It came from the top and that’s never been a secret. The president authorized the building of those CIA “black sites” and the use of what came to be known as “enhanced interrogation techniques” and has spoken of this with a certain pride. The president’s top officials essentially put in an order at the Department of Justice for “legal” justifications that would, miraculously, transform those “techniques” into something other than torture. Its lawyers then pulled out their dictionaries and gave new meaning to tortured definitions of torture that could have come directly from the fused pens of Franz Kafka and George Orwell. In the process, they even managed to leave the definition of torture to the torturer. It was a performance for the ages.
Last week, former Vice President Dick Cheney, who only days after 9/11 claimed that the Bush administration was going to “work the dark side,” once again championed those techniques and the CIA agents who used them. It was a handy reminder of just what a would-be crew of tough-guy torture instigators he and his cohorts were. The legal veneer spread thinly over the program they set in motion was meant to provide only the faintest legal cover for the “gloves” they bragged about taking off, while obscuring the issue for the American public. After all, few in the rest of the world were likely to accept the idea that interrogation methods like waterboarding, or “the water torture” as it had once been known, were anything but torture. Even in this country, it had been accepted as just that. The Bush administration was, of course, helped in those years by a media that, when not cheerleading for torture, or actually lending the CIA a helpful hand, essentially banished the word from its vocabulary, unless it referred to heinously similar acts committed by countries we disliked.
All in all, it was an exercise in what the “last superpower,” the world’s “policeman,” could get away with in the backrooms of its police stations being jerry-built around the world. And some of the techniques used with a particular brutality were evidently first demonstrated to top officials in the White House itself.
Then, of course, the CIA went out and applied those “enhanced techniques” to actual human beings with abandon, as the newly released (and somewhat redacted) executive summary of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s “torture report” indicates. This was done even more severely than ordered (not that Cheney & Co. cared), including to a surprising number of captives that the CIA later decided were innocent of anything having to do with terror or al-Qaeda. All of this happened, despite a law this country signed onto prohibiting the use of torture abroad.
Although what I’ve just described is now generally considered The Torture Story here, it really was only part of it. The other part, also a CIA operation authorized at the highest levels, was “rendition” or “extraordinary rendition” as it was sometimes known. This was a global campaign of kidnappings, aided and abetted by 54 other countries, in which “terror suspects” (again often enough innocent people) were swept off the streets of major cities as well as the backlands of the planet and “rendered” to other countries, ranging from Libyaand Syria to Egypt and Uzbekistan, places with their own handy torture chambers and interrogators already much practiced in “enhanced” techniques of one sort or another.
Moreover, those techniques migrated like a virus from the CIA and its “black sites” elsewhere in the U.S. imperium, most notoriously via Guantanamo to Abu Ghraib, the American-run prison in Iraq, where images of torture and abuse of a distinctly enhanced variety then migrated home as screensavers. What was done couldn’t have been more criminal in nature, whether judged by U.S. or international law. In its wake, its perpetrators, both the torturers and the kidnappers, were protected in a major way. Except for a few low-level figures at Abu Ghraib and one non-torturing CIA whistleblower who went to prison for releasing to a journalist the name of someone involved in the torture program, no American figure, not even those responsible for deaths at the Agency’s black sites, would be brought to court. And of course, the men (and woman) most responsible would leave the government to write their memoirs for millions of dollars and defend what they did to the death (of others).
It’s one for the history books and, though it’s a good thing to have the Senate report made public, it wasn’t needed to know that, in the years after 9/11, when the U.S. government created an offshore Bermuda Triangle of injustice, it also essentially became a criminal enterprise. Recently, Republican hawks in Washington protested loudly against the release of that Senate report, suggesting that it should be suppressed lest it “inflame” our enemies. The real question isn’t, however, about them at all, it’s about us. Why won’t the release of this report inflame Americans, given what their government has done in their names?
And in case you think it’s all over but for the shouting, think again, as Rebecca Gordon, author of Mainstreaming Torture, writes today in “American Torture: Past, Present, and… Future?”
Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project, runs the Nation Institute's TomDispatch.com. His latest book is, Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World (with an introduction by Glenn Greenwald). Previous books include Terminator Planet: The First History of Drone Warfare, 2001-2050 (co-authored with Nick Turse), The United States of Fear, The American Way of War: How Bush's Wars Became Obama's, The End of Victory Culture: a History of the Cold War and Beyond, as well as of a novel, The Last Days of Publishing. To stay on top of important articles like these, sign up to receive the latest updates from TomDispatch.com here.