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Revealing the Secrets in Room 101

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On Thursday the spirit of George Orwell visited America, three times.

The first visit can be found in four memoranda prepared by Bush Administration lawyers which gave the actual go-ahead for the use of specific torture techniques on specific individuals, thus demolishing forever the absurd contention that the torture lawyers were ever only engaged in some abstract exercise without any direct application to incidents of torture. Here, we discover that Room 101 of the Ministry of Love (Miniluv) has been faithfully recreated by the Bush Team. In Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, Room 101 contained whatever a prisoner feared most, which would be let loose against him in an act calculated to inspire pure terror in the victim, to break him as an individual and to produce human material suitable for reconditioning. As a reminder, here’s the way the disclosure of Room 101 is realized in the excellent film version directed by Michael Radford (it begins at roughly 3:20 in the clip):

In the first of the four memos, we learn that one prisoner has been the subject of a careful psychoanalysis that had revealed a strong fear of insects, particularly stinging insects. The sudden onset of a phobia can produce automatic, uncontrollable reactions–the fear grips total control of the subject’s mind. Rapid heartbeat, a shortness of breath, trembling, an overwhelming desire to flee. The prisoner is prepared to do anything to escape the cause of the phobia.

The CIA therefore proposed to lock the prisoner in a coffin-like box to which would be added an insect. Judge–yes, the author is a sitting appeals court judge in San Francisco–Jay Bybee’s memorandum discusses this process in detail and settles on a pre-agreed script about how Room 101 will be used, addressing in turn the toxicity of the insect to be used, the dimensions of the box in which the prisoner will be confined, and the false statements which will be made to the prisoner in order to heighten his level of apprehension, with the intention of triggering a “panic attack.” Not surprisingly, George Orwell’s ultimate form of torture is perfectly fine for Judge Bybee—he raises no objection, as is the case with waterboarding, hypothermia, “walling” (a technique that involves bashing the prisoner’s head against a wall), and a number of other techniques that belong to the long-settled torture repertoire of such regimes as the Soviet Union, North Korea, China and North Vietnam. But for Judge Bybee, if the CIA wants to use these techniques, that’s all fine with him–no law stands in the way.

Orwell made his second appearance in a statement issued by Director of National Intelligence Admiral Dennis Blair in which he drew a stomach-turning comparison between Americans who sacrifice for their country in uniform and those who perpetrated war crimes under orders from higher ups in the Bush Administration. But perhaps the first lines of Blair’s statement were intended to send a signal of the deceit that lay within. “We will absolutely defend those who relied on these memos and those guidelines,” he says, because they acted in the wake of 9/11, whereas “read on a bright, sunny, safe day in April 2009, [the memoranda] appear graphic and disturbing.” Blair’s name echoes Orwell’s actual name, Eric Blair; his words remind one of 1984: “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”

Then Orwell visited us a third time. This time the message came straight from Miniluv, whose never-resting eye keeps watch over every enemy of the state, foreign or domestic, real or, far more often, the creation of paranoid delusion combined with political convenience. Eric Lichtblau and James Risen of the New York Times report:

The National Security Agency intercepted private e-mail messages and phone calls of Americans in recent months on a scale that went beyond the broad legal limits established by Congress last year, government officials said in recent interviews. Several intelligence officials, as well as lawyers briefed about the matter, said the N.S.A. had been engaged in “overcollection” of domestic communications of Americans. They described the practice as significant and systemic, although one official said it was believed to have been unintentional.

The legal and operational problems surrounding the N.S.A.’s surveillance activities have come under scrutiny from the Obama administration, Congressional intelligence committees and a secret national security court, said the intelligence officials, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity because N.S.A. activities are classified. Classified government briefings have been held in recent weeks in response to a brewing controversy that some officials worry could damage the credibility of legitimate intelligence-gathering efforts.

Indeed, we learn that Miniluv even attempted to wiretap a member of Congress without a warrant or any form of special authorization because Miniluv was convinced that the congressman was communicating with a person they distrust.

Miniluv’s voracious appetite is chronicled a bit further in a follow-up piece yesterday from Lichtblau and Risen in which we learn that it is on the verge of perfecting its ability to “collect and analyze every e-mail message, text message, and Google search” you’ve ever performed. But this is the least of it. They know your favorite pizza toppings, the medications you use, the color of your socks, the size of your t-shirt, the books you thought about buying on, and the movies your ordered from Netflix—as well as the ones you paused over, thinking to order. They will use all of this information to protect you. Unless, of course, some day you find yourself invited to Room 101.

Can anyone be surprised to learn that the new guardians of these vast and unchecked powers, while piously promising to reform and stop breaking the law, also feel that there is no really compelling reason to enforce the law–in the process breaking the oaths they just took a few weeks ago to uphold that very law? Is it not indeed amazing that these claims can be made on the public stage without being greeted with the peals of derision they deserve? Now comes the test of our democracy–will we close the door and walk away, or demand to know what’s been done in our name and hold those who guided any abuses to account for their misconduct? President Obama tells us there’s nothing to see here, just move along. But this will be a test of whether we have a citizenry worthy of that name.

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Scott Horton is a contributor to Harper's Magazine and writes No Comment for this website, A New York attorney known for his work in emerging markets and international law, especially human rights law and the law of armed conflict, (more...)
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