interesting times

Trump Isn’t Merely Tolerating Torture — He’s Celebrating It

Gina Haspel. Photo: The OSS Society via YouTube

There is a lot we don’t know about Gina Haspel, the nominee to head the CIA, who will soon be facing Senate hearings. As a covert officer, she has spent a long time in the shadows. Many of her colleagues speak very highly of her skills and dedication. And lately, the CIA has been providing selective — and oddly endearing — details about her private life. But there are a few things we do know. We know what the legal definition of torture is and long has been, in domestic and international law. In case you’re curious, this is it, according to federal law: “an act committed by a person acting under the color of law specifically intended to inflict severe physical or mental pain or suffering (other than pain or suffering incidental to lawful sanctions) upon another person within his custody or physical control.” It includes the threat of imminent death, and “other procedures calculated to disrupt profoundly the senses or personality.” Under international law, there are absolutely no justifications — no national security threats, no imminent dangers — allowed for committing this war crime.

We also know that Gina Haspel was, from 2003–2005, the chief of staff for Jose Rodriguez, the man tasked with implementing the Bush-Cheney program for “enhanced interrogation” of prisoners. She was in charge of communicating with various black sites around the world, and we know she authored a critical 2002 cable, “Turning Up the Heat in AZ Interrogations,” which initiated the torture of Abu Zubaydah, the first prisoner the U.S. subjected to waterboarding. We also know she was present in at least one of the black sites where the torture took place, and that she lobbied very hard to destroy the tapes that recorded the torture sessions, and was responsible for ultimately ensuring that they were. She was, to put it mildly, deeply, intimately embedded in the torture regime.

And we know a lot about what the black sites were like, and what was done to the prisoners held in them. It’s worth speaking in plain English about what she was a part of. One agent described a particular site set up after Haspel’s directive to “turn up the heat.” He thought it was good for interrogations because it was the closest thing he had seen to a dungeon. The dungeon was kept in total darkness at all times, and the guards wore headlamps. The prisoners were in cells, kept completely naked, and were shackled to the walls and sometimes ceilings. They were given buckets for their waste. When they were subjected to sleep deprivation, they were tied to a bar on the ceiling so that they had to stand with their arms above their heads, and would have their limbs painfully pulled out of their sockets if they passed out. One of the prisoners was a diminutive figure who had been picked up as a suspect in the bombing of the U.S.S. Cole, of which he was alleged to have been the “mastermind.” In fact, CIA agents disagreed about this. He was “an idiot,” one of them said. “He couldn’t read or comprehend a comic book.” Others alleged that he may have had a mental disability. Jose Rodriguez wrote in his memoir that “one of our interrogators described him to me as ‘the dumbest terrorist I have ever met.’” His name is Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri.

He was waterboarded at the black site in Afghanistan, then again at another site in Thailand, where Haspel was physically present. In Afghanistan, this is what that entailed, according to the lawyers assigned to Nashiri’s case at Gitmo: “A rag was placed over his forehead and eyes and water poured into his mouth until he began to choke and aspirate. The rag was then lowered, suffocating him with the water still in his throat, sinuses, and lungs. Eventually the rag was lifted and the water expurgated, allowing him to take three to four breaths before the process was repeated.” Other techniques were used, this time at a black site in Poland: “On at least one occasion, they placed a broomstick behind petitioner’s knees as he knelt and then forced his body backwards, pulling his knee joints apart until he started to scream. On another occasion, agents cinched petitioner’s elbows behind his back and hoisted him to the ceiling, causing onlookers to fear that they dislocated his shoulders. On still other occasions, petitioner was [redacted] and deprived of sleep for days on end.”

There were other methods: “The standing stress position was also employed when agents stored petitioner for days in a coffin in between interrogations. This coffin is often termed ‘the large box’. At other times, agents locked petitioner into the ‘small box’, which is the approximate size of an office safe and [redacted]. When the lid was locked, the interior became completely dark, the air stagnant, and petitioner forced into a squatting fetal position that caused his extremities to swell.” He was kept in the “small box” for days.

Worse: “Nearly every ‘interview’ at several locations involved ‘walling.’ This involved agents rolling a towel around petitioner’s neck with which to swing him into a plywood wall. Walling was used so consistently that ‘the rolled up towel became an object that evoked fear.’ ‘The interrogator would enter the room and slowly and gently run the rolled towel over the … detainee’s head … spending several minutes adjusting it.’ This routine triggered a Pavlovian response wherein the towel became ‘an omen of what might happen next, [thereby] elicit[ing] a conditioned fear response.’” In Poland, the terrors mounted: “‘Mild punishment’ included convincing petitioner, while hooded, naked, and shackled to the ceiling that he was about to be shot. The agent racked a handgun ‘once or twice’ near petitioner’s head, and then removed petitioner’s hood so he could see the handgun pointed at him. When petitioner began to cry, the agent exchanged the handgun for a power drill that was revved to heighten the effect.” Then there was the sexual torture: “For example [redacted] petitioner was subjected to ‘rectal feeding’. [redacted] There is also evidence that petitioner was forcibly sodomized, possibly under the pretext of a cavity search that was done with ‘excessive force’ … He was also repeatedly ‘bathed’ with a stiff brush of the type ‘used in a bath to remove stubborn dirt,” which would be raked across petitioner’s “ass and balls and then his mouth.””

Over years of this staggering brutality, Nashiri was destroyed as a human being. A medical report subsequently discovered that Nashiri “presented with nightmares that involved being chained, naked and waterboarded, and that he continues to suffer from PTSD and Major Depressive Disorder … hyper vigilance, flashbacks, sleep disorders.” He also had persistent and chronic anal-rectal complaints, difficulty defecating, bleeding, hemorrhoids and pain with sitting — all “very common in survivors of sexual assault.” Indeed the torture of Nashiri was so brutal that CIA agents themselves, in early 2003, protested internally that “the wheels had come off” of the torture program and that Nashiri’s torture was a “train wreak [sic] waiting to happen.” The CIA’s chief of interrogations threatened to resign and wrote a cable reporting “serious reservations with the continued use of enhanced techniques with [Nashiri] and its long-term impact on him.”

I’ve cited the example of Nashiri because Haspel directly authorized his torture at a black site in Thailand, where he was waterboarded, kept naked and shackled, threatened with sodomy, and with the arrest and rape of his family. But she was also key in orchestrating the torture of Abu Zubaydah. Three months after her cable giving permission to “turn up the heat,” Zubaydah was waterboarded 83 times. Haspel reported at one point that the CIA team conducted a “dress rehearsal … which choreographed moving Abu Zubaydah in and out of the large and small confinement boxes, as well as use of the water board.” A few days later, she wrote: “Team is ready to move to the next phase of interrogations immediately upon receipt of approvals/authorization from ALEC/Headquarters. It is our understanding that DOJ/Attorney General approvals for all portions of the next phase, including the water board, have been secured, but that final approval is in the hands of the policy makers.”

It was approved and Haspel, like so many war criminals in history, followed orders. There is testimony that she was physically present at at least one session of brutal torture. The waterboarding sessions initiated by her were taped — 92 of them in all, including three sessions of the torture of Nashiri, at the black site in Thailand where Haspel was chief of base. When one site was finally shut down and Haspel ordered everything to be burned, she checked with Washington and reluctantly kept the tapes under tight security. ProPublica explains what happened next: “A few years later when [Haspel] was back in Washington and chief of staff to the director of operations for counterterrorism, Jose Rodriguez, the man who had sent her to Thailand, she continued to lobby for destruction of the tapes. ‘My chief of staff drafted a cable approving the action we had been trying to accomplish for so long,’ Rodriguez writes in his memoir. ‘The cable left nothing to chance. It even told them how to get rid of the tapes. They were to use an industrial-strength shredder to do the deed.’”

The CIA’s general counsel warned against the destruction of evidence, as did Congresswoman Jane Harman, but Rodriguez, with Haspel as his agent, did so anyway. He didn’t tell the CIA chief. An internal email revealed that Rodriguez believed that “the heat from destroying is nothing compared with what it would be if the tapes ever got into public domain” and said that “out of context they would make us look terrible; it would be ‘devastating’ to us.” “Out of context”? There is no context under the law in which torture is legal. But he was right about how devastating actual videos of Americans brutally torturing prisoners would be. They’d expose the reality that Bush and Cheney had authorized and that he and Haspel had made happen. And so he obstructed justice; and it was Haspel who drafted the order to do so.

When you consider the plain meaning of the law, and the actions Haspel engaged in, it is impossible to conclude anything but that Haspel committed war crimes of the gravest kind and then helped destroy the evidence of them. There is no defense under the law in which a war criminal can claim that he or she was merely following orders. No one would have been found guilty at Nuremberg if that were the case. There are equally no extenuating circumstances that can ever justify torture, according to the U.N. Convention signed by Ronald Reagan no less, in 1984: “No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture.” Nor is it possible for any human being to read what was done to these prisoners without concluding that this was torture. If an American were captured by ISIS, was waterboarded 83 times, hung from the ceiling by his wrists, locked into a tiny box for days, and turned into a shell of a human being, would any American deny that he was tortured? The question answers itself.

In a fateful decision, President Obama decided to give complete legal immunity for war crimes committed by agents of the CIA. Haspel then cannot be prosecuted, as she should be under domestic and international law. She was not fired; no one, in fact, was disciplined for these atrocities. But to actually reward someone who has committed war crimes with promotion, and then to elevate her to the highest position in Western intelligence, is a whole new level of depravity. It sends a very clear message: that anyone committing war crimes in the future will be celebrated, not disciplined, rewarded, not punished, that torture is justifiable, even worth reviving, as our future secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, opined only last year. It would amount to a full-on endorsement of torture by the United States, and a signal to the entire world that it can be justified. This is a profound threat to human rights globally and to the long tradition of American warfare, initiated by George Washington no less, in which the use of torture has always been regarded as exactly the kind of barbarism America was founded to overcome. It would be the final nail in the coffin that used to be the West.

Maybe in the era of Trump, that coffin is already covered in dirt. But if senators want to retain any semblance of the notion of American decency, if they are to honor the countless men and women in the CIA and military who for decades have resisted the impulse to torture, if they are to respect those who fought the torture-states of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, and if they also want to remember those Americans, like John McCain, who were once subject to exactly the kind of torture Haspel authorized, they will vote down the nomination. If this line of defense falls, we are truly lost in a vortex of self-perpetuating evil. We will have abolished something deep and essential in the soul of America.

We will be a dungeon on a hill.

Fear Versus Zeal

Tom Edsall — arguably the best columnist at the New York Times — had another insightful exploration of the Trump era this week. A huge part of it is psychology. When the world is changing super-fast, when immigration is at a peak not seen for a hundred years, when gays are getting married and couples are having “theybys,” when a free society is routinely described as “white supremacy,” and your daughter in high school is sharing a locker room with a girl who seems to have male genitals, you can have at least a couple of polarized psychological responses. You can panic or embrace it, you can freak out and try to halt the changes or you can whoop for joy and demand ever more radical moves. You can lament, like Mr. Garrison, “Where has my country gone?” or you can see the new developments as a mere down payment on future “social justice” and human liberation. And those indeed seem to be the most common reactions in 21st century America.

This is what Edsall calls the division between the fixed and the fluid, between those who respond to massive change with anxiety and those who find great hope, even excitement, in it. Specific policies are not the galvanizing issue here — they just provide moments for the core feelings to express themselves; we’re talking fundamental psychological orientations, not political philosophies. I think of it as fear versus zeal. Or in another scholarly formulation cited by Edsall, “a divide between those who place heavy value on social order and cohesion relative to those who value personal autonomy and independence.” And increasingly, there is vanishingly less space in our culture, or either political party, to represent some kind of mix of the two, to have a moderate and less emotional response, to see progress but also sympathize with those blindsided by it. In fact, we keep sorting ourselves ever more relentlessly into purer and purer versions of both fear and zeal.

I’m a broken record on why this kind of self-perpetuating tribalism is so poisonous. But on the right, the fear pulsating through the collective veins — the caravan! the caravan! — has morphed into what can only be called a leader-cult. In the words of one academic: there’s a “wish for a strong leader who will force others to submit. The premise is that evil is afoot; that money, the media and government authority — and even ‘politically correct’ moral authority — have been usurped by undeserving interlopers. The desire for a domineering leader is the desire to see this evil crushed.” When you fear social cohesion is unraveling, borders are open, and markets are merciless, your psyche is not in a place to think very rationally about how to fix various problems, with remedies crafted to specific ends, debated by legislators and in the press, and constantly slowed by constitutional bottlenecks and hurdles. It’s in a place to find a strongman whose very style and essence you can repose your total trust in.

When conservatism is drained of its liberal strains — its constitutional persnicketiness, its defense of due process, its support for free markets and free trade, its suspicion of centralized power — it segues ever more quickly into authoritarianism. In this mode, conservatives want to hear no counterarguments, and before too long, if a classic authoritarian demagogue capitalizes on the fear, conservatism can segue so easily into an authoritarian cult. It will slowly relinquish the very idea of self-government in favor of increasing delegation to the man who alone can fix everything.

That, it seems to me, is where we are on the right; a deep part of conservatism’s id is over-running its fragile superego (see torture, above). Conservative media provide the propaganda to sustain this cult (which is why Sinclair and Fox really do come across as state television); local politicians are now campaigning not on the issues, but on simple loyalty to the leader (see Todd Rokita’s primary ad for the Senate in Indiana); and the leader himself, having purged himself of all constraints and dissenters, now revels in his court-advisers, cocooned in the propaganda he has generated, and slowly attempting to rid the country of vibrant dissent and resistance (hence the truly disturbing war on the Washington Post).

What’s the worst thing you can do to energize this tendency? Jeff Greenfield is on the case. Publish a dumb op-ed by a liberal icon, John Paul Stevens, calling for the abolition of the Second Amendment, something that will never happen, but that will prove every right-wing paranoiac right about what the Democrats really want. Or better still, tweet out multiple times that “A Man Can Have a Uterus,” as Planned Parenthood recently did. Or better still, put out a tweet about Disney princesses (another Planned Parenthood gem), declaring “We need a princess who’s had an abortion … who’s pro-choice … who’s an undocumented immigrant … who’s actually a union worker … who’s trans.” Or have a liberal magazine hire but then fire a conservative writer because of his pro-life rhetoric. Or, if all else fails, get Hillary Clinton to say yet another dumb, condescending, polarizing thing that reminds people how much she loathes most of the people in the middle of this country, and how that feeling is fully reciprocated.

Unwinding the authoritarian impulse is the most urgent task for those of us on the center-right; just as tempering the zealotry of the social justice movement is the most urgent task for moderate liberals.

It’s not going very well, is it?

Prepping for the Next War

A lot has been written in the elite media about how Trump has cozied up to tyrants, sucked up to autocrats, and abandoned any pretense of America’s global commitment to supporting democracy. And so it has been a little gobsmacking to see how many gilded liberals have gathered around the public relations initiative by the young, belligerent, torturing dictator from Saudi Arabia, currently bent on subjecting millions of civilians in Yemen to terror, starvation, and disease by a relentless war on Shiites in that benighted country.

Dexter Filkins has a superb tour d’horizon of how this theocratic Arab tyrant seized power over the last few years (using torture, naturally). And yet so many media liberals are swooning over the Crown Prince’s apparent willingness to co-exist with the state of Israel, his alleged commitment to shifting Saudi Arabia’s economy away from oil, his supposedly Western inclinations and leaning toward liberalism … well, if you’ve been reading Tom Friedman, you’ll know the drill.

It is, to my mind, preposterous bullshit — but with so many billions of dollars being thrown around by the Saudis, a lot of the usual suspects are pretending to buy it. But it’s much more dangerous than that as well. This administration is clearly preparing for a war against Iran; it will soon likely tear up the deal which has successfully kept Iran’s nuclear ambitions restrained, leading to an Iranian rush to build a nuclear bomb (to balance Israel’s); it needs to demonize the Iran regime as effectively as Bush demonized Saddam’s in order to construct a casus belli; and it also needs to rehabilitate the 9/11 sponsors in Saudi in order to sell the next Gulf War.

All of which is now in full swing. John Bolton calls the shots — and he favors preemptive war. Trump’s dauphin — the corrupt, mute mediocrity, Jared Kushner — immediately warmed to his Saudi equivalent, and has been eagerly trying to get the Sunni Arab world to sell out the Palestinians, ally with Israel, tacitly endorse the annexation of almost all the West Bank and then help him take on their mutual foe, Iran.

Worse, on cue, so many of those who backed the Iraq War are now issuing rather familiar warnings about Iran. Jeffrey Goldberg’s interview of MBS in The Atlantic stands out in this. It was a vehicle for self-evident, cynical bullshit from the crown prince, ginning up the case for war (along with some surreal defenses of absolute monarchy and the usual, hilarious denial of having any knowledge of what Wahhabism is). And MBS knew who he was talking to. Goldberg, a passionate defender of Israel, has been doing what he can to raise the alarm about Iran for years now. (He relented a little during the Obama years.) And so MBS offered him a vague offer to accept some kind of Jewish presence in the Middle East and a view of the Iranian supreme leader as “making Hitler look good.” And that, in due course, is what The Atlantic emphasized in its presentation of the interview. Not that subtle, really, is it?

I have no time for the despicable Iranian regime, although the gamble that it could be forced to abstain from nuclear brinksmanship has been proven right. But the case that it is in America’s interests to take a firm side in the Sunni-Shiite feud in the Middle East — and simply back the Sunnis — makes no sense to me. American power is, in my view, best wielded through playing the two sides off each other, and providing some way for co-existence without devastating conflict. We have no interest whatever in the Shiite-Sunni theological struggles which now go back centuries. Yes, we should cautiously encourage any kind of democratic opening in Saudi Arabia (though count me super-skeptical), just as we should (and have) in Iran. But another war — this time for the Sunnis? Led by the neoconservatives? In defense of an absolute monarchy? In a cynical alliance with the Israeli far right? This is what this Saudi charm offensive is all about. And all of Washington seems to be falling for it.

See you next Friday.

Trump Isn’t Merely Tolerating Torture — He’s Celebrating It