Torture is the deliberate infliction of pain. Its energizing factor is sadism. Legitimation of its practice reveals an authoritarian societal context of pathological hatred, of the self, others, the world, taking the form of domination, social and structural hierarchy, destructiveness—all as a one-sided power relation commissioned and conducted with impunity. It is the normalization of political bestiality sanctioned by State authority. Welcome to America, and its replicative extension, Israel, where, seemingly, anything goes in the name of Democracy, Freedom, and Security, the last-named the ace card justifying bending the definition of the other two to satisfy a heightened sense of national interest. I pair the US and Israel because at this moment both are engaged in a campaign of obfuscation and DENIAL when confronted by evidence of criminality, CIA waterboarding the functional analogue of Israeli shelling of civilian targets in Gaza, the two intertwined because drawing on the same inspiration—hegemony, for one, the globe, the other, the region, working in harmony and mutual reinforcement.
No, US black sites in Poland and other discreet venues, more open demonstration and advertisement of unexcelled cruelty in Guantanamo, Afghanistan, Iraq, employing the usual methods currently favored, e.g., solitary confinement, sleep deprivation, physical and psychological abuse, myriad techniques which reduce human dignity through humiliation, even together these do not begin to exhaust the meaning of torture. For the US, war, intervention, blockades, sanctions, employment of international organizations to soften the economic underbelly of countries to be economically/financially penetrated via austerity programs, trade agreements, currency manipulation, are ALSO torture, respectable, presumably legal, but nonetheless explicit modes of domination which, absent total denial, provide a reassuring measure of sadism, of inflicting harm, of demonstrating superiority. One does not rob another (whether or not at gunpoint) without feelings of satisfaction, the frosting on the cake of domination.
Simply, torture is a generic condition in the world of today. Israel, in recent times, is acknowledged as a past master of its practice. Again, no, not only the mass imprisonments, the fine-textured apparatus of humiliation, as in the appropriation of land for settlements, the checkpoints, patrols, walls, blockades, a pattern therefore of domination (to which the term “occupation” barely does justice), or even, forcible suppression of demonstrations in which children are frequently killed or maimed; what must be added is the organized violence, collective punishment of the Victim as the standardized way of keeping order. In a word, Gaza. It has become an open-air laboratory of torture fueled by sadism, the knowing infliction of pain on the part of an anaesthetized Israeli populace wallowing like their American counterparts in their own hubristic righteousness and visions/aspirations of hegemony.
The functional analogue in the course embarked upon holds true, from stonewalling at the highest levels of government in order to cover up war crimes (Obama and Netanyahu, Gemini twins, Castor and Pollux, whatever their poor personal chemistry, pursuing identical paths, like the mythological pair, of taking the universe from both ends and squeezing hard to ensure maximum freedom of action in defining the goals of domestic order and military supremacy, for Israel, albeit, on a smaller scale under America’s protective umbrella), to ensuring the basic thrust of their respective government policies will continue unimpeded, indeed, for that reason, exemption of justice, national and international, thereby earning still greater commendation from the people. Evil becomes self-reinforcing. In an earlier age, we called that guilt.
A duopoly of evil? In fact, one does not have to go that far. To do so invites dismissal of the facts by those who refuse to recognize them and/or are in denial about what the record shows, a record that reeks of cover-up, promises of investigation which go nowhere, compilations so heavily redacted as to be meaningless, government running from accountability as though a species of treason, as meanwhile barbarism cum normality grinds on. Sen. Feinstein’s Senate Committee, Israel’s IDF Military Advocate General (MAG), each starring in its own Morality Play, Obama, Netanyahu, respectively, circus barkers for militarism looking on indulgently, the bread-and-circuses atmosphere of propaganda hype fending off indictment after indictment for, lest we forget our starting point, torture, as—if admitted at all—the overzealous attack on terrorism, the accidental misfiring on school grounds, in both cases, regrettable but necessary and hardly grounds for prosecution. When evil has government backing, and a complicit population backing the backing, it’s not evil; just the opposite, the preservation of pristine democracy.
Let’s begin with the US and the Senate Intelligence Committee probe of CIA interrogation practices, a report, despite Sen. Feinstein’s flare up in March with the CIA for searching the Committee’s computer network on the Senate floor, still has not been made available to the public—nearly nine months later. Talk about stalling, first, the chairperson’s insufficient will, Feinstein the Mother Hen protecting the CIA, sitting on eggs that will never hatch in their fulsome horror, second, the CIA itself, America’s favorite pet which can do no wrong, here skilled in-fighting to ensure an unblemished record of virtue (atrocities in view on the edges, enough to instill fear in its critics and PRIDE expressed in the nihilistic social base, in the full knowledge that force, terror, criminal instinct and energy are doing the people’s work against the soft, the effete, the enemies of America), and finally, Obama and his national-security team, for whom power mixed with secrecy and a dollop of haute capitalism, spelled as American prestige, has an alchemic appeal, all of these are obstacles to the revelation of truth about terror. If the CIA were to fall, what of the entire paraphernalia of US imperialism, domestic surveillance, the gigantic defense industry, in sum, America’s place in the world? Stand firm, guard the crown jewels, lest the dominoes start to fall.
Jason Leopold, reporting for Al Jazeera English (must be terrorist-linked, given the suspicious name, and hence untrustworthy!), in an article, “Revealed: Inside the Senate report on CIA interrogations,” (March 18), has disclosed, from interviews with two Senate staffers, that the report, based on “the committee’s analysis of 6 million pages of classified records,” had been completed in 2012, of course classified, and that John Brennan, CIA Director, had presented a 120-page response of alleged flaws, also classified, in which Brennan argued that the committee “never should have seen documents assembled by former CIA Director Leon Panetta—which Panetta claims was not a review—because they contain sensitive material protected by executive privilege.” Executive privilege, like its companion, the Espionage Act (used by Obama directed against whistle-blowers), throws a curtain around the CIA and all wrongdoing of the United States Government. It all sounds so squeaky-clean: the agency’s rendition, detention, and interrogation program. One such detail, hopefully not to see the light of day if USG had its druthers, was a report to the committee by “former FBI agent Ali Soufan in early 2008,” who had “kept meticulous notes about the methods used by a psychologist under CIA contract to interrogate Abu Zubaydah at a CIA black site in Thailand,” notes conveniently lost for over a year, disappeared from the computers and finally surfacing, whether “turned over to committee investigators by the CIA or FBI or… in the cache of documents taken by investigators from the secure facility,”–a chief CIA complaint—never having been determined.
Leopold’s Al Jazeera English article, “Revealed: Senate report contains new details on CIA black sites,” (April 9), I insert parenthetically, because it has some details about Zubaydah’s interrogation torture, namely, that he was considered an “experiment” by Air Force psychologists James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, “subjected to all 10 torture techniques identified in an August 2002 Justice Department memo”—actually going “above and beyond the guidelines outlined in that memo and were used before the memo establishing their legality was written.” A case of bringing authorization into conformity with extreme practice. E.g., the memo allowed for Zubaydah’s sleep deprivation to last for “11 consecutive days”; Mitchell “kept him awake longer…. Abu Zubaydah was stripped naked, strapped into a chair and doused with cold water to keep him awake.” In addition, he “was stuffed into a pet crate (the type used to transport dogs on airplanes) over the course of two weeks and routinely passed out, was shackled by his wrists to the ceiling of his cell and subjected to an endless loop of loud music.” “[T]he music used to batter the detainee’s senses was by the Red Hot Chili Peppers.” No comment, other than the obvious: no wonder suppression, redaction, the whole ball of fascistic wax, techniques known through the chain of command (has the American Psychological Association, in passing, disciplined the torturers in its midst?) right up to the Executive Office—not much of a fit with the presumption for democracy.
Abu Zubaydah was presumed to be the first detainee subjected to CIA enhanced interrogation after 9/11, even though USG “confirmed he was never a member of Al-Qaeda.” Zubaydah made sketches depicting his torture. Panetta participated in the cover-up. The ball of obfuscation and denial gets off to a good start. Not to be outdone, the State Department gets into the act early, issuing a warning that by revealing foreign black sites American lives could be placed at risk. Executive privilege knows no limits. Josh Rogin, writing for The Daily Beast, the article, “Secret State Department Letter Warned: Don’t Release CIA Torture Report,” (April 4), note still early date, shows the unified, rigid, USG front when faced with exposure of aggression whether domestic or foreign. State’s contention is that “declassifying the [Senate Intelligence] report could endanger American lives abroad and harm relations with foreign countries.” Therefore, deep-six it, not, however, before hinting at its contents, in order to demonstrate USG’s powers of suppression and censorship (already evident time and again in the recourse to act with impunity in the exercise of redaction). Here Obama is caught in a flat contradiction (betrayal?), first coming out for release of the report as testimony to government transparency, then quickly clamping down, what Rogin calls, “sending mixed signals on the release… for nearly a year,” the White House as of his writing wanting “to declassify portions of the 6,300-page document.”
Not good enough. In the conflict with Feinstein, CIA “will now be involved in reviewing and redacting any portions of the report that will be made public.” (It probably was, anyway.) The scare tactics of Senators Rubio and Risch, who voted against declassification, drew on the State Department classified letter, written by Philip Goldberg (June 2013), then the Department’s top intelligence official. There, he made clear a compelling reason for not declassifying the report, its “information about cooperation with foreign intelligence agencies and the existence of still-undisclosed CIA ‘black site’ prisons in foreign countries [Thailand, Lithuania, Romania, as well as Poland, for starters] where abuses may have occurred.” Silence is golden, if repression is to continue. Rogin quotes a senior Senate aide: “’Embassies are concerned about their ability to contain the damage this release could do to their ability to work with the U.S. European countries already have a problem with American spying on them [reference to Snowden’s revelations], so something like this furthers the idea you can’t work with the U.S. in a clandestine manner without it being splashed in the newspapers at some point.’” A classic falling-out among thieves, or rather, fellow-torturers.
The preceding discussion makes clear the restrictions placed on the report as or when it is presented to the American people. Coming up to speed, we see in Josh Rogin and Eli Lake’s Bloomberg View article, “Inside the Battle Over the CIA Torture Report,” (Dec. 3), that a declassified executive summary of the report will soon be released, to, I should add, my warranted skepticism. Even committee staff members protested the “hundreds of redactions the CIA had proposed,” and Sen. Feinstein, in proclaiming victory (the full report is presently nowhere in sight, one guesses still being gone over with a fine-tooth comb, so that little is left standing) has not much to show. Some redactions have been restored—but a pyrrhic victory at best. “Among the most significant of Feinstein’s victories,” they write, “the report will retain information on countries that aided the CIA program by hosting black sites or otherwise participating in the secret rendition of suspected terrorists. The countries will not be identified by name, but in other ways, such as code names like ‘Country A.’ This falls short of Feinstein’s original desire, which was to name the countries explicitly [of which I am doubtful], but represents a big victory for the committee nonetheless.” With victories like that, who needs defeats? (As illustration of her backsliding—mine, they point out: “In a victory for the CIA, Feinstein reluctantly agreed to allow the redactions of the pseudonyms of agency personnel mentioned in the report.” The pseudonyms, not even the names.
John Rizzo, acting general counsel of the CIA during the black-site period, hence one of my favorites in illustrating Agency thinking, emphasizes the vehement opposition on declassifying any information on overseas’ operations: “’That was something we had fought for years and years.’” Yes, CIA stonewalling goes back away. “Even referencing location” was thought dangerous, because “with other information” sites could be pinned down. At least, whether admitted or not, there was the intuitive recognition that black sites were scenes of torture and war crimes, else why the secrecy? A Republican staffer is quoted that “Feinstein’s office relented” on redactions “that could identify countries hosting the black sites.” Pseudonyms even for sites was greeted with alarm, layer-on-layer of untruth obviously needed to hide the truth. Here is Rizzo stating the applicable principle: “’Just because something is leaked doesn’t mean it’s still not secret. A national security secret is still a national security secret until the government says otherwise. So much for transparency (and for democracy—wise advice, no doubt, in Espionage Act prosecutions. Secrecy, often for its own sake, emerges as the false god Washington worships.
Best of all in registering the solemnity of the occasion, the occasion being the release of the executive summary of the report, redactions galore, is our noble, transparent president—never flippant when he discusses matters of state: “’We tortured some folks. We did some things that are contrary to our values.’” Ho-hum, let’s get on with the hit-list and armed drone assassination. We can forget the issue of declassification, though, the discussion turning now on whether enhanced interrogation techniques yielded valuable information, a nice way of avoiding issues having constitutional and international-law implications. But we’re not done yet (we’ll never be, as torture practices are integral to hegemony and administrations follow each other in cover-ups), Rogin continuing, for Bloomberg Views, his coverage, the article: “Kerry Puts Brakes on CIA Torture Report,” (Dec. 5). We tend to forget about Kerry in all of this, as though a craggy-headed model of New England integrity, when in reality America’s version of the Tony Blair lapdog—anything for seeming to share in power. Rogin reports, Kerry “personally phoned Dianne Feinstein… Friday morning [Dec. 5] to delay the imminent release of her committee’s report,” because it could complicate relations with other powers. Stiff backbone, he: “Kerry told Feinstein he still supports releasing the report, just not right now.” (Talk of cover-up, Nixon/Watergate is kindergarten play compared with this bunch—again, mine.)
Kerry, according to an administration official, had to raise the issue of timing “’because a lot is going on in the world—including parts of the world particularly implicated—and wanting to make sure foreign policy implications were being appropriately factored into timing. He had a responsibility to do so because this isn’t just an intel issue—it’s a foreign policy issue.’” Exactly, and there, even more than with intelligence, which has a license to graze the truth, anything goes. Meanwhile, Feinstein is left squirming, her reputation for integrity at stake, and that of her staff, which “just completed a grueling months-long negotiation with the CIA over what details would make it to the final release,” negotiations personally mediated by McDonough, Obama’s chief of staff, himself obviously privy to what transpired. Rogin notes that for the community of NGOs and human rights groups “that have been fighting for the release [themselves, I might add, both conceding far too much], the administration’s action is a betrayal, and also a sign that the whole issue has been poorly managed.” The last is a cop-out, poor management the case, not power, not ideology, not military planning, not the social structure of advanced capitalism.
Postscript: Peter Baker’s New York Times article, “Bush and C.I.A. Ex-Officials Rebut Torture Report,” (Dec. 8), shows the orchestrated refutation, prior to release of the executive summary, is in full-swing, a collective wall of defense (the recurring phrase, we’re not going to throw the CIA to the wolves) which is reminiscent of post-World War II Nazis’ whitewashing of their record. Interestingly, Michael Hayden, a former CIA Director, is quoted as saying [email to Baker, Dec. 7], “’We’re not here to defend torture. We’re here to defend history.’” Of course, defending the latter requires denying the former, itself, in light of the record, a form of defense. Everywhere, feathers are ruffling (Baker the consummate insider has a privileged ear), so that, e.g., Jose Rodriguez, who ran the CIA interrogation program, could give the classic Eichmann defense for his—and others’—actions: “’We did what we were asked to do, we did what we were assured was legal, and we know our actions were effective.’” Immoral on the first two, dead wrong on the third. I give the final word to one former official: “’We’re going to want to stand behind these guys.’” And so, Sunday’s talk shows [Dec. 7] were buzzing with activity, from Hayden to Mike Roger, chair of House Intelligence. The fix is on, and when push comes to shove, this will become a bipartisan show, not just Bushies, with Obama himself signaling support for the CIA.
Finally, a very brief look at the Israelis (as space allows) for what I termed above the functional analogue of deceit, cover-up, denial, perhaps common practice to all authoritarian regimes. The last, too strong? Let Gaza and the proposed Nationality Law answer for me. First, some background, starting with Isabel Kershner’s article in The Times, “Israel Braces for War Crimes Inquiries on Gaza,” (Aug. 14), which points to Israel’s hard-nosed attitude toward the commission of its own atrocities. Post-Gaza, as “attention has already shifted to the legal battlefield as Israel gears up to defend itself against international allegations of possible war crimes,” we see Israel’s “excoriat[ion]” of the UN Human Rights Council for appointing William Schabas, “a Canadian expert in international law,” for conducting its inquiry into Israel’s military role in Gaza. Schabas, two years before, stated that Netanyahu was his “’favorite’” be in the dock at the International Criminal Court, to which Netanyahu, at the time of Kershner’s writing, replied, “The report of this committee has already been written. They have nothing to look for here. They should visit Damascus, Baghdad and Tripoli.” Typical displacement of the argument. Schabas, for his part, rejected the idea that he was “anti-Israeli,” having “lectured in Israel often and was on the board of the Israel Law Review.” He observed, “’I don’t think everyone in Israel agrees. I would fit in well there.’” Wouldst that were so!
The issue of war crimes Kershner faces honestly: “The broader struggle will be over what some experts describe as Israel’s ‘creative’ interpretation of international law for dealing with asymmetric warfare in an urban environment.” At the time of writing, “more than 1,900 Palestinians were killed in the recent fighting, a majority of them believed to be civilians, while on the Israeli side 64 soldiers and three civilians were killed.” I’ve discussed some of the criminal acts previously, the writer herself noting the “several deadly Israeli strikes at or near United Nations schools in Gaza where thousands of civilians were taking refuge,” as well as “the Israeli military policy of bombing family homes it said were being used by Hamas operatives or other groups,” one such case being the “July 13 airstrike on a home that killed 18 members of the Batsh family and severely wounded Tayseer al-Batsh, the Hamas police chief in Gaza.” B’Tselem, an Israeli human rights group, said “the practice [quite widespread—mine] violated the international legal principles of distinction and proportionality [translated: indiscriminate bombing and overkill], calling into question the clear military nature of the targets and whether the military gains were significant enough to justify the deaths of civilians.”
Like the US, however, the wheels of exoneration grind on. Kershner writes that Eran Shamir-Borer of MAG is already on the job of investigation. He offered, “the planned bombing of homes was reviewed house by house, based on intelligence and other considerations”—but the policy of bombing was not. And from there I turn to Jodi Rudoren, whose Times article, “Amnesty International Says Israel Showed ‘Callous Indifference’ in Gaza,” (Nov. 4), moves us forward. Callous Indifference refers to the airstrikes “on homes that felled entire families.” Amnesty criticized Hamas for the indiscriminate firing of rockets and mortar rounds, but most of its report was “devoted to eyewitness testimony and expert analysis of weaponry in eight Israeli attacks that killed 104 people, 59 of them under 18.” Evidence of military targets was found in four cases, yet the attacks were ‘grossly disproportionate.’” Casualties included those fleeing, staying with relatives, because UN shelters were full. Again, the Israeli military promised an investigation, the foreign office stating—off to a good start—that the report “’accuses Israel of wrongdoing while producing no evidence,’” as though bombed homes and civilian casualty rates were not evidence. Indeed, the statement from Israel’s embassy in London, where the report was issued, asserted, “’Amnesty serves as a propaganda tool for Hamas and other terror groups.’” Rudoren brings us up to date: “During the 50-day war, six civilians, including a 4-year-old boy, were killed on the Israeli side, along with 67 soldiers. Nearly 2,200 Palestinians, including more than 500 children, were killed in Gaza, according to the United Nations; some 100,000 buildings were damaged or destroyed.”
Khalid Abed Hassan Ammar, a doctor, said, of the airstrike July 20 on his home in Gaza City: “’We couldn’t hear the kids, their voices had completely gone—that’s when I realized they were all dead. I only recognized Ibrahim, my eldest child, when I saw his leg and the shoes he was wearing. I had bought them for him two days before.’” Israel did not allow Amnesty personnel into Gaza, and had to rely on “two fieldworkers who visited the site of each bombing multiple times. Military experts enlisted by Amnesty reviewed photographs and videos from the sites… and surmised that 1- and 2-ton bombs were used.” Principles of distinction and proportionality be damned. Israel promises to investigate. Earlier, Isabel Kershner, in her Times article, “Israel, Facing Criticism, to Investigate Possible Military Misconduct in Gaza,” (Sept. 10), gives us grounds for hope (?) about “the military’s ability to investigate itself,” when she writes: “After the 2008-9 war in Gaza, in which up to 1,400 Palestinians were killed, more than 50 cases out of 400 that were examined were referred to the military police for criminal investigation. Three investigations ended with indictments… the harshest sentence [being] given to a soldier who had stolen a credit card.” Dr. Ammar, my heart grieves for you and your family. Justice is a stranger in the land, nay, not a stranger, but the Enemy.
Finally, Rudoren in The Times, her article, “Facing Rights Accusations, Israel Opens Gaza Inquiries,” (Dec. 7), both a step forward and backward, the latter given her favorable treatment of Israeli sources, such as, another favorite, Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, military spokesman, who said, to no apparent discomfiture of the reporter, despite her recording of atrocities: “’Even in the fog of war, there are things that we expect ourselves to abide by. It’s important to see that we are looking at these exceptional incidents with a magnifying glass.’” That he calls them “exceptional” already prejudges the judicial effort, as does the reference to a magnifying glass, to see, for example, what Rudoren writes, “the July 20 bombing of the Abu Jama family home in the southern Gaza city of Khan Younis… [in which] 25 members of the family, 19 of them children, were killed by an airstrike that flattened the three-story building.” Rationale (loaded language and all): “A member of the armed wing of Hamas, the Islamist movement that dominates Gaza, was nearby and was also killed.” Other investigations pending include “the deaths of two Palestinian ambulance drivers killed in separate episodes by Israeli fire” and “four cases of reported looting of abandoned homes in Khan Younis,” but the significant point, aside from whether convictions would be secured there, is the score sheet, each case dealing with a major war crime. She writes: “But the 21-page report also said no wrongdoing had been found in seven cases, including strikes on two hospitals, an ambulance, a clinic for the disabled, a Red Crescent station and a United Nations office.” Bomb hospitals; don’t steal credit cards. As Sarit Michaeli of B’tselem observed, “focus on specific cases can distract from bigger-picture questions about Israel’s prosecution of a war that killed nearly 2,200 people and destroyed thousands of homes in Gaza.” Too, bigger-picture questions are not wanted in America, including the very existence of CIA, NSA, and the thirst for international power.
Norman Pollack has written on Populism. His interests are social theory and the structural analysis of capitalism and fascism. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.