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April 19, 2009

They've Always Tortured. The Difference Is Now They Write Memos

By: Bernard Chazelle

“We have been through a dark and painful chapter in our history,” Obama said in a statement. “Nothing will be gained by spending our time and energy laying blame for the past.”

Is this Harvard-trained lawyer telling us that the very idea of a justice system is a waste of time and energy? The blogosphere has been milking this inanity for all its sidesplitting worth. Too bad the first part of Obama's statement went unnoticed: it explains why torture will go on unchanged.

First, savor the obligatory narcissism: "We have been through a painful chapter"; not the guy who was waterboarded and buried alive in a coffin with insects. Of course not; we have suffered so much. Second, note the singular form of the word "chapter." The president is lamenting the short-lived aberration of the Bush years, when our nation veered off its righteous course and stained its proud human-rights record with a momentary lapse of moral rectitude.

Enough to make the ghost of Dan Mitrione chuckle. At his death in 1970, the US government lavished praise on the former FBI agent:

"[His] devoted service to the cause of peaceful progress in an orderly world will remain as an example for free men everywhere."

Amen. No doubt free men everywhere would be edified by Mitrione's own words (all quotes from the New York Times):

"When you receive a subject, the first thing to do is to determine his physical state, his degree of resistance, through a medical examination. A premature death means a failure by the technician.

"Another important thing to know is exactly how far you can go given the political situation and the personality of the prisoner. It is very important to know beforehand whether we have the luxury of letting the subject die.

"Before all else, you must be efficient. You must cause only the damage that is strictly necessary, not a bit more. We must control our tempers in any case. You have to act with the efficiency and cleanliness of a surgeon and with the perfection of an artist…"

The surgeon-artist taught torture to Brazilian police in Belo Horizonte. He led "practical demonstrations" of torture techniques using prisoners and beggars taken off the streets. Former CIA operatives claimed that Mitrione's techniques included "the use of electrical shocks delivered to his victims' mouths and genitals." In the firmament of US torture, Mitrione is but one of a thousand points of light. The US government has always tortured. Usually it's better at blaming someone else. Here's what a more honest, if less eloquent, president might have said:

“My fellow Americans, the last 50 years have been an uninterrupted sequence of dark, painful chapters. We institutionalized torture right after World War II and we exported it everywhere we could, from Vietnam to Greece to Iran to Latin America. We remember the Phoenix program; we remember the multibillion-dollar CIA torture project in the 50s; we remember El Mozote; we remember the CIA torture manual, KUBARK, and its wise recommendation, "The electric current should be known in advance"; we remember our training of SAVAK; we remember the School of the Americas; we remember our Salvadoran trainees who raped and killed nuns. The one thing we don't remember is if there were ever a time when we didn't teach and practice torture.

"The only difference this time is that top government lawyers were dumb enough to authorize this crap in writing. I promise to return to the good old days when torture was conducted in an environment of plausible deniability. And so I'm ordering a transfer of Gitmo prisoners to Bagram, an Afghan hellhole no one can locate on a map. I am banning all torture memos. Memos are bad. I solemnly swear that CIA personnel will be granted full immunity regarding all past, present, and future crimes. Let's close this dark, painful chapter, so we can open a brand-new dark, painful chapter -- so dark none of you will see it."

— Bernard Chazelle

Posted at April 19, 2009 10:48 AM

ARREST and JUDGE&JURT TRY all the torturers. Witness a-plenty STILL locked up in GITMO, ALL need to be closely examined before a JURY.

Posted by: Mike Meyer at April 19, 2009 11:36 AM

There is a parallel situation to killing civilians in foreign countries with explosive bombs and missiles. The US has done it forever but it doesn't write memos on it.

Killing civilians has advanced over torturing them in one aspect, however, at least (reportedly) in Afghanistan. Al Arabiya: "After years of alienating Afghans by being slow to acknowledge killing civilians, United States troops are trying a new tactic: say sorry fast."

It's doubtful that the US, despite its "dark and painful chapter", will ever apologize for its torture. I mean, really, there have to be limits on imperial largesse.

The parallel that Bernard made, to FBI torture, is also interesting. But how do we know it was applied only overseas? Is that even a reasonable assumption? Isn't it more likely that the US applied overseas what it had done domestically?

Certainly the US has extended killing, getting back to that, from domestic (native Americans and others) to international applications, as it is currently doing. Wouldn't the same parallel exist for torture as for killing?

Gerry Spence, the noted defense lawyer, wrote a book called "From Freedom to Slavery." In it he described the circumstances surrounding the trial of Randy Weaver in 1993, in which Spence was involved. Weaver had acquired more guns and ammunition than the FBI thought useful, and therefore earned himself a visit to his remote Idaho cabin by an FBI sniper team. First they shot Old Yella, the dog, then when Weaver's son Sammy went to retrieve the dog they shot him, twice, once through the head, next they shot and killed Weaver's wife Vicki as she stood in the cabin doorway holding her baby. Then they put Weaver, who hadn't done anything except rant, on trial!

Spence wrote: ""I found that the minions of the law--the special agents of the FBI--to be men who proved themselves not only fully capable, but also utterly willing to manufacture evidence, to conceal crucial evidence and even to change the rules that governed life and death if, in the prosecution of the accused, it seemed expedient to do so."--From Freedom to Slavery, p. 27

Well surely the court judges are concerned with justice? Spence: "We are told that our judges, charged with constitutional obligations, insure equal justice for all. That, too, is a myth. The function of the law is not to provide justice or to preserve freedom. The function of the law is to keep those who hold power, in power."--p 109

Posted by: Don Bacon at April 19, 2009 12:23 PM

re: Nothing will be gained

news report:
VIENNA, April 18 (Reuters) - President Barack Obama's decision not to prosecute CIA interrogators who used waterboarding on terrorism suspects amounts to a breach of international law, the U.N. rapporteur on torture said.

Posted by: Don Bacon at April 19, 2009 01:33 PM

Is this Harvard-trained lawyer telling us that the very idea of a justice system is a waste of time and energy? The blogosphere has been milking this inanity for all its sidesplitting worth. Too bad the first part of Obama's statement went unnoticed: it explains why torture will go on unchanged.

this was the nub of the David Broder/Villager ciritque last week: that it seemed to be 'score-settling.'

at the time I asked, pointedly i though, if it waqsn't bu bringing scounderls to justice that we settled our scores in civil society.

If that's no longer the way of it, I'm gonna hafta get a bigger, quieter gun...

Posted by: Woody at April 19, 2009 02:51 PM

I don't think this is fair to our previous torturers. As the Dan Mitrione quotes show, they definitely kept good records themselves.

Posted by: Jonathan Schwarz at April 19, 2009 05:47 PM

Exactly. Mitrione fits the narrative we're used to while Bybee does not. Before, so goes the mythology, it was lowlives freelancing, rotten apples, rogue operations. The Phoenix program had over 40 torture centers but the CIA ran the show, and you know the CIA: a giant frat house. But geez if only the AG or, God forbid, the president had known, the abuse would have stopped right away. Because America is very good at the very top and not so good at the bottom. Remember Graner and Lynndie England. Rotten people. Calley was a bad man. Bob Kerrey was a bad man. Oops, sorry, I meant a good man. He got the medal of honor and he's a good democrat and his baby-killing spree was forgiven.

Now we find out that Cheney knew, and Gonzo knew, and Yoo and Bybee knew. And we're all shocked, shocked. Because Kennedy never knew, and Johnson never knew, and Nixon never knew (well, maybe he did) but Reagan never knew. Clinton never killed a fly. Even Negroponte didn't know. He was just promoting democracy and human rights in Honduras! America is the only country that manages to kill millions of people with no one in charge ever knowing anything.

Except that the idiotic Bush clique broke that rule, and now America feels violated. Reminds me of Woody Allen's Radio Days, when the burglar calls in from the house he is robbing to answer a question in a radio game show.

But it's OK because something like that will never happen again. From Panetta, Gates, and Holder, we'll still get the torture but not the memos, and so everyone will be happy.

Posted by: Bernard Chazelle at April 19, 2009 07:30 PM

Ah, Dan Mitreone, forgot all about him.

But you can go back further, to the Phoenix Program in Vietnam. They didn't just mass murder people.

I think, while you can always find a bad guy ready to twist an arm, I think you have to use WWII as the line of demarcation. That would point to the CIA as the proximate poison in the body politic.

Posted by: Bob In Pacifica at April 19, 2009 07:46 PM

The Obama administration won't prosecute these crimes in order to protect Gang of Eight Democrats. Since 2002, Democratic leaders in the House and Senate provided their informed consent and are as complicit as the infamous Bush administration officials who conceived and executed these primitive, bestial and ignorant crimes.

Isn't that right, Rahm?

Posted by: Pvt. Keepout at April 19, 2009 11:48 PM

ditto on democrat complicity

Posted by: hapa at April 20, 2009 01:34 AM

I think, while you can always find a bad guy ready to twist an arm, I think you have to use WWII as the line of demarcation. That would point to the CIA as the proximate poison in the body politic.

The Philippines disappeared down the memory hole already?

Posted by: Happy Jack at April 20, 2009 11:48 AM

Call Nan (1-202-225-0100) about it. Volunteer to serve on a JURY, INSIST on an honest JUDGE.

Posted by: Mike Meyer at April 20, 2009 12:14 PM

Yes, the pronouns say it all, don't they?

Just as the point of view of some in power - that torture makes the U.S. look bad - says it all in a different way.

Posted by: catherine at April 20, 2009 01:41 PM

catherine --- no no no, it's being caught torturing that makes the US look bad. Or being caught by the wrong people. It was secret before, in the US. The rest of the world probably knew, but Americans didn't so it was a secret so it was okay.

Posted by: Duncan at April 20, 2009 02:32 PM

And now that we've got shows like "24", we Americans have come to love torture just as much as Dan Mitrione did. It's entertaining and it proves that we're not gay.

Posted by: deang at April 21, 2009 08:22 PM

Ah, how times have changed, deang! When I was growing up in the 60s, it was widely believed that the Nazis were a bunch of homos who tortured because they were degenerate perverts. I believe that this belief surfaced in Visconti's film The Damned, and also in David Reuben's infamous book Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* (*But Were Afraid to Ask). But I guess it's all about who's pitching and who's catching.

Posted by: Duncan at April 21, 2009 09:40 PM

I keep hoping this is part of some broader plan where Obama stays above the fray, appears neutral or even unwilling, but has some sort of master plan that facilitates the prosecution of the torturers.

Posted by: Maezeppa at April 22, 2009 04:04 PM

best way to treat a bleeding wound is to put pressure on it

Posted by: hapa at April 23, 2009 02:16 AM

I know just what you mean, Maezappa. I kept hoping that George W. Bush's conduct was part of some broader plan where he would finally rip off his mask and reveal himself to be Martin Luther King Jr., who faked his death 40 years ago in order to work behind the scenes for truth, Justice, and the American way. Whereupon everyone would have bowed down and acknowledged that we have strayed from the path of righteousness, bah bah bahhhhh, and a New Day would have dawned.

Posted by: Duncan at April 23, 2009 02:40 PM

Ah, you're speaking of this, Duncan.

Posted by: Upside Down Flag at April 25, 2009 12:27 PM