Opinion

The Great Debate

Forcing the CIA to admit some ugly truths

CIA Director John Brennan participates in a Council on Foreign Relations forum in Washington

George Tenet, who presided over the CIA when terrorist suspects were waterboarded and subjected to other forms of brutal “enhanced interrogation,” has set himself a near-impossible task.  He is leading an effort to discredit an impending Senate committee report expected to lay out a case that the intelligence agency tortured suspects and then misled Congress, the White House and the public about its detention and interrogation program.

Tenet, working with other senior officials who ran the CIA in the years after September 11, is said to be trying to develop a “strategy” to counter the findings of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence’s 6,300-page report that was five years in the making.

But how do you strate-PHOTO TAKEN 24FEB04- CIA Director George Tenet [has resigned for personal reasons, President George..gize against the truth?

It is now well-established that the CIA ran several “black sites” in Eastern Europe and Southeast Asia where al Qaeda suspects were subjected to forms of harsh interrogation that were banned as “torture” by President Barack Obama after he took office in 2009.

The “enhanced interrogation” techniques included waterboarding; making prisoners stand naked in a cell kept around 50 degrees and dousing them with cold water, and forcing suspects to stand shackled for hours in painful “stress positions.”

By all accounts, however, the Senate report will detail how some interrogation methods were far worse than these previously revealed techniques.

Can Congress control the CIA?

The current fight between the Senate Intelligence Committee and the CIA – each accuses the other of spying on it – is part of the deep, continuing struggle between the legislative and executive branches of government over the wide-ranging power of the intelligence agency in the post-9/11 world.

The immediate dispute is about the committee’s lengthy study of the CIA’s harsh interrogation policies, used during the Bush administration. But underlying all the charges and counter-charges is a larger question: Can Congress genuinely exercise  its authority if the intelligence agencies can classify, and so control, the committee’s oversight efforts?

The CIA has blocked the release of a powerful report from a duly constituted congressional committee, keeping it under “review” for 16 months. CIA officials claim the report contains many inaccuracies. Although President Barack Obama said Wednesday that he was “absolutely committed” to declassifying the report, he was vague on when he would do so.

Our fierce fight over torture

The new Congress versus the CIA battle over “hacking” Senate computers and “spying” isn’t about surveillance. It’s about torture.

We have never had a full reckoning for our government’s use of torture on terror suspects after September 11. There were no prosecutions of military officers or senior officials. (One soldier was imprisoned for abuse at the Abu Ghraib prison, former Corporal Charles Graner, while four officers received administrative demerits, not prosecution.) Remarkably, there has not even been a full release of classified government investigations into U.S. torture. It’s hard to get accountability in the dark.

That repressed history is the real context for the remarkable fight that spilled into public view when Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) spoke on the Senate floor on Tuesday.

Brennan, ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ and the torture firestorm

Controversy over the U.S. use of torture erupted again with the release of Zero Dark Thirty, the movie about the hunt for Osama bin Laden. President Barack Obama has now added fuel to this fire by nominating John Brennan, his chief counterterrorism adviser, to be CIA director.

Brennan was deputy CIA director when the agency was engaged in rendition and torture. He was, as reported by Jane Mayer in The New Yorker, a supporter of enhanced interrogation techniques and in 2005 described the rendition program as “absolutely vital” ‑ though he has since condemned waterboarding.

Zero Dark Thirty opens with the words “based on firsthand accounts of actual events,” then quickly moves into a lengthy, horrific torture sequence. After a detailed dramatization of the hunt, the movie ends with Americans killing bin Laden ‑ leading many viewers to believe that torture was crucial to the successful outcome.

Oscars: Setting the national narrative

As the Oscars approach, two of the most ambitious and remarkable Best Picture nominees — Lincoln and Zero Dark Thirty — are reeling from criticisms that they are historically inaccurate. Though both are fiction, audiences, critics, commentators, scholars and even politicians are troubled that the movies don’t meet the standards of documentary or reported journalism.

The role of great works of drama, however, is to compress a larger national narrative into a clear dramatic arc. The facts are transformed, and a single event or character becomes the vehicle by which a larger truth is revealed.

The history presented in each film is about the achievement of a long-fought, hard-won goal. In Lincoln, it is the fight to pass the 13th Amendment, ending slavery; in Zero Dark Thirty, it is the killing of Osama bin Laden.

Why Zero Dark Thirty divides the media in half

The thriller Zero Dark Thirty has exposed a wide gap between film critics and their counterparts in politics. Nearly every American film critic has lauded and rewarded it, including the New York Film Critics Circle, which tapped it as the best film of the year, making it a front-runner for Oscar nods. In sharp contrast, a number of major political writers have reviled the film, including New Yorker writer Jane Mayer and Guardian columnist Glenn Greenwald, while Senators Dianne Feinstein, John McCain and Carl Levin wrote a letter of complaint to the film’s distributor, Sony Pictures, calling the movie “grossly inaccurate and misleading in its suggestion that torture resulted in information” that led to the raid that killed Osama bin Laden. The division between political writers, politicians and critics only got more pronounced as the CIA’s acting director, Michael Morell, published an unusual disavowal of the film. When it comes to torture, Morell wrote, “the film takes significant artistic license, while portraying itself as being historically accurate.”

All these skirmishes make me wish we could weave these two forms of commentary — film criticism and political thought — together again more strongly. In the postwar decades, the best reviewers of the day saw addressing the politics within the cultural works they reviewed as part of their jobs. Such writers included Dwight McDonaldMacdonald, Mary McCarthy, James Agee, Parker Tyler, Robin Wood and even Pauline Kael, whose critique of films on the right (the classic The Deer Hunter, of which she said, “It has no more moral intelligence than the Clint Eastwood action pictures, yet it’s an extraordinary piece of work …”) and on the left (Missing) didn’t cleanse them of their political agendas.

Writers like McCarthy, who was both a theater critic and a political writer, were more attuned to the ideological sources behind play and film, as they came up in the Depression and the war years, according to Hunter College Professor Richard Kaye, who is working on a project about McCarthy. After all, art was explicitly tied to politics within fascism as well as within communist states. Watching the power of ideology at work within fascism made writers more likely to combine politics with aesthetics. They understood the propagandistic potential of overwhelmingly dramatic popular entertainment.

Would Romney bring back torture?

 

GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney talked about the United States’ “proud history of strong, confident, principled global leadership” in his foreign policy speech last Monday.

Yet Romney’s foreign policy advisers have written a private memo  recommending that the U.S. resume “enhanced interrogation techniques,” according to The New York Times. What these GOP advisers are saying is the U.S. should return to what former Vice President Dick Cheney called “the dark side” — using torture to interrogate suspected terrorists.

Cheney still defends his support of techniques such as  waterboarding, painful stress positions, extreme sleep deprivation, slamming detainees into a wall, sexual humiliation and mortal threats. So does his daughter, Liz Cheney — now a Romney adviser.

Does America need a Truth and Reconciliation Commission for torture?

Paul van Zyl is the former executive secretary of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. In this presentation to the Poptech conference, he argues that America must confront its own legacy of torture:

A new America must confront this dark chapter openly and publicly. It must give victims a chance to testify and allow the American people to hear a firsthand, unvarnished account of the crimes committed in their name. It is only then that America will be able to say to itself in unambiguous terms: “We are not a nation that tortures its enemies. We regard torture as immoral and criminal. We will never justify or condone torture and we will punish those who commit these criminal acts.”

Watch the video below or click here to read van Zyl’s speech in full.

Click here for more Reuters coverage of Poptech.

from The Great Debate UK:

Bagram: Where the future of Guantanamo meets its tortuous past

Moazzam Begg- Moazzam Begg is Director for the British organisation, Cageprisoners. The opinions expressed are his own. -

Little seems to have changed regarding the treatment of prisoners held at the U.S. military-run Bagram prison since I was there (2002-2004). The recent study conducted by the BBC shows allegations of sleep deprivation, stress positions, beatings, degrading treatment, religious and racial abuse have gone unabated. On a personal level though, I can’t help wonder if British intelligence services are still involved.

In April this year, a report issued by Cageprisoners entitled Fabricating Terrorism II highlighted through eyewitness testimony the cases of 29 people, all of them either British residents or citizens, who had allegedly been tortured and abused in the presence of British intelligence agents or at their behest.

from The Great Debate UK:

Bagram lesser known – but more evil – twin of Guantanamo

clara_gutteridge-Clara Gutteridge is renditions investigator at Reprieve. The opinions expressed are her own.-

The big surprise in Tuesday’s revelations of prisoner abuse at Bagram is how long these stories have taken to reach the international media, given the scale of the problem.

Bagram Airforce Base is Guantanamo Bay’s lesser known - but more evil - twin. Thousands of prisoners have been "through the system" at Bagram, and around 600 are currently held there. Meanwhile President Obama’s lawyers are fighting to hold them incommunicado; stripped of the right to challenge the reasons for their imprisonment.

  •