Adam Ash

Your daily entertainment scout. Whatever is happening out there, you'll find the best writing about it in here.

Friday, December 16, 2005

US Diary: Torture -- McCain vs. Cheney, and Bush blinks, thank God

Bush caved -- see article that follows -- and is now going to go along with McCain's amendment against torture (against the wishes of our Vice-President of Torture). Well, I must say, I sighed a sigh of relief. The rollback versus Bush/Cheney-sanctioned prisoner abuse and torture has at last begun, led by a former victim of prison abuse in Vietnam, Sen. John McCain. (Remember what our leaders said? Cheney: "We may have to go over to the dark side." Bush: "I don't care about legalities, I want to kick some ass.")

I sincerely hope McCain runs as the Republican candidate in 2008, so that honor and integrity can be restored to the Republican Party, who've come to represent the worst of what America can be under its present heinous Administration. Heinous is an understatement -- Bush/Cheney lead a Mafia of religious nuts, neocon crazies, and foul-smelling oil men. If McCain becomes president, it would be as if we switch parties -- so wide is the gap between the Republican right wing and its moderates.

There's virtually no air between moderate Republicans and Democrats; it's the GOP's crazy rightwing we have to be on guard against in the future. There's no way the Democrats can be highjacked by its leftwing (more's the pity), but the Republicans have shown themselves to be ridiculously -- and for America, dangerously -- vulnerable to their fuckwitted, warmongering rightwingers.

1. President Backs McCain Measure on Inmate Abuse -- by ERIC SCHMITT

WASHINGTON, Dec. 15 - Under intense bipartisan Congressional pressure, President Bush reversed course on Thursday and reluctantly backed Senator John McCain's call for a law banning cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment of prisoners in American custody.

A day after the House overwhelmingly endorsed Mr. McCain's measure, the White House took a deal that the senator had been offering for weeks as way to end the legislative impasse, essentially giving intelligence operatives the same legal defense afforded military interrogators who are accused of violating the regulations.

For Mr. Bush, it was a stinging defeat, considering that his party controls both houses of Congress and both chambers had defied his threatened veto to support Mr. McCain's measure resoundingly. It was a particularly significant setback for Vice President Dick Cheney, who since July has led the administration's fight to defeat the amendment or at least exempt the Central Intelligence Agency from its provisions.

Mr. McCain's measure would establish the Army Field Manual as the uniform standard for the interrogation of prisoners and ban the kind of abusive treatment of prisoners that was revealed in the Abu Ghraib prison scandal in Iraq.

"We've sent a message to the world that the United States is not like the terrorists," Mr. McCain, an Arizona Republican, said as he sat next to Mr. Bush in the Oval Office. "What we are is a nation that upholds values and standards of behavior and treatment of all people no matter how evil or bad they are."

Mr. Bush sought to make the best of an awkward political situation by inviting Mr. McCain, his longtime political rival and the nation's most famous former prisoner of war, to the White House to thank him for a measure that the president had opposed for months as Congressional meddling.

On Thursday Mr. Bush said it was important legislation "to achieve a common objective: that is to make it clear to the world that this government does not torture."

Soon after Mr. McCain left the White House, Mr. Bush's national security adviser, Stephen J. Hadley, who has negotiated with the senator for weeks, said that as a result of the negotiations the law would apply "equally to men and women in uniform and for civilians who are involved in dealing with detainees and interrogations."

The agreement will also extend to intelligence officers a protection now afforded to military personnel, who if accused of violating interrogation rules can defend themselves if a "reasonable" person could have concluded they were following a lawful order. But Mr. Hadley conceded that the administration was unable to get a grant of immunity for C.I.A. interrogators, which he said "was a legitimate thing to consider in this context."

The effect of the deal, Mr. Hadley said, would be to cement in law what he insisted had been administration policy: that the United States would "not use cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment at home or abroad."

The immediate effect of the measure, if passed, is hard to predict. Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales, who was at the heart of last year's uproar over whether the administration had allowed torture in the fight against terror, said on CNN that Mr. McCain's amendment "provides additional clarification, in terms of what are the limits of interrogating dangerous terrorists."

"Obviously, we'll study the law carefully," Mr. Gonzales said. "And to the extent that we have to conform our conduct in any way, we will do so. People need to understand what the limits are. And if people don't meet those limits, they're going to be investigated and they're going to be held accountable."

The White House announcement was not the end of what has become a long-running drama on Capitol Hill.

Less than an hour after Mr. McCain and Senator John W. Warner, a Virginia Republican who heads the Armed Services Committee, stood with the president, the Republican chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Representative Duncan Hunter of California, announced he would block the deal as part of a military budget bill unless the White House provided a letter containing specific assurances that the measure would not diminish intelligence-gathering capabilities.

Asked if the intelligence authorities had told him that Mr. McCain's measure would harm their ability to do their work, he said: "The answer to that is yes."

On the other side of the Capitol, Mr. Hunter's counterpart, Mr. Warner, was scrambling to patch the rift by working with the White House to release the letter Mr. Hunter had requested. By Thursday evening, Mr. Hunter was reassured in writing by John D. Negroponte, the director of national intelligence, that American intelligence-gathering operations would not suffer under Mr. McCain's measure, and he consented to the deal, said Josh Holly, a spokesman for the House Armed Services Committee.

Mr. Warner said he was optimistic that his bill would pass. But just in case, he was exploring another option: attaching the newly drafted McCain language to a $453 billion military spending bill, also pending before the Senate. The bill already includes the original McCain provisions, and the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Senator Ted Stevens, Republican of Alaska, said he would accept the language negotiated by the White House.

The McCain measure has veto-proof majorities in both houses. The Senate has backed it 90 to 9, and the House voted Wednesday, 308 to 122, to support it.

At the C.I.A., whose use of harsh interrogation tactics against suspected terrorists was at the core of the debate, the official response was circumspect. "The C.I.A. understands its legal obligations and of course complies with U.S. policy," said Jennifer Dyck, the agency's chief spokeswoman.

But A. John Radsan, who served as assistant general counsel of the C.I.A. from 2002 to 2004, said he believed that "the C.I.A. is the loser in this."

While agency officers may benefit from greater clarity about the rules of interrogation, Porter J. Goss, the C.I.A. director, had joined Mr. Cheney in arguing that the agency needed the flexibility to use harsh tactics in some cases.

The McCain amendment removes the "gray zone" of tactics less severe than torture but harsher than those allowed by the Army Field Manual, said Mr. Radsan, now at William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul.

Jeffrey H. Smith, who served as C.I.A. general counsel from 1995 to 1996, said he believed there was a gap between Mr. Goss and other top managers, who sided with Mr. Cheney, and many lower-level officers who felt uncomfortable with any perception that they had been allowed to use techniques bordering on torture.

"I think the overall reaction of the rank-and-file officers will be relief that this issue is behind them and the rules are clear," Mr. Smith said.

2. Meanwhile, here's an overview about how the rest of the world regards us and our torture policy. Thank God for McCain -- he may help us avoid being thought of as the moral skunk of the world, although a great deal of damage has been done, not only to our international reputation, but to the bodies of human beings.

WORLD VIEWS: Torture generates anger -- by Edward M. Gomez

How much torture can Washington tolerate, either by American personnel or their agents, or by officials in U.S.-controlled Iraq? Apparently a lot. But while the Bush administration looks the other way or denies American involvement in the torturing of detainees in Iraq, at its Guantánamo prison camp in Cuba or in secret prisons in Eastern Europe, much of the rest of the world has been repulsed by the Bush team's policy.

Washington's refusal to come clean about exactly what American personnel and their agents have been up to around the world, despite copious evidence of abuse, has frustrated foreign observers.

"The response of the United States' administration to recent reports in the European media on its use of torture and illegal abductions has been garbled, at best," Jamaica's generally middle-of-the-road Gleaner admonished.

Of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's recent, weak-sounding assertion that "while the U.S. did not countenance torture, information yielded by suspects [whom the United States had detained and interrogated in various locations] had saved European lives," the Caribbean daily observed: "In effect, she was saying,'We didn't, but if we did, it wasn't wrong.'"

Overseas, political observers in countries that normally are generally friendly to and have tended to respect the United States are sounding increasingly disillusioned about the attitude of the government under Bush's watch. Writing in Spain's El País, commentator Andrés Ortega noted that there is a growing "trans-Atlantic distance" separating the thinking of Europeans and the Bush administration as far as "the value and content of international law" are concerned.

This big discrepancy, Ortega noted, "along with [Washington's] tortured definition of what is considered torture -- which has provoked a new confrontation between the U.S. and the United Nations -- undermine[s] even more the overseas legitimacy of the superpower, which it needs, even though it doesn't recognize that it does so."

Recent revelations that American troops had discovered some 170 mainly Sunni Muslim prisoners, "some of whom had apparently been abused, beaten, starved and tortured," in a bunker operated by Iraq's interior ministry, further fueled the concerns of critics who believe the country's U.S.-led occupation forces are either clueless about what's really going on there or incapable of keeping order in the war-ravaged land.

The discovery of the prison run by the Interior Ministry, a division of Iraq's fledgling new government that is dominated by Shiite Muslims, the Sunnis' rivals, was seen as fueling "sectarian tensions." Sunnis have accused the Interior Ministry "of allowing militias and police 'death squads' to harass and detain Sunnis suspected of involvement in the insurgency." (Guardian/Süddeutsche Zeitung)

A second prison run by the Interior Ministry was discovered a few days ago. (Le Monde)

Meanwhile, "[t]he volume of evidence pointing to the use of extreme tactics by the U.S. in its war on terror," such as last year's Abu Ghraib prison-torture scandal, which "has been accumulating for years," has convinced many foreign observers that, "along with some of its allies, the U.S. has been engaging in some pretty rough business." (Gleaner)

However, even if "[t]hat is to be expected, given the intensity of the war and the challenges posed by committed foes," the Gleaner advised, "the U.S. needs reminding that to the extent it uses the same kind of tactics that it decries in others -- savagery and terror -- it will compromise itself in the eyes of its friends, both actual and potential. Extreme measures may be ethically justifiable in specific circumstances. But they can also amount to a slide on to a slippery slope, in which evil gradually becomes banalized."

Today's ongoing struggle with terrorism makes us face some "tough decisions," commentator Romanus Otte wrote in Germany's Die Welt am Sonntag. He pointed out that, in "the struggle against terror ... [w]e must take the threat seriously and protect ourselves as well as we can." At the same time, he cautioned, "we [cannot risk] abandoning our values." As a result, he added, "[t]orture must be forbidden, exactly because it is so tempting." Otte concluded: "Torture must be forbidden so that we do not become just like our enemies."

The risks for governments that aid Washington's overseas torture activities could be high, too. Commentator John Saxe-Fernández, writing in Mexico's La Jornada, observed, for example, that for Germany's new chancellor, Angela Merkel, "[t]he political costs ... if she is suspected of even the slightest collaboration with the United States ... [with regard to secret] interrogation and extermination centers, could be devastating, and she knows it: her conservative government is operating in the midst of public opinion that persists in rejecting the Iraq war, along with a mounting sense of indignant irritation over 'clandestine' U.S. operations, which [have included] the systematic use of torture, a practice to which [the United States] now appears to be addicted."

3. Still more about the torture business:

Sweet Forgetting: Our Torture Problem -- By VIJAY PRASHAD
(For Fred Pfeil, comrade and colleague.)

Breathe a sign of relief. The US has now begun to monitor the jails in Iraq run by the Interior Minister Bayan Jabr. US Viceroy in Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, informs us that torture is "unacceptable" and that the Iraqi people should be comforted to know that "we are very committed to looking at all other facilities."

Poor Zal. The New York Times reported his comments on the 1000th day of the US War on Iraq. In the column next to this article, the Times reported that the Army has completed a new manual on interrogation techniques that, in the land of legalese, asks interrogators to comply with the Geneva Conventions, but allows for wide latitude in their definition of "form of coercion" or "physical or mental torture." One defense official told the reporter, "This is a stick in [Senator John] McCain's eye." The stick is also in Zal's eye, which is already being battered by mud-slings for the hypocrisy of US policy. Even Saddam Hussein's lawyers got into the act, asking a victim of Dujail whether the atrocities against her had been photographed, or whether dogs had been set loose on her. Visions of the 205th Military Intelligence Brigade and their shenanigans will make it hard to show Saddam as evil incarnate; others, in absentia, share the stand with him.

Bayan Jabr, a senior official of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, followed Bush in the defense of his ministry (and his Wolf Brigade militia). The Iraqi state, he said, does not torture. The logic is impeccable. "Democracy," as a concept, is antithetical to torture. If anything that resembles torture exists in a democracy, then it cannot be torture. It must be something else, such as the work of one or two "bad apples." Tyrannical regimes torture as part of their inner logic, whereas torture can only occur within a democratic system by deranged individual action.

It is perhaps this amnesia sanctioned by our belief in the power of democracy that makes us forget "incidents" like the US complicity at Con Son Island in Vietnam, and in the "dirty wars" of Central America in the 1980s.

A US Congressional delegation visited the Con Son Island prison in 1970, and thanks to the camera of then Congressional aide Tom Harkin, pictures of the atrocities filled Life Magazine (July 17, 1970). The barbaric images of prisoners in "Tiger Cages" encouraged the Republican Congressman Philip Crane to defend America by deploying racism, "The Tiger Cages are cleaner than the average Vietnamese home." When the US decided to tear down the prison, Brown and Root (an ancestor of Halliburton) won the contract to rebuild the new, improved cages.

Don Luce, who went with the Congressional team as a translator, fought off intimidation to publish Hostages of War , a fine account of the savagery. Confronted with the suggestion that all this has to do with Vietnamese culture or what not, Luce wrote, "The US must share responsibility for the nature of the Saigon government itself. It is a government of limited scope whose very essence is dictated by American policy, not Vietnamese reality." Much the same could be said of the Iraqi government, whose ambit is circumscribed by its lack of responsibility for important matters (control over revenue, armed force, and all that amounts to state sovereignty these days).

I've just finished reading Jennifer Harbury's powerful Truth, Torture and the American Way (Beacon, 2005). The book traces the widespread use of torture by US proxies in Central America through the 1980s. She retells the stories of survivors and victims of the torture, often conducted by cut-outs in the security forces of various governments (mainly Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala) who had been trained by both the Argentinean military intelligence and by the US (at the School for the Americas). Harbury documents the (sometimes active) presence of "gringos" in the room during the tortures, men with names such as "Mr. Mike" (who Harbury shows is probably a Navy SEAL, Lieutenant Commander Michael Walsh). "Sometimes the [CIA] agents merely observed," writes Harbury, "sometimes they did the questioning, sometimes they advised, and sometimes they supervised. But they were there. Often." Ghost prisoners, sexual violence, harsh torture techniques (including "The Vietnam," the hooded man on the box at Abu Ghraib) _ these are all well-known to the survivors of the Latin American torture cells. The similarity between the horrific techniques leads Harbury to conclude that there is a long-standing policy within the US government on how best to use violence as state policy.

Bush says, "We do not torture." He's right. How can America torture, when America is democracy incarnate? I am reminded of the arrogance of the French authorities, as they awaited the entry of the Cholera in 1832. As the Cholera ravaged Russia and then Germany, the authorities of the post-Revolutionary state remarked that the cause of the disease, "the subject of so much alarm, will have difficulty gaining a hold over people animated by such great emotions," emotions such as liberty, equality and fraternity. "Hence throughout France the choleraic humor will naturally be eliminated by all the emunctories without endangering life." 18,000 people died in Paris alone. But, nonetheless, the conceptual separation between civilized France and tyrannical Russia-India had been established. The latter could have such an unkind thing as an epidemic scourge, while the former would defeat it in its essence. So much the same nowadays for torture _ it exists only in tyrannies, and democracies are incapable of torture. In America, torture is only legible if it is the act of "bad apples." The state cannot, because it is not tyrannical, sanction torture.

To believe that the state tortures would mean to renounce the idea that this is a democracy.

(Vijay Prashad teaches at Trinity College, Hartford, CT. His latest book is Keeping Up with the Dow Joneses: Debt, Prison, Workfare. His essay, "Capitalism's Warehouses", appears in CounterPunch's new book, Dime's Worth of Difference. His most recent article is a review of Kathy Kelly's book in the December issue of Monthly Review. He can be reached at:

4. Here's a Black view (from the Black Commentator):

Freedom Rider: Condi, Torture and Christmas – by Margaret Kimberley

“After a short drive, I was dragged out of the car, pushed roughly into a building, thrown to the floor, and kicked and beaten on the head, the soles of my feet, and the small of my back. I was left in a small, dirty, cold concrete cell.” –Khaled El-Masri describing detention in CIA prison.

Insane American Christians are spending this Christmas season torturing and defending the use of torture. Condi Rice, church going queen of torture, traveled to Europe where she tried to justify extra judicial kidnappings and secret prisons. She began her visit by scolding uppity Europeans who took exception to the American inquisition. She told them that interrogations and renditions were saving their wimpy, unappreciative lives.

It was a bit inconvenient for Dr. Rice when Khaled El-Masri, a German citizen, sued former CIA director George Tenet during her European tour. El-Masri was accused of being a terror suspect upon entering Macedonia. He was flown to a CIA run prison in Afghanistan, where he was denied access to counsel or any contact with the German government. His imprisonment lasted for a total of four months. George Tenet kept him behind bars even after his identity and proof of his innocence in any wrong doing were confirmed.

The ACLU is representing El-Masri in his lawsuit against Tenet. When El-Masri attempted to attend a press conference in Washington to announce his lawsuit, he was denied entry into the United States. Embarrassing the United States government and trying to attend a press conference all in the same week was just too much for the powers that be.

Condi's latest European trip was rocky from the start. After meeting with Rice, new German chancellor Angela Merkel stated that Rice had admitted a mistake in the El-Masri case. It isn't clear if Merkel intentionally outed Rice or if she hadn't yet learned the diplomatic art of being a good liar.

As soon as the press conference ended, Rice's flacks went into action. They vehemently denied that Rice had made any such admission – but it was too late. Steven Watts, El-Masri's attorney , had this to say: "We have never heard such a public statement from a head of government. We will add Ms. Merkel's words to our evidence. They support Khaled el-Masri's position".

Rice's visit put Merkel in a tough spot. Merkel's predecessors had promised to cover for Uncle Sam in the El-Masri case and not make too much of a fuss about their tortured citizen. Let us hope that the chancellor's inexperience in diplomatic niceties becomes the rule.

By the end of her trip Rice was forced to back track a bit. She had to claim that the U.S. doesn't torture and will follow the Geneva conventions on treatment of prisoners of war. Of course the Bushmen and women always want the world to know that they will do whatever they feel like doing. She couldn't give assurances that there would be no more El-Masris. "Will there be abuses of policy ? That's entirely possible. Just because you're a democracy it doesn't mean that you're perfect."

Dr. Mushroom Cloud just doesn't get it. Respecting international law on human rights isn't asking for perfection. On the contrary, it is asking for a bare minimum in acceptable behavior. Someone who thinks that prohibitions against torture require perfection is a very dangerous person indeed.

Meanwhile, back in the United States, Americans are experiencing not quite torture, but intense emotional and spiritual aggravation from right wingers claiming to defend Jesus. Happy Holiday is now a forbidden greeting. It is Merry Christmas or the El-Masri treatment.

The Christian right has attacked even their icons like Wal-Mart and George and Laura Bush. Their sin was uttering the word "holiday" when they should utter the word "Christmas". Retailers who don't say "Christmas" are browbeaten into connecting crass commercialism with the name of Jesus.

To add curious insult to injury, many conservative mega-churches will not hold services on Sunday, December 25th. They know that pews will be empty when Sunday and Christmas inconveniently coincide. If they don't want to go to church, they can stay home and pray for the unknown El-Masris currently in secret detention. That is just a suggestion from one Christian to others.

Christmas is always somewhat torturous. There are familial obligations, the pressure to max out credit cards, or to say "Christmas" instead of "holiday". Watching Condoleezza Rice in action can also bring physical and psychological pain. Her diplomatic ineptitude and love of America's empire don't induce the same sensation as being beaten on the soles of ones feet, but they come close.

It isn't even clear that we will see the last of her when Bush's term ends. There is still a draft Condi movement among conservatives. If anyone could cause them to overcome their reflexive revulsion against black people, it be Condi Rice.

In order to become president, a black candidate would have to be like Condi, denying connections to other black people and their history, and becoming the most blood thirsty of all. We should think twice and then three times about whether it would be good to have a black resident at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Whoever resides there will not be perfect, but some are far less perfect than others.

(Margaret Kimberley's Freedom Rider column appears weekly in Black Commentator. Ms. Kimberley is a freelance writer living in New York City. She can be reached via e-Mail at

5. Finally, an interview about media coverage of the dark subject:

An Interview with Lila Rajiva (author of THE LANGUAGE OF EMPIRE: Abu Ghraib and the American Media) -- by Seth Sandronsky

Baltimore resident Lila Rajiva is the author of The Language of Empire: Abu Ghraib and the American Media (Monthly Review Press, 2005). She has taught at the University of Maryland and is a prolific freelance journalist, whose work can be found on web publications, including CounterPunch, Dissident Voice, and MRZine. Following her West Coast book tour in mid-December, Lila Rajiva is available to speak to your group. Contact Martin Paddio at < >.

SS: Keeping up with the scandals of U.S. corporate journalism -- originating in its role as a service provider to the nation's ruling class -- is no small task these days. Explain the subject matter of your new book, The Language of Empire: Abu Ghraib and the American Media (Monthly Review Press 2005), in the context of mass media corruption.

LR: Yes, it's a tremendous task. But fortunately there are a lot of people trying to keep the media honest these days and it's having an effect.

I think the way the Iraqi detainee torture scandal was covered -- which is the subject of my book -- is a perfect example. There were actually reports on torture right from the start, right after 9-11. But it didn't become a mainstream "story" until three years later, after the CBS report in late April 2004 . Then, what you had was a flurry of reports, accurate enough as they went, but never presented with the kind of historical and political context that would allow people to recognize what was happening for what it really was. Instead, it was passed off in the usual way as a case of a few bad apples, a procedural error, a failure of communications. It was about low-level wrongdoings by a few perverts who would be justly punished. That of course lets the average viewer think things have been taken care of and they can switch off. Which they did. The torture story went on the back burner for a whole year. It was only alternative journalists and activists and a few, a very few mainstream reporters who kept it alive. Now, of course it's back in the news in a big way with the revelation of details about hundreds of illegal rendition flights all over Europe . But I want to go out on a limb and suggest that unless reporters start presenting the material with more context, the new revelations might end up going the same way as what surfaced earlier.

SS: The current trial of Saddam Hussein for crimes against humanity is headline news in the American press. How does the history of his regime connect with Iraqi prisoner torture under U.S. occupation?

LR: There could be no greater irony and hypocrisy than the picture of Saddam Hussein being tried for crimes against humanity -- and his crimes were without doubt heinous -- by an administration that has wrought the kind of carnage and senseless destruction in Iraq that the Bush administration has, and by different modalities, the previous administration as well. Hussein tortured people, no question. But by all accounts, the current Iraqi government is doing worse in that department. And we have increasing confirmation that the U.S. too has a policy of torture, both direct and by proxy. So, yes. Hussein deserves to face his many crimes. But you'll notice that several of the ones most publicized before the war have now vanished from the dossier. Perhaps U.S. complicity and even tacit approval of some of Saddam's worst offenses would be too embarrassing to have dragged out into the glare.

Now, some have made the case that what took place at Abu Ghraib in Baghdad and the scores of other U.S. detention sites scattered throughout Iraq, Afghanistan, Cuba and elsewhere was exceptional and was not torture but abuse. Hearing about the rape and mutilation practiced by Saddam's secret police, there are those who are going to make the argument that Saddam's practices were worse and justify our own.

I want to strongly condemn that move. In the first place, it's morally untenable to argue for an immoral and illegal practice on the basis that others do it . But even the substance of the argument is mistaken. As a matter of record, the U.S. has committed acts which cannot be dismissed as mere abuse. This is not a matter only of men being forced to wear panties. Such humiliating practices certainly did take place and they certainly do constitute abuse forbidden under the Geneva Conventions. But they operated on the side of and as a cover for much more traumatic physical and psychological torture that included simulated (and sometimes real) drowning, severe beating and kicking that resulted in death, rape, sodomy, asphyxiation, mock and real executions, threats (and in some cases attacks) with dogs, prolonged confinement in very cramped filthy metal cages, prolonged exposure to extreme heat and cold, prolonged isolation and deprivation of sleep and adequate nutrition, extreme stress positions that led to physical impairment and injury, savage religious taunting and desecration of religious texts and objects. The American Civil Liberties Union reports cite dozens of autopsies of prisoners who died from U.S. interrogations. And those are only the ones that got an autopsy. There is evidence to suggest that many deaths were just passed off as due to natural causes. But even with all the furor over prisoner rendition (kidnapping) flights, this ACLU report has simply been buried in the inside pages by the corporate media. So there is no context in which to understand what is really taking place. And if you don't have the context, then the government is always going to be able to wiggle out with promises about fixing a broken policy. Well no, the policy's not broken. This is the policy. This is how it works. The U.S. is torturing prisoners by the common definition of such things even in known American sites.

But we're also dealing with a system of covert and proxy torture. The recent case of Khaled El-Masri , a German citizen abducted from Macedonia and tortured in Afghanistan by both Afghans and apparently Americans, gives you a hint about the hidden world of which Abu Ghraib is only the visible tip. These extraordinary renditions, as they are called, were put into place during the Clinton administration and have now grown like a cancer under Bush. "Rendered" prisoners charge that they have been tortured in Egypt, Jordan, and Syria. The actual list of countries is certainly much more extensive. By the way, I want to emphasize that I used the word "charge" to cover myself and not because I think the detainees' allegations are in any way unsupported.

So, yes. Try Hussein for crimes against humanity by all means. But what would you call these U.S. practices? Crimes against the inanimate world?

SS: The U.S. government is the world leader in locking up its citizens, mostly black and brown people . How does this trend relate to U.S. foreign policy after 9-11?

LR: There is continuity between the state of affairs before 9-11 and after. That continuity is obscured by the category of "foreign policy." When you talk about foreign and domestic policies separately -- and of course, for clarity, you often have to -- and when you talk about foreign policy in traditional terms, such as national security, vital interests, power and so on, then you can miss the seamless way in which the detention of suspects in this new so-called war on terror is simply an expansion and acceleration in a very open way of domestic incarceration policies.

It's widely known that the US locks up people at a much higher rate than any country in Europe. It is less known that it locks up people at a higher rate than China, which most would call a repressive society. Yes, it's we, not the Chinese, who lead the world in imprisonment. And the crimes that people are locked up for are increasingly non-violent crimes. More and more it is for such things as petty drug possession offenses. And the brunt of those policies fall on blacks and browns -- specifically African-Americans and Hispanics. More specifically on young African-American males. If you compare South Africa under apartheid with the US today, we lock up African-Americans at much higher rates. Consider also the high rates of recidivism among prisoners, their political disenfranchisement, the horrendous rates of sexual assault including male rape in prisons, the explosion of prison building, the privatization of many aspects of incarceration and the growth of what some have called the prison-industrial complex -- place these developments over the last 10-15 years against what we observe in the current prison torture scandal, and things become quite clear. We have the same explosion of prison building -- this time abroad, this time covert -- the same tales of sexual abuse and assault, the same tales of torturous or abusive treatment, the same privatization, the same creation of a "grey zone" in which prisoners no longer have a clear legal status to protect them. The vote deprivation on the domestic front is matched by the rights deprivation in the war on terror.

And again, while the language used is vague -- after all, how does one declare a war on an abstract noun -- we know who we mean. Muslims are the targeted group. But here again, race enters the picture. Terrorism is Muslim and Muslims are conflated with brown people. In the US, since 9-11, attacks against Hindus, Sikhs, Native Americans, and Hispanics have all increased, telling us that Muslim easily and quickly morphs into colored or immigrant.

"Fueled by the jump in DHS-immigration referrals in FY 2004, immigration matters now represent the single largest group of all federal prosecutions, about one third (32%) of the total. By comparison, narcotics and drugs, for many years the government's dominant enforcement interest, dropped to about a quarter of the total (27%) and weapons matters to slightly less than one out of ten (9%)" (Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, "Immigration Enforcement," 2005).
That is why immigration control so quickly tied into the war on terror. Now, there is certainly a very legitimate need to have immigration take place in a lawful and ordered way, giving local communities the time to adjust. There is no denying that. There is no denying also that there is room and need for a serious debate on many of the cultural assumptions and the economic impact of immigration.

There is need for analysis of crime and immigration. But even granting all that, you see post 9-11 that immigrants, especially those who have violated immigration law in some way, were quickly targeted in a really haphazard way. For instance, 1,200 Middle Eastern immigrants nationwide were picked up by the Immigration and Naturalization service which is now under the Homeland Security Department. Some of them were not even Muslim -- there was a Hindu, a Sikh, and even some Middle Eastern Jews. They imprisoned 84 of these detainees at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn, some for months under a so-called "hold until cleared" policy, which permitted Muslim and Arab non-citizens to be arrested and held in custody until cleared by the FBI.

What you are talking about is a street sweep based on nothing more than a tip from a bystander. So for a minor visa problem, you had people put into maximum security isolation jail cells as high value suspects, held for 23 out of 24 hours in solitary confinement, subjected to strip searches in front of the opposite sex, rectal searches, beatings, exposure to cold. And this is a matter of videotaped record. This is Abu Ghraib at home. And in this regard, don't forget that Michael Chertoff who as head of the criminal division of the Dept. of Justice authorized the Bybee torture memo is in charge of Homeland Security. That says much just there.

SS: Christian fundamentalism informs the language of war against global terror under the Bush White House. How was this used to personalize and minimize the torture of Iraqis in Abu Ghraib?

LR: Overtly at least, President Bush has gone out of his way to emphasize that this is not a war on Islam. He has had Ramadan celebrations in the White House, for instance. And now, the latest bit of trivia is that the new White House Christmas Cards have been secularized -- which is upsetting to some part of his Christian supporters.

I think at the unofficial level, however, there is manipulation of imagery to suggest a Christian versus Muslim conflict. But it is usually couched in public as a civilizational rather than a religious conflict. Islamic states are "failed states," Islamic culture is anti-modern, and so on. The rhetoric is that Islam needs up-dating, modernizing. It needs an Enlightenment. Which is odd, of course, considering that the people who are wielding this rhetoric of modernization are busy trying to push intelligent design into science curricula. And considering that it was US apparatchiks like Zbigniew Brzezinski who actively sponsored the most regressive elements in Islam in a Cold War strategy intended to bait and break up the Soviet Union.

The ideologues of this imperial project -- people like Samuel Huntington, Francis Fukuyama (who has jumped ship since then), Bernard Lewis, Niall Fergusson, Max Boot, Dinesh D'Souza -- are not Christian fundamentalists at all. They are Anglophile cultural critics, apologists for the civilizing mission of the American Empire, which they see as a worthy successor to the British empire. What we have is nostalgia for the mission civilisatrice -- as the French call it -- a feeling that the world needs some supreme state to whip it into shape.

But that is in the public debate. In a multiethnic country like America, you can't really use divisive religious rhetoric in public too obviously. However, it's a different story at the unofficial level. At the level of the media environment, at the level of individuals, you have people like General Boykin in charge of special ops training who do indeed consider the enemy to be Islam, who view Allah as a pagan [sic] God, who see the war on terror as a battle against Satan and his minions. You have Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, Franklin Graham, and the evangelists of the 10/40 Window -- which is a reference to the countries between 10 and 40 degrees latitude which are regarded as ripe for evangelizing -- who do indeed see the world in need of conversion to their brand of Christianity. You have Hal Lindsey , the author of the sensational best seller, The Late Great Planet Earth, and Jack Van Impe, who all preach a very apocalyptic doctrine of a Christian -- Muslim armageddon in the near future. That is of course also conflated with capitalist-communist war.

Furthermore, when you examine the actual practices used in detention, then there is clear evidence of anti-Muslim feeling, which is also very much overlaid with racism. Some detainees had their heads shaved in a cross, the Koran was desecrated, there was sexual taunting, rape, and abuse specifically intended to humiliate Muslim men; there was forced shaving of beards, there was the use of dogs which would be especially abhorrent to pious Muslims. When guards -- like Charles Graner -- and some of the prison bureaucrats in charge of detention in Iraq are themselves religious bigots, one should not be surprised to find an element of religious persecution in the treatment accorded to Iraqis.

But I must add here that there is also considerable evidence of Jewish fundamentalism -- something that is not talked of as much. One of the principal figures in the detention scandal, who has not even entered the public debate, was Douglas Feith, a hard-line Zionist whose views are in no way different from Jewish zealots in Israel. Little has been said of Feith or Paul Wolfowitz or Richard Perle from the standpoint of their religious beliefs, although that would be illuminating. Groups like Aish Ha Torah and the Lubavitch Hasidic, who wield quite a bit of influence on the pro-Israeli lobby here, are never mentioned. They need to be. That would let us see that US policies in Iraq bear a close resemblance to Israeli policies in the Occupied Territories, even to the specific types of torture used. And it is well known that US forces underwent training in Israel to study urban warfare tactics used by the IDF in Jenin and other places and that Israeli personnel were to be seen, allegedly, at Abu Ghraib .

But finally I do also want to emphasize that it is not fundamentalism as such in either of these two religions -- and I speak as a very liberal and unorthodox Christian -- that is the problem. It is certain highly political varieties of fundamentalism.

SS: When and how did you become a radical? What and/or who motivated you to write The Language of Empire ?

LR: I have always been interested in propaganda, and since the first Gulf War, I have been simply fascinated with the way the media plays on public sentiment, controls the terms of the debate, and silences certain viewpoints while all the time rejoicing (as Alice would say) in the sobriquet -- the "liberal" media. Of course, it is liberal in a certain knee-jerk way on certain social issues and largely because most journalists come out of the same socio-economic and educational background, even if these days they might be of different ethnic heritages. But anyone who watches knows that the shots are called by the corporate bosses, so reportage can never extend to any kind of fundamental questioning of the status quo.

So that was when my interest in the media first arose and it became stronger during the Iraq sanctions period when I was also in graduate school at Johns Hopkins. I did a lot of web activisim -- nothing great, just the grunt work of writing letters, signing and circulating petitions, and so on -- on behalf of lifting the sanctions, and I became quite impressed by the extraordinary silence about them on campus. I remember organizing an event to bring activists Eric Gustafson and Ellen Barfield to speak and finding it difficult to get much interest, even though Hopkins was actually the place which brought out the report about children's deaths from the sanctions. Then came the Kosovo war , and I saw how liberals and even progressives who otherwise would consider themselves "doves" suddenly decided that this was a war that they could like. It was shocking to see people swallow naked aggression when it was sugarcoated with multiculturalism and human rights.

Then the Iraq War began to loom. And suddenly signing petitions was not enough. I really had to become involved more overtly. So I started writing, not just on the war but on globalization as well. And slowly a certain picture began to emerge of the way things fit together. So when the first pictures of the torture surfaced, I had already developed quite a bit of immunity to the media -- I figured there was more going on than a few bad apples.

I think being a regular media watcher really helps you to anticipate where things are going to go, well before anything concrete surfaces, and that's just what happened. My first articles on the torture scandal asked the question -- why are Iraqi women not in these pictures? That was in June 2004 and people were not talking about women at all. They still aren't really. After all, we went in to Iraq to save women from Islam, didn't we? And there were hardly any articles about the rape of women. But there had to be women being raped. It's simply what happens in war. But the fact that initially no one bothered to pursue that angle -- except maybe one paper -- told me something about American exceptionalism. About the mind-set that thinks that when we go to war, we do it differently from other people. We don't kill civilians, or rape, or loot. Naomi Klein put it very well recently when she said that in other countries -- I presume she is talking about Europe -- when people talk about torture, they say never again; but when we talk about it here, we say never before.

And that's the attitude I wanted to explore. That's the kind of blindness that I wanted to talk about. Torture is not new in human society although some of the psychological methods developed probably are. Or they are at least more refined, elaborate, and effective. However, this kind of willed blindness pervading a nation as the result of the technology of mass media has certain elements to it which are probably novel and bear more analysis. Which is what I tried to do in the book. I think mine is the first book on that subject in relation to the torture scandal.

About your first question about becoming a radical. I honestly don't consider anything I am saying very radical. And I think accepting the position that opposition to aggressive war is radical concedes the whole issue to the right-center consensus.

I think if you look at the war outside the country, the antiwar position is the overwhelming position of responsible, thoughtful, conscientious people. It's only here that it's not. And that's natural -- that's what states do in times of war; they propagandize their home population. It's a great mistake to think of propaganda as something meant for other people. Its target is first and foremost the domestic front.

So I don't think my position on the war is radical.

What else do I say in the book that people might construe as radical? That torture has been very American for some time? That's documented history. It was not part of official policy, but that's the nature of a democratic state. A number of things can't go on record officially. But we have done either directly or through our hirelings everything that we consider medieval or barbarous when others do it. Officially, we never use napalm or chemical weapons, we never intentionally target civilians though we cut off water supplies and damage hospitals, we never provoke other countries, we never loot their treasuries, we never bribe or blackmail, we never torture. Or if we do, we do it from necessity and because the other fellow did it first. We are the good empire. If it's radical to disbelieve the state line on certain issues, then I suppose I am a radical.

In the book I say that torture is a sign of empire. Is that radical? That again is a matter of historical record. All empires and tyrants torture. It grows out of their huge size, their ambition, and their desire to dominate. Because they need to know more and more about their enemies, their friends, the country next door or on the opposite side of the globe. That's what full-spectrum dominance -- the stated goal of American empire -- is about. If there's any available space on planet earth, or in the heavens, or underwater, or underground, or even inside your head, the logic of empire dictates that the corporate-state will want to be there, too. I discuss this in Chapter 7 of the book under the heading of Prometheus. I briefly enunciate the idea that the existence of technologies that can collect extensive, detailed records about everything and everybody dictates that they will use them. First, against foreign enemies or suspects, but inevitably against the population at home. It's happened that way in every empire. And getting into your head is what torture is all about. It's really not simply about physical pain alone.

That is why in many ways I have a lot of sympathy for right-libertarians who seem to have more properly estimated the dangers of the police state. So if I am a radical, I am a radical with plenty of company on the right and left.

We are seeing the first, the very first, early signs of a police state in this country. It does not have to go that way if people stand up to it. But the torture scandal cannot be dealt with separately from the impending emergence of a police state. The distortions of the corporate-media cannot be analyzed separately from that emergence.

Perhaps finally, recognizing that certain civil liberties are being eroded, perhaps irrevocably, has made it urgent for me to speak out.

(Seth Sandronsky is a member of Sacramento Area Peace Action and a co-editor of Because People Matter , Sacramento's progressive paper. He can be reached at < >)


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