Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Def Takes a Holiday

This alt-text left blank in honor of Jim Newell.  Oh, crap. This evening I had the pleasure of sharing an after-dinner beverage with Wonkette’s two associate editors, Jim Newell and Sara K. Smith. They both blogged that they were trapped in a hellhole in the deep south among the cattails, humans incapable of motion under their own power, and Lincoln among the Cupolas. I thought the scene looked familiar and after a few arrangements we met in front of the Berkley Hotel, where our exhausted heroes were disgorged after a grueling three-hour tour at one of Richmond’s better-known dining establishments. They had arrived discussing Tycho Brahe, and whether the story was true that he had died of a burst bladder. Not an auspicious beginning.

And then they would be off the next morning at a ridiculous hour, as though half a day in Richmond gave any sense of its history. You can walk across Richmond in half a day – to talk abou it could take a year straight without any interruptions, corrections or going back over known territory.
Geeky librarian will cut you.  Over.
We talked for a while about scandalous stuff. I’m too incapacitated to remember any of the details, but there was lots of it. You would be shocked.

And then suddenly the waiter began muttering “get the fuck out of here” as he walked past us. It seemed like we should go. Outside we chatted with a nice couple from Vladivostok about the standard of living in DC. I slipped into my car wondering if I had made a good impression. If I don’t hear from the CDC tomorrow I’ll call it a yes.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Like a Rock: If You Thought GM's Stock Sucked, Just Look at Their Pension Fund

Shovel one home today!
You might think our recent economic trouble – whether you call it a recession, a depression, or enforced cannibalism – has hit bottom and is about to start turning around. Recently President Obama saw a glimmer of hope in the economy – mortgage refinancing is up, for instance. And even though it’s a small and subjective measurement, things have been looking up. Alas in the economy, as in many hospitals, a patient in critical condition can perk up right before he rolls over and dies.

Unfortunately the bailouts and potential bankruptcies of General Motors and Chrysler have revealed a long-standing and disturbing truth – their pension funds are short about
$49 billion, and our choices, as the responsible corporate socialists that we have become, are both few and painful. We can either spend money bailing out the pension and health plans that the auto companies have underfunded for decades, or we can let retirees work as Wal-Mart greeters and sell their kidneys for spare change.

Reasonable peole might look at the books of major corporations with pension plans and wonder how we arrived at this ugly impasse. After all, the greatest minds of several generations were allegedly focused for decades on making the United States the world’s economic powerhouse, churning out goods
faster and cheaper than anywhere else in the world. Turns out that most companies just made big promises and hoped they could keep them years down the road.

When the brilliant people in charge of your corporation’s pension fund
didn’t meet their projected growth rate – or, heaven forbid, lost money – they would compensate with what’s popularly known as the gambler’s fallacy. They would put more money on riskier bets in the hopes that they’d strike it big and everything would work out:

On the investment side, pension plans cover over their funding shortfalls first by assuming future returns on equities that, while possible, are not guaranteed. The assumption makes funds look healthier than they are, and drives their investments deeper into the stock market.
Is it comforting to find out that people with years of training and allegedly great financial acuity were acting like drunk vacationing neophytes at a Las Vegas craps table? Then you’ll be thrilled to know that the people who guaranteed that money did the
same damn thing.

Maybe the people protesting President Obama’s acquisition of corporate power are rightly afraid that the federal government is a bad manager and not really responsive to the interests of the people. If that’s so, then they’re a few decades late in looking out for the little guy. Right now we’re all the owners of
a hundred billion dollars of IOUs for the retirement and health care plans of our friends, families and neighbors. We’re going to have to pony up somehow, and it’s going to be painful and expensive. But at least the worst alternative – which the free marketers keep advocating in spite of the facts – is one we can eliminate quickly. The people who lost all our pension funds in the first place have absolutely no business managing them anymore.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Torture in the Cathedral: How Petty Politics Subverted Our Best National Character

NOTE: This is an analysis of the just-released report of the Senate Armed Services Committee's report on detainee abuse. I have limited my coverage to a section of the Executive Summary, although there's much much more to go through. As limited as it is, the story of how an unprepared bureaucracy was used to justify torture is worth telling. The Committee's report can be found linked in two parts at the bottom of this page. All citations are from part I of that document unless otherwise noted. Any spelling or grammatical errors are likely mine in transcribing it from its original pdf format.

Late in the evening of April 21, 2009, the Senate Armed Services Committee released its report on detainee abuse. This report focused on the chain of events that led from Donald Rumsfeld’s authorization of torture (i.e. harsh or otherwise euphemized interrogation tactics) to the spread of such tactics throughout the theaters in the Bush War on Terror, including Abu Ghraib prison.

The report’s executive summary and conclusion sections by themselves are a cold foray into the banality of evil. From its evidence a careful reader can glean traces of the internecine bureaucratic battles between Donald Rumsfeld and his allies and the established forces that – in this case at least – tried to preserve the rule of law against the buildup of an autocratic feifdom. From nearly the beginning of the War on Terror, Secretary Rumsfeld sought for the military unprecedented and clearly illegal leeway to use torture on detainees. The Senate Armed Service’s Committee’s report documents, in rather bland and acronym-heavy language, how the administration carried out this task, propping up a flimsy legal framework when it could and simply ignoring other legal hazards when it had to.

The story begins three months after the September 11, 2001 attacks, with a relatively small arm of the Department of Defense called the Joint Personnel Recovery Agency, which is charged with “training American personnel to resist techniques considered illegal under the Geneva Conventions.” Its most famous activity is the SERE school, which stands for Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape. Soldiers going through SERE school are subjected to the kinds of rough treatment they might expect to endure if they had been captured in 1950s Korea – brutal uses of force intended to break them down and elicit false confessions to be used for propaganda purposes.

For some reason, JPRA was the group that Rumsfeld turned to when the US captured several high-value detainees, among them Khalid Sheikh Mohammad and abu Zubaydah. According to a
McClatchy article, the adminstration’s goals were twofold – to find out what other al-Qaida plots were in the pipeline and to uncover the fabled Iraq-al-Qaida connections that could be used to justify the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. The continual lack of good information – especially of the latter type – spurred the use of harsher techniques.

A month after Rumsfeld solicited JPRA’s assistance with developing torture techniques, President Bush signed a memorandum stating that the US was not going to abide by the Geneva Conventions in the case of al-Qaida and Taleban operatives (p. xiii). Rumsfeld was set to shove his interrogation tactics through that open door and set up whatever justification was necessary to make it look acceptable.

In the process of appropriating JPRA and the SERE school techniques away from their original mission to one of interrogation, a number of red flags went up throughout the military establishment. First of all (p. xvii) “SERE techniques were ‘developed to better prepare US military personnel to resist interrogations and not as a means of obtaining reliable information.’” Furthermore, the Committee concluded that JPRA had never conducted any investigation into which, if any, techniques garnered reliable information.

Not that that seemed to matter. In the months that followed, JPRA, in conjunction with other elements of the military and the CIA, drafted plans to use SERE school techniques, including waterboarding, on the high-value detainees. Meanwhile, at the Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Counsel, Jay Bybee was assiduously redefining torture to accommodate whatever new techniques would be tried out on America’s captives (p. xv).

With the groundwork now set for the application of torture, the first place the Defense Department would try them would be at Guantanamo Bay, where a makeshift prison camp for enemy combatants had been set up. On October 11, 2002, Major General Michael Dunlavey, in charge of the Gitmo detainees, formally requested use of the SERE school techniques. His backing legal analysis came from Lt. Col. Diane Beaver, who fully expected a more comprehensive rationale to be executed by a higher authority. General Dunlavey’s request worked its way up to the General Richard Myers, head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who solicited opinions from throughout the military (p. xvii).

The reaction was swift and certain: Objections to Lt. Col. Beaver’s analysis, as well as to the techniques themselves, came from the Air Force, the Navy, the Marine Corps, DOD’s Criminal Investigative Task Force and the Chief of the Army’s Internal and Operational Law Division. General Myers’ chief legal counsel, then-Captain (now Rear Admiral) Jane Dalton, initiated a thorough legal review of the proposed procedures in light of the avalanche of troubled responses from the military establishment. According to her testimony, she made DOD Chief Legal Counsel Jim Haynes aware of her actions (p. xviii).

Shortly afterwards, however, General Myers put a stop to Dalton’s review, apparently at Haynes’ request. The Committee’s evidence points to Secretary Rumsfeld growing impatient with the review and pressing for a recommendation before the investigation was stopped. However, only Captain Dalton seems to remember Myers and Haynes calling a halt to her analysis. The general and the lawyer expressed no recollection of the events, although they didn’t object to Dalton’s testimony.

Haynes then issued a one-page memo allowing the SERE school techniques on the Gitmo detainees. When asked by the Senate Committee what his legal basis was for his conclusions, he cited only Lt. Col. Beaver’s legal analysis, which legal authorities throughout the military had called “woefully inadequate” and which she herself had expected would be supplemented by more thorough studies.

Thus did Donald Rumsfeld and the advocates of torture roll over decades of civilized advance in the conduct of war, in the process severely tarnishing America’s image abroad, not to mention turning back the clock on the history of humanistic principles. You might imagine such a momentous decision made only after thorough deliberations by the most erudite minds of the nation in a time of great peril. And while the peril existed, it’s shameful to see that threat held up not as a pretext for fighting a great and principled battle, but as an excuse to trash the values we hold dear.

Determination and fortitude will be necessary to uncover and undo the damage that Rumsfeld and other petty bureaucrats have wrought over the previous eight years. And after that, ideally, prosecutions and convictions will convince anyone longing to follow in their footsteps that this country won’t stand for it.

Friday, April 17, 2009

You Can't Even Torture Some of the People Some of the Time

Are you sure this is how David Blaine got started? Hey everybody, there’s good news on the torture front. First of all, we definitely do not torture. This is the official opinion of the Bush administration on August 1, 2002, in a memo released just yesterday by the Obama White House.

The August 2002 memo’s author, Jay Bybee (who is a
federal appellate judge now, if that makes you feel any better) was head of the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel at the time. The OLC originally functioned to advise the president on the legality of proposed actions; however during the Bush years it turned into an apologist and justifier for the most sordid form of American exceptionalism: that because our nation advocated human rights and liberty, anything we did in their name was justified. Essentially, since we’re the world’s supernanny, it’s okay if we beat the children.

Bybee served for two years as the mind behind this ethos of exceptionalism – and while his 2002 memo is not brilliant work (an NYU law and ethics professor called it “
abysmal”), it gave the executive branch enough wiggle room to say it was justified in using several dicey techniques against al-Qaida travel agent abu Zubaydah, including sleep deprivation, slamming his head against walls, forcing him to stand for days on end until he risked embolisms and renal failure, and other practices classified as torture under the Geneva Conventions.

Advocates of torture have long argued that today’s circumstances call for extraordinary measues in dealing with detainees. Today’s religious fanatics apparently put SS troops, kamikaze pilots, Ghurkas and berserkers to shame. The only way to deal with al-Qaida and its associated threats (including
innocent cabbies and people whose relatives we killed) is with some sort of muscular pose hastily ripped from a 24 episode’s rough draft. Unfortunately the memo’s prose doesn’t come from the sort of bloody-knuckled streetfighter you would imagine favored torture – rather, it exhibits the logical contortions of an oleaginous schoolboy trying to kiss up to the headmaster while hiding from ideas he does not fully understand. For instance, here is Bybee’s take on pain and suffering:

“Pain and suffering” as used in Section 2340 is best understood as a single concept, not distinct concepts of “pain” as distinguished from “suffering.” See Section 2340 Memorandum at 6n.3. The waterboard, which inflicts no pain or actual harm whatsoever, does not, in our view inflict “severe pain or suffering.” Even if one were to parse the statute more finely to attempt to treat “suffering” as a distinct concept, the waterboard could not be said to inflict severe suffering. The waterboard is simply a controlled acute episode, lacking the connotation of a protracted period of time generally given to suffering.

All clear now? Bybee shows an immense faith in the idea that future legal scholars will be embroiled in a debate over whether torture had to constitute both pain and suffering or merely one item. While Bybee might be capable of regurgitating dogma about the Transubstantiation if spoon-fed it slowly enough, it is clear that his mind is not capable of arriving at the truth when armed only with facts.

And maybe the Bush administration sought to keep this work of legal ingenuity secret for so long because they knew what an embarrassment it would be if publicized. Either way, the fact that the Obama administration released it with almost no redactions whatsoever shows two things: that the memo held no critical national security secrets, and that the Bush administration’s arguments that revealing such memos would somehow compromise the deterrent effect of torture was an empty one.

Bybee exhibits a corrupt peanut plant inspector’s disregard for oversight when he cites the CIA’s own research into the safety of sleep deprivation: “Your review of the literature uncovered no empirical data on the use of these procedures, with the exception of sleep deprivation for which no long term health consequences resulted.” In fact, the CIA published a manual in 1963 outlining the debilitating effects of such treatment. Accounts by people who suffered sleep deprivation have been around for decades before that. John Schlapobersky was tortured using sleep deprivation in South Africa in the 1960s, and described its effects vividly:

“I was kept without sleep for a week in all. I can remember the details of the experience, although it took place 35 years ago. After two nights without sleep, the hallucinations start, and after three nights, people are having dreams while fairly awake, which is a form of psychosis.

“By the week’s end, people lose their orientation in place and time—the people you’re speaking to become people from your past; a window might become a view of the sea seen in your younger days. To deprive someone of sleep is to tamper with their equilibrium and their sanity.”

Bybee, acting as Dubya’s legal enabler, justified sleep deprivation for up to eleven days – well into the realm of causing deep psychosis. And while later accounts bear out that most of the information extracted from abu Zubaydah was useless, the relentless torture did at least succeed in revealing one deep, dark national security threat – that we, as a people, are almost as barbaric as the ethos we profess to fight. Ideally, bringing these torture memos to light will inspire us not to abandon our defense of our civilization – but to renew it from behind the bastion of our humanist values and not just our basest fears.