Fred Karno’s thugs

Was the CIA torture programme only a conspiracy of bunglers?

The Feinstein report on the torture programme run by the CIA is horrific but also blackly comic.
The Agency:

  • took crucial advice from two crank psychologists, James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, who were paid $81m for their services, including taking part in interrogations (NYT);
  • appointed as chief of interrogations in the renditions programme an oldtimer who had been responsible for abusive interrogation training in Latin America from 1983 (JW: possibly at the infamous School of the Americas) and later censured (executive summary, page 19);
  • carried out no research on the effectiveness of coercive methods of interrogation before applying them systematically (ibid., page 20);
  • waterboarded Abu Zubaydah 83 times after he had already cooperated fully with FBI interrogators (ibid., pages 24 ff);
  • had no complete record of the number of prisoners held in the programme (ibid., page 14) or in particular locations (page 51);
  • detained at least 21 prisoners that did not meet its own subjectively assessed criteria (ibid., page 16);
  • subcontracted 85% of the jobs in a top-secret programme of the utmost importance and sensitivity;
  • failed to brief President George Bush on its interrogation methods until 2006 (executive summary, page 6);
  • committed a war crime all for nothing; the torture “was not an effective means of acquiring intelligence or gaining cooperation from detainees” (ibid., page 2).

You have to think that none of those involved would have lasted long in the more efficient operations of Felix Dzerzhinsky, Heinrich Himmler, Tomás de Torquemada, or Francis Walsingham.

But I wonder. Feinstein’s narrative is one of bunglers talking themselves into a crime. In her Chairman’s introduction (page 2), she writes (my emphasis):

.. CIA personnel, aided by two outside contractors, decided to initiate a program of indefinite secret detention and the use of brutal interrogation techniques in violation of U.S. law, treaty obligations, and our values.

The White House, it seems, was a passive victim of CIA deception, like Congress. The report even paints Bush’s deliberate decision in February 2002 that the Geneva Conventions did not apply to future al-Qaeda and even Taliban prisoners as being taken on the sole recommendation of the CIA (page 20).

There is a similar theory about the Holocaust, and it’s about about as convincing. (No, I’m not suggesting the crimes were equivalent.) High-ranking Nazis sort of talked themselves into genocide, and the Wannsee conference was an important step in the decision rather than a briefing of underlings to receive orders. In a state guided by the Führerprinzip? In the disciplined Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld Administration?

The prime beneficiary of this considerate incuriosity does not want anything of it:

What I keep hearing out there is they portray this as a rogue operation, and the agency was way out of bounds and then they lied about it,” Cheney said in a telephone interview with the New York Times on Monday. “I think that’s all a bunch of hooey. The program was authorized.”

For once, I believe Cheney. He and Bush wanted the detainees tortured, and they were.

Author: James Wimberley

James Wimberley (b. 1946, an Englishman raised in the Channel Islands. three adult children) is a former career international bureaucrat with the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. His main achievements there were the Lisbon Convention on recognition of qualifications and the Kosovo law on school education. He retired in 2006 to a little white house in Andalucia, His first wife Patricia Morris died in 2009 after a long illness. He remarried in 2011. to the former Brazilian TV actress Lu Mendonça. The cat overlords are now three. I suppose I've been invited to join real scholars on the list because my skills, acquired in a decade of technical assistance work in eastern Europe, include being able to ask faux-naïf questions like the exotic Persians and Chinese of eighteenth-century philosophical fiction. So I'm quite comfortable in the role of country-cousin blogger with a European perspective. The other specialised skill I learnt was making toasts with a moral in the course of drunken Caucasian banquets. I'm open to expenses-paid offers to retell Noah the great Armenian and Columbus, the orange, and university reform in Georgia. James Wimberley's occasional publications on the web

8 thoughts on “Fred Karno’s thugs”

  1. You have to think that none of those involved would have lasted long in the more efficient operations of Felix Dzerzhinsky, Heinrich Himmler . . .

    Dzerzhinsky, maybe. When it came to conducting interrogations (as opposed to just being evil) the Nazis were every bit as much of an amateur hour as the CIA. Remember, this is an outfit that conducted a huge show trial of the supposed Reichstag arsonists and bungled it so badly that their own pet judge was forced to acquit; they never even realized that they had the head of the Eastern European Comintern sitting in the dock.

    1. Didn't the Gestapo get quite a lot out of maquisards and SOE agents in the cellars of the Avenue Foch? Supporting your argument, they doubled very few, like Henri Dericourt, and even that's contested. The British doubled captured Abwehr agents wholesale – by lawful threats of execution as spies, not brutality.

      You don’t challenge Torquemada. It was, I admit, after his period of office that the inquisitor in Cordoba, Diego Lucero, was condemned in 1508 by an internal Inquisition tribunal and removed from office – a slight punishment for a monster who had tortured and burned alive several hundreds of innocent victims. His real offence was that he had on his own initiative broadened the authorised attack on the conversos (Christians whose Jewish ancestors had converted under duress a century before) to powerful groups of Old Christians, who waged a long and ultimately successful campaign at court against him.

  2. "appointed as chief of interrogations in the renditions programme an oldtimer who had been responsible for abusive interrogation training in Latin America from 1983 (JW: possibly at the infamous School of the Americas) and later censured"

    You mean 'pulled a former torture manager out of retirement'.

    1. Touché. This was part of a long history, not something completely new. The oldtimer had got the tips out of a much older Cold War manual, perhaps based on the treatment of American prisoners in the Korean War.

  3. Can I just whine for a minute?

    I don't understand why, on basic matters of what ought to be verifiable fact, one way or the other, tv talking head types are allowed by journalists to just assert on-air that the CIA saved X number of people, exclusively by means of this torture? When we now have on paper that the CIA lied all over the place? (Though, to the credit of a few, it sounds like some of them actually felt bad about what they were doing.) To Congress, at a minimum. (Okay, I get that lying is part of what the CIA does. But they aren't supposed to lie to *us.*)

    Why doesn't the interview come to a complete halt, while the person is obligated to cough up the records behind this assertion? This bugs me. On The News Hour last night, I think Gwen did a pretty good job, but how come she didn't ask Mr. Ex CIA Shill, "so, why should anyone believe you?" You know, in a politer way than that. (Probably, she had to promise not to to get him to come on the show? Or, is that not ethical? But, even if it weren't, maybe you can't do a show on this topic without someone semi-CIA related at least showing up? So, she was in a tough spot I guess.) And I don't mean to beat up on TNH — love love love them. I am seeing it all over other places too.

    Also, it would be nice if someone reliable would read the darned minority report and tell me what's in it. I'm sure as bleep not going to. I am still scared to read that book about the Southern "justice" system during Jim Crow. That's nightmare stuff. But, I need to know what's in there, if anything. Don't we pay people to read it? I mean, I doubt the GOP has anything useful to say, but you never know.

    I find this very frustrating. If we don't ever nail down this issue, that is a problem.

    Meanwhile, The Daily Show last night was great. Very cute McCain puppet.

  4. Oh, and also, it seems to me somehow more fair if we only prosecute the middle and upper layers. As to the actual torturers … I am a bit on the fence. I'm sure they were told, "ticking time bomb…"

    Does this mean I'm a wimp?

    1. The prisoners talked. By about the 10th waterboarding it must have been quite clear to all concerned that there were not and never had been any ticking bombs. The theory was "can we be sure he hasn't told us everything?" This is an even better justification of open-ended torture than "we know he's a secret Jew, so his denials are just proof of his diabolical heresy, so we must continue until he confesses". At least the Inquisition and the Cheka stopped when they'd got the confession.

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