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Federal prosecutors to investigate abusive interrogation cases
August 24, 2009 2:57 PM   Subscribe

Big Newsfilter: US Attorney General Holder appoints a prosecutor to investigate abusive CIA interrogations in the War on Terror.

Obama was reluctant to investigate Bush admin wrongdoing, and he still insists "he thinks that we should be looking forward, not backward" (per his deputy press secretary). But Holder managed to get the go-ahead. Previously.
posted by grobstein (134 comments total) 7 users marked this as a favorite

 
Surely this....
posted by dersins at 3:01 PM on August 24, 2009 [2 favorites]


Surely this....

You beat me by 30 seconds.....

But really, surely this....
posted by hellojed at 3:02 PM on August 24, 2009


Bet $20 a few sacrificial Lynndie Englands are thrown under the bus, while the bosses who gave the orders go free.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 3:02 PM on August 24, 2009 [23 favorites]


I'm proud. This reminds me of how I felt on election night.
posted by haltingproblemsolved at 3:04 PM on August 24, 2009


You're not gonna have Scooter Libby to kick around any more!
posted by darkstar at 3:05 PM on August 24, 2009


Maybe the only way to get Cheney to shut up is for him to be compelled to take the 5th.
posted by effluvia at 3:05 PM on August 24, 2009 [2 favorites]


Good for them. Hopefully an investigation will increase transparency and warn those who seek power that they are not above the law.

The neocons are going to lose their collective minds over this. Let's see how long it takes them to scream about how Holder's report will endanger national security and destroy America.
posted by zarq at 3:06 PM on August 24, 2009


Maybe the only way to get Cheney to shut up is for him to be compelled to take the 5th.

CHRIST COMPELS YOU! to take the 5th
posted by Askiba at 3:07 PM on August 24, 2009


I'm proud. This reminds me of how I felt on election night.

You voted for Eric Holder?
posted by drjimmy11 at 3:08 PM on August 24, 2009


This is great news! I think it's a pretty good move for Obama to keep on talking about looking forward. His reluctance towards the investigation makes it seem like a less partisan, vindictive effort.

Here's hoping something good comes out of the investigations!
posted by One Second Before Awakening at 3:09 PM on August 24, 2009


Hopeful for something of significance being done, or maybe simply the notion that the Obama administration is changing the direction of things even if no one involved is found culpable. But the pessimist in me is looking forward to The I-Don't Recall Man part 2.
posted by filthy light thief at 3:09 PM on August 24, 2009


Emphasis on the word "examine".
Mr. Durham will examine several cases which were referred to the Justice Department by the C.I.A.’s Inspector General and were subsequently investigated and dropped by the Justice Department under President Bush. The cases were detailed in a 2004 report by the C.I.A. inspector general that was released on Monday by the Justice Department. The report outline cases of abused allegedly committed by C.I.A. personnel and contract employees, mainly in Iraq and Afghanistan.

...

“Well, as the president has said repeatedly, he thinks that we should be looking forward, not backward,” Bill Burton, the deputy White House press secretary, told reporters in Oak Bluffs, Mass., where Mr. Obama is vacationing. “He does agree with the attorney general that anyone who conducted actions that had been sanctioned should not be prosecuted.”
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 3:09 PM on August 24, 2009


"he thinks that we should be looking forward, not backward"

I'm sorry but this is the dumbest thing I have ever heard from any president, including W. Why are we still holding people in Guantamo, then? Why are we still fighting in Afghanistan? 9/11 is the past, man! Get over it already.
posted by drjimmy11 at 3:10 PM on August 24, 2009 [15 favorites]


You voted for Eric Holder?

I assume he voted for the man responsible for putting Holder in a position to do what he's doing.
posted by absalom at 3:10 PM on August 24, 2009


"CIA Director Leon Panetta, who has reportedly been engaged in an angry confrontation with the White House over this issue, called the release of the inspector general’s report on abuses 'an old story' and said 'the challenge is not the battles of yesterday, but those of today and tomorrow.'"*
posted by ericb at 3:12 PM on August 24, 2009


But they already got a few Lynndie Englands. If they're going back for more, they're probably aiming a bit higher.

(I understand reality may eventually disabuse me of my optimism, but please let me enjoy it for at least a week or two.)
posted by ryanrs at 3:14 PM on August 24, 2009


GOING-ALONG-TO-GET-ALONG BYPASS FAILED WITH ERROR CODE 43.
posted by benzenedream at 3:14 PM on August 24, 2009


[A few comments removed. Let's not make an actual sport of derailing threads, okay?]
posted by cortex at 3:15 PM on August 24, 2009 [1 favorite]


Interesting.
posted by Artw at 3:17 PM on August 24, 2009


There's a part of me that thinks Obama only made the "Looking forward and not backward" comments because he knew this sort of investigation would be inevitable, but didn't want to activly persue it becase he knew the right would go bezonkers. IE, he let it happen.
posted by hellojed at 3:20 PM on August 24, 2009


Boy do I want to be wrong about how I expect this to go.
posted by zoinks at 3:20 PM on August 24, 2009 [8 favorites]


Surely this....

In your dreams.
posted by eriko at 3:21 PM on August 24, 2009


As a practical matter, Holder is consciously establishing as the legal baseline -- he's vesting with sterling legal authority -- those warped, torture-justifying DOJ memos. Worse, his pledge of immunity today for those who complied with those memos went beyond mere interrogators and includes everyone, policymakers and lawyers alike: "the Department of Justice will not prosecute anyone who acted in good faith and within the scope of the legal guidance given by the Office of Legal Counsel regarding the interrogation of detainees." Thus, as long as, say, a White House official shows that (a) the only torture methods they ordered were approved by the OLC and (b) they did not know those methods were criminal, then they would be entitled to full-scale immunity under the standard Holder announced today.

This quite likely sets up, at most, a process where a few low-level sacrificial lambs -- some extra-sadistic intelligence versions of Lynndie Englands -- might be investigated and prosecuted where they tortured people the wrong way. Those who tortured "the right way" -- meaning the way the OLC directed -- will receive full-scale immunity.
- Glenn Greenwald
posted by Joe Beese at 3:22 PM on August 24, 2009 [7 favorites]


heh.
posted by gman at 3:23 PM on August 24, 2009


Is this the liberal version of "Oooh, look! Sparkly!"

In other words, forgive me if I get a sense of political prestidigitation.
posted by symbioid at 3:23 PM on August 24, 2009


So if no actual prosecutions will come from sanctioned acts, what purpose does this examination serve? And how are they defining "sanctioned"?
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 3:26 PM on August 24, 2009


They will punish the hard-core sadists who got off on it and therefore took it "too far", and will let all those who were told it was okay and who didn't push it but who did it anyway.

It's a half-measure, but it's better than nothing.
posted by hippybear at 3:32 PM on August 24, 2009


Ok, looks like Beese answered me. So I'm guessing the people who actually authored the "torture guidelines", they'll skate, right?
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 3:32 PM on August 24, 2009


So if no actual prosecutions will come from sanctioned acts, what purpose does this examination serve? And how are they defining "sanctioned"?

"Sanctioned" means condoned or approved, in this context. (It's confusing because a "sanction" is a disapproval or punishment.) They're talking about the techniques approved by the Office of Legal Counsel under Bush, in the famous "torture memos."
posted by grobstein at 3:34 PM on August 24, 2009


Actually, the way it may go is this -- they determine that some agents went over the line -- they ask them why they went over the line, and the agents claim that despite what the memos said, they were given the tacit go ahead of higher-ups to color outside the lines.
posted by empath at 3:35 PM on August 24, 2009 [2 favorites]


[Panetta] noted that "whether [torture] was the only way to obtain that information will remain a legitimate area of dispute, with Americans holding a range of views on the methods used." (source)

No, wrong, it's not a "legitimate area of dispute." There is a definite answer as to whether it was the only way to obtain information, and a good way to find that answer is a criminal investigation.

I also hate the implication that this is some sort of eternal philosophical quandary and that we'll all just have to agree to disagree. Doing so is a de facto decision that the crimes will go unpunished. Panetta seems to have wasted no time in becoming more committed to protecting the CIA than serving his country, and Obama is only enabling him with his continual talk of 'looking forward.'

The report also said that CIA personnel "are concerned that public revelation" of the program will "seriously damage" their reputations as well as "the reputation and effectiveness of the agency itself."

Oh no, the poor CIA's sterling reputation might be damaged. That ship has sailed. Continuing to obstruct investigations and redact reports like this one only prevents the CIA from learning from its mistakes and improving. What kind of perverse organization would work so hard to prevent itself from doing its job better by removing its most ineffective and criminal members?
posted by jedicus at 3:44 PM on August 24, 2009 [8 favorites]


A. This is a preliminary review to determine if a full investigation is warranted.
B. It is already known that war crimes (torture, homicide, etc) were committed, and in fact were enshrined into administration policy.
C. The review will consider the majority of torture carried out (that which fell within policy guidelines) to be legal.

How can you take A+B+C and not come up with
D. A few token interrogators will go down.

The whole structure has been designed to protect the powerful. The only way any real investigation will occur, is if the Obama administration accidentally vests some rogue prosecutor with independence. I'm sure they've been working hard to avoid that since day 1.
posted by Humanzee at 3:44 PM on August 24, 2009 [2 favorites]


The only way any real investigation will occur, is if the Obama administration accidentally vests some rogue prosecutor with independence. I'm sure they've been working hard to avoid that since day 1.

Oh? Why do you say that?
posted by kathrineg at 3:49 PM on August 24, 2009


The fact that Holder has managed to open any investigation at all seems to have qualified him as "rogue," so I'm holding out some hope.
posted by haltingproblemsolved at 3:57 PM on August 24, 2009 [1 favorite]


If those torturers who followed the memos faithfully are not prosecuted, it's going to give every sadistic jerk from now on access to the old "only following orders" defense. That defense will serve all the orderers on up the chain of command until you get to some guy who knows he's Too Big to Take a Fall, and says "yeah - so?"

My hope is that investigations produce so much solid evidence that Spanish prosecutor, or somebody like him, indicts Gonzales, Bush, and Cheney, and they'll fear winding up in Spandau if they travel.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 4:09 PM on August 24, 2009


This is definitely a step in the right direction and I fully support all the investigations as needed.

We have a bigger problem than CIA torturers, however. Out main problem -- the problem at the heart of this problem -- is that a very significant chunk (maybe even a majority) of Americans believe that it's okay to torture and murder other human beings if they pose a security risk to our country. That, right there, is the real problem.

The CIA, DOJ memos, Guantanamo, black sites -- those are all just symptoms of our underlying national sickness. Nations and cultures can be mentally ill just as individuals can (as the 20th century has shown us rather vividly).

What we really need to do is put ourselves on trial.
posted by Avenger at 4:23 PM on August 24, 2009 [16 favorites]


Well, I don't read this as much of a departure from what Obama has said he wanted all along. That is, if Justice sticks to the plan, no Bush administration officials will be prosecuted, and the overwhelming majority of interrogators are automatically immune. Obama picked Holder, after a lengthy selection process. Holder has spent several months coming up with a rationale for this plan. They floated the idea with leaks to gauge reaction. The whole thing seems very deliberate to me, neither random nor rushed ---typical Obama.

Holder hasn't gone rogue. I forget when, but there was a post to Metafilter awhile back about a meeting including Obama and Holder. Obama knew they had to do something. They were trying to decide what, and Obama was ruling certain things out, e.g. investigating VIPs. This plan is a way to do something, so that they can say they did something. Then we get to look forward.

If I'm wrong, I'll literally be ecstatic. I think that beyond the massive injustice that the torture program represented, the political theories used to justify it are even more dangerous.
posted by Humanzee at 4:30 PM on August 24, 2009 [2 favorites]


Let's see how long it takes them to scream about how Holder's report will endanger national security and destroy America.

T-minus... 0, -1, -2, -3...
posted by ifthe21stcentury at 4:39 PM on August 24, 2009


Fitzmas?

Fitzmas?

Crap.

posted by darkstar at 4:49 PM on August 24, 2009 [1 favorite]


ifthe21stcentury: "Let's see how long it takes them to scream about how Holder's report will endanger national security and destroy America.

T-minus... 0, -1, -2, -3...
"

Too late, they're already screaming.
posted by octothorpe at 4:50 PM on August 24, 2009


Re: looking forward.

Someone mentioned that it's a sign of a functioning democracy for an incoming administration not to try to put the last one in prison (perhaps even when they deserve it). A corollary might be the surprise subjects of authoritarians have when those voted out leave peacefully. I think it was Generation Kill where Iraquis were described as thinking of Bush as their new dictator-style leader & not understanding there are other branches of Govt. or states and that Bush would eventually leave office.

So... what's it like when the new boss does try to throw the old boss in prison?
posted by morganw at 5:05 PM on August 24, 2009


From: The American Spectator

The Obama White House is behind a cynical, coldly calculated political effort to erase the meaning of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks from the American psyche and convert Sept. 11 into a day of leftist celebration and statist idolatry.

And if you're at the article, I should let you know, it only takes ONE CLICK to get to the "largest selection of liberal baiting merchandise on the web"!

I know everyone else here has been around this block before, and that I haven't because I'm 21-years-old-god-damnit but this political climate is seriously terrifying. I can't go anywhere without being bombarded with this kind of mindset. My boss opposes healthcare reform because her 78 year old mother has cancer and she "doesn't want the U.S. Postal Service in charge of her health". I have to hear "Paul Revering" non-talk radio DJs interrupting regular music broadcasts, during work hours, to let us know "the Democrats are preparing to seize all private property". A co-worker is telling our developmentally disabled clients that global warming is a myth, afterall the weather outside hasn't changed one bit in all 31 years of his life, and the very idea of it is a "liberal grab at control" spearheaded by one Al Gore.

It isn't like I work at Wal-Mart. I'm taking care of disabled adults.

Is mine an extreme case or is this stuff just everywhere?
posted by ifthe21stcentury at 5:25 PM on August 24, 2009 [11 favorites]


Maybe the only way to get Cheney to shut up is for him to be compelled to take the 5th.

I just had this weird vision of Cheney answering all questions with his name, a la "Matt Damon" from Team America.

Q: Mr Cheney, were you or were you not aware of these torture methods?
A: Dick Cheney
Q: I'm sorry Mr Cheney, that won't do here.
A: Dick Cheney.
Q: Mr Cheney, I may hold you in contempt of court.
A: DICK CHENEY!!
posted by djgh at 5:25 PM on August 24, 2009


I'm taking care of disabled adults.

Taking care of, or working with?

Click!

I'm so very sorry.
posted by djgh at 5:27 PM on August 24, 2009 [1 favorite]


morganw: Someone mentioned that it's a sign of a functioning democracy for an incoming administration not to try to put the last one in prison (perhaps even when they deserve it).
Well whoever mentioned that is a fucking moron, and you should be ashamed for mentioning it yourself.

Refusing to punish those previously in power for the wrongdoings the committed- "perhaps even when they deserve it"- is very much antithetical to democracy. It sets up an aristocratic class of politicians for whom the law is no more than a nuisance, since all in the inner circle take care of their predecessors crimes, so as to be protected in turn by their successors.

Democracy would be strengthened immensely by prosecutions especially of the previous administration, for the same reasons the Republicans professed they were eager to impeach Clinton: to show that no man, not even a President, is above the law. I am not happy if Cheney and Bush can simply toss the people of this country and Iraq little more than a coin, having run over our son with their carriage for sport.
posted by hincandenza at 5:31 PM on August 24, 2009 [12 favorites]


Is mine an extreme case or is this stuff just everywhere?

It's everywhere. I recently had an older coworker (probably in her late 60's) tell me that she opposes health care reform because "the government can't do anything right", regardless of her current use of the Medicare system, I suppose.

In other news, apparently some CIA investigators threatened to have a detainee's wife and children raped and murdered. It makes you wonder how little it would take for the threat to become reality.

As I said earlier, we are a very sick society in more ways than one.
posted by Avenger at 5:35 PM on August 24, 2009


The fact that Holder has managed to open any investigation at all seems to have qualified him as "rogue,"

Or maybe that's the sparkle working.
posted by Rat Spatula at 5:42 PM on August 24, 2009


is this stuff just everywhere?

A guy I ride home with from work every day is to the right of me, politically. I've known this man for ten years. We talk about stuff. I thought things were relatively reasonable; he's rightish, I'm leftish, but we're not Those People, the ones carrying signs and screaming on the tee-vee.

During the run-up to the Obama/McCain election, we were chatting on the way home, and he was try to pick at the scab of my support for Obama. And he's from Nebraska, and he knows I went to college in Chicago, and he actually said, "Don't you think he's really just another Chicago politician?"

So now I have to get a sign and find a protest

posted by Rat Spatula at 5:48 PM on August 24, 2009


Someone mentioned that it's a sign of a functioning democracy for an incoming administration not to try to put the last one in prison (perhaps even when they deserve it).

Well whoever mentioned that is a fucking moron, and you should be ashamed for mentioning it yourself.


I believe that I've made similar arguments in the past, and I hope that I'm not a fucking moron, being the optimist that I am.

Lemmie see if I can nuance it a little. Democracy is a balancing act. It's a balancing act between two different tyrannies: mob rule and aristocracy. Neither one is really fun and both should be avoided to the same degree whenever possible.

An incoming government, upon discovering that it's predecessor has committed grave crimes, will launch investigations and hold the previous leaders responsible for their crimes. In theory, this keeps future governments honest and reduces the need for trials in the future.

In reality, the investigations will be used by the now disfavored party as "proof" of the new government's corruption and dictatorial tendencies. When they retake power (and they inevitably will), they will themselves launch a series of (now blatantly political) investigations and throw the previous government in jail en masse on trumped up charges.

Eventually, elections become quasi-coups where whoever looses can expect to do some serious prison time or even worse.

Once that point is reached, it won't be long before one party or another decides that it's had enough of the shenanigans and simply dissolves democracy and rules the country outright. And it won't matter which party "started it", either, since by then they both (along with the populace of the country) will have tired of democracy and thirst for some much-needed stability. Then it's just a matter of who has the most well-funded and well-organized Party Militias.

I realize this scenario must seem incredibly far fetched in an American context, but it happens all the time in a ton of countries and provinces around the world -- almost on a yearly basis.

So, you see, to keep democracy from collapsing we have to make a few concessions to aristocracy once in a while, just as the aristocracy has to make a few concessions to the mob once in a while. We have to keep a certain level of aristocracy in play because otherwise the wealthy aristocrats and the useful idiots they control would just do away with democracy if they didn't believe that it served them somehow.
posted by Avenger at 5:50 PM on August 24, 2009 [4 favorites]


her 78 year old mother has cancer and she "doesn't want the U.S. Postal Service in charge of her health"

It costs less than a dollar to get a letter from Alaska to Florida in a reasonable amount of time, with a very high success rate. I don't see the U.S. private sickness industry doing anything remotely that awesome for people.
posted by Mikey-San at 5:58 PM on August 24, 2009 [11 favorites]


In my fevered brain, the decision to accept the torture memo reading of the law meant that this ended with Eric Holder screaming questions while bringing Cheney's sobbing face out of a vat of water.

Unfortunately, only the bad guys get to be evil.
posted by klangklangston at 6:04 PM on August 24, 2009 [4 favorites]


It costs less than a dollar to get a letter from Alaska to Florida in a reasonable amount of time, with a very high success rate. I don't see the U.S. private sickness industry doing anything remotely that awesome for people.

Amen!

And despite that awesome record, they're STILL being slowly driven out by private competitors!
posted by Salvor Hardin at 6:08 PM on August 24, 2009


Or maybe that's the sparkle working.

Look, I have to find at least something to be positive about, if only for my own sanity. It's either that or stop reading the news completely and become an idiot in the Athenian sense.
posted by haltingproblemsolved at 6:11 PM on August 24, 2009 [1 favorite]


What we really need to do is put ourselves on trial.

IT'S A COOKBOOK!!!

But seriously, we can put ourselves on trial. We can demonstrate our convictions, or lack of same, by holding those in power accountable. If what Cheney did was so righteous (or if he didn't do it) put him on the stand, under oath and in the Hague, to explain it.
posted by DU at 6:17 PM on August 24, 2009 [1 favorite]


What we really need to do is put ourselves on trial.

We've been slowly programming ourselves through dominant media forms to accept torture since at least the rise of the action film in the 80s, if not before. In fact, I'm certain that 70s auteur films also showed the use of pain or near drowning as an effective method of questioning. And then you can go back to John Wayne and all the movies where he holds someone's head in a horse trough...

The only way to undo this is to start now with a whole new set of media tropes, hope they catch on with the creators of our stories, and hope that 50 years from now, public opinion will have morphed into something more humane and life-affirming than what is currently revealed through shows such as 24.
posted by hippybear at 6:32 PM on August 24, 2009 [4 favorites]


Elections alone do not make a democracy. It's perfectly possible to have an array of candidates for election that all have beliefs falling within the narrow range acceptable to an aristocratic class. I can't see dictatorship coming the the U.S. in the form of canceled elections, simply because it isn't necessary. According to all the polls I've seen, the majority of Americans favor single-payer. But that isn't even up for discussion in government. How is that democracy? Real health care reform will come to the U.S. when it is convenient for those with the most lobbying money.

The executive has taken for itself the right to imprison people forever without charges (Obama himself has advocated this), and to torture them nearly to death (that is the Yoo standard which Holder is going to treat as lawful). Admittedly, they are foreigners, or people from the margins of U.S. society, but such actions never start with important people. These were powers that were curtailed by the English nobility while they still had a real monarchy, and we have reinstalled them in our democracy, again over the wishes of the majority.

The only way power players like Obama will actually respond to our wishes is if they are terrified that we are unreasonable, and fear the consequences of crossing us. I have NO IDEA how to convince them of this, aside from angrily refusing to sacrifice basic moral principles (not that I think it's terribly effective).

On preview: hippybear, that's why I hated The Dark Knight. It was everything that is wrong with America.
posted by Humanzee at 6:44 PM on August 24, 2009 [8 favorites]


hippybear, the more I've thought about it over the years (and I'm a Clint Eastwood fan) the more I've realized how Eastwood, John Wayne and Arnold Schwarzenegger really have been part of a pernicious cultural influence.

Just a few days ago, I was lamenting how every cheesy, violence-aggrandizing John Wayne western will get multiple mainstream airings throughout the year, no matter how B-movie, formulaic and two-dimensional the plot and characters. Meanwhile other quality films - films that actually evoke a consideration of what it means to be decently human - will go unseen by the public.

Humanzee's point about Batman is classic. It as if the Caped Crusader has become, more and more, just a special kind of thug.
posted by darkstar at 7:05 PM on August 24, 2009 [1 favorite]


There was some talk about this earlier this week, before it happened.

Basically, the argument -- made by a Constitutional Law expert -- was that the Obama administration might be forced to investigate anything that could be considered a war crime. Failure to do so would violate international law we are signatory to, and, as such, violate the Constitution.

I think this says a lot about the legal fairness and diligence of the Obama Administration that they are letting this proceed, over the resignation threats of CIA chief Leon Panetta, who has been communicating to his people that he would see to it that they were immune because they served in good faith at the direction of the POTUS.

As for the accusations themselves, I read and heard some pretty bad things about what was going on during the war that was never explained... such as families of prominent prisoners also being kept prisoner, women, children, etc. Even then, it was pretty clear that they were being kept as pawns, and there were rumors of sexual abuse in some cases, including sexual abuse of minors.

The one big coverup regarding all this were the very close ties between military intelligence and the CIA, and how they interacted in completely separate chains of command, with very few layers between them and the White House. These were the same people ordering poorly trained reservists to "soften up" prisoners and treat them "like dogs"... always with an element of plausible deniability, and who also helped export interrogation techniques in Guantanamo -- carried out by trained interrogators -- to the untrained reservists at Abu Ghraib.

The Taguba Report is clear that the CIA and MI were giving instructions to these reservists to "psychologically prepare the prisoners for interrogation" / "soften them up", but they intentionally left the details vague, which helped encourage horrible abuses. There was also an outsourcing of interrogation by the CIA / M.I. to contractors, with a few deaths and evidence of sexual abuse as a result.

If these sorts of things are shown to be the case... heads may indeed roll.
posted by markkraft at 7:06 PM on August 24, 2009


But Holder managed to get the go-ahead.

The AG Doesn't need a "Go Ahead".
posted by delmoi at 7:17 PM on August 24, 2009


Someone mentioned that it's a sign of a functioning democracy for an incoming administration not to try to put the last one in prison (perhaps even when they deserve it).
Yeah, that someone happened to be a defender of a democratically removed regime that had engaged in rampant lawbreaking. Functioning democracies don't ordinarally have leaders who are also criminals, so it's not exactly an issue that comes up often, but immunizing leaders from crimes they commit in office is not something that's good for the rule of law.
Lemmie see if I can nuance it a little. Democracy is a balancing act. It's a balancing act between two different tyrannies: mob rule and aristocracy. Neither one is really fun and both should be avoided to the same degree whenever possible.-- Avenger
How optimistic.
An incoming government, upon discovering that it's predecessor has committed grave crimes, will launch investigations and hold the previous leaders responsible for their crimes. In theory, this keeps future governments honest and reduces the need for trials in the future.

In reality, the investigations will be used by the now disfavored party as "proof" of the new government's corruption and dictatorial tendencies. When they retake power (and they inevitably will), they will themselves launch a series of (now blatantly political) investigations and throw the previous government in jail en masse on trumped up charges.
-- Avenger
Only if by "reality" you meant "fictional scenario I just imagined in my head", which is of course the opposite of reality.
posted by delmoi at 7:34 PM on August 24, 2009 [2 favorites]


So, you see, to keep democracy from collapsing we have to make a few concessions to aristocracy once in a while, just as the aristocracy has to make a few concessions to the mob once in a while. We have to keep a certain level of aristocracy in play because otherwise the wealthy aristocrats and the useful idiots they control would just do away with democracy if they didn't believe that it served them somehow.

The other issue which you don't mention here is the danger of a concession becoming a precedent, and that concessions to power are not given back without a fight. Obama made a lot of promises about dismantling this power structure, but his actions are of an administration reluctant to let go of the power it has been given.

The Obama campaign made explicit promises not to carry on these practices, but the lack of accountability from an investigation which doesn't reach to the top clearly indicates that even clear evidence of war crimes, the most egregious and inexcusable behavior on the part of the most powerful people in the world is exempt from real consequences, and this sets the bar ever lower.

Nixon stepped down, because things were looking like he had no other choice. If Nixon's Watergate happened today, I'm not sure he'd step down, and he might well survive impeachment. The people in power are becoming less and less afraid to appear outwardly corrupt, and if nothing has changed significantly for the Republican Party the next time they come around, maybe give it 10-20 years, do you think torture will be as bad as it gets? Or where will we set the bar then?
posted by krinklyfig at 7:42 PM on August 24, 2009 [4 favorites]


There were those of us around here arguing from almost day one (when it seemed a large contingent of people with incredibly short attention spans and unrealistic expectations were already vociferating about how President Obama had planned from the very beginning to quash any possibility of justice, and in particular, how there would never, never be any chance of a special prosecutor appointment to investigate the issue) that it would be politically stupid and in fact counter to the cause of justice to pursue an investigation in the reckless, open-ended fishing-expedition-fueled-by-righteous-outrage way many were suggesting.

We argued the administration was, and absolutely should be, taking a much longer term approach to the issue, building a case for investigations and prosecutions with special care and attention to the finer points of the legal issues involved and leaving nothing--absolutely nothing--to chance, given the highly politicized state America is already in. You only get one chance to prosecute a case like this, and it's an extraordinarily difficult one to make, because the entire legal system is slanted heavily toward giving the state the benefit of the doubt, and dismissing any actions that even hint at being politically motivated.

To me, this is vindication. This is exactly what I've been saying would and should happen all along.

As far as I'm concerned, my record on calling these things in advance is still at least around 80--90%, and as for you more cynical motherfuckers, you can just go hang out with your fellow geniuses, parsing out all the nuances of how Obama is screwing the world up, over here on Google's Dow Jones discussion board. You'll fit right in.
posted by saulgoodman at 7:50 PM on August 24, 2009 [2 favorites]


But Holder managed to get the go-ahead.

The AG Doesn't need a "Go Ahead".


Really? "Executive officers" serve at the pleasure of the President, so as a practical matter they only undertake major policy decisions that the President approves [1][2]. So when something sensitive and important comes up, the AG does need the President's go-ahead.

It's possible that the President has more directive and prohibitive powers over the AG; I'm not sure. But he's the boss, and his public ambivalence about investigating Bush crimes suggests he may have been holding back the investigation.
posted by grobstein at 7:57 PM on August 24, 2009


Humanzee's point about Batman is classic. It as if the Caped Crusader has become, more and more, just a special kind of thug.

The cruelty and borderline personality are a big part of the Batman character that hasn't really appeared in the TV or movie versions much. A little in the last one.

Batman is supposed to be a hair away from psychopathy. I expect his character to torture people, in the same way he's exactly the kind of "hero" that would be up for war crimes.

I won't mind if the movies touch those depths. It's the way that is transferred to shiny "superhero" Batman (TV, Golden Age comics, cheesy movies) that causes the problem, maybe.
posted by rokusan at 8:05 PM on August 24, 2009


Also: As Zachary Roth at TPMuckraker points out, Holder's official statement on the appointment--despite the reports to the contrary in that paragon of journalistic integrity, the Washington Post--clearly does not rule out a broader investigation into abusive interrogation practices including even legal advisers, private contractors, CIA officials acting independently, and high level Bush officials.

And yet, based on an unsubstantiated embellishment in a journalistic rag that should be infamous by now for its susceptibility to political manipulation after its coverage in the run-up to the Iraq war, there seems to be a general assumption on the part of many participants in this thread that the investigation will be limited in scope to preclude any prosecutions of higher officials. I say bullshit. I say it is exactly what Holder says it is: They're opening an investigation and they will eventually bring whatever prosecutions are necessary and that the evidence will bear.
posted by saulgoodman at 8:10 PM on August 24, 2009


"How is that democracy?"

copypasta Republic pedantry
posted by klangklangston at 8:34 PM on August 24, 2009


saulgoodman, I really, really hope you're right. But this text from the announcement, taken from your link, doesn't encourage me:
That is why I have made it clear in the past that the Department of Justice will not prosecute anyone who acted in good faith and within the scope of the legal guidance given by the Office of Legal Counsel regarding the interrogation of detainees. I want to reiterate that point today, and to underscore the fact that this preliminary review will not focus on those individuals.

I share the President's conviction that as a nation, we must, to the extent possible, look forward and not backward when it comes to issues such as these. While this Department will follow its obligation to take this preliminary step to examine possible violations of law, we will not allow our important work of keeping the American people safe to be sidetracked.


John Yoo worked in the Office of Legal Council. In principle, they could immunize those who followed Yoo's advice, while investigating Yoo himself. That would be difficult though, since they would be at once claiming that one could believe his advice in good faith, yet he couldn't have given his advice in good faith. You say that you predicted this a long time ago. Well, I expected this too. We won't find out for months who's right, but I really hope you are.
posted by Humanzee at 8:34 PM on August 24, 2009


I think they have to immunize people who followed official guidelines, Nuremburg notwithstanding (and what a horrific phrase to type that is). The working of the military and the Gummint is predicated on being able to follow executive directions ('orders' in the forces). The breakdown here was not that people followed orders which they shouldn't have (which did happen) but that orders that should not have been issued were issued.

'Just following orders' is a tough one because overall that's exactly what you want your minions to do. They have to have a pretty fucking excellent education in the legalities of warfare PLUS some kind of operating infrastructure for complaints and objections in order to effectively challenge an executive instruction.

I really hope this action is ultimately targeted in some gamesmanlike way at Yoo and his brethren.
posted by unSane at 8:44 PM on August 24, 2009


This strikes me as Abu Ghraib all over again. The people who conducted the interrogations are not the criminals here- the bulk of the responsibility lies with the officials who created the secret prison system and ordered and supervised the interrogations. Civil servants aren't lawyers, and they depend on their agencies' legal counsel to know what is and isn't legal.

I'm sure several of you are already composing outraged rebuttals to that sentence because you feel that the common articles of the Geneva Conventions are crystal clear and anyone remotely familiar with them should be expected to know that waterboarding, sleep deprivation, etc. would violate them. But the law really isn't that simple. IANAL, but I think anyone that reads AskMe, or even the news, regularly knows that the law contradicts common sense interpretations all the time, and I really don't think it's reasonable for non-lawyer civil servants to refuse to obey their orders because they disagree with their legal officer's analysis except in the most extreme circumstances. And there are tons of mitigating factors in this case, such as the fact that the CIA, as far as I know, hadn't done anything like this before, and thus there wasn't much or any established caselaw. And the fact that it was a very high profile effort in the executive branch, and the government's top lawyers had evidently concurred that this permissible, and in fact had helped draw up detailed descriptions of what techniques were and weren't allowed. And the fact that government was claiming that we were legally in a state of war, and who the hell knows how that affects the analysis.

In fact, this isn't just my own view of fairness and responsibility- always difficult questions- but an established legal principle called qualified immunity, which, as most explicitly defined in Harlow v Fitzgerald, holds that
government officials performing discretionary functions generally are shielded from liability for civil damages insofar as their conduct does not violate "clearly established" statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.
As I understand it, this basic principle hasn't been changed, although the Supreme Court changed some procedural aspects of how it is applied earlier this year. Again, I'm not a lawyer, but I'm pretty sure that whoever gets sued is going to invoke this in their defense. What's ironic about this case is that the CIA had contractors do the interrogations, mainly, I suspect, because contractors aren't subject to the Freedom of Information Act- it's a common technique the intelligence community uses to shield itself. But contractors aren't government officials, and although I don't think the case law is clear yet on this (the most recent Supreme Court case involving the issue I can find is Richardson v. McKnight, which denies contractors immunity but is explicitly narrowly construed to the details of that case) that decision could end up giving the victims an ability to sue that they wouldn't have otherwise had.

I'm sure many of you don't give a shit about any of this- everyone involved behaved monstrously and deserves to be punished, regardless of what the lawyers say. And I kinda agree, which is why I'm glad this is being brought (I also hope that this results in qualified immunity being denied to CIA contractors, so that the CIA has an incentive to use them less often, though I think that outcome is pretty unlikely). But I think that 90% of the blame lies with the lawyers- John Yoo comes to mind- who claimed that this program didn't violate the Geneva Conventions, which it most certainly did.
posted by gsteff at 9:06 PM on August 24, 2009 [4 favorites]


will not prosecute anyone who acted in good faith and within the scope of the legal guidance given by the Office of Legal Counsel

I've bolded what I read as the key words here. IANAL, but I've had a lot of professional exposure to legalese and other forms of technical writing (I spent three years working as a municipal legal code editor and have also performed extensive business analysis of state senate legal processes as an IT professional, for starters), and language tends to be used with a high degree of precision in those contexts. The bolded phrases are not just meaningless fluff; they're specific criteria for who will still be considered fair game, if the evidence pans out.

So Holder's statement, rather than offering an unqualified limitation on legal liability for those who carried out interrogations, actually says that anyone who carried out interrogations in a manner that could be judged not to have been "in good faith and within the scope of the legal guidance given" is still on the hook.

So if a legal memo specifically approved methods including "extended sensory deprivation" and one of the Blackwater thugs interpreted that as providing license to poke out a detainee's eyes, well, that can hardly be considered a "good faith" interpretation of the guidance. And rest assured, no official legal memo produced was ever careless enough to explicitly authorize any of the more egregious abuses that occurred. Those possibilities will have been left open for the abusers to deduce and assume liability for themselves in the most vague legal terms possible.

However, to the extent even these intentionally vague legal memos offer counsel inconsistent with US law, it should be possible to follow the liability up the chain as well. Holder and Co. must believe they have a reasonable shot at making the case going up the chain as well, or it would never have come this far.
posted by saulgoodman at 9:28 PM on August 24, 2009


haltingproblemsolved: "idiot in the Athenian sense"
Christ, have you tried these olives?

Every last bit of this is going to play as The Passion of the Dubya out here in Real Uhmuhrrica. He tried to save you all, but you had to point and jeer while he lugged his rugged cross.

I don't see a light at the end of this tunnel. If the trials are swift, they'll appear to be capricious; if it's a long, carefully-deliberated chess match, they'll just sit in the news for years on end, dripping on the spit, allowing anyone to make as much hay as they wish (CAUTION METAPHOR CONTAMINATION)

I keep thinking of Champthom's hot date at the movies. The methodology of this quest for justice, the outcome; none of it matters. Maybe it's the selection bias of living in the red zone; but to my way of thinking, we'd be a lot better off in the long run zapping the electoral college.

Hell, handbasket, you, my lawn, HERAUS.
posted by Rat Spatula at 9:31 PM on August 24, 2009


Just a few days ago, I was lamenting how every cheesy, violence-aggrandizing John Wayne western will get multiple mainstream airings throughout the year, no matter how B-movie, formulaic and two-dimensional the plot and characters. Meanwhile other quality films - films that actually evoke a consideration of what it means to be decently human - will go unseen by the public.

This is mildly tangential, but ties back into the main conversation thread: I'm not sure what you're expecting from people, here.

We've created a society in which people are barred from acting on many, indeed most, of their basic primal urges. The desire for arbitrary assault and village-on-village genocide lurks behind our politics and our ceremonies and our professional sports leagues; an irritant that we pile layers of social strata on until we've created a society we pretend is a pearl.

But those urges still well up from the bottom, sometimes, and people are going to find ways to fill the void in themselves. Films that evoke a consideration that for what it means to be decently human? Our real lives are soaked - supersaturated - with that shit every day. We can't escape it, and that's what entertainment really amounts to: escape from the reality that denies you the other half of the fundamental human experience. No mountain of intellect can bury this craving thoroughly enough to silence it completely, and our social and cultural moires are simply reflections of this limitation.
posted by Ryvar at 9:33 PM on August 24, 2009 [9 favorites]


Shorter Ryvar: You and me baby ain't nothin' but mammals, so let's do it like they do on the Discovery Channel.
posted by saulgoodman at 9:37 PM on August 24, 2009


Shorter saulgoodman: What Ryvar said.
posted by Rat Spatula at 9:42 PM on August 24, 2009


Also I am a mammal, and I approve these messages
posted by Rat Spatula at 9:43 PM on August 24, 2009


saulgoodman: "...it should be possible to follow the liability up the chain..."

I offer Iran-Contra as a possible model here: Reagan=Bush/Cheney, North=Yoo/Addington. The top of the pyramid is untouchable; the next row of bricks can get sent up for a few years, or dragged before committees, but they'll just end up with talk shows/blogging empires, and so it goes.

The comments above about Watergate being unrepeatable ring true; the actual crime of Watergate seems downright quaint by today's standards.
posted by Rat Spatula at 9:56 PM on August 24, 2009


I both agree and disagree with Ryvar. Our stories spring from us, but we are also shaped by the stories we consume.

Where are examples of how our daily lives are supersaturated with the "shit" of what it means to be decently human? I look around and unless I have specifically blocked it from view, all I see are news reports of homeless people being set on fire, photos of movie actresses' cellulite-laden backsides, and people carrying assault rifles to appearances by the President. The living of daily life has few good or noble truths to share, unless you count as "noble" the notion that humans are debased creatures who can never rise above our lizard brains long enough to form a friendly society.

I'm not in favor of turning all of our media into an endless ABC Afterschool Special, by any means. But when our heroes are as psychotic as our villains, when violence and torture and dehumanizing of the enemy is a standard form of entertainment, we cannot be somehow surprised when we end up with legions of public servants who believe that stacking naked prisoners for photographs is acceptable, who see themselves as an entire agency of Jack Bauers ready to extract the location of the mythical ticking bomb by any means necessary.

Resigning ourselves to ever-increasing societal chaos at the excuse of "we're animals and programmed that way" removes from us the privilege of being human, which is that we can rise above our instinctual impulses and make choices which allow us to draw together rather than descend into darkness.
posted by hippybear at 10:12 PM on August 24, 2009 [3 favorites]


Shorter saulgoodman: What Ryvar said.

Well, I, as a so-called mammal, do take some exception with Ryvar's argument, though I'm not completely unsympathetic to it. Here are the points on which I disagree, however (and I apologize this is so long for a derail, but I feel I have to clarify my own position, since it's been implied I share Ryvar's):

1) It's an oversimplification. We didn't just start doing this society thing recently; we've been engaged in the process of gentrifying ourselves for millennia. Many of us have gotten to be quite good at happily sublimating our more primal impulses; others among us have turned actively loathing them into an art form.

2) No category of experience is inherently any more or less fundamental than any other. Ryvar's argument is just caught up in the present cultural backlash against the excesses of the modern era, with its single-minded emphasis on the aesthetic experience and the sublime, a backlash which has among its many other annoying features engendered a ridiculous counter-emphasis on pseudo-authenticity or "reality" as depicted in gangster movies and other cultural output that in fact depicts reality and human experience as much darker than it is or ever has been (unless you focus exclusively on the extremes of a particular time and place).

3) It's just as fashionable now, as it was once fashionable to imagine mankind as the divinely appointed top of nature's pyramid, to imagine mankind as just another lower life-form (though this is an oxymoron based on a falsehood, since the whole idea of a hierarchy of life-forms depends on humans occupying a unique place in nature). The reality is, again, more complicated. We classify ourselves using the term "animal," a term we coined to describe a very vague category of more or less like things we decided should include us. There are other things, too, that we also classify using this term. Over the years, we've learned a lot about ourselves and about the other animals, but you could still fill far more books with what we don't know about ourselves and the animals than you could fill with what we do know. So to be making authoritative statements of any kind about "human nature," the "fundamental reality" of what's-it and who's-it, etc., seems just as misguided to me as to think we were specifically created to be God's most extra-special little snowflakes.

4) This kind of reasoning ultimately justifies anything, and so offers no moral guidance, which de facto rules it out as a defensible moral position. All moral codes and legal systems, all of it goes out the window in an instant if we seriously adopt this kind of "geez, what do we really expect out of people anyway?" approach to ethics. That would mean I'd be perfectly morally justified in whipping up a mob of blood-crazed zealots to round up advocates of Ryvar's "but we're just animals" school of thought and have them all summarily executed, effectively defeating the argument by brute force.

So the argument fails on a number of levels.
posted by saulgoodman at 10:21 PM on August 24, 2009 [5 favorites]


Huh. I read Ryvar's message differently; that our societal chaos derives from our refusal to accept that we're animals who are frequently not conscious of our motives.
posted by Rat Spatula at 10:23 PM on August 24, 2009


I was responding to hippybear but I was not fast enough. mammalian failian
posted by Rat Spatula at 10:24 PM on August 24, 2009


More that it's not our inescapable animal-ness that dooms us but our horror of it; our need to repress it.
posted by Rat Spatula at 10:25 PM on August 24, 2009


Eh, it's a start.
This and Glenn Beck losing sponsors put a smile on my face.
posted by Smedleyman at 10:27 PM on August 24, 2009 [2 favorites]


But as hippybear points out, and as I obliquely meant to suggest with my "nothin' but mammals" remark, we don't repress it. We revel in it. It's the leitmotif of our time and place in cultural history. We never seem to tire of pointing out new examples of how we're hopelessly in the grip of our animal natures anymore. Humanism has effectively died in the last two decades, replaced by a hollowed-out new orthodoxy that gleefully touts the inevitable triumph of brutal natural law over our best efforts to define order and meaning on our own terms.
posted by saulgoodman at 10:38 PM on August 24, 2009 [1 favorite]


SFA happened wrt Ollie North. SFA will happen this time, too. Same shit, different bucket: Obama is apparently not going to or is incapable of changing the system. It's going to take more than just a cool black President to fix the USA. Change is going to have to come from the grass roots.
posted by five fresh fish at 10:38 PM on August 24, 2009


I think all y'all are describing different aspects of the same elephant.

Where are examples of how our daily lives are supersaturated with the "shit" of what it means to be decently human?

I gotta agree with this point. If we are supersaturated with anything, it's advertising and simplistic comedy. Neither of those has anything particularly positive to say about being a decent human. Indeed, I find most advertising and simplistic comedy to be pretty negative.
posted by five fresh fish at 10:58 PM on August 24, 2009


hippybear: "We've been slowly programming ourselves through dominant media forms to accept torture since at least the rise of the action film in the 80s, if not before. In fact, I'm certain that 70s auteur films also showed the use of pain or near drowning as an effective method of questioning. And then you can go back to John Wayne and all the movies where he holds someone's head in a horse trough..."

Oh, come on. The torture thing—even specifically the waterboarding thing—is nothing new.

The whole idea that we somehow "turned into" a nation of torturers in a few short years, and that we were sparkling and clean and wonderful people to be around before that, is a load of shit. We've always been torturers—it's always been there, lurking just under the surface, waiting for the right amount of frustration and fear to rear its head again and again—and I've seen nothing to indicate that anything has really changed.

This whole controversy is essentially a replay from 1901, only we called it the "water cure" back then, and I suspect the result will work out to be about the same: the public will be disgusted, the practice will be officially forbidden, and a few token people will be punished. The technique will go back into the closet until the next time we run into an enemy that we just can't seem to reason with in normal Western terms, or otherwise fails to play by the accepted rules, at which point the buckets and cloth will come right back out again.

We've sworn off torture and waterboarding multiple times before; there's no reason to think we'll do any better this time around than in the past. That's not to say that we shouldn't disavow it, but that our disavowal should be placed in context, next to the long line of similar "never agains" uttered in the past. It should be viewed more as a barometer of the public's sense of security than anything else.

The Bush administration—or, for that matter John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, or Kiefer Sutherland—couldn't have stolen America's innocence in the way some people seem to desperately want to believe they did, because America was never that innocent in the first place.
posted by Kadin2048 at 12:55 AM on August 25, 2009 [3 favorites]


"Looking forward and not backward"

Here here! This is why we should ignore that Lockerbie bomber dude being released, for example! Water under the bridge! Bygones be bygones!
posted by Joey Michaels at 1:59 AM on August 25, 2009


It's "hear, hear" and maybe the "dude" was innocent. I am glad that the US is at least showing some rule of law at long last.
posted by adamvasco at 3:45 AM on August 25, 2009


The people who conducted the interrogations are not the criminals here- the bulk of the responsibility lies with the officials who created the secret prison system and ordered and supervised the interrogations.

The law makes no such distinction.
TITLE 18 > PART I > CHAPTER 118 > § 2441
§ 2441. War crimes
(a) Offense.— Whoever, whether inside or outside the United States, commits a war crime, in any of the circumstances described in subsection (b), shall be fined under this title or imprisoned for life or any term of years, or both, and if death results to the victim, shall also be subject to the penalty of death.
. . .

(d) Common Article 3 Violations.—
(1) Prohibited conduct.— In subsection (c)(3), the term “grave breach of common Article 3” means any conduct (such conduct constituting a grave breach of common Article 3 of the international conventions done at Geneva August 12, 1949), as follows:
(A) Torture.— The act of a person who commits, or conspires or attempts to commit, an act specifically intended to inflict severe physical or mental pain or suffering (other than pain or suffering incidental to lawful sanctions) upon another person within his custody or physical control for the purpose of obtaining information or a confession, punishment, intimidation, coercion, or any reason based on discrimination of any kind.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 4:10 AM on August 25, 2009


gsteff: ...the CIA, as far as I know, hadn't done anything like this before
This is what the CIA does. See for instance, MK-ULTRA.

Also, qualified immunity shields from civil liability, not criminal charges.
posted by Humanzee at 5:34 AM on August 25, 2009


Obama is careful and methodical, and it's no surprise his Administration is as well. I know this isn't the against-the-wall moment everyone was clamoring for, but this is much better. Even if there isn't a single conviction that sticks, even if everyone is pardoned - there will be no stone unturned, no slime-pit with its scummy rind left unpeeled. Everything is coming out, and will be coming out under oath and on record.

This will likely take years... careful and methodical... but it will destroy the reputations and careers of the bastards in the end. That's far more satisfying to me.
posted by Slap*Happy at 5:56 AM on August 25, 2009


But as hippybear points out, and as I obliquely meant to suggest with my "nothin' but mammals" remark, we don't repress it.

Again, I may be suffering from selection bias, but I don't think the pendulum has swung the way you think it has. I think there are a lot of people who still see mankind as the "divinely appointed top of nature's pyramid" (drill baby drill). Certainly, too, there are cultural expressions of animal nature (Grand Theft Auto, heavy metal, sword-and-sandal flicks, the rap music, etc.) that bear out the other, nihistic view.

But I think you kind of mistook what Ryvar was saying, and what I was agreeing with in his statement, and ran with it; I don't see Ryvar saying "we're just animals, so fuck even trying," and I'm not trying to say that either. (I took your quoting of that dumb dance song as a kind of philosophical end-zone celebration, whereas you apparently meant it as a pointy stick.)

It may well be that we're not merely animals, but what Ryvar says about tribal nature is true. It's the very thing that blunts reason in arguments like this. Try explaining your viewpoints on the comment board on my local newspaper website, and see how far you get.

posted by Rat Spatula at 7:20 AM on August 25, 2009


it will destroy the reputations and careers

Either you're too optimistic, or I'm too jaded. I hope it's me.
posted by Rat Spatula at 7:24 AM on August 25, 2009


It may well be that we're not merely animals, but what Ryvar says about tribal nature is true. It's the very thing that blunts reason in arguments like this. Try explaining your viewpoints on the comment board on my local newspaper website, and see how far you get.

Ah, I see. Well I definitely don't disagree with that. But I've also heard of sociological/psychological research (sorry; no cites--so take that with a grain of salt) that suggests positive appeals to people's sense of reason, fairness, and humanistic values in general actually can work to help overcome people's unconscious tribal impulses and implicit biases. You mention the recent Christian resurgence as evidence the pendulum hasn't swung; but the dominant forms of Christianity in America today are a far cry from the forms of Christianity that held in America in the 60s and earlier, or that still hold in Europe, which place a much greater emphasis on nuance, spiritual doubt, rationality, and complexity. The religious dogmatism we've seen recently, in my mind, represents a return to tribal ethics--a kind of reversion to medieval-style Christian superstition--and a collective turning away from the humanistic values and rational idealism that have made whatever modest achievements we've made in civilizing ourselves possible in the recent past.

posted by saulgoodman at 7:49 AM on August 25, 2009 [1 favorite]


a return to tribal ethics

And on the one hand, I want to agree with that; but on the other, I'm not so sure that much is new under the sun. The USA has, so far, a pretty consistent history of Biblical literalism waxing and waning, so although I find the current wave repellent, I understand that Mencken saw the same thing happen.

And it's undeniable that, even looking across those cycles, we've been partly successful at repressing some undesirable animal aspects; slaves were freed, women have the vote, we have welfare, etc.

But as Ryvar said, the animal urges still lurk. I fear the megachurches and the TV channels and the blogs, because I worry they will light mass-psychological wildfires. I worry about them the way the generation before mine worried about nuclear annihilation; this is the thing that keeps me up nights, the idea that we've created this huge machine that spreads emotions like a rampant virus.

And when people's minds are weakened by other factors, as they are today (joblessness, health-care worries, children overseas shooting guns), they will be both more easily swayed and more thirsty for certainty. And I think a certain "I'm-okay-you're-okay-and-nobody-knows-why" attitude about our animal sides would help temper that. If I have a headache, sometimes I snap at Mrs. Spatula (animal). I can apologize (rational), but I can't honestly promise to never do it again. But I think lots of people are just incapable of honestly forgiving themselves for that kind of thing. As you point out, they either say, "Ah, the hell with it, why even try anymore," or they go through a formalized cleansing ritual that allows them to wash their hands of it completely (but they'll just have to do it again seven days later).

Okay, this derail is really starting to kill my eyes, and I don't think we actually disagree about much, if anything.


Go get 'em, Sheriff Holder. Hang the bastards high.
posted by Rat Spatula at 8:15 AM on August 25, 2009


it is agreed.
posted by saulgoodman at 8:31 AM on August 25, 2009


Now, back to the real issue. Can I contact the new DOJ investigator to seek legal redress against my local doctor's office and nearly every local restaurant for their complicity in the Bush administration torture regime for their refusal to play anything but Fox News 24/7 on their ubiquitous flat-panel TV screens? Surely that also constitutes a violation of some section of the Geneva Conventions?
posted by saulgoodman at 8:36 AM on August 25, 2009


Kadin2048: the difference this time is, the public supports "the water cure" and other forms of torture and abuse. They are not disgusted by it. They want to see the "bastards who did this to us" suffer at the hands of our agents. This is a change, and I find it deplorable.
posted by hippybear at 9:16 AM on August 25, 2009


saulgoodman: You might want to just buy one of these little beauties. Works like a charm.
posted by hippybear at 9:20 AM on August 25, 2009


> Kadin2048: the difference this time is, the public supports "the water cure" and other forms of torture and abuse. They are not disgusted by it. They want to see the "bastards who did this to us" suffer at the hands of our agents. This is a change, and I find it deplorable.

"Right or wrong, I think the average American assumes that some rough stuff goes on behind the scenes and that's okay."
posted by The Card Cheat at 9:50 AM on August 25, 2009


This is a change

This is exactly where you lose me.
posted by Rat Spatula at 9:57 AM on August 25, 2009


The Card Cheat: Citing an op-ed published in an arch-conservative (some would even argue crypto-fascist) mouthpiece doesn't even come close to evidence of anything. I could easily point you to thousands of whole books written to decry acts of torture, well-funded political and social organizations whose sole raison-d'etre is to raise awareness of and combat dehumanizing and brutalizing practices like torture. Not to mention codified domestic and international law which explicitly forbid torture.

During WWII, it's been widely reported and in many cases independently verified that German and Japanese troops were more willing to surrender to American forces because they knew they wouldn't be tortured during their captivity. That's how deep the changes in American policy went when they finally did come.

Have there been abuses in America's past? Sure. Native American resettlement. Slavery. Teddy Roosevelt's Water Cure. We've been through many dark periods as a nation, but we've always held out hope in achieving a higher ideal. And in more recent American history, we've made great strides in this particular area of human rights, adopting regulations to prevent prisoner abuse and other human rights violations. (Hell, we didn't even have decent labor laws back in the Spanish and Philippine War era, so why would we have effectively prohibited torture, to anticipate that worn-out red herring?)

We have been making slow but steady progress as a nation, and under Bush we began backsliding in the worst possible way. No, America is not a nation whose innocence was despoiled by Bush; it's more like a nation trying to recover from alcoholism. And when 9-11 hit, instead of sitting down to talk and reassure us during that stressful time over a cup of coffee, Bush just took the easy route and offered to buy us all a round of the stiffest drinks in the house.
posted by saulgoodman at 10:21 AM on August 25, 2009 [2 favorites]


Re the Philippines campaign:
During a triumphal U.S. speaking tour General Frederick Funston, bearing a Congressional Medal of Honor and harboring political ambitions, bellicosely promoted total war. In Chicago he boasted of sentencing 35 suspects to death without trial and enthusiastically endorsed torture and civilian massacres. He even publicly suggested that anti-war protestors be dragged out of their homes and lynched.

Funston's words met far more applause than criticism. In San Francisco he suggested that the editor of a noted anti-imperialist paper “ought to be strung up to the nearest lamppost.” At a banquet in the city he called Filipinos “unruly savages” and (now) claimed he had personally killed fifty prisoners without trial. Captain Edmond Boltwood, an officer under Funston, confirmed that the general had personally administered the water cure to captives, and had told his troops “to take no prisoners.”
The public was certainly not universally disgusted by allegations of torture (or even outright calls for genocide in the runup to the war), and Roosevelt's censure of Funston was an adroit and politically expedient move against an adversary who was attempting to challenge his pro-war bona fides at the same time Roosevelt was under pressure from the Anti-Imperialist league on the left.
[Marine Commander Tony] Waller was acquitted because he followed the orders [“I want no prisoners. I wish you to kill and burn, the more you kill and burn the better it will please me”] of Smith, and later retired with two stars. “Howling Jake” Smith was convicted, but he returned to a tumultuous citizens' welcome in San Francisco.
We were never as nice as we like to remember ourselves as being.
posted by Kadin2048 at 10:49 AM on August 25, 2009 [4 favorites]


From your link, Kadin2048:
The water cure became front-page news when William Howard Taft, appointed U.S. Governor of the Philippines, testified under oath before Congress and let the cat out of the bag. The “so called water cure,” he admitted, was used “on some occasions to extract information.” The Arena, an opposition paper, called his words “a most humiliating admission that should strike horror in the mind of every American.” Around the same time as Taft's admission a soldier boasted in a letter made public that he had used the water cure on 160 people and only 26 had survived. The man was compelled by the War Department to retract his damaging confession.
If the American public has a long history of tacitly approving of the use of torture, as you've cynically suggested, why would Taft's testimony have merited front-page news coverage at all? Why would the War Department have considered the soldier's statement on his own role in administering the water cure damaging enough to force him to retract it?

This evidence doesn't prove your claim in the slightest. It in fact proves the contrary: That as a nation, even historically, the American people have opposed torture. Otherwise, revelations of the state employing abusive techniques wouldn't be politically damaging enough to merit cover-ups.
posted by saulgoodman at 10:59 AM on August 25, 2009


I suspect that both can actually be said to be true.
posted by Artw at 11:11 AM on August 25, 2009


Because the public wasn't of one mind on the issue. It was as controversial then as it was in 2003, which is the whole point I was making.

The 'water cure' became a political issue, and was tacitly (or not-so-tacitly, as in the case of Funston) supported by the expansionist pro-war crowd, and decried by the Anti-Imperialist league and others who felt the war had been a mistake from the beginning.

The article goes a bit far when it says that Taft "let the cat out of the bag" in his testimony; the cat was very much out and about and roaming the pages of the NYT by early 1901, but was simply ignored. The issue didn't grow legs for almost another year, during which public support for the war decreased and the Anti-Imperialists began to gain support.

Historical dickering aside, the point is that significant segments of the US population supported torture after it became front-page news and a political football, seriously undermining the claim that the controversy and defense of waterboarding by the CIA is unique in our history. I think that your analogy—"America is not a nation whose innocence was despoiled by Bush; it's more like a nation trying to recover from alcoholism"—has much merit.
posted by Kadin2048 at 11:51 AM on August 25, 2009


We only investigate important stuff, and allocate resources based on how important they are.

9/11 Commission [+]: 1 year, 9 months. $15 million.

Whitewater investigation [+]: 6 years, 8 months. $60 million.
(not adjusted for inflation)
posted by kirkaracha at 12:19 PM on August 25, 2009 [8 favorites]


Where is your cite for that claim (the claim that "significant segments of the US population supported torture after it became front-page news")? I don't see that claim anywhere in your original cite, nor in any of your related links.

I see the claim that the public might have grudgingly accepted it, and an interpretation equating that with approval--but even that source claim isn't supported by any hard data, just a few colorful anecdotes like the one about the public event where a General boasted to fellow war boosters about using torture. The same source also notes that the general and other colleagues were successfully prosecuted for war crimes (though they did get away with a slap on the wrists).

As I argued originally, we eventually did make significant progress in the years after the abuses in the Philippines came to light. You haven't provided any evidence at all to make me reconsider that position.
posted by saulgoodman at 12:23 PM on August 25, 2009


I'd love to believe that this is going to do some good - but in fact I believe this is going to be worse than nothing.

The current plan looks as if they're going to prosecute only people who went beyond Woo's torture memos. I'd be really, really surprised if anyone who actually ordered the torture was prosecuted.

When the dust settled, the US will then have case law that essentially says, "If some Justice Department lawyer writes a memo saying some activity is legal, then it is."

In other words, torture will become legal - as long as you don't go past the Woo memos - or whatever horror some future Republican lawyer comes up with.

Someone mentioned that it's a sign of a functioning democracy for an incoming administration not to try to put the last one in prison.

A system where rulers are not subject to laws - surely this is the reverse of a democracy, where all people are equal under the law?

Surely the people in command should be held to a higher standard of integrity, if anything?

Look at the countries whose leaders are completely not subject to the rule of law - North Korea, Zimbabwe, Turkmenistan for example. Are these desirable examples to follow?
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 12:49 PM on August 25, 2009


Case law is made when cases are brought. Choosing not to prosecute doesn't have any affect on precedent.
posted by empath at 1:10 PM on August 25, 2009


If like most people you haven't, please read Holder's actual statement, lupus. Office of Special Legal Counsel officials like Yoo are nowhere held to be above investigation. It's really bewildering to me how, all on the basis of an unnamed source cited by the WaPo ("unnamed administration source," after all, being a synonym for someone going around the administration on a particular issue, who most likely doesn't represent the official position), so many people are echoing dubious claims about predetermined limits on the scope of any potential future prosecutions.

Nowhere does the sole official source of information about the investigation at this stage make any mention of limiting the potential legal liability attached to any detainee abuses discovered, except in the case of the interrogators themselves (which the statement notes will not be held liable if they were acting in "good faith and within the scope of legal counsel"). If anything, the statement makes it clear the likeliest potential targets are those who constructed the legal justifications for torture.
posted by saulgoodman at 1:10 PM on August 25, 2009 [1 favorite]


Juan Cole : Congress Needs to Pass some Laws on controversial issues . Although administrations do break laws, I think if Congress had had the courage and the energy to actually enact clear statutes on torture, the CIA interrogators would have been much better served.
posted by adamvasco at 1:10 PM on August 25, 2009 [1 favorite]


Specifically, I'm basing that on the reception both Funston ("far more applause than criticism") and Smith ("returned to a tumultuous citizens' welcome" post-conviction) got from the public. Funston is really the more interesting of the two, because he was being actively used by the Roosevelt administration as PR tool to drum up renewed support for the war.

In fact, it seems as though he got censured by the Roosevelt administration not specifically because he was bragging about how many Filipinos he'd murdered or tortured, but because he shot his mouth off and accused Senator Hoar of Massachusetts (an Anti-Imperialist) of having an "overheated conscience." It was this statement that caused TR to tell him to stop bringing up the "Philippine question" in public.

Also interesting is the Times' editorial on Filipino torture, which while condemning the practice does so quite weakly. (And it is interesting to note how similar it is to many things that you could find not too long ago on various blogs.) Obviously the Times felt the need to walk a very fine line; not something I'd imagine they would have done if there had existed universal condemnation of the practice.

I suspect you could find more direct and vociferous defenses of torture in the archives of a West Coast paper, particularly one out of San Francisco, as they seem to be the ones most often implicated as propaganda outlets for the expansionists. But at the very least it's easy to infer that the "Philippine question" was a controversial one at the time, and the practitioners of torture had no shortage of defenders and at least in Funston's case, went on to have long (if controversial) careers in public service afterwards.
posted by Kadin2048 at 2:17 PM on August 25, 2009 [2 favorites]


You can selectively filter human cultural noise to find evidence of any kind of pattern you want to find. Again, I could also present you with large groups of vociferous protesters, publications, etc., all condemning torture. Your pessimism is a knee-jerk response until you can provide me with some hard data to back it up. How many torture advocacy books were published at the time? How many articles written talking up the benefits of torture as state policy? Without anything more than anecdotal evidence and a willingness to see only the worst in human nature, you don't have a case; just a chip on your shoulder.
posted by saulgoodman at 2:32 PM on August 25, 2009


> The Card Cheat: Citing an op-ed published in an arch-conservative (some would even argue crypto-fascist) mouthpiece doesn't even come close to evidence of anything.

Argh. I didn't mean to imply that I was on Jonah Goldberg's (or National Review's) side on this (or any other, really) issue...the link was just pointing to someone who is attempting to claim that there's been some sort of U.S.-wide sea change in attitudes towards torture. Should have been clearer about that.
posted by The Card Cheat at 4:28 PM on August 25, 2009


Dick Cheney repeatedly defended the Bush Administration's torture policy by claiming that CIA interrogation records, if released, would show that valuable, life-saving intelligence had been extracted by using "Enhanced Interrogation Techniques". After the Republican defeat in November, Cheney went so far as to encourage declassification of the reports. Well, as part of the current investigative process, some of those records have indeed been released. It shouldn't surprise anyone that Cheney was, in fact, lying.
posted by Bora Horza Gobuchul at 4:39 PM on August 25, 2009 [3 favorites]


"Right or wrong, I think the average American assumes that some rough stuff goes on behind the scenes and that's okay."

The Law and Pop Culture Morality
posted by homunculus at 6:33 PM on August 25, 2009


Seven Points on the CIA Report
posted by homunculus at 6:34 PM on August 25, 2009


Again, I could also present you with large groups of vociferous protesters, publications, etc., all condemning torture.

I'm sure you could. You wouldn't even have to look very far; Mark Twain wrote extensively against imperialism in general and on the Philippine annexation and torture in particular during the period. I was never arguing that torture or even the Philippine War in general weren't hotly debated; in fact quite the opposite—the point I was getting at was that it was controversial. That controversy implies people on both sides of the issue; on one hand you had Funston and Smith, on the other you had Mark Twain and the various Senators of the Anti-Imperialist League. Somewhere in the center you had people like Roosevelt and Taft.

I'm not sure why we're arguing, because I never had an issue with your characterization of torture's place, historically. What I objected to, and still think is myopic, is the idea that the current controversy over torture is unique, and that Bush "turned us into" a nation of torturers when we weren't before, or that there weren't people willing to defend torture in the past. (It was originally in response to a comment by hippybear, but I wasn't calling him out personally; it's an attitude that I've seen around a lot, both on Metafilter and elsewhere.) It's not, he didn't and there certainly were.

In short, we've been down this road before.

You're correct, to some extent, that I am a "pessimist," at least in the sense that I am highly skeptical of 'social progress' claims (where 'social progress' is held to be some sort of distinct force from technological progress), and see little reason to believe that we won't be having this exact same torture debate in another few generations, or perhaps much sooner if there is another large-scale terrorist attack in the US. However, I do think it's interesting and notable that the 21st century torturers found it necessary to ship their victims off to secret prisons and get detailed legal opinions with which to defend themselves later, versus the much more unabashed and matter-of-fact torture that was apparently de rigeur in the latter part of the Philippine campaign. Perhaps this is just because soldiers in the Philippines in 1901 did not have to fear cameras watching them, but it might also indicate that there has been some progress made in the intervening decades. There is certainly a level of self-consciousness on the part of the modern-day torturers that seems absent in accounts of what went on in the Philippines. So maybe that's something.
posted by Kadin2048 at 10:40 PM on August 25, 2009


Getting back to current events, homunculus's linked Seven Points Harper's article is well worth reading.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 4:48 AM on August 26, 2009 [1 favorite]


Kadin2048: Actually, I never said anything about Bush turning us into a nation of torturers. What I said was, our media has, for any number of years now, depicted torture as an effective means to an end, and that these depictions have increased in the past few decades, and that I believe that it is this which has increased the acceptance of torture by our designated actors and agents in the minds of the public.

Whether you were calling me out or not, you didn't even really grasp what I was saying.
posted by hippybear at 8:47 AM on August 26, 2009


Kadin2048: Then we disagree, because I do believe in the possibility and reality of social progress (though it moves more like a waltz than like a congo line), but you're right, it's probably better a topic for a different. I only harped on it because I think it's also a position that the right would love to see more widely adopted, as it fosters only political inertia and cynicism about the practical value of even pursuing accountability in cases of such abuse. In other words, it's an attitude that when accepted sucks the wind out of the sails of any political movement to push back on torture, IMO, and that's why it's relevant today.

Kirth Gerson: Thanks for bringing things back to the present. Harper's is far from perfect, but that link offers a fine example of how good journalism, even if it is advocacy journalism, can still deal with controversies in a way that examines the concrete details of an issue with some degree of nuance, instead of just taking the interested parties' superficial political postures at face value and reporting that in lieu of providing substantive reporting, opinion or analysis.

Cheney has clearly already started working the press, hoping to steer public opinion in a direction that's more favorable to him in the event he becomes a target for prosecution. That, to me, is one of the most hopeful signs that this could eventually really go somewhere, because at the very least, Cheney's getting nervous.
posted by saulgoodman at 9:03 AM on August 26, 2009 [1 favorite]


damn. "it's probably better a topic for a different day"
posted by saulgoodman at 9:04 AM on August 26, 2009


Is half a torture investigation better than none at all?
posted by homunculus at 6:35 PM on August 26, 2009


The Washington Post's Cheney-ite defense of torture
posted by homunculus at 2:14 PM on August 29, 2009


Six Questions for David Cole, Author of The Torture Memos: Rationalizing the Unthinkable.
posted by adamvasco at 12:08 PM on August 30, 2009


Chris Wallace, A Teenage Girl Interviewing The Jonas Brothers
posted by homunculus at 12:44 PM on August 30, 2009 [2 favorites]


Get ready for a hell of a lot more necessary evil like this in the news, people:

Obama official disputes Cheney's interrogation claims

Cheney's right on cue, making the predictable charges of political motivation and persecution.
posted by saulgoodman at 12:52 PM on August 31, 2009


The Latest Euphemism From The Torture Party
posted by homunculus at 2:11 PM on August 31, 2009 [1 favorite]


Gonzales defends Holder's decision on CIA
posted by homunculus at 9:27 PM on September 1, 2009


Gonzales flip flops on torture investigation.
posted by homunculus at 2:21 PM on September 3, 2009


Ashcroft Can Be Held Accountable For Post-9/11 Wrongful Detention, Court Rules: Government Cannot Use Material Witness Statute To Unlawfully Detain People
posted by homunculus at 8:25 AM on September 5, 2009 [1 favorite]


Torture's Failure.
posted by homunculus at 2:25 PM on September 8, 2009


Taiwan ex-leader jailed for life

Now that's the way you do it.
posted by caddis at 6:02 AM on September 11, 2009 [1 favorite]


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