[News] Do We Already Have Our Pentagon Papers?

Anti-Imperialist News news at freedomarchives.org
Fri Oct 19 11:21:32 EDT 2007

Tom Dispatch

posted 2007-10-19 10:51:43

Tomgram: Do We Already Have Our Pentagon Papers?

Bush's Pentagon Papers

The Urge to Confess
By Tom Engelhardt

They can't help themselves. They want to confess.

How else to explain the torture memorandums that 
continue to flow out of the inner sancta of this 
administration, the most recent of which were 
to the New York Times. Those two, from the 
Alberto Gonzales Justice Department, were written 
in 2005 and recommitted the administration to the 
torture techniques it had been pushing for years. 
As the Times noted, the first of those 
memorandums, from February of that year, was "an 
expansive endorsement of the harshest 
interrogation techniques ever used by the Central 
Intelligence Agency." The second "secret opinion" 
was issued as Congress moved to outlaw "cruel, 
inhuman, and degrading" treatment (not that such 
acts weren't already against U.S. and 
international law). It brazenly "declared that 
none of the C.I.A. interrogation methods violated 
that standard"; and, the Times assured us, "the 
2005 Justice Department opinions remain in 
effect, and their legal conclusions have been 
confirmed by several more recent memorandums."

All of these memorandums, in turn, were written 
years after 
Yoo's infamous 
memo" of August 2002 and a host of other grim 
documents on detention, torture, and 
interrogation had already been leaked to the 
public, along with graphic FBI emailed 
observations of torture and abuse at Guantanamo, 
those "screen savers" from Abu Ghraib, and so 
much other incriminating evidence. In other 
words, in early 2005 when that endorsement of 
"the harshest interrogation techniques" was being 
written, its authors could hardly have avoided 
knowing that it, too, would someday become part of the public record.

But, it seems, they couldn't help themselves. 
Torture, along with repetitious, pretzled "legal" 
justifications for doing so, were bones that 
administration officials -- from the President, 
Vice President, and 
of Defense on down -- just couldn't resist 
gnawing on again and again. So, what we're 
dealing with is an obsession, a fantasy of 
empowerment, utterly irrational in its intensity, 
that's gripped this administration. None of the 
we're shocked! we're shocked! editorial responses 
to the Times latest revelations begin to account for this.

Torture as the Royal Road to Commander-in-Chief Power

So let's back up a moment and consider the nature 
of the torture controversy in these last years. 
In a sense, the Bush administration has 
confronted a strange policy conundrum. Its 
compulsive urge to possess the power to detain 
without oversight and to wield torture as a tool 
of interrogation has led it, however 
unexpectedly, into what can only be called a 
confessional stance. The result has been what it 
feared most: the creation of an exhausting, if 
not exhaustive, public record of the criminal 
inner thinking of the most secretive administration in our history.

Let's recall that, in the wake of the attacks of 
September 11, 2001, the administration's top 
officials had an overpowering urge to 
the gloves off" (instructions sent from Secretary 
of Defense Rumsfeld's office 
to the Afghan battlefield), to "unshackle" the 
CIA. They were in a rush to release a 
commander-in-chief "unitary executive," 
untrammeled by the restrictions they associated 
with the fall of President Richard Nixon and with 
the Watergate era. They wanted to abrogate the 
Geneva Conventions (parts of which Alberto 
Gonzales, then White House Council and 
companion-in-arms to the President, declared 
and "obsolete" in 2002). They were eager to 
develop their own categories of imprisonment that 
freed them from all legal constraints, as well as 
their own secret, offshore prison system in which 
their power would be total. All of this went to 
the heart of their sense of entitlement, their 
belief that such powers were their political 
birthright. The last thing they wanted to do was 
have this all happen in secret and with full deniability. Thus, Guantanamo.

That prison complex was to be the public face of 
their right to do anything. Perched on an 
American base in Cuba just beyond the reach of 
The Law -- American-leased but not court-overseen 
soil -- the new prison was to be the proud symbol 
of their expansive power. It was also to be the 
public face of a new, secret regime of punishment 
that would quickly spread around the world -- 
into the torture chambers of despotic regimes in 
places like Egypt and Syria, onto American bases 
like the island fastness of Diego Garcia in the 
Indian Ocean, onto U.S. Navy and other ships 
floating in who knew which waters, into the 
prisons of the old Soviet Empire, and into a 
growing network of American detention centers in 
and Iraq.

So, when those first shots of prisoners, 
orange jumpsuits, manacled and blindfolded, 
entering Guantanamo were released, no one 
officially howled (though the grim, leaked 
of those prisoners 
transported to Guantanamo were another matter). 
After all, they wanted the world to know just how 
powerful this administration was -- powerful 
enough to redefine the terms of detention, 
imprisonment, and interrogation to the point of 
committing acts that traditionally were abhorred 
and ruled illegal by humanity and by U.S. law 
(even if sometimes committed anyway).

Though certain administration officials 
undoubtedly believed that "harsh interrogation 
techniques" would produce reliable information, 
this can't account for the absolute fascination 
with torture that gripped them, as well as 
assorted pundits and talking heads (and then, 
and other TV shows and movies, Americans in 
general). In search of a world where they could 
do anything, they reached instinctively for 
torture as a symbol. After all, was there any 
more striking way to remove those "gloves" or 
"unshackle" a presidency? If you could stake a 
claim the right to torture, then you could stake 
a claim to do just about anything.

Think of it this way: If Freud believed that 
dreams were the royal road to the individual 
unconscious, then the top officials of the Bush 
administration believed torture to be the royal 
road to their ultimate dream of unconstrained 
power, what John Yoo in his "torture memo" 
referred to as "the Commander-in-Chief Power."

It was via Guantanamo that they meant to announce 
the arrival of this power on planet Earth. They 
were proud of it. And that prison complex was to 
function as their bragging rights. Their message 
was clear enough: In this world of ours, 
democracy would indeed run rampant and a vote of 
one would, in every case, be considered a majority.

The Crimes Are in the Definitions

This, then, was one form of confession -- a much 
desired one. George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald 
Rumsfeld, and their subordinates (with few 
exceptions) wished to affirm their position as 
directors of the planet's "sole superpower," 
intent as they were on creating a Pentagon-led 
Pax Americana abroad and a Rovian Pax Republicana 
at home. But there was another, seldom noted form of confession at work.

As if to fit their expansive sense of their own 
potential powers, it seems that these officials, 
and the corps of lawyers that accompanied them, 
had expansive, gnawing fears. Given this cast of 
characters, you can't talk about a collective 
"guilty conscience," but there was certainly an 
ongoing awareness that what they were doing 
contravened normal American and global standards 
of legality; that their acts, when it came to 
detention and torture, might be judged illegal; 
and that those who committed -- or ordered -- 
such acts might someday, somehow, actually be 
brought before a court of law to account for 
them. These fears, by the way, were usually 
low-level operatives and interrogators, who were 
indeed fearful of the obvious: that they had no 
legal leg to stand on when it came to kidnapping 
terror suspects, disappearing them, and 
subjecting them to a remarkably wide range of 
acts of torture and abuse, often in deadly 
combination over long periods of time.

Perhaps Bush's men (and women) feared that even a 
triumphantly successful commander-in-chief 
presidency might -- à la the Pinochet regime in 
Chile -- have its limits in time. Perhaps they 
simply sensed an essential contradiction that lay 
at the very heart of their position: The urge to 
take pride in their "accomplishments," to assert 
their powers, and to claim bragging rights for 
redefining what was legal could also be seen as 
the urge to confess (if matters took a wrong turn 
as, in the case of the Bush administration, they 
always have). And so, along with the pride, along 
with the kidnappings, the new-style imprisonment, 
the acts of torture (and, in some cases, 
the pretzled documents began to pour out of the 
administration -- each a tortured extremity of 
bizarre legalisms (as with Yoo's August 2002 
document, which essentially managed to reposition 
torture as something that existed mainly in the 
mind of, and could only be defined by, the 
torturer himself); each was but another example 
of legalisms following upon and directed by 
desire. (Yoo himself was 
known by Attorney General John Ashcroft as Dr. 
Yes, "for his seeming eagerness to give the White 
House whatever legal justifications it desired.") 
Each, in the end, might also be read as a confession of wrongdoing.

What made all this so strange was not just the 
"tortured" nature of the "torture memo" (just 
rejected by 
new attorney general nominee as "worse than a 
sin, it was a mistake"), but the repetitious 
nature of these dismantling documents which, with 
the help of an army of leakers inside the 
government, have been making their way into 
public view for years. Or how about the strange 
situation of an American president, who has, in 
so many backhanded ways, admitted to being deeply 
involved in the issues of detainment and torture 
-- as, for instance, in a February 7, 2002 
memorandum to his top officials in which he 
signed off on his power to "suspend [the] Geneva 
[Conventions] as between the United States and 
Afghanistan" (which he then declined to do "at 
this time") and his right to wipe out the 
Convention on the Treatment of Prisoners of War 
when it came to al-Qaeda and the Taliban. That 
document began with the following: "Our recent 
extensive discussions regarding the status of al 
Qaeda and Taliban detainees confirm

"Our recent extensive discussions
" You won't 
find that often in previous presidential 
documents about the abrogation of international 
and domestic law. It wasn't, of course, that the 
U.S. had never imprisoned anyone abroad and 
certainly not that the U.S. had never used 
torture abroad. Water-boarding, for instance, was 
first employed by U.S. soldiers in the Philippine 
Insurrection at the dawn of the previous century; 
torture was widely used and taught by CIA and 
other American operatives 
Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s, as well as 
Latin America in the 1970s and 1980s, and 
elsewhere. But American presidents didn't then 
see the bragging rights in such acts, any more 
than a previous American president would have 
sent his vice president to Capitol Hill to 
openly for torture (however labeled). Past 
presidents held on to the considerable benefits 
of deniability (and perhaps the psychological 
benefits of not knowing too much themselves). 
They didn't regularly and repeatedly commit to 
paper their "extensive discussions" on distasteful and illegal subjects.

Nor did they get up in public, against all news, 
all reason (but based on the fantastic 
redefinitions of torture created to fulfill a 
presidential desire to use "harsh interrogation 
techniques") to deny repeatedly that their 
administrations ever tortured. Here is an 
on the subject from Bush's most recent press conference:

"Q What's your definition of the word ‘torture'?


"Q The word ‘torture.' What's your definition?

"THE PRESIDENT: That's defined in U.S. law, and we don't torture.

"Q Can you give me your version of it, sir?

"THE PRESIDENT: Whatever the law says."

After a while, this, too, becomes a form of 
confession -– that, among other things, the 
President has never rejected John Yoo's 
definition of torture in that 2002 memorandum. 
Combine that with the admission of "extensive 
discussions" on detention matters and, minimally, 
you have a President, who has proven himself 
deeply engaged in such subjects. A President who 
makes such no-torture claims repeatedly cannot 
also claim to be in the dark on the subject. In 
other words, you're already moving from the 
parsing of definitions ("It depends on what the 
meaning of the word 'is'") into unfathomable 
realms of presidential definitional darkness.

On the Record

Of course, plumbing the psychology of a single 
individual while in office -- of a President or a 
Vice President -- is a nearly impossible task. 
Plumbing the psychology of an administration? Who 
can do it? And yet, sometimes officials may 
essentially do it for you. They may leave 
bureaucratic clues everywhere and then, as if 
seized by an impulsion, return again and again to 
what can only be termed the scene of the crime. 
Documents they just couldn't not write. Acts they 
just couldn't not take. Think of these as the 
Freudian slips of officials under pressure. Think 
of them as small, repeated confessions granted 
under the interrogation of reality and history, 
under the fearful pressure of the future, and 
granted in the best way possible: willingly, 
without opposition, and not under torture.

Sometimes, it's just a matter of refocusing to 
see the documents, the statements, the acts for 
what they are. Such is the case with the torture 
memos that continue to emerge. Never has an 
administration -- and hardly has a torturing 
regime anywhere -- had so many of its secret 
documents aired while it was still in the act. 
Seldom has a ruling group made such an open case for its own crimes.

We're talking, of course, about the most 
secretive administration in American history -- 
so secretive, in fact, that Congressional 
representatives considering classified portions 
of an intelligence bill, have to go to "a secret, 
secure room in the Capitol, turn in their 
Blackberrys and cellphones, and read the document 
without help from any staff members." Such 
briefings are given to Congressional 
representatives, but under 
rules in which "participants are prohibited from 
future discussions of the information -- even if 
it is subsequently revealed in the media
" So 
representatives who are briefed are also 
effectively prohibited from discussing what they have learned in Congress.

And yet, none of this mattered when it came to 
the administration establishing its own record of 
illegality -- and exhibiting its own outsized 
fears of future prosecution. Let's just take one 
labor intensive -- and exceedingly strange, if 
now largely forgotten -- example of these fears 
in action. In 2002, a new tribunal, 
International Criminal Court (ICC), was 
established in the Hague to prosecute individuals 
for genocide, crimes against humanity, and war 
crimes. "[T]hen-Undersecretary of State 
R. Bolton nullified the U.S. signature on the 
International Criminal Court treaty one month 
into President Bush's first term" and Congress 
the American Servicemembers' Protection Act which 
prohibited "certain types of military aid to 
countries that have signed on to the 
International Criminal Court but have not signed 
a separate accord with the United States, called 
an Article 98 agreement." The Bush 
administration, opposed to international "fora" 
of all sorts, then proceeded to go individually, 
repeatedly, and over years, to more than 100 
countries, demanding that the representatives of 
each sign such an agreement "not to surrender 
American citizens to the international court 
without the consent of officials in Washington."

In other words, they put the sort of effort that 
might normally have gone into establishing an 
international agreement into threatening weak 
countries with the loss of U.S. aid in order to 
give themselves -- and of course those 
lower-level soldiers and operatives on whom so 
much is blamed -- a free pass for crimes yet to 
be committed (but which they obviously felt they 
would commit). We're talking here about small, 
impoverished lands like 
still attempting to bring its own war criminals of the Pol Pot era to justice.

In the process of 
arms, the administration suspended over $47 
million in military aid "to 35 countries that 
ha[d] not signed deals to grant American soldiers 
immunity from prosecution for war crimes." In 
this attempt to get every country on the planet 
aboard the American no-war-crimes-prosecution 
train before it left the station, you can sense 
once again the administration's obsessional 
intensity on this subject (especially since 
experts agreed that the realistic possibility of 
the ICC bringing Americans up on war crimes was essentially nil).

The Bush administration regularly reached for its 
dictionaries to redefine reality, even before it 
reached for its guns. It not only wrote its own 
rules and its own "law," but when problems 
nonetheless emerged from its secret world of 
detention and pain and wouldn't go away -- at Abu 
Ghraib, Guantanamo, and elsewhere -- it proceeded 
to investigate itself with the expectable 
results. For Bush's officials, this should have 
seemed like a perfect way to maintain a no-fault 
system that would never reach up any chain of 
command. Indeed, as Mark Danner has commented, 
such practices plunged us into an age of "frozen 
scandals" in which, as with the latest torture 
memos, the shocked-shocked effect repeats itself 
but nothing follows. As he 
written: "One of the most painful principles of 
our age is that scandals are doomed to be 
revealed -- and to remain stinking there before 
us, unexcised, unpunished, unfinished."

How true. And yet, looked at another way, the 
administration -- with outsized help from 
outraged government officials who knew crimes 
when they saw them and were willing to take 
chances to reveal them -- has already created a 
remarkable record of its own criminal activity, 
which can now be purchased in any bookstore in the land.

Back in the early fall of 2004, when the first 
collection of such documents arrived in the 
bookstores, Mark Danner's 
and Truth, America, Abu Ghraib, and the War on 
Terror, it was already more than 600 pages long. 
In early 2005, when Karen J. Greenberg, executive 
director of the Center on Law and Security at the 
NYU School of Law, and Josh Dratel, the civilian 
defense attorney for Guantanamo detainee David 
Hicks, released their monumental 
Torture Papers, The Road to Abu Ghraib, another 
collection of secret memoranda, official 
investigations of Abu Ghraib, and the like, it 
was already an oversized book of more than 1,200 
pages -- a doorstopper large enough to keep a 
massive prison gate open. And, of course, even it 
couldn't hold all the documents. A later 
Greenberg book, 
Torture Debate in America, for instance, has 
military documents not included in the first volume.

Then, there were the two-years worth of FBI memos 
and emails about Guantanamo that the ACLU pried 
loose from the government and 
on line, also in 2005. This material was damning 
indeed, including direct reports from FBI agents 
witnessing -- and protesting as well as pointing 
fingers at -- military interrogators at the 
prison, as in an 
2, 2004 report that said: "On a couple of 
occasions, I entered interview rooms to find a 
detainee chained hand and foot in a fetal 
position to the floor, with no chair, food or 
Most times they had urinated or defecated 
on themselves, and had been left there for 18, 24 
hours or more." Or a 
21, 2004 email in which an FBI agent complained 
that the technique of a military interrogator 
impersonating an FBI agent "and all of those used 
in these scenarios, was approved by the 
DepSecDef," a reference to Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul D. Wolfowitz.

Other paperback volumes have also been published 
that include selections from these and other 
documents like 
of War: Iraq by Richard Falk, Irene Gendzier, and 
Robert Jay Lifton and 
the Name of Democracy: American War Crimes in 
Iraq and Beyond by Jeremy Brecher, Jill Cutler, 
and Brendan Smith. If all of these documents, 
including the latest ones evidently in the hands 
of the New York Times, were collected, you would 
have a little library of volumes -- all 
functionally confessional -- for a future 
prosecutor. (And there are undoubtedly scads more 
documents where these came from, including 
perhaps a John Yoo "torture memo," rumored to 
exist, that preceded the August 2002 one.)

What an archive, then, is already available in 
our world. It's as if, to offer a Vietnam 
comparison, the contents of The Pentagon Papers 
had simply slipped out into the light of day, one 
by one, without a Daniel Ellsberg in sight, 
without anyone quite realizing it had happened.

The urge of any criminal regime -- to ditch, 
burn, or destroy incriminating documents, or 
emails -- has, in a sense, already been obviated. 
So much of the Bush/Cheney "record" is on the 
record. As Karen J. Greenberg 
back in December 2006, "What more could a 
prosecutor want than a trail of implicit 
confessions, consistent with one another, 
increasingly brazen over time, and leading right into the Oval Office?"

Looking back on these last years, it turns out 
that the President, Vice President, their aides, 
and the other top officials of this 
administration were always in the confessional booth. There's no exit now.

Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's 
Tomdispatch.com, is the co-founder of 
American Empire Project. His book, 
End of Victory Culture (University of 
Massachusetts Press), has just been thoroughly 
updated in a newly issued edition that deals with 
victory culture's crash-and-burn sequel in Iraq.

Copyright 2007 Tom Engelhardt

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