Last week a reporter with DW, an English-language German publication, contacted me with some questions for an article she was writing about the Senate’s CIA torture report. Here’s the full text of what we discussed.
DW: On Thursday we’re expecting a decision by the Senate committee on whether to release the CIA report to the executive for declassification. What would be the procedure then, are we likely to see the whole report and when?
Barry Eisler: Judging from how long the government has taken to declassify studies like the 9/11 report, I would guess many months at least. And if it does finally happen, the public will only be permitted to see a tiny fraction of the 6300-page report. This kind of secrecy is typical in America today, where the government knows more and more about the citizenry and the citizenry is permitted to know less and less about the government. And the topics we’re permitted to know the least about all involve government criminality and corruption, along with anything that might embarrass the powers-that-be. It’s hard to imagine the founders would recognize this state of affairs as “democracy.”
DW: Is Obama even that keen on dealing with this issue? When he took office, he said he wasn’t interested in prosecuting anyone from the previous administration regarding torture
BE: No, it’s clear Obama wants the issue to go away. As he infamously (and ridiculously) put it several years ago, he wants the country “to look forward, not backward.” What could that possibly mean, in the context of crimes? Crimes by definition have already happened. Investigating and prosecuting them (and deterring future ones) requires looking backward, there’s no other way to do it. The only thing I’ve heard along these lines that can match it for sheer idiocy and deceitfulness is former vice president Cheney’s comment, delivered as part of a eulogy for former president Ford, that “there can be no healing without pardon.” What? Human nature is such that there’s unlikely to be healing without justice, so unless Cheney thinks “pardon” and “justice” are the same thing, his thoughts on this topic are incoherent, politically-driven nonsense.
As for Obama: the United States is party to the UN Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, signed by president Reagan, ratified by the Senate, and by virtue of Article VI of the Constitution, the Supreme Law of the Land. The UNCAT not only prohibits torture; it also requires member states to investigate credible allegations of torture and to prosecute accordingly. Both former president Bush and former vice president Cheney have confessed in writing and on video to ordering waterboarding. Attorney General Eric Holder acknowledged during his confirmation hearings that waterboarding is torture. In failing to direct the Justice Department (an increasingly Orwellian name in modern America, akin to the Ministry of Truth), president Obama is violating his constitutional obligation to “take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed.” Which, if you think about it, is pretty much the core thing the chief executive is supposed to be doing. At least according to that pre-9/11 document called the Constitution.
But there’s a kind of professional courtesy America’s oligarchs extend to each other, and it clearly includes refraining from prosecuting past presidents and vice presidents for grave crimes. So yes, it would be an understatement to say that Obama is not keen on dealing with America’s descent into torture.
DW: The Washington Post reported yesterday that there are discrepancies between low-level and senior staff in the CIA — that some tips or intel that were allegedly obtained by “enhanced techniques” were, in fact, not gathered in that way at all. What’s going on there, lack of communication, deliberate miscommunication?
BE: From what’s rumored to be in the Senate report, it seems likely that torture had little or nothing to do with how the US hunted down bin Laden or with any other actionable intelligence. But the architects of America’s torture regime are still intent on maintaining a “but torture works” narrative, and preventing a proper narrative of “but torture is illegal.” If the public realizes torture didn’t even “work,” it might become receptive to the notion that torture is illegal, that America is nominally a nation under the rule of law, and that therefore anyone who ordered torture ought to be prosecuted. So substantial portions of the government will continue to push the “torture worked” narrative, if not to keep themselves out of prison (no danger of that, as Obama has made clear), then to at least salvage their reputations.
Watch in particular for the Cheneyesque linguistic dodge, something along the lines of, “We derived actionable intelligence from detainees who underwent enhanced interrogation.” Note the absence of any causal link. You won’t hear “torture produced this intel” — because it didn’t. But that’s what they want you to think, even if a prisoner gave actionable intelligence *before* he was tortured. After all, such a prisoner technically fits the “prisoners who were tortured gave up valuable intel” narrative. Technically true, but in fact deliberately misleading.
DW: You told us last October that you think Feinstein does not truly care about the NSA spying on people and that she has been a great supporter of the NSA. She seems to be a lot more critical of the CIA? True? If so, why?
BE: I just wrote about this in an op-ed for The Guardian. In brief: because the CIA and the Senate are engaged in a turf war. Feinstein feels the CIA has overstepped in ignoring her prerogatives as head of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence; the report, threats to declassify some portions of it, and her public posturing are all ripostes. I don’t expect the dispute to get any uglier, and in fact expect Director of Central Intelligence Brennan to back down. At which point, all the involved parties can get back to business as usual.
DW: Can you see parallels between the NSA revelations and this report on the CIA’s torture methods?
BE: They’re both instances of what happens when bureaucracies are given vast powers with no oversight. Some secrecy is necessary to protect democracy. Too much secrecy is a cancer on democracy. The CIA and NSA are both premier examples of what happens when secrecy metastasizes.
DW: Oversight: what is needed? Are you still doubtful that accountability can be achieved?
BE: I don’t think proper accountability of an intelligence apparatus as vast, sprawling, and virtually unknowable as America’s is really possible. If it were, the Church and Pike Committee reforms of 1975 would have worked. Instead, even the safeguards that emerged from that era, such as the FISA “court,” have been perverted and suborned. The only real solution I can see is to radically scale back America’s entire infrastructure of secrecy, which would obviously include its intelligence agencies. I don’t think this is likely, because Americans have been conditioned to be so afraid of The Scary Brown-Skinned Terrorists that we’re now prepared to entertain almost any internal threat to liberty as long as we’re promised that living under conditions that would have made the Stasi mad with jealousy is the only way to Keep Us Safe.
For some reason, Americans are incredibly resilient — or call it blasé — in the face of 500,000 annual deaths from tobacco, 34,000 annual deaths from car accidents, and 32,000 annual deaths from firearms. But even the remotest chance — and statistically, it is the remotest chance — of death from a terror attack turns us into petrified children, unable to think, incapable of reason, desperate for Daddy to do whatever it takes to protect us. Welcome to the 21st century in the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave.
Photo by Derek Purdy released under a Creative Commons license.