Heavily redacted, tersely written and a brutal marathon of odd euphemisms and acronyms, this is our political system in action. It’s the War on Terror, as well as a front row seat to the spectacle of our personal freedoms eroded in the name of “national security”.
It’s not very pretty. In fact, it’s quite ugly. But it is truly fascinating.
I am planning to make this a three part salvo on the Torture Report. In this first section, I want to explore the idea of federal surrealism, and identify the larger context of the Report. I will also list a series of observations, ideas, and questions which swirl around the CIA, torture, the Report, and government in general. In Part II, I will discuss the actual actions of the CIA and debate the efficacy and logic of torture. In Part III, will be a final review of the book, and I will explore the larger implications, discuss what should be done, and probably recommend that every honest citizen read it.
Borrowing from Grayson Clary’s article on the Report in the LA Review of Books (http://lareviewofbooks.org/essay/guide-federal-surrealism-fiction-american-intelligence-community), I approached reading the Torture Report as a work of “federal surrealism”. Federal Surrealism captures the paradox of governmental investigations and reports, especially of the goings-on of the “Intelligence Community” (a great example of the odd euphemisms that pour like water from Washington DC). What makes it surreal is that 1) the sheer detail and length serve to distract and hide from the main conclusions, 2) the redaction of nearly all nouns make sure that the people most responsible for torture will escape unpunished and unknown, 3) a lack of “big picture” thinking, wether moral or otherwise lead to a failure to actually understand what happened and why, and 4) the result is a utter lack to really condemn torture and the failures in our government and the Bush Administration that allowed torture to happen.
Federal Surrealism thus implies the weird philosophical quandary that these reports find themselves in. Ostensibly seeking to find and reveal the truth; they serve to mask individuals and governmental processes and instead signal the current way the political winds are blowing. Most telling is the simple fact that the Report never calls it “torture”, referring instead to “EITs”.
The other ‘great’ governmental reports: The 9/11 Commission Report and The Warren Commission Report into the Kennedy assassination, hopelessly associated with conspiracy theory and cover ups, are the other examples of “federal surrealism”, which comes complete with its own style guide and list of great writers of the genre (you’ve never heard of them).
Here is my list of ideas, which I assembled during and after reading The Report.
1. We need to keep in mind here the tension and ultimate philosophical chasm between the “spirit” of the law and the “letter of the law”. The CIA and DOJ and White House lawyers dream up arguments of necessity to find that the “enhanced interrogation techniques” are constitutional. Yet, while the US constitution does not literally prohibit “EITs”, clearly, CLEARLY, the spirit of the document prohibits such acts.
2. The power of the prevailing “political wind” or “political climate”. This is partly another term for peer pressure and peer group dynamics, but it also refers to the notion that there is a seething ocean of tacit understandings and permissions-granted given certain precedents and larger social signals
3. The sense of guilt and awareness exhibited by the CIA and the various individuals within the system.
4. To what extent is the how torture program motivated by a sense of revenge? A sense of “taking the gloves off”? A quest to expunge the very public failure of the CIA?
5. To what extent is the torture program an expression of futility and fear?
6. The curious interagency and inter-governmental fighting. The culture and power clashes between the FBI and CIA, the office politics within the CIA illustrated by the role of the Office of the Inspector General and its clashes with, say ALEC station (the part of the CIA tasked with Islamic extremism/terrorism/Osama binLaden).
7. The importance of “plausible deniability”. This plays out in multiple ways, from the role played by individuals in the Administration (how much did Bush actually know? I sense that he and his administration is shielded quite well in this report; it seems to be a very CIA only initiative).
8. The relationship between the Bush Administration and the CIA. Where does the torture program originate? Is this the CIA on its own? Or is the Administration the driving force behind it?
9. The philosophical paradox generated by a report that ostensibly attempts to report the truth, and yet, between the redactions, and the larger obsession with precision over any awareness of larger issues?
10. Relatedly, the idea that if you want to hide something terrible, you bury it in this day and age in a huge heap of boring detail, acronyms, and euphemisms. Distracting detail and just sheer boring.
11. To what extent does this report damn the CIA, and to what extent does this report shield the CIA?
12. What role does our culture play? What does 24 tell us about ourselves? Consistently, the CIA officers and “interrogators” speak, act and write literally like characters in a Tom Clancy novel. I do not think that this is a coincidence.
13. The role of private contractors, notably “the psychiatrists” who develop and advocate for torture. What does it mean when you have a company with 100% of its revenue from the government?
14. The historical reality that the torturers and the genocidests have a way of slipping away…these people are either shielded, or slip away. I cannot help but conclude that torture preforms some sort of social role beyond that of merely that of an “intelligence gather tactic”. It’s about revenge and power and fear and this is ultimately why the torturers are “excused”.
15. What are the rhetorical chains of logic which authorize torture? Are they true? For example: do I only feel comfortable condemning torture because I know that the CIA is there and doing its best, analogous to: “People sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.” – George Orwell
16. The simple ethics and morality of it all…and the weird notion that you can be sure to get the truth our of a prisoner, if only you can use the right (read: all) techniques on him; the conviction that the prisoner is holding back. But you never can; you can never be sure. Torture almost seems to be more about the torturer than the tortured.
17. The sheer incompetence of it all. Competence is always fine; it’s the criminal stupidity of torture that makes absolutely a catastrophe for this nation. Incompetence to the point where I almost think the CIA is a simple front and scape goat agency, so blank is my mind when I try to think of CIA successes.
Part II in the next few days….