Revolution#113, December 23, 2007


Shredded Tapes...

The New Normal?


On December 7, the New York Times reported that in 2005, the CIA had destroyed videotapes of two captives in its secret detention program who were being subjected to “severe interrogation techniques”—in other words, torture. The tapes were hundreds of hours long.

After the story first broke, it came out that the “techniques” used in the taped interrogations included “waterboarding”—where a prisoner is strapped down, feet elevated, with a piece of cloth or cellophane over their face. Water is then poured over the cloth or cellophane, making the victim feel that he or she is about to drown—and at times actually killing the victim.

The torture reportedly took place in 2002 at one of the CIA’s secret prisons—known as “black sites”—located around the world, including Afghanistan, Thailand, and Eastern European countries. The two detainees whose interrogation videos were destroyed are Abu Zubaydah, a Saudi alleged by the U.S. to be a “close associate” of Osama bin Laden, and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, a Saudi originally from Yemen who is accused of involvement in the 2000 bombing of the U.S. warship Cole in Yemen. Both are now among several hundred prisoners at the U.S. torture camp in Guantánamo.

The day before the New York Times story came out, CIA Director Michael Hayden issued a letter to CIA employees claiming that the reason the tapes were destroyed was that they no longer had “intelligence value” yet posed a “serious security risk,” because if they were leaked they would have exposed CIA agents “and their families to retaliation from Al Qaeda and its sympathizers.”

The director of Human Rights Watch, Tom Malinowski, pointed out the bogus nature of Hayden’s claim about protecting the identity of CIA operatives: “Millions of documents in CIA archives, if leaked, would identify CIA officers. The only difference here is that these tapes portray potentially criminal activity. They must have understood that if people saw these tapes, they would consider them to show acts of torture.”

As the news of the CIA tapes broke, the system’s “spin” machine went into operation. There are the usual Senate and House “investigations” to supposedly get to the bottom of the matter. But meanwhile, the Bush regime continues to barrel ahead, not backing down any from its policies of torture and secret detentions.

Part of the “spin” has been the PR tour of network TV shows by John Kiriakou, a former CIA agent involved in the torture of Zubaydah. With his “boy next door” demeanor, he earnestly lied about how “friendly” and “polite” the process was—while revealing at the same time that the “enhanced techniques” used on the prisoner included waterboarding. Kiriakou depicts the interrogations as a series of “interesting” conversations, with a few moments of “enhanced” techniques used against the prisoner. He says that the waterboarding—which he claims he was not present at—lasted 35 seconds, enough to “break” the prisoner. But why did the CIA feel it necessary to destroy hundreds of hours of videotape—unless those tapes showed a lot more than a few seconds of torture? This media blitz was designed to put a “human face” on American torturers and to sell people on the notion that torture may be morally “uncomfortable”…but is necessary if it stops “terrorist” actions. It was an insidious effort to condition people into accepting torture.

Question: what kind of society tortures people for hundreds of hours…puts this torture on videotape for who-knows-what reason…destroys the tapes for fear of being found out.…then has a four-day scandal over it…and then “moves on” to focus on…the latest development in Britney Spears’ child custody case?!?

New Leaps in Fascistic Legitimating Norms

This chilling spectacle unfolding around the CIA torture tapes is a further big stride in the whole fascist direction in which society is being remade.

Over the last six years, the Bush regime has moved to legitimize the use of torture through executive fiat—with “legal opinions” and presidential orders that went around, rejected, or changed existing laws and court decisions. In January 2002 White House counsel Alberto Gonzales (later to become Attorney General) wrote that the “war on terrorism” had rendered the Geneva Conventions against torture of prisoners “obsolete.” The infamous “torture memo” by Deputy Assistant Attorney General John Yoo in the same year declared that interrogation isn’t torture unless it inflicts pain “equivalent in intensity to the pain accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death.” This memo also declared that U.S. laws banning torture could not be constitutionally applied to the president.

In 2005, as Congress moved toward approving a bill (the Detainee Treatment Act) outlawing “cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment” of prisoners, Bush’s Justice Department issued a secret legal opinion that none of the CIA interrogation methods (including waterboarding) was illegal. This secret memo remains in effect today.

In September 2006, after the existence of the secret CIA prisons came to light, Bush announced—with a bragging tone and body language—that yes, the U.S. had been holding people in secret. And he demanded that Congress now ratify his policies that allow torture. The following month Congress passed the Military Commissions Act (MCA), legitimizing and legalizing the global CIA program of torture. The MCA purported to ban certain forms of torture—while leaving others (like waterboarding) unmentioned and therefore un-banned. The MCA also rewrote existing laws to create a loophole for torture that had already been carried out, protecting U.S. officials and agents from war crimes prosecution. And it created a new system of military courts for U.S. captives who have been labeled “alien unlawful enemy combatants” on the say-so of the president. Under this system, the government, after torturing the prisoners, could drag them in front of a military commission for a kangaroo trial where they basically have no rights to legal defense.

In July of this year, Bush issued an executive order allowing the CIA to officially resume its secret torture program which had been temporarily suspended. The order claimed that the interrogations would comply with the Geneva Conventions’ ban on “humiliating and degrading treatment.” But the order didn’t spell out what specific “methods” are supposedly approved or banned. Bush was basically saying: Everything we’re doing now to detainees behind closed doors is legal—take our word for it.

Now, even as the CIA torture videotapes (and their cover-up) have come to light, Bush’s threat of a veto has sunk a Congressional bill banning waterboarding, which had been passed by the House and was in the Senate. And Bush’s Attorney General Mukasey rejected a House committee’s request that the Justice Department provide information about the shredding of the CIA tapes.

The Culpability of the Democratic Party

As the Bush regime has aggressively pushed and implemented the policy on torture, the Democrats in Congress knew what was happening and went along with it. In September 2002, the CIA gave four members of Congress—including Democrat Nancy Pelosi, now the House Speaker—a “virtual tour” of its secret prisons and described to them the use of waterboarding on detainees. And Democrat Jane Harman (who replaced Pelosi on the House Intelligence Committee) now says she wrote a letter to the CIA in 2003, warning them not to destroy the videotapes of the interrogations. So Harman knew about the tapes and probably about what they showed—but did not disclose this publicly until now, four years later.

When Mukasey refused to hand over information about the destruction of the CIA tapes to Congress, there were no outraged demands from Democrats that the Bush regime comply with the requests, let alone calls to impeach Bush for blatant “obstruction of justice.” Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy merely “expressed disappointment,” according to news reports.

What the Bush regime has done through all this is to lock into law and as accepted “norms” the illegal practices of his administration—permanently changing what had been certain “core” principles of American society. Some of these—like the right of the accused to see the evidence being used to convict them, and to defend themselves against that evidence—have been around since before the U.S. was even founded. The U.S. Constitution itself forbids “cruel and unusual punishment”—or torture. In reality, the U.S. rulers have often construed these rights very narrowly and have flagrantly violated them, including the ban on torture. U.S. troops invading the Philippines in 1898 used waterboarding against insurgents, as did the American troops during the Vietnam war. During the 1980s and ’90s, the Chicago police tortured “suspects” to make them “confess” to crimes they did not commit.

But it is something new and very dangerous when things like torture that were once formal violations of the law become legitimized by presidential decrees. Think about what it means that the executive branch has declared that what they decide and act on trumps whatever the Congress or the courts may do—that what they say is law. The core of the U.S. ruling class is going to new extremes—and has been moving to rip up the old norms of society and remake the legitimating norms of society in line with this.

Paralysis…and the Need and Potential for Resistance to Break Out of This

The actions of the Bush regime—the bloody war in Iraq based on lies, the tearing up of what had been considered basic rights, the blatant carrying out of torture, etc.—have given rise to a deep and broad undercurrent of anger among the people. But at the same time, there is fear and paralysis among the people, as the ground they thought they could stand on—the rights and principles they had assumed could be counted on—is getting pulled out from under them as the rulers move with accelerating speed to tear up the old norms and establish new, ever more repressive norms.

Bush’s all-but-open advocacy of torture is aimed at spreading terror of U.S. power around the world—but also to instill fear and politically immobilize the people here in the “homeland,” as the rulers pursue their war for unchallenged empire under the banner of the “war on terror.” People see, for example, what was done to Maher Arar, a Syrian-born Canadian who was switching planes in New York in 2002 when U.S. agents grabbed him and “rendered” him to Syria, where he was held for 10 months in a tiny cell and regularly tortured. Such outrages send out a deliberate message: Anyone can suddenly get caught up in the frightening web spun by the U.S. of secret prisons, torture, “renditions,” and other fascistic repression.

Author Naomi Wolf recently wrote that, in traveling around the U.S., she has met many people who are very aware of and upset at the moves toward fascism in this country but are, at the same time, very scared. She recalled a 30-something mother of two in Boulder, Colorado, who “started to tear up” as she told Wolf, “I want to take action but I am so scared. I look at my kids and I am scared.… Is it safer for them if I act or stay quiet? I don’t want to get on a list.”

What makes things even more frightening for people like this is that there is no resistance from the Democrats to the whole Bush agenda. The essential reason for this is not that the Democrats are “spineless.” The Democrats have some differences with Bush about torture, the Iraq war, and other policies, and some concern about the breadth and speed of the fascistic moves of the current regime. But they have gone along with this whole trajectory—with at most a few “pious doubts and petty amendments”—because, like Bush and the Republicans, their fundamental point of departure is the interests of the U.S. capitalist-imperialists ruling class, and they basically agree on the need for the “war on terror.” This whole so-called “war on terror” is in reality a war for empire; all these politicians, Republican and Democrat alike, firmly agree that the U.S. should be top dog, free to trample over anyone and anything that gets in their way.

And the Democrats fear that if they actually mobilized those whom they consider their social base against Bush, there could be a tremendous groundswell of serious resistance that could get way out of their control. The prospect of millions of people actually taking serious political action against this whole horrible direction of society is anathema to the Democratic politicians. They fear that prospect far more than any of Bush’s crimes. And that shows once again the fundamentally ruling class nature of these politicians and why, to quote the Call from The World Can’t Wait! Drive Out the Bush Regime!, “there is not going to be some savior from the Democratic Party.”

More needs to be learned about why the revelations of the CIA torture tapes have come out now, two years after they were actually destroyed, and how this might relate to infighting and contradictions at the top of the ruling class. But one thing is clear: the story about the tapes and the waterboarding was not pushed into the light of day by anyone within the power structure wanting to “do the right thing” and bring these atrocities to a halt.

If torture and other crimes of the Bush regime are going to be stopped, it will take mass political resistance from below. It is going to take you, and many others, acting with conviction and determination. And yes, this is going to require moral courage, and it is going to require risks and sacrifice. There is great and urgent necessity for such resistance, before it becomes too late—before the fascistic legitimating norms become even more firmly locked into place.

But along with that necessity is the potential for the resistance to snowball, if significant numbers of people step out now. The fascistic remaking of the legitimating norms that contributes to people’s political paralysis also contains within it the potential for people to act against these radically reactionary changes. And that, in turn, can also throw into the air big questions about those norms themselves. This is contradictory—leading people at times back into illusions of “the real America” on the one hand, but at the same time calling into question fundamental things about this system, about its history and its role in the world, and opening up doors for people to consider radical and revolutionary solutions. In this situation, protest that breaks out of the deadly confines of official politics can have a huge societal effect and act as a clarion call for even broader numbers to act—which could intensify cracks and fissures at the top of the power structure, in turn creating further openings for greater mass resistance from below.

As World Can’t Wait ( says in its call to “Declare It Now: Wear Orange!”: “If ever there was a time to step outside the boundaries of what ‘common wisdom’ accepts as possible, this is it. We need—the whole world needs—a movement of massive and powerful RESISTANCE, a movement that begins to wrench the future of humanity out of the blood-drenched hands of the likes of Bush and Cheney and puts it in the hands of the people.”

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