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Are Americans Really "Better Than That?"

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A boyish, inquisitive face with an innocent look peered out from the Washington Post’s lead story yesterday on torture.  It was well groomed, pink-shirted John Kiriakou, a CIA interrogator who could just as easily pass for the local youth minister

The report by the
Post’s Joby Warrick and Dan Eggen, which describes Kiriakou’s experience in interrogating suspected terrorists, raises in an unusually direct way an abiding question:  Should the United States of America be using forms of torture dating back to the Spanish Inquisition? 

Nowhere is the mood of that infamous period better portrayed than in the famous Grand Inquisitor chapter of Dostoyevsky’s
Brothers Karamazov.  Dostoevsky was unusually gifted at plumbing the human heart.  While it has been 127 years since he wrote Brothers Karamazov, he nonetheless captures the trap into which so many Americans have fallen in forfeiting freedom through fear.  His portrayal of Inquisition reality brings us to the brink of the moral precipice on which our country teeters today.  It is as though he knew what would be in store for us as fear was artificially stoked after the attacks of 9/11.

In the story, Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor (the Cardinal of Seville) ridicules Christ for imposing on humans the heavy burden of freedom of conscience, and explains how it is far better, for all concerned, to dull that conscience and to rule by deceit, violence, and fear:

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“Didst thou forget that man prefers peace, and even death, to freedom of choice in the knowledge of good and evil?...We teach them that it’s not the free judgment of their hearts, but mystery which they must follow blindly, even against their conscience.... In the end they will lay their freedom at our feet [and] become obedient...We shall tell them that we are Thy servants and rule them in Thy name.... we shall be forced to lie.... We shall tell them that every sin will be expiated if it is done with our permission.”
The Grand Inquisitor, in Brothers Karamazov

Kiriakou was one of the first interrogators to interview suspected terrorist Abu Zubayda in a Pakistani military hospital, where Zubayda was recovering from wounds suffered during his capture in early 2002.  When he refused to provide information about al-Qaeda’s infrastructure, he was flown to a secret CIA prison where, according to Kiriakou, the interrogation team strapped Abu Zubayda to a board, wrapped his nose and mouth in cellophane, and forced water into his throat.  In just 35 seconds, viola!  Abu Zubayda starting talking.  That is called waterboarding.

The 15 & 16 Century Spanish inquisitors were not squeamish, and had little need for circumlocutions or euphemisms like “alternative set of procedures” that are part of President George W. Bush’s lexicon.  The Spanish called this procedure, quite plainly, “tortura del agua.” Lacking cellophane, they inserted a cloth into the victim’s mouth, forcing the victim to ingest water spilled from a jar starting the drowning process.  Four centuries later, the Gestapo put out several technically improved releases of this operating system of torture, so to speak.

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Quick; someone please tell newly confirmed Attorney General Michael Mukasey, who told reporters yesterday he still cannot decide whether waterboarding is torture.

Abu Zubayda: Poster Child

The information from John Kiriakou confirms what has long been a no-brainer but not definitively established before; namely, that President George W. Bush’s “alternative set of procedures” for interrogation by C.I.A. includes waterboarding.  Zubayda was given pride of place in George W. Bush’s remarkable speech of Sept. 6, 2006, in which he bragged about the effectiveness of such procedures and appealed successfully for passage of the Military Commissions Act.  That law allows a president to define what set of interrogation procedures can be used by the C.I.A.  This is Bush on Sept. 6, 2006:

We believe that Zubayda was a senior terrorist leader and a trusted associate of Osama bin Laden...[and that] he had run a terrorist camp in Afghanistan where some of the 9/11 hijackers trained...We knew that Zubayda had more information that could save innocent lives, but he stopped talking...And so the CIA used an alternative set of procedures...The Department of Justice reviewed the authorized methods extensively and determined them to be lawful.... But I can say the procedures were tough, and they were safe, and lawful, and necessary.

Zubayda was questioned using these procedures, and soon he began to provide information on key al-Qaeda operatives, including information that helped us find and capture more of those responsible for the attacks on September the 11th. For example, Zubayda identified one of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed’s accomplices in the 9/11 attacks -- a terrorist named Ramzi bin al Shibh. The information Zubayda provided helped lead to the capture of bin al Shibh. And together these two terrorists provided information that helped in the planning and execution of the operation that captured Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.

Bush claimed that his interrogation program had saved lives, and Kiriakou says the use of waterboarding “probably saved lives.”  We cannot know for sure if this is true.  Off-the-record interviews with intelligence officials strongly suggest that there is much prevarication and exaggeration in president’s claims about lives saved and operations disrupted, and that the his assertions merit no more credulity than other claims—for example, that Iran’s nuclear weapons program poses a threat to the U.S., even though it has been stopped for four years.

Other U.S. intelligence officials take issue with the C.I.A.’s version of the questioning of Zubayda.  Some say that initially he was cooperating with F.B.I. interrogators using a nonconfrontational approach, when C.I.A. assumed control and opted for more aggressive tactics.  After that experience, the F.B.I. reportedly warned its agents to avoid interrogation sessions at which harsh methods were used.

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As for credibility, never has a U.S. president’s word been so cheapened as it is today.  In late July 2007, we Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity joined with Justin Frank, MD, psychiatrist, professor at George Washington University Hospital, and author of “Bush on the Couch,” to search for insight on how President Bush thinks.  See “Dangers of a Cornered Bush,”
http://www.consortiumnews.com/Print/2007/072707a.html, from which we excerpt the following:

His pathology is a patchwork of false beliefs and incomplete information woven into what he asserts is the whole truth...He lies—not just to us, but to himself as well...What makes lying so easy for Bush is his contempt—for language, for law, and for anybody who dares question him.... So his words mean nothing. That is very important for people to understand.

This Is Oversight?

The past few weeks have witnessed an unseemly square dance in Congress, highlighting conflicting claims about what those who are supposed to be overseeing the intelligence community knew and when they knew it—about torture, about Iran, about many things.  It is nothing short of an insult to the Founders that members of the House and Senate can find nothing more useful to do than wring their hands over their largely self-inflicted powerlessness.

Lawmakers have been so thoroughly intimidated by the White House that I get physically ill watching the likes of Nancy Pelosi, Jane Harman, Bob Graham, and Jay Rockefeller moan about how secretive and nasty the Bush administration has been.  Harman complained recently that when she was ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee some of the material (on interrogations) was so highly classified that she had to take a “second oath” to protect it.

What about the solemn oath they all take to support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic?  Should not that oath transcend and govern others that an administration might require for access to secret materials?

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Ray McGovern works with Tell the Word, the publishing arm of the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in inner-city Washington. He was an Army infantry/intelligence officer and then a CIA analyst for 27 years, and is now on the Steering Group of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS). His (more...)

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