2015: Two administrations complicit in institutionalizing torture

When President Obama assured the American people that “my team” vetted the surveillance system in 2009 and “scrubbed” the faulty parts…he was not telling the truth. He did not fire the heads of intelligence who took us far on an abominable path and lied about it.

In his essay, Working the Dark Side, in the London Review of Books (2015), David Bromwich, Sterling Professor of Literature at Yale University, and a widely published social critic (Moral Imagination: Essays, 2015) states:

“Like the interrogators who were spared any penalty, the lawyers who twisted the law were said to have done their best to serve the president in a time that was hard on everyone. The promise of impunity that has greeted the lawless conduct of government officials obeys the ancient maxim fac et excusa. The deeds in fact are free to recur because the excuses are potentially limitless. We are all patriots – Obama’s word for CIA interrogators – and under enemy attack, we respond as patriots do.

The truth of course is that we know nothing about the motives of the torturers or the motives of those who wrote up the exculpating rationale for torture before the fact. Selfless patriotism may be part of it. Sadistic self-indulgence may also be part of it. Who can say in what proportions they were mixed?”

What we do know is that what was done was criminal in nature, whether judged by US or international law.  In its wake, the perpetrators, both the torturers and the kidnappers, were protected, except for a few low-level figures at Abu Ghraib. None of the perpetrators of the most venal barbaric abuses, not even those responsible for deaths at the Agency’s black sites, has been charged, prosecuted or held accountable in any fashion. The men (and woman) most responsible for the unprecedented morally reprehensible policy left the government to write their memoirs for millions of dollars, vigorously defending what they had authorized to be done to other human beings.

“I think we had one or two real moments when we could have gone in a different direction. The primary one was, of course, 2008. I think Obama had a chance. He had a mandate to do something different. And he didn’t do it. I think part of it was that he was never exactly what we thought he was, I think he was never really as liberal as people thought he was. I think a lot of voters invested in him their hopes and dreams without exactly realizing what he really was. I think he was always really more conservative than how he presented himself in 2008… And I think historians are going to be struggling with that for a long time. “

“Most of his team had some ties to the Bush years in the War on Terror.” (James Risen interviewed by Glenn Greenwald, The Intercept, 2014)

President Obama, Attorney General Eric Holder, and the intelligence committees of the House of Representatives and the Senate have abdicated their public responsibility; which is to ensure that such abuses do not recur.

“At the very outset of his government, he pulled into the White House an ambiguous figure from the Bush-Cheney years, John Brennan… a high official of the CIA under George Tenet…Brennan took charge of the ‘kill lists’ for drone strikes which would replace torture as the technique of choice for the new president. (Bush ordered fifty drone strikes; Obama has ordered four hundred.) The reliance on a different secret policy and the man he chose to control it were Obama’s signal to the CIA and the armed forces that he, too, was willing to transgress the boundaries of conventional war.”

“Brennan has defended the drone strikes in terms as wildly improbable as those Cheney used in defending the CIA protocols for torture…Brennan claimed in June 2011 that the drone strikes of the preceding year had caused not a single ‘collateral death’: every missile hit its designated target and nothing else. Later, slowly, he revised that estimate.” (Bromwich, 2015)

In April 2014, CIA Chief John Brennan, was informed by the new head of counterterrorism that more than two hundred agents still working for the agency were at one time involved in the detention and torture program. This demonstrates the failure by the Obama Administration to punish even the worst of the worst sadistic agents whose actions undermined the very foundation of America:

“To dispose of even a quarter of those agents would be a significant purge. This has been suggested to Obama by Senator Mark Udall, but Obama can be relied on not to do it, for reasons that are tactical, politic and implicit in his decision to grant all agents immunity.  So a conspiracy of silence to muffle the crimes of the past now encompasses members of two administrations – not least because of the continuity between them. (Bromwich, 2015)

Instead, the Obama administration turned justice on its head and prosecuted a senior CIA whistleblower John Kiriakou, who revealed that waterboarding was used on prisoners suspected of terrorism. He was prosecuted under the Espionage Act, which was meant to prosecute spies. He was convicted of identifying a covert agent who had been involved in torture, and for disclosing information to a journalist.  Kiriakou was sent to prison for 30 months while not a single perpetrator has been held accountable.

What’s more, Obama appointed Susan Brandon as Chief of Research Unit of High Value Detainee Interrogation Group, Department of  Defense (later) re configured within the Department of Justice. Throughout her career, Brandon worked on “deception detection” including her time at the CIA’s Counterintelligence Field Activity (CIFA) which conducted interrogations using torture –euphemistically called “enhanced interrogation techniques.” Brandon served at the Bush White House as Assistant Director for Social, Behavioral and Educational Services. (Stephen Soldz. The “Black Jail”: Obama’s Afghan Torture Center and the American Psychological Association, Counterpunch, May 2010) (Read more about Brandon, here, here, here, and here)

“I think one of [Obama’s] legacies is going to be that on a broad scale he normalized the War on Terror. He took what Bush and Cheney kind of had started on an emergency, ad-hoc basis and turned it into a permanent state and allowed it to grow much more dramatically than it ever had under Bush or Cheney, and part of that—I think within that—was his attack on whistleblowers and journalists. I think it’s all part and parcel of the same thing. If you believe in the national security state in the way Obama does, then you have to also believe in squashing dissent. The crackdown on leaks by the Obama administration has been designed to suppress the truth about the war on terror. “(James Risen interviewed by Glenn Greenwald, The Intercept, 2014)

The reason for the silence regarding the perpetrators of torture is that the Obama administration is no less culpable in sanctioning and utilizing patently illegal brutality and assassinations to further dubious secret policies. Those policies collide with the tenets of democracy whose foundation requires respect for human rights and civil rights.  Prof. Bromwich suggests that a “web of mutual fears” has led to a quid pro quo pact:

“a conspiracy of silence to muffle the crimes of the past now encompasses members of two administrations – not least because of the continuity between them. Much of Brennan’s utility to Obama came from his status as an insider to the torture arrangements. If Obama called in Brennan the former agent in large part to protect himself from the agency, Brennan on his side must have been wary of still-active agents. There were things they could divulge about him if they chose. The silence regarding torture until now was a predictable consequence of this web of mutual fears.” (Working the Dark Side, 2015)

By protecting those who authorized torture, the most egregious of human abuses — even as those abuses have done great harm to America’s global reputation — promotes torture as a national value and integrates it into a culture of unilateral power without accountability.