Belaboring the Obvious

Monday, June 08, 2009

Tortured logic....

Alfred McCoy has a new article up on torture, a subject on which he has been doing research for a long, long time, and he sees a goodly amount of continuity in this country's policies on torture over the decades, including Obama's recent actions on preserving rendition and offering guarantees to the CIA that there won't be any prosecutions of them, and thinks that the Bush era of torture is mostly distinguished by the U.S. government's willingness to do the torture directly, rather than indirectly, by proxy.

What McCoy suggests has larger implications--and not just legal ones. It may get to the core of the problems with the CIA, with the nature of secrecy in government, and with where we'll end up if we keep doing things as we do.

If we take the original arguments for the creation of the CIA and the national security state as a given--that its mission was to anticipate major events and advise accordingly--the CIA has been a spectacular and expensive failure. Within a very short time from its inception, the CIA was transformed by its leadership from an analytical operation to one that was intended to defend an ideology, rather than a nation, using methods that were just as reprehensible as those used by its totalitarian opponents. (This might be why the predilection of the CIA for right-wing dictators caused so little consternation within the agency--as long as those bastards were against communism, nothing they did or could do was truly unseemly.)

McCoy makes the point that the CIA has been intimately associated with and scientifically developing a program of torture almost from the start--back to the late `40s or early `50s. Even then, I suppose, someone had figured out that torture wasn't going to produce useful intelligence, and that the Chinese and Soviet methods on which the CIA's program was based were never intended to produce intelligence. They were, on the contrary, designed to do what torture has intended since the Inquisition--to extract false confessions and to force people to recant their beliefs. And, if one is defending an ideology, rather than a nation, that's an all-important task. Gathering and analyzing intelligence becomes of secondary interest.

Part of the motivation for torture certainly stems from mistakes made early on--Nazis spirited out of Germany under Operation Paperclip who claimed intimate knowledge of the Soviets were a generally corrupting influence on the CIA, and little useful intelligence came from them. In fact, in those early days, the Soviets had virtually shut down every spy network that the CIA tried to create (see Tim Weiner's Legacy of Ashes for details). The frustration and consternation at not knowing what the ideological enemy was doing must have been considerable, and may be at the heart of the ongoing intelligence failures. Unable to do what its charter mandated, the CIA simply created a new mission for itself--it became the defender of the melding of orthodox white patriarchal Christianity and "free" market capitalism, and the protector of the image of the United States. If torture has never worked to provide useful intelligence, there has to be another reason for the CIA's profound interest in refining the psychological techniques of torture over many decades, and for encouraging torture itself and for promoting it among allies and training allies in "enhanced interrogation techniques" (a phrase which sounds much more impressive in the original German).

McCoy is right to focus on rendition, since it is clearly torture by proxy. Frequently carried out by allies that are effectively closed states which permit no outside interference by human rights organizations, rendition provides suitable cover for the reputation of the United States, although much of the rest of the world isn't fooled. It's a practice meant to make us feel better about ourselves, mostly by saying we send people to countries which do not torture, but, in fact, they do (wink, wink). Otherwise, there would be no need to spirit them away from the U.S. criminal justice system and the restraints it places on prisoner treatment.

Long-term, the hypocrisy of the United States will become increasingly evident, and recognition of that by the rest of the world will serve to further erode our ability to influence the rest of the world diplomatically. Whether the current administration realizes it or not (and I suspect it does, and doesn't care), continuing the practice of rendition and refusing to acknowledge international treaties requiring the investigation and prosecution of torture and other war crimes are endorsements of torture, and acceptance of its practice by the United States.


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