Brilliant Disguise: Bush Torture, Obama and The Boss


We offer now a telling juxtaposition of stories. First is the Guardian's new excerpt of Phillipe Sands' new book, Torture Team: Deception, Cruelty, and the Compromise of Law. (Another extract was published earlier in Vanity Fair, which we examined here.) Sands' book lays out in great detail the process by which the highest officials of the American government – including the President, Vice President and the Secretary of Defense – with great deliberation and malice aforethought constructed a regimen of systematic torture which they knew, to a certainty, violated existing American and international law.

The earlier Vanity Fair extract depicted how the "Principals" of the National Security State developed the specific tortures to be used on uncharged captives held indefinitely in concentration camps, secret prisons, and foreign torture chambers. The new Guardian extract show how the White House torture system was then put into practice and refined in the field.

These decisions and actions were flagrant and obvious violations of United States law. Sands quotes the ruling of the Republican-dominated Supreme Court ruled in 2006:

In June 2006, the Supreme Court overturned President Bush's decision on Geneva, ruling it to be unlawful. The court confirmed that Common Article 3 applied to all Guantánamo detainees. It was as simple as that. Whether they were Taliban or al-Qaida, every one of the detainees had rights under Common Article 3 - and that included Mohammed al-Qahtani.  

The majority opinion, reaffirming the "minimal protection" offered by Common Article 3, was written by Justice John Paul Stevens. One of the Justices went even further: Common Article 3 was part of the law of war and of a treaty that the US had ratified. "By Act of Congress," Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote pointedly, "violations of Common Article 3 are considered 'war crimes', punishable as federal offences, when committed by or against United States nationals and military personnel."

First read the Guardian extract, and see how what happened in Abu Ghraib (and elsewhere) flowed directly – directly, and in detail – from Donald Rumsfeld's pen, with the approval and at the direction of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney. Then go to this video clip offered by the Philadelphia Daily News, and watch Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama field a direct question about how he will deal with these flagrant crimes (and others committed by the Bush White House) if he becomes president. Would he, Obama was asked, order his Justice Department "to aggressively investigate if crimes were committed?"

It goes without saying that Obama does not give a straightforward answer to the question. He does not simply say: "Yes. I will aggressively investigate all criminal activity by the Bush Administration and bring the perpetrators to justice." Instead, he twice offers a rather odd locution: he will, he says, order his attorney general to "review the information already there" and find out if there are inquiries that "need to be pursued." Obama's emphasis on basing his actions on "what we know right now" seems puzzling, until you tie it to a later passage in his reply, when he speaks of his attitude toward impeachment.

Obama says that any decision to pursue "investigation" of "possibilities" of "genuine crimes" would be "an area where I would exercise judgment." He stressed the need to draw a distinction between "really dumb policies and policies that rise to the level of criminal activity." He said he would not want "my first term to be consumed by what would be perceived by Republicans as a partisan witch hunt."

He then tied his thinking on torture, illegal wiretapping, aggressive war and all the other depredations of the Bush Regime to his stance on impeachment:

"I often get questions about impeachment at town hall meetings. And I've often said, I do not think that would be something that would be fruitful to pursue. I think impeachment should be reserved for exceptional circumstances."

In other words, very strong, credible, evidence-based charges of launching a criminal war of aggression based on deception is not an "exceptional circumstance" worthy of the investigative and prosecutorial process of impeachment. It might just be a "very dumb policy." Very strong, credible, evidence-based charges of knowingly, deliberately creating a regimen of systematic torture is not an "exceptional circumstance" worthy of impeachment; it might not even be worth further investigation by the Justice Department. It too could just be a "dumb policy" that we should forget about – especially if Republicans are going to make a fuss about it.

In any case, it is obvious that to Obama, "what we already know" does not constitute "exceptional circumstances" – otherwise he would already be pressing for criminal investigation, via the impeachment process or by calling for a special prosecutor. (Which would be essential for investigating a Justice Department which is itself deeply implicated in the torture system and other criminal conspiracies.) He has pointedly not done so, because he doesn't think it would be "fruitful to pursue" credible (in fact overwhelming) evidence of aggressive war and crimes against humanity committed by American leaders.

Obama closes on the usual high rhetorical note, declaring that if he in fact found out that "high officials knowingly, consciously broke existing laws and covered up crimes with knowledge aforethought...then no one is above the law."

Yet the plain fact is that the recent revelations by Sands and others that "high officials knowingly, consciously broke existing laws and covered up crimes with knowledge aforethought" are simply strong confirmations of what has been lying in plain sight for a long, long time.

For example, I began writing, in print, about the Administration's use of "extrajudicial killing," torture and other Terror War crimes in November 2001. (More on this below.) Where did I dig up this secret information? From the Washington Post and New York Times and other mainstream outlets, where Administration officials – flush with their newfound power and popularity – were at that time boasting openly of "taking the gloves off" and inflicting physical torture on captives, either directly or through proxies in foreign "rendition" centers. Only when the pictures from Abu Ghraib appeared in 2004 – showing in vivid detail exactly what Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld had ordered American personnel to do to their captives – did the "senior government officials" stop supplying spin to the compliant media about their macho forays "into the dark side."

And suddenly, a strange amnesia set in across the political and media establishments. Suddenly no one remembered "senior officials" boasting about torture. Suddenly no one remembered Cheney himself going on national television to announce that U.S. security forces were going to "the dark side, if you will." As a result, it has taken years for the deliberate, systematic, planned and approved use of torture to come to light again, piece by piece – with government officials and media mandarins expressing their great shock at each new revelation.

But here is a vital point that should be stressed again and again: The planned, approved, systematic use of torture against uncharged captives held illegally under the Geneva Conventions – which have the full force of U.S. law – has never been a secret. Never. Never. Any ordinary American citizen, like me, could find out about it, without any special effort, simply by reading beyond the first few paragraphs of routine, mainstream news stories.

It has always been out there – always – for anyone who wanted to know. It is an utter impossibility that the thousands of political operatives and players in Washington – elected officials and their vast cadres of staff, journalists and editors, lobbyists, think tank analysts, appointees to government agencies, and all the others whose professional lifeblood depends on the information relayed by house organs of the Establishment like the Times and Post – did not know what an ordinary man from rural Tennessee knew as early as November 2001. It is simply impossible.

And it is certainly impossible that an intelligent, informed, and ambitious political operative like Barack Obama did not know. And if for some inconceivable reason he did not know what us yokels knew in 2001, then he certainly knows it now. But he pretends that he does not know. He pretends that it is still an open question – "an exercise of judgment" – whether these crimes should even be investigated further, much less prosecuted. He pretends – or even worse, actually believes – that we are not in the grip of "exceptional circumstances," but are apparently just rolling along with business as usual, aside from a few "dumb policies" which he will tinker with and set right.

All indications continue to suggest that those who look to Obama to undo "the terrible damage done over the past eight years," as Bruce Springsteen put it in his public endorsement of Obama last Friday, will be disappointed – especially as they watch Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and the other perpetrators of war crimes enjoy their comfortable, lucrative retirements in the years to come.

And let's not forget: We don't even know the full extent of the gulag. In addition to the multitude of individual ordeals that we still have no inkling of, there are almost certainly more secret prisons that we don't know about – and perhaps secret codicils to the known documents, authorizing even more barbaric tortures. To quote torture lord Rumsfeld himself, there are still many "unknown unknowns" about the Terror War gulag that we are yet to discover.

Thus the crimes reconfirmed and fleshed out by Sands and others are only glimpses of the full, horrific reality. For example, in Sands' extract, he tells of the three categories of torture devised and approved by the White House. "Category III" was the full whack, including waterboarding, the partial-drowning technique long prosecuted by the American military as a particularly heinous form of torture. Sands says that Category III techniques "were to be used for only a very small percentage of detainees" – the most "uncooperative and exceptionally resistant individuals," the so-called "worst of the worst" in the terminology of the torture lords.

But recall that Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and other top officials routinely referred to all of the captives in the Guantanamo concentration camp as "the worst of the worst," the most dangerous men on the planet, etc. – prime candidates for the harshest tortures. Yet we now know – and have long known – that hundreds of these captives posed no threat at all to anyone. Many of them had been sold into captivity by bounty hunters or personal enemies, or rounded up in random sweeps, or kidnapped off city streets or from their homes. We also know from the mountains of evidence gathered by some of the Pentagon's own investigations (of "small fry" and "bad apples," offered up as scapegoats for the sins of their leaders), that the worst approved tortures soon spread throughout the Terror War gulag, all the way down to the former torture chamber of Saddam Hussein that George Bush made his very own: Abu Ghraib. There, the highest category of torture was applied to some of the lowliest prisoners, men rounded up in the massive, blind sweeps by American forces, caging thousands upon thousands of innocent people. (At one time, the International Red Cross estimated that between 70-90 percent of the American captives in Iraq were innocent of any wrongdoing whatsoever, much less of being "Category III" terrorists.)

You cannot compartmentalize the evil of torture. You cannot tame it, domesticate it, separate it into neat categories. It is a sinister acid that eats through all walls, and spreads throughout any system or organization that practices it. You begin with "light slapping" and loud music, and you end up with waterboarding, beating, and murder. There is no exception in human history to this process.

And there is no avoiding the knowledge that America's leaders "knowingly, consciously broke existing laws" against torture. This is precisely why they went to such enormous lengths to pervert the clear and unambiguous letter and spirit of the laws, devising a ludicrous, self-absolving system of executive tyranny, whereby the president's Justice Department appointees simply declare that whatever the president orders is "legal," even if it conflicts with existing law. Torture, murder ("extrajudicial killing"), aggressive war – all is permitted for the "commander-in-chief," whose imperial immunity extends to every minion carrying out his orders. As we have noted often before, this is a version of the Nazi
führerprinzip translated into the political idiom of modern America.

Again, perhaps Barack Obama believes it is not an "exceptional circumstance" that a U.S. presidential administration openly claims to rule the Republic on the basis of Adolf Hitler's philosophy of governance. Certainly, Obama's deliberate inaction on these issues – no bills to stop funding for the war in Iraq, no bills to launch investigations of the torture system, not even a measure to overturn the Military Commissions Act, which stripped the ancient right of habeas corpus and officially enshrined the führerprinzip in U.S. law – constitutes an implicit accommodation with great and glaring evil. It is hard to see in all of this how he represents what Springsteen called in his endorsement "the America I've envisioned in my music for the past 35 years...a country that's interested in its collective destiny and in the potential of its gathered spirit."

A leader truly interested in the collective destiny of his nation would not be "nuancing" questions of torture and war crimes. The pursuit of justice for these atrocities would not be an area for "exercising judgment," or worrying about bad PR from the opposition party. It would instead be a burning passion, driven by the understanding that it is only this pursuit of justice that holds out the slim hope of even beginning to "undo the terrible damage done" by the Bush Regime – and by its bipartisan predecessors in imperial arrogance.

How easy was it to see what was happening – and what was coming down the pike? Here's an excerpt from a piece I wrote for the Moscow Times in November 2001:

It won't come with jackboots and book burnings, with mass rallies and fevered harangues. It won't come with "black helicopters" or tanks on the street. It won't come like a storm – but like a break in the weather, that sudden change of season you might feel when the wind shifts on an October evening: everything is the same, but everything has changed. Something has gone, departed from the world, and a new reality has taken its place.

As in Rome, all the old forms will still be there; legislatures, elections, campaigns – plenty of bread and circuses for the folks. But the "consent of the governed" will no longer apply; actual control of the state will have passed to a small group of nobles who rule largely for the benefit of their wealthy peers and corporate patrons.

To be sure, there will be factional conflicts among this elite, and a degree of free debate will be permitted, within limits; but no one outside the privileged circle will be allowed to govern or influence state policy. Dissidents will be marginalized – usually by "the people" themselves. Deprived of historical knowledge by an impoverished educational system designed to produce complacent consumers, not thoughtful citizens, and left ignorant of current events by a media devoted solely to profit, many will internalize the force-fed values of the ruling elite, and act accordingly. There will be little need for overt methods of control.

The rulers will often act in secret; for reasons of "national security," the people will not be permitted to know what goes on in their name. Actions once unthinkable will be accepted as routine: government by executive fiat, the murder of "enemies" selected by the leader, undeclared war, torture, mass detentions without charge, the looting of the national treasury, the creation of huge new "security structures" targeted at the populace. In time, all this will come to seem "normal," as the chill of autumn feels normal when summer is gone.

It will all seem normal..Indeed, the Bush administration is now openly considering the use of torture to compel testimony from suspected terrorists – or anyone designated as a suspected terrorist, reports. True, a few girlie-men are still fretting about "constitutional rights," but the clever dicks in the Oval Office have that one sussed: recalitrant prisoners can always be exported to friendly regimes, like Egypt or Kenya, where they don't bother with such prissy concerns. Information "extracted" there can then be used in U.S. trials.

Wouldn't evidence acquired by such heinous and unconstitutional methods be thrown out by the courts? Ordinarily, yes – under the old Republic. But in America's new weather, the judiciary will no doubt "give heightened deference to the judgements of the political branches with respect to matters of national security," [as former special prosecutor Kenneth Starr predicts]. And if all else fails, a handy executive order can always "reinterpret" the Constitution to accommodate the needs of "national security."

Normal.... Armed with the sweeping new powers of the "USA Patriot Act" passed late last month, the Bush administration is acting to "shift the primary mission of the FBI from solving crimes to gathering domestic intelligence," the Washington Post reports. In other words, the feds will move from protecting the people to spying on them. The CIA has also been given authority to take part in domestic surveillance and investigations for the first time....

It won't come like a storm. It will all seem normal. Like a break in the weather, a shift in the wind.

Yes, all normal, business as usual. No "exceptional circumstances" here.