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.

black-sites

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.

Share
Single Page

More from Scott Horton:

Conversation August 5, 2016, 12:08 pm

Lincoln’s Party

Sidney Blumenthal on the origins of the Republican Party, the fallout from Clinton’s emails, and his new biography of Abraham Lincoln

Conversation March 30, 2016, 3:44 pm

Burn Pits

Joseph Hickman discusses his new book, The Burn Pits, which tells the story of thousands of U.S. soldiers who, after returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, have developed rare cancers and respiratory diseases.

Context, No Comment August 28, 2015, 12:16 pm

Beltway Secrecy

In five easy lessons

Get access to 167 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

February 2018

Within Reach

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Bodies in The Forest

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Minds of Others

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Modern Despots

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Before the Deluge

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Notes to Self

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
The Minds of Others·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Progress is impossible without change,” George Bernard Shaw wrote in 1944, “and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.” But progress through persuasion has never seemed harder to achieve. Political segregation has made many Americans inaccessible, even unimaginable, to those on the other side of the partisan divide. On the rare occasions when we do come face-to-face, it is not clear what we could say to change each other’s minds or reach a worthwhile compromise. Psychological research has shown that humans often fail to process facts that conflict with our preexisting worldviews. The stakes are simply too high: our self-worth and identity are entangled with our beliefs — and with those who share them. The weakness of logic as a tool of persuasion, combined with the urgency of the political moment, can be paralyzing.

Yet we know that people do change their minds. We are constantly molded by our environment and our culture, by the events of the world, by the gossip we hear and the books we read. In the essays that follow, seven writers explore the ways that persuasion operates in our lives, from the intimate to the far-reaching. Some consider the ethics and mechanics of persuasion itself — in religion, politics, and foreign policy — and others turn their attention to the channels through which it acts, such as music, protest, and technology. How, they ask, can we persuade others to join our cause or see things the way we do? And when it comes to our own openness to change, how do we decide when to compromise and when to resist?

Illustration (detail) by Lincoln Agnew
Article
Within Reach·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

On a balmy day last spring, Connor Chase sat on a red couch in the waiting room of a medical clinic in Columbus, Ohio, and watched the traffic on the street. His bleached-blond hair fell into his eyes as he scrolled through his phone to distract himself. Waiting to see Mimi Rivard, a nurse practitioner, was making Chase nervous: it would be the first time he would tell a medical professional that he was transgender.

By the time he arrived at the Equitas Health clinic, Chase was eighteen, and had long since come to dread doctors and hospitals. As a child, he’d had asthma, migraines, two surgeries for a tumor that had caused deafness in one ear, and gangrene from an infected bug bite. Doctors had always assumed he was a girl. After puberty, Chase said, he avoided looking in the mirror because his chest and hips “didn’t feel like my body.” He liked it when strangers saw him as male, but his voice was high-pitched, so he rarely spoke in public. Then, when Chase was fourteen, he watched a video on YouTube in which a twentysomething trans man described taking testosterone to lower his voice and appear more masculine. Suddenly, Chase had an explanation for how he felt — and what he wanted.

Illustration by Taylor Callery
Article
Before the Deluge·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

In the summer of 2016, when Congress installed a financial control board to address Puerto Rico’s crippling debt, I traveled to San Juan, the capital. The island owed some $120 billion, and Wall Street was demanding action. On the news, President Obama announced his appointments to the Junta de Supervisión y Administración Financiera. “The task ahead for Puerto Rico is not an easy one,” he said. “But I am confident Puerto Rico is up to the challenge of stabilizing the fiscal situation, restoring growth, and building a better future for all Puerto Ricans.” Among locals, however, the control board was widely viewed as a transparent effort to satisfy mainland creditors — just the latest tool of colonialist plundering that went back generations.

Photograph from Puerto Rico by Christopher Gregory
Article
Monumental Error·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

In 1899, the art critic Layton Crippen complained in the New York Times that private donors and committees had been permitted to run amok, erecting all across the city a large number of “painfully ugly monuments.” The very worst statues had been dumped in Central Park. “The sculptures go as far toward spoiling the Park as it is possible to spoil it,” he wrote. Even worse, he lamented, no organization had “power of removal” to correct the damage that was being done.

Illustration by Steve Brodner
Post
CamperForce·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

After losing their savings in the stock market crash of 2008, seniors Barb and Chuck find seasonal employment at Amazon fulfillment centers.

Cost of a baby-stroller cleaning, with wheel detailing, at Tot Squad in New York City:

$119.99

Australian biologists trained monitor lizards not to eat cane toads.

Trump tweeted that he had created “jobs, jobs, jobs” since becoming president, and it was reported that Trump plans to bolster job creation by loosening regulations on the global sale of US-made artillery, warships, fighter jets, and drones.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Report — From the June 2013 issue

How to Make Your Own AR-15

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

By

"Gun owners have long been the hypochondriacs of American politics. Over the past twenty years, the gun-rights movement has won just about every battle it has fought; states have passed at least a hundred laws loosening gun restrictions since President Obama took office. Yet the National Rifle Association has continued to insist that government confiscation of privately owned firearms is nigh. The NRA’s alarmism helped maintain an active membership, but the strategy was risky: sooner or later, gun guys might have realized that they’d been had. Then came the shootings at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, and at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, followed swiftly by the nightmare the NRA had been promising for decades: a dedicated push at every level of government for new gun laws. The gun-rights movement was now that most insufferable of species: a hypochondriac taken suddenly, seriously ill."

Subscribe Today