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Brennan and the Whitewash of Torture


I have a piece up at the Prospect about the Brennan nomination:

I do not mean to suggest that the nomination of Brennan means that there are no differences between the Bush and Obama administration on civil liberties. Obama did ban torture and extraordinary rendition by executive order upon taking office, and this matters. Where Obama has failed, however, is in creating the institutional incentives that will inhibit torture on the part of future administrations. His failure to prosecute even the most egregious instances of torture under the previous administration sends an unmistakable message that torturers can expect not to be held accountable. Nor has the administration (or the Democratic leadership in Congress) shown any interest in hearings that would at least shine a public light on post -9/11 security abuses. The Brennan nomination fits in all too well with this pattern of denying accountability. One would think that at a minimum being a defender of arbitrary detention and torture would exclude someone from consideration from a job as important as head of the CIA

Sadly, the nomination of John Brennan probably does not signal any significant changes in policy; it is but another hum-drum example of the Beltway’s increasingly debased sense of accountability. A consensual affair may cost a prominent public official his or her job and trigger a major investigation, privacy be damned. But abusing human rights has no consequence.

I cannot tell a lie — Douthat’s take on the Brennan/Hagel appointments is actually largely correct. The political dilemma is that Bush’s security policy without starting hugely stupid and destructive wars and without the direct arbitrary detention and torture (albeit without any serious effort to hamstring the arbitrary detention and torture of future administrations) is a substantial improvement. But, to put it mildly, it leaves a lot to be desired.

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  • Malaclypse

    His failure to prosecute even the most egregious instances of torture under the previous administration sends an unmistakable message that torturers can expect not to be held accountable.

    To be fair, it isn’t like Brennan did anything remotely as awful as placing a laptop in a broom closet.

    • jeer9


    • Julian

      Don’t understand, sounds funny, please explain

      • Linnaeus

        It’s a reference to Aaron Swartz, and what he did to download academic articles from JSTOR, for which he was being aggressively prosecuted by the federal government. He recently committed suicide – if you Google his name, you’ll find a lot of material about him.

        • Julian

          I had read about him recently but the broom closet thing was over my head – strangely, a broom closet (if it figured in Swartz’s conduct) was not the most interesting thing in the story, so it didn’t stick.

  • Steve LaBonne

    What’s really discouraging is that the Bush-minus-the-wars approach is 1) clearly popular, and 2) perfectly calibrated to appeal to the short-term risk-aversion that forms such a large part of the mentality of nearly all politicians- no president will want to risk being blamed for a terrorist attack. (Just look at the shitstorm the right was able to arrange over a non-event like Benghazi). The combination of those factors is going to be very, very difficult to overcome.

    • david mizner

      Popular in the U.S. yes, deeply unpopular most everywhere else.

      And minus-wars is a bit of exaggeration. He escalated the war in Afghanistan long after it was lost cause (it was lost cause from the outset), costing who knows how many lives. You can argue that the Afghanistan surge doesn’t jibe with Obamism, that it took him a few years to arrive at his kill-from-faraway approach, but this is surely cold comfort to relatives of the victims.

      And then you have the low-level, dirty wars in Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen, and the war in Libya that he entered, a result of which is news today in Mali.

      • Steve LaBonne

        “Everywhere else” doesn’t get to vote in US presidential elections, so that doesn’t help with the problem.

        • Bill Murray

          not directly, but indirect fear mongering about evil others is still pretty dang popular

      • Ed

        Well, Obama ran on amping up the Afghan war, which was quite popular with liberals, so no one can claim to be surprised. In fact he was pounding the drums of war more noisily than McCain when it came to Afghanistan. (Speaking of the latter, I hope he gives Brennan a very hard time. Brennan is plainly lying and it would be nice to see him called out on it by somebody.)

    • DrDick

      I would argue that this really just reflects a return to the earlier (pre-1968) elite foreign/military policy consensus. It was only a brief period from roughly Humphrey to Mondale that the Democrats were not entirely on board with these kinds of policies.

      • Bill Murray

        and even in those times a fair amount of the Dem elite were on board with these policies.

        • DrDick

          Which is why I said “not entirely on board.”

      • You think there is an elite consensus about foreign policy today?

        The leading lights of the Republican Party would do another Iraq War in a heartbeat. Think back to the debate over the UN mission over Libya, or about the decision to do nothing to help Mubarak – how it cut across partisan divisions, with both opponents and supporters on the left and right. I think a better comparison would be to the Clinton era.

        • DrDick

          There is an elite consensus on a number of issues, including the ones under discussion. That does not imply that they agree on everything. The same was true in the 50s & 60s. The Republicans were much more hawkish than the Democrats, but everyone supported an interventionist foreign policy.

          • You think there’s an elite consensus about “enhanced interrogation” torture?

            Then why isn’t it happening, and why is there no appreciable outcry about it not happening? Are you saying you think Obama won, and the elite is more or less unanimous in supporting his no-torture policy?

            I think the political elite is as divided on that question as the public at large – just as they’re divided on Iraq-style wars, the value of alliances with allies like Mubarak or Musharrif, the UN, arms control, Arab Spring, indefinite detention of terrorism suspects and the majority of the foreign policy questions in the world today.

            The drone strikes, I agree. That’s one. There’s very broad support among both the elite and the public. Ditto Israel, and ditto the foreign policy element of the War on Drugs.

            But if you look a little deeper than “a number of issues,” and “an interventionist foreign policy,” and actually get into some detail: there was a much broader consensus during the Containment era than there is today. There are very few areas of consensus among foreign policy elites today compared to the Cold War era. During the Eisenhower years, Joe McCarthy and the ultras had to literally make stuff up to argue about with the Democrats, like “Who lost China?” or “How many Soviet moles work in the State Department?” As stupid as the arguments in Congress might be, they’re mostly about genuine disagreements.

            There is probably less of a consensus among foreign policy elites today than during the 1980 or 1984 election campaigns, if only because there are a lot more issues to fight over in the more complicated geopolitical and global security environment of 2012.

            • Bill Murray

              are you sure torture isn’t happening? just because it’s not official policy anymore is no guarantee

              • One thing we learned about torture during the Bush administration is that it doesn’t stay secret. Memos leak, orders leak, pictures leak, stories leak, victims and witnesses come forward.

                I’m sure there’s someone somewhere doing something bad. There’s probably a cop beating a confession out of someone somewhere in American right now. But since we’re talking about out political culture and a theorized elite consensus on torture, official policy is the relevant variable here.

                If there was an elite consensus about torture, we wouldn’t be talking about some bad apple somewhere.

          • It occurs to me that one possible answer to my question (If there is a pro-torture consensus among the elite, why isn’t it happening?) is that Obama really is standing alone again, like when he tried to close Gitmo and the Congressional Dems caved. Perhaps his personal opposition, and willingness to push back on the issue, is the only thing preventing a return to the Bush years.

            I hope this isn’t true, but I’m worried that it might be. As if presidential elections weren’t high-stakes enough.

  • patrick II

    I don’t think this country is politically ready to arrest a ex-president, vice-president and secretary-of-defense among others, on charges of torture. Then we really would have had a civil war. Half of the country approves of the use of torture. That is the effect of 9/11 and the politics of fear as practiced by the modern right wing and propagandized by right wing media. People have been so effectively terrorized that even a nut killing 20 children makes them cling more closely to their guns. Prominent right wing judges argue for toture — Scalia agrees Jack Bauer would do it and Pozner on NPR chastised his debate opponent for wanting to stick to the Geneva Conventions in this time of national threat and emergency — as if 20 guys with box cutters trumps the combined German and Japanese armies as threats terrible enough to suspend the rules of decency during war.

    I think Obama judged us incapable of holding the guilty accountable for their crimes. I think he is right. I think a patient assertion of individual rights and community over time will help get us back to where we should be — but we fight the tide of fear, ruthless capitalism, and propaganda — before we can restore trust and community.

    • Cody

      I, sadly, agree completely with you. I think it would be political suicide for Obama to have even mentioned publicly the intent to prosecute anyone from the previous administration.

      Obama is doing what the people want. That is his political mandate. It’s unfortunate that people want torture.

      I do; however, approve of criticizing this. I don’t really blame Obama for not doing more, but I can get behind pointing out how awful it is. (Which is what I think really happens on LG&M anyways)

      It reminds me of Guantanamo Bay. Obama failed to close it. No one would host the prisoners in their state. I can’t blame him for giving up. The political will is not there. Needed to elect more honest Senators and Reps for it to happen. Maybe he could have done more, but I understand politically it was a price too high just to allow Republicans to call him “weak on terrorism” some more.

    • tt

      What does this have to do with the Brennan nomination? The only two choices are arrest and hire?

      • patrick II

        You are right. I was speaking too broadly. Brennan sucks. However, Brennan has the trust of the CIA people who were involved in the bad acts of the Bush regime and have been afraid of prosecution. As a practical matter, we want a CIA that works, and if we were going after anyone it should be Bush, Cheney, et al.
        The Brennan nomination is balanced, I think, by the Hagel nomination whom I think of as a (to use some modern bureacratize) true change agent, someone who stands for much of what we can agree on is a more rational and humane defense policy.

        • Bill Murray

          I agree there is a problem if you don’t also go after the top levels, but why do we want the torturers still in a “working” CIA? If you don’t clean out the rot, the rot festers

        • Colin Day

          As a practical matter, we want a CIA that works

          Works to what end?

          • Stuff like this.

            Whether dumbasses with overinflated estimates of their own ability choose to ignore them or not.

            • Malaclypse

              There is stuff like that, yes, but there is also stuff like this. So asking about ends is perhaps not a bad thing.

              • I didn’t say it was a bad thing; I provided an answer.

                Did you like my answer? I think the CIA to ends like that. Your thoughts?

              • Er, “I think the CIA should work to ends like that,” that is.

                • “Should”, yeah. Who’s going to force them to?

                  Remember, you’re talking about an organization with an unimaginably deplorable history.

                • Who’s going to force them to?

                  The same person who “forces” the CIA to do everything it does: the President. The CIA is a creature of the Oval Office, and the “unimaginably deplorable history” was ordered by Presidents, not CIA employees.

      • What does this have to do with the Brennan nomination?

        Indeed. Unlike Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, or Rice, I’ve yet to see any direct connection between Brennan and torture, as opposed to “He was there” or “He said stuff.”

    • Murc

      I don’t think this country is politically ready to arrest a ex-president, vice-president and secretary-of-defense among others, on charges of torture.

      I’m usually a lot more of a realist than that, but I honestly feel like the answer to this is ‘tough shit.’

      Obama isn’t President of the PTA; he’s President of the motherfucking US of A. Nobody said the job would be easy or politically convenient. I didn’t expect him to prosecute the war criminals and banksters who walk amongst us as free men, nor to make whole (or, at least, allow their day in court) the people the US has wronged, but the fact that he didn’t do those things means he’s basically a failure as a President and a human being.

      I’ve defended a lot of the shit he’s done, on the grounds he’s hobbled by Congress, but this sort of thing is his job and his alone, and he’s failed grotesquely at it.

      • patrick II

        I would like to see those bastards in chains too — just not the civil war that would follow.

        • Bill Murray

          Can’t we compromise at all of them out of the government forever and not re-hired when there is less visibility

  • c u n d gulag

    Yes, sadly, by ‘Looking forward, not back,’ after W’s mis-administration, we can look forward to a future in this country when Human and Civil Rights may/will be seen as luxuries.

    And, since our Galtian Overlords walked away from
    ‘The Great Recession of their own making,’ not only without any jail time, but instead, with “Raises, and bonuses, for all!” that were involved, we can also look forward to a future in this country when Economic Justice will also be considered a luxury.

    The rich will get richer, the poor, poorer – and the rich can pay to spy on the poor, to make sure that nothing like what happened in late 18th Century France, early 20th Century Russia, and/or mid-20the Century China, happens here.

  • david mizner

    Good piece, although it’s not true that Obama’s EO banned extraordinary rendition.

    This caught my attention:

    The fact that Brennan has been nominated despite his support for some of the worst abuses of the post-9/11 security state demonstrates the appalling extent to which many of these practices have become institutionalized….

    This would seem to contradict your frequent claim that Obama’s continuing some of Bush’s terror policies hasn’t “instiutionalized” them. What am I missing?

    • Murc

      IIRC, Scott is usually referring to terror policies that both need Congressional as well as Executive action and are broadly popular with Congress. In which case, Obama is kind of (but only kind of) off the hook in terms of culpability for institutionalizing them, as responsibility falls upon the Congress.

    • Scott Lemieux

      that Obama’s continuing some of Bush’s terror policies hasn’t “instiutionalized” them.

      No, my claim is that they were already institutionalized. What I disagree with is the idea that ineffectual opposition means that they aren’t institutionalized.

      • david mizner

        I’ve often said that because Obama (with the support of many Democrats) has embraced some of Bush policies, they’ve become more deeply entrenched and institutionalized in our system. Do you agree or not?

        You write about “the appalling extent to which many of these practices have become institutionalized.” I’m wondering what you believe has caused these practices to become institutionalized to this appalling extent.

        • Scott Lemieux

          The fact that there’s never been any opposition to them that had any power.

          • david mizner

            And don’t you think opposition from the president of the United States would be reasonably powerful?

  • Joe

    The article says he defended “extraordinary rendition” when in fact the discussion has him talking about rendition, which is simply not the same thing. Also, we are told he finds it ‘vital’ to hand people over w/o due process, then are told the real problem is that he falsely promised that protections would be offered. Which is it?

    I’m not against any drone use at all & if that is your problem, focus on Obama, not Brennan. I’m all for demanding openness in the confirmation process here and he oversold it, to be sure, but unless we simply stop use of military force against terrorists, innocents will die. That is the nature of military force.

    I’m with the above comments about the American people not being supportive of prosecutions desired here. Blaming Obama is so very easy, especially if you snidely bring up the politically and factually perilous (if in the best of all worlds done) issue of prosecutions when addressing other types of prosecutions he does carry out here. Sorry. All stupid prosecutions like Clemens is not the same thing as torture as it is simply stupid to speak of them in the same breath.

    As to no accountability, is that really true? Did not a single person get in trouble, lose their rank, have their career affected or even get prosecuted because of mistreatment in various respects? Now, even a MOVIE suggesting torture was helpful gets negative attention. Executive action and other things might not have done enough to change ‘institutional incentives’ but would a few token prosecutions either?

    A few token — and a mass slew of them from Cheney down would simply not be likely — prosecutions of police brutality can be helpful, but they are go so far. I share the sentiment we did not do enough, but yet again, what we did is undersold. This too discourages positive action, I fear.

    • Whatever terrorist threat there is is tiny. We are not facing invasion or some similar threat that justifies endless war. The drone strikes fail any decent cost benefit analysis.

      • Libertarians write this way about Social Security. “Poverty rates among the elderly are tiny. Social Security doesn’t pass any kind of cost-benefit analysis.”

        Gee, why are poverty rates so low among people over age 65?

        • JG

          What would the terrorist threat be without drone strikes? Your “this argument is exactly like libertarians talking about SS” stance is precious beyond belief.

      • Joe

        “I’m not against any drone use at all” and being supportive of “endless war” and the program as a whole (as compared to EVER using them) … a lot of space between those things.

  • Jonathan

    Obama’s foriegn policy is just GWB’s except with more competence.

    • What countries has Obama invaded?

      What wars did Bush end?

      What dictators did Obama prop up when their people took to the streets?

      What arms reduction treaties did Bush negotiate? For that matter, what arms reduction treaties did Obama abrogate?

      When did George Bush ever defer to the UN, or even to our long term allies?

      • Bill Murray

        Technically, didn’t Bush end the Iraq war, just with a time scale past the end of his administration?

        What dictators did Obama prop up when their people took to the streets?

        He certainly did nothing to help Bahrain. I guess we’ll will have to argue whether this entails propping up. certainly the administration attempted to sell arms to Bahrain after the BICI report came out seems like propping up to me, although tecnically this was after the uprising in the streets was crushed

        • Bill Murray

          I should have included this in the Bahrain part of my comment http://www.scribd.com/doc/80385834/2012Feb2-Final-Bahrain-Letter

        • Technically, didn’t Bush end the Iraq war, just with a time scale past the end of his administration?

          No. I think his abrogation of the arms reduction treaties with the Russians tells us all we need to know about pieces of paper.

          Did you miss the whole argument throughout the entirety of the 2008 presidential campaign, which continued throughout the first three years of Obama’s presidency, right up until December 2011, about whether or not Obama should end the war and get the troops out of Iraq? It’s funny; I don’t recall very many people thinking that the end of the war was so pre-ordained during that time period. Certainly, John (Why not 100 years?) McCain didn’t think so.

          He certainly did nothing to help Bahrain.

          Most people would consider “did nothing to help” to be the opposite of “propping up.” Obama did nothing to help the government of Bahrain. That is quite a bit different from Bush warning about skeery al Qaeda terrorists during the lawyers protests in Pakistan, or the whole “Cold War Central America” thing.

          certainly the administration attempted to sell arms to Bahrain after the BICI report came out seems like propping up to me

          Not only was it after the protests were crushed, but the weapons on question had nothing to do with crushing protests. The issue of who we should military weaponry to, on ethical grounds, is a legitimate one, but it’s a different issue than what I’m talking about here.

        • Ed

          The Administration didn’t have to act directly in Bahrain, it had merely to turn a blind eye to various picturesque atrocities while the Saudis did the propping. Which the Administration was quite satisfied to do.

  • Incontinentia Buttocks

    Is the Beltway’s sense of accountability really increasingly debased? With the exception of the brief life of the Church Committee in the 1970s, has there ever been any serious accountability for the CIA in DC? Since at least the start of the Cold War, it’s been pretty much debasement all the way down.

    • Scott Lemieux

      Yes, I agree.

    • Bill Murray

      I think the CIA is a main reason for the debasement. It at the very least correlates well, as the CIA formed with the Cold War. and who wouldn’t want a secret army to do their bidding

  • Tracy Lightcap

    Well, it’s like I say in my book that I sent you: it’s pretty much impossible to prosecute the Bush administration bad guys. They are immunized, to all intents and purposes by the AUMF and the torture memos. When Bush authorized the suspension of the Geneva Accords and the OLC said that the techniques being used in “harsh interrogations” were not torture, the legal situation became too clouded for the anti-torture statute (which, I remind all, doesn’t cover cruel, inhumane, and degrading treatment) to cut much ice. This leaves aside also the obvious problem of prosecuting people whose defense would be that they were foiling al Qaeda. Gooooood luck with that. If we want to prosecute people for using torture, then we have to change the laws to make it easier to do so. Oh, and we might want to make it possible to sue them and their agencies pants right off while we’re at it. That won’t help with the Bush administration figures, but it will make it a lot stickier to contemplate torturing people under any color of law in future.

    Btw, two other points:

    1. I don’t think that torture is institutionalized yet. Like all informal institutionalization processes, the sanction given to torture during the WoT has now been withdrawn. It will become institutionalized, however, if we don’t take further steps to make it illegal. The research on this is clear; democracies can step back from torture, but it takes affirmative steps (again, passing some laws would help) to make that happen. The longer we let torture hang in limbo, the more likely we will be to do it again.

    2. It is true that people now seem to acquiesce more in torture. But this is a fairly recent trend. During the days when we were actually running large scale torture programs, public opinion was solidly against it. I think this is another instance of how public opinion is more of a barometer then a thermometer; when we have liberal presidents, opinion tends to run more in favor of conservative policies and vice versa.

    • Scott Lemieux

      Tracy — I still need to blog your book, but I agree that the Bush higher-ups were immunized. However, there were people who violated even these standards, and even they weren’t prosecuted.

    • Murc

      When Bush authorized the suspension of the Geneva Accords

      Presidents can do this? Just unilaterally suspend a treaty?

      • Tracy Lightcap

        What I meant was that Bush decided as C-in-C that the Geneva Accords did not apply to the Taliban/al Qaeda captives in Afghanistan. Iow, Bush didn’t suspend the treaty; what he did was decide that it didn’t apply to our captives. I should have been more careful in how I phrased this, but the upshot was the same. He claimed he had the power to do this due to the C-in-C clause and the AUMF and, imho, he had grounds, albeit shaky ones, for saying he did in Afghanistan. Not, however, in Iraq; that conflict is covered by Geneva all the way.

        Given the way the torture regime developed, however, the distinction was lost in practice. Since the OLC had blessed the “harsh interrogations” and accepted Bush’s declaration as lawful (thank you, John Yoo), all parties felt secure that they weren’t violating US law until Hamdi v. Rumsfeld came down.

  • I’m afraid Brennan IS NOT the problem. The problem is a society where the majority of its citizens as well as all political parties approve carrying out extrajudicial killings using drones.
    According to Pew Global, US citizens strongly support drone attacks: 62% approve, while only 28% disapprove. On the other hand, the level of support amongst political parties is as follows: Republicans (74%), Independents (60%) & Democrats (58%)


    Gart Valenc
    Twitter: @gartvalenc

    • Bill Murray

      That does not mean Brennan is not a problem, just not the only problem.

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