The Fountainhead of Torture

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.

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20 Responses to The Fountainhead of Torture

  1. Gary Farber says:

    Impeachment is fine in theory, but in practice I don’t see the point of installing President Cheney (or even President Hastert, not to mention the unlikeliness of success even if somehow we Democrats manage to barely capture both House and Senate. It’s not that I don’t like the idea, but practically, I don’t think President Cheney would be less restrained.

    Speaking of which, as I noted in my own post, there’s a new Frontline documentary on him tonight (in some areas) called “The Dark Side.”

  2. JMG says:

    Impeachment is a political act. The United States Congress, be it controlled by either party, cannot muster a 2/3 vote for human decency, let alone justice.
    There is only one solution to the problem you pose. The next Democratic presidential nominee must make it plain to the electorate that if elected, he or she would laumch a vigorous investigation of the current administration’s policies to see if crimes against the Constitution and humanity had been committed. If there was sufficient evidence, those deemed guilty would be prosecuted, including and starting with George Bush. Anyone found guilty by a jury would be imprisoned. I am no attorney, and unfamiliar with the US Code, but aren’t some of the alleged acts of the administration punishable by death under US law?
    Let the people decide. If they can’t face the fact they colluded in crimes against humanity by re-electing George Bush, and won’t face the music of a legal accounting, then fine, the Democrats lose (like that’s new). Just make sure the voters know their moral cowardice justifies any atrocity committed against the citizens of this country in the future.

  3. Michael says:

    I emphatically disagree that the right response to atrocity is atrocity. Indeed, if that were the case, then US torture might even be justified by the 9/11 attacks.

    The right response may sometimes be measured force — e.g. the initial attack on the Taliban for harboring the 9/11 controllers, trainers and supporters. But that’s entirely different.

  4. Dave Meyer says:

    It’s Ron Suskind, not David Suskind.

    I think we need to see a massive Froomkin on Froomkin brawl, as your brother disagrees with your reading:

    But the longer-term significance of Suskind’s new book — his second major expose of the Bush White House in three years — will likely be how it documents Vice President Cheney’s singularly dominant role in the foreign policy and national security decisions typically attributed to President Bush.

  5. Michael says:

    Thank you for the correction.

    As to your second point, I don’t know what Dan thinks about what I wrote, but I certainly don’t think I disagree with him: Dan is providing a hard-nosed prediction as to what is likely. I think it is a good prediction.

  6. Impeachment won’t work, as Michael pointed out in his post, it replaces one evil with another. The problem with impeaching a bad politician is that they are usually supported by other bad politicians. Ideally, the best way to reign in this unprecidented and illegitimate behavior is to hope that the Democrats win a majority in the midterm elections for Congress, then use that power to balance out what Bush is doing. Hopefully, democracy and the system of checks and balances will work in our favor.

  7. Kevin Hayden says:

    Since we have to consider assassination, murder, torture, the sacrifice of our troops for money and the plunder of our public treasury via an amount of cronyism that makes Teapot Dome look like petty theft, the key to our response should be to recall that 51% of our voters approved of every bit of this in November 2004.

    So the only appropriate response is to arm ourselves to the hilt, kill any neighbor who seems suspicious, launch a bloody revolution that seeks reprisal against the 51% who are complicit as accomplices-after-the-fact, and the torture and dismemberment of every elected leader responsible, including their families.

    That is our only choice, if we were to utilize the model demonstrated by Bush-logic and its doctrine of Neoconjobbism. Anything less than that seems weak and insufficient and sends the wrong signal to our enemies in the Al-Republican terror organization.

    As gruesome as my simplistic caricature is, and despite the fact that I’m not supportive of a violent response, it mirrors the logic of the criminal government of our nation. Which means the most moral response available is to do our best to prosecute all the criminals and to defect to a civilized country where the majority remains sane and not driven by such moral values in the name of F*cking Jesus Amen, Inc.

  8. wowie says:

    For serious change to occur and for politicians and the world to take notice, there would need to be countless acts of civil disobedience and massive street protests all over the country. The protests would need to be larger than the recent ones held over immigration rights. People would have to make some serious sacrifices in their lives. I doubt this will happen soon though. The overwhelming majority of people in the united states are quite content with the status quo and really don’t care if some no name is being tortured over in where-ever-it-is-stan.

  9. Aidan Maconachy says:

    I’m just stopping by to eat some crow.

    Yes, the lies and subterfuge have gradually been exposed and it seems the Emperor is even more naked than we first supposed. It took info from a reliable source to finally convince me that we have been sold half-truths and fictions these many years. At least I can take comfort in the sight of Francis Fukuyama crawling out of the same trench.

    Kieran Healy has a post this evening on the Abu Zubaydah business and rather than retype, I’m offering up my cut n’ paste comments beneath …

    I think this type of misrepresentation goes on all the time. Here in Canada recently the authorities busted a group of “urban lite” jihadists who had acquired a stash of ammonium nitrate and an eclectic mix of weapons – some more comical than lethal.

    These asses went up to some rural retreat to play paintball shoot outs, alerting all the locals to their activities. It’s laughable really.

    Their presumed associates in the UK seemed more interested in warrior style video games and play acting the radical Islamist lifestyle, than actually posing any type of genuine threat.

    The fact that Bush tried to make political capital off Abu Zubaydah, is no surprise. The White House has continually engaged in this type of hyperbole when it comes to “dressing up” the bad guys for FOX consumption.

  10. concerned says:

    Before we can put a Democrat or anyone else in office that might not be attached to the current corrupt regime, we have to take back our vote. Until we regain legitmate elections – unmanipulated by Diebold machines or SCOTUS – no matter what types of civil disobedience, impeachment or any other tactic(s) anyone comes up with, the discussion is moot. Alas.

  11. DaveI says:

    Impeachment is utterly necessary and certainly not “evil.” It would represent the full and formal repudiation of the Bush presidency and the policies spawned therefrom. We absolutely, urgently need to do this.

    It is highly unlikely that Cheney would survive any impeachment proceedings either, as in the course of due investigations his office would be shown to be culpable.

    While I can’t pretend to see into the souls of other Americans as to its chances of success, I’d like to think I’m not the only one who thinks this.

    I am, however, absolutely stunned that ANYONE not drinking GOP dogwater would suggest that impeachment is a bad idea.

    It WAS a bad idea last time around when it was trotted out over petty matters. Circumstances like our present ones are precisely why impeachment was envisioned. It must be pursued.

  12. Copeland says:

    From now on, every month should be torture awareness month, until this cabal is out of office.

    Criminality seems to run deep in the executive branch; Bush and Cheney are looking more like a sociopathic duo, with each passing day. We require a legal remedy for this kind of lawlessness, for these men’s deranged application of force, their abuse of high office where they betrayed public trust.

    If the criminal justice system is able to catch up to these office holders; let’s hope that those found guilty in a court of law won’t be able to slither away with pardons or other quirky ways of getting off the hook. If found guilty in court; these men desperately need to go to prison. For crimes against humanity, for crimes against the Bill of Rights, for crimes of criminal negligence resulting in the deaths of Americans in New Orleans, for subversion of the electoral process, for lying to Congress, for conspiracy to commit crimes and obstruction of justice, let them be charged and brought to trial.

    Look at the way those who were implicated in the Iran-Contra crimes went on, these years later, to become players in this Bush/Cheney juggernaut. This time around the American people must be better served. For it follows, that if justice is done, we will never, ever, see any of these criminals again holding public office.

  13. D_Rumsfeld says:

    This administration and the complicit congress and judiciary have simply lived up to the expectations of the American people who have put them there. Impeachment of Bush or Cheney is impossible because congress has abdicated its oversight role. The judiciary has essentially been stacked in favor of Bush policies at this point, leading to rubber stamping of administration policies such as torture and indefinite imprisonment.

    Unfortunately, this is a reflection of the American voter. History will judge this administration and congress harshly, but nothing can be done about it right now.

    I believe that the following nightmare scenario is what will be required to purge America of its current excesses.

    1. Housing bubble bursts, leading to less consumer spending, and a recession
    2. Fed drops interest rates trying to save consumers
    3. Foreign investors see inflation, dump dollars
    4. Dollar nosedives, interest rates skyrocket
    5. Interest on the Federal debt explodes, requiring massive government spending cuts and tax increases
    6. Loss of confidence in the American economy spirals downward leading to depression in the U.S., economic malaise in other countries
    7. Time passes
    8. Americans see value of hard work, paying bills, honesty, and integrity
    9. Americans elect politicians based on values in 8, rather than platitudes.

  14. calugg says:

    Actually, impeach Cheney, then let Bush figure things out without Edgar (Bergman–CIA’s nickname for Cheney).

    That’s justice.

  15. “Until we regain legitmate elections – unmanipulated by Diebold machines or SCOTUS”

    Just wanted to point out that to some extent the decision in Bush v. Gore extended the concept of one person one vote and substantive due process (shock! if it even exists).

    “4. Dollar nosedives, interest rates skyrocket”

    Unchecked government spending will cause this kind of inflation, for those who think that Congress and Bush are helping the economy.

  16. “Until we regain legitmate elections – unmanipulated by Diebold machines or SCOTUS”

    Just wanted to point out that to some extent the decision in Bush v. Gore extended the concept of one person one vote and substantive due process (shock! if it even exists).

    “4. Dollar nosedives, interest rates skyrocket”

    Unchecked government spending will cause this kind of inflation, for those who think that Congress and Bush are helping the economy.

  17. albatross says:

    I suspect that a big fraction of the American public is at least ambivalent about the use of torture, massive warrantless wiretaps (aka turning Echelon on America), sweeping up 10 innocent people to get one guilty person, etc., because they’re afraid that without those measures, we will be more likely to get hit by terrorists again. Now, I expect this is true, but incomplete–the long term cost of these measures is going to be higher than most people can imagine, and could very plausibly end up with the US as a genuine police state with single-party rule. But I think this is the real reason that impeachment and running against these evil, stupid policies are both non-starters. Too many Americans, even ones who don’t like the policies, are afraid that stopping them means more 9/11 attacks.

  18. Anon. says:

    Impeachment — of Bush and Cheney both — is a minimum necessary step.

    It is completely impossible for it to happen without removing Republicans from power in the House and Senate, or at least making them depend on the few Republicans who might be honorable. There are at most two honorable Republicans in the Senate, and probably only one in the House. The rest are dyed-in-the-wool Bush-worshippers who will happily applaud his installation of a police state. So we’re planning for what happens *if* the people manage to regain sufficient control of Congress. Unfortunately, with *Democrats* declaring impeachment off the table, we may not even be able to get rid of Bush and Cheney if Democrats retake both houses.

    The reason I say that this is a *minimum* step is that Bush/Cheney are clearly installing a police state. They might decide not to leave even if they ARE impeached. By its very nature, it is impossible to get rid of a police state through purely legal means; mass protests in the streets are the most peaceful means which has ever removed one, to my knowledge.

    We need to impeach as *soon as possible*, *before* they finish installing the police state. Even if Bush decides not to retain office after 2008, he will most likely be replaced as the Republican nominee by another police state promoter: perhaps Cheney, or Bush’s brother Jeb. Then the Republicans will make plans to steal the Presidential election again.

    To get impeachment in 2007, we need to lay the groundwork, by repeatedly pointing out that impeachment is the proper remedy for treason, bribery, and other high crimes and misdemeanors. Bush and Cheney have both committed clear, unquestionable felonies, major ones (start with FISA, then the Geneva Conventions, and work your way down: we could probably make a list of hundreds), and are arguably guilty of receiving bribes. They have also broken their oaths of office. Impeachment needs to be considered a reasonable option by the Democrats who are in Congress in 2007, and to do that, we have to stop treating it as “off the table”.

    I will vote for any candidate who supports impeachment of Bush and Cheney.

  19. liberal says:

    theDonnybrook wrote,

    Just wanted to point out that to some extent the decision in Bush v. Gore extended the concept of one person one vote and substantive due process (shock! if it even exists).

    But IIRC a big chunk of the decision relied on the Equal Protection clause, but went on to say (unfathomably) that this reasoning applied to this case only.

  20. Impeachment is an option only if the Democrats take both houses this fall. But if they do, their time will be better spent repealing the idiotic laws of the past six years and dealing with Iraq.

    Leaving Bush in office as a broken puppet, then letting him live out the next 30 years watching as the “worst president ever” mantle solidifies into conventional wisdom — that’s plenty of punishment.

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