2008 08 09
Recently read: “The Dark Side”

Jane Mayer. The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned into a War on American Ideals

After the scandal of Abu Grieb, the Bush administration insisted that the torture and abuse of detainees had been the work of a few bad apples. But of course the abuse was only a manifestation of a much deeper rot, for which top officials bore primary responsibility. I’ve sometimes had the impression of similar excuse-making in the attitudes of even some of the fiercest critics of the Bush administration, in the claim that the Bush administration represents a radical and unprecedented break with the past. It strikes me as naive to depict the Bush administration as a few bad apples, in an otherwise upright tradition legal and ethical conduct. On the contrary, the Bush administration seems to me part of a larger moral and legal rot that is systemic, and has unfortunately deep roots in American political culture (alongside much more admirable tendencies and traditions).

Jane Meyer’s new book The Dark Side has helped me to reflect on, and to a certain extent, modify, these assumptions. Mayer is familiar with the Church Committee, and with past American abuses of power. She doesn’t base her argument for a significant break with the past on what the Bush administration has done so much as on the legal arguments that the administration has advanced, most often in secrecy, to defend and support its policies. Much of this is new, and its long-term consequences are likely to be wretched.

A great deal of the action in Mayer’s book is, for this reason, legal. The new legal doctrines advanced by David Addington, Cheney’s legal counsel for the period covered by the book, and John Yoo, among others, were fiercely resisted by other lawyers in the administration. Meyer meticulously details the legal arguments and maneuvers used by various parties to this debate against the background of events in the so-called War on Terror.

Mayer book is, as far as I can tell, balanced, careful, and accurate, while rarely engaging in the pointless he-said/she-said style of reporting that so many journalists use to avoid the implications of their reporting. When an official lies, she points it out, clearly and unequivocally. A book like this is difficult to ignore, if you care at all about moral and legal issues surrounding torture and the Bush administration’s policies. If even a quarter of the book is accurate, the United States would only need to be a country serious about following its own laws for hundreds of people, from the President on down, to be put on trial for torture and other serious crimes.

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2007 10 31

Two quick points about Mukasey:

First, the Senate must vote against confirmation. A vote to confirm a liar who is clearly unwilling to enforce the country’s laws and international commitments guarantees more of the same rotten behaviour that got the U.S. in the trouble it’s in today. No deal the Democrats cut now and no private assurances that they’re given will change that.

Second, you just know that some Democrats will want to back down on this because they’re afraid of the way the issue will be framed: that they’re weak on national security. Let me just point out that there is nothing weaker than constantly fretting about the perception of weakness. Republicans will try to frame the issue this way no matter what, so the way to respond is not to capitulate again and again and again, but rather to loudly insist on reframing the issue. How about: “We’ll confirm the first candidate Bush nominates who is actually willing to enforce U.S. law.” How about: “Mukasey is clearly lying, and experience has taught us that we can’t have a proper working relationship with an A.G. who lies to Congress.” Let Bush nominate someone else. I’m sure that person might be worse than Mukasey. Reject that person too. Make clear that candidates for A.G. will be rejected – every fucking last one of them – until Bush proposes someone willing to enforce the laws of the country. That’s how you win a fight and reframe an issue.

Howls of outrage (2)

2007 02 02
Leahy meets Gonzales to learn super top secret information demonstrating Arar’s terrible terrorizing terror plans

And comes away underwhelmed, as predicted.

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2007 01 30
Arar, again

This piece by Dahlia Lithwick makes it sound as if the Bush administration has taken the stand it has on the Arar case because it doesn’t like admitting mistakes. But my understanding is that whatever official made the decision to have Arar sent to Syria broke U.S. law in doing so. If the United States applied its own laws to its own government officials, then someone – probably someone high up – would be in serious trouble. There’s not much chance of that happening, of course, but that’s a much better reason to try to avoid discussing the case than simply wanting the better of an argument. If I’m wrong about that, please do let me know in the comments.

By the way, in the video linked to in the last post, Gonzales has this little smirk on his face, as if to say, “Oh you better be careful not to walk too far out on the plank on this one. I know something you don’t. Arar is a nasty fellow.” Now it’s doubtful that Gonzales will tell Leahy more than the Canadian government already knows, and the Canadian government is convinced of Arar’s innocence. But suppose for a moment that Arar is one violent little jihadist, masquerading as a mild-mannered computer programmer. My understanding, again, is that sending him to Syria knowing full well that he would be tortured was against U.S. law. In other words, Gonzales should really just go fuck himself.

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2007 01 30
Leahy and Gonzales on Arar

About halfway through this video Leahy gets really pissed off.

You know, I really appreciate what Leahy says here. It speaks well of him, and anyone who voted for him, and anyone who supports him.

Howls of outrage (3)

2007 01 26
Arar apology and settlement

Stephen says sorry:

Prime Minister Stephen Harper offered a formal apology and a compensation package to Maher Arar and his family on Friday for the “terrible ordeal” they suffered after Arar spent nearly a year in a Syrian jail.

“On behalf of the government of Canada, I wish to apologize to you…and your family for any role Canadian officials may have played in the terrible ordeal that all of you experienced in 2002 and 2003,” Harper said.

“I sincerely hope that these words and actions will assist you and your family in your efforts to begin a new and hopeful chapter in your lives,” he said.

Harper, who made the announcement in the foyer of the House of Commons in Ottawa, said the settlement negotiated with Arar includes $10.5 million for pain and suffering along with an estimated $2 million for legal fees.

Most well-informed Americans know about the Arar case, but I doubt that very many people among even this small cross-section of American public opinion know what a huge deal the Arar case is up in Canada. It’s just all over the news, all the time. There was a scandal, a major inquiry, a series of closely followed (fruitless) negotiations and briefings with U.S. counterparts, and now this. So it’s constantly in the news, and opinion is pretty solidly unanimous that it is a bad thing that the U.S. government abducted a Canadian citizen and deliberately sent him off to be tortured in Syria.

The U.S. continues to insist that Arar is guilty of some unspecified crimes, but also claims that it can’t publicly reveal its reasons for thinking this. Given that the main reason seems to be a desire to avoid admitting that they cheerfully enabled the torture of an innocent Canadian citizen, given that they are sociopaths who lie and lie repeatedly about these and related matters, given that being an accessory to torture in this way is technically a crime according to U.S. law, as well as international law . . . well, given all these things, no one believes the U.S. government’s claims about Arar. And indeed, when U.S. officials briefed the Canadian government privately on its Arar file, the Canadian side came away distinctly underwhelmed by the quality of the evidence. And just to give you an idea of where the Canadian government is coming from on this, we’re talking about a Conservative government, that is, a bunch of people who would just love to get cosy with the U.S. on all kinds of issues, and would surely back down on this issue if it were at all possible. (To give you an idea of the ethos of the government, the Prime Minister praised Israel’s “moderation” during the recent Israel-Lebanon fighting.)

My dear American friends, this matters. This really matters to us. Canada is, as you so often remind me, an insignificant country. But we do what we can to help – for example, in Southern Afghanistan now, where Canadian soldiers are fighting and dying in an offensive against the Taliban – and occasionally we can offer resources, diplomatic support, credibility, and so on. When you fuck with us in this way, it makes it harder to cooperate with you in other constructive ways that figure into the larger effort to protect ourselves. And in the end, even setting aside moral objections to torture, that ought to matter to you.

A single voice crying in the wilderness (1)

2006 02 22
Just what are you trying to hide?

Posted by in: Political issues, Torture

I recently read an Athenian court speech traditionally attributed to Antiphon (second half of the 5th Century B.C.). In the Loeb translation, it’s called “Prosecution of the Stepmother for Poisoning.” I won’t bother you with the details of the case. Basically, the stepson who is bringing the action against his stepmother has a pretty flimsy case resting on a few sketchy circumstantial details. This forces him back on appeals to probability. And so the speaker returns several times to what he clearly considers the most damning detail: the refusal of the stepmother to simply allow her slaves, who would be in a position to know the truth, to be questioned under torture. Since it’s obvious this would yield the truth, and it’s obviously no trouble to the stepmother, he clearly feels that the refusal to do so is tantamount to an admission of guilt.

But, commenter DC will surely ask, what does this have to do with the Bush administration? Not much, except that I was naturally led to reflect on whether, allowing for different attitudes towards slaves, the Bush administration and its defenders had yet taken this particular line with anyone. Answer: Not yet, as far as I know, but since the Bush administration’s attitude to a slippery slope always seems to be to slap on skis, I wonder if it’s only a matter of time.

(Find other fun cases here.)

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2005 10 06
Let’s just remember…

Posted by in: Torture

…in the midst of all this sanctimony by Republicans concerning the outlawing of torture, that neither McCain, nor any other Republican, voted against the TortureMeister, Alberto Gonzales, for Attorney General.

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2005 09 17
Well, this sucks

Evidence Grows That Canada Aided in Having Terrorism Suspects Interrogated in Syria. And from the sounds of it, a better headline might have been “Evidence Grows That Canada Colluded in Torture of Canadian Citizen.”

Which laws does this break, and when can I expect to see charges brought against the people who broke them?

Howls of outrage (2)

2005 07 09
NYT: At least it’s not ‘He said’/’She said’ anymore…

Posted by in: Political issues, Torture

It’s now become just “He said”. Check out the contrast between these two articles. (Go look for yourself, if you think my editing might be tendentious.) U.S. Is Found Lacking in Detainee Care Plans — WaPo:

Defense Department officials failed to adequately plan for the medical care of detainees captured during the Iraq war, causing some medical personnel to reuse needles and other medical supplies and leaving them without guidance on how detainees should be treated, according to an Army surgeon general’s report released yesterday.

In his Thursday briefing, Kiley also praised the U.S. military’s worldwide care of detainees.

But Kiley did not mention that his office’s inquiry found serious flaws with the early stages of detainee health care in Iraq and Afghanistan. The report details dozens of alleged cases of abuse, lack of care or questionable collaboration between medical personnel and interrogators who were working to extract information.

The report plainly states that…

Some medical personnel reported that a lack of supplies…according to one interview cited in the report. Another person reported that doctors were allowed to use only one pair of gloves per day…

The report also details alleged abuses.

Others reported soldiers keeping psychotic detainees in hot metal containers as temperatures rose past 130 degrees, leaving them to sit on their urine and feces. Nurses in Balad, another military base in Iraq, reported that between August 2003 and February 2004, the staff purposely fed detainees meals-ready-to-eat that contained pork products, in violation of Muslim dietary rules. The “practice” was reported to the chain of command, according to the report, and was stopped.

In another, previously alleged by a detainee, “a female interrogator took off her [uniform] jacket, rubbed her breasts against the body of a detainee being interrogated, sat on his lap, and whispered in his ear.” According to the report, the interrogation was stopped and the interrogator’s actions were reported to superiors.

Now check out the New York Times’s coverage: Army Finds Few Lapses in Health Care of Prisoners:

An Army assessment has found no evidence of systemic problems in medical care of prisoners at American detention centers in Iraq, Afghanistan and Cuba, Army officials said Thursday.

The review, however, was not intended to delve into accounts from some interrogators that military psychiatrists or psychologists at Guant�namo Bay, Cuba, provided advice on how to conduct coercive interrogations of detainees, Lt. Gen. Kevin C. Kiley, the Army surgeon general, said at a Pentagon news conference.

As such, the assessment, which included interviews with more than 1,000 military medical personnel, shed no new light on the conduct of doctors involved in interrogations…

General Kiley said that his reviewers interviewed 11 psychologists and psychiatrists who were serving as advisers on biscuit teams, but they had been asked only general questions about their roles.

“We did not get into a level of detail…” General Kiley said.

In 26 cases, medical personnel reported the incidents to their chain of command or Army investigators. In the other six cases, General Kiley said, “on-the-spot corrections” were made.

“We found no evidence of systemic problems in detainee medical care,” General Kiley said.

General Kiley said those interviewed were drawn from 180 medical units that dealt with detainee health care. He said there had been about 20,000 medical personnel involved…

He said the assessment…

Some of the assessment’s findings conflicted with the accounts of some former interrogators. General Kiley, for instance, said

We found no evidence that there was a passing of clinical information that would be used in a detrimental way to torture,” he said.

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2005 06 21
On the back it probably says “I helped lose the war of ideas!”

“I [heart] Gitmo” t-shirts.

Via everyone’s favourite torture apologists.

A single voice crying in the wilderness (1)

2005 06 15

I suppose you could say a lot about a piece of stupidity like this. I’ll just limit myself to a modest point: Notice that it doesn’t occur to the author of the piece that anyone held at Guantanamo, or anywhere else, might actually be innocent. In order to really work yourself into a lather about the deplorably soft treatment of detainees, it helps to pass over the fact that many detainees were captured on the flimsiest evidence, by people who are hardly infallible. Nor have they been given a proper chance to contest their captivity – a situation which raises an epistemological problem for us, as well as a question of procedural justice for them. So many of them are sure to be innocent. But whenever I cruise around the moronosphere I see people either completely passing over this point, or (very) briefly acknowledging it before going on to completely disregard it in the rest of the argument.

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2005 06 08

Just for the record, I wish that Amnesty International hadn’t used the word “gulag” recently in criticizing the U.S.’s detention and extraordinary rendition practices. It’s not a helpful comparison. It’s not crucial to the good work the organization does publicizing the truth. And it’s allowed apologists for torture to distract attention from the main issue.

A lot of liberal/left bloggers are busy now pointing out that most of the people making these points are apologists for the Bush administration. And so they are. Indeed, it is not hard to make fun of these raving fuckwits. But I am not a raving fuckwit (you have to imagine me saying this in a Nixon voice), and I hope that a quick perusal of my archives will establish that I’m not a supporter of the Bush administration. And yet I’m still pretty sure that using the word “gulag” was a mistake. It’s not the kind of mistake you’d want to devote a new cycle to, or that you’d want to make the focus of all the coverage of this issue. But I do think it is a mistake worth briefly acknowledging before we return to our regularly scheduled horror at what America has become, and is becoming.

Howls of outrage (3)

2005 05 31
Bush and the Amnesty Report

I see that Bush apparently doesn’t think much of the recent Amnesty Report blasting his administration for Guantanamo, etc. etc. etc. Not too long ago, Timothy Burke wrote a very nice post on a relatively neglected aspect of the larger debate about torture and abuse. It’s unfortunate that Bush doesn’t understand the main point Burke makes there.

Update: Ah, and if there’s anything to this, then it’s an even greater shame that Bush doesn’t get Burke’s point.

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2005 04 13
No, No; I said, “Torture.”

Posted by in: Political issues, Torture

David A. Passaro is “the sole CIA worker to be indicted publicly as the result of a detainee’s death in the war on terrorism.” He is accused of killing Abdul Wali with “with his hands, feet and a dangerous weapon — a flashlight.” In his defense his lawyer “cited an August 2002 Justice Department memo that concluded ‘a defendant who had acted pursuant to an exercise of the President’s constitutional powers’ in conducting an interrogation could not be criminally prosecuted.” We all know about those Justice Department memos that argued that there are no Constitutional or Congressional limitations of the President’s power when he acts in his “Commander-in-Chief” capacity.

So what does the government have to say in response to Passaro’s defense strategy?

[T]he government, in a pleading first unsealed yesterday, said the memo dealt with torture and “expressed no opinion” about federal statutes prohibiting murder or assault.

A single voice crying in the wilderness (1)