Butchers of Langley

The rotten, ugly dirt is beginning to come out of the Senate Report on Torture. I commend to CP readers the New York Times article by Matt Apuzzo and James Risen, “C.I.A. First Planned Jails Abiding by U.S. Standards,” (Dec. 11), not, as the title suggests, to play games of “what if?”—as though a lawful option were ever seriously entertained by the powers that be—but, and Apuzzo-Risen don’t explain the switch, the horrific course embarked on, sans scruples, hesitations: a course of methodical barbarism, sadism devoid of human standards of law, decency, the most elemental notions of right and wrong. We stand condemned as a nation, vile, unclean, for the defilement of human rights, putting Constitution, legal and political institutions, the very idea of democracy into question. A just society does not torture. A just society does not have an internal agency committed to subverting the foundation stones of a free society. A just society does not elect presidents whose statesmanship lies in grazing the truth and in sweeping atrocities, which they authorize, under the rug. Eichmann would have been an admired figure in today’s Washington.

Their article is but a square inch in the vast field of depredation, most of which we will never learn about because of extensive redactions in the summary, the unlikelihood the full report ever becoming known, and beyond this, the obvious limits raised by a Senate Committee under Feinstein that, sympathetic to the CIA, never intended full revelation, and the CIA itself, destroying incriminating records right and left, sanitizing its performance, obstructing all knowledge as to its inner workings. But in a totalitarian order, be thankful for whatever scraps we get. Totalitarian? What democracy would tolerate the existence of the CIA? (Even Brazil is now going through the anguish of a Truth Commission dealing with the atrocities committed by its military dictatorship—something we shall never see in America, the Truth Commission, not, I suspect, the latter.) In America, we start with a supposed tabula rasa, pristine Innocence marking the national character, self-righteousness carried to unprecedented lengths. The reality? Let’s look at the article.


The reporters begin: Six days after Sept. 11, Bush signed a secret order giving the CIA “the power to capture and imprison terrorists with Al Qaeda,” but not explicit instructions about their detention and questioning. This last is the present loophole (whether Apuzzo and Risen realize) for the CIA to claim now (we hear it constantly in the full-court apologia) that, new to the experience of interrogation, the agency had to improvise, working with no guidance—as though this explains or justifies what followed, torture, black sites, mammoth cover-up, putting further juice into the process of rendition, detention, interrogation. Poor innocent CIA feeling its way into unknown territory, which is the disturbing aspect of the article’s lead; for if an alternative was ever seriously considered, it was remarkably short-lived. Major decisions require explanation; none is offered. Still, the article is dynamite.

Too, most obviously, Smoldering Ground Zero legitimized everything, the torture program, but also the invasion of Afghanistan, the NSA construction of massive surveillance, America presumed to be on a permanent war-footing. Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld took the ball and ran down the field. CIA officials, the smoldering rubble, “scrambled to fill in the blanks left by the president’s order. Initially, agency officials considered a path very different from the one ultimately followed [according to the Senate Report]. They envisioned a system in which detainees would be offered the same rights and protections as inmates held in federal or American military prisons. Conditions at these new overseas prisons would be comparable to those at maximum-security facilities in the United States. Interrogations were to be conducted in accordance with the United States Army Field Manual, which prohibits coerced, painful questioning.” (Trumpets sounding, followed by strings)

I dwell on this because it is still more incriminating of US policy and behavior than if CIA et. al. actually went directly into the Program without fanfare. (Et. al., from Bush and the Inner Circle on down, for this was never an exclusive CIA show.) The glimmer of understanding, then casting it overboard shows premeditation, the making of CHOICES, the head-on pursuit of secrecy, cruelty, or if you like, utter depravity. Call in the psychologists. Devise, beyond waterboarding, a menu of guaranteed suffering. Practice on humans experiments in spirit and kind to that at which Nazi scientists excelled. Explore the frontiers of pain. I admire the reporting, but again, no explanation: “The C.I.A.’s early framework [read, at most two months] for its detention program offers a glimpse of a possible alternative history. As the country grapples with new disclosures about the program, the Senate report tells a story of how plans for American-style jails were replaced with so-called ‘black sites,’ where some prisoners were chained to walls and forgotten, froze to death on concrete floors and were waterboarded until they lost consciousness.” (Significantly, details of this kind often escaped redaction, as though CIA was proud of its inhumanity, while anything touching on the identity of the sites or the personnel, even pseudonyms used to hide these identities, were ruthlessly scrubbed. As for personnel, in particular, accountability was never quite in its lexicon.)

So, Bush’s Sept. 17, 2001 catch-and-detain order “set off a flurry of planning” at Langley, with Cofer Black’s [CIA counterterrorism head] memo, “Approval to Establish a Detention Facility for Terrorists,” a starting point and basis for discussion. Black, no softie, wanted detainees placed on US military bases overseas, which “would have subjected the prisons to traditional rules.” Rumsfeld said no, and so the search was on for black sites. The turn toward hell was made, no opposition to my knowledge recorded. The CIA handbook stated the agency “did not engage in ‘torture, cruel, inhuman, degrading treatment or punishment, or prolonged detention without charges or trial.’” Amen. Every one of these was up-ended in short order, the reporters write (again from a careful reading of the Senate Report): “But agency lawyers also began exploring a different approach, THOUGH IT IS NOT CLEAR WHY [my caps.]. A Nov. 26, 2001, draft memo lists several tactics—extreme cold, sensory deprivation, sleep deprivation, and humiliation—and began discussing possible legal justifications.” Precisely this opportunistic use of the law, Pentagon, DOJ, CIA lawyers playing catch-up, fitting the law to the torture, legitimizing what had before been repudiated as torture, is a notable accompaniment to the practices followed. As the writers note, “Such measures [extreme cold, etc.] are prohibited in federal and military prisons.”

Go overseas. Maintain secrecy. Create and build the dystopian prison system of your own choosing, away from the prying eyes of civilization—although few were actively looking. Talk of gulags! Where is the American Solzhenitsyn, when we need him most? Instead, monster propagandists justifying torture in exquisite detail. Instead, further, Drs. Mitchell and Jessen, psychologists, specialists in breaking down subjects’ resistance in interrogation, the company they formed “ultimately would be paid $81 million and revolutionize the agency’s approach toward detention and interrogation….” Here the capture of Abu Zubaydah (see my article, “Torture and America,” CP, Dec. 10, for additional context) in Pakistan gets the Program off to a solid start, alleged confusion about how and where to begin now dispensed with—this, March 2002; and the reporters say that after six-months’ delay, “the United States finally faced a choice.” Not quite the choice one imagines, but rather, how to conduct torture operations with impunity (mine). They write that the CIA was concerned about protecting its turf, its concern being, in light of secrecy and security, the “’possible loss of control to U.S. military and/or F.B.I.’” in which case, on the military, the military would have the disadvantage of being “required to tell the International Committee of the Red Cross, a human rights group, that Mr. Zubaydah was in custody, the agency noted.”

To know about Zubaydah is to open the whole can of worms. E.g., Bush, on March 29, 2002, following the capture, “reviewed a plan to open a secret C.I.A. prison in Thailand and send Mr. Zubaydah there.” So much for Bush’s deniability of events and conditions, AND the desire both of Obama and the Senate Report to afford him this deniability. Zubaydah, “shot and badly wounded, spent several days in a hospital,” an F.B.I. agent who later became critical of the Program (see my account) “at his side.” The prisoner was cooperative, yet CIA officials meeting at Langley “discuss[ed] ways to break his resistance.” From the Senate Report, it was clear that FBI questioning was successful, but that Zubaydah “denied knowing anything about plots against America,” which the CIA viewed as holding out and gave Mitchell, the psychologist, the green light to offer “a menu of interrogation options.”

Here Apuzzo and Risen are at their best: “While C.I.A. and Justice Department lawyers debated the legality of the tactics, the report reveals, Mr. Zubaydah was left alone in a cell in Thailand for 47 days. The Senate report asserts that isolation, not resistance, was the reason he stopped talking in June. Mr. Soufan [the FBI agent] said he was livid when he read that.” Then in August Zubaydah was questioned for three weeks “using the harshest measures available, including waterboarding. But the Senate report says he never revealed information about a plot against the United States. The C.I.A. concluded he had no such information.”

Then there is the Salt Pit, a new CIA prison in Afghanistan: Its “windows were blackened and detainees were kept in total darkness. Some detainees were shackled, their arms outstretched, to bars above their heads. Prisoners could go days or weeks without anyone looking at them…. The report added that one man was chained standing to a wall for 17 days.” When I speak of war crimes, and war criminals at the head of the US government, is the charge irresponsible? An exaggeration? Unpatriotic? Reluctantly, I would have to say “yes,” as defined by central power groups, to the last. That what is described here as being on Bush’s watch, does not thereby exonerate Obama, who is guilty, beyond his refusal to bring indictments against key members of the previous administration and its satrapies (from CIA to military services), of crimes against humanity ranging from intervention to drone assassination, not to mention, in the turbid realm of geopolitics, the confrontations with Russia and China risking nuclear annihilation.

My New York Times Comment on the Apuzzo-Risen article, same date, follows:

Move over Butchers of Belsen from the history books, you are replaced by the Butchers of Langley. The Apuzzo/Risen account is incredible for what it reveals, an Agency in our midst whose personnel “brainstormed” on how to be most diabolical, cruel, savage, equal to the Nazi devils, with approval at the very top, and you tell me prosecution for war crimes isn’t necessary. America will always stand in disgrace among people who haven’t abandoned their moral-religious-ethical standards. A country that tortures, an agency at the heart of government free to act with impunity in devising, allowing, executing the most fiendish and vicious treatment human beings can impose on one another.

America a moral nation? Don’t make me laugh. America a Christian nation? I can hear Christ’s screams of anguish from here. And best of all, we honor these men as national heroes–CIA who have kept us SAFE (without such as them and the nation that stands behind them, we wouldn’t have to worry about safety), Pres. Bush, who claims deniability (as does the Senate report in letting him off the hook), who on Feb 7, 02, held that laws of war do not apply to Qaeda suspects, open sesame to torture, Sec. Rumsfeld, who denied prisoners basic protections by ruling out military prisons–instead, BLACK HOLES where the human depravity of Americans could find full and free expression.

By rights, 200M Americans should vomit, do penance, throw out the politicians, ABOLISH CIA, and instead, business as usual.

Norman Pollack has written on Populism. His interests are social theory and the structural analysis of capitalism and fascism. He can be reached at pollackn@msu.edu.

Norman Pollack Ph.D. Harvard, Guggenheim Fellow, early writings on American Populism as a radical movement, prof., activist.. His interests are social theory and the structural analysis of capitalism and fascism. He can be reached at pollackn@msu.edu.