Barton Gellman’s Washington Post review of
David Ron Suskind’s new book, “The One Percent Doctrine,” makes it clear who we have to thank for the nation’s new torture policy: George W. Bush himself. The revealing anecdote concerns the much-touted capture of Abu Zubaydah, whom Bush himself touted as “one of the top operatives plotting and planning death and destruction on the United States” — a statement made two weeks after being briefed that this was not in fact the case. Bush’s reaction? Let’s torture the guy to see if he’ll live up to his billing.
Abu Zubaydah, his captors discovered, turned out to be mentally ill and nothing like the pivotal figure they supposed him to be. CIA and FBI analysts, poring over a diary he kept for more than a decade, found entries “in the voice of three people: Hani 1, Hani 2, and Hani 3” — a boy, a young man and a middle-aged alter ego. All three recorded in numbing detail “what people ate, or wore, or trifling things they said.” Dan Coleman, then the FBI’s top al-Qaeda analyst, told a senior bureau official, “This guy is insane, certifiable, split personality.”
Abu Zubaydah also appeared to know nothing about terrorist operations; rather, he was al-Qaeda’s go-to guy for minor logistics — travel for wives and children and the like. That judgment was “echoed at the top of CIA and was, of course, briefed to the President and Vice President,” Suskind writes. And yet somehow, in a speech delivered two weeks later, President Bush portrayed Abu Zubaydah as “one of the top operatives plotting and planning death and destruction on the United States.” And over the months to come, under White House and Justice Department direction, the CIA would make him its first test subject for harsh interrogation techniques.
“I said he was important,” Bush reportedly told Tenet at one of their daily meetings. “You’re not going to let me lose face on this, are you?” “No sir, Mr. President,” Tenet replied. Bush “was fixated on how to get Zubaydah to tell us the truth,” Suskind writes, and he asked one briefer, “Do some of these harsh methods really work?” Interrogators did their best to find out, Suskind reports. They strapped Abu Zubaydah to a water-board, which reproduces the agony of drowning. They threatened him with certain death. They withheld medication. They bombarded him with deafening noise and harsh lights, depriving him of sleep. Under that duress, he began to speak of plots of every variety — against shopping malls, banks, supermarkets, water systems, nuclear plants, apartment buildings, the Brooklyn Bridge, the Statue of Liberty. With each new tale, “thousands of uniformed men and women raced in a panic to each . . . target.” And so, Suskind writes, “the United States would torture a mentally disturbed man and then leap, screaming, at every word he uttered.”
In addition to confirming what we already knew — Bush lies to us — we learn several important things from this story:
- Allowing the US government to hold prisoners — any prisoners — abroad, outside the easy reach of US courts and due process, is an invitation to abuse. Only if they are POWs, enjoying the full protections of the Geneva Conventions, it is safe to allow our officials to house them in camps beyond our shores.
- Torture made us less secure, creating false alarms. After all, if you were being tortured wouldn’t you make stuff up to get them to stop?
- The participants in these atrocities followed orders — which came from the top, either directly or in the “will no one rid me of this troublesome priest” variety.
Impeachment, the nuclear bomb of politics, is a terrible idea, one which, whether it succeeded or failed, would be very bad for the country both in the short term (the kleptocratic wing of the GOP will fight it like a rat in a box) and in the long term (too many impeachment attempts in a short period of time make it seem too available). And were impeachment to succeed, it would only replace one bad man with another bad (worse?) man.
Yet, regrettably, the time has come where we must search our consciences and ask if any lesser remedy than impeachment can be sufficient for this sort of behavior. Is anything less a form of implicit complicity, or at least acquiescence? What is the right way to not just protest but punish torturing someone in order to justify lies told to the American public?
These are not meant as rhetorical questions. I do not claim to have the answers in my pocket. As a practical matter, impeachment, even the discussion of it, seems like stupid and impractical politics so long as the Republicans in Congress are able to turn away from what is being done in their, in our, name and either cheer it or reassure themselves that it’s not really their responsibility. Hoping that some level of atrocity might open finally open the incumbents’ eyes to what they have allowed certainly seems unrealistic. Therefore the right answer — to the extent morality is about practical outcomes rather than comfortable posturing — may be that to win as many congressional elections as possible and hope for some decent oversight in 2007. In the absence of candidates speaking out against torture, though, this seems an uncomfortably indirect approach.
What are we to do? Where is the national consensus against this sort of behavior?
Comments — in civil, measured tones please — welcomed.