Orwell meets Kafka

The U.S. runs a global system of injustice, purposely mounted in the legal and moral dark.


By Tom Engelhardt

Quotes of the week:

Congress lacks authority … to set the terms and conditions under which the president may exercise his authority as commander in chief to control the conduct of operations during a war…Congress may no more regulate the president’s ability to detain and interrogate enemy combatants than it may regulate his ability to direct troop movements on the battlefield. Accordingly, we would construe [the law] to avoid this difficulty and conclude that it does not apply to the president’s detention and interrogation of enemy combatants.” (From a 56-page memo, “Detainee Interrogation in the Global War on Terrorism” written by a legal team for the Secretary of Defense on the eve of the Iraq War.)

Congress shall have the power … to declare war and make rules concerning captures on land and water … to define offenses against the law of nations [and] to make rules for the government and regulation of the land and naval forces.” (From the Constitution, David G. Savage and Richard B. Schmitt, Lawyers Ascribed Broad Power to Bush on Torture, the Los Angeles Times)

We need to have a less-cramped view of what torture is and is not.” (A military official explaining the approach of the team writing the above memo, Jess Bravin, Pentagon Report Set Framework For Use of Torture, The Wall Street Journal)

It’s a very cowboy kind of affair.” (Lt. Col. Steven L. Jordan, who controlled the Joint Interrogation and Debriefing Center at Abu Ghraib prison, speaking of the actions of the CIA unit there, R. Jeffrey Smith, Soldier Described White House Interest, the Washington Post)

Room 101

For his dystopia, 1984, his classic novel of totalitarianism, George Orwell created “Room 101,” an interrogation room where a prisoner’s deepest fears were to be realized and applied. Tier 1 in Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison, as the now-infamous photos indicate, was the Bush administration’s Room 101 for the “Arab mind,” and so the crown jewel of its global interrogation facilities; just as Guantanamo was the “crown jewel” of the prison camps in its global Bermuda Triangle of injustice; just as the new appointed “interim government” hidden within the ever-more fortified Green Zone in Baghdad and led by a prime minister and former CIA asset whose exile organization, we learned this week, once set off car bombs in downtown Baghdad, is now the crown jewel of “freedom and democracy” in the Middle East. This is our “war against terrorism.” Talk about an Orwellian world.

As it happens, from the heart of Abu Ghraib’s interrogation rooms and the acts of, as our President and other administration officials have repeatedly said, “a few people” or even “a few hillbillies,” the nature of, extent of, knowledge about, and responsibility for such acts has been rapidly spreading outwards across the imperium, upwards into the highest reaches of our government, and backwards in time. We now know, for instance, that, to the various acts of horror caught on camera in Abu Graib, we must add murder (or rather numerous murders) in Afghanistan as well as Iraq, and the use of electric shocks on prisoners, as the Marine Corps Times reported recently.

As for the acts we saw in the photographs, they too have “spread” and knowledge of them reaches ever higher: To take but two examples, Nakedness is now reported to have been used as a tool of humiliation not just in Iraq but in Afghanistan and at Guantanamo, as it was used in one of the earliest acts of American inhumanity in the war against terrorism, the interrogation of John Walker Lindh in Afghanistan back in 2001; while the “technique” of menacing prisoners with dogs — “an apparent violation of the Geneva Conventions and the Army’s field manual” — has now been well documented at Abu Ghraib by the Washington Post (“On Jan. 13, Spec. John Harold Ketzer, a military intelligence interrogator, saw a dog team corner two male prisoners against a wall, one prisoner hiding behind the other and screaming, he later told investigators. ‘When I asked what was going on in the cell, the handler stated that he was just scaring them, and that he and another of the handlers was having a contest to see how many detainees they could get to urinate on themselves…'”); but it was also evidently employed at Guantanamo, according to the Wall Street Journal.

In the meantime, responsibility for such actions has moved inexorably upwards. We know now that interest in information gleaned from interrogations, ranging from that of John Walker Lindh to those in Iraq was requested at the highest official levels (not so surprising, since our offshore mini-gulag was a pet project of top officials in this administration): “The head of the interrogation center at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq told an Army investigator in February that he understood some of the information being collected from prisoners there had been requested by ‘White House staff,’ according to an account of his statement obtained by The Washington Post.” Far more specifically, R. Jeffrey Smith and Josh White of the Post reported this Saturday that, despite his denials to Congress, in the fall of 2003, “Lt. Gen. Ricardo S. Sanchez, the senior U.S. military officer in Iraq, borrowed heavily from a list of high-pressure interrogation tactics used at the U.S. detention center in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and approved letting senior officials at a Baghdad jail use military dogs, temperature extremes, reversed sleep patterns, sensory deprivation, and diets of bread and water on detainees whenever they wished, according to newly obtained documents.”

In turn, thanks to Jess Bravin and Greg Jaffe of the Wall Street Journal, we now know that in December 2002 Donald Rumsfeld approved a very similar list of “interrogation techniques” right down to those dogs for Guantanamo: “U.S. military interrogators at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, could put prisoners in ‘stress positions’ for as long as four hours, hood them and subject them to 20-hour-long interrogations, ‘fear of dogs’ and ‘mild non-injurious physical contact,’ according to [a] list of techniques Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld approved in December 2002.” (The list was later rejiggered not because of any qualms Rumsfeld had but due to complaints from military officers about the severity of the methods suggested. The present list of approved techniques remains classified, but will undoubtedly soon be leaked to the press.)

The above can be traced back farther yet. According to “documents, read to The [Los Angeles] Times by two sources critical of how the government handled the Lindh case,” writes journalist Richard Serrano, “After American Taliban recruit John Walker Lindh was captured in Afghanistan, the office of Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld instructed military intelligence officers to ‘take the gloves off’ in interrogating him… In the early stages, his responses were cabled to Washington hourly, the new documents show… What happened to Lindh, who was stripped and humiliated by his captors, foreshadowed the type of abuse documented in photographs of American soldiers tormenting Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib.”

This, of course, takes us not only to the top of the administration, but back to the brink of the — if I dare put it this way — Ur-moment in the setting up of what would become our offshore mini-gulag, those months right after the 9/11 attacks when the Bush administration began to set their system in place on the fly and, as Suzanne Goldenberg of the British Guardian reported recently, on key issues without initially even consulting White House or Pentagon lawyers.

“In one instance, President George Bush’s military order of November 13 2001, which denies prisoner-of-war status to captives from Afghanistan and allows their detention without charge or access to a lawyer at Guantánamo, was issued without any consultations with Pentagon lawyers, a former Pentagon official said… The military order issued by Mr Bush in November 2001 was the first such directive since the second world war, and the administration’s failure to seek the Pentagon’s advice on what would emerge as the entire system of detention at Guantánamo surprised Pentagon officials.”

Add it all up — only what’s been revealed so far — and you have a global system of injustice and torture, purposely mounted in the moral and legal darkness, beyond the reach or oversight of anyone but the President, vice-president, secretary of defense and associated officials, meant to extract information (and take revenge), meant as in Kafka’s fictional penal colony to write the sentence these men had passed on the bodies of America’s captives.

And talk about paper trails! If you need any evidence of the combination of arrogance, incompetence, and plain stupidity of the Bush administration, it now sits unavoidably before our eyes. Didn’t they know anything about deniability? Didn’t they know that you can get so much done without committing anything to paper? Didn’t they know that you can signal what you want from the top without issuing orders, making direct demands, or demanding supporting opinions on paper?

Note two things here: That almost all of the above, this whole little global shop of horrors, is already documented — quite literally in papers pouring out of the bowels of this administration. These documents are leaking daily from an administration that seems to have split open along many angry rift lines. The British Telegraph this week, writing of the leaking of a legal document on torture to the Wall Street Journal commented, for example:

“The leak appears to be part of an extraordinary civil war in the Pentagon between civilian officials and uniformed officers appalled by what they have described as moves by political appointees to shroud the war on terrorism in an ‘environment of legal ambiguity’.”

Some in the military, the intelligence community, the State Department, administration legal offices, and possibly even the Justice Department opposed the creation of our mini-gulag and the kinds of interrogations and conditions planned for it; some simply feared what the illegality might do to them or their careers, including evidently Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Richard Myers who fretted that he might become “a target for prosecution under laws governing prisoner treatment”; some are undoubtedly settling scores; others protecting tattered reputations; but it’s now close to open season on the administration from within.

On Sunday, the Los Angeles Times reported that, in a nearly unprecedented act in our country, 26 ex-military and senior diplomatic officials, “several appointed to key positions by Republican Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, plan to issue a joint statement this week arguing that President George W. Bush has damaged America’s national security and should be defeated in November.” And retired officials almost invariably are speaking for larger constituencies within the government — all those potential leakers and mutterers — who fear speaking out publicly themselves.

Addressing an Asian security conference on the administration’s “war on terror,” Donald Rumsfeld recently commented : “[T]he reality is that today we remain closer to the beginning of this struggle than to its end.” The same might be said of the uncovering of responsibility for our own global terror system. There will be so much more to learn. Already, when it comes to Abu Ghraib, Iraq, and Afghanistan, the Pentagon keeps heaping investigations on top of one another, each subsequent one led by a figure with a higher rank and so more capable of investigating responsibility at higher levels, and I think it can be said with certainty that this will only get worse — worse probably than anything we now imagine. After all, to take but the smallest of examples, CBS news reports that “of the 20 U.S.-run jails in [Afghanistan], the Red Cross has only been allowed to visit one in Kabul. Now one in Kandahar is being opened.” Imagine what’s been happening at those other 18.

Read the second part of this dispatch, as well as additional dispatches from Tom Engelhardt, at TomDispatch.com, a web log of The Nation Institute.