Restoring the Rule of Law
Christopher H. Pyle
Torture and the Ideology of National Security
The Illusion of Accountability: The Idea of an American Truth Commission on Torture
Deconstructing Ticking-Bomb Arguments
Defusing the Ticking Social Bomb Argument: The Right to Self-Defensive Torture
Torture Writ Large: The Israeli Occupation
The Necessity Defence and the Myth of the Noble Torturer
What Would Jack Do? The Ethics of Torture in 24
Donal P. O’Mathuna
The Torturer’s Apprentice: Psychology and ‘Enhanced Interrogations’
Bryant L. Welch
Algeria as Template: Torture and Counter-Insurgency War
Liaquat Ali Khan
Cranking up the Volume: Music as a Tool of Torture
'A Long Experience of War': Gaza in Historical Perspective
Harmony amid Diversity: The Importance of Interfaith Dialogue
Humanity and Its Landscapes: A Green History
Holmes Rolston III
Volume 12 ● Number 1 ● Winter/Spring 2010—Working the Dark Side
Torture and the Ideology of National Security
The critical events were as follows: in November 2008, Obama, who had vowed to end torture, won the presidential election. On 22 January 2009, President Obama issued an executive order that required US interrogations to comply with Article 3 of the Geneva Convention and with the Army Field Manual. The order also revoked all Justice Department legal interpretations pertaining to interrogations between 11 September 2001 and 20 January 2009, and required the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to close its secret detention facilities. In early April 2009, a report by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) was leaked and featured in an article by Mark Danner in the New York Review of Books. Quoting the ICRC report, the article documented horrifying details of torture in CIA “black sites”. On 16 April, the Department of Justice released previously secret Office of Legal Council (OLC) memos that documented, again in shocking specificity, the authorisations and practices of CIA torture. On 21 April, the Senate Armed Services Committee released its report detailing the military’s use of “aggressive interrogation techniques” and how these techniques were approved at the highest levels of government. On 24 August, the CIA was finally forced to release its inspector-general’s report that allegedly had “sickened” Attorney-General Eric Holder. Holder also announced a “review” to determine whether criminal investigations were warranted of CIA personnel who had failed to “act in good faith and within the scope of legal guidance”.
Although denial of torture continued to exert its seemingly inexhaustible power, the “torture” word had finally gone public. Earlier denials of torture, such as the administration’s Abu Ghraib defence that pinned the problem on “rogue” National Guard soldiers, now began to ring hollow. With these events and the press attention devoted to them, significant sectors of the public began to acknowledge that laws had been broken and that their government had undertaken policies that were profoundly immoral and damaging to cherished ideals of the nation. Calls for accountability began to receive a hearing in the press and political leaders and officials who had authorised and participated in torture began to feel imperilled.
It is worthwhile dwelling for a moment on the extraordinary nature of these developments and the transmutation they occasioned of the entire landscape of the struggle over US torture. Over seven years, the torture programme of President George W. Bush and Vice-President Dick Cheney had relied on secret law, secret authorisations, and secret implementation. It had employed a multifaceted strategy of denial, and adopted various defensive manoeuvres in response to damning publicity, lawsuits, challenges from Guantanamo lawyers, court decisions, congressional opposition, and internal resistance. In 2007 and 2008, these strategies began to unravel with more bad publicity, international pressure, mounting internal dissent, the growth of an anti-torture movement in the United States, moments of newly found boldness among some Democrats, and the inclusion of torture as an issue in the presidential primaries. Yet, the torture regime remained largely intact, as signified most conspicuously by Bush’s successful veto of a 2008 congressional provision that would have required the CIA to conform to the Army Field Manual. It took the election of an anti-torture president to put an end to these strategies—or so it seemed. (Disturbing questions about the persistence and cover-up of torture will not be discussed here.) In fact, Obama’s election precipitated events difficult to predict at the time.
In anticipation of what they regarded as adverse decisions by the new administration and soon in response to them, national-security hawks associated with or sympathetic to the Bush−Cheney torture policies launched an aggressive media campaign marked by no apologies, no regrets, no admission of possible mistakes, and certainly no repudiations. Cheney could even declare that he was “proud of what we did”. Torture defenders went public, proclaiming that “aggressive interrogations” were the principal reason why the country had not suffered another terrorist attack and warning that Obama’s rejection of torture would put the nation in jeopardy. The public assertion that torture, called by anything but its true name, is a necessary instrument of national security and the linked assertion that national security must prevail over other cherished values, including the law itself, are a momentous change for a country that has prided itself on having democratic and humane values.
A Moment of Crisis
In this paper, I argue that the deluge of commentary in the mainstream media throughout 2009 and into 2010 constitutes a moment of crisis in the struggle over how Americans think about torture in the context of post-9/11 national-security politics. I use the word “crisis” to describe a moment when a polity—its political culture, legal and political institutions, public discourse, and national identity—is likely to take a significant turn. On a few occasions prior to 2009—publication of the Abu Ghraib photos in 2004, the McCain Amendment in 2005, Bush’s admission and defence of secret, “alternative” procedures in 2006—the torture issue had risen to the level of national attention. I argue, however, that both the substance and potential effects of the 2009 crisis differ from and surpass previous landmark events. In all but name only, torture came to be openly defended and advocated as the right course for America. During the years of denial and the deflection of responsibility, the justification of torture, while asserted by a few, had been advanced primarily through the world of televised fantasy in weekly versions of the ticking-bomb scenario; the series 24, with its popular hero Jack Bauer, did yeoman’s duty for an administration committed to hiding its torture policies. One can now look back on the Bush years and easily recognise the obliquely stated justifications for torture—the rhetoric of an evil, invisible, superhuman, and subhuman enemy, the language of murderous violence and retribution, the “dark-side”, “gloves-off” talk about necessity and “whatever it takes”—all situated within the framework of existential threat, a state of emergency, and a “war on terror”. In 2009, however, the floodgates of justification of torture were opened.
My central concern is in analysing the emerging ideological formation of torture—the configuration of defences, assumptions, and values underlying it, and its explicit or tacit meanings. My focus will be on how the national-security justification of torture has been advanced along with the various ideological strategies employed on its behalf. I am motivated in this effort by the conviction that understanding the ideology of torture is crucial for the struggle against torture, especially as regards whether those who authorised torture will be held accountable and whether torture will be rejected by the American people or accepted as a legitimate tool of interrogation in the arsenal of the military and security agencies. Will the United States become a torture culture or a culture guided by human rights and the rule of law? Even though, at the level of policy, President Obama’s executive orders reversed the torture policies of the previous administration, this question is far from resolved.
Public-opinion polls show considerable support in the United States for torture. Disturbingly, throughout 2009, support for torture appears to have increased. A poll released by the Pew Research Center in early December indicated that 54 per cent of respondents agreed that “the use of torture to gain information from suspected terrorists” can be “often justified” or “sometimes justified”—the first time in five years that this combination of views reached a majority. Only 25 per cent said torture could “never be justified”.
One possible explanation could be that the Republican Party, many right-wingers more generally, and significant sectors of the national-security apparatus have become outspoken advocates for torture. They are highly critical of President Obama’s executive order ending torture and his approval of the release of the secret memos about the Bush−Cheney torture policies, predict catastrophe unless torture is reinstated, and vehemently deplore any suggestion of criminal investigations of torture’s practitioners or authorisers—a step they characterise as “criminalising policy differences”. All this points to a vital need to understand the layered ideologies that justify torture and to consider how deeply such justifications have penetrated American culture.
I will not address here the crucial politics of denial that dominated almost the entire post-9/11 period and only began to unravel in the autumn of 2007 and throughout 2008. Nor will I attempt to trace the continuing use of denial in 2009—how, for example, the media remains timid about using the word “torture”, and how denial is practised, especially in the right-wing media, via ridicule. (It is worth noting, however, that as recently as August 2009, Dick Cheney, who had infamously referred to waterboarding as “a dunk in the water”, said that he was “astonished” at “left-wing” charges of torture.) Although I will occasionally refer to one of the prevalent euphemisms for torture, I will not hesitate to employ the vocabulary of torture here. The discursive boundaries that exclude using the “torture” word are a key part of the politics of denial. As Glen Greenwald reminds us, “active media complicity in concealing that our Government created a systematic torture regime—by refusing ever to say so—is one of the principal reasons it was allowed to happen for so long.”1
Defending CIA Practices
One could see it coming. The election of Barak Obama provoked an eruption of anxiety within the CIA and among officials of the previous administration. By December 2008, critics of the expected policy changes pre-emptively warned of dire consequences. Guest editorialists and “intelligence sources” for news stories expressed their apprehensions about more stringent oversight of the CIA, publication of damaging information, and congressional or criminal inquiries into past practices.
When objections within Obama’s transition team sidelined CIA veteran John Brennan from becoming the next CIA director because of his alleged involvement in the CIA torture programme, stories appeared identifying pressures from “the left” as responsible; a “left-wing hit job”, was one commentator’s description of Brennan’s exclusion. A New York Times story, which described the decision to veto Brennan as causing “anxiety in the ranks”, quoted former CIA veteran Mark Lowenthal as saying, “if you worked in the C.I.A. during the war on terror, you are now tainted.”2 The “taint”, of course, was the CIA’s torture programme, and “anxiety in the ranks” conveyed alarm that if Brennan could be tarred over torture, other consequences would likely follow.
The same article cited another former CIA official, A. B. Krongard, who was reported as saying that Brennan was “a casualty of war”. The trope not only suggested that the torture programme was an aspect of (“a new kind” of) war, it also likened the rejection of Brennan to warfare on the CIA. Political motives considered hostile to the CIA would have the effect of superseding and compromising decisions that follow directly from battlefield necessities. “C.I.A. tactics were being second-guessed for political purposes,” Krongard asserted, as if efficacious decisions can be made only by security professionals, and as if the CIA should never be constrained by inevitably incompetent politicians. Unstated was the fact that the CIA was not simply devising its own on-the-ground tactics; the agency had undertaken its torture programme at the direction of elected and appointed political leaders who had acted with political purpose in determining policy for interrogations. Presumably, that political purpose did not amount to “second-guessing”. It should be noted that Obama later appointed Brennan to be “Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism”, probably as a concession to Obama’s opponents at the CIA.
The threat to democratic institutions of an unaccountable and uncontrollable intelligence agency did not seem to concern the press during the transition period. Reporters took as a truism that the new president would need to “win the trust” of the security agencies, a “delicate task” as the New York Times put it on 3 December 2008; “a perilous balancing act”, according to the Washington Post on 10 January 2009. Clearly, the new president faced powerful security institutions that have historically operated semi-autonomously and in tension with political oversight. However, to presume that the president must “win the trust” of the CIA is to perform the ideological task of naturalising a politically achieved state of autonomy, an ongoing state of exception granted to the CIA in the name of national security. Similarly, the assertion that the CIA will understandably resist any investigation of itself became a given in press accounts. “[A]ny effort to conduct a wider re-examination would almost certainly provoke a backlash at the country’s intelligence agencies.”3
A ‘Risk-Averse’ CIA
Shortly after the Brennan controversy, national-security hawks launched another campaign warning of dire consequences that would follow from the new administration’s intention to rein in the CIA. Retired or unnamed security officials expressed concern that front-line agents could not do their job if required to “look over their shoulders”. Close monitoring would induce too much caution and agents would become “risk averse”. Political interference (i.e., change of policy, oversight, and reasserted legal constraints) would compromise, perhaps fatally, the CIA’s ability to protect the country from another terrorist attack. In early January 2009, a Newsweek cover story simply asserted as fact that “many federal officials have grown risk-averse, fearing that they will be prosecuted or dragged before a congressional committee for fighting too hard against terrorism”.4
In early 2009, the risk-averse motif gained traction, even with the president-elect. Attempting to head off criticism by adopting the language of his critics, Obama declared: “at the CIA you’ve got extraordinarily talented people who are working very hard to keep Americans safe. I don’t want them to suddenly feel like they’ve got to spend all their time looking over their shoulders.”5 It was in this interview that Obama first commented that “we need to look forward as opposed to looking backwards”, but at the same time insisted: “That doesn’t mean that if somebody has blatantly broken the law, that they are above the law.” The last remark triggered an immediate response from former CIA official Mark Lowenthal, who warned against any criminal investigation into torture allegations against the agency by saying its personnel would be less willing to take risks to protect the United States. “There are just huge costs to the day-to-day operation of intelligence,” Lowenthal said.6
The risk-averse contention never went away. On 23 January 2009, the day after Obama issued his executive order, the Wall Street Journal, in an article headlined “The Jack Bauer Exception” (a title which exemplifies how at one level of public discourse the denial of torture had practically become a wink), editorialised that “the executive order is bound to produce a more risk-averse CIA culture and over time less intelligence-gathering. No one may be willing to be Jack Bauer when Mr. Obama really needs him”. One cannot pass by this remark without noting the additional core assumption of torture ideology: a situation will inevitably arise when using torture will be imperative. After the release of the OLC memos in April, the Journal’s editors again complained that the administration’s action, which “unleashed the liberal mob” and revealed a president who “seems more than willing to indulge the revenge fantasies of the left”, would also produce a “risk-averse CIA”, the predictable result being a “weakening [of] American intelligence capabilities”.7
Once again, Obama appeared to get the message. On the day the Justice Department released the OLC memos that had authorised and detailed torture, Obama assured the CIA that “those who carried out their duties relying in good faith upon legal advice from the Department of Justice ... will not be subject to prosecution”. Again, adopting the language of his critics, he declared: “This is a time for reflection, not retribution ... nothing will be gained by spending our time and energy laying blame for the past.”8
The CIA was not reassured. Fearing that Attorney-General Holder’s limited investigation might get out of hand (even though clearly intended to exclude those who had authorised torture), seven former directors of the CIA issued a blunt warning to the president in a letter dated 18 September 2009: “This approach will seriously damage the willingness of many other intelligence officers to take risks to protect the country. In our judgment such risk-taking is vital to success.” The former directors added that disclosures about CIA activities would “continue to make it harder for intelligence officers to maintain the momentum of operations that have saved lives and helped protect America from further attacks”.9 A few weeks earlier, nine Republican senators had also sent a letter to Holder with almost identical warnings. Cheney also responded to Holder’s announcement of a potential investigation of some CIA personnel with the predictable warning that if agents, who “put their lives at risk ... are now going to be subject to being investigated and prosecuted by the next administration, nobody’s going to sign up for those kinds of missions”.10
Taken singly or together, these are astonishing assertions. The message, essentially stated outright, is that objectionable oversight by the elected government of the United States, executive orders resented by the CIA, release of previously secret memos that document unlawful acts, and even a limited investigation will result in a CIA unable or unwilling to accomplish its mission of defeating terrorism and protecting America. The not-so-hidden insinuation is that a president who seeks to exert control over the agency will encounter active resistance, putatively at the agent level (what else could the threat of “risk-averse” agents mean?). It is plausible, however, to read the comments as warning that non-co-operation with the new administration may extend to the top of the CIA. After all, high-ranking officials of the CIA, including seven former directors, and their powerful champion from the previous administration (Cheney) are publicly asserting that “intelligence officials” will be unwilling to take necessary risks. The equally radical message is that any attempt to hold the CIA accountable for violating the law will undermine the one agency that stands between safety and another mass-casualty terrorist attack. The familiar propositions that we live in a dangerous world made up of carnivores not herbivores, and that national security calls for ruthless tactics, have their corollaries: not morality, nor international or domestic law, nor presidential or congressional oversight should be allowed to stand in the way. Safety depends on giving the security agencies a free hand.
Such propositions have a history. They echo, for example, the advocacy of cynical tactics in opposition to moral and legal boundaries in the Cold War. “There are no rules in such a game,” stated a secret 1954 report to President Eisenhower by a commission on covert activities. “Hitherto acceptable norms of human conduct do not apply. If the U.S. is to survive, long-standing American concepts of ‘fair play’ must be reconsidered.” Tactics must be “more ruthless than [those] employed by the enemy”.11
Also crucial, though space does not permit development here, is that such propositions resonate with deep currents of violence throughout American history and culture, not least with the iconic image of the frontier hero who employs unrestrained violence in the defence of civilisation against savagery, or with more recent celebrations of heroic violence for the common good. Without this deep reservoir of fantasy and identification with violence, the extremity of the comments I have been discussing might have elicited more alarmed responses. Might something about the lawless violence lying at the heart of national-security ideology have come to appeal to many Americans, especially when combined with the language of retribution from the president and vice-president and many other commentators following the 9/11 attacks?
Gloves on, Gloves Off
Mark Danner has perceptively discussed a key legitimising metaphor of lawless state violence after 9/11, what he calls “the most telling pronouncement of the era”, made by Cofer Black, the former head of the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center: “All I want to say is that there was ‘before’ 9/11 and ‘after’ 9/11. After 9/11 the gloves come off.”12 Black’s words received extensive media coverage and have taken on a life of their own. Danner rightly argues that these comments should be understood in terms of the historical struggle between the national-security apparatus and congressional oversight. That struggle peaked in the mid-1970s with the Church Committee hearings on the activities of the US intelligence agencies, leading to some significant reforms; it flared up again in the Iran−Contra scandal; and has become a critical dynamic in the politics of national security ever since.
If it could be claimed that the successful terrorist attack on 9/11 was ultimately caused by the gloves-on failure to give the CIA what it putatively requires, then the warning of another 9/11 might serve eight years later to deter a new president from attempting to constrain the agency. As the Wall Street Journal put it in its previously quoted editorial of 22 April 2009, “the risk-averse CIA that so grievously failed in the run-up to 9/11 was a product of a spy culture that still remembered the Church Committee of the 1970s and the Iran−Contra recriminations of the 1980s.”
In May, longtime CIA and Homeland Security official Charles Allen continued the theme of political constraints that had a “chilling effect” on the CIA. When in the 1990s, efforts had been made to curb CIA recruitment of assets guilty of “so-called human rights violations”, the result, Allen complained, was an “extremely risk-averse atmosphere” that impaired the agency’s ability to detect the 9/11 plot. Unless we return to the “aggressive level that we have been at since Sept. 11, we are likely going to suffer another attack”.13
According to John Yoo’s reading of history, an enfeebled CIA failed to predict the Iranian revolution of 1979, failed to prevent 9/11, and even failed to determine that Iraq in fact did not have weapons of mass destruction. Yoo concludes with the expected lesson: “Persecuting the CIA risks another surprise attack or major intelligence failure.”14
In Danner’s interpretation, the “gloves-off and “gloves-on” metaphor has multiple utilities. The attacks of 9/11 occurred because the gloves had been on. America remained safe after 9/11 because the gloves came off. Obama’s policies resulting in the gloves’ being put back on again risk another 9/11, for which Obama will be held fully responsible. The ideological manoeuvre is that safety depends on an unrestrained and unaccountable CIA.
The April release of the OLC memos with their detailed descriptions of the inhumanity and blatant illegality of what had been authorised sent tremors through the perpetrators of torture and their defenders. Not since the Abu Ghraib scandal had the question of US torture captured the attention of so much of the press, the political classes, and the public. Many people reacted in shock and disgust, and calls for a commission of inquiry or criminal investigations escalated. In response, there were almost daily charges of “partisan revenge” and claims that the Democratic Party had been pushed to extremes by its “left wing”. Obama came under heavy fire.
A striking example of the vitriol aimed at Obama was a Washington Post editorial by Michael Scheuer, a former CIA official. Scheuer began with a ticking-bomb scenario, this time with a twist: a legally and morally incapacitated president had to deal with the crisis. The hypothetical allowed Scheuer to posit national-security ideology’s classic opposition between those who understand “hard and often brutal reality” and those who adopt a “naive” or “kumbaya” morality—people who perceive the world as “carnivore free” and who believe “the West’s Islamist foes can be sweet-talked”. President Obama had allowed his “personal beliefs”, “personal ideology” or “personal moral compass” to be “more important than protecting [the] country”—more important than the “loss of major cities and tens of thousands of countrymen”. In contrast to “dismantling America’s defenses”, Scheuer called for a return to a familiar formula—doing “all that is needed to defend America”. Suggesting that opponents of torture were “incorrigibly anti-American”, he then extended the McCarthyite smear, in slightly more coded fashion, to the president, by saying that Republicans will seek to prove that “Obama and his party are eager to persecute the men and women who defend America”.15
A few days earlier, former CIA director (2006−9) Michael Hayden and former attorney-general (2007−9) Michael B. Mukasey had co-authored an editorial in the Wall Street Journal critical of Obama’s anti-torture positions. Hayden and Mukasey led off with an already familiar but no less breathtaking line of attack. Referring to the release of the OLC memos, they warned that it would “invite the kind of institutional timidity and fear of recrimination that weakened intelligence gathering in the past, and that we came sorely to regret on Sept. 11, 2001”. Taking for granted that when an emergency requires it the president will authorise torture, they floated the prospect of an unco-operative CIA: “Those charged with the responsibility of gathering potentially lifesaving information from unwilling captives are now told essentially that any legal opinion they get as to the lawfulness of their activity is only as durable as political fashion permits. Even with a seemingly binding opinion in hand, which future CIA operations personnel would take the risk?” The contention linking politically imposed restraints with negative security outcomes via compromised “morale and effectiveness”, “institutional timidity”, and “risk aversion” now carried the imprimatur of the former CIA director and the former attorney-general. Two of the highest officials in the previous administration had in essence warned that, given the policies the new president had endorsed, the CIA might not support him when he needed it.16
Secrecy and ‘Flexibility’
Hayden and Mukasey also proffered another axiom of national-security ideology: that the release of information about policies or methods compromises the effectiveness of necessarily secret practices. Secrecy is not given its standard justification here of being essential to the protection of personnel and sources: rather, in this dimension of the ideology, secrecy protects the freedom to interrogate outside the law, a freedom said to be necessary in order to stay ahead of the enemy.
Hayden and Mukasey draw upon a justification for torture that has been employed by its advocates for years: “terrorists” are able to resist conventional (i.e., lawful) interrogation. Interrogation techniques must remain secret (in contrast to the Army Field Manual, “which is available online [and] already used by al Qaeda for training purposes”) because only ambiguity about how far interrogators are willing to go will assure co-operation: “[P]ublic disclosure of the OLC opinions, and thus of the techniques themselves, assures that terrorists are now aware of the absolute limit of what the U.S. government could do to extract information from them, and can supplement their training accordingly and thus diminish the effectiveness of these techniques.” In other words, the success of interrogation depends on terrorising the captive (assumed to be a terrorist); that is, making the trained-to-resist terrorist believe that anything is possible in the black sites of cruelty.
Not mentioned is that in order to be credible, interrogators must demonstrate their willingness to go to the extreme; terrorising a prisoner cannot work on threat alone. Nor does such a formula mention the law, except in the implied negative: the existence of a legal bright line that cannot be crossed will only enable the terrorist enemy to employ his resistance training successfully. Recall that President Bush, explaining his veto of the 2008 defence authorisation bill because it contained a provision to rein in CIA interrogations, used the same logic to justify his approval of “alternative procedures”. In a radio address to the nation on 8 March, Bush said: “Shortly after 9/11, we learned that key al-Qaeda operatives had been trained to resist the methods outlined in the [Army Field] manual. And this is why we created alternative procedures.”
The contention that one must keep detainees in the dark about what might happen to them is one aspect of what has become a key word for torture apologists: that word is flexibility, usually employed, along with the insistence on the need for secrecy, in support of the loosening of rules, autonomy for the security agencies, or, most radically, avoidance of the “straitjacket” of the law (rarely stated outright). In their editorial, Hayden and Mukasey did not need to use the “flexibility” word. They simply said that the interrogation limits established by the Army Field Manual, while understandable for “young soldiers”, were “not appropriate ... for more experienced people in controlled circumstances with high-value detainees”. “Flexibility” had already become a prominent euphemism for the secret policies of the “war on terror” and was employed repeatedly in the Bush administration’s responses to critics in Congress and elsewhere. “Flexibility” is the underlying principle of executive supremacy and the increasingly permanent state of exception. It should be no surprise that “flexibility” or its synonyms continued to be employed in 2009. In January alone, articles in Newsweek, the Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal prescribed that the new president should think about preserving “flexibility”.
Hayden and Mukasey then employ their trump card: “fully half of the government’s knowledge about the structure and activities of al Qaeda came from those [coercive] interrogations.” Danner cogently argues that the assertion that “torture works and kept America safe” is the pivotal message that drives torture advocacy in the post-Bush era.17 There are many examples of such advocacy. Marc A. Thiessen, a speechwriter for Bush, stated the proposition clearly when he warned that “if [Obama] follows through [with making US interrogators comply with the Army Field Manual], he will effectively kill a program that stopped al-Qaeda from launching another Sept. 11−style attack”. He also warned that “if Obama weakens any of the defenses Bush put in place and terrorists strike our country again, Americans will hold Obama responsible—and the Democratic Party could find itself unelectable for a generation”.18
Dick Cheney has certainly been the most influential voice for the torture-kept-America-safe justification. Typical of Cheney’s confident declarations is that “enhanced interrogation techniques were absolutely essential in saving thousands of American lives and preventing further attacks against the United States ... I think they were directly responsible for the fact that for eight years, we had no further mass-casualty attacks against the United States”.19
Such assertions are good enough for the vast majority of Republicans, who have repeatedly demonstrated their willingness to cling even to statements that Bush and Cheney were forced to recant (foremost among them being the principal myths justifying the Iraq War). On the utility of torture, however, Cheney will recant nothing. His assertions benefit from an undeniable fact: there has not been a successful terrorist attack on the United States since 9/11. “Now, how do you explain that?”, Cheney asks. His answer is that “the results speak for themselves”.20 No further documentation is needed. In the political theatre of reality-creating pronouncements, the former vice-president may be right. The apparent correlation suffices for those already receptive to the incessantly repeated message and is disarming for the many who are primarily oriented to the “Does it work?” question. What if these terrible methods did work, many seem to be asking? Might not protecting ourselves from the “high probability” of a terrorist attack with weapons of mass destruction be, as Cheney claims, “a tough, mean, dirty, nasty business”?21
Countering the Efficacy Claim
The ideology of national security declares the choice about torture to be one between pure utility and pure morality. It asserts the absolute priority of the former, denigrating the latter, and then reclaims the moral high ground because “torture saves lives”. As has been thoroughly critiqued, the national-security ideology of torture relies on the symbolic power of the “ticking-bomb” scenario, a fantasy made popular by the television series 24. When danger is imminent and overwhelming, the only relevant criterion for action is whatever will stop the catastrophic attack. Torture is portrayed as the only effective weapon. In this way, the emotive urgency of an “imminent, mass-casualty attack” and its prevention trumps competing strategies for thwarting terrorist attacks.
There are at least four major arguments that challenge claims about the effectiveness of torture, but none of them draws upon the intensity of emotion—that mixture of fear and belief in the protective power of violence—that Cheney is able to exploit. First is the argument that information gained from torture could have been acquired through lawful means of interrogation and other intelligence-gathering strategies. Second, the use of torture has damaged the “moral authority” of the United States and thus has had both short- and long-term negative consequences for security, especially by increasing hostility among Arabs and Muslims towards the United States and serving as an effective recruitment tool for terrorist networks. President Obama has expressed versions of both of these arguments. Third, torture yields false confessions, resulting in misleading and wasteful intelligence. Fourth, torture produces false confessions that are consistent with the political agendas of a government, the primary example being the extraordinary rendition of Ibn Shaykh al-Libi to Egypt where he was tortured and falsely confessed that Iraq was providing training in the use of weapons of mass destruction to al-Qaeda. It was a “confession” that was vital to selling the Iraq War.
The prominence in contemporary debates of the question whether torture is an effective interrogation method and whether it kept America safe, and even Danner’s suggestion that challenging the claims of its effectiveness is the most essential task for opponents of torture, all attest to the considerable success of the national-security ideology. Danner seems to be arguing that policies perceived to be effective in preventing another mass-casualty attack will probably prevail over moral, political, or legal considerations. His hope is that a non-partisan inquiry into exactly what intelligence was gained from torture as compared to legal, non-coercive methods, followed by a rational public debate about their relative efficacy, will prove false the claim that torture works and thereby undercut torture advocacy.
Danner’s point about the centrality and potency of the “torture worked” theme is persuasive; and I agree that these assertions must be challenged. Yet, certainly, there are dangers in such a strategy. Are torture opponents confident that they would win such a debate? What if the public comes to agree with Cheney that a mass-casualty attack was prevented by torture? My argument here is that unless we grasp the layered depth of the ideology of national security and its capacity to monopolise public discourse, we will miss its hidden power. Thus, I close with two reservations about reliance upon such a strategy. The first relates to the symbolic dimensions of ideology, specifically, the power of magical thinking when it comes to security and safety. The second concerns the capacity of ideology to silence alternative meanings and standpoints.
The Symbolic Power of ‘National Security’
First, beliefs about what keeps people safe from harm, as anthropologists well know, are subject to highly symbolic, often magical properties. The presence of danger calls for protective power. Absence of harm implies presence of a protective intervention. Threat is layered by meanings that slide back and forth between images of specific dangers and dangerous people, between still fresh memories of the hijacked planes slamming into the World Trade Center and images of Islamist terrorists read across a thousand years of otherness.
Much has been written about the politics of fear exploited by the Bush−Cheney administration, and there is no need to repeat those arguments here except to emphasise that they should never be neglected in a critical assessment of the post-9/11 sense of insecurity in the United States. Reviving Cold War nightmares of nuclear holocaust and deeply embedded fantasies of Armageddon, the threat of nuclear or biological weapons getting into the hands of terrorists gives a meaning to “imminent” that has little to do with demonstrable threat. Repeated warnings are all that is required to trigger existential dread. The spectacular instances of additional terrorist attacks on “the West”, along with foiled plots, confirm that significant dangers remain.
The fact that another mass-casualty attack on the United States did not occur during the Bush−Cheney years is of no small consequence. “Muscular”, “robust”, “aggressive”, security policies seemed to work. Alternative assessments that torture may have actually impaired the United States’ security situation—the intensification of hatreds, the self-fulfilling prophecies of bin Laden, the recruitment of perhaps thousands of jihadists—are not easily digestible by the public. What is readily grasped is that between 11 September 2001 and January 2009, the United States did not suffer another terrorist attack and that top security officials say it is torture that kept Americans safe. These contentions of success lend affective energy to the repeated pronouncements that Obama has “dismantled America’s defences” by compromising the one security agency—the CIA—that is the thin blue line between safety and catastrophe. In contrast, the “whatever it takes” core of national-security ideology can find no more potent symbol than the extremity of torture, offered as a talisman capable of protecting the country from the evil of a terrorist catastrophe.
Moreover, dangers and fears are not neatly contained within discrete and separate spheres. Zygmunt Bauman has argued that lived insecurities, beginning with the knowledge of our own mortality, are “liquid”.22 Fears float easily from one domain of experience to another and congeal, at least momentarily, around highly symbolic dangers. In a world of globalised economic and social mobility that has laid waste to financial security even among the formerly secure, the sense of “unsafety” becomes a repository for displaced insecurities about which little can be done. Furthermore, since globalised capitalism has destroyed the capacity of the state to provide economic security for its citizens, the state attempts to regain its lost legitimacy through the provision of safety. The state wages “wars” against crime, drugs, illegal immigrants, and terrorism. Not only do displaced anxieties condense and amplify fears of terrorism, displaced security provision forges an identification with the protective power of the national-security state.
National-security ideology is lodged squarely within the dialectic of threat and protection, fear and assurance, and the symbolic properties of each. Insecure Americans seek reassurance that the state will not fail as it did on 9/11; and national-security politics are largely about providing such assurances. Stamped in secrecy and yet displaying the patina of the security state, claims of success are believable because they employ a repertoire of evocative meanings, not least the mythic power of the CIA and the equally mythic power of torture. I am suggesting that torture and the security agencies that employ it absorb the symbolic power of state protection and in turn become its exemplary expression. Idealised images of heroic risk-taking are transferred onto the plane of permissible lawlessness. Torture is offered as a golden shield. In other words, the rationality that appears to guide discussions of risk reduction might better be understood in terms of ritual and magic. Torture may even assume the qualities of a sacrificial act for the sake of the sacred national community. Forced by “necessity” to give up its ideals, no longer able to afford the “luxury” of values or even a political constitution that critics warn could easily become a “suicide pact”, America may well be inclined to embrace what cold realism requires: the “tough, mean, dirty, nasty business” of defeating the terrorist enemy. My point is that a rational debate about the efficacy of torture will not be easy to achieve. More importantly, if we confine the “debate” to the question of efficacy we will leave unattended the most serious questions about torture.
Second, then, the ideological power of the “torture works” justification is ultimately to be found in its ability to silence competing ways of framing the issue and the questions that would emerge from them.
When discursive space is filled by the topic of security, questions of legality recede, or worse, are stigmatised as “legalisms” and as “providing Miranda rights to terrorists”. Questions of morality are said to be irrelevant or, as the security hawks assert, a dangerous distraction. How would a torture culture transform American society? What would be the consequences for our individual and collective values and identities if the United States became a country that openly condoned and accepted the use of torture by its military and intelligence personnel? What would be the consequences for our ideals of a common humanity and the dignity and sacredness of the individual? For our willingness to inflict suffering in the holy name of safety or the “national interest” or for unavowed motives of revenge and punishment? How would becoming a torture culture change our relation to the law and to the Constitution? How would it affect our attitudes towards the ever-lengthening duration of states of emergency, our tolerance of government secrecy, our ideals of limited government? What would it actually mean for us to normalise torture? What would we tell our children? These are not idle questions about future consequences; they are already lived realities in the republic of fear and (in)security.
In place of a dialogue about the fateful crossroads at which we now stand, there is a debate about whether “harsh” interrogation methods worked and whether they should be employed in the future. The preoccupying moral question remains that of saving American lives. Although President Obama has proclaimed his determination to “restore American values” to US interrogation practices, his prescription that we shouldn’t “look backwards” does not, to put it mildly, invite dialogue. Moreover, the president’s rejection of a criminal investigation and prosecution of those who authorised and ordered torture speaks louder than his words about restoring America to the rule of law. Justice always looks backwards, and the failure to seek accountability because of political expediency certainly means that a culture of impunity will be strengthened and that the rule of law and human rights will suffer.
Equally, Obama’s decision to discourage a commission of inquiry, along with the Democrats’ failure to insist upon it, may prove fateful. For in not showing leadership on this matter, in not giving voice to the urgency of a national conversation on torture, Obama has handed the initiative to Cheney and allowed the national-security justification for torture to prevail. Although in this essay I have not been able to trace the active opposition to torture that was present from the beginning of President Bush’s “war on terror” and that has steadily gained momentum in the United States, it should not be forgotten that without that opposition Obama’s executive order banning torture would never have occurred, nor would the ensuing ideological crisis I have been discussing. Americans are divided about torture. Yet, for the most part, Americans seem to be unwilling to engage with the critical moral and political questions related to torture. Obama’s prescription of amnesia is particularly damaging (as well as ironic in that now Republicans defend and champion torture while Democrats have become the emissaries of denial); it lends weight to the disposition of so many Americans towards forgetting and moral somnolence when it comes to their government’s actions in the world. Unless the moral, legal and political consequences of an acceptance of torture by the American people are taken up in classrooms, congregations, the media and other public arenas around the country, the ideology of “national security” will continue to define the “debate” over torture, dictate the silences, and shape the public’s response to the insecurities of our time.
2. Mark Mazetti and Scott Shane, “After Sharp Words on CIA, Obama Faces a Delicate Task”, New York Times, 3 December 2008.
3. David Johnston and Charlie Savage, “Obama Reluctant to Look into Bush Programs”, New York Times, 11 January 2009.
4. Stuart Taylor Jr. and Evan Thomas, “Obama’s Cheney Dilemma”, Newsweek, 19 January 2009.
5. Barack Obama, interview by George Stephanopoulos, This Week with George Stephanopoulos, ABC News, 11 January 2009.
6. Johnston and Savage, “Obama Reluctant”.
7. “Obama and the CIA: A President Can’t Placate the Left and Keep America Safe”, Wall Street Journal, 22 April 2009.
8. The White House, Office of the Press Secretary, “Statement of President Barack Obama on Release of OLC Memos”, 16 April 2009.
9. The letter is available at [http://www.salon.com/news/politics/war_room/2009/09/18/cia_doj/CIAletter.pdf].
10. Dick Cheney, interview by Chris Wallace, Fox News Sunday, Fox News Channel, 30 August 2009.
11. See Frederick Schwarz Jr. and Aziz Huq, Unchecked and Unbalanced (New York: New Press, 2007), pp. 13−14.
12. Mark Danner, “US Torture: Voices from the Black Sites”, New York Review of Books, 9 April 2009.
13. Ronald Kessler, “Former Intel Chief: Obama, Congress Creating Risk-Averse CIA”, Newsmax.com, 4 May 2009 [http://newsmax.com/RonaldKessler/obama-cia/2009/05/04/id/329858].
14. John Yoo, “Closing Arguments: History Shows Targeting the CIA Is a Perilous Move”, Philadelphia Inquirer, 13 September 2009.
15. Michael Scheuer, “Say It’s Osama. What If He Won’t Talk?”, Washington Post, 26 April 2009.
16. Michael Hayden and Michael B. Mukasey, “The President Ties His Own Hands on Terror”, Wall Street Journal, 17 April 2009.
17. Mark Danner, “The Red Cross Torture Report: What It Means”, New York Review of Books, 30 April 2009.
18. Marc A. Thiessen, “2,688 Days without an Attack”, Washington Post, 21 January 2009.
19. Dick Cheney, interview by Chris Wallace.
21. Dick Cheney, “Cheney Warns of New Attacks”, interview by John F. Harris, Mike Allen and Jim Vandehei, Politico.com, 4 February 2009 [http://www.politico.com/news/stories/0209/18390.html].
22. See Zygmunt Bauman, Liquid Fear (London: Polity, 2006).