No Comment, Six Questions — February 13, 2008, 12:04 pm

Six Questions for Darius Rejali, Author of Torture and Democracy

Reed College Professor Darius Rejali is one of the world’s leading thinkers and writers on the subject of torture and the consequences of its use for modern society. Princeton University Press has just published his magisterial study of torture and how it has developed as a social and moral issue with a focus on developments through the last century. Rejali tracks the question in many different settings and societies–from Athens in its golden age to the French colonial wars, totalitarian states in the mid-twentieth century, down to America in the Age of George W. Bush. I put six questions to Rejali about his book and its relevance to the current debate in the United States.

1. Your new book, ‘Torture and Democracy,’ reflects a lengthy
engagement with the subject of torture as a phenomenon over a vast
stretch of time and among many different societies. But in the preface,
you start by relating something about your own background as an
Iranian-American, trying to understand how torture was transforming Iran
and complicating its evolution in modern times. Did developments in Iran
lead you to this subject? In what ways do you think torture has
affected the political culture of Iran and its extremely awkward
relations with the rest of the world?

Most people think torture is a barbaric survivor and that it would
disappear over time with progress. This is a mistake, and my experience
growing up in Iran taught me that and led me to write Torture and
Modernity: Self, State and Society in Iran
(1994). I used Iran to show
that while old ritualistic, public torture would disappear over time,
other tortures would survive and new techniques would appear, let’s call
these modern torture.

I remember one distinguished expert who reviewed my work said,
basically, how can Rejali say torture is part of modernity? If that was
true, America would torture too. It really was amazing, in retrospect,
how willfully blind people wanted to be. I grew up in Iran at a time
when the Shah’s secret police, the SAVAK, did not hesitate torturing
Islamic and Marxist insurgents. No one thought torture was something
incompatible with cars, fast food, washing machines and other parts of
modern life. I remember talking to a high-ranking SAVAK officer years
after the Shah was gone, and he certainly felt he played an important
role in modernization. It wasn’t the last time I’ve heard torturers say
how important they are in making their country safe for economic
opportunity.

Another point: Everyone forgets that the Iranian revolution of 1978-1979
was the revolution against torture. When the Shah criticized Khomayni as
a blackrobed Islamic medieval throwback, Khomayni replied, look who is
talking, the man who tortures. This was powerful rhetoric for
recruiting people, then as it is now. People joined the revolutionary
opposition because of the Shah’s brutality, and they remembered who
installed him. If anyone wants to know why Iranians hated the US so,
all they have to do is ask what America’s role was in promoting torture
in Iran. Torture not only shaped the revolution, it was the factor that
has deeply poisoned the relationship of Iran with the West. So why trust
the West again? And the Iranian leadership doesn’t.

2. One of the themes that circulates through your book is that we are
mistaken in attaching torture only to non-democratic states; your
special focus is on how democratic states use torture, and you give
examples stretching from Athens in the golden age to America under
George W. Bush, but with France in its waning colonial phase as perhaps
the best illustration of them all. But isn’t it the case that modern
democratic concepts rest on the rejection of torture? I think back to
figures like Voltaire. When he describes torture in great detail and
attacks its crudeness, its stupidity—as in his brilliant description of
the cruel execution of the 19-year-old chevalier de La Barre—he seems to
be making a political statement by it. This system, he says, does not
value the worth of the individual human being, and indeed that is the
essence of its tyranny. Conversely the post-Enlightenment democracies
took rejection of torture as an element of their identity, as we saw in
Washington’s orders, or as the first article of the German Grundgesetz,
which states, “The dignity of the human being is inviolable. The respect
and protection of that dignity is the obligation of all state power.”
Leaving aside the differing concept of democracy in classical antiquity,
do you not see a fundamental crisis of identity with a democratic state
that adopts and uses torture?

Torture involves giving absolute power by one individual over
another. Our founders knew that absolute power corrupts absolutely and
that we shouldn’t even trust ourselves with absolute power. That is why
they promoted limited government in politics, toleration of minorities
in social life, and dignity in our relations with strangers. The
history of slavery teaches us that this kind of power corrupts society,
and history of torture shows how badly it damages states. Thomas
Hobbes, whose national security credentials are impeccable, says it
quite clearly in The Leviathan: “Accusations upon torture, are not to be
reputed as testimonies” for what each prisoner confesses “tendeth to the
ease of him that is tortured, not to the informing of the torturers.”
People will say anything under torture to ease pain, says Hobbes, and
this as far as he concerned, corrupted the judicial process and made all
of us unsafe.

Torture may be compatible with democracy, but it is not compatible with
liberalism, and we live in liberal democracies today. What I document
in Torture and Democracy, is how modern liberal democratic states try to
get around violating the dignity of others by becoming hypocrites. To
this end, they use a lot of techniques that are physically painful, but
don’t leave marks. A prisoner who doesn’t have marks is simply not
credible when he makes the accusation of torture. So now they can say,
“There was no torture see? So go home now.” Instead of embracing the
ideals of dignity and freedom, states become cleverer in methods of
oppression and deception. As John Locke said brilliantly in his Letter
Concerning Toleration
, a state that tortures is always a state of
hypocrites. I also document how authoritarian states became cleaner in
their torture as liberalism developed into a worldwide human rights
movement after World War II. These dictators, especially our allies,
realized their legitimacy and foreign aid, depended on being clean.
Hypocrisy isn’t just a monopoly of democratic states.

The good news here is that liberal democratic leaders actually care
enough about legitimacy that they fear clear outrages will cause people,
the voters, to do something about it. If they didn’t, scarring tortures
would still be common. So when we watch them, they get sneaky. Could
things get worse? Sure. Locke believed that history was committed to
liberalism’s triumph, but the question today is whether history will
even tolerate liberalism surviving into the twenty second century.
Everywhere, blind nationalism seems to threaten liberalism. Documenting
clean torture in this respect is like the canary in the coal mine. As
long as torture remains clean – and so far it has – it means that
government leaders know that people are watching, and I find that hopeful.

3. In America today, the debate seems to focus on the efficacy of
torture—whether it is a useful tool for getting at the truth. You note
the flow from the Roman Ulpian, who accepts torture as something quite
normal to be used in interrogation (though he does at some points
express skepticism about its usefulness) to Cesare Beccaria, whose
monumental denunciation of torture did so much to influence European
ideas about torture and criminal justice in the eighteenth century. But
today we seem stuck in a debate in which those who use torture are eager
to try to justify themselves but unwilling to let a bright light shine
into their conduct, ostensibly for national security reasons, though
many will inevitably suspect that secrecy is driven by concerns for
their own culpability. You offer up a very lengthy and nuanced
discussion on the efficacy of torture, and in your Washington Post
column on five myths you have pulled some chestnuts out of it. One of
them is that “people will say anything under torture.” But isn’t the
claim rather the way Shakespeare put it in act III of the ‘Merchant of
Venice,’ that people will say what they think the torturer wants them to
say? And doesn’t that explain why societies that put a premium on
confessions like torture to extract them, and why al-Libi told the CIA
about Saddam Hussein’s non-existent WMD plans? Don’t you think that the
efficacy discussion has to address the broader consequences that a
decision to use torture has to reputation, and conversely to the ability
of a terrorist foe to recruit?

Yes, I do. During the Islamic Revolution in Iran, the Shah’s torture
was the best recruiting tool the opposition had. Prisons were places
where prisoners met each other and professionalized their skills, as I
and others have documented. It feels like a nightmare watching American
politicians make the same mistake as the Shah. I like to believe that
with every mistake we must surely be learning, but sometimes it is hard
to believe.

When I talked about people under torture saying anything, I was
especially interested in the cases where torturers interrogate for true
information. That’s what I document doesn’t work. But it seems pretty
clear that torture works to generate false confessions, which serve
equally as well as true confessions for many state purposes. When judges
and juries value confessions as decisive proof, police are happy to
generate confessions for convictions. This can happen in domestic
crime, as it happened in Chicago in the 1980s where African Americans
were sentenced to death on the basis of coerced confessions. They’re
also good for international show trials, trials that exonerate the
state’s failures. Stalin wanted show trials to demonstrate that
terrorists and saboteurs caused his failures, and he wasn’t the last
leader who liked show trials to vindicate his decisions. And lastly,
states use false confessions as blackmail to turn prisoners into
unwilling informants. Torture allows one to collect dependent and
insular individuals, spreading a net of fear across a population. This
can happen locally (as in a ghetto) or in a whole state, like East Germany.

It’s also true that torturers often hear what they want to hear. In fact
that’s one of the big problems with torture that I document in the book
and the “Five Myths” article. Even if torture could actually break a
person and they told you the truth, the torturer has to recognize it was
the truth, and too often that doesn’t happen because torturers come into
a situation with their own assumptions and don’t believe the victim.
Moreover, intelligence gathering is especially vulnerable to deception.
In police work, the crime is already known; all one wants is the
confession. In intelligence, one must gather information about things
that one does not know.

And let’s remember, torturers aren’t chosen for intelligence; they are
chosen for devotion and loyalty, and they are terrible at spotting the
truth when they see it. In the “Five Myths” piece I talk about how the
Chilean secret service lost valuable information in that way when they
broke Sheila Cassidy, an English doctor, and she told them everything
but they didn’t believe her. And one can just repeat dozens of stories
like this. My favorite is when Senator John McCain tried to explain the
concept of Easter to his North Vietnamese torturer. “We believe there
was a guy who walked the earth, did great things, was killed and three
days later, he rose from the dead and went up to heaven.” His
interrogator was puzzled and asked him to explain it again and again. He
left, and when he came back, he was angry and threatened to beat him.
Americans couldn’t possibly believe in “Easter” since no one lives
again; McCain had to be making this up.

4. You talk about a “national security model” for torture and discuss
in particular the way the French adopted torture to use in the Algerian
war and how they reconciled this with a legal regime which condemned
torture. I was most taken by the discussion of the judicial aspect.
Allegations of torture, you report, were referred to a specific
examining magistrate, Jacques Batigne, who served as a dead-letter
office. You also point how the democratic process failed to engage this,
in part because the leftist opposition was so badly discredited with its
own Stalinist torture baggage. The analysis you present seems to me to
closely parallel what Albert Camus writes in his diary, the ‘Chroniques
algériennes,’ in which he dwells very heavily on torture and how it
corrupted France’s democratic process. In America today, the Bush
Administration seems to have developed its own repertoire of legal
tricks. Judges refuse to consider torture cases by noting that immunity
of public officials precludes them, or state secrets, or some
combination of the two. And we recently saw Michael Mukasey tell us
that because opinions had been given by the Office of Legal Counsel
which declared torture techniques lawful, the use of those techniques
could not be criminally investigated. It seems very close to the French
approach. But assuming the political process produces a change to an
anti-torture political leadership, what are the prospects for a
democratic society going back and holding torturers to account? Have
you given that any systematic study?

Stopping torture is actually the easiest part; the harder part is
undoing the long-term damage. To stop torture, all one really needs is
clear leadership that spells clear rules and punishes the slightest
violations of the rules. It also protects whistleblowers, and requires
regular and open medical inspection, not to mention fair and open trials
for all prisoners. This was the way we stopped most torture in the US
in the 1940s and 1950s after three or four decades of abysmal police
torture in America, in cities both large and small.

Torture casts a very long shadow. When a state tortures, many decent
professionals retire, leaving the police forces, the military and the
intelligence services in disgust. So those who stayed behind create a
culture of impunity. Torture also has a powerful deprofessionalizing
ethic, damaging other intelligence efforts. Why do the hard work of
using proper police and interrogation techniques when you’ve got a bat?.
Considering that most recent whistleblowers have had to hide in fear,
including the man who revealed the Abu Ghraib tortures, it will be
difficult to recruit good people to do this work. How can you prevent
waste or fraud, much less torture, if you are not going to protect
whistleblowers? You can’t.

Americans think in the fantasy terms of Jack Bauer and ticking time
bombs, while our hospitals fill with soldiers who clearly are suffering
the traumatic side effects of being involved in torture, what is now
called “perpetrator induced traumatic stress.” Americans seem less
willing to acknowledge what our nation asked them to do than fund what
is needed for their recovery. Fifty years after the Algerian War, the
French have thousands of soldiers in therapy including their DOPS
interrogators who are described as “spiritually wounded men, often
ravaged by the weight of their guilt and shame.” We have yet to
acknowledge that, much less the damage to victims and innocents we tortured.

A lot of people want trials, not just trials for those who did terrible
things but also trials for those who had command responsibility and
should have, and could have, prevented torture. And nothing predicts
future torture quite like past impunity. But trials are an imperfect
solution. They can deeply divide a society. The Argentine government
tried the generals, but when it tried notorious junior officers
responsible for torture, it faced a series of rebellions. And we
certainly need to have a final open accounting of what was done, but
truth commissions also have a mixed history, sometimes helping and other
times promoting amnesia.

I would like to think that changing leaders will make a difference. But
then remember, I lived through a revolution where the most important
thing was to throw out the Shah and stop torture. The irony is that it
didn’t stop. Changing leaders doesn’t automatically change torture. In
fact, states usually change their interrogation practices after wars,
not during them or when leaders change. This is what happened in Iran.
People are too scared in wars and uncertain in crises, so they
repeatedly reach for the same techniques that the people they opposed used.

But having said that, it is possible to change course in mid-war
successfully. As I show in Torture and Democracy, the Battle of Algiers
turned in favor of the French only after Paul Aussaresses, who ran the
torture policy, was replaced by the very smart and canny Col. Yves
Godard, and it was his informants, not Aussaresses’ torture policy, that
gave the French the big breaks they needed. Goddard knew how
intelligence really worked.

So it can be done. And whoever does it is going to have the backing of
the American people. Every scientific national poll I’ve looked at since
9/11, for example, shows consistently anti-torture majorities in
America. This number hasn’t varied, always hovering between 55 to 65%
opposition, and includes both Republicans and Democrats. When pollsters
ask not about “torture” in general but specific techniques like
waterboarding, the opposition spikes to 80% opposed even if there is a
ticking time bomb. What best predicts whether you’re for torture turns
out not to be a partisan issue, though there is a slight Republican
trend. What predicts whether you’re for torture best is if you approve
of President Bush’s policies; basically it’s a loyalty vote. The
protorture folk have always – and I mean always, in every poll I’ve seen
– been a minority of 35-45% and I’m pretty sure the number is shrinking
as the President’s approval numbers dip.

So the good news is that opponents of torture are not alone. I suspect
people think the majority of Americans are for torture, but this just
isn’t supported by any of the polling. It’s just hype from partisan
media, talking heads, and the politicians. The real truth is that there
is intelligence out there. What it requires is for government to tap
into it and start using it.

5. In the United States, the debate seems to be increasingly focused
on waterboarding, which I suspect you’ll agree doesn’t really present
any serious questions on the definitional front. Obviously it is
torture. But there are other techniques which are much more problematic.
One is the sensory-deprivation/sensory-overload technique associated
with Kubark. Waterboarding has not been used frequently, at least
according to General Hayden, but the sensory-deprivation technique seems
to have developed into something close to standard operating procedure,
and was even used on a U.S. citizen, Jose Padilla. A psychologist who
evaluated him says he was essentially destroyed as a self-actuated human
being, capable of independent thought and direction. Is the Bush
Administration accomplishing a sort of victory by keeping the debate
focused on waterboarding while avoiding discussion of the techniques
more commonly employed?

Yes, that’s right. The historical record is clear. Waterboarding is
torture, and yes focusing on just waterboarding is a distraction.
Waterboarding is serious, but only the tip of the iceberg. There have
only been three documented cases of waterboarding, but the CIA has
subjected at least 30 others to “enhanced interrogation” as Director
Hayden says, so there are other kinds of techniques as well. And there
are unaccounted prisoners last seen in US custody as well as secret
prisons out there where these things continue to happen.

One day we’ll know more, but the historical record now shows that
American interrogators and soldiers, whether authorized or not, have
used forced standing, forced kneeling, sleep deprivation, exposure to
extremes of heat and cold, beatings on the soles of the feet, sexual
humiliation, and psychological coercion, as well as some cases,
electrotorture. So it would be a mistake then to confuse the forest from
the three tallest trees in it. Waterboarding highlights the huge dangers
of torture, but it is only the beginning of political literacy not the
end of it.

And the same applies to domestic policing. I’m less worried about our
police learning how to waterboard criminals than I am with the use of
stun guns and tasers. Any inspector would wonder what straps and a
bucket of water would be doing in an interrogation room, and investigate
for torture. But they can’t prohibit police from using stun guns and
tasers, which have authorized police uses, and it is very hard for them
to tell when these devices have been used illegally to torture, as they
leave few marks.

Lastly, I think we need to understand that torture just doesn’t hide in
a vault in the CIA. It hides in all the dark pockets of society –
military barracks, schools, frat houses, our supermax prisons and
immigration lockups. When torture happens, the top authorizes, and the
people at the bottom come running with the techniques. Vigilance has to
extend far beyond our intelligence agencies to all these other areas.

Most dangerously, I think we need to pay attention to our new culture of
irresponsibility. We live now in an age where something is or is not
torture depending on when and who it is done to. Zapping an angry
businessman on an airplane cabin will be called torture, but zapping a
foreigner might just be good security and completely excusable. This is
bad. All my students at Reed have good intentions, but they don’t all
deserve A’s because what they do matters regardless of their intention.
Yet police and intelligence officers, not to mention politicians, want
to get As just because they had good intentions. They want to be
exonerated for having done no torture at all; it’s only torture if they
had bad intentions. And that is very dangerous and irresponsible because
judging people solely on their intentions, as William Blake said, is the
road to hell.

6. This week Congress will again take up the intelligence bill, and
the proposal to clarify that the ban on torture accepted by the
uniformed services is applicable to all U.S. actors, including the
intelligence community. Of course, the Detainee Treatment Act of 2005
already says that, but the Bush Administration has apparently developed
its own secret understanding to the contrary. Part of the argument that
has been made in favor of this measure is that the idea of
compartmentalization or limitation of torture doesn’t work, that once it
is known that certain techniques are being used they spread, or
“migrate” in the language of the Army’s Faye-Jones Report. You seem to
chart the same sort of migration many times in your study. Are the
proponents of the torture ban correct on this?

Yes, torture does migrate, and there are some good examples of it
both in American and French history. The basic idea here is that
soldiers who get ahead torturing come back and take jobs as policemen,
and private security, and they get ahead doing the same things they did
in the army. And so torture comes home. Everyone knows waterboarding,
but no one remembers that it was American soldiers coming back from the
Philippines that introduced it to police in the early twentieth century.
During the Philippine Insurgency in 1902, soldiers learned the old
Spanish technique of using water tortures, and soon these same
techniques appeared in police stations, especially throughout the South,
as well as in military lockups during World War I. Likewise, the
electrical techniques used in Vietnam appeared in the 1960s appeared in

torturing African Americans on the south side of Chicago in the 1970s
and 1980s, and, as I argue in the book, that wasn’t just an accident.

So torture always comes home. And the techniques of this war are likely
to show up in a neighborhood near you. Likewise, the techniques that
appeared in the War on Terror were already documented in INS lockups in
Miami in the 1990s. There is no bright line between domestic and foreign
torture; the stuff circulates.

rejali_cover

Yes, I am opposed to two track systems, where one group of people can
torture and the other people can’t. And it is not hard to understand
why. Suppose you’re an interrogator who is not allowed to use some
technique, but the guy from the Other Governmental Agency can. What is
more, you believe that these techniques work. So why should you be stuck
using techniques that are slow and time consuming, when the guy from the
OGA can get good results and win all the glory? Aren’t you just an
idiot for sticking to the rules? Of course not, and so torture will
spread, and that slippery slope is a lot slicker in counterinsurgency
conflicts than in domestic policing, as I show in the book.

There are good reasons to believe that whatever these “enhanced
techniques are” they will seep into other agencies and organizations.
And since many of these techniques leave no marks, it will be impossible
to prove that they were even used. We saw this pattern in Iraq and
Afghanistan, where soldiers reported having learned their interrogation
techniques by imitating CIA field officers.

So I think it is only a matter of time now before new rot sets into the
US military thanks to the two track system our government has endorsed.
This is inevitable when you codify two track interrogation systems into
law. In the 1970s, the Brazilian military had a similar system, and the
state had to turn on and kill its torturers in order to preserve itself.
As the Brazilian journalist Elio Gaspari observed at the time, “Unless
everyone in the army participates in torture, you very quickly develop
two kinds of soldiers.” He call them “the combatants,” who fight the
terrorists with torture, and the “bureaucrats,” who are committed to
preserving the military’s everyday functioning and discipline. In
Brazil, the day came when the combatant-torturers refused to accept the
orders of the bureaucrats and regarded with contempt their peers who
were committed to army disciplines. The generals reluctantly concluded
that the “torturers were going to have to be isolated, marginalized, and
eliminated, so as to save the Army.”

You can obtain a copy of ‘Torture and Democracy’ at your local bookstore or by placing an on-line order here.

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On a blistering morning in July 2017, Ghazi Luaibi rose before dawn and set out in a worn black sedan from his home in Zubair, a town of concrete low-rises in southern Iraq. He drove for a while along sandy roads strewn with plastic bags. On the horizon, he could see gas flares from the oil refineries, pillars of amber flame rising into the sky. As he approached Basra, the largest city in the province, desert scrub gave way to empty apartment blocks and rows of withered palms. Though the sun had barely risen, the temperature was already nearing 100 degrees Fahrenheit. The previous year, Basra had registered one of the highest temperatures ever reliably recorded on earth: about 129 degrees, hot enough to cause birds to drop from the sky.

Ghazi, a sixty-two-year-old with stooped shoulders, an ash-gray beard, and lively brown eyes, would have preferred to stay home and wait out the heat. But he hadn’t had much of a choice. He was the president of the local council of Mandaeans, members of a gnostic religion that appeared in Mesopotamia in the early centuries ad. Today marked the beginning of their new year, and Ghazi, who was born into the Mandaean priestly class, was responsible for making sure everything went smoothly: he needed to find a tent to shield worshippers from the sun and, most importantly, a location near flowing water where they could carry out the ceremony.

Mandaean holidays are celebrated with a mass baptism, a ritual that is deeply rooted in their scripture and theology. Mandaeans follow the teachings of Yahia Yuhana, known to Christians as John the Baptist. Water is central to their religion. They believe that all life originates in the World of Light, a spiritual realm that is the starting point for a great river known as Yardana, or Jordan. Outside the World of Light lie the lifeless, stagnant waters of the World of Darkness. According to one version of the Mandaean creation myth, a demiurge named Ptahil set out to shape a new world from the World of Darkness, which became the material world we inhabit today. Once the world was complete, Ptahil sculpted Adam, the first man, from the same dark waters as the earth, but his soul came from the World of Light. In Mandaean scripture, rivers are manifestations of the World of Light, coursing from the heavenly Jordan to the earth to purify it. To be baptized is to be immersed in this divine realm.

Basra General Hospital (detail) July 2017 © Alex Potter
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How to Start a Nuclear War·

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Serving as a US Air Force launch control officer for intercontinental missiles in the early Seventies, First Lieutenant Bruce Blair figured out how to start a nuclear war and kill a few hundred million people. His unit, stationed in the vast missile fields at Malmstrom Air Force Base, in Montana, oversaw one of four squadrons of Minuteman II ­ICBMs, each missile topped by a W56 thermonuclear warhead with an explosive force of 1.2 megatons—eighty times that of the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. In theory, the missiles could be fired only by order of the president of the United States, and required mutual cooperation by the two men on duty in each of the launch control centers, of which there were five for each squadron.

In fact, as Blair recounted to me recently, the system could be bypassed with remarkable ease. Safeguards made it difficult, though not impossible, for a two-man crew (of either captains or lieutenants, some straight out of college) in a single launch control center to fire a missile. But, said Blair, “it took only a small conspiracy”—of two people in two separate control centers—to launch the entire squadron of fifty missiles, “sixty megatons targeted at the Soviet Union, China, and North Korea.” (The scheme would first necessitate the “disabling” of the conspirators’ silo crewmates, unless, of course, they, too, were complicit in the operation.) Working in conjunction, the plotters could “jury-rig the system” to send a “vote” by turning keys in their separate launch centers. The three other launch centers might see what was happening, but they would not be able to override the two votes, and the missiles would begin their firing sequence. Even more alarmingly, Blair discovered that if one of the plotters was posted at the particular launch control center in overall command of the squadron, they could together format and transmit a “valid and authentic launch order” for general nuclear war that would immediately launch the entire US strategic nuclear missile force, including a thousand Minuteman and fifty-four Titan missiles, without the possibility of recall. As he put it, “that would get everyone’s attention, for sure.” A more pacifically inclined conspiracy, on the other hand, could effectively disarm the strategic force by formatting and transmitting messages invalidating the presidential launch codes.

When he quit the Air Force in 1974, Blair was haunted by the power that had been within his grasp, andhe resolved to do something about it. But when he started lobbying his former superiors, he was met with indifference and even active hostility. “I got in a fair scrap with the Air Force over it,” he recalled. As Blair well knew, there was supposed to be a system already in place to prevent that type of unilateral launch. The civilian leadership in the Pentagon took comfort in this, not knowing that the Strategic Air Command, which then controlled the Air Force’s nuclear weapons, had quietly neutralized it.

This reluctance to implement an obviously desirable precaution might seem extraordinary, but it is explicable in light of the dominant theme in the military’s nuclear weapons culture: the strategy known as “launch under attack.” Theoretically, the president has the option of waiting through an attack before deciding how to respond. But in practice, the system of command and control has been organized so as to leave a president facing reports of incoming missiles with little option but to launch. In the words of Lee Butler, who commanded all US nuclear forces at the end of the Cold War, the system the military designed was “structured to drive the president invariably toward a decision to launch under attack” if he or she believes there is “incontrovertible proof that warheads actually are on the way.” Ensuring that all missiles and bombers would be en route before any enemy missiles actually landed meant that most of the targets in the strategic nuclear war plan would be destroyed—thereby justifying the purchase and deployment of the massive force required to execute such a strike.

Among students of nuclear command and control, this practice of precluding all options but the desired one is known as “jamming” the president. Blair’s irksome protests threatened to slow this process. When his pleas drew rejection from inside the system, he turned to Congress. Eventually the Air Force agreed to begin using “unlock codes”—codes transmitted at the time of the launch order by higher authority without which the crews could not fire—on the weapons in 1977. (Even then, the Navy held off safeguarding its submarine-launched nuclear missiles in this way for another twenty years.)

Following this small victory, Blair continued to probe the baroque architecture of nuclear command and control, and its extreme vulnerability to lethal mishap. In the early Eighties, while working with a top-secret clearance for the Office of Technology Assessment, he prepared a detailed report on such shortcomings. The Pentagon promptly classified it as SIOP-ESI—a level higher than top secret. (SIOP stands for Single Integrated Operational Plan, the US plan for conducting a nuclear war. ESI stands for Extremely Sensitive Information.) Hidden away in the Pentagon, the report was withheld from both relevant senior civilian officials and the very congressional committees that had commissioned it in the first place.

From positions in Washington’s national security think tanks, including the Brookings Institution, Blair used his expertise and scholarly approach to gain access to knowledgeable insiders at the highest ranks, even in Moscow. On visits to the Russian capital during the halcyon years between the Cold War’s end and the renewal of tensions in the twenty-first century, he learned that the Soviet Union had actually developed a “dead hand” in ultimate control of their strategic nuclear arsenal. If sensors detected signs of an enemy nuclear attack, the USSR’s entire missile force would immediately launch with a minimum of human intervention—in effect, the doomsday weapon that ends the world in Dr. Strangelove.

Needless to say, this was a tightly held arrangement, known only to a select few in Moscow. Similarly chilling secrets, Blair continued to learn, lurked in the bowels of the US system, often unknown to the civilian leadership that supposedly directed it. In 1998, for example, on a visit to the headquarters of Strategic Command (­STRATCOM), the force controlling all US strategic nuclear weapons, at Offutt Air Force Base, near Omaha, Nebraska, he discovered that the ­­­STRATCOM targeting staff had unilaterally chosen to interpret a presidential order on nuclear targeting in such a way as to reinsert China into the ­SIOP, from which it had been removed in 1982, thereby provisionally consigning a billion Chinese to nuclear immolation. Shortly thereafter, he informed a senior White House official, whose reaction Blair recalled as “surprised” and “befuddled.”

In 2006, Blair founded Global Zero, an organization dedicated to ridding the world of nuclear weapons, with an immediate goal of ending the policy of launch under attack. By that time, the Cold War that had generated the ­SIOP and all those nuclear weapons had long since come to an end. As a result, part of the nuclear war machine had been dismantled—warhead numbers were reduced, bombers taken off alert, weapons withdrawn from Europe. But at its heart, the system continued unchanged, officially ever alert and smooth running, poised to dispatch hundreds of precisely targeted weapons, but only on receipt of an order from the commander in chief.

Bombhead, by Bruce Conner (detail) © Conner Family Trust, San Francisco, and ARS, New York City. Courtesy Kohn Gallery, Los Angeles

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