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Last August, President Barack Obama admitted to the press: “we tortured some folks.” But he also added that torturing people “is not who we are.” His CIA director, John Brennan, calls the CIA torturers “patriots.” So which is it? Are they “patriots” deserving of our admiration or sadists who engaged in acts that are contrary to “who we are?”

Not Who We Are

The Senate Intelligence Committee’s executive summary report on CIA torture concludes that at least twenty-six of the people the CIA contractors tortured were innocent of any ties to terrorism whatsoever.

One of the CIA contractors, James Mitchell, was on TV lately where he was called the “architect” of the torture program. His Spokane, Washington, company, Mitchell, Jessen, and Associates, received $81 million in taxpayer money for services rendered.

CIA Director John Brennan argues that people like Mitchell and his business partner, Bruce Jessen, were doing legitimate intelligence work. But isn’t it also possible that these “patriots” were acting out their post-9-11 revenge fantasies against a bunch of Arabs and Afghans who fell into their clutches about whom they knew very little?

Mitchell and Jessen had no specialized knowledge of Al Qaeda or international terrorism; they didn’t speak Arabic or Pashto, and had no experience interrogating prisoners.

What they did know about as psychologists was how to drill down into the human psyche. And they knew how to reverse engineer the Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape (SERE) techniques designed to help U.S. personnel counter torturers. They applied the same appalling techniques to their own interrogations. Given their lack of qualifications to head such an endeavor it’s likely Mitchell and Jessen were just winging it.

Can we get our $81 million back?

George W. Bush and Dick Cheney might have “authorized” the torture program, but it’s still a war crime that violates the Convention Against Torture, the United Nations Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the U.S. Constitution. Letting the people responsible for torture ride off into the sunset free of any criminal charges throws out the window international and domestic law, as well as almost everything we’ve learned from the Nuremberg Trials, Hannah Arendt, or the trial of Adolf Eichmann.

One of the CIA’s “black” (secret) torture sites was located at Guantanamo, which should raise some thorny legal issues because, unlike Romania, Poland, Lithuania, Afghanistan, or Thailand, the Supreme Court has ruled that Guantanamo is considered “U.S. soil.”

Absent any criminal prosecutions the only conclusion we will be left with is that these guys really are “patriots” and torturing people really is “who we are.” But we shouldn’t need “experts” like Max Boot, Joe Klein, or other apologists for torture to judge the morality of turning to torturers posing as “doctors” to root out suspected terrorists.

The corporate media are treating torture as if it’s just another “issue” like immigration reform or the federal budget. It isn’t. You cannot justify the unjustifiable.

The morality and ethics of whether or not the CIA can torture people in our name are non-negotiable. There is no argument that can be made to justify this atrocity. The corporate media are treating torture as if it’s just another “issue” like immigration reform or the federal budget. It isn’t. You cannot justify the unjustifiable. People who attempt to apologize for torture done in their name are embarrassing themselves; raising their heads to be counted as barbarians at the gate.

We don’t fight against terrorists to become more like them, but to maintain our differences. And after all of the criticism of the Arab and Islamic world as being behind the West in embracing the Enlightenment from the Sam Harrises and Bill Mahers, our own government tossed out any semblance of Enlightenment thinking against torturing prisoners going back to Voltaire and Beccaria.

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Not long ago Alan Dershowitz was advocating “torture warrants,” whereby judges could issue a legal justification for torture. I suppose that would be better than what we had: the CIA acting in secret and employing contractors to torture people willy-nilly.

Mitchell and Jessen and their underlings weren’t going after any “ticking time bombs.” They wanted to use coercion to get the names of other potential bad guys. The Senate report shows that they routinely kept prisoners in solitary confinement in a dark hole for up to forty-seven days just to “soften them up” before asking them any questions. So much for disarming the “ticking time bomb.” The report also shows that any real intelligence gleaned from the interrogations came before prisoners were subjected to torture.

One of the creepiest revelations from the Senate report is the description of a torturer who has broken down one of his subjects through water-boarding and other “techniques” to the point where he can merely raise an eyebrow or snap his fingers and that broken human being would willingly go over to the water board and strap himself in. That’s straight out of Orwell’s 1984.

Mitchell and Jessen (and a number of other agents who are still receiving government salaries) engaged in “interrogating” their prisoners with beatings, stress positions, sleep deprivation, solitary confinement, dark and cold or light and hot environments, rectal feeding, rectal hydration, sensory overload or sensory deprivation, and any other humiliating abuse that leapt into their imaginations.

One prisoner under their charge died of hypothermia on a cold concrete floor after being shackled to a post stripped of his pants.

The torture report sort of gave the country another “teachable moment.” But will we learn anything other than how “awesome” is the United States?

In recent news cycles since the report was made public we’ve seen the corporate media clearly go in damage control mode. The networks and cable TV stations apparently see it as their responsibility to provide journalistic “balance,” as if torture is just another “issue” to bloviate about with talking points and a bifurcated “pro” and “con” frame. They bring on their shows people like former CIA director Michael Hayden (who has lied to Congress) and other torture apologists and propagandists to spin the story out of existence.

During the George W. Bush years there was a brief public debate about whether or not waterboarding was “torture.” The late Christopher Hitchens, who was an important intellectual cheerleader for the Iraq War and an advocate for an aggressive “war on terror” wasn’t convinced that waterboarding was torture so he agreed to have it done to him. A few other reporters also willingly subjected themselves to waterboarding as a publicity stunt to “see what it was like.” I doubt if any pro-torture reporter or intellectual would agree to undergo rectal feeding as Hitchens did with waterboarding to find out if it’s really “torture.” We won’t see Dick Cheney on teevee with a blender and an enema bag any time soon.

I’ll ask again: Can we get our $81 million back?

The United States claims to uphold “universal” values such as democracy and human rights while trampling the principle of “universalism,” which holds that all nations, big or small, powerful or weak, must respect international law. Allowing CIA career employees or contractors to get away with torturing people free from legal accountability telegraphs to the rest of the world that the United States reserves unto itself the right to commit war crimes.

Back in the 1920s and 1930s, the Italian fascists used to attack the gastrointestinal tracts of their left-wing opponents by pouring castor oil down their throats or administering castor oil enemas. Rectal feeding to punish and humiliate has been around for a while; but the trains ran on time.

joseph palermo
Joseph Palermo

Joseph Palermo

Since it appears that the CIA torturers never will be brought to justice it makes it more likely that sometime in the future, with the nation facing a new peril, a different cast of “patriots” might direct these kinds of “enhanced interrogation techniques” closer to home. Maybe next time their targets won’t be foreigners suspected of terrorism but will be American citizens who hold political views they don’t like. And the black sites, instead of being located in places like Lithuania or Poland, might be in Peoria or Tulsa.

Joseph Palermo