Publisher's Note — December 18, 2014, 3:24 pm

Amid redactions and monotony, reckless CIA cruelty

The massive prose work does possess a certain irony and subtlety, as well as a sickening urgency, which make it worth reading as a book, rather than as an accumulation of outrageous facts.”

This column originally ran in the Providence Journal on December 18, 2014.

Somewhere in the first hundred pages of the Senate Intelligence Committee report on Central Intelligence Agency torture, I started to feel a little panicky. Would I ever escape the monotonous violence, described in excruciating detail, that took place at Detention Site Cobalt, a black site north of Kabul? Would I ever be able to breathe easily after the suffocating smugness that saturates the CIA’s internal narrative of events?

I mean my response to be a compliment. The report has many faults; the most annoying is the granting of political cover to George W. Bush by emphasizing the CIA’s alleged non-disclosure to the White House about specific torture techniques. But the massive prose work of Senator Dianne Feinstein (D, Calif.), chairwoman of the committee, does possess a certain irony and subtlety, as well as a sickening urgency, which make it worth reading as a book, rather than as an accumulation of outrageous facts.

I don’t know whom to cite as the report’s stylist, since the 6,700 pages (only 499 of which have been declassified) must have been a collective effort. However, in her foreword, Feinstein credits Daniel Jones, a former Federal Bureau of Investigation analyst, as the report’s principal author. This would explain the underlying tone of sarcasm that runs throughout, since only a loyal FBI man could fully appreciate the villainy and stupidity of the CIA sadists who went right on waterboarding, shackling, sleep depriving, and dressing suspects in diapers, against all evidence that such tactics were ineffective in extracting information. The subplot of FBI contempt for CIA practices is one of the many things that make for compelling reading.

Early on, we learn that the future waterboarding record holder, Abu Zubaydah, cooperated with Arabic-speaking, nonviolent FBI agents who questioned him at “Detention Site Green.” According to the report, Zubaydah “revealed to the FBI officers that an individual named ‘Mukhtar’ was the al-Qa’ida ‘mastermind’ of the 9/11 attacks”—he subsequently identified “Mukhtar” from a picture of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.

Although this information corroborated what the CIA already knew, the CIA would have none of the FBI’s mushy, good-cop procedures. After freezing out its rival, Team Langley proceeded blithely down the road that cost the unfortunate Saudi one of his eyes and, presumably, most of his sanity. Until, that is, the CIA “interrogators” realized they weren’t getting anything useful out of Zubaydah and he was dispatched to indefinite internment at Guantánamo.

I don’t believe that the constant interruptions of the report’s text by blacked-out names and phrases are necessary to protect national security. Surely, the names of the most brutal CIA agents would be valuable to know, if only to shame them. But “redaction” can be a useful literary device in itself. With the rhythm of the story constantly broken by black rectangles, the reader is delighted to happen upon unexpurgated, candid observations by CIA personnel.

For example, the Senate report describes a debriefing at CIA headquarters, in December 2002, of Federal Bureau of Prisons employees who had visited Detention Site Cobalt and been, according to a CIA officer, “WOW’ed” by the CIA’s prowess in the art of incarceration. Apparently, the prison bureaucrats were impressed “that there was ‘absolutely no talking inside the facility’ and ‘[e]verything is done in silence and [in] the dark.’”

A nameless CIA officer was himself wowed by the prison personnel’s reaction to the point of self-congratulation: “They have never been in a facility where individuals are so sensory deprived, i.e., constant white noise, no talking, everyone in the dark, with the guards wearing a light on their head when they collected and escorted a detainee to an interrogation cell, detainees constantly being shackled to the wall or floor, and the starkness of each cell (concrete and bars). There is nothing like this in the Federal Bureau of Prisons. They then explained that they understood the mission and it was their collective assessment that in spite of all this sensory deprivation, the detainees were not being treated in humanely [sic] … the facility was sanitary, there was medical care and the guard force and our staff did not mistreat the detainee[s].”

Why can’t we know this officer’s name? Passages as eloquent as this can almost make one forget the CIA’s reckless cruelty.

Another literary passage is the account of confining Abu Zubaydah to “coffins” for hours at a time, a senseless act that reminds me of the new movie The Imitation Game, in which we see the Enigma code breaker Alan Turing being tortured as a boy by vicious schoolmates who imprison him under tightly nailed classroom floorboards. Which suggests that the Senate torture report is a case of art reflecting life.

Melville House is rushing to publish Feinstein’s investigation as a book by December 30.

Share
Single Page

More from John R. MacArthur:

Publisher's Note February 14, 2020, 9:28 pm

The “Affair”

“I was immediately struck by the fundamental difference between the ‘seventh art’ and literature.”

Publisher's Note February 12, 2020, 10:47 am

On Book Events

Publisher's Note December 13, 2019, 5:40 pm

The Art of Persuasion

“Making fun of the negative interest rates offered by some European banks, Trump sniggered, ‘Give me some of that…I want some of that money.’ In my corner of the hall, around table 121, several merry-faced brokers and accountants applauded.”

Get access to 169 years of
Harper’s for only $23.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

February 2020

Trumpism After Trump

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“My Gang Is Jesus”

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Cancer Chair

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Birds

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Skinning Tree

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Interpretation of Dreams

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Dearest Lizzie

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Trumpism After Trump·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The city was not beautiful; no one made that claim for it. At the height of summer, people in suits, shellacked by the sun, moved like harassed insects to avoid the concentrated light. There was a civil war–like fracture in America—the president had said so—but little of it showed in the capital. Everyone was polite and smooth in their exchanges. The corridor between Dupont Circle and Georgetown was like the dream of Yugoslav planners: long blocks of uniform earth-toned buildings that made the classical edifices of the Hill seem the residue of ancestors straining for pedigree. Bunting, starched and perfectly ruffled in red-white-and-blue fans, hung everywhere—from air conditioners, from gutters, from statues of dead revolutionaries. Coming from Berlin, where the manual laborers are white, I felt as though I was entering the heart of a caste civilization. Untouchables in hard hats drilled into sidewalks, carried pylons, and ate lunch from metal boxes, while waiters in restaurants complimented old respectable bobbing heads on how well they were progressing with their rib eyes and iceberg wedges.

I had come to Washington to witness either the birth of an ideology or what may turn out to be the passing of a kidney stone through the Republican Party. There was a new movement afoot: National Conservatives, they called themselves, and they were gathering here, at the Ritz-Carlton, at 22nd Street and M. Disparate tribes had posted up for the potlatch: reformacons, blood-and-soilers, curious liberal nationalists, “Austrians,” repentant neocons, evangelical Christians, corporate raiders, cattle ranchers, Silicon Valley dissidents, Buckleyites, Straussians, Orthodox Jews, Catholics, Mormons, Tories, dark-web spiders, tradcons, Lone Conservatives, Fed-Socs, Young Republicans, Reaganites in amber. Most straddled more than one category.

Article
The Cancer Chair·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The second-worst thing about cancer chairs is that they are attached to televisions. Someone somewhere is always at war with silence. It’s impossible to read, so I answer email, or watch some cop drama on my computer, or, if it seems unavoidable, explore the lives of my nurses. A trip to Cozumel with old girlfriends, a costume party with political overtones, an advanced degree on the internet: they’re all the same, these lives, which is to say that the nurses tell me nothing, perhaps because amid the din and pain it’s impossible to say anything of substance, or perhaps because they know that nothing is precisely what we both expect. It’s the very currency of the place. Perhaps they are being excruciatingly candid.

There is a cancer camaraderie I’ve never felt. That I find inimical, in fact. Along with the official optimism that percolates out of pamphlets, the milestone celebrations that seem aimed at children, the lemonade people squeeze out of their tumors. My stoniness has not always served me well. Among the cancer staff, there is special affection for the jocular sufferer, the one who makes light of lousy bowel movements and extols the spiritual tonic of neuropathy. And why not? Spend your waking life in hell, and you too might cherish the soul who’d learned to praise the flames. I can’t do it. I’m not chipper by nature, and just hearing the word cancer makes me feel like I’m wearing a welder’s mask.

Article
“My Gang Is Jesus”·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

When Demétrio Martins was ready to preach, he pushed a joystick that angled the seat of his wheelchair forward, slowly lifting him to a standing position. Restraints held his body upright. His atrophied right arm lay on an armrest, and with his left hand, he put a microphone to his lips. “Proverbs, chapter fourteen, verse twelve,” he said. “ ‘There is a way which seems right to a man, but its end is . . .’ ”

The congregation finished: “ ‘Death.’ ”

The Assembly of God True Grapevine was little more than a fluorescent-lit room wedged between a bar and an empty lot in Jacaré, a poor neighborhood on Rio de Janeiro’s north side. A few dozen people sat in the rows of plastic lawn chairs that served as pews, while shuddering wall fans circulated hot air. The congregation was largely female; of the few men in attendance, most wore collared shirts and old leather shoes. Now and then, Martins veered from Portuguese into celestial tongues. People rose from their seats, thrust their hands into the air, and shouted, “Hallelujah!”

Article
The Birds·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

On December 7, 2016, a drone departed from an Amazon warehouse in the United Kingdom, ascended to an altitude of four hundred feet, and flew to a nearby farm. There it glided down to the front lawn and released from its clutches a small box containing an Amazon streaming device and a bag of popcorn. This was the first successful flight of Prime Air, Amazon’s drone delivery program. If instituted as a regular service, it would slash the costs of “last-mile delivery,” the shortest and most expensive leg of a package’s journey from warehouse to doorstep. Drones don’t get into fender benders, don’t hit rush-hour traffic, and don’t need humans to accompany them, all of which, Amazon says, could enable it to offer thirty-minute delivery for up to 90 percent of domestic shipments while also reducing carbon emissions. After years of testing, Amazon wrote to the Federal Aviation Administration last summer to ask for permission to conduct limited commercial deliveries with its drones, attaching this diagram to show how the system would work. (Amazon insisted that we note that the diagram is not to scale.) Amazon is not the only company working toward such an automated future—­UPS, FedEx, Uber, and Google’s parent company, Alphabet, have similar programs—­but its plans offer the most detailed vision of what seems to be an impending reality, one in which parce­l-toting drones are a constant presence in the sky, doing much more than just delivering popcorn.

Article
The Skinning Tree·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Every year in Lusk, Wyoming, during the second week of July, locals gather to reenact a day in 1849 when members of a nearby band of Sioux are said to have skinned a white man alive. None of the actors are Native American. The white participants dress up like Indians and redden their skin with body paint made from iron ore.

The town prepares all year, and the performance, The Legend of Rawhide, has a cast and crew of hundreds, almost all local volunteers, including elementary school children. There are six generations of Rawhide actors in one family; three or four generations seems to be the average. The show is performed twice, on Friday and Saturday night.

The plot is based on an event that, as local legend has it, occurred fifteen miles south of Lusk, in Rawhide Buttes. It goes like this: Clyde Pickett is traveling with a wagon train to California. He tells the other Pioneers: “The only good Injun’s a dead Injun.” Clyde loves Kate Farley, and to impress her, he shoots the first Indian he sees, who happens to be an Indian Princess. The Indians approach the Pioneers and ask that the murderer give himself up. Clyde won’t admit he did it. The Indians attack the wagon train and, eventually, Clyde surrenders. The Indians tie Clyde to the Skinning Tree and flay him alive. Later, Kate retrieves her dead lover’s body and the wagon train continues west.

Cost of renting a giant panda from the Chinese government, per day:

$1,500

A recent earthquake in Chile was found to have shifted the city of Concepción ten feet to the west, shortened Earth’s days by 1.26 microseconds, and shifted the planet’s axis by nearly three inches.

Americans evacuated from Wuhan did Zumba.

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

HARPER’S FINEST

Jesus Plus Nothing

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

By

At Ivanwald, men learn to be leaders by loving their leaders. “They’re so busy loving us,” a brother once explained to me, “but who’s loving them?” We were. The brothers each paid $400 per month for room and board, but we were also the caretakers of The Cedars, cleaning its gutters, mowing its lawns, whacking weeds and blowing leaves and sanding. And we were called to serve on Tuesday mornings, when The Cedars hosted a regular prayer breakfast typically presided over by Ed Meese, the former attorney general. Each week the breakfast brought together a rotating group of ambassadors, businessmen, and American politicians. Three of Ivanwald’s brothers also attended, wearing crisp shirts starched just for the occasion; one would sit at the table while the other two poured coffee. 

Subscribe Today