On military bases like Diego Garcia and in special military- or CIA-controlled prisons like Guantanamo, the "war on terrorism" was to be carried to its informational climax by whatever methods American intelligence officials felt might "break" whatever prisoners we had. Whether in Guantanamo, at Abu Ghraib in Iraq, on Bagram Air Force Base in Afghanistan, on U.S. Navy ships at sea, or outsourced to the friendly jails of allied nations whose interrogators practice torture, this varied and ever developing mini-gulag was never meant to be a system of criminal imprisonment—hence the lack of charges, no less trials of any sort, anywhere in the imperium. It was to be an eternal holding operation for "World War IV," the war after the Cold War and expected by neocon devotees to last at least as long. Now, according to the latest report from Dana Priest of the Washington Post, the administration is considering exactly how to turn forever into a series of post-penal establishments capable of coping with the realities of life imprisonment beyond all charges and to the end of time.
Devil's Island, USA
There's something, I suppose, that just hates a secret—and so, as the year of Abu Ghraib ended, ever more of America's secret world of torture (generally called "abuse" in our press) has been tumbling out of the darkness and into the news—thanks largely to leaks from anonymous but obviously angry sources inside the military and the intelligence "community." For instance, in December we learned from Dana Priest and Scott Higham of the Washington Post, which has been doing the best of this reporting in the mainstream, that deep in the heart of our Guantanamo prison camp was a super-secret CIA wing built in the last year for high-value prisoners previously being passed from place to place globally, "a detention facility for valuable Al Qaeda captives that has never been mentioned in public."
Consider it mentioned. And how were they being passed around the CIA's planetary holding areas? Well, as the year ended, Priest revealed that the CIA had its own, possibly one-jet air arm for shuttling these peripatetic prisoners around the planet—"a Gulfstream V turbojet, the sort favored by CEOs and celebrities [that]
has been seen at military airports from Pakistan to Indonesia to Jordan, sometimes being boarded by hooded and handcuffed passengers." It's registered to a dummy corporation officered and directed by dummy humans and it has "permission to use U.S. military airfields worldwide." A list of where it's been spotted offers a suggestive, though hardly complete, little map of our shadowy system of secret imprisonment: "Since October 2001 the plane has landed in Islamabad; Karachi; Riyadh, Saudi Arabia; Dubai; Tashkent, Uzbekistan; Baghdad; Kuwait City; Baku, Azerbaijan; and Rabat, Morocco. It has stopped frequently at Dulles International Airport, at Jordan's military airport in Amman and at airports in Frankfurt, Germany; Glasgow, Scotland, and Larnaca, Cyprus."
Egypt and Thailand, for example, are missing from the list, although it's believed that prisoners have been held by the CIA in the jails of both countries as part of the Agency's program of "extraordinary rendition"—a tortured euphemism that stands in for a policy going back deep into the Clinton years but that really hit its stride after 9/11 in which we contract out the torture of our prisoners to countries previously better known for such practices.
Meanwhile, by year's end, the American Civil Liberties Union, wielding the Freedom of Information Act (which the Bush administration has tried hard to limit), had pried loose a series of stunning emails and memorandums from disturbed and angry FBI agents who had observed interrogation sessions at Guantanamo. They were writing their bosses back on the mainland, complaining of the nature of the "humane" methods military interrogators were using at Guantanamo, not to speak of the fact that some of those military or intelligence interrogators were impersonating FBI agents. (By the way, isn't it curious that it was the ACLU and not the media that did the necessary work to spring these documents?)
When it came to Guantanamo, what we had previously were largely the claims of former prisoners, most of which turned out to be all too accurate but were more easily dismissible; now the FBI has nailed the government on what's been happening, despite endless denials, in our own Devil's Island. These documents are a clear indication that torture, mistreatment, and abuse in American-controlled prisons, holding areas, military camps, and interrogation cells add up to stunning set of contraventions of the Geneva Conventions ("To this end the following acts are and shall remain prohibited at any time and in any place whatsoever with respect to the above-mentioned persons: (a) violence to life and person, in particular murder of all kinds, mutilation, cruel treatment and torture; (b) taking of hostages; (c) outrages upon personal dignity, in particular, humiliating and degrading treatment
"); that, in a phrase used for the first time recently in a recent headline on a Washington Post editorial, "war crimes" are being committed routinely out there in the imperium.
Let's recall for a moment what our president had to say at a news conference about such accusation of torture last June: "Look, I'm going to say it one more time. Maybe I can be more clear. The instructions went out to our people to adhere to law. That ought to comfort you. We're a nation of law. We adhere to laws. We have laws on the books. You might look at these laws. And that might provide comfort for you. And those were the instructions from me to the government."
"A nation of law" and that should comfort us. The United States, of course, signed onto the Geneva Conventions and, as a signatory, is fully bound by them because, according to Article 6 of the U.S. Constitution, "[A]ll Treaties made, or which shall be made, under the Authority of the United States, shall be the supreme Law of the Land." It doesn't get any higher, does it? And that remains true no matter how many times our attorney-general designee and former overseer of a series of tortured legal documents meant to give the administration the ability to torture more or less at will, refers to the Conventions as "quaint" documents.
Throw in a slew of other recent torture revelations, including a claim by a British prisoner in Guantanamo, for instance, that "the 'strappado,' a technique common in Latin American dictatorships in which a prisoner is left suspended from a bar with handcuffs until they cut deeply into his wrists," was used on him, and you end up with a Grand Guignol menu of interrogation techniques. These, in turn, add up to something like a self-portrait for rest of the world of Bush administration America in 2005.
A partial list of methods of torture recently reported (or reported yet again) would include detainees chained hand and foot to the floor in a fetal position for up to 24 hours without food or water and left to lie in their own fecal matter; detainees beaten and kicked while hooded; paraded naked around a courtyard while photos were being snapped; left in extreme hot or cold temperatures for extended periods; wrapped in an Israeli flag while loud rap music played and strobe lights flashed; or possibly even having fingernails torn out; placement of lit cigarettes into the detainees' ear openings; sleep deprivation; partial strangulation; death threats during interrogation; the use of dogs to force frightened prisoners to urinate; the holding of wires from an electric transformer to a detainee's shoulders, so that the man "danced as he was shocked"; mock drowning or "waterboarding"; mock executions of Iraqi juveniles; severely burning a detainee's hands by covering them in alcohol and igniting them; holding a pistol to the back of a detainee's head while another Marine takes a picture; fake (and real) acts of sexual assault and sodomy; being hit with rifle butts; suffering electric shocks and immersion in cold water; being beaten to death. These and other crimes against very specific humanity have taken place from Guantanamo to Iraq, Afghanistan to the CIA's secret prisons around the world.
Once you take certain kinds of restraints away, once you open up certain possibilities, these tend to be transformed into acts at a staggering speed and then to multiply like so many computer viruses. Offshore, torture as a way of life spreads, it seems, with a startling rapidity. It begins with a sense of impunity at the top and soon infects the most distant nooks and crannies, the farthest outposts, fire bases and holding cells of distant lands like Afghanistan. It moves like quicksilver all the way down to those "bad apples" manning the night shift and taking digital photos for future screen savers in the Abu Ghraibs of our world. It has already become an American way of life and, having been initiated at home, it will certainly return to the Homeland.
Take as just one tiny example of how widespread and commonplace such practices may be: During the recent assault on Falluja, American troops came upon Mohammad al-Jundi, the Syrian driver of two kidnapped French journalists (since released elsewhere). This was presented in our news as a tiny act of liberation of a prisoner held by terrorists. So what do you imagine was the first act of this former driver, when freed? According to Agence France-Presse, he's now suing his American liberators for torture and ill-treatment. His French lawyer Jacques Verges "said that after being found by American troops, al-Jundi was taken in handcuffs to a military base where he was beaten and kicked. Verges said al-Jundi claimed to have been thrice threatened with mock executions and tortured with electric shocks." Ho-hum. Life on the frontier.
Militarism as Religion
The question, of course, is responsibility. Where exactly does it rest? Among the more striking of the ACLU revelations (and the least dealt with in our press) was a single FBI email sent from Guantanamo to senior FBI officials in the States which "makes 11 references to an Executive Order 'signed by President Bush' that authorized these abusive interrogation methods
that permitted military interrogators in Iraq to place detainees in painful stress positions, impose sensory deprivation through the use of hoods, intimidate them with military dogs and use other coercive methods." Other emails link the Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Undersecretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz to the extreme methods used in Guantanamo. (Note by the way that, while our press generally will not use the word "torture" when describing such acts at Guantanamo and elsewhere, the FBI agents don't hesitate to do so.)
Whether there was such an order—the White House denies it, but at this point that no longer means a thing—there was certainly a powerful sense among the interrogators, torturers, abusers at Guantanamo and elsewhere that their course had been set at the very top of the system, and in this they couldn't have been more right.
But I get ahead of myself. I was talking about the extraordinarily rendited island of Diego Garcia when I wandered off into the imperial dark side. We only know what the military tells us—no damage—about the effects of the tsunami on that very low-lying island, only on average 4 feet above sea level, but that's not so odd. The island has been a blacked-out area, a zone of silence in the Indian Ocean ever since, to oblige us Yanks, the Brits shipped all the Diego Garcians off into misery and poverty on the island of Mauritius, clearing the decks for us.
In normal Internet fashion, some on the Web quickly concluded that there was something deeply conspiratorial about Diego Garcia alone getting the tsunami news in a prompt fashion. But the reason was simple: Unlike the governments of South Asia, the Pentagon was keyed into scientific early warning networks, as it is now keyed into just about everything that matters on this planet. The Pentagon is increasingly like that famed creation of 1950s sci-fi, the Blob; an alien life form capable of absorbing anything that crosses its path. It has swallowed, for instance, many of the functions of the State Department and, having divided the globe into 5 commands (the latest being—gulp—Northcom, which means us) and with the heavens tossed in as well (Spacecom), its top commanders now travel the world like planetary plenipotentiaries.
Here, for instance, is how Washington Post columnist David Ignatius described the global processional of our latest Centcom commander:
"Gen. John Abizaid probably commands the most potent military force in history. The troops of his Central Command are arrayed across the jagged crescent of the Middle East, from Egypt to Pakistan, in an overwhelming projection of U.S. power. He travels with his own mini-government: a top State Department officer to manage diplomacy; a senior CIA officer to oversee intelligence; a retinue of generals and admirals to supervise operations and logistics. If there is a modern Imperium Americanum, Abizaid is its field general."
Indeed. The military has become not just our war-fighting and occupying force, but our main "nation-building" force, our major diplomatic force (now that military-to-military relations have become the essence of foreign policy), our preponderant intelligence force, a major propaganda outfit (or call it public diplomacy, if you will), our central ministry for advanced R&D research and basic science, the only part of the government seriously preparing for a global-warming world, and our planetary rescue outfit as well—to name just a few of its roles. With more clearly to come.
Take, for instance, intelligence. That CIA jet may seem extravagant, but, in fact, it's a pale shadow of the airborne CIA of the Vietnam era when the Agency covertly operated a full-scale airline, Air America. The Pentagon now controls an estimated 80% of the nation's $40 billion-plus intelligence budget and it's clearly eager for more. Perhaps the most curious news report of the pre-holiday season was a front-page piece in the New York Times by Douglas Jehl and Eric Schmitt (Pentagon Seeks to Expand Role in Intelligence-Collecting). It focused on a plan being put together by the now infamous Christian fundamentalist Lieutenant General, William G. Boykin ("George Bush was not elected by a majority of the voters in the United States, he was appointed by God."), that gives a lovely twist to the concept of "intelligence gathering":
"Among the ideas cited by Defense Department officials is the idea of fighting for intelligence,' or commencing combat operations chiefly to obtain intelligence. The proposal also calls for a major expansion of human intelligence, which is information gathered by spies rather than by technological means, both within the military services and the Defense Intelligence Agency, including more missions aimed at acquiring specific information sought by policy makers."
Fighting for [you fill in the blank]. That sums up our present Bush moment. In fact, little that this country does from diplomacy to torture to foreign aid is any longer imaginable absent the military. We are a nation whose public face—however we may still think of ourselves—is no longer a civilian one, not just in Iraq but in the world at large. This is essentially because, if the Bush people could be said to have a religion, it would not perhaps be fundamentalist Christianity so much as a deep and abiding belief in the ability of a militarized superpower to impose its views and desires on the world through military strength alone.
Militarism in America has long been a strange bird, since our society lacked most of the normal trappings of a militarized state. But it's an even stranger creature post-9/11. After all, the militarists driving policy are a group of men almost none of whom were ever in the military (no less saw service in a war) and many of their policies have been opposed by honorable (and horrified) military and intelligence officials who recognize madness, stupidity, and illegality when they see it and have little interest in having their names or services dragged through the imperial mud. (Hence all those leakers to the press.)
Long before 9/11, the Bush administration had made its approach clear in the National Security Strategy of the United States, a key document released in 2002, as well as in various presidential speeches which emphasized the administration's reliance not on preemptive but "preventive" war; its intense desire to go it alone internationally (no "global tests" long preceded John Kerry); the importance it placed on maintaining eternal American military dominance in an otherwise superpower-less world against any conceivable future combination of powers; and its insistence on putting forward force without constraints as a first principle—a position from which torture, which is, after all, force without constraints in the context of an interrogation cell, flows so naturally. It was this collective stance that was put into practice on September 11, 2001 and that has determined just about every major act of the administration since.
Note, for instance, the administration's response to the catastrophic Sumatran tsunami. Though from its early hours the event was visibly near apocalyptic and the body count bound to be astronomical, the president spent three days on vacation cutting brush at his ranch in Crawford in glorious silence (just as his junior partner Tony Blair would continue to vacation in sunny Egypt). After all, the losses weren't American; terrorism had played no role; and it hadn't happened in New York City, but largely in Muslim countries. And so miniscule amounts of aid were announced by a minor administration figure at a moment when, as Juan Cole pointed out at his Informed Comment website, we were unsuccessfully spending a blinding $1 billion a week to impose our will on a recalcitrant Iraq.
When the criticism and embarrassment became too much—it turns out that even this president is subject to "global tests"—George emerged from hibernation to praise American generosity ("we're a very generous, kindhearted nation") and to announce that we would indeed mount a mighty relief effort to be led by
don't be surprised now
the Pentagon. ("We're dispatching a Marine expeditionary unit, the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln, and the Maritime pre-position squadron from Guam to the area to help with relief efforts."). The very concept of a civilian relief effort naturally never came to mind, except—for an administration intent on stripping civil government of its role in society—in terms of private charity for which two former presidents would later be mobilized. We then largely ignored the various global relief outfits (including the UN), civilian in nature, with extensive experience in such things, sent Hurricane Jeb and our increasingly pugnacious exiting secretary of state off to do an American assessment of Asian needs; declared our own coalition of the willing (Australia, Japan, India) willy-nilly, and generally rushed unilaterally into the breach.
(The Bush administration, by the way, wasn't alone in sticking to character. As Bill Berkowitz, the thoughtful columnist at the Working for Change website commented, Christian fundamentalist organizations like the Family Research Council, the Christian Coalition, Focus on the Family, and Concerned Women for America, in the manner of the president, suffered from an instant "compassion deficit," their websites remaining for days tsunami-less; while Doug Ireland, whose provocative as well as entertaining blog should be a stop on anyone's passage through the Web, pointed out to me, that the Westboro Baptist Church website already was already declaring the tsunami God's response to vacationing Swedish gays. "Thank God for the tsunamis—and for 5,000 dead Swedes!!! God is laughing, mocking and taunting Swedes, and Sweden, even as they mourn & weep over their dead!")
None of this is exactly surprising. When an administration committed to a form of armed imperial isolationism (a bizarre inversion of the old Party of Taft heartland isolationist tradition, now married to imperial dreams and driven deep into the heart of the world) and completely committed to the idea of dominating the planet by force acts, it's almost bound to do so in predictable ways.
Taking off the Gloves
While news story after news story—and I can barely keep up with, no less adequately summarize them—has driven torture ever deeper into the ordinary life of the imperium, we also know ever more about how and where this all began, about, you might say, the moment of creation. As with extraordinary rendition in the Clinton era, or neocon plans laid out in the 1990s to take down Saddam Hussein, or the establishment of a national security state in the early years of the Cold War, or (as former Latin American prisoners from the 1960s to the 1980s can attest) torture methods employed or taught by CIA or U.S. military interrogators, much of what's happened since September 11, 2001 has a good deal of history behind it. The Bush administration hardly created our American world from scratch. But it certainly accelerated the trend toward militarism, brought torture out of the closet—making it something close to official state policy—began to build a small-scale global gulag to go with it, melded extremes of American political and religious expression in new ways, and established what might be called a National Insecurity Homeland in the process.
Each of us has a personality or character developed over a lifetime which asserts itself in reasonably expectable ways under pressure; so, it might be said, does an administration. The assaults of 9/11 were such a moment of pressure. You could look on that day and the few weeks that followed as a kind of administration Rorschach Test. What instantly floated to the surface of the Bush collective brain, under the pressure (and the developing possibilities) of that moment, would in fact define the years to come; and I would say that two things above all came to mind. The first was obviously Iraq—the urge to take down Saddam Hussein's regime and forcibly reconstruct the Middle East along lines the neocons had long dreamed of; the second was, in the spirit of Janus, the two-faced Roman god of war, a two-sided urge: to elevate the president as a wartime leader, stripping him of all constraints and restraints, domestic or international, and to free him to order acts previously seen as heinous. The executive's freedom to order torture would, after all, be the ultimate proof of the administration's freedom to do anything.
This helps explain, at least in part, what William Pfaff, columnist for the International Herald Tribune recently called "the most striking aspect of its war against terrorism," an "enthusiasm for torture" among the land's highest officials, for making it part of public policy. After all, while Guantanamo was meant to be beyond the reach of the law, and what went on there beyond all sight or oversight, it was also an intensely public creation in which the administration invested much pride.
On Iraq, we know that, according to notes taken by his associates (as CBS reported a year later), "barely five hours after American Airlines Flight 77 plowed into the Pentagon, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld was telling his aides to come up with plans for striking Iraq," even though he was already certain that Al Qaeda had launched the attack. ("'Go massive,' the notes quote him as saying. 'Sweep it all up. Things related and not.'") At that moment, the Pentagon would still have been smoking. Later that same day, Richard Clarke, the counterterrorism expert who was in most of the key meetings, recalled, "'Rumsfeld was saying that we needed to bomb Iraq
And we all said...no, no. Al Qaeda is in Afghanistan. We need to bomb Afghanistan. And Rumsfeld said there aren't any good targets in Afghanistan. And there are lots of good targets in Iraq." The president on returning to the White House later that day, "dragged me into a room," Clarke recalled, "with a couple of other people, shut the door, and said, 'I want you to find whether Iraq did this.' Now he never said, 'Make it up.' But the entire conversation left me in absolutely no doubt that George Bush wanted me to come back with a report that said Iraq did this."
In mid-2003, the reliable Jim Lobe of Inter Press Service reported:
"It appears increasingly clear that key officials and their allies outside the administration intended to use the Sep. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks as a pretext for going to war against Iraq within hours of the attacks themselves. Within the administration, the principals appear to have included Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, Vice Pres. Dick Cheney, and his national security adviser, I. Lewis Libby, among others in key posts in the National Security Council and the State Department."
Only 9 days after September 11, the number three man at Defense, Douglas Feith suggested "hitting terrorists outside the Middle East in the initial offensive, perhaps deliberately selecting a non-Al Qaeda target like Iraq." And but two weeks after the attacks, Undersecretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz was already implicitly fingering Saddam Hussein's Iraq before a meeting of NATO ministers and the game, as they say, was publicly afoot.
In the meantime, as we've learned only recently thanks to Newsweek's Michael Isikoff, within two weeks of 9/11, then Justice Department lawyer John Yoo was already writing a secret memo to White House legal counsel Alberto Gonzalez's assistant, entitled "The President's Constitutional Authority to Conduct Military Operations against Terrorists and Nations Supporting Them," which suggested a staggering new interpretation of the reach of presidential power: "In the exercise of his power to use military force, 'the president's decisions are for him alone and are unreviewable.'" This memo, as Isikoff explains, "lays out a line of argument about broad presidential wartime powers that would be repeated time and again in a series of secret memos to the White House about controversial decisions in the war on terror. The arguments pushed by Yoo, a prolific conservative scholar who has since left the Justice Department, reached what many view as its apex nearly a year later when, in another memo written by a colleague Jay Bybee, the Office of Legal Counsel concluded that the president's powers were so expansive that he and his surrogates were not bound by congressional laws or international treaties proscribing torture during the interrogation of detainees."
Torture's path was well paved by the time, in July 2002, Gonzalez and his colleagues convened in a White House office to consider CIA torture techniques and how to put a foundation of "legality" under them. By that time, Gonzalez had already created a whole new category, "enemy combatant," that was meant to do an end-run around the Geneva Conventions and had laid the "legal" foundations for taking those out-of-category combatants and putting them in Guantanamo where conventions of any kind could be suitably ignored. That July, according to Isikoff, his main worry was: "'Are we forward-leaning enough on this?'
'Lean forward' had become a catchphrase for the administration's offensive approach to the war on terror."
As Pfaff puts the matter succinctly:
"Proposals to authorize torture were circulating even before there was anyone to torture. Days after the Sept. 11 attacks, the administration made it known that the United States was no longer bound by international treaties, or by American law and established U.S. military standards, concerning torture and the treatment of prisoners. By the end of 2001, the Justice Department had drafted memos on how to protect military and intelligence officers from eventual prosecution under existing U.S. law for their treatment of Afghan and other prisoners. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the Bush administration is not torturing prisoners because it is useful but because of its symbolism. It originally was intended to be a form of what later, in the attack on Iraq, came to be called shock and awe.' It was meant as intimidation. We will do these terrible things to demonstrate that nothing will stop us from conquering our enemies. We are indifferent to world opinion. We will stop at nothing."
Extraction of information was always secondary at the highest levels to the freeing of the president from all constraints. A confidant of the president, Gonzales was certainly in close touch with high administration officials, including evidently the vice president's office, over taking the legal restraints off torture. But he was, after all, only a lawyer. By then, top officials had already demonstrated their "enthusiasm" on the subject, their desire to be involved. Take Donald Rumsfeld. As Richard Serrano of the Los Angeles Times has written, "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." That was 2001. By December 2002, Rumsfeld had personally approved a list of extreme "interrogation techniques" for Guantanamo right down to the use of dogs to intimidate prisoners.
It's a grim tale and one of the main figures who made it possible will, in the coming days, be given a pass by Democratic senators. Imagine that. Alberto Gonzales, the lawyer who sponsored a regime of torture for his president, will soon become the nation's attorney general. Perhaps it's fitting. Then the Justice Department can enter the same world of twisted names as Camp Justice, saved from the tsunami's surprise impact by a special Pentagon warning. When you think about it, we are still living in the ruins of the World Trade Center.
Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of The End of Victory Culture, a history of the collapse of American triumphalism in the Cold War era as well as a novel, The Last Days of Publishing.
Copyright C2004 Tom Engelhardt
[Note for readers. Those still with an urge to give in response to tsunami devastation might consider visiting the website of Oxfam's Asia Earthquake Fund.]