Sunday, April 19, 2009

The Regime Unfolds

Khaled Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded 183 times during the month of March 2003. Abu Zubaydah was waterboarded 83 times in August 2002. This is according to the 2005 Bradbury Memo. As Emptywheel notes,
So: two two-hour sessions a day, with six applications of the waterboard each = 12 applications in a day. Though to get up to the permitted 12 minutes of waterboarding in a day (with each use of the waterboard limited to 40 seconds), you'd need 18 applications in a day. Assuming you use the larger 18 applications in one 24-hour period, and do 18 applications on five days within a month, you've waterboarded 90 times--still just half of what they did to KSM.
This is a small part of the picture that is slowly filling out. Many memos are still missing from the public record - ProPublica has a helpful running summary of these memos. As the picture becomes clearer, it includes cases like that of Hassan Ghul who, ProPublica pointed out a few days ago, goes mysteriously missing after a public announcement by George Tenet of Ghul's capture and imprisonment. the heavily redacted OLC memo [7] dated May 30, 2005, government censors appeared to have missed a single reference to his name and confinement during a lengthy description of the interrogation techniques used against him. The reference can be found at the bottom of Page 7 in the memo [7], where Ghul’s surname is spelled "Gul."
Brian Tamanaha at Balkinization notes the circularity of legal justifications in the memos.
Time and again the OLC memos conclude that the use of these interrogation techniques do not amount to the intentional infliction of severe physical or mental suffering (the torture standard) based upon the CIA’s own finding that these techniques don’t cross that line. But that is precisely the legal question the CIA (purportedly) is posing to the OLC: Do the interrogation techniques violate the anti-torture statute?...

The empty circularity of the arguments in the latest batch of torture memos exposes what has long been suspected but can now be confirmed: These memos were rubber stamp approvals for CIA interrogators—get out of jail free cards—issued by an obliging cadre of OLC lawyers.
It should be clear by now that the torture memos are ex post facto (and, as many legal scholars say, incompetent) attempts to provide legal cover for a policy that was already in place. This is, I think, where the significance lies and is going to play out further. Yes, the techniques are horrifying. This is torture. (And real interrogators probably know this better than anyone). But look, all the legal wrangling that has dominated the public discussion for the past several years is a screen behind which remains merely a silhouette of the true evil. And that is, on one hand, details of the concrete policy made explicitly at the highest levels of the Executive branch and, on the other hand, the real purposes behind the torture. The latter question remains - see this brief explanation (and also here). The law needs to play out, but we should be careful not to lose sight of the ugliness that lies behind it.

Deception has also dominated the bits of information the public has received through officials inserting disinformation through their favorite - and often near-breathless - media mouthpieces. Just do a google to display how many times a news report has portrayed the torture story as something we know today it is not. Everything is a creation of the administration, those involved at the CIA, and a pliant media. It's all in the details - the photo of KSM in his undershirt was staged by his captors; the case of Abdul Hakim Murad was largely a media fabrication encouraged at select moments by administration and intelligence officials (see Stephanie Athey's terrific essay on this here); etc. The intent has always been to create a hall of mirrors. Here's one small everyday example of what we've been exposed to.

Compare what we know about KSM's torture from the recent memos discussed above with how it KSM is portrayed in this brief, pedestrian piece. It's not denial; it's subtle disinformation regarding the scope and intensity of the institution constructed by the Bush administration. This scope and intensity indicates a more profound assault on basic principles of human decency underlying the liberal democratic state (see Thomas Hilde's brief essay on liberal torture here).

It will get worse. It is not just about the individual cases of bugs or even how many times one man was waterboarded. It is not only about individual cases. And it is, as Darius Rejali has long insisted, not even new. I don't think we yet fully understand this or can even conceive of its meaning.

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