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Gulags and Torture

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Who Watches the Watchmen? The CIA.

“The criminal referral may be related to what several knowledgeable people said was CIA monitoring of computers used by Senate aides to prepare the study…The development marks an unprecedented breakdown in relations between the CIA and its congressional overseers amid an extraordinary closed-door battle over the 6,300-page report on the agency’s use of waterboarding and harsh interrogation techniques on suspected terrorists held in secret overseas prisons. The report is said to be a searing indictment of the program.”

On top of all their recent bad behavior, the CIA has apparently been spying on researchers for the Senate oversight committee, who have been (at last) inquiring in-depth into the agency’s Dubya-era torture regime. “The report details how the CIA misled the Bush administration and Congress about the use of [torture]…It also shows, members have said, how the techniques didn’t provide the intelligence that led the CIA to the hideout in Pakistan where Osama bin Laden was killed in a 2011 raid by Navy SEALs.” But…but…that was in Zero Dark Thirty!

In any event, Senator Dianne Feinstein, chairwoman of the relevant committee and usually an enabler and/or cheerleader for this sort of egregious intelligence overreach, had this to say: “‘There is an I.G. investigation’…Asked about the tension between the committee and the spy agency it oversees, Ms. Feinstein said, ‘Our oversight role will prevail.’” Oversight, eh? That’d be new and different.

Doctors of Depravity.

“‘It’s clear that in the name of national security, the military trumped (the Hippocratic Oath), and physicians were transformed into agents of the military and performed acts that were contrary to medical ethics and practice,’ said Gerald Thomson, a retired Columbia professor of medicine and coauthor of the study.”

A new report by Columbia’s Institute of Medicine examines doctors’ (continuing) complicity in our recent torture regime. “Putting on a uniform does not and should not abrogate the fundamental principles of medical professionalism…’Do no harm’ and ‘put patient interest first’ must apply to all physicians regardless of where they practice.”

Heisenberg? Try Cheney.

“Americans are, like Walter White, a self-justifying sort. We see ourselves as exceptional. Often times we behave as if the rules that apply to the rest of the world, rules we want constraining them, don’t and needn’t really apply to us…Take it from The New York Times, our paper of record. Other nations forcing water into a prisoner’s lungs is torture. When we do it? Enhanced interrogation. America doesn’t torture. We’re the good guys!”

A late but welcome reassessment from Conor Friedersdorf: Breaking Bad as an analogy for post-9/11 America. “The world dealt us an unfair blow, and we used it as an excuse to break bad…We became inured to the selfishness of our actions. We slid predictably down the slope upon which we stepped, and the farther we go the uglier it gets. We haven’t hit bottom yet or anything close to it.”

More than Words.

“And yet, as our fight enters a new phase, America’s legitimate claim of self-defense cannot be the end of the discussion. To say a military tactic is legal, or even effective, is not to say it is wise or moral in every instance. For the same human progress that gives us the technology to strike half a world away also demands the discipline to constrain that power — or risk abusing it.”

Didn’t get to this before heading out for a Memorial Day weekend camping trip: As y’all know by now, President Obama delivered a much-hailed State of the War on Terror address at the National Defense University, during which he called for the eventual repeal of AUMF, tighter oversight of drone strikes, and the closing of the Gitmo Gulag at last. “Our systematic effort to dismantle terrorist organizations must continue. But this war, like all wars, must end. That’s what history advises. That’s what our democracy demands.”

Sounds great! When’s it happening? Er…well, that’s that trick, isn’t it? When it comes to the first promise — the repeal of AUMF — as Brooking’s Benjamin Witte noted: “Obama does not need Congress to narrow or repeal the AUMF or to get off of a war footing. He can do it himself, declaring hostilities over in whole or in part. And Obama, needless to say, did not do anything like that.”

Ok, what about drone strikes? As Fred Kaplan and others — including the heckler at the speech — have pointed out, President Obama did not promise to transfer drone strike authority from the CIA (where they remain covert) to the military (where there’s more possibility of oversight.) Nor did he pledge to end “signature strikes,” meaning the current practice of unleashing fiery death upon unknown parties because they seem to be acting shady. This “supposedly new, restrictive policy on drone strikes,writes Kaplan, “was neither new nor restrictive…In short, the speech heralded nothing new when it comes to drone strikes.”

Instead, Obama defended his drone policy as legal and effective. At one point, he asserted “for the record, I do not believe it would be constitutional for the government to target and kill any U.S. citizen — with a drone, or with a shotgun — without due process.” And then, in the very next paragraph, he asserts that particular executive prerogative in the matter of Anwar Awlaki — assassinated without due process. (FWIW, Obama is clearly using the Colbert reasoning here: “Trial by jury, trial by fire, rock, paper scissors, who cares? Due process just means that there is a process that you do. The current process is apparently, first the president meets with his advisers and decides who he can kill. Then he kills them.”)

As for Gitmo…well, we have been here before, so fool me once and all that. “‘The speech was deeply disappointing,’ says David Remes, a lawyer who has represented a number of Yemenis held at Guantanamo – adding that Obama only ‘created the illusion of forward momentum.’…The president has the power to issue national security waivers and direct the Secretary of Defense to certify detainee transfer if they are deemed not a national security threat – something human rights groups have been advocating. Didn’t hear much about that in the president’s address.

Yes, the paragraphs I quoted from the speech above at the onset are laudable, and yes, I suppose some people might find it vaguely comforting to know that the force of these issues weigh on the presidential mind in a way they didn’t between 2001 and 2008. But let’s be honest. It has been a troubling tendency of this administration — and by troubling tendency I mean signature pattern — to follow up lofty, progressive-minded rhetoric with absolutely no action of consequence. We need more than words from this president.

Yes, We Tortured.

“‘[I]t is indisputable that the United States engaged in the practice of torture’ and that the nation’s highest officials bore ultimate responsibility for it…The use of torture, the report concludes, has ‘no justification’ and ‘damaged the standing of our nation, reduced our capacity to convey moral censure when necessary and potentially increased the danger to U.S. military personnel taken captive.’ The task force found ‘no firm or persuasive evidence’ that these interrogation methods produced valuable information that could not have been obtained by other means.”

A “nonpartisan, independent review of interrogation and detention programs in the years after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks,” headed by two former Members of Congress (Republican Asa Hutchinson and Democrat James Jones) offers an in-depth investigative report on our national post-9/11 torture regime.

“The sweeping, 577-page report says that while brutality has occurred in every American war, there never before had been ‘the kind of considered and detailed discussions that occurred after 9/11 directly involving a president and his top advisers on the wisdom, propriety and legality of inflicting pain and torment on some detainees in our custody.’”

Of course, we have known all this for awhile now. And yet, just as with the folks who brought us the financial crisis, there has been zero accountability coming from Obama’s Justice Department or anywhere else. Instead, our powers-that-be have been too busy trying to round up purported public enemies like Bradley Manning and Aaron Swartz.

And yet, as this report unequivocally lays out, the evidence of an American torture regime, planned and carried out after 9/11 at the highest levels of government, is indisputable. For the rule of law’s sake as much as for the values we purportedly stand for, we still need a reckoning.

Hounding Private Manning.

“I hoped that the public would be as alarmed as me about the conduct of the aerial weapons team crew members. I wanted the American public to know that not everyone in Iraq and Afghanistan are targets that needed to be neutralized, but rather people who were struggling to live in the pressure cooker environment of what we call asymmetric warfare. After the release I was encouraged by the response in the media and general public, who observed the aerial weapons team video. As I hoped, others were just as troubled– if not more troubled that me by what they saw.”

While pleading guilty to 10 of the 22 charges against him, Bradley Manning makes a long and detailed statement about why he gave classified documents to Wikileaks. “The more I read the cables, the more I came to the conclusion that this was the type of information that– that this type of information should become public. I once read a, and used, a quote on open diplomacy written after the First World War and how the world would be a better place if states would avoid making secret pacts and deals with and against each other.”

See also this on Gitmo: “[T]he more I became educated on the topic, it seemed that we found ourselves holding an increasing number of individuals indefinitely that we believed or knew to be innocent, low level foot soldiers that did not have useful intelligence and would be released if they were still held in theater.”

I’m with Glenn Greenwald on this – Bradley Manning should be considered a hero, the Daniel Ellsberg of our day, and the real crime here is how terribly he’s been treated by the powers-that-be for a justifiable act of whistle-blowing. “He knew exactly what he was risking, what he was likely subjecting himself to. But he made the choice to do it anyway because of the good he believed he could achieve, because of the evil that he believed needed urgently to be exposed and combated, and because of his conviction that only leaks enable the public to learn the truth about the bad acts their governments are doing in secret.”

And, for this stand on idealism, we’ve kept Pvt. Manning locked in a cell for 23 hours a day and are (still) threatening him with life in prison. Meanwhile, this town is overrun with glib, useless assholes who don’t care about anyone but themselves, and those guys keep failing up. We hound and imprison our Swartzes and Mannings, while coddling and venerating the Dimons and Blankfeins of this world. Some system.

The Clown has a Point.


Hey all. Apologies yet again for the lack of updates around here. As I said a couple of times last year, I’m still figuring out where the old Ghost fits in the scheme of life these days. There’s a negative feedback loop happening where I don’t post at GitM that often, so fewer people swing by here, so there are no comments or feedback on the posts that I do spend some time on, which makes me even less inclined to post, so thus even fewer people swing by here…you get the point.

I was thinking of starting up the movie reviews around here again for 2013, but having just spent a looong time on another giant project that few if any will ever peruse, I’m not really seeing the point of dedicating myself to spending even more hours of my day writing long-winded reviews that nobody ever reads. It’s just a lot of work with very little gain. I’ve been writing this blog for over 13 years and the reviews for over ten — If either were ever going to gain an audience, they would have done so by now.

As for politics…eh. On the domestic front, all reasonable and common-sense attempts at achieving forward progress have been stymied for years now, mainly because of bipartisan infatuation with a totally fake problem. Sure, Obama (finally) talked a good game last night about climate change, voting rights, infrastructure, equal pay, housing, the minimum wage — things we expected from a progressive president four years ago, and that would undeniably make a profound difference for a lot of American families. But this is year five of this presidency — We know the score by now. When push comes to shove, he’ll be promoting Simpson-Bowles nonsense, extolling the Grand Bargain again, and advocating a chained CPI, all because, presumably, those evil, evil Republicans made him. Good cop, bad cop.

Over on foreign policy, our Hope-and-Change president has accorded himself the power to kill anyone he so desires by executive fiat. And the response? Ostensible progressives back this ridiculous play, and a full 83% of America is totally cool with Death from Above without due process. Awesome.

Speaking of due process, it is flat-out-ridiculous that we live in a world where Aaron Swartz was hounded to suicide by a DoJ-enabled Javert for freeing up JSTOR articles, of all things, and Bradley Manning is kept in a tiny box as Public Enemy #1 for exposing bad behavior by the military. And yet, our national torture experiment has still gone unpunished (because, hey, it worked!), and not a single bankster of note has been prosecuted, despite the massive levels of fraud that have been exposed and that brought the American economy to its knees. To the contrary, the president can’t stop asking self-serving and patently corrupt assholes like Jamie Dimon and Lloyd Blankfein how we can better structure our public policy to cater to their whims.

Admittedly, I partake in it myself semi-often, but I’m just tired of a Twitter-driven political-journalism culture that seems to think that the lulz of Marco Rubio being really thirsty is a more pressing issue to cover than the myriad holes in his obviously stupid, self-serving, and faith-based ideas. Or that Jack Lew having a funny signature is a more vital point to discuss about the probable next Treasury Secretary than whatever the hell he was doing at Citigroup when the goddamned house was burning down.

I hate on the hipster Twitter kids, but establishment journalism is even worse. We live in a world where the totally inane Politico rules the roost and “wins the day”. Where our papers of record will keep warrantless wiretaps and drone bases quiet for years because the powers-that-be asked them to. Where idiot right-leaning “centrists” like David Brooks, David Gergen, Gloria Borger, and Cokie Roberts are queried for their inane views constantly, even though they don’t know anything and have never done anything with their lives but constantly mouth Beltway platitudes as if they were Holy Scripture. Where “journalists” like Chuck Todd, John King, and Jake Tapper — the latter of whom, let’s remember, made it big by kissing-and-telling on his Big Date with Monica Lewinsky — are taken seriously because they tsk-tsk about deficits like Serious People™ and passively nod along whenever obvious liars are lying. This isn’t journalism. It’s Court Stenography, Versailles-on-the-Potomac.

Ain’t no use jiving. Ain’t no use joking. Everything is broken. So, no, I don’t feel particularly inclined to talk about politics these days either, because there’s only so many times you can bellow in rage about it all, especially when nobody swings by this little corner of the Internet anyway. I’m not officially quitting GitM or anything, but let’s be honest. I’m not really what sure when, if ever, it’ll get its groove back. I’m not sure I see the point. And besides, as Richard said, a withdrawal in disgust is not the same as apathy.

The Leader and his Drones.

It is literally impossible to conceive of any mindset more at odds with…basic principles than the one that urges that Barack Obama – unlike George Bush or Mitt Romney or whoever the scary GOP villain of the day is – can be trusted to unilaterally and secretly kill or imprison or surveil anyone he wants because he is a Good man and a trustworthy leader and therefore his unproven accusations should be assumed true. But this is, overwhelmingly, the warped and authoritarian sentiment that now prevails in the bulk of the Democratic Party and its self-identified ‘progressive’ faction, just as it did in the GOP and its conservative wing for eight years.”

Upon the revelation that the Obama administration finally moved to codify a drone policy — but only in case they lost the election and Romney took up the Ring of Power instead — Glenn Greenwald calls out the many Democrats who have forsaken their prior civil liberties stances to prop up this sort of obviously unconstitutional behavior by “Our Team.”

See also Marcy Wheeler on this issue, who along with offering an informed and in-depth view of the big picture, has unleashed some devastating tweets of late. To wit: “Shorter Scott Shane: Drone Rule Book exists for NYT A1, but not for ACLU’s grubby little FOIAs.

I’ve said this before, but there’s an easy available metaphor to explain why what the administration is doing here is so unhealthy and reprehensible. As with the Ring, so too with indefinite detention, state secrets, extrajudicial assassinations, unmitigated use of drones, and the rest of the dark tools comprising today’s GWOT arsenal. It does not matter who tries to wield them — they will corrupt regardless, not to mention leave a trail of undeserving dead in their wake.

The Change is Us. It Has to Be.

So, how about that Election Night? Once you factor in that the ridiculous gerry-mandering of 2010, coupled with Obama’s terrible, coattail-cutting first debate performance, killed any chance of Democrats retaking the House, Tuesday night went about as well as it possibly could. Every swing state except North Carolina swung blue. The Senate kept some of its best progressives (Sanders, Brown) and added a few more very promising contenders (Warren, Baldwin). Gay marriage and marijuana decriminalization both made important footholds. California moved to end Howard Jarvis’ Tax Revolt, now in its fourth decade. And the Republicans — again, the House notwithstanding — were routed, and their cruel Ayn Rand-inflected ideology decisively repudiated at the polls.

All things considered, it was a great night, and all the more for what it portended about elections to come. Ever-growing in recent years, the Rising American Electorate — unmarried women, people under 30, people of color — showed its power on Tuesday night, displaying its centrality as the backbone of our new Democratic coalition and sending Karl Rove, Bill O’Reilly, and other White Men of a Certain Age into very public paroxysms of despair. (Good times. Enjoy that 2004 experience, y’all.) And while the Republican base is looking long in the tooth these days, our Democratic coalition is only continuing to grow.

As I noted in 2010, even despite the dismal showing then, demography is destiny, and the rest of the country is and will continue to experience Californication. Today we got the first taste of what a really multicultural America will be like at the polls. See also David Simon of The Wire and Treme on this: “A man of color is president for the second time, and this happened despite a struggling economic climate and a national spirit of general discontent. He has been returned to office over the specific objections of the mass of white men. He has instead been re-elected by women, by people of color, by homosexuals, by people of varying religions or no religion whatsoever. Behold the New Jerusalem. Not that there’s anything wrong with being a white man, of course. There’s nothing wrong with being anything. That’s the point.

So, all in all, 2012 was a great victory for we progressives, and things are suddenly looking up. But, of course, we’ve been here before.

I really hope President Obama and his closest advisors are looking at the same demographic realities as the rest of us, and that he decides to spend his second term governing closer to what he promised back in 2008. But I trusted in hope last time around, and, needless to say, that didn’t get it done.

The fact of the matter is our Democratic standard-bearer, at least up to this point, is behaving and governing in a fashion that is clearly to the right of the growing Democratic base that got him elected and now re-elected. No more benefit of the doubt: It is up to us to put pressure on this administration to make sure they hold to the promises they’ve made. That work has to begin right now.

We all know what’s coming up first, and Glenn Greenwald already laid out the dismal pattern we can expect — and need to break — on the Grand Bargain front. True to form, Peter Orszag — and what does it say about our president’s priorities that he staffed up his first administration with this kind of jackass? — has already sent out the let’s-fiddle-with-social-security trial balloon. Erskine Bowles’ name has been aggressively floated as the new SecTreas and High Inquisitor in the matter of the Deficit Witches. By all accounts, President Obama seems to think he can play Nixon-in-China on Social Security and Medicare. But this is not at all why voters gave him a Democratic mandate, and that’s exactly the sort of wrong-headed notion, coupled with Katrina, that turned the electorate against Dubya in 2005.

In his victory speech on Tuesday night, President Obama continued his recent turn toward the progressive rhetoric of citizenship and self-government. He said: “The role of citizens in our Democracy does not end with your vote. America’s never been about what can be done for us. It’s about what can be done by us together through the hard and frustrating, but necessary work of self-government. That’s the principle we were founded on.”

On one hand, I should be overjoyed that the President has taken this rhetorical turn, since it’s something I’ve been pushing for here for as long as GitM has been running. At the same time, President Obama has shown over the years an irritating penchant for co-opting progressive rhetoric only to serve centrist, corporatist, and/or neoliberal ends. It would be a shame if we let that happen again.

A presidency really concerned with fostering civic responsibility and self-government would look quite different than the one we have experienced up to this point. In the strictest and most literal sense, it would acknowledge, sometime before the second-term election night, that both our voting and campaign finance systems have been broken for decades, and require a significant overhaul. But, even more than that, a philosophy of encouraging citizenship and self-government presupposes different priorities and different policies.

First and foremost, to paraphrase Franklin Roosevelt, it would recognize that necessitous men and women are not free men and women, and work harder to ensure everyone has the basic economic liberty to choose their own path through life. It would not, to take just one example, make the center of their housing reform a foreclosure program designed to help banks rather than homeowners.

An administration advocating citizenship and self-government would do more to emphasize the fundamental importance of education at all levels, and invest mightily not just in schools and teachers but in after-school programs, early childhood education, anti-poverty and anti-hunger initiatives, and all the other efforts that can help alleviate the various and persistent environmental factors limiting children’s potential in America. That requires a significantly different and more comprehensive approach to the education issue than simply competitive grants that reward grant-writing skills and teaching to the test.

It would mean emphasizing a conception of citizenship that is broader and richer than just a world of workers, consumers, and automatons — one that, as per Walt Whitman, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Herbert Croly, encourages introspection, critical thinking, and self-exploration. This is a hard nut to crack, of course. But at the very least we could fight to give more men and women freedom from the necessities of work to do whatever it is they want to do. We are not just our jobs, or at least we shouldn’t be, unless that’s what we want. That means pushing for a higher minimum wage, equal pay for men and women holding the same job, increasing access to affordable child care, more worker protections, and a shorter work week.

Emphasizing self-government only works if the political system remains accountable to its citizens. That means, along with voting and campaign finance reform, working to break the hold of any particular special interest over the political process — namely, corporate power. But as Matt Stoller, Glenn Greenwald, and others have noted, this administration has perpetuated and even accelerated a two-tiered system of political and economic justice in America. The losses of bankers and corporate elites have been subsidized by the public, even when they clearly broke the law. Meanwhile, the average homeowner and debtor has been disparaged and left on their own underneath a crushing burden — so much so that inequality has actually increased over the last four years. Similarly, the Bush-era torture regime has been swept under the rug, while whistleblowers have been aggressively prosecuted. This will not do.

Meanwhile, even though Obama himself has been a user of illcit drugs, as have the last several presidents, there has been no attempt at all by this administration to undo the drug war destroying communities and putting so many in jail — Quite the contrary, in fact. Nor has this administration done anything to stop the reprehensible practice of private prisons selling their “workforce” as forced labor.

Citizenship is a bond — Being a citizen means that one is part of a larger community and has a stake in it, a sense that we’re all in it together. So emphasizing citizenship means investing in big projects and big ideas that bring the American community together in larger purpose, from a massive rebuilding of America’s infrastructure to a re-energized space program to a WWII-sized response to the climate change crisis. Instead, this administration has trafficked in deficit hysteria for several years, and clearly plans to bring another dose of it in the months and years to come. Meanwhile, the biggest project we have been involved with as a people in recent years is expending blood and treasure on remaking Afghanistan and Iraq. This, it is now clear, has been not just a considerable waste of public resources, but a policy that has resulted in thousands and thousands of lives lost around the world.

Especially in America, where we are tied together not by blood but by an idea, being a citizen also means agreeing on a story — a shared narrative that ties the members of the community together. Because our connection is a story — even a fiction, some might say — it is all the more important that our government uphold the founding values of that story. (As Charles Pierce eloquently argues here, this is why Obama’s re-election is important independent of everything else — it reaffirms our conviction that race is no longer any barrier to the highest office in the land.) But, quite obviously, this administration has not lived up to our founding ideals in many ways, especially with regard to how it has prosecuted the War on Terror. As Mark Danner says in the piece I just linked, “President Obama has taken a position so strongly in favor of unremitting military violence that he has left his Republican rival, struggle though he may to shoulder his way past him, no place to stand.” And let’s be honest: As a party, we Democrats utterly failed to call the president out on this.

So, yes, an emphasis on citizenship and self-government could very well be the basis of a new progressive politics. But, unless he makes a marked shift from his first term, I fear this president is just going to use these words as a new rhetorical toolbox to push for more half-assed, neo-liberal Third Wayisms and lousy Republican ideas from the mid-80′s. We face dire problems in this country, and yet this administration is somehow afraid to even consider the time-tested New Deal ideas, from public works to the HOLC, that worked in the past.

The only way President Obama will make that progressive shift, it is now clear, is if the American people push him in that direction. In this, what Obama said on election night is absolutely correct. No matter what the president has said on the campaign trail, we can no longer hope this administration will bring change we can believe in. He is going to have to be forced into it by a Democratic electorate that refuses to accept anything less. It’s not a coincidence that the two progressive reforms Obama finally embraced this year — same-sex marriage and the DREAM Act — were ones that had passionate, vocal, and uncompromising reform movements behind them.

The election results showed that progressives are and can be ascendant in America. But we need to be much tougher on this administration than we have been in the past. Lip service to good intentions and progressive ideals is no longer satisfactory. And that hard work of keeping this administration in line has to begin right now, before the tentpoles of our current social insurance system are chipped away at by way of Grand Bargain.

Democrats just elected this president for a second time, and we don’t want to see any more compromising with and capitulating to economic terrorists. It is past time for this president and this administration to do right by us.

The New Haymarket.

What I said last year stands. The world doesn’t need any more 9/11 retrospectives. Still, this NASA picture from that dark day is pretty impressive, so there’s that.

I will say this: Since last week we watched Democrats — Democrats — chant USA, call out Mitt Romney for being insufficiently for the troops, and all but roll the severed head of Osama Bin Laden out on stage, perhaps it’s time to regain a little perspective.

9/11 was a horrible crime that demanded justice. It was also an event, it has now become clear, that could have and should have been prevented by the Dubya administration using traditional, pre-9/11 intelligence methods. Since that dark day, nine people have died in our indefinite detention prison camp at GitMo. The only person being prosecuted for the Dubya-era torture regime is the whistleblower. And we’re now set to unleash a wave of SKYNET-like drones over our own territory in the name of keeping us safe.

It’s long past time to stop compounding the tragedy of what happened in New York and Washington eleven years ago by shredding the constitution in response. It’s time to get back to being America again.

Straight Talk about Torture.


I don’t mourn the loss of any terrorist’s life. What I do mourn is what we lose when by official policy or official neglect we confuse or encourage those who fight this war for us to forget that best sense of ourselves. Through the violence, chaos and heartache of war, through deprivation and cruelty and loss, we are always Americans, and different, stronger and better than those who would destroy us.

Showing a flash of his 2000 self in today’s WaPo op-ed page, John McCain argues anew that torture is un-American — and that Bush water-carriers like Michael Mukasey are lying about its efficacy in the Bin Laden hunt. He then followed up with a Senate speech to the same effect:

“In fact, not only did the use of ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ on Khalid Sheikh Mohammed not provide us with key leads on bin Laden’s courier, Abu Ahmed; it actually produced false and misleading information…In short, it was not torture or cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment of detainees that got us the major leads that ultimately enabled our intelligence community to find Osama bin Laden.

Confederates at Gitmo.


The military trial of civilians is an atrocity!” Why, yes, yes it is. And, if you didn’t think so already, Robert Redford’s The Conspirator, an occasionally flat but still edutaining courtroom drama, aims to sway you to that point of view by coming strong with the history — in this case, the 1865 trial of Mary Surratt for her alleged role in the murder of President Lincoln.

The good news is The Conspirator is nowhere near as preachy and inert as Redford’s last attempt at liberal muck-raking, Lions for Lambs. (I’ll confess I don’t have much patience for didactic message movies that bray at me to embrace opinions i already hold — See also Paul Greengrass’ Green Zone.) Nonetheless, this film still occasionally suffers from the same mix of well-meaning blandness and dramatic torpor that characterizes almost all of Amistad, Steven Spielberg’s similar 19th century courtroom exercise: The values being reified are all laudable, to be sure, but the story as told is strangely lifeless (and I say that as someone who probably enjoys the genre of movies-to-be-shown-in-high-school-history-when-the-teacher-is-out more than most.)

Fortunately, the movie grew on me after awhile. Its depiction of broader Washington DC often feels stagy, and some of the acting support here doesn’t help matters. (As Surratt’s daughter Anna, Evan Rachel Wood overdoes it in her every scene, and the very 21st-century Justin Long is just miscast here as a Union veteran.) But as the lens of the story narrows down to the nitty-gritty of the court case in its middle hour, The Conspirator finds a surer footing. At its best moments, Redford’s film feels like an episode of Law and Order: Civil War Unit, one whose resonances — military tribunals, indefinite detentions, victor’s justice, and whatnot — still feel “ripped from the headlines.”

After establishing that our protagonist here, Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy, with an impressive American accent — he should help out his countryman Ewan) is a Union war veteran wounded in his nation’s service, The Conspirator begins with the terrible crime that will concern us. On the night of April 14, 1865, only five days after Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, several men attempt to kill President Lincoln, Vice-President Johnson, and Secretary of State Seward, with mixed results. Seward manages to survive some nasty stab wounds, Johnson’s killer loses his nerve…but, as we all know, the flamboyant actor-turned-assassin John Wilkes Booth manages to kill the 16th President of the United States in cold blood. It is a horrible act of treason, the first assassination America has ever seen, and, make no mistake, everyone involved will pay.

And so, under the direction of Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (Kevin Kline, only slightly less Cheneyesque than Richard Dreyfuss in W) the conspirators (minus Booth, who is shot during capture) are rounded up and put on, for all intent and purposes, show trial — one headed by military men and quite clearly designed to come back with guilty verdicts. (FWIW, this film mostly elides over the Manhunt part of the story.) Nonetheless, according to that quaint old Constitution, even such dastardly criminals as these deserve defense counsel, and ultimately the young Union lawyer we met at the outset is roped into defending Mary Surratt (Robin Wright) by his mentor, Maryland senator Reverdy Johnson (Tom Wilkinson).

Captain Aiken takes to his new position reluctantly, especially since he feels pretty certain that Surratt — the proprietress of the boarding house where the conspirators plotted — is guilty as all Hell. But as he learns more of Surratt and her pious Christian, Ur-mother ways, he starts to wonder if maybe she’s just taking the fall for her son John (Johnny Simmons of Jennifer’s Body), who is still on the lam. And, as he grows ever more sick of the obvious railroading happening at trial under the direction of Judge David Hunter (Colm Meaney) and prosecutor Joseph Holt (Danny Huston, doing his officiously sinister bureaucrat thing), Aiken becomes a convert to his duties, even as proper Washington society begins to shun him for seeming to take on the Confederate cause. Sometimes a man has to make a stand, etc. etc.

I don’t know much about the Mary Surratt trial other than what Wiki has to offer, so I can’t tell you if Redford and screenwriter James Solomon have done justice to the specifics of the story — It seems to have a versimilitude about it, at any rate. But one place where I thought The Conspirator faltered is in establishing the Big Picture. True, the film begins grimly with Lincoln’s assassination — hard to fault it there, I suppose. But particularly once the courtroom scenes take hold, it doesn’t do a very good job of putting everything in emotional context — that all of this is happening mere days and weeks right after the close of America’s bloodiest war. (Nor, for that matter, is slavery mentioned.) And so, while the Law and Order aspects of the story are often compelling in their own right, the trial also feels flat, and strangely disconnected from all the events that put it in motion.

Which is too bad, really. Since, if anything, that Civil War backdrop adds depth to the viewpoint Redford seemed to be trying to uphold. There we were after four years of bloody war, 600,000 dead and the president assassinated, and Aiken is still taking a stand for the constitutional rights of Mary Surratt — even though an innocent verdict might well put the sides at each other’s throats again. (Contrast this with the cowardly behavior our past two administrations have shown with regard to tribunals, detentions, Gitmo, etc, even though, neither on 9/11 or since, has Al Qaeda ever represented the kind of existential threat to our republic that we faced in 1865.)

Speaking of the Civil War angle: In a way, I admire the shrewdness of this film: It tries to pitch a civil liberties morality play in such a way that the people who will feel most aggrieved about the injustices being shown, civil libertarians notwithstanding, are the folks among us with residual sympathy for the Confederacy — not normally a left-leaning or libertarian bunch. But, let’s get real: They’re not going to see this film, or, if they do, see it as anything other than lefty propaganda. Like Inside Job or Casino Jack and the United States of Money, The Conspirator is for the most part just preaching to the choir. One of the best things you can say about it is that, for the middle hour at least, you may not mind humming along.

Obama Ghraib.

“‘There can be no conceivable justification for requiring a soldier to surrender all his clothing, remain naked in his cell for seven hours, and then stand at attention the subsequent morning,’ he wrote. ‘This treatment is even more degrading considering that Pfc. Manning is being monitored — both by direct observation and by video — at all times.‘”

Sometimes I don’t post here because I’m really busy. Sometimes I don’t post here because the news is too damned depressing: The United States takes another big step towards Miniluv by applying Dubya-era torture and intimidation techniques to an American citizen in custody for leaking, Bradley Manning. (Y’see, it’s a four lights = five lights kinda thing. Manning has to break — and then, like Zubadayah and KSM, voice untruths — for there to be any sort of possible criminal conspiracy case against Wikileaks.)

What is there to say, really? State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley already correctly stated that this abusive treatment of Manning was “ridiculous, counterproductive, and stupid,” and, within days, he was fired for stating the obvious.

The president, meanwhile, assures us everything is ok because the Pentagon said so: “I have actually asked the Pentagon whether or not the procedures that have been taken in terms of his confinement are appropriate and are meeting our basic standards. They assure me that they are.” This, as Glenn Greenwald (who’s been on top of this all the way) points out, is exactly the same rationale Dubya used to use: “‘When [Bush] asked ‘the most senior legal officers in the U.S. government’ to review interrogation methods, ‘they assured me they did not constitute torture.’” Well, ok then.

So let’s review. Dubya’s administration constructs an illegal and unconstitutional torture regimeNobody goes to jail, and nothing changes. (Look forward, not backward!) The Dubya administration lies to the American people in order to prosecute a war of choice in Iraq. Nobody goes to jail, and nothing changes. Through greed and outright fraud, Wall Street traders implode the global economy to the tune of trillions of dollars, and, with the convenient exception of Bernie Madoff, nobody goes to jail, and nothing changes. (Synthetic junk, anyone?) Big banks continue their crime spree by engaging in a massive epidemic of foreclosure fraud, and nobody goes to jail (but we’ll make them promise not to do it again!)

Oh, and an Army private leaks “secret” documents (so secret they were available to millions of people) because “[h]e wanted people held accountable and wanted to see this didn’t happen again” — the very definition of whistleblowing — and now we’re treating him like Winston Smith. (Then again, our president does despise whistleblowers.)

Should Manning be in U.S. custody right now? Yes. He took an oath to the United States military and, knowing full well the consequences, broke it in an act of civil disobedience. If you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime — I get that. But should Manning be abused and tortured in U.S. custody? Of course not — Nobody should be. In fact, I thought we elected Barack Obama as president to make sure this never happened again.

Nope, sorry. Instead, President Obama fired Crowley and is owning what’s happening to Manning right now. He also just reinstated and normalized indefinite detentions at Gitmo. (Obama the constitutional scholar? Meet the Fifth and Sixth Amendments.) And when not perpetuating Dubya-era illegalities, he (and new lefty-bashing chief of staff) spend their days talking up the deficit, talking down regulation, and hoping the Chamber and the NRA take their meetings. Feel those winds of change, y’all. (Obama meme pic above via here.)

Update: “Based on 30 years of government experience, if you have to explain why a guy is standing naked in the middle of a jail cell, you have a policy in need of urgent review.P.J. Crowley reflects on his recent firing. “I stand by what I said. The United States should set the global standard for treatment of its citizens – and then exceed it. It is what the world expects of us. It is what we should expect of ourselves.

Enemy of the State.


“‘To the extent there are gaps in our laws,’ Holder continued, ‘we will move to close those gaps, which is not to say…that anybody at this point, because of their citizenship or their residence, is not a target or a subject of an investigation that’s ongoing.

After another embarrassing document dump by Wikileaksthis time diplomatic cables, next time Bank of America? — Attorney General Holder threatens the prosecution of Julian Assange, an Australian citizen — most likely under the Espionage Act, the same catch-all 1917 law used to lock up Eugene Debs back in the day.

First of all, Gawker‘s John Cook has already explained why this attempted line of prosecution doesn’t work. However docile the “nation’s watchdogs” remain on any other given day, the newspapers that published these leaks would have to be considered co-conspirators in any Espionage Act-related indictment. “We think its fairly obvious that the Department of Justice won’t go after the Times or any of the other papers involved in the story. But if it doesn’t, that’s just evidence that its attempt to use the Espionage Act to go after Assange isn’t about enforcing laws: It’s about retribution, harassment, and rattling sabers.

Secondly, if Assange wants to avoid federal prosecution, perhaps he should just…I dunno…torture somebody? Or maybe rip off the American people for trillions of dollars? Or how ’bout just spying on Americans via warrantless wiretap? Apparently, disclosing those kinds of secrets is one of those look-forward-not-backward kinda things.

Let’s get real here. There’s no threat to our troops in these leaks — Even the Pentagon admits that. (A more overlooked problem, as a friend pointed out, is what this leak might mean for human rights workers.) Wikleaks’ methods are of the blunderbuss variety, yes. (That probably speaks in their favor: They don’t seem to tailor their leaks to suit a predetermined spin. They just dump data. And, hey, somebody should be doing the media’s job.) And, sure, Assange comes off as more than a bit pretentious, but what of it? If being a jackass were a crime, our prison system in this country would be completely broken…oh wait, it already is.

In the end, as Glenn Greenwald well put it, “our government and political culture is so far toward the extreme pole of excessive, improper secrecy that that is clearly the far more significant threat.” You’d think an administration that ran on unparalleled transparency in government might feel the same way. But, sadly, like its predecessor, the only crime this administration really seems to hate is whistleblowing.

Minority Report.


Imagine for a moment you are president of the United States.

You were just elected in the midst of a worsening economic crisis, one that demands bold action and decisive leadership to confront. Fortunately, you enter office with an historic wind at your back: You enjoy unprecedented enthusiasm and goodwill from millions of new voters, a clear mandate for change, and, most importantly, sizable majorities in both the House and Senate.

You also know that the political opposition — who hold a long and storied record of being ruthless, craven and despicable to get what they want — will try to prevent your agenda by any means necessary.

And, being a student of history, you know that, particularly in the face of a poor economy, this political opposition is very likely to pick up congressional seats in the next election (with a few notable exceptions, one of which I’ll get to in a moment.) In other words, a pendulum swing against you is highly probable, and so the majorities you have are probably as big as they are ever going to get.

Basically, you have two years, and likely two years only, to do pretty much anything you want in order to grapple with this economic crisis. Do you [a] take a page from FDR’s 100 Days, go big, and push hard for the progressive agenda you laid down in your election campaign, which has the added benefit of enthusing the “rising American electorate” that got you elected? Or do you [b] try to ingratiate yourself with people who will always hate you, water down your signature legislative initiatives from the outset, and seemingly go out of your way to depress the lefty base that got you elected?

I think you see where I’m going with this.

First things first, let’s be clear about why the Republicans took back the House so decisively two days ago.

1) It’s the Economy, Stupid. Though it may be mostly Dubya’s fault, the economy is obviously still in terrible shape. The official unemployment rate hovers just under the double-digits, and real unemployment and underemployment levels are much higher. Household incomes are down, consumer debt is up, millions of homeowners are stuck with underwater mortgages, and millions more feel in danger of slipping under. As everyone knows, when economic times are bad, the party in power suffers.

Compounding the situation, families are feeling under the gun at exactly the same time that those same wealthy few who precipitated the Great Recession are now rolling in dough. Having evaded pretty much any and all serious consequences for the meltdown they created, the Big Brains on Wall Street are instead giving themselves record bonuses, and trying to profit from even more rampant corruption on the foreclosure front. To no one does this ugly sight look like change we can believe in.

2) Republicans voted, Democrats didn’t. Again, not rocket science: Democrats lost because Republicans came out and Democrats stayed home. Look at the breakdown of exit polls: As per the norm in midterms, the 2010 electorate was older than the population at large. (23% of the vote versus 13% of the population.) And 57% of those seniors, worried that the threat of Creeping Socialism might somehow interfere with their federal retirement security and universal health care, pulled the lever for Republicans.

Conversely, 29 million Obama voters did not show up to vote. “Hispanics, African Americans, union members and young people were among the many core Democratic groups that turned out in large numbers in the 2008 elections…In 2010, turnout among these groups dropped off substantially, even below their previous midterm levels.” Take voters under 30, for example, who vote Democratic at about the same rate seniors vote Republican. They went from 18% of the electorate in 2008 to 11% this year. Obviously, that’s a problem.

So, working back from these factors — economic performance and voter turnout — it follows that the two best things the administration could have done to improve Democrats’ standing this year would have been to get the economy moving again and to get the Democratic base fired up and ready to go. So what happened? Let’s look at the tape.

The Economy: As Paul Krugman has already pointed out, much of the story of this election was written way back in February 2009, when the Obama administration chose to settle on a stimulus package that was watered-down to appease Republicans who would never, ever vote for it. In fact, thanks to Larry Summers, the stimulus was low-balled from the start — Summers made sure Christina Romer’s higher-end projections for the amount needed never even made it to the president’s desk.

So the crystal was in the steel at the point of fracture, and mainly because Obama, doing the President Goldilocks routine that would become a trademark, watered down the Recovery Act early-on to appease an opposition that was unappeasable.

By late 2009, the warning signs that ARRA was probably too small were all over the place — not the least in the growing state budget crises seen all across the country. But even as Republicans throttled congressional attempts to remedy the situation, the Obama administration remained mostly passive…or, in the case of food stamps, worse. Many in the White House took up the standard of the deficit witchhunt. (Yes, there was some rhetorical urging of the tsk-tsk variety eventually, but that, as on so many other fights, was after the chips were already down.)

Going along with this frustrating passivity was the increasing sense over time that this administration, elected to be change we could believe in, was more than a little cozy with the Wall Street yokels who caused the economic disaster in the first place. Yes, TARP was originally Dubya’s baby — not that very many voters seemed to remember that fact. (And it’s hard to blame them when folks like Geithner keep touting its merits.) Still, acceding to the $700 billion bailout for Wall Street — with little to no strings attached — was an extraordinarily inopportune way to kick off an administration theoretically premised on fundamental change.

I have to confess that, at the time, I thought TARP was unfortunate but probably necessary. Two years later, I’m thinking I probably just just got railroaded, and didn’t know what I was talking about. (Hey, it wasn’t the only thing I was wrong about in 2008.) But, even back then, I argued that TARP had to come with game-changing restrictions on Wall Street’s behavior. Those, clearly, were not forthcoming.

Yes, Congress did pass financial reform — But let’s remember, Team Obama worked openly to weaken the bill, and even now certain admin folks are clearly trying to derail Elizabeth Warren, the best chance the financial reforms, however tepid, have at working as intended for consumers. (Or, to quickly take another example, there’s the matter of the HAMP foreclosure program, which, as David Dayen has documented, seems more concerned with recouping money for lenders than helping families in trouble.)

As on the finreg bill, so too on other fronts — and this is where we get to the suppressing turnout issue.

On health reform, which thank god eventually passed, we now know that the administration cut deals early on to kill drug reimportation on behalf of the pharmaceutical industry (even after Sen. Dorgan reintroduced the idea) and, more egregiously, to kill the public option on behalf of AHIP and the hospitals. Looking back, the president signaled the public option’s expendability in his September 2009 health care address, another classic example of the wait-too-long-then-try-to-swoop-in-and-save-the-day legislative strategy usually preferred by the White House. And by the eve of the midterms, he was openly mocking public option supporters at fundraisers.

But, even those fundamental breaks with real reform aside, the entire health care process got badly screwed up when the administration, in a misguided attempt to curry bipartisan favor for reform, let Max Baucus dink around for weeks on the Senate Finance Committee. While Republican Senators Snowe and Grassley played Lucy to Baucus’ Charlie Brown and kept moving the football, the Tea Party August of 2009 took shape, and almost a year in legislative time was lost. And, by the time Baucus finally released the durned thing, the bill had once again been watered down to gain imaginary Republican votes that were never, ever going to be forthcoming.

The litany of Obama’s other sins by now are well known. As noted before, this administration has been absolutely egregious on civil liberties, all the while telling us to “look forward, not backward” on Dubya’s torture regime. (But different rules for everyone else, it seems.) Meanwhile, Gitmo is still open, and DADT is still enforced. Immigration reform did not happen. Nor did energy reform, despite House Democrats going out on a limb to pass a bill way back in June of 2009. (Yesterday, Obama the “shellacked” buried this bill for good.) And so on.

If all these compromises and capitulation — which were never political necessities so much as unforced errors — weren’t enough to depress the base, the administration’s press arm continued a steady diet of hippie-punching. “Left of the left“, pajama-wearing bloggers, the “professional left” — time and again, “senior advisors” and press flaks went out of their way to scorn the people who sweat blood and tears to get them elected. I already mentioned Obama ridiculing public option supporters — Well, where did folks ever get the notion that a wonky, badly-named fix like the public option was the ground to fight on anyway? Because the president told us it was important.

To be clear: I am not arguing that Obama hasn’t accomplished anything (although, in almost all cases — including health care reform, much more credit should really go to the very unfairly maligned Speaker Pelosi — she’s the one who made it all happen.) But, at every point down the line, for every piece of legislation that did pass, you have to factor in the opportunity costs that were lost. And consistently, this administration has pursued the politics of the lowest common denominator. To quote the prescient Drew Westen once again:

I don’t honestly know what this president believes. But I believe if he doesn’t figure it out soon, start enunciating it, and start fighting for it, he’s not only going to give American families hungry for security a series of half-loaves where they could have had full ones, but he’s going to set back the Democratic Party and the progressive movement by decades, because the average American is coming to believe that what they’re seeing right now is ‘liberalism,’ and they don’t like what they see. I don’t, either. What’s they’re seeing is weakness, waffling, and wandering through the wilderness without an ideological compass. That’s a recipe for going nowhere fast — but getting there by November.

And, hey, look what happened.

Remember how I mentioned a midterm outlier way up at the beginning of this post? That was 1934 — when, in an economy even worse than the one America faces now, Roosevelt managed to pick up seats in both the House and Senate. FDR gave us the 100 Days, a flurry of political activity we haven’t seen before or since. Now, granted, the Roosevelt team did not have to contend with either unfettered money corrupting the system or a pathetic Fourth Estate in a death spiral — both severe problems with our current political culture that must be addressed. Still, when elected in the midst of a similar economic crisis, with similar expectations, this administration did not bring about a 100 Days. It gave us Three Months of Max Baucus dicking around to appease intractable Republicans.

So why did the 2010 shellacking happen? Because of the economy, yes. And because of low turnout, yes. And also because of troubling trends like corrupting money everywhere and a national press in severe decline — The fact that the media followed Christine O’Donnell more than any other 2010 candidate tells you all you need to know about that broken-down disaster we call the Village these days.

But, nonetheless, all of these determining factors were exacerbated in the wrong direction by the administration’s fatal addiction to the Fetal Position fallacy. As I said of this year’s State of the Union address, “people were not looking to President Obama for this sort of deficit tsk-tsking and small-bore, fiddling around the margins. You’d think we Dems would have learned this by now. But curling up into a fetal position and mouthing moderate GOP-lite bromides will not stop the Republicans from kicking us, ever.

Some argue politics is the art of the possible. That’s true, but I believe much, much more was possible if this administration had actually deigned to fight for it.

Some say the president can only do as much as Congress lets him — he needs 60 votes, yadda yadda yadda. I’d say that he had 60 votes, and even then did not push to make things happen as much as he could. I would also argue that the presidency of the United States is actually a remarkably powerful position these days, that Obama has showed no inclination to act progressive on crucial matters like civil liberties that are totally in his bailiwick, and that, even now with a Republican House, the administration could move forward with a progressive agenda, if it so desired.

Some — such as pathetic, DLC-brand fortunate sons like Evan Bayh and Harold Ford — say progressivism was tried and found wanting. I would argue progressivism was not even tried.

Some say it is time to go for the Dems to embrace a more “centrist”, GOP-lite Third Way from now on. I think we’ve been experimenting with that sad sack of failure for decades now — it’s our First Way — and it’s been proven over and over again not to work. (Just ask the Blue Dogs, who got eviscerated on Tuesday. Why vote for Republican-lite when you can have the real thing?)

Basically, it comes to this. Without vision, the people perish…and vote GOP. And because this administration did not go big, because it did not produce the change people so desperately desired, and because it forsook the possibility of real progressivism early and often to indulge their fantastical belief in the magical unicorns of High Broderism, the Democrats have now lost the House — ironically the one branch of government that, under Speaker Pelosi, actually tried to get done what had been promised.

Now, matters are worse.

The Press in the Tank.

From the early 1930s until the modern story broke in 2004, the newspapers that covered waterboarding almost uniformly called the practice torture or implied it was torture: The New York Times characterized it thus in 81.5% (44 of 54) of articles on the subject and The Los Angeles Times did so in 96.3% of articles (26 of 27). By contrast, from 2002-2008…The New York Times called waterboarding torture or implied it was torture in just 2 of 143 articles (1.4%). The Los Angeles Times did so in 4.8% of articles (3 of 63).

By way of Greenwald and Sullivan, a Harvard study documents exactly how absurdly our national media carried water for the Dubya-era torture regime. “In addition, the newspapers are much more likely to call waterboarding torture if a country other than the United States is the perpetrator.

This story, along with Politico’s gaffetastic reaction to Rolling Stone‘s Michael Hastings doing real journalism on the McChrystal story — (“Hastings would be considered a bigger risk to be given unfettered access, compared with a beat reporter, who would not risk burning bridges by publishing many of McChrystal’s remarks” — See also Lara Logan) and Joke Line deeming Glenn Greenwald a traitor because he dared to call unrepentant Iraq war evidence-falsifier Jeff Goldberg a horrible journalist (“Greenwald…so far as I can tell, only regards the United States as a force for evil in the world.“) pretty much tells you everything you need to know about our broken and corrupt Village media. And this is all just in the past week. Rinse and repeat, over and over and over again. (Pic via here.)

The Invisible Victim…and the Ring of Power.

No wonder President George W. Bush can now openly brag about the water-boarding policy he once denied even existed. The courts have become complicit in the great American cop-out on torture.” And let’s not forget the Obama administration in all this. Slate‘s Dahlia Lithwick surveys the wreckage from the Supreme Court’s recent capitulation on the Maher Arar case, wherein we, the United States of America, abducted, deported, and were ultimately responsible for the torturing of an innocent man, and are now trying to sweep it under the rug like it never happened. Look forward, not backward! (unless you’re a whistleblower)

In very related news, borrowing the riff from this great cartoon, The Daily Show‘s Jon Stewart finally drops the hammer on the Bushification of Obama on the civil liberties front. Like many progressives, I’m discontented for a lot of reasons with this administration at this moment, but Obama’s egregious record on this front still stands above them all. An end to imperial powers and civil liberties violations of the Dubya era should have been an absolutely non-negotiable aspect of “change we can believe in” — particularly coming from Obama “the constitutional scholar.” And a White House that will capitulate on these basic human rights will capitulate on anything. Which, when you get right down to it, they pretty much have.

Where Torture Goes, Mengele Follows.

“‘The CIA appears to have broken all accepted legal and ethical standards put in place since the Second World War to protect prisoners from being the subjects of experimentation,’ said Frank Donaghue, the CEO of PHR, a nonprofit organization of health professionals.

A new report by Physicians for Human Rights suggests the CIA conducted human experiments on detainees, including “monitoring the effects of sleep deprivation up to 180 hours” and testing out new forms of waterboarding on them. Once we’re all happy with the president’s visible anger levels toward BP, perhaps we can get some wrath-of-God fury — and criminal prosecutions — directed towards these atrocities committed in our name also? Thanks much. [Update: Here's the Mother Jones story.]

The New “Black Hole”: Bagram.

The bottom line is this: Current procedures under the CSRT are such that a perfectly innocent individual could be held and could not rebut the Government’s case and has no way of proving his innocence. I would like somebody in this Chamber, somebody in this Government, to tell me why this is necessary.Me too, Senator Obama, me too.

In a decisive break with his campaign stances and the best indicator yet that this administration is now happily perpetuating deeply troubling Bush-era policies, the President wins the right to hold detainees indefinitely in Bagram — the difference from the Boumediene decision on Gitmo being that Bagram is a “war zone.” (And Ben Franklin’s admonition aside, that’s an excuse you hear quite a bit these days.)

FWIW, Politico’s Josh Gerstein — while bending over backwards, as per the Village norm, not to call torture “torture” — suggests civil liberties concerns are overblown here, but check out his reasoning: “The Obama administration…has, so far, resisted seeking a full-scale preventive detention law that would apply to future captives. Instead, it has pleaded with civil liberties and human rights groups not to oppose some legal mechanism to allow the continued detention of Al Qaeda captives, at least some of whom may be untriable because of aggressive interrogations many view as torture.

Oh, please. We have to hold them forever because we tortured them? How utterly and completely effed up is that? As Stephen Colbert well put it: “It’s essentially the same stance taken by George Bush. With one important difference: Obama makes the kids like it.

The Failure at the Crack.

Another very busy week at work, and haven’t had time to do a real update. But, in the meantime, via @Normative and since today is Tolkien Reading Day (i.e. the day Isildur’s Bane was destroyed and Sauron fell), here’s a great editorial cartoon on the dangers of the ring on the executive power front. (I presume that’s meant to be Russ Feingold in the Elrond role.) The Hearts of Men are easily corrupted, and the Ring of Power has a will of its own…

It’s Not Easy Being Green.


On this St. Patrick’s Day, what better recent release to discuss here at GitM than Paul Greengrass’ Green Zone? Not only do we have two shades of emerald in that last sentence, but we’re now on the cusp of the 7th anniversary of the beginning of the War in Iraq. (It broke out, I well remember, just as I was heading to a March Madness weekend in Vegas.) Alas, I just wish I had a better sitrep to report.

I don’t mean to be too harsh — There’s nothing terribly wrong with this edutainment-y attempt to explain de-Baathification, highly dubious detainee procedures, and most notably the faked WMD casus belli to disinterested laypersons by way of action-thriller. And, in a way, I sorta admire the gutsiness of the the attempt. But, if you were already well aware of these grim developments, and I assume most GitM readers are, then it’s hard to escape the sensation that one is mainly just being talked down to for two hours. Wait, there were no WMD in Iraq? You’re kidding me, right? And, while I’m a great fan of Greengrass’ previous output — I said over and over again in this space that I wish he had stuck with Watchmen, and on the Top 100 films of last decade list, Bloody Sunday was #84, his two Bournes were at #49, and the exemplary United 93 was at #6 — The Green Zone feels quite a bit more leaden than usual.

As with the political edutainment project Greengrass aspired to here, I like the idea of fusing his highly visceral action work (the Bournes) with his fly-on-the-wall discursions into recent history (Sunday, ’93)…on paper. But The Green Zone gets lost somewhere in the interstice, and lacks the gripping power of either of these previous Greengrass grooves. Instead, Zone ends up mostly being two grainy hours of watching Matt Damon run around at night, as he tries to uncover an insidious government plot that our nation has been fully aware of for years…and has chosen to greet with a yawn.

More on that depressing problem in a bit, but, first, to bring y’all up to speed: Loosely based on Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s Imperial Life in the Emerald City, a non-fiction examination of Dubyaite imbecility and excess in post-war Baghdad, Green Zone begins with a brief sequence set amid the original Shock-and-Awe period of the war, followed by, a few weeks later, a tense raid on a possible WMD storehouse by American soldiers. Led by Chief Warrant Officer Roy Miller (Damon), this crack MW2-ish assault ends up finding, well, bupkis, just like the time before and the time before that.

To Chief Miller, the problem here is obvious — the intel must be rotten. But, when he brings this up at the next briefing for high-level military muckety-mucks, he is basically told to shut up and do his job. Nonetheless, events soon conspire to introduce Miller to the “Jack of Clubs” in the Dubya deck, a Baathist general (Yigal Naor) with a still-clearly extant power base in Baghdad. And, when our hero digs deeper to figure out how this Jack might know “Magellan,” the top-secret source of all this lousy intel, he soon finds himself trapped — along with a very Judith Miller-y reporter (Amy Ryan) — in a power play between a slimy executive branch bureaucrat (Greg Kinnear, stuck no more) and a grizzled CIA hand (Brendan Gleeson), one that might just end up getting Miller fragged by the creepy Special Forces guy (Jason Isaacs, with great accent) who keeps popping up…

Along the way, there’s a digression into a detainee facility with all the makings of an Abu Ghraib waiting to happen, the tearful homecoming of the administration’s hand-picked Iraqi stooge (re: Ahmed Chalabi), some rather pained attempts to make the decision to de-Baathify an action beat…In other words, Green Zone is basically an attempt to dramatize the Iraq war for people who, for whatever reason, weren’t paying much attention the first time ’round. And, to be fair, it’s done with solid acting all around (including several folks recognizable from United 93), quality production values, and a reasonable degree of versimilitude throughout. (Note also the brief Paul Rieckhoff cameo, which should nip any IAVA whining about dramatic license right in the bud.)

But, for all its edutainmenty truths to tell, Green Zone still ends up feeling rather fake and film-ish to me, perhaps in part because — unlike Greengrass’ other recent histories — it seems to subscribe to a very movie-like All the President’s Men view of things, where, once word of misdeed gets out, justice will be done tho’ the heavens fall. Not to get all Debbie Downer up in here, but that’s not really the way the world works anymore, is it? One of the saddest and scariest moments in the recent and very worthwhile Daniel Ellsberg: The Most Dangerous Man in America is when Ellsberg explains how he thought everything would change once the Pentagon Papers got out…and then he finds that, in the face of clear and irrefutable evidence of government wrongdoing, most people just shrugged.

This is the uncomfortable horror that Green Zone almost seems willfully designed not to recognize. The whole premise of the movie seems to be that, if We the People knew what really went down in Iraq (or could just be taught via action-movie), we would be totally livid about the corruption involved. But, is the problem really that the American people don’t know what happened in the build-up to Iraq? Or is it that we know pretty well what happened and don’t much seem to care?

Just as with our indefensible dabbling in torture and indefinite detention in recent years, we have known about the lies and incompetence that fueled the Iraq fiasco for awhile now. And, alas, nothing ever happened. Dick Cheney, Karl Rove, and the whole awful, lying lot are still deemed Serious People with Serious Opinions by the nation’s domesticated media watchdogs, who, by the way, have also been studiously ignoring the Blair hearings overseas. Our current president, elected with the largest mandate for change in a generation, has deemed all of this just the sins of the past and refused to “look backward” (or worse, made himself complicit in these Dubya-era crimes.) And life continues, much as it has this past age, with no sense of reckoning whatsoever for the Big Lies that were told.

One of the main reasons Bloody Sunday and United 93 work so well is that they offer complex, nuanced portraits of complicated times. But, as Green Zone moves along, it just ended up feeling more and more like a cartoon to me, and one predicated mainly on wishful thinking. Like I said, I guess I admire what Paul Greengrass & co. were trying do here, but Green Zone as an action film feels flat and mostly uninvolving. And Green Zone as a political enterprise — Iraq War: The Movie!, basically — often seems at best condescending and at worst dangerously naive.

Found on a Drowned Man.

Interrogators were instructed to start pouring water right after a detainee exhaled, to ensure he inhaled water, not air, in his next breath. They could use their hands to “dam the runoff” and prevent water from spilling out of a detainee’s mouth…[T]o keep detainees alive even if they inhaled their own vomit during a session – a not-uncommon side effect of waterboarding – the prisoners were kept on a liquid diet. The agency recommended Ensure Plus.

But it’s not torture or anything: Recently-released CIA documents explain exactly how we went about waterboarding suspects during the Dubya era. “‘It does not simulate drowning, as the lungs are actually filling with water,’ Nance wrote in the New York Daily News. There is no way to simulate that. The victim is drowning.

Update: Oh, by the way, Karl Rove is “proud” of these despicable acts.

The Gitmo Homicides.

“As news of the deaths emerged the following day, the camp quickly went into lockdown. The authorities ordered nearly all the reporters at Guantanamo to leave and those en route to turn back. The commander at Guantanamo, Rear Admiral Harry Harris, then declared the deaths ‘suicides.’ In an unusual move, he also used the announcement to attack the dead men. “I believe this was not an act of desperation,” he said, ‘but an act of asymmetrical warfare waged against us.’”

In Gitmo, no one can here you scream. After chatting with four members of a military intelligence unit on the premises, Harper’s writer Scott Horton makes a compelling case that three Gitmo suicides in 2006 were in fact covered-up murders, occurring as a result of the Dubya-era torture regime. “All four soldiers say they were ordered by their commanding officer not to speak out, and all four soldiers provide evidence that authorities initiated a cover-up within hours of the prisoners’ deaths.

Update: Slate‘s Dahlia Lithwick calls out the press for its deafening silence. “The fact that three Guantanamo prisoners–none of whom had any links to terrorism and two of whom had already been cleared for release–may have been killed there and the deaths covered up, should be front-page news. That brand-new evidence of this possible atrocity from military guards was given only the most cursory investigation by the Obama administration should warrant some kind of blowback. But changing what we allow ourselves to believe about torture would change the way we have reconciled ourselves to torture. Nobody in this country is prepared to do that. So we have opted to ignore it.

Dusty and the Black Sites.

Eventually, the agency’s network would encompass at least eight detention centers, including one in the Middle East, one each in Iraq and Afghanistan and a maximum-security long-term site at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, that was dubbed Strawberry Fields, officials said. (It was named after a Beatles song after C.I.A. officials joked that the detainees would be held there, as the lyric put it, ‘forever.’)

Charming. The NYT gets a window into the CIA’s top-secret “black sites” program courtesy of former #3 man Dusty Foggo, who — irony alert — is currently serving a three-year term in a Kentucky jail on fraud charges associated with Duke Cunningham. (I presume Kentucky’s finest have yet to break out the “enhanced interrogation techniques” on this joker. Speaking of which, “[n]othing exotic was required for the infamous waterboards — they were built on the spot from locally available materials…The cells were constructed with special features to prevent injury to the prisoners during interrogations: nonslip floors and flexible, plywood-covered walls to soften the impact of being slammed into the wall.“)

The District Thirteen.

Some of the 13 manipulated the federal bureaucracy and the legal process to ‘preauthorize’ torture in the days after 9/11. Others helped implement torture, and still others helped write the memos that provided the Bush administration with a legal fig leaf after torture had already begun…Between 9/11 and the end of 2002, the Torture 13 decided to torture, then reverse-engineered the techniques, and then crafted the legal cover. Here’s who they are and what they did.

Triskaidecaphobics, beware: From the bookmarks and in her debut for Salon, blogger Marcy Wheeler lists the thirteen officials most responsible for the Dubya-era torture regime. A baker’s dozen of orange jumpsuits, please.

Not this time, Luthor.

Any legitimate terror suspect, she said, would almost certainly be held in remote, high-security ‘supermax’ federal prisons, which are already home to convicted terrorists like British shoe bomber Richard Reid and Zacarias Moussaoui, the alleged 20th hijacker of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. That’s what these prisons are designed for.” The WP’s Dan Froomkin surveys the most recent idiocy being spouted by Republicans — as well as FBI director Robert Mueller and far too many Senate Democrats: that moving detainees from Gitmo into maximum security prisons would represent a clear and present danger to the republic. (As always, see also Glenn Greenwald on this ridiculous subject.)

I’m unclear as to what the GOP thinks will happen if we move these detainees into our regular prison system (other than that it’ll probably be harder to waterboard them.) What kind of fantasyland do these yokels reside in? These detainees aren’t Lex Luthor or the Joker. They have no vast army of misguided goons waiting to help them in the Big House. (In fact, I think they’ll find they don’t have much in common with your run-of-the-mill hard time lifer.) Nor have they concocted any diabolical master plans to escape from these extremely secure institutions. Newsflash: Those supercriminal types you read about in comics don’t actually exist. (And, while we’re debunking conservative fantasies, forget what you saw Jack Bauer do: “ticking time bomb” scenarios don’t in fact happen either, and, even if they did, torture is in no way effective as a means of obtaining the information you’d need. Not that its efficacy matters anyway, because it’s a war crime regardless.)

Absurd. Blatantly absurd. And altogether irritating that, once again, too many Democrats in Congress are not only taking these inchoate lunacies seriously, but grimly echoing them as if there’s even a modicum of sound reasoning going on here. Can these conservatives and their Dem enablers distinguish between the Real World and their bizarre, half-baked realm of nightmares anymore? At this point, I half-expect Chuck Grassley and Harry Reid to tell me they’re imprisoning Zubadayah, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, et al in a pane of glass and shooting them into the far reaches of space. I mean, it worked for General Zod in Superman II, right?

The Line has Failed.

‘I hear you’re looking for me,’ he said. ‘You wanna go mano a mano right here?’” In excerpts from his new book, Fall of the House of Bush, published in Salon, Craig Unger examines the ideological divide between Bush father and son and tells the true story of Dubya’s coming to Jesus. “One way of examining the growing crisis could be found in the prism of the elder Bush’s relationship with his son, a relationship fraught with ancient conflicts, ideological differences, and their profound failure to communicate with each other…According to the Bushes’ conservative biographers, Peter and Rochelle Schweizer, family members could see [Bush 41's] torment. When his sister, Nancy Ellis, asked him what he thought about his son’s plan for the war, Bush 41 replied, ‘But do they have an exit strategy?’” This goes a long way toward explaining the elder Bush’s recent spate of (really depressing and hard to watch) public crying jags. (See also Joan Walsh.)

Rule of Law 1, Dubya 0.

The President cannot eliminate constitutional protections with the stroke of a pen by proclaiming a civilian, even a criminal civilian, an enemy combatant subject to indefinite military detention…To sanction such presidential authority to order the military to seize and indefinitely detain civilians…would have disastrous consequences for the constitution — and the country.” In what should have been a no-brainer, a federal appeals court rules 2-1 in the case of al-Marri v. Wright that Dubya can’t hold US residents indefinitely on suspicion alone. [Full opinion, and the dissent by a Bush appointee.] “The panel tailored its opinion to Marri’s circumstances; it does not directly apply to the more than 300 foreign nationals held as enemy combatants in the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. But lawyers for some captives noted that the same flaws the court found in the administration’s classification of Marri were true for Guantanamo detainees.

Jack Lint, Everyman?

“Gilliam came nearest to inventing his own country with Brazil (1985), one of the key political films of the late 20th century. Brazil is one of the great political films, an extraordinary mixture of Fellini and Kafka, with a complex force of synthesized images, which belongs to Gilliam alone.” In Slate, critic Clive James assesses Brazil‘s take on torture, and what Michael Palin’s Jack Lint does and doesn’t tell us about the men usually holding the implements.

Power Mad.

“In some sense, the president is now as much a prisoner of Guantanamo as the detainees…The endgame in the war on terror isn’t holding the line against terrorists. It’s holding the line on hard-fought claims to absolutely limitless presidential authority.” Slate‘s Dahlia Lithwick discerns the method in Dubya’s madness on the civil liberties front: “expanding executive power, for its own sake.

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