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    Middle East
     Oct 23, 2007
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The urge to confess on torture
By Tom Engelhardt

They can't help themselves. They want to confess. How else to explain the torture memorandums that continue to flow out of the inner sancta of this administration, the most recent of which were evidently leaked to the New York Times. Those two, from the Alberto Gonzales Justice Department, were written in 2005 and recommitted the administration to the torture techniques it had been pushing for years.

As the Times noted, the first of those memorandums, from 

February of that year, was "an expansive endorsement of the harshest interrogation techniques ever used by the Central Intelligence Agency". The second "secret opinion" was issued as Congress moved to outlaw "cruel, inhuman and degrading" treatment (not that such acts weren't already against US and international law). It brazenly "declared that none of the CIA interrogation methods violated that standard"; and, the Times assured us, "the 2005 Justice Department opinions remain in effect, and their legal conclusions have been confirmed by several more recent memorandums".

All of these memorandums, in turn, were written years after John Yoo's infamous "torture memo" of August 2002 and a host of other grim documents on detention, torture and interrogation had already been leaked to the public, along with graphic Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)emailed observations of torture and abuse at Guantanamo, those "screen savers" from Abu Ghraib, and so much other incriminating evidence.

In other words, in early 2005 when that endorsement of "the harshest interrogation techniques" was being written, its authors could hardly have avoided knowing that it, too, would someday become part of the public record.

But, it seems, they couldn't help themselves. Torture, along with repetitious, pretzled "legal" justifications for doing so, were bones that administration officials - from the president, vice president and secretary of defense on down - just couldn't resist gnawing on again and again. So, what we're dealing with is an obsession, a fantasy of empowerment, utterly irrational in its intensity, that's gripped this administration. None of the predictable we're shocked! we're shocked! editorial responses to the Times latest revelations begin to account for this.

Torture as the royal road to power
So let's back up a moment and consider the nature of the torture controversy in these past years. In a sense, the Bush administration has confronted a strange policy conundrum. Its compulsive urge to possess the power to detain without oversight and to wield torture as a tool of interrogation has led it, however unexpectedly, into what can only be called a confessional stance. The result has been what it feared most: the creation of an exhausting, if not exhaustive, public record of the criminal inner thinking of the most secretive administration in our history.

Let's recall that, in the wake of the attacks of September 11, 2001, the administration's top officials had an overpowering urge to "take the gloves off" (instructions sent from secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld's office directly to the Afghan battlefield), to "unshackle" the CIA. They were in a rush to release a commander-in-chief "unitary executive", untrammeled by the restrictions they associated with the fall of president Richard Nixon and with the Watergate era.

They wanted to abrogate the Geneva Conventions (parts of which Alberto Gonzales, then White House Council and companion-in-arms to the president, declared "quaint" and "obsolete" in 2002). They were eager to develop their own categories of imprisonment that freed them from all legal constraints, as well as their own secret, offshore prison system in which their power would be total. All of this went to the heart of their sense of entitlement, their belief that such powers were their political birthright. The last thing they wanted to do was have this all happen in secret and with full deniability. Thus, Guantanamo.

That prison complex was to be the public face of their right to do anything. Perched on an American base in Cuba just beyond the reach of The Law - American-leased but not court-overseen soil - the new prison was to be the proud symbol of their expansive power. It was also to be the public face of a new, secret regime of punishment that would quickly spread around the world - into the torture chambers of despotic regimes in places like Egypt and Syria, onto American bases like the island fastness of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean, onto US Navy and other ships floating in who knew which waters, into the former prisons of the old Soviet empire, and into a growing network of American detention centers in Afghanistan and Iraq.

So, when those first shots of prisoners, in orange jumpsuits, manacled and blindfolded, entering Guantanamo were released, no one officially howled (though the grim, leaked shots of those prisoners being transported to Guantanamo were another matter). After all, they wanted the world to know just how powerful this administration was - powerful enough to redefine the terms of detention, imprisonment, and interrogation to the point of committing acts that traditionally were abhorred and ruled illegal by humanity and by US law (even if sometimes committed anyway).

Though certain administration officials undoubtedly believed that "harsh interrogation techniques" would produce reliable information, this can't account for the absolute fascination with torture that gripped them, as well as assorted pundits and talking heads (and then, through "24" and other TV shows and movies, Americans in general). In search of a world where they could do anything, they reached instinctively for torture as a symbol. After all, was there any more striking way to remove those "gloves" or "unshackle" a presidency? If you could stake a claim the right to torture, then you could stake a claim to do just about anything.

Think of it this way: if Freud believed that dreams were the royal road to the individual unconscious, then the top officials of the Bush administration believed torture to be the royal road to their ultimate dream of unconstrained power, what John Yoo in his "torture memo" referred to as "the commander-in-chief power".

It was via Guantanamo that they meant to announce the arrival of this power on planet Earth. They were proud of it. And that prison complex was to function as their bragging rights. Their message was clear enough: In this world of ours, democracy would indeed run rampant and a vote of one would, in every case, be considered a majority.

The crimes are in the definitions
This, then, was one form of confession - a much desired one. George W Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and their subordinates (with few exceptions) wished to affirm their position as directors of the planet's "sole superpower", intent as they were on creating a Pentagon-led Pax Americana abroad and a Rovian Pax Republicana at home. But there was another, seldom noted form of confession at work.

As if to fit their expansive sense of their own potential powers, it seems that these officials, and the corps of lawyers that accompanied them, had expansive, gnawing fears. Given this cast of characters, you can't talk about a collective "guilty conscience", but there was certainly an ongoing awareness that what they were doing contravened normal American and global standards of legality; that their acts, when it came to detention and torture, might be judged illegal; and that those who committed - or ordered - such acts might someday, somehow, actually be brought before a court of law to account for them. These fears, by the way, were usually pinned on low-level 

Continued 1 2

The case for imperial liquidation (May 17, '07)

Iran: Blowback, detainee-style (Jun 20, '07)

1. Bhutto bombs kick off war against US paln

2. Pakistan plans all-out war on militants

3. Benazir's second homecoming

4. Who's bluffing on the Turkish-Iraqi border?

5. Leave, or we will behead you

6. Dear Dinosaurs

7. Bush's faith run over by history

8. Caspian summit a triumph for Tehran

9. Masters of war plan for next 100 years

10. US House waffles on genocide

(Oct 19-21, 2007)


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