the fear grips total control of the subject’s mind. Rapid heartbeat, a shortness of breath, trembling, an overwhelming desire to flee. The prisoner is prepared to do anything to escape the cause of the phobia.

The CIA therefore proposed to lock the prisoner in a coffin-like box to which would be added an insect. Judge–yes, the author is a sitting appeals court judge in San Francisco–Jay Bybee’s memorandum discusses this process in detail and settles on a pre-agreed script about how Room 101 will be used, addressing in turn the toxicity of the insect to be used, the dimensions of the box in which the prisoner will be confined, and the false statements which will be made to the prisoner in order to heighten his level of apprehension, with the intention of triggering a “panic attack.” Not surprisingly, George Orwell’s ultimate form of torture is perfectly fine for Judge Bybee—he raises no objection, as is the case with waterboarding, hypothermia, “walling” (a technique that involves bashing the prisoner’s head against a wall), and a number of other techniques that belong to the long-settled torture repertoire of such regimes as the Soviet Union, North Korea, China and North Vietnam. But for Judge Bybee, if the CIA wants to use these techniques, that’s all fine with him–no law stands in the way.

Orwell made his second appearance in a statement issued by Director of National Intelligence Admiral Dennis Blair in which he drew a stomach-turning comparison between Americans who sacrifice for their country in uniform and those who perpetrated war crimes under orders from higher ups in the Bush Administration. But perhaps the first lines of Blair’s statement were intended to send a signal of the deceit that lay within. “We will absolutely defend those who relied on these memos and those guidelines,” he says, because they acted in the wake of 9/11, whereas “read on a bright, sunny, safe day in April 2009, [the memoranda] appear graphic and disturbing.” Blair’s name echoes Orwell’s actual name, Eric Blair; his words remind one of 1984: “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”

Then Orwell visited us a third time. This time the message came straight from Miniluv, whose never-resting eye keeps watch over every enemy of the state, foreign or domestic, real or, far more often, the creation of paranoid delusion combined with political convenience. Eric Lichtblau and James Risen of the New York Times report:

The National Security Agency intercepted private e-mail messages and phone calls of Americans in recent months on a scale that went beyond the broad legal limits established by Congress last year, government officials said in recent interviews. Several intelligence officials, as well as lawyers briefed about the matter, said the N.S.A. had been engaged in “overcollection” of domestic communications of Americans. They described the practice as significant and systemic, although one official said it was believed to have been unintentional.

The legal and operational problems surrounding the N.S.A.’s surveillance activities have come under scrutiny from the Obama administration, Congressional intelligence committees and a secret national security court, said the intelligence officials, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity because N.S.A. activities are classified. Classified government briefings have been held in recent weeks in response to a brewing controversy that some officials worry could damage the credibility of legitimate intelligence-gathering efforts.

Indeed, we learn that Miniluv even attempted to wiretap a member of Congress without a warrant or any form of special authorization because Miniluv was convinced that the congressman was communicating with a person they distrust.

Miniluv’s voracious appetite is chronicled a bit further in a follow-up piece yesterday from Lichtblau and Risen in which we learn that it is on the verge of perfecting its ability to “collect and analyze every e-mail message, text message, and Google search” you’ve ever performed. But this is the least of it. They know your favorite pizza toppings, the medications you use, the color of your socks, the size of your t-shirt, the books you thought about buying on Amazon.com, and the movies your ordered from Netflix—as well as the ones you paused over, thinking to order. They will use all of this information to protect you. Unless, of course, some day you find yourself invited to Room 101.

Can anyone be surprised to learn that the new guardians of these vast and unchecked powers, while piously promising to reform and stop breaking the law, also feel that there is no really compelling reason to enforce the law–in the process breaking the oaths they just took a few weeks ago to uphold that very law? Is it not indeed amazing that these claims can be made on the public stage without being greeted with the peals of derision they deserve? Now comes the test of our democracy–will we close the door and walk away, or demand to know what’s been done in our name and hold those who guided any abuses to account for their misconduct? President Obama tells us there’s nothing to see here, just move along. But this will be a test of whether we have a citizenry worthy of that name.

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Ashley arrived for her prenatal appointment at Black Hills Obstetrics and Gynecology, in Rapid City, South Dakota, wearing a black zip-up hoodie and Converse sneakers.1 To explain her absence from work that morning — a Tuesday in April 2015 — she had told a co-worker that she was having “female issues.” She was twenty-five years old and eight weeks pregnant. She had been separated from her husband, with whom she had a five-year-old son, for the better part of a year. The guy who’d gotten her pregnant was someone she’d met at the gym, and he’d made it abundantly clear that he wanted nothing more to do with her. Ashley found herself hoping that the doctor would discover some kind of fetal defect, so that her decision would be easier. She glanced across the waiting room at a television playing a birth-control ad and laughed darkly. “Jesus, Lord, it would be so nice if someone just pushed me down a flight of stairs.”

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Ashley arrived for her prenatal appointment at Black Hills Obstetrics and Gynecology, in Rapid City, South Dakota, wearing a black zip-up hoodie and Converse sneakers.1 To explain her absence from work that morning — a Tuesday in April 2015 — she had told a co-worker that she was having “female issues.” She was twenty-five years old and eight weeks pregnant. She had been separated from her husband, with whom she had a five-year-old son, for the better part of a year. The guy who’d gotten her pregnant was someone she’d met at the gym, and he’d made it abundantly clear that he wanted nothing more to do with her. Ashley found herself hoping that the doctor would discover some kind of fetal defect, so that her decision would be easier. She glanced across the waiting room at a television playing a birth-control ad and laughed darkly. “Jesus, Lord, it would be so nice if someone just pushed me down a flight of stairs.”

In the exam room, she perched on the table with her feet crossed at the ankles, her blond hair brushing the back of her pink hospital gown. “I don’t know what’s available for me here,” she told her doctor, Katherine Degen, who sat facing her on a stool. “I figured nothing.”

 Some names and identifying details have been changed. 

“Big, fat zero, unfortunately,” Degen said, making a 0 with her fingers. The last doctor who provided abortions in Rapid City retired in 1986, three years before Ashley was born.

The baby was due in November, when Ashley, who was a nurse, hoped to be enrolled in a graduate program to become a nurse practitioner. Getting pregnant as a teenager had forced her to put that dream on hold, but she had thought that she was finally ready; she had even submitted her application shortly before the March 15 deadline. For the first time in her adult life, Ashley felt as if her plans were coming together. Then she missed her period.

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Ashley arrived for her prenatal appointment at Black Hills Obstetrics and Gynecology, in Rapid City, South Dakota, wearing a black zip-up hoodie and Converse sneakers.1 To explain her absence from work that morning — a Tuesday in April 2015 — she had told a co-worker that she was having “female issues.” She was twenty-five years old and eight weeks pregnant. She had been separated from her husband, with whom she had a five-year-old son, for the better part of a year. The guy who’d gotten her pregnant was someone she’d met at the gym, and he’d made it abundantly clear that he wanted nothing more to do with her. Ashley found herself hoping that the doctor would discover some kind of fetal defect, so that her decision would be easier. She glanced across the waiting room at a television playing a birth-control ad and laughed darkly. “Jesus, Lord, it would be so nice if someone just pushed me down a flight of stairs.”

In the exam room, she perched on the table with her feet crossed at the ankles, her blond hair brushing the back of her pink hospital gown. “I don’t know what’s available for me here,” she told her doctor, Katherine Degen, who sat facing her on a stool. “I figured nothing.”

 Some names and identifying details have been changed. 

“Big, fat zero, unfortunately,” Degen said, making a 0 with her fingers. The last doctor who provided abortions in Rapid City retired in 1986, three years before Ashley was born.

The baby was due in November, when Ashley, who was a nurse, hoped to be enrolled in a graduate program to become a nurse practitioner. Getting pregnant as a teenager had forced her to put that dream on hold, but she had thought that she was finally ready; she had even submitted her application shortly before the March 15 deadline. For the first time in her adult life, Ashley felt as if her plans were coming together. Then she missed her period.

It would be too difficult to attend school as a single mother of two, Ashley knew. She had made an appointment for three weeks from now at the nearest abortion clinic, in Billings, Montana, 318 miles away. But just a week and a half ago, her husband had said he wanted to get back together and offered to raise the child as his own. Was it a sign that she was meant to continue the pregnancy? As a rule, Ashley approached her problems with resolve. She was capable and tough; she liked shooting guns and lifting weights. She kept track of her stats and checked off her goals as she achieved them one by one. Yet the dilemma before her had shaken her confidence. She leaned back and turned to watch the ultrasound screen. The black-and-white image danced. A sharp, fast thumping emerged from the machine. As Degen removed the wand, Ashley wiped the corner of her eye.

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"She glanced across the waiting room at a television playing a birth-control ad and laughed darkly. 'Jesus, Lord, it would be so nice if someone just pushed me down a flight of stairs.'"
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