Saturday, August 09, 2008

Ivan's ghost

I call on all governments to join with the United States and the community of law-abiding nations in prohibiting, investigating, and prosecuting all acts of torture and in undertaking to prevent other cruel and unusual punishment… Nowhere should the midnight knock foreshadow a nightmare of state-commissioned crime. The suffering of torture victims must end, and the United States calls on all governments to assume this great mission.
President George W. Bush. June 26, 2003

When Dan Levin was appointed to head the Office of Legal Counsel—the Deputy Attorney General whose legal judgments determine what is legal and what is not—in 2005, it fell to him to address the question that loomed as a brewing crisis deep inside the Bush Administration: What constituted torture, and were the interrogation practices that had come to be accepted as permissible at the CIA Black Sites and Guantanamo Bay—but which were rejected as torture by the FBI and many in the military—illegal under US and international law?

Levin, a meticulous lawyer, ultimately determined that he could only parse the meanings of suffering and pain, and offer guidance on the outer limits of suffering that agents of the United States government could legally inflict on prisoners, if he subjected himself to the interrogation practices that his opinion sought to judge. And so he did.

Levin’s actions defined the seriousness of purpose that characterized those who put their professional integrity and careers on the line to oppose the power of the Vice Presidency in the Bush Administration, and oppose the policies and practices that characterized the Dark Side of the Global War on Terror.

All Americans should read The Dark Side, Jane Mayer’s new book on the GWOT, and the battle that it depicts for the hearts, minds and soul of America that was fought between and among senior members of the Bush administration. Try as one might to view this as partisan treatise, one comes to the inescapable realization that it is about the seductive quality of retribution.

This is not a partisan issue for the simple reason—as Mayer has noted about her own post-9/11 sympathies—that in the early days following 9/11, New Yorkers—and Americans—of all political stripes, were little concerned by thoughts that our nation might overstep the bounds of legality, propriety and moral conduct in the GWOT that would unfold.

The apparent fact is that the interrogation practices at issue yielded little if any actionable intelligence. Now, we are left to look into the mirror as Americans and ponder the excesses that were done in our name, and that we condoned in the wake of the fear and moral outrage brought on by the 9/11 attacks. Excesses that were condoned and embraced as the price of fighting this new type of war that demanded extraordinary measures, even as those within the Administration with experience in these matters argued—almost to a man—the methods employed would not be effective.

This book forces the reader to consider questions far beyond the simple question of the effectiveness of torture as an intelligence tool—justified under the ticking bomb rationale and the popularity of the TV show 24. What about kidnapping and torturing an innocent bystander? Would intent or lack thereof suffice to provide protection against criminal charges or war crimes prosecution? What if the information gleaned from torture was not critical, or proved unreliable? What if years passed and the ticking bomb argument had long faded? What if at every step of the way, dissenters at senior levels argued that the actions were illegal? What if the FBI as an institution dissented and declined to participate, and the military leadership and legal counsel argued that the entire infrastructure put in place following 9/11 was a legal and moral violation of the nation’s history and purpose?

Now, as we recognize the passing of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, we have to consider where we go from here. Where do we go as a nation that willfully embraced inhumane and illegal actions not in pursuit of information, but for the satisfactions of retribution. As we recall the Life of Ivan Denisovich—the iconic symbolic of a government’s abuse of power—we must now consider our complicity in the life of Khaled el-Masri, a German citizen who was kidnapped, flown to a secret prison and tortured—his life destroyed—all while his American overseers believed him to be innocent. Not Masri because he was one person caught up in Kafka’s nightmare, but because he was but one person caught up in a system of our creation that to this day the public believes was justified.

He who does battle with monsters needs to watch out lest he in the process becomes a monster himself. And if you stare too long into the abyss, the abyss will stare right back at you.
Frederich Neitzsche. Beyond Good and Evil

Read Mayer’s book. Consider the comment of a CIA official involved in the Masri affair when George Tenet, Condi Rice and Colin Powell debated the need to tell the German government what they had done to one of their citizens, “For guys who are basically running ‘Kidnap Inc.’ they sure were pretty squeamish.”

How squeamish will we be when forced to come to grips with the events that transpired? What happens when on a trip to Europe, Dick Cheney or Alberto Gonzales or one of many others is arrested and presented with an indictment on war crimes or criminal conspiracy charges by Germany, on behalf of Khaled el-Masri, or some other nation whose citizens were caught in our web? How will the American President lead the nation through the outrage that will ensue?

For all of the talk of post-partisanship, the demands on America’s new president to lead us through the recriminations that will ensue will be trying. The true test of leadership will be how the president we select is able to temper the emotions of their own partisans, and lead us as a nation through an acceptance of the facts and a resolution of the direction forward. John McCain or Barack Obama may face challenges on the economy and the wars, but the greatest challenge may well be leading us through the miasma of emotions and politics that will ensue as we finally come to grips with what has become of us.

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