Thursday, April 23, 2009

Secrets, lies, terrorists and torture

Who is lying to whom or what about the lies that one person may or may not have told to another person about something that might or might not have happened?

Okay, so that's an awkwardly phrased question. But that's the one that keeps coming back to me as I read the coverage and comments about the Obama administration's decision to release the Bush Justice Department's torture memos a little over a week ago. As I understand it, the concomitant debate within the Washington political-media complex has centered on these major questions, issues, concerns . . . or whatever you want to call them.

1. Did the Obama administration compromise our national security by detailing the torture program created and carried out by the Bush administration?

2. Was Obama's decision "reckless" and "irresponsible?"

3. Has Obama now handed the "terrorists" a strategic victory?

4. Have the chances of eating poisoned arugula at the Whole Foods salad bar increased as the result of the public release of the memos?

5. Will a crazy man decide to shoot up a youth soccer game this weekend because he now knows how to prepare for a C.I.A-led interrogation? This assumes, of course, that the crazy man is a terrorist affiliated with an international terrorist movement and not some homegrown, good old-fashioned American psychopath -- you know, the sort of person who does this thing somewhere in the country about every 27 seconds or so.

* * * * * * * * * *

As usual, the conversation in Washington is about everything and nothing . . . everything in the sense that the usual self-appointed "experts," or the very same people who depend, at best, on government sources for their information , claim to "know" whether the use of torture yielded "valuable information" from "high-value" detainees. That information, in turn, helped the United States "foil" "numerous" "plots" around the globe. Likewise, opponents of torture are quick to discount any possibility that torturing detainees helped elicit information that was (and is being) used to prevent terrorist acts against the United States and, one hopes, our allies in Afghanistan and the two or three countries that still support whatever the American mission is in Iraq.

The "nothing" component of this discussion, debate or argument, though, is the more compelling narrative, and one that I haven't seen addressed all that much (outside of, perhaps, Glenn Greenwald's reporting and commentary). The "nothing" of this story is this:

How does anyone . . . and I mean anyone . . . know who is telling the truth about what the United States really did to detainees considered "high-value" (and it doesn't seem that long ago that every other alleged terrorist captured by the United States was the "Number 2" official (behind Osama Bin Laden) in al-Qaeda or the former Saddam government in Iraq)? How does anyone know who provided what information to whom about what plots or movements or actions, and whether that information was useful or not?

For anyone not directly involved with the capture, detention and interrogation of prisoners held under United States authority to claim they know what did or didn't happen is not possible. For anyone to take on face value the statements made by former Bush administration officials not privy to the proceedings that torture provided valuable, life-saving information is foolish bordering on delusional. Government officials are in the business of promoting the agenda of the agency, organization or individual to whom they answer, and that obligation means, by and large, that disinformation rather than the "truth" serves as the preferred currency. Remember how the Bush administration first denied that it authorized torture, and then once Seymour Hersh broke the Abu Ghraib story in 2004, reluctantly confessed, for no other reason that to maintain some shred of credibility, that it did use "enhanced interrogation techniques (i.e., torture)" but refused to apologize for them? Remember how President Bush said the United States would never torture anyone? Remember the outrage over how Jessica Lynch was treated by her Iraqi captors, only for the public to discover later that the entire story around Lynch was fabricated? Remember . . . remember . . . remember . . . ? The list is endless.

So, for me, the question is a little different than whether torture yielded useful information, since I do not believe there is anyway that everyday civilians like me can know that. Nor do I believe that a single mouthpiece in the Washington political-media complex (unlike Paul Krugman, I do not think the Washington political and media establishments are separate entities. They're one and the same) knows more about this than I do, which is nothing.

I. F. Stone once wrote that "all governments lie." For democratic nations like the United States, the trick is to maintain the balance between lying, which, again all governments do, and openness. But when the nation is besieged by an administration that lies so often and so egregiously that even individuals far less skeptical -- okay, cynical -- than myself don't know what's true and what's not, there is absolutely no reason to accept a word that comes out a regime that sponsored and aggressively pursued torture. So, for now, forget all the discussion about the need to "recover American values" or return to the "ideals upon which this nation was founded." Our "values" are far less pure than we like to pretend. Like all great nations, this one was founded and developed by blood as much as reason. I'd be willing to bet that torture was quite common during the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812 and the Civil War. I'd be willing to bet that Americans tortured and were tortured during World Wars I, II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War. I'd be willing to bet on all these things and many others. But betting is all I can do, since I have no idea what happened to whom and when it happened. And neither do you.

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