No Comment — December 27, 2007, 9:11 am

In the Holiday News. . .

Did Bush Watch the Torture Tapes?
The Times (London) Washington correspondent, Sarah Baxter, reporting with a summary of the developments in the case involving the CIA’s destruction of recordings of the treatment of Abu Zabaydah, points to the growing belief in Washington that President Bush viewed the torture tapes. Baxter reports:

It emerged yesterday that the CIA had misled members of the 9-11 Commission by not disclosing the existence of the tapes, in potential violation of the law. President George W Bush said last week he could not recall learning about the tapes before being briefed about them on December 6 by Michael Hayden, the CIA director. “It looks increasingly as though the decision was made by the White House,” said Johnson. He believes it is “highly likely” that Bush saw one of the videos, as he was interested in Zubaydah’s case and received frequent updates on his interrogation from George Tenet, the CIA director at the time.

It has emerged that the CIA did preserve two videotapes and an audiotape of detainee interrogations conducted by a foreign government, which may have been relevant to the trial of Zacarias Moussaoui, the Al-Qaeda conspirator. The CIA told a federal judge in 2003 that no such recordings existed but has now retracted that testimony. One of the tapes could show the interrogation of Ramzi Binalshibh, a September 11 conspirator, who was allegedly handed to Jordan for questioning.

In this regards, the sequence of statements out of the White House is extremely revealing. It started with firm denials, then went silent and then pulled back rather sharply to a “President Bush has no present recollection of having seen the tapes.” This is a formulation frequently used to avoid perjury charges, a sort of way of saying “no” without really saying “no.” In between these statements, two more things unfolded that have a bearing on the question.

The New York Times squarely placed four White House lawyers in the middle of the decision about whether to destroy the tapes—Alberto Gonzales, David Addington, John Bellinger and Harriet Miers. It also reported that at least one of them was strongly advocating destruction. Suspicion immediately fell on the principle mover in support of torture, David Addington.

Second, John Kiriakou clarified his statements about the purpose for which the tapes were made. It was to brief higher ups about the process of the interrogation. Reports persist that one “higher-up” in particular had a special strong interest in knowing the details of the Abu Zubaydah case. His name is George W. Bush.

Are Bush’s denials that he has seen the torture tapes really credible? I don’t think so. And having seen them, the interest in their destruction would be equally fierce, which helps account for the involvement of the White House’s four most senior lawyers in the process. No doubt about it. The White House desperately wants to scapegoat some CIA people over this. (Laura Rozen’s article “Operation Stop Talking” is the best treatment so far of this phenomenon, which finds its best current expression in the effort to “get” John Kiriakou). But the trail leads to the White House, and that is clearly where the decision was taken. It will be interesting to see the techniques used by the Justice Department to obscure all of this. At this point, no one who’s tracked Justice Department antics over the past six years is anticipating anything but a crude cover-up.

Torture Lawyer’s Appointment Blocked
In 1946, the United States prosecuted two Justice Department lawyers for a peculiar crime. They had written memoranda which, in disregard of international law, facilitated the torture and abuse of prisoners. They were sentenced to ten years in prison, less time served. That was in the days when the Justice Department lived up to its name. The case is called United States v. Altstoetter. It would be a good case for Michael Mukasey to read; his underlings could benefit from a reading, too, since the time is approaching when it’s going to have some direct impact in their own lives.

In George Bush’s America, however, lawyers who specialize in making torture and abuse possible are promoted. Indeed, they become attorney general and get appointed to Court of Appeals judgeships. And one of the key figures in this disgraceful saga is Steven Bradbury, the “acting” head of the Office of Legal Counsel. Many senators demanded that Michael B. Mukasey withdraw his nomination to head the office after it was learned that he had issued memoranda enabling waterboarding and other torture practices. In fact, it was later learned that Bradbury was brought into the job in a rush when his predecessor, Daniel Levin, started exploring the need to impose limits on waterboarding. Levin was fired so that Bradbury could come in and confirm that under Bush torutre knows no limits.

However, Mukasey’s decision to wink at the process of torture and abuse is nowhere more evident than in his decision to proceed with the promotion of one of the prime torture lawyers, Bradbury. President Bush was prepared to use his recess appointment power to reward Bradbury with an order which would take away the word “acting” and make his position permanent—within the time limits of the recess appointment.

But the Senate figured this out, and by convening every day, it has blocked the appointment. As the Associated Press’s Laurie Kellman reports:

A nine-second session gaveled in and out by Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., prevented Bush from appointing as an assistant attorney general a nominee roundly rejected by majority Democrats. Without the pro forma session, the Senate would be technically adjourned, allowing the president to install officials without Senate confirmation.

Bravo for the Senate.

Remembering those in Need
On Christmas Day, the superscript in the New York Times read, just as it has read for a century: “It’s Christmas Day. Remember the Neediest!” And on St. Stephen’s Day, as Christmas continued, the editors of the Times did exactly that. They authored an editorial addressing the rotting cesspool of a Justice Department that the Bush Administration has created, and all the unfinished business which Congress must pick up in the coming year. And right at the top of the list was this:

There is evidence of impropriety in several recent prosecutions, including that of Don Siegelman, a former governor of Alabama who is serving a lengthy prison sentence. Mr. Mukasey needs to investigate Mr. Siegelman’s case and others that have been called into question to ensure that no one was wrongly put in jail by his department, and that anyone who acted improperly is held accountable.

The integrity of the Justice Department is precious. The fair application of the law is the cornerstone of American justice and American democracy. A halfway resolution of this scandal is not enough. It needs to be investigated vigorously and completely.

The fact is, since coming to office six weeks ago, Michael Mukasey has not lifted a finger to address the egregious abuses that led to the false charges brought against Governor Siegelman and the corrupt process by which he was convicted. This continues to stain the Department of Justice. And, as we will soon be exploring in greater detail, the Justice Department continues to cover up, make apologies for the gross misconduct of those involved in the Siegelman case and to obstruct a proper investigation of prosecutorial misconduct by Congress. This scandal continues to fester, and the New Year must bring a renewed effort to secure justice and to punish those who perpetrated this abuse.

10 Myths About Iraq
American mainstream media coverage from Iraq remains pathetic. It’s heavily skewed by politics, which is to say, it doesn’t cover things in Iraq as they are. Rather it presents the vision of Iraq emanating from political leaders in the United States—from the White House and from Congress. In both cases, this vision reflects 90% political aspirations and interests and 10% reality. Shouldn’t the media be reporting on the facts on the ground rather than the politics in Washington?

Also those facts on the ground consist not just of the U.S. forces performing their mission, they include the complex political situation in the country as well. That’s the vastly more important story that regularly gets swept under the carpet because it’s “too complicated.” Complicated enough to warrant the expenditure of American lives and treasure, of course.

So what’s the remedy? I’d start with Juan Cole’s Informed Comment, still the indispensable supplement—and the best way to get a peek at the eyes and ears of the local and regional press, all within fifteen minutes. His posting yesterday is really superior—it’s Ten Myths About Iraq. And here’s a snippet:

  1. Myth: The US public no longer sees Iraq as a central issue in the 2008 presidential campaign.

Fact: In a recent ABC News/ Washington Post poll, Iraq and the economy were virtually tied among voters nationally, with nearly a quarter of voters in each case saying it was their number one issue. The economy had become more important to them than in previous months (in November only 14% said it was their most pressing concern), but Iraq still rivals it as an issue!

  1. Myth: There have been steps toward religious and political reconciliation in Iraq in 2007.

Fact: The government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has for the moment lost the support of the Sunni Arabs in parliament. The Sunnis in his cabinet have resigned. Even some Shiite parties have abandoned the government. Sunni Arabs, who are aware that under his government Sunnis have largely been ethnically cleansed from Baghdad, see al-Maliki as a sectarian politician uninterested in the welfare of Sunnis.

  1. Myth: The US troop surge stopped the civil war that had been raging between Sunni Arabs and Shiites in the Iraqi capital of Baghdad.

Fact: The civil war in Baghdad escalated during the US troop escalation. Between January, 2007, and July, 2007, Baghdad went from 65% Shiite to 75% Shiite. UN polling among Iraqi refugees in Syria suggests that 78% are from Baghdad and that nearly a million refugees relocated to Syria from Iraq in 2007 alone. This data suggests that over 700,000 residents of Baghdad have fled this city of 6 million during the US ‘surge,’ or more than 10 percent of the capital’s population. Among the primary effects of the ‘surge’ has been to turn Baghdad into an overwhelmingly Shiite city and to displace hundreds of thousands of Iraqis from the capital.

In Pakistan, The Meltdown Begins
News is now breaking about the attempt to assassinate Nawaz Sharif and the assassination of Benazir Bhutto in Rawalpindi. Most Pakistan observers I have been speaking with envision a dramatic further deterioration in Pakistan, largely the result of Musharraf’s decision to trash restructuring plans in favor of military rule. The assassination of Bhutto, whose Pakistan People’s Party had the loyalty and support of the nation’s aspiring middle class, is a tragic development and it presages still more instability. Condoleeza Rice and her senior advisors correctly understood that forcing Bhutto into a marriage of convenience with Musharraf was the only available tactic that would shore up and legitimize the general’s rule. Unfortunately they acted too late on this, and in the end their resolve was characteristically weak. Musharraf saw the writing on the wall, and he recognized that the real say in the Cheney Shogunate is held by Dick Cheney, not Condi Rice. So Musharraf welched on his promises and sent Pakistan spiraling down the maelstrom in which it now finds itself. This is more bitter fruit from America’s grossly mismanaged foreign policy in the age of Bush. More to come.

tyger

Tyger, Tyger Burning Bright
So back to that question that every English student asked back in college: how does a tiger “burn bright”? Was this the delusional Blake? The man who gave us the “doors of perception”? Maybe. The conventional interpretation was, of course, to juxtapose this poem against “The Lamb,” and speak of evil and innocence. But that sounds like an Anglican minister, not like William Blake. Were he to use the images this way, it would be with a mocking tone. No, I’d say that what “burns bright” in the tiger is the unrestrained force of nature. And if we have to search for meaning in this poem, there is a work that holds it in philosophical terms as beautifully as Blake expressed it in the poetic. It’s one of my favorite works of Edmund Burke, in fact—a work that is often overlooked or shunted aside as some curious artifact of the theory of aesthetics. But in its way, it’s every bit as important as the Reflections and perhaps even more relevant to our times and challenges. When the young Burke wrote his Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, in 1757, he was testing the boundaries of Enlightenment thought and pointing the way to the age of Romanticism. His work is about how we appreciate art and nature, how we come to call something “beautiful,” but it’s also about social and political interaction. When is humankind moved by terror and what causes this to happen? And how can this be manipulated by those who study human emotion and want to use it to enslave, rather than to liberate the human animal? (This he calls the essence of the “Oriental” mind, but as so often the case, “Oriental” is probably just a mask for something much closer to home.) “Terror is in all cases whatsoever, either more openly or latently, the ruling principle of the sublime.” Why? “Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain, and danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime; that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling.” This notion of terror exists in objects all about us all the time, though we may seek to domesticate them, to render them harmless to us. “We have continually about us animals of a strength that is considerable, but not pernicious. Amongst these we never look for the sublime: it comes upon us in the gloomy forest, and in the howling wilderness, in the form of the lion, the tiger, the panther, or rhinoceros.”

And with this in mind, read Blake’s “Tyger” and see the point well encapsulated. The tiger is a powerful image for the human psyche and our perceptions of the world.

And so is the tragic tale we unfold in today’s paper of the last minutes of life and death of the Siberian tiger Tatiana, and her human prey, in the San Francisco Zoo yesterday. Tatiana killed. But did she do wrong? She acted according to the force of her nature. Tatiana truly “burned bright”—she did as her nature would have her do—it meant terror for men. Blake’s tiger is the raw force of nature, brutal, amoral, terrorizing, but also capable of illuminating those who understand her way and behavior without becoming blindly panicked in the face of them. Blake’s poem is about terror, but not simply experiencing it—it is about the need to surmount fear, to achieve mastery of it. And for America in the closing days of 2007, is there a lesson more essential than this?

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