All lies and jest.
Still a man hears what he wants to hear
And disregards the rest.
— from “The Boxer” by Paul Simon
It's the kind of journalistic red meat we scarcely seem to get in the Internet era: a scandal with vast political and constitutional implications. That's the multicourse feast that journalists are just beginning, in the wake of a widening gyre of disclosures about the rationalization and use of torture methods by the Bush White House.
It was about a week or so ago when Attorney General Eric Holder released four of the Justice Department torture memos dating to August 2002, documents thought to be the blueprint for a legal rationale for torturing terrorist suspects under the grand pretext of national security.
These of course followed the infamous John Yoo memo of March 2003, up until recently the rhetorical smoking gun of the Bush White House reasoning for the torture of terrorist suspects.
Into the past: Today's Washington Post reports that the timeline for this panoramic criminality reaches back even further. The Post is reporting that the Joint Personnel Recovery Agency, the government agency responsible for training military interrogators, advised William J. Haynes, lawyer for then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld in July 2002 that using methods of torture such as sleep deprivation, exploitation of phobias, forced nudity and waterboarding were “unreliable” as a way of getting information.
"The requirement to obtain information from an uncooperative source as quickly as possible — in time to prevent, for example, an impending terrorist attack that could result in loss of life — has been forwarded as a compelling argument for the use of torture," the document said.
“In essence, physical and/or psychological duress are viewed as an alternative to the more time-consuming conventional interrogation process. The error inherent in this line of thinking is the assumption that, through torture, the interrogator can extract reliable and accurate information. History and a consideration of human behavior would appear to refute this assumption.”
The JPRA recommendation was disregarded. That same month, Rumsfeld and national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, later secretary of state, gave their blessing to CIA operatives’ use of so-called “alternative interrogation methods” when interrogating Zubaydah. Methods that included waterboarding.
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But that just gets you to July 2002. Turns out you can wind the clock back even further. The blogger Invictus did. In a blog entry from last Dec. 12, detailing his own personal coverage of Senate Armed Services Committee hearings in September, Invictus noted:
one document produced from the December 2001 contact — a fax cover sheet from the Pentagon's Joint Personnel Recovery Agency (JPRA), sent from “Lt. Col. Dan Baumgartner” to “Mr. Richard Shiffrin,” who worked for Haynes in Rumsfeld's DoD General Counsel office — introduces a theme of aggressive courting by [JPRA] personnel to take on the interrogations/exploitation task.
Baumgartner was a training expert with JPRA. Shiffrin was a deputy general counsel in the Defense Department.
Invictus quotes from Baumgartner’s opening statement before the Senate committee in June 2008:
My recollection of my first communication with [Defense Department Office of General Counsel] relative to [interrogation] techniques was with Mr. Richard Shiffrin in July 2002. However, during my two interviews with Committee staff members last year, I was shown documents that indicated I had some communication with Mr. Shiffrin related to this matter in approximately December 2001. Although I do not specifically recall Mr. Shiffrin’s request to the JPRA for information in late 2001, my previous interviews with Committee staff members and review of documents connected with Mr. Shiffrin’s December 2001 request have confirmed to me the JPRA, at that time, provided Mr. Shiffrin information related to this Committee’s inquiry.
Baumgartner’s recall was pretty good. Borrowing from the Senate Committee report, The New York Times reported on April 22 that in December 2001, Baumgartner warned in a memo that physical pressure (read: torture) was “less reliable” than other interrogation approaches, could backfire by raising prisoner resistance, and would have an “intolerable public and political backlash when discovered.” But his memo somehow got routed to the Defense Department, Haynes’ domain, instead of the C.I.A.
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For those of you keeping score at home, trying to make sense of things, this is what this means:
Just months after the horrors of Sept. 11 — well before our military invasion of Iraq, before the high-value terrorist suspects were captured, before torture could have been used on those suspects, before torture could possibly have been a last-ditch way to extract information from those suspects — the Bush administration, in the anguished hair-on-fire days after the worst attack on American soil, had already begun to build a rationale for torture as part of the American arsenal.
This puts the lie to the notion that the notorious abuses at Abu Ghraib prison that seared the conscience of the world were the work of a few bad military actors, a handful of soldiers with a mean streak and blood in their eyes, avenging 9/11.
This puts the lie to the notion that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Abu Zubaydah were subject to waterboarding only when CIA and military personnel were at their teeth-gnashing wit’s end to extract intelligence.
Torture was in the cards as a weapon for the Bush White House well before the bombs started falling in March 2003, before Mohammed or Zubaydah were captured. The plans for that shock & awe by invasion were long preceded by plans to induce shock and the fear of death by drowning — one of the methods of torturing prisoners the Bush White House quietly embraced in the name of national security, and in violation of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, the United Nations Convention Against Torture, Common Article 3 of the 1949 Geneva Conventions, and the basic decency that binds us together as human beings.
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The unraveling of that great lie takes place in the midst of the overwhelming opinion of analysts, psychiatrists and intelligence-gathering experts that torture almost always fails to elicit the results intended.
Mohammed was waterboarded 183 times; Zubaydah 83 times. You don’t have to be an intel specialist to see the unpromising inverse proportionality of such a practice; it’s the law of diminishing returns according to Gitmo: the more one tortures, the less likely the torturer gets anything meaningful — or even anything real.
“The reliability and accuracy of this information is in doubt” if it’s obtained through “physical or psychological duress,” the JPRA warned in July 2002. “In other words, a subject in extreme pain may provide an answer, any answer, or many answers in order to get the pain to stop.”
It’s of course anyone’s guess as to how far back this evolving reverse chronology of Bush-era torture techniques really goes. Vice President Dick Cheney’s been on board with the practice since at least October 2006. “It's a no-brainer for me,” he said on a conservative talk radio program from Fargo N.D., “but for a while there, I was criticized as being the vice president 'for torture.’”
Watergate, among any other celebrated political scandals, showed us how such flagrant excesses of constitutional authority are never spasmodic exercises in freelancing; they’re really planned, systematic strategeries devised by the guy in the grey suit who looks out the window all day. The fish stinks from the head down.
As the Senate committee report reverberates around Washington, as dominoes fall and smart, hungry journalists fill in the gaps, the former Vice President for Torture and the figures in the administration he once worked for will find there's no reverse-engineering of the history that reveals itself one document, one backtrack, one revelation at a time. A clock that runs backwards can tell time very well.
Image credits: Waterboarded man: Still from Amnesty International video. William Haynes: Public domain. Shiffrin and Baumgartner: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images. Fair use rationale: Subjects figure in matters of national policy. Bush and advisers, New York skyline on Sept. 11: Public domain. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed: Public domain.