By Tom Engelhardt
Quotes of the week
“Mistreatment was not only widely known but also apparently tolerated, so much so that a picture of naked detainees forced into a human pyramid was used as a screen saver on a computer in the interrogations room. Other soldiers easily stumbled onto photographs of naked detainees left on computers in the Internet café at [Abu Ghraib] prison.” (Kate Zernike, Only a Few Spoke Up on Abuse As Many Soldiers Stayed Silent, the New York Times)
“He said one soldier continued to abuse him by striking his broken leg and ordered him to curse Islam. ‘Because they started to hit my broken leg, I cursed my religion,’ he said. ‘They ordered me to thank Jesus that I’m alive.’
“The detainee said the soldiers handcuffed him to a bed. ‘Do you believe in anything?’ he said the soldier asked. ‘I said to him, “I believe in Allah.”‘
“So he said, ‘But I believe in torture and I will torture you.’” (Scott Higham and Joe Stephens, New Details of Prison Abuse Emerge, the Washington Post)
Down the Memory Hole?
Just the other day I heard Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Richard Myers say for the first time that we should expect the violence in Iraq to worsen after the transfer of “sovereignty” on June 30th:
“On Friday… Myers, told the House Armed Services Committee that, far from calming the violence in Iraq, the June 30 turnover is likely to usher in a period of more turmoil, comments echoed by Army Chief of Staff Gen. Peter Schoomaker. ‘The threat will continue to intensify after June 30,’ Myers said. ‘There will be those, including (Abu Musab al) Zarqawi and the foreign fighters, who will try very hard to keep us from having any political progress in Iraq. There is reason for great hope, but the situation is not without its challenges, both military and political.’
“The ranking Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, Rep. Ike Skelton of Missouri, asked Myers, ‘Are we on the brink of failure?’
“‘I don’t think so,’ Myers replied. ‘It is going to be tough. But I think we are on the brink of success.'”
This is a distinct change of line and the President seems ready to following suit in his Monday speech on Iraq, the first of six speeches leading up to “sovereignty.” He’s already saying, “It will be tough work after sovereignty is transferred because there will still be people there trying to derail the election progress.”
Success, I guess, is in the eye of the beholder, though for many months a definition of success in Iraq was offered by this administration. We were told again and again by American officials and spokespeople, military and civilian, in Washington and Baghdad, that because they wanted us to fail, they would increase their acts of violence as we got ever closer to the so-called transfer of power. That spike of violence would be a sign of enemy “desperation.” As we close in on June 30, however, the line has suddenly changed. The former starting spot for what was to be a long Iraqi slide downhill, if not into peace, at least off the front pages of American papers in time for the November election, has now become but another moment after which we are to expect a further escalation of violence — undoubtedly because they see us at that “brink of success.” (General Myers’s statement, by the way, gives new meaning to an old Cold War phrase, “brinkmanship,” or perhaps it just redefines delusional behavior.)
Most strikingly, neither General Myers, nor the President, nor anyone else in a position of what once would have been called responsibility has acknowledged that anything new is being said. Isn’t that exactly the way language works in Bush World? The words just alter slightly and everyone carries on. I think George Orwell once wrote something about this, but I can’t seem to remember what. It must have gone down a personal memory hole.
Or how about our denials. Some modestly enterprising reporter could write quite a striking little history of these. Whatever any part of the Bush administration is accused of, it promptly issues a flat denial and then wings it from there. The most recent of these charges involved a slaughter in a small village in the Iraqi desert near the Syrian border of 40-odd people, including children, women, musicians, and evidently a well-known Iraqi wedding singer. The inhabitants claimed theirs was a wedding party. Our military immediately denied this. Couldn’t be. Terrorists, foreign fighters, a gang of arms smugglers. And, of course, they shot first. Gen. Kimmett, our military spokesman in Baghdad, quickly leaped into the fray:
“‘We took ground fire and we returned fire… We estimate that around 40 were killed. But we operated within our rules of engagement.”
Okay, it was three in the morning and the Iraqis claim everyone was in bed. Next came Major General James Mattis, commander of the 1st Marine Division, who “was scathing of those who suggested a wedding party had been hit. ‘How many people go to the middle of the desert … to hold a wedding 80 miles from the nearest civilization? These were more than two dozen military-age males. Let’s not be naive.'”
It’s well known, evidently, that people don’t get married or have parties in small desert villages. It’s uncivilized.
When, according to Rory McCarthy of the British Guardian, “reporters asked [Gen. Mattis] about footage on Arabic television of a child’s body being lowered into a grave, he replied: ‘I have not seen the pictures but bad things happen in wars. I don’t have to apologize for the conduct of my men.'”
But, of course, the reports coming in, including the first video of the aftermath, haven’t exactly looked great — what with those shots of dead kids from the Rafah refugee camp in Gaza already all over Arab and American television news. McCarthy, for instance, interviewed one of the wedding party members, who survived while most of the rest of her family died around her, in a hospital. She told a harrowing tale. McCarthy described the scene this way:
“As Mrs Shihab spoke she gestured with hands still daubed red-brown with the henna the women had used to decorate themselves for the wedding. Alongside her in the ward yesterday were three badly injured girls from the Rakat family: Khalood Mohammed, aged just a year and struggling for breath, Moaza Rakat, 12, and Iqbal Rakat, 15, whose right foot doctors had already amputated.”
Though the henna was surely a terrorist trick, some fall-back position still seemed to be in order for the denial-pressed Americans. Indeed, a day later there was Kimmett, according to Ian Fisher of the New York Times, no longer quite dismissing:
“the possibility that there was a wedding nearby, saying, however, ‘the probability of this being the case is certainly greater than zero, but a low, low probability.’
“‘Could there have been a celebration of some type going on?’ he wrote in an e-mail in response to a reporter’s questions. ‘Certainly. Bad guys have celebrations. Could this have been a meeting among the foreign fighters and smugglers? That is a possibility. Could it have involved entertainment? Sure. However, a wedding party in a remote section of the desert along one of the rat lines, held in the early morning hours strains credulity,'”
You would think that that “rat lines” zinger would kind of sew things up, but just in case, an investigation was also been launched and already exculpatory exhibits are appearing from the decimated village (not exactly surprising given that, as ever, we’re investigating ourselves). As it happens, there have been many such investigations, scads of them — they go along with the denials — just about all of which (until the Abu Ghraib photos came out) sunk into the sands without a trace. (Who remembers the investigation of that [denied] bombing of a market in Baghdad during the brief Iraqi invasion or the investigation of the [denied] bombing of an Afghan wedding party in which children also died?)
There is, of course, a pattern here, but our media in recent years has been a tad weak on patterns. Connecting what dots? It’s not a major journalistic concept at present. Otherwise, they couldn’t write such pieces as interminable he-said/she-said reports, invariably giving better than equal weight to the initial American denials at the moment when impressions are formed, before the arguments over who-did-what-to-whom retreat to the inside pages and are buried by the next round of news.
Here’s the thing: If anyone could point to just a couple of times in which, during the war on terrorism, charges were made and any official spokesman quickly stepped to the plate and said, “Yes, it was us. We erred. Blame us. We deserve it,” then maybe we could take the denials seriously. But shouldn’t there be a news note attached to such denials by now — like the warnings on a cigarette pack — indicating the dangers of taking them at face value?
As the tortures and humiliations at Abu Ghraib were let loose, thanks to a torture system created at the highest levels of government, so the Bush administration — like its President who, when queried at a press conference, couldn’t recall a single mistake he’d ever made — has created an atmosphere of denial at the highest levels. The endless denials and slow back-downs offered on every piece of misinformation deployed to lead us into war with Iraq, set a tone which has permeated the “war on terrorism.” But, hey, down the memory hole with that, too.
The Last Man Standing
Okay, speaking of denials and back-downs, let’s consider the splendid adventures of former neocon darling Ahmad Chalabi, whose compound/headquarters was recently “ransacked” or, to chose another New York Times word, “pillaged” by the Iraqi police accompanied by American intelligence or military officers. Here’s the way Dexter Filkins and Douglas Jehl of the Times reported it: “[B]acked by American soldiers and unidentified men in civilian clothing who Iraqis said were American agents, [they] stormed into Mr. Chalabi’s headquarters, carted away computers, overturned furniture and smashed photographs of Mr. Chalabi and his family.”
Chalabi — for those of you who have been setting up military bases in the ‘stans of Central Asia for the last few years — was an Iraqi exile of unparalleled usefulness in servicing the fantasies of the neocon lovelies of this administration. He almost single-handedly fed them the (mis)information they needed on almost any subject of interest from Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction to those flowers to be strewn in our path by happy Shiites. The deal was, if only he helped us get into this war, he would be left to run the satrapy of Iraq, while his neocon mentors would move on to fry (in every sense of the word) larger Middle Eastern fish. And, give them a little credit, it was so darn much fun to dream!
Flown into Iraq during the war by the Pentagon to give him a head start in the dash to power, he proved the country’s least popular politician, but still managed to hew out for himself a position within the Iraq Governing Council of almost unparalleled behind-the-scenes control, as Robert Collier of the San Francisco Chronicle reported recently:
“He was given control of the entire archive of the Hussein regime’s secret documents, as well as the so-called de-Baathification process. The powers of the De-Baathification Commission, which Chalabi chairs, are so wide-ranging that it is often called a government within the government. The commission singled out tens of thousands of former Baath Party members to be fired from their government jobs and has allowed Chalabi to replace them with his followers.”
His opposition to UN envoy Lakdar Brahimi’s plans to create a transitional Iraqi “government” of technocrats (without Chalabi) seems to have been the straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back. Still, Chalabi could, Collier suggests, “seriously disrupt American plans for turning over nominal sovereignty to a new Iraqi government on June 30.” Andrew Cockburn in the Los Angeles Times recently pointed out that (Spurned by the U.S., Chalabi emerges as a Shiite firebrand):
“Less publicly, [Chalabi] has been putting together a sectarian Shiite bloc with the aim of immediately destabilizing whatever arrangement Brahimi unveils in 10 days’ time.”
In any case, having financed Chalabi to the tune of nearly $40 million, the Bush administration finally cut off his allowance this week; then his offices were ransacked; and, on the heels of that, he and his followers were accused of turning crucial and secret American intelligence information over to the Iranians. According to Knut Royce of Newsday (Iran used Chalabi to dupe U.S., report says), the Defense Intelligence Agency made this claim, implicitly suggesting that the Iraqi war was actually an Iranian disinformation plot via Chalabi to dupe the Bush administration into getting rid of Saddam Hussein.
Now, let’s return to the subject of denials for a moment. Keep in mind that there is no Iraqi government, and that the Iraqi Governing Council actually denounced the raid on Chalabi; then consider American denials about the raid. These had the air of high – or low – comedy (Iraqis and G.I.’s Raid the Offices of an Ex-Favorite):
“American officials scrambled to portray the raid as having been initiated and directed by the Iraqis alone. Mr. Bremer’s chief spokesman, Dan Senor, deflected questions about the raid, saying all questions should be directed to the Iraqi police.
“‘We really don’t have anything to do with the investigation or the arrests,’ Mr. Senor told reporters. He said Mr. Bremer had referred the case to the Iraqi Central Criminal Court for investigation several months ago. But he said Mr. Bremer had not been informed of the raid beforehand.”
Similar comments came from other high officials (of which the only plausible one may be Donald Rumsfeld’s, see below). This is splendid stuff — and if you believe a word of it, then meet me in the desert near Roswell, New Mexico. I have a genuine flying saucer to sell you.
A comment on the raid itself: The consistency of the Bush administration is certainly to be admired. Brute force wielded by the Earth’s only military power was elevated to a first principle back in 2002, and whether in downtown Falluja or downtown Karbala (where whole blocks of the city are now reportedly in ruins), a small village near the Syrian border or Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib or Chalabi’s headquarters, force is the method of choice. The overuse of fire power, you might call it. Never the polite knock on the door when the boot or battering ram is an available option.
Here, for instance, is the sort of threat that preceded the Chalabi raid; you remember, the one that no one in power in Washington or Baghdad even knew was going to happen. According to Washington Post columnist Jim Hoagland, the following “admonition” (a kindly word for it) was passed on “by a senior U.S. official to a friend of the once-and-future Iraqi dissident: ‘We can bring the full force of U.S. power to bear against him. He should not forget that.'” Well, when they mean force, they mean force (just as when the President says what he means — and he means force — he means what he says, and he means it forcefully).
To try to put this “raid” into some kind of context: Chalabi was so close to the neocon civilians under Rumsfeld at the Pentagon, to the vice-president’s office, and to Richard Perle, the erstwhile prince of the Defense Policy Board, that I think we have to assume this was one stop short of the sacking of, say, Paul Wolfowitz’s office. In fact, if I were him or his compatriot Douglas Feith (referred to by Centcom commander Tommy Frank, according to Bob Woodward, as ”the f—ing stupidest guy on the face of the earth” ), I might be doing an Ollie North and hitting the shredder right now. I think we can at least take this as evidence that a larger revolt is underway inside Washington’s Green Zone. The question in Baghdad or Washington by, say, October may be: Who will be the last man standing?
But let me take a diversionary path, for a moment, one that leads right down that old memory hole. I noticed that the New York Times had quite a good lead editorial Friday about the Chalabi raid, entitled Friends Like This, ridiculing the administration “denials,” and so on. It also had the following line: “The Bush administration should have known what it was doing when it gave enormous credence to a questionable character whose own self-interest was totally invested in getting the Americans to invade Iraq.” This is about as close as the imperial paper of record is ever likely to come to a mea culpa about its own (mis)use of Chalabi — who, as a source, slipped crucial misinformation to reporter Judith Miller which was front-paged by the Times, then picked up and used by the administration as part of its propaganda campaign. A paper like the Times has its own form of deniability and, as William E. Jackson Jr. point out in this week’s Editor & Publisher magazine on-line, has never reconsidered its prewar moment in the desert sun. (At the end of this busy week, by the way, I notice that the paper’s ombudsman has given over his Sunday column to a letter of response to a previous column he wrote on the paper’s coverage of the Tony Awards. My comment: no comment.)
One more small divergent path on our way nowhere in particular. Historian Lloyd Gardner, author of Pay Any Price: Lyndon Johnson and the Wars for Vietnam, offers the following instant and interesting post-raid thoughts which fall into the category — Vietnam analogy:
“Well, the story plays out like sitting through a movie twice, only the names change. Chalabi is the new Diem. The parallels are almost perfect. Both are exiles from a despised dictatorship; both are boosted by connections with key players in American politics. Diem is put in power, and then, as J.F. Dulles says, refuses to listen to his American mentors, and follows a disastrous path. Chalabi never quite gets to power, but he has a 300 k a month subsidy for a couple of years, and is seated on the Iraqi (read American) Governing Council. Diem defies the Americans and is gotten rid of; Chalabi defies the Americans and is gotten rid of. Edward Lansdale mourns his loss as the man who helped him to power. Richard Perle mourns Chalabi’s loss, and wonders where it will lead.
“The main difference, I guess, is that we headed off Chalabi before he could become a full-term Diem. Interesting also that [John] Negroponte [the newly appointed ambassador] was in Vietnam in the 1960s, and now he is going to Iraq. Maybe he had some role in the turn-about?”
Why have the newspapers and TV news opened the floodgates this way on the spreading Abu Ghraib scandal? There’s a question to ask yourself as you slog through daily four-page sections of news about the latest photos, the latest charges, the latest ramifications. Where there was next to nothing, now there’s complete glut (if not pattern) – and that seems a rather familiar pattern in itself. You could, of course, say that the photos did it, but that hardly seems sufficient. In its coverage, the press is generally agreeable to moving either to the edge of where the mainstream of the oppositional party is willing to go or to wherever intra-bureaucratic and intra-governmental in-fighting will allow it to take cover. In this case, the mainstream of the Democratic Party remains largely nowhere at all. Insurgent Republicans in Congress — John McCain, Lindsey Graham, Richard Lugar, to name but three — have been doing much of the heavy lifting lately.
When it comes to infighting, however, that’s quite another matter. After three years of muttering and misery, it looks like a near insurgency has broken out in various parts of the government previously swept aside by this administration, including the military itself, and the press is feeding off it — starting with the striking New Yorker pieces by Seymour Hersh that forced the Abu Ghraib scandal into the open.
Tom Lewis, a former New York State speechwriter, politico, and generally smart guy sent the following summary of the present situation out to his own private e-list:
“Hersh’s [most recent New Yorker] piece is a drive-by on [Secretary of Defense] Rumsfeld sourced by the Agency [the CIA] and this stuff is starting to stick. The Agency would not take on Rumsfeld so openly if they weren’t talking to their allies in Congress. Tenet comes from the Congress. The Republicans in Congress are getting very nervous. They’re hearing from their constituents and local Republicans who are saying, “Shut this thing down, it’s going to kill us in November.” Some of the House and Senate races the RNC [Republican National Committee] thought were a lock are starting to loosen up. Two of the five seats DeLay stole from the Democrats in Texas are now in play. Kerry is working to co-opt Nader. Buckle up.”
Given that people inside the government, even in moments like this, can seldom speak their opposition or anger publicly, you can sometimes catch the tone of the moment by turning to the retired, who generally hear from and can express the thoughts of those who would fear loss of job or influence. In this context, note that retired Marine General and former Centcom commander Gen. Anthony Zinni, who has been speaking out strongly since before the Iraq War, seems to be upping the ante again on 60 Minutes. He’s “accusing top Pentagon officials of ‘dereliction of duty’… [he] says staying the course in Iraq isn’t a reasonable option. ‘The course is headed over Niagara Falls. I think it’s time to change course a little bit or at least hold somebody responsible for putting you on this course.'”
That’s reasonably typical of some other semi-private comments I’ve seen lately. In the meantime, the Chalabi raid seems to have touched off veritable celebrations in the intelligence community and the State Department about the potential fall from grace of Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld and the neocons lodged in the Pentagon and the vice-president’s office. So report Julian Coman and Philip Sherwell of the British Telegraph. Some time back, Bob Blackwill of the National Security Council, who evidently represents the power brokers of the elder Bush’s years, took over coordinating policy in Baghdad and holding Lakdar Brahimi’s hand there. Now, Coman and Sherwell comment (The revenge of the CIA):
“The Chalabi raid is another blow and another cue for Mr Rumsfeld’s enemies to go on the attack… The Sunday Telegraph has learnt that the Pentagon was not even consulted by the top US civilian in Iraq, Mr Bremer, before last week’s raid on the home of its former protégé, although a meeting was held involving both State Department officials and the National Security Council.
“Earlier in the week, Mr Rumsfeld had seemed unaware that INC funding of $335,000 per month from Congress was to be cut off… Infighting over Iraq within the Bush administration and on Capitol Hill has reached such a pitch and ferocity that, according to one official within the Coalition Provisional Authority, Washington DC is now referred to as ‘Sunni Triangle, West’… From the State Department in Foggy Bottom, to CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, lengthy briefings are being granted. Rivals, particularly if they work at the Pentagon, are being ruthlessly disparaged.”
Philip Sieff, a reliable UPI analyst, puts the present situation in this way (Army, CIA want torture truths exposed):
“Over the past weekend and into this week, devastating new allegations have emerged putting Stephen Cambone, the first Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence, firmly in the crosshairs and bringing a new wave of allegations cascading down on the head of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, when he scarcely had time to catch his breath from the previous ones. Even worse for Rumsfeld and his coterie of neo-conservative true believers who have run the Pentagon for the past 3½ years, three major institutions in the Washington power structure have decided that after almost a full presidential term of being treated with contempt and abuse by them, it’s payback time.
“Those three institutions are: The United States Army, the Central Intelligence Agency and the old, relatively moderate but highly experienced Republican leadership in the United States Senate. None of those groups is chopped liver: Taken together they comprise a devastating Grand Slam… Yet Rumsfeld and his lieutenants remain determined to hang on to power, and so far President Bush has shown every sign of wanting to keep them there. The scandal, therefore, is far from over. The revelations will continue. The cost of the abuses to the American people and the U.S. national interest is already incalculable: And there is no end in sight.”
Pictures from an Exhibition
Fed by anger, disgust, and a desire for revenge inside the military and intelligence communities as well as by the “amateurs” with cameras now charged with crimes, the Abu Ghraib torture scandal is spreading directly to the ears of reporters suddenly competing to break such stories. In recent days, the New York Times has, for instance, been tracing the origins of our torture system back to Afghanistan and directly to crimes that go far beyond “humiliation” and sexual assault, just as it has finally been documenting, as a recent headline put the matter, ways “Justice Memos Explained How to Skip Prisoner Rights.” These memos, by the way, also “anticipated the possibility that United States officials could be charged with war crimes defined as grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions,” an admission in itself that people high in government knew exactly what was at stake in the system they were creating.
The results can now be seen clearly enough — and not just in Abu Ghraib either. Miles Moffeit of the Denver Post reported this week on a series of grim deaths via “interrogation” in our detention centers in Iraq (Brutal interrogation in Iraq), including that of
“a high-level Iraqi general who was shoved into a sleeping bag and suffocated, according to the Pentagon report… Another Iraqi military officer, records show, was asphyxiated after being gagged, his hands tied to the top of his cell door. Another detainee died ‘while undergoing stress technique interrogation,’ involving smothering and ‘chest compressions,’ according to the documents… ‘Torture is the only thing you can call this,’ said a Pentagon source with knowledge of internal investigations into prisoner abuses. ‘There is a lot about our country’s interrogation techniques that is very troubling. These are violations of military law.'”
Sunday, the Washington Post broke a story on the possibility that Gen. Sanchez, the commander of American forces in Iraq, witnessed the “interrogation techniques” in practice at Abu Ghraib firsthand (Prison Visits By General Reported In Hearing):
“A military lawyer… Capt. Robert Shuck, said he was told that Army Lt. Gen. Ricardo S. Sanchez and other senior military officers were aware of what was taking place on Tier 1A of Abu Ghraib. Shuck is assigned to defend Staff Sgt. Ivan L. ‘Chip’ Frederick II of the 372nd Military Police Company. During an April 2 hearing that was open to the public, Shuck said the company commander, Capt. Donald J. Reese, was prepared to testify in exchange for immunity. The military prosecutor questioned Shuck about what Reese would say under oath.
“‘Are you saying that Captain Reese is going to testify that General Sanchez was there and saw this going on?’ asked Capt. John McCabe, the military prosecutor.
“‘That’s what he told me,’ Shuck said. ‘I am an officer of the court, sir, and I would not lie. I have got two children at home. I’m not going to risk my career.'”
Whether this particular charge proves true or not, evidence is pilling up on the consistency of American practice from the highest reaches of government to the streets of Iraq. This was, in short, a single global system in formation. From late 2001 on, great effort was put into how to create a system of information extraction and eternal imprisonment that would be beyond the reach of, or oversight of anyone (other than the top officials creating it), effort that led directly to the door-to-door activities of our troops fighting on the “central front” of a holy war against Terrorism and al-Qaeda.
Here, for instance, is a long passage from a section of a Red Cross report produced last February “on the Treatment by the Coalition Forces of Prisoners of War and Other Protected Persons by the Geneva Conventions in Iraq During Arrest, Internment and Interrogation.” The passage, cited by Mark Danner in a strong New York Review of Books piece called Torture and Truth, comes from “one of the less lurid sections of the Red Cross report, entitled ‘Treatment During Arrest,’ in which the anonymous authors tell how Iraqis they’d interviewed described ‘a fairly consistent pattern… of brutality by members of the [Coalition Forces] arresting them'”:
“Arresting authorities entered houses usually after dark, breaking down doors, waking up residents roughly, yelling orders, forcing family members into one room under military guard while searching the rest of the house and further breaking doors, cabinets and other property. They arrested suspects, tying their hands in the back with flexi-cuffs, hooding them, and taking them away. Sometimes they arrested all adult males present in a house, including elderly, handicapped or sick people…pushing people around, insulting, taking aim with rifles, punching and kicking and striking with rifles… In almost all instances…, arresting authorities provided no in formation about who they were, where their base was located, nor did they explain the cause of arrest. Similarly, they rarely informed the arrestee or his family where he was being taken and for how long, resulting in the de facto ‘disappearance’ of the arrestee…. Many [families] were left without news for months, often fearing that their relatives were dead.”
Danner, who in the Age of Reagan spent time as a reporter in Central America where “disappearance” was a commonplace horror, adds, “We might pass over with a shiver the word ‘disappearance…'”
Of course, much of our press is now galloping off in search of high level “smoking guns” and “clear evidence” of official complicity in ordering “abuse” and “humiliation” (terms that tend to replace “torture” in our lexicon). But, as Adam Hochschild comments in a striking piece on torture and language on the New York Times op-ed page today (What’s in a Word? Torture), “In any bureaucracy, orders or clearance to do something beyond the law always comes in code. For those in senior positions, deniability is vital.”
The language of those who made our torture system naturally tended toward anodyne phrases which are slowly seeping into our press and so our lives. Hochschild, for instance, discusses “sleep management” (one of about 20 “techniques” approved for possible use in Guantanamo at the highest levels of the Pentagon and the Justice Department) this way:
“This apparently benign term — doctors use it in discussing insomnia — disguises a form of torture that has long been popular because it requires no special equipment and leaves no marks on the body. Widely used in the Middle Ages on suspected witches by inquisitors, it was called the tormentum insomniae. Hundreds of years later, in the interrogation rooms of Stalin’s secret police, it was known as the ‘conveyor belt,’ because relays of interrogators would question a prisoner, day and night, until he or she signed the desired statement and named enough co-conspirators. After being kept awake for a hundred hours or so, almost anybody will confess to almost anything, from flying through the night sky on a broomstick to being a capitalist spy.”
To give our imperial paper of record full credit today, the Times printed a second important piece — the single best discussion so far (and probably for a long time to come) on what to make of those Abu Ghraib photos — Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Torture of Others. She considers the strangeness of such atrocity photographs in the Jerry Springer years: “Where once photographing war was the province of photojournalists, now the soldiers themselves are all photographers — recording their war, their fun, their observations of what they find picturesque, their atrocities — and swapping images among themselves and e-mailing them around the globe.” Those photos represent, she tells us, “a shift in the use made of pictures — less objects to be saved than messages to be disseminated, circulated.” And she comments eerily: “There is the deep satisfaction of being photographed, to which one is now more inclined to respond not with a stiff, direct gaze (as in former times) but with glee. The events [at Abu Ghraib] are in part designed to be photographed. The grin is a grin for the camera. There would be something missing if, after stacking the naked men, you couldn’t take a picture of them.”
But most important — and hers is a piece you should read since I can’t really summarize it – she considers the way these snapshots demanded a kind of answer from this administration; the degree to which these instant images, passing soldier to soldier via Internet cafes and then being sent off into the ether, managed to challenge a series of images Bush and his men had spent multimillions on and imagined as permanent. “This damage — to our reputation, our image, our success as the lone superpower — is what the Bush administration principally deplores. How the protection of ‘our freedom’ — the freedom of 5 percent of humanity — came to require having American soldiers ‘across the globe’ is hardly debated by our elected officials.”
No wonder the President’s speech tomorrow on Iraq is already being billed on the TV news as “damage control.” If you want to do a small thought experiment by the way, try to take yourself back to our last Super Bowl halftime and the uproar over another oddly staged event, the revealing of Janet Jackson’s nipple.
Conservatives in and allied to the administration went crazy. I wonder where they are now that any child in America can see scenes that might once have stunned the Marquis de Sade on the front page of the local paper or repeatedly on the nightly TV news.
Gallery of fruitcakes and nuts (Crusader division)
I’m still waiting for the denial on this one. Rick Perlstein reports in the Village Voice that the National Security Council’s top Middle Eastern aide, Elliot Abrams, spent a couple of hours assuaging the representatives of an apocalyptic Christian Fundamentalist group (“whose representative in Israel believed herself to have been attacked by witchcraft unleashed by proximity to a volume of Harry Potter”) on American Middle Eastern policy. Perlstein reports on the basis of a leaked email that (The Jesus Landing Pad):
“NSC Near East and North African Affairs director Elliott Abrams [sat] down with the Apostolic Congress and massag[ed] their theological concerns. Claiming to be ‘the Christian Voice in the Nation’s Capital,’ the members vociferously oppose the idea of a Palestinian state. They fear an Israeli withdrawal from Gaza might enable just that, and they object on the grounds that all of Old Testament Israel belongs to the Jews. Until Israel is intact and David’s temple rebuilt, they believe, Christ won’t come back to earth.
“Abrams attempted to assuage their concerns by stating that ‘the Gaza Strip had no significant Biblical influence such as Joseph’s tomb or Rachel’s tomb and therefore is a piece of land that can be sacrificed for the cause of peace.’
“Three weeks after the confab, President George W. Bush reversed long-standing U.S. policy, endorsing Israeli sovereignty over parts of the West Bank in exchange for Israel’s disengagement from the Gaza Strip.”
This is, of course, the administration that won’t even talk to Yasser Arafat and whose President can hardly bear to sit in the same room with the heads of France or Germany. (Rumor has it he recently had to be convinced that, during the upcoming World War II celebrations in France, he couldn’t skip a meal in the company of French host Jacques Chirac.)
To put this in perspective, we now know that Abrams met with another fundamentalist — Ariel Sharon — in Rome last November and evidently assured him that his “plan” for a Greater Israel (minus Gaza) would in the end pass muster at the White House.
And while I’m at it, do you remember Lt. Gen. William Boykin, military aide to the Pentagon’s Stephen Cambrone? Boykin got in trouble a while back for riding the evangelical range, talking down Islam and talking up our President (“”George Bush was not elected by a majority of the voters in the US. He was appointed by God.”) As it happens, in return for his sins, he was put in charge of the hunt for Osama bin Laden (with results we all know, despite supernatural help).
Well, it turns out that for his foolishness he was finally sent to prison. Abu Ghraib to be exact. Sidney Blumenthal reports in the British Guardian that in the uproar that followed his incendiary remarks:
“Donald Rumsfeld, the defense secretary, explained that Boykin was exercising his rights as a citizen: “We’re a free people.” President Bush declared that Boykin “doesn’t reflect my point of view or the point of view of this administration”. Bush’s commission on public diplomacy had reported that in nine Muslim countries, just 12% believed that “Americans respect Arab/Islamic values”. The Pentagon announced that its inspector general would investigate Boykin, though he has yet to report.
“Boykin was not removed or transferred. At that moment, he was at the heart of a secret operation to “Gitmo-ize” (Guantánamo is known in the US as Gitmo) the Abu Ghraib prison. He had flown to Guantánamo, where he met Major General Geoffrey Miller, in charge of Camp X-Ray. Boykin ordered Miller to fly to Iraq and extend X-Ray methods to the prison system there, on Rumsfeld’s orders.”
Since Cambrone was one of the men — as Blumenthal points out — who tried to cut the CIA and the State Department out of the war on terror for Rumsfeld in order to achieve the vice-president’s and President’s desire for a war to take down Saddam; and Boykin stood at Cambrone’s side (and we know Who stood at Boykin’s side); and Boykin, in turn, stood at General Miller’s side; and Miller late last fall arrived at Abu Ghraib after a fruitful period as head of Gitmo, organizing it to be our own Devil’s Island, determined to regularize the rest of our offshore mini-gulag (he later inherited the Iraq part of the job officially) and create a far more efficient information-extraction operation… well, we have a chain of something here that leads right down to the “amateurs” in Abu Ghraib’s Tier 1 snapping those pictures and having a blast, and all the way back up to the President’s office and, if you choose to believe “Jerry” Boykin… possibly Beyond. You could say that the result has been an ungodly mess, or a global torture machine, or a way of loosing the worst mixture of the pornographic and the pain-inflicting mentality of our age on another people, or… well, there are a lot of things you could say and none of them are especially pretty and all of them, if we were a country the size of, say, Serbia, would undoubtedly leave our leaders in the dock for a very ugly series of trials.
Oh and by the way, just to make another link or two, and because I wouldn’t want you to forget: Guess who built Gitmo’s “cages” for $52 million? Hmmm, there’s a tough one. The clock’s ticking. Okay, you got it: Halliburton’s KBR subsidiary got that contract (like most of the other ones out there). And I have no doubt that the former company of our vice-president, which has made out like a bandit in the “war on terror,” built those cages to some specifications which might be interesting to see one day.
And here’s another afterthought: Remember back when the International Criminal Court was coming into being and the Bush administration launched a veritable diplomatic war, replete with threats and arm twisting, country by country across the globe, to ensure that no American could ever be brought before the ICC? Now, the desperation of the effort makes more sense, doesn’t it? And here are two little attached ironies. We’ve just returned to the UN to insist on a new Security Council resolution aimed at “exempting our military from prosecution for war crimes when they serve in any U.N. peacekeeping operations” and, reports the British Observer today, “British and American troops are to be granted immunity from prosecution in Iraq after the crucial 30 June handover…They will only be subject to the domestic law of their home countries. Military sources have told The Observer that the question of immunity was central to obtaining military agreement on a new United Nations resolution on Iraq to be published by the middle of next month.”
You know, it all makes a kind of sense really. But then again systems are like that.
Additional dispatches from Tom Engelhardt can be read throughout the week at TomDispatch.com, a web log of The Nation Institute.