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Peter Van Buren: Our 9/11 Torturers

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.


I hope you know that, on the 11th anniversary of the attacks of September 11, 2001, you live in a country so exceptional it's blessed by God; that, in fact, it's -- no point in pulling punches -- "the greatest nation on earth."  If you don't believe me, just listen to President Obama, who used the last words of his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention to say exactly that.  And depending on your political druthers, you don't have to believe him either.  After all, the stages of the Republican and Democratic conventions were filled with politicos insisting on the same thing.  (Who says there's no bipartisanship in America?) 

At the Republican convention, Mitt Romney, speaking in his acceptance speech of Neil Armstrong's first footfall on the moon, said: "Like all Americans we went to bed that night knowing we lived in the greatest country in the history of the world." Chris Christie in his keynote speech drove home this point: "Standing strong for freedom will make the next century as great an American century as the last one." Michelle Obama praising her husband as a great dad wasn't going to miss an opportunity to say: "Every day [the people I meet] remind me how blessed we are to live in the greatest nation on earth"; and Condoleezza Rice, the former national security adviser and secretary of state (she of double-hulled oil tanker fame) gave the Republicans a primer on foreign policy for the Romney era, and this was her version of it: "Because it just has to be -- that the most compassionate and freest country on the face of the earth -- will continue to be the most powerful!"  And that's just to name a few among a bevy of American exceptionalists from whom you certainly wouldn't want to exclude Vice President Joe Biden.  After all, leaving Mongol horsemen, Apache warriors, Roman legionnaires, Napoleon's Army, and every other war-fighter twitching in the dust, he claimed President Obama was well aware that our special forces are "the finest warriors the world has ever known."

Think of all this as a kind of exceptional post-9/11 fever.  The more ordinary Americans worry about their country being on the "wrong track" or "in decline," the more loudly, emphatically, aggressively (and yet defensively) politicians seem to insist, against all evidence, that we are and always will be (unless my opponent gets into office) the greatest, finest, freest etc. around. By the way, tell that to Peter Van Buren or John Kiriakou.  Both were government officials who told the truth about bad things happening inside the government of the greatest country the universe has ever seen.  One wrote the book We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People about just what a laughable mess the State Department's "reconstruction of Iraq" turned out to be and, for doing that with remarkable honesty and wit, he is being forced into early retirement by the bureaucrats of the greatest State Department in the history of the world.  The other, a CIA agent, told reporters the truth about some of the practices of the greatest spy agency in the history of the galaxy, including acts of torture by operatives in his own agency, and he's going to celebrate the 9/11 anniversary with a court date the following day.

These are indications of the real state of affairs in this country 11 years after they attacked us because they "hated our freedoms."  Now, on September 11, 2012, the national security complex is, as Peter Van Buren indicates below, beyond accountability for any crimes it may commit.  It exists in a post-legal America not available to 99% of us.  As for our freedoms, a lack of the slightest urge to prosecute anyone who committed a crime on Washington time means that our governmental officials now have extraordinary new freedoms -- more license than 007 ever did -- to kidnap, torture, abuse, murder, surveil, and assassinate (including American citizens).  That's a record to ponder as another September 11th rolls around and, living in the greatest nation on earth, you ask yourself: Who really won, them or us? Tom

The Persecution of John Kiriakou
Torture and the Myth of Never Again
By Peter Van Buren

Here is what military briefers like to call BLUF, the Bottom Line Up Front: no one except John Kiriakou is being held accountable for America's torture policy. And John Kiriakou didn't torture anyone, he just blew the whistle on it.

In a Galaxy Far, Far Away

A long time ago, with mediocre grades and no athletic ability, I applied for a Rhodes Scholarship. I guess the Rhodes committee at my school needed practice, and I found myself undergoing a rigorous oral examination. Here was the final question they fired at me, probing my ability to think morally and justly: You are a soldier. Your prisoner has information that might save your life. The only way to obtain it is through torture. What do you do?

At that time, a million years ago in an America that no longer exists, my obvious answer was never to torture, never to lower oneself, never to sacrifice one's humanity and soul, even if it meant death. My visceral reaction: to become a torturer was its own form of living death. (An undergrad today, after the "enhanced interrogation" Bush years and in the wake of 24, would probably detail specific techniques that should be employed.) My advisor later told me my answer was one of the few bright spots in an otherwise spectacularly unsuccessful interview.

It is now common knowledge that between 2001 and about 2007 the United States Department of Justice (DOJ) sanctioned acts of torture committed by members of the Central Intelligence Agency and others. The acts took place in secret prisons ("black sites") against persons detained indefinitely without trial. They were described in detail and explicitly authorized in a series of secret torture memos drafted by John Yoo, Jay Bybee, and Steven Bradbury, senior lawyers in the DOJ's Office of Legal Counsel. (Office of Legal Counsel attorneys technically answer directly to the DOJ, which is supposed to be independent from the White House, but obviously was not in this case.) Not one of those men, or their Justice Department bosses, has been held accountable for their actions.

Some tortured prisoners were even killed by the CIA. Attorney General Eric Holder announced recently that no one would be held accountable for those murders either. "Based on the fully developed factual record concerning the two deaths," he said, "the Department has declined prosecution because the admissible evidence would not be sufficient to obtain and sustain a conviction beyond a reasonable doubt."

Jose Rodriguez, a senior CIA official, admitted destroying videotapes of potentially admissible evidence, showing the torture of captives by operatives of the U.S. government at a secret prison thought to be located at a Vietnam-War-era airbase in Thailand. He was not held accountable for deep-sixing this evidence, nor for his role in the torture of human beings.

John Kiriakou Alone

The one man in the whole archipelago of America's secret horrors facing prosecution is former CIA agent John Kiriakou. Of the untold numbers of men and women involved in the whole nightmare show of those years, only one may go to jail.

And of course, he didn't torture anyone.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)

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