With virtually no experience in interrogations, the C.I.A. had constructed its program in a few harried months by consulting Egyptian and Saudi intelligence officials and copying Soviet interrogation methods long used in training American servicemen to withstand capture. The agency officers questioning prisoners constantly sought advice from lawyers thousands of miles away.
“We were getting asked about combinations — ‘Can we do this and this at the same time?’” recalled Paul C. Kelbaugh, a veteran intelligence lawyer who was deputy legal counsel at the C.I.A.’s Counterterrorist Center from 2001 to 2003.
Interrogators were worried that even approved techniques had such a painful, multiplying effect when combined that they might cross the legal line, Mr. Kelbaugh said. He recalled agency officers asking: “These approved techniques, say, withholding food, and 50-degree temperature — can they be combined?” Or “Do I have to do the less extreme before the more extreme?”
The questions came more frequently, Mr. Kelbaugh said, as word spread about a C.I.A. inspector general inquiry unrelated to the war on terrorism. Some veteran C.I.A. officers came under scrutiny because they were advisers to Peruvian officers who in early 2001 shot down a missionary flight they had mistaken for a drug-running aircraft. The Americans were not charged with crimes, but they endured three years of investigation, saw their careers derailed and ran up big legal bills.
That experience shook the Qaeda interrogation team, Mr. Kelbaugh said. “You think you’re making a difference and maybe saving 3,000 American lives from the next attack. And someone tells you, ‘Well, that guidance was a little vague, and the inspector general wants to talk to you,’” he recalled. “We couldn’t tell them, ‘Do the best you can,’ because the people who did the best they could in Peru were looking at a grand jury.”
Now I don’t know that I’m buying that the CIA has “virtually no experience in interrogations” — many, including Naomi Klein in her book The Shock Doctrine, have documented the research into torture, brainwashing and interrogation techniques that the CIA has been refining and exporting since the 50s. But beyond that, the statement by Kelbaugh highlights how enabling the whole “war on terror” framework has become. These individuals have put their consciences in check, comfortable in the notion that what they do “maybe saving 3,000 American lives.” Really, what they’re worried about is having their “careers derailed” and running up “big legal bills.”
That we have become a nation of sanctioned torturers doesn’t even seem to graze them.
As Glenn Greenwald notes, we’ve known that torture has been going on for a while. There’s nothing new about that. But outrage with which these revelations should be greeted is, again, blunted by an acquiescence toward anything that is offered up in the name of the endless war on terror, and our “leaders” appear content to negotiate away their own power and avoid anything that smacks of a political battle.
One does not expect an administration to imprison U.S. citizens with no process, or to proclaim explicitly the right to break the law, or to systematically adopt policies of torture. For that reason, it is not surprising that it would take some time for the reaction to catch up to the full extent of the wrongdoing.
But we are now way past the point where that excuse is plausible. Anyone paying even minimal attention is well aware of exactly how radical and corrupt and lawless this administration is. We all know what has happened to our standing in the world, to our national character and our core political values, as a result of the previously unthinkable policies the Bush administration has relentlessly pursued. Ignorance or incredulity can no longer explain our acquiescence. Accommodating and protecting the lawbreaking of high Bush officials is widely seen by our Beltway elite as a duty of bipartisanship, a hallmark of Seriousness.
It’s ironic, as many have noted, that today is the same day Leahy indicated he was going to cave on his request for documents from the Bush Administration before approving Mukasey. That’s great. First Leahy wanted documents regarding the USA scandal and warrantless wiretapping. Then he backed down and said he would “settle for material about interrogation of suspected terrorists and warrantless wiretapping.” Now he’s willing to chuck the whole bucket. Because George Bush what, won’t give them to him? This is headline news? Why ask for them in the first place? Is kabuki all the rage in capitol hill bars these days?
These people are, through their passivity, their unwillingness to uphold the principles they were elected to enforce, complicit in the recklessness and lawlessness of Bush Administration. And until they start using their power to force some answers and stop these horrible abuses, they have blood on their hands and the suffering these victims on their consciences. In order to sleep at night perhaps they, too, tell themselves that they’re “preventing the deaths of 3,000 Americans” with their “comity” and their “bipartisanship.”