24 and Zero Dark Thirty helped sell Americans on torture

A new Pew poll says Americans approve of CIA torture by 51%-29%, so bringing this out again:

Not just politicians, but also the media are responsible for selling Americans on torture. During the Bush years, there was the series 24, whose very premise – Jack Bauer only has 24 hours to stop the terrorists and save America – made the case that torture can be justified in an emergency. Last year, the film Zero Dark Thirty revived the argument by erroneously depicting torture as instrumental to finding (and killing) Osama Bin Laden. The order of events shown implies a connection between the torture of a detainee and what most Americans think is the most significant foreign policy achievement of the last decade. In other words, the plot exploits the jingoism of US audiences to convince them that while the CIA did some ugly things, it was all worth it in the end.

This kind of ideological manipulation is especially worrying in light of the filmmakers’ heavy collaboration with the CIA. The hacks behind Zero Dark Thirty got exclusive access to information about Bin Laden’s murder that was denied to the public. In return, the CIA got Oscar-nominated, chest-thumping propaganda. While some haveclaimed that the interrogation scenes are actually critical of torture, the camerawork and editing are careful to show us everything from the point of view of the CIA officers – not the detainee. For example, when he is stuffed into a box too small for his body, terrified and in pain, we don’t go in there with him. Our perspective stays outside. We’re invited to identify not with the tortured, but the torturers.

As Glenn Greenwald pointed out on MSNBC, “Americans know that torture is brutal – That’s why they think it works. They have supported torture because they believe that the people that we’re doing it to are primitive, violent, horrible savages who need to be treated brutally, because that’s the only way we can get information, and that’s the way we stay safe.”

Immunity for Bush-era torturers ensures abuses will continue

“We need to look forward, as opposed to looking backward,” President-elect Obama said on ABC News when asked about prosecuting Bush officials for torture and warrantless wiretapping. “When it comes to national security, what we have to focus on is getting things right in the future, as opposed to looking at what we got wrong in the past.” Four years later, it should be clear to anyone that for the Obama administration, “getting things right” means expanding, legalizing and normalizing the same national security policies they weren’t going to investigate.

Not long before last week’s 10th anniversary of the US invasion of Iraq, a Guardian/BBC Arabic report was released documenting the torture centers and death squads run by the CIA and US military as part of “counterinsurgency” in Iraq. The report highlighted the role of James Steele, a retired colonel who’d helped implement these polices in the US proxy wars against leftist guerillas in Nicaragua and El Salvador. Steele was chosen by the Bush administration to organize Shia militias who could kill or imprison anyone as a “terror suspect”. At its height, the terror regime claimed 3,000 victims a month. Apart from Steele, the report also directly implicates General David Petraeus and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. The invasion and resulting sectarian conflict have so far killed 1.4 million Iraqis (This strategy is still being used to disastrous effect in Afghanistan).

The documentary details how, with the Bush administration’s full knowledge and support, detainees were held without charge and tortured with electroshocks, power drills, boiling water, rape, and so on. These and other “techniques”, besides being some of the most savage treatment imaginable, are considered war crimes by both US and international law. That they violate the Fourth Geneva Convention, the UN Convention against Torture, and other treaties the US has signed is not a matter of dispute. An estimated 100 detainees were killed in US hands, but the Bush torture regime extended from the notorious prisons at Guantanamo, Bagram, and Abu Ghraib to many other sites in 54 countries (including Qaddafi’s Libya and Assad’s Syria).

A couple of points are worth thinking about. For one, the argument put forth by President Obama and others for granting legal immunity to the Bush administration and CIA torturers is basically that prosecution would be disruptive at a time when we must all “resist the forces that divide us, and instead come together on behalf of our common future.” True to its word, the Obama administration has killed every probe into Bush-era torture, both domestically and internationally. But their argument assumes that it’s up to Obama to decide if the United States will try Rumsfeld, George W. Bush, and Dick Cheney for war crimes. Article 7 of the UN Convention against Torture compels the US to do so, no matter which way the President wants to look. And besides the principle of justice, there’s also the practical matter that exempting a group of people from the law encourages lawlessness. Why shouldn’t elites abuse their power if they won’t be held responsible for it?

Let’s say the Obama administration is really Looking Forward Not Backward. Surely it wouldn’t have prosecuted 7 whistleblowers, more than twice the total for all previous administrations, under the Espionage Act? The real policy is one of immunity for top government officials and investment bankers, and the most ruthless retribution for dissent. Why else would the only officer to be tried in connection with CIA torture be John Kiriakou, the man who blew the whistle on it? A lot of what we know about Bush-era crimes, including the death squads and torture militias in Iraq, was found in memos leaked to WikiLeaks by Bradley Manning. For exposing government wrongdoing, Obama has punished Manning by making an example of him.

He was held for over 1,000 days without trial, much of that time in solitary confinement, and now faces charges of “aiding and abetting” Al Qaeda. The UN’s special rapporteur on torture declared that Manning’s treatment at the hands of the US government has been “cruel, inhuman and degrading”. Meanwhile, Obama picked his “Assassination Czar” John Brennan to head the CIA, the agency where Brennan had embraced torture under Bush. And though the administration claims it ended extraordinary rendition of detainees to black sites for torture, it didn’t.

It seems that if you ask the Democratic Party and President Obama, it’s not torture and mass murder that threaten our safety. It’s the people who dare to expose them. And polls of liberals and Democrats repeatedly show that when both parties support a policy that used to be controversial, people who identify with those parties are far more likely to support it as well.

And since that policy can no longer be a point of partisan bickering, it’s barely covered in the media and drops out of the mainstream debate completely. This has now happened with the issue of torture. Back in 2007, Slavoj Žižek wrote that “a clear sign of progress in Western society is that one does not need to argue against rape: it is ‘dogmatically’ clear to everyone that rape is wrong. If someone were to advocate the legitimacy of rape, he would appear so ridiculous as to disqualify himself from any further consideration. And the same should hold for torture.” The fact that US-run torture has employed, and likely still employs, rape and sexual abuse only drives this point home further.

Not just politicians, but also the media are responsible for selling Americans on torture. During the Bush years, there was the series 24, whose very premise – Jack Bauer only has 24 hours to stop the terrorists and save America – made the case that torture can be justified in an emergency. Last year, the film Zero Dark Thirty revived the argument by erroneously depicting torture as instrumental to finding (and killing) Osama Bin Laden. The order of events shown implies a connection between the torture of a detainee and what most Americans think is the most significant foreign policy achievement of the last decade. In other words, the plot exploits the jingoism of US audiences to convince them that while the CIA did some ugly things, it was all worth it in the end.

This kind of ideological manipulation is especially worrying in light of the filmmakers’ heavy collaboration with the CIA. The hacks behind Zero Dark Thirty got exclusive access to information about Bin Laden’s murder that was denied to the public. In return, the CIA got Oscar-nominated, chest-thumping propaganda. While some have claimed that the interrogation scenes are actually critical of torture, the camerawork and editing are careful to show us everything from the point of view of the CIA officers – not the detainee. For example, when he is stuffed into a box too small for his body, terrified and in pain, we don’t go in there with him. Our perspective stays outside. We’re invited to identify not with the tortured, but the torturers.

The controversy around Zero Dark Thirty brings up a larger question about how we can criticize the War on Terror without accepting its basic premises, like “torture is more excusable if it works.” My own view is that we can’t limit ourselves to abstract arguments about right and wrong. We have to look at the cases to judge whether these illegal and unethical practices were even necessary to fulfill their own stated goals. In the case of the Bin Laden raid, it’s clear that they were not.

As Glenn Greenwald pointed out on MSNBC, “Americans know that torture is brutal – That’s why they think it works. They have supported torture because they believe that the people that we’re doing it to are primitive, violent, horrible savages who need to be treated brutally, because that’s the only way we can get information, and that’s the way we stay safe.” Of course, we should insist that torture is barbaric. But to dismiss the question of results completely is to radically misjudge what we’re up against.

The War on Terror reopened our public debate about torture. Over a decade later, the debate has been won – for the first time since the Middle Ages – by authoritarians in both parties. Their gains will be institutionalized for at least a generation, and they aren’t resting on their laurels. The age of Obama has already turned the worst excesses of the Bush years into the only game in town.

You shall know him by his works: Brennan, Hagel and the lessons of the Bush years

Though it went almost unreported, President Obama admitted in a recent interview with Univision that “if I had set the same policies that I had back in the 1980s, I would be considered a moderate Republican.” As I’ve written about on this blog, and as the fiscal cliff “compromise” once again confirms, the facts of his policies largely back up his claim. The exceptions mostly fall under the heading of “national security”: They are the broad range of foreign and domestic policies that have been wildly successful at making permanent war and authoritarian powers a point of bipartisan consensus. And there is, quite frankly, nothing moderate about them.

It’s ironic, then, that of the two cabinet nominees the administration announced yesterday – Obama’s top counterterrorism adviser John Brennan and former Republican Senator Chuck Hagel, to head the CIA and Pentagon, respectively – the one being scrutinized in the corporate media for being “near the fringe” on key issues is not the Bush-era torturer, now lovingly referred to as Obama’s “Assassination Czar”. As recently as 2008, Brennan was passed over for the CIA Director nod amid mock outrage from liberals and progressives, who cited Brennan’s support for torture (other than waterboarding) and extraordinary rendition in the role of Deputy Director during the George W. Bush administration. Well, that was then. Last year, a poll found that among self-identified “liberal Democrats”, 53% approve of continuing indefinite detention at the GTMO facility, and 77% support the administration’s targeted killing program. In fact, support for Obama’s unprecedented crackdown on whistleblowers (6 prosecutions, more than all previous administrations combined) has garnered the envy of Bush officials. As a former aide to Bush-era Attorney General John Ashcroft told the New York Times, “We would have gotten hammered for it.”

Not only has Obama granted Brennan (and other CIA torturers) immunity for previously controversial crimes, he has also put him in charge of some of the administration’s most radical and barbaric policies – policies like “signature strikes” in Yemen and Pakistan, which allow the administration to order an attack without knowing the identity of the targets, based on patterns of “suspicious behavior”. In those countries as well as in Afghanistan, the administration’s policies include the targeting of funerals and the “double tap”, in which an initial strike is followed by a second missile that targets first responders. After all, it was Brennan who got caught blatantly lying when he claimed that no Pakistani civilians had been killed by drone strikes in a year. In fact, local reports indicate that of the thousands of Pakistanis who have been killed by drones, one in 10-15 victims is a militant, and an NYU/Stanford study reports only 2% are “top militant leaders”. Brennan’s claim is not even true by the administration’s own definition of “militant” as “all military-age males in a strike zone”. But Brennan is not the “controversial” nominee, for a very simple reason: his complicity in war crimes and human rights violations places him squarely in line with the Obama administration and its allies.

The “fringe” pick is Hagel, who stands accused of appeasement of Iran and animosity towards Israel by a coalition of defense and pro-Israel lobbyists, neoconservatives like Bill Kristol, and Zionists like my Senator, Chuck Schumer. From a mainstream, mildly hawkish voting record (without which the nomination would be unthinkable), they’ve singled out Hagel’s (belated) opposition to the war in Iraq, his opposition to military strikes on Iran, and his openness to negotiations with Hamas as evidence that the former Republican Senator is outside of the bipartisan foreign policy consensus and therefore unsuitable for Obama’s cabinet. Hagel’s actual record shows that he consistently voted for every dollar of military aid to Israel, and continued to vote to fund the war in Iraq even after calling it a “blunder”.  On Israel-Palestine, he has maintained that the only non-negotiable condition in a peace deal is “Israel’s Jewish identity.” And even if Hagel’s jingoism is found lacking, serious Zionists are happy to admit that his appointment would have little if any bearing on Obama’s “unprecedented pro-Israel credentials”. The fact is that the Hagel controversy has less to do with his actual voting record than with defense contractors’ fear that he’ll carry out his recommendation to reduce military spending to 2007 levels, when the United States had 100,000 troops in Iraq and thousands more in Afghanistan.

While the media and political class spar over the minutiae of non-issues, Obama escalated his assault on the Iranian people at the same time as he signed two bills dutifully passed by bipartisan majorities in this allegedly “do-nothing” Congress. One was this year’s National Defense Authorization Act, which, besides renewing the administration’s right to assassinate, imprison, and torture anyone (including Americans) without charge or trial, also barred the transfer of prisoners from GTMO. The other renewed the FISA Amendments Act for another five years, making sure that intelligence agencies can engage in warrantless surveillance of citizens and non-citizens alike. On the Senate floor, Dianne Feinstein dismissed even the basic disclosure amendments proposed by Rand Paul and Democrats Ron Wyden, Jeff Merkley, and Mark Udall with clichéd fearmongering that would’ve made Dick Cheney proud (and probably did). Glenn Greenwald noted with disgust that “Feinstein insisted that one could support their amendments only if ‘you believe that no one is going to attack us’. She warned that their amendments would cause ‘another 9/11’. She rambled about Najibullah Zazi and his attempt to detonate a bomb on the New York City subway: as though a warrant requirement, let alone disclosure requirements for the eavesdropping program, would have prevented his detection.”

Many young people who, like me, came into some form of political consciousness during the Bush administration recognized this rhetoric as the authoritarian power grab that it was – or so it seemed. What did we learn from those years? For a while it appeared that liberals and progressives were genuinely outraged that our government routinely commits mass murder, violates human rights and civil liberties, and shields those responsible from accountability – all in the name of “security”. The coalition between the Obama administration and conservatives in the leadership of both parties has not only accelerated this process, but normalized and legalized it as well. The Obama era marks the moment when these radical abuses of power were turned from the subjects of controversy into the only game in town. The hypocrisy of the so-called left runs so deep that, not content to merely sit on their hands, they have spent most of the last four years demanding lockstep marching behind the world’s leading active war criminal.

What were the lessons of the Bush era? Were they that we have an obligation as Americans to call the “national security” agenda what it is – empire? To deny legitimacy to the violence of permanent war and a growing police state? Or are those things only wrong when a white Republican from Texas does them, and not when they’re done by a savvy black constitutional lawyer? Like it or not, this is the message we have sent the regime, not just by our support, but by our silence.