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Wrist-slap and Tickle: Obama Goes Mild on CIA Torture
First published in Empire Burlesque earlier today, 25 August 2009
Even the very mild measures Obama has been forced into by the ACLU lawsuit must be making him a bit nervous. After all, the last president who made noises about punishing the security apparat is now lying beneath an eternal flame in Arlington Cemetery. These guys play for keeps.
The American political world is shocked – shocked – to discover that the CIA has been torturing some of the victims seized, kidnapped, snatched and literally sold into captivity by America's Terror Warriors. (Other captives have been tortured by the military, by hired contractors, and by various other organs of the security apparat.) This despite the fact that these tortures – including the threat to kill a captive's children – have been known for years, reported in the mainstream media and in several books by well-regard writers with highly respectable publishing houses. (I've been writing about America's torture regimen, in print and on-line, since early 2002, drawing almost entirely on these widely available sources.) None of the material now being released is "news" in the sense that it is new; but as always, it's nice to have one more source of confirmation for these already multiply-confirmed high crimes.
Of course, Barack Obama – who was forced to release some of the material by an ACLU lawsuit, and not because of his deep-rooted, progressive commitment to openness in government – has chosen to go the time-honored "rotten apples" route. Whenever a sliver of light is thrown onto the atrocities of the American power structure, our leaders – regardless of party or puported ideological stripe – always, without fail, seek out a few patsies to stitch up in show trials, to "prove" that the "system works," and can weed out the few "bad apples" who have left a tragic – but infinitely small – stain on America's unrelenting goodness. This is precisely what Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder, are doing now. Holder has announced a tepid probe into some of the possible "excesses" committed by a few CIA interrogators, while letting the true architects and perpetrators of an elaborate, deliberate, inherent system of torture get off scot-free.
Glenn Greenwald has many of the details here and here, among them the telling – and damning – fact that Obama and Holder have apparently decided that the "torture memos" prepared at the White House's order should be considered "settled law;" that is, only those agents whose tortures might have gone a bit beyond the already heinous tortures "allowed" by the White House memos are to be investigated for possible prosecution. As long as you stayed within the gruesome "guidelines" of the White House torture memos, then your atrocities are now to be considered "legal." This is yet another open reinforcement of the long-established covert practice of what we might call Nixon's Law: "If the president orders it, it cannot be illegal." As we have seen over the years, this includes the genocidal bombing of Cambodia, the waging of aggressive war in Iraq (which has murdered well over a million people), the "extrajudicial assassination" of, well, anybody the president or his designated minions care to kill; and the establishment of a world-wide gulag of torture and murder.
Greenwald also underlines a point buried deep in the newly-released Inspector General's report:
Greenwald and those he links to lay out the facts and the implications of the latest development well. (Salon's Mark Benjamin has highlights from the actual document here.) However, I must take issue with one of his main points. Greenwald insists that all Americans should be made to learn about the tortures outlined in the IG report, so they will "know what was done in their names." The apparent implication of this is that if the people know, they will rise up and demand that the true perpetrators be punished, without fear or favor, all the way to the top. This is a noble sentiment, of course, but I'm afraid that one can only reply to it as Brick did to Maggie the Cat's protestations of her love: "Wouldn't it be something if that were true?"
For the plain fact is that "the people" out there beyond the Beltway do have a good idea of "what's been done in their names." (As noted above, most of the damning facts about the American gulag have been in the public domain for a long time.) And for the most part they are fine with it. The Foxicated faction of the public – those tens of millions who live in Rupert Murdoch's overheated fantasy world -- enthusiastically embrace torture, of course; hell, they'd like to see more of it. To this large swathe of the public, it is the prosecuction of torture that is the atrocity.
As for the vast, amorphous, floating "center" so beloved by pundits and politicians, their reaction would largely echo Obama's own hand-picked CIA Director, Leon Panetta, who says we must be understanding of any possible "excesses" committed after 9/11, because, after all, our leaders were just doing what they felt they had to do to keep us safe in a very trying time. Maybe a few people went overboard here and there – and yes, maybe some of the policies themselves were misconceived, even foolish (like that invasion of Iraq thing) – but again, they were all undertaken in good faith, by leaders who, even if we might strongly disagree with them, were doing what they thought best for the country.
If the people have not already risen up in anger and protest at what has been done in their names, then a few more details from a heavily-censored government report dealing with only one small aspect of a massive, systemic crime is not going to move them.
As for Obama, he has always made clear his intention to avoid prosecuting his imperial forbears for anything. And he will doubtless do all he can to keep the plucking of bad apples to an absolute minimum. (That's assuming that anyone at all will actually be prosecuted as a result of the new probe.) But even the very mild measures Obama has been forced into by the ACLU lawsuit must be making him a bit nervous. After all, the last president who made noises about punishing the security apparat is now lying beneath an eternal flame in Arlington Cemetery. These guys play for keeps.
Chris Floyd has been a writer and editor for more than 25 years, working in the United States, Great Britain and Russia for various newspapers, magazines, the U.S. government and Oxford University. Floyd co-founded the blog Empire Burlesque, and is also chief editor of Atlantic Free Press. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This column is republished here with the permission of the author.
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This story was published in the Baltimore Chronicle on August 25, 2009.
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