Revolution #115, January 13, 2008

CIA Torture Tape-gate

Rifts at the Top and Urgency of Resistance from Below

The Washington scandal around the CIA torture tapes has continued to unfold. And this is happening at a time when there are crucial calls for protests in the month of January and beyond against torture by the U.S., the U.S. military prison at Guantánamo where hundreds are being held without charges or trial, and the whole fascistic agenda of the rulers spearheaded by the Bush regime.

In 2002, the CIA videotaped hundreds of hours of interrogation/torture of two detainees alleged to be al-Qaeda operatives at secret prisons outside the U.S. The tapes reportedly include the use of waterboarding—where a prisoner is strapped down and water is poured over a piece of cloth or cellophane covering the face, bringing the prisoner to the brink of drowning. Then in late 2005, the CIA destroyed the tapes.

Many within the government knew about the tapes—what they showed and how they were shredded to cover up what was going on. Among those “in the know” were members of Congress, including Nancy Pelosi, now the top Democrat in the House. Top White House officials discussed what to do with the tapes. But the existence and the destruction of the CIA tapes only came to broad public attention with a report in the New York Times last December 7. (See Revolution coverage in the past two issues: “Torture…Shredded Tapes…The New Normal? TIME TO ACT!” in #113 and “Needed January 11: A Sea of Orange. Torture Scandal & Fascistic ‘New Norms’” in #114.)

The continuing scandal and the exposure of the fact that the U.S. is officially torturing people—and covering up videotapes and other graphic evidence of such torture—reflect sharp differences at the ruling heights of society. At the same time, some of the truth that is coming out about the U.S. use of torture is deeply disturbing to millions throughout society. This situation holds within it the potential to provoke many people into political struggle. And it can begin to raise profound questions very broadly—including questions like: What kind of society is this where the government not only carries out these inhuman practices but is compelled to legally sanction such sadistic methods? And what kind of people would allow all this to go on without raising their voices in outrage and protest and demanding that it stop immediately?

New Developments in the CIA Tape-gate

In the context of the scandal and the ruling class divisions behind it, some dirt is getting exposed—in particular, the direct involvement of top government officials in ordering the use of torture and then covering up evidence of it. Among the latest key developments is a prominent Op-Ed piece in the January 2 issue of the New York Times by Thomas Kean and Lee Hamilton, who headed the U.S. government’s 9/11 commission. Kean (a Republican) and Hamilton (a Democrat) are high-level figures within the political establishment. So their article represents the views of some powerful forces at the top.

In their piece, Kean and Hamilton write: “The commission’s mandate was sweeping and it explicitly included the intelligence agencies. But the recent revelations that the CIA destroyed videotaped interrogations of Qaeda operatives leads us to conclude that the agency failed to respond to our lawful requests for information about the 9/11 plot. Those who knew about those videotapes—and did not tell us about them—obstructed our investigation.” In other words, Kean and Hamilton are charging that those who withheld information about the CIA tapes committed a crime under U.S. laws.

Kean and Hamilton place blame not only on the CIA but the White House itself: “There could have been absolutely no doubt in the mind of anyone at the CIA—or the White House—of the commission’s interest in any and all information related to Qaeda detainees involved in the 9/11 plot. Yet no one in the administration ever told the commission of the existence of videotapes of detainee interrogations.” Kean and Hamilton describe a series of requests they made to the CIA for such information, including at a January 2004 meeting with CIA Director George Tenet, White House counsel Alberto Gonzales (who later became Bush’s attorney general), Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and a Justice Department official. At that meeting, Kean and Hamilton write, “Once again, videotapes were not mentioned.”

On the same day that Kean and Hamilton’s article appeared, Bush’s Attorney General Mike Mukasey announced that the Justice Department was beginning a formal criminal investigation into the destruction of the CIA tapes. Mukasey appointed John Durham, the number two official in the U.S. Attorney’s office in Connecticut, to head the inquiry, in conjunction with the FBI. (Mukasey, who recently replaced Alberto Gonzales, infamously refused to call waterboarding torture during his confirmation hearings before Congress—after which the Democrat-controlled Congress proceeded to approve him as the new Attorney General.) It may be that this move is an attempt at a cover-up. But there could also be certain contradictions among the rulers that are involved or could come into play here. There have been reports that the FBI, for their own reasons, were opposed to the CIA torture, and there have been long-standing differences between the FBI and CIA. Some of this is in-fighting over “turf” between different intelligence agencies, but it could also reflect larger divisions at the top which are coming out through the tape scandal.

Aside from this Justice Department inquiry, the House and Senate Intelligence Committees are also conducting investigations into the CIA tape shredding. There are efforts from certain quarters within the power structure to contain the scandal by pointing the finger at CIA officials—in particular Jose Rodriguez, who was the head of CIA’s “clandestine operations” in 2005 and reportedly gave the direct order to shred the torture tapes. It’s possible that Rodriguez and some others may end up as “fall guys” for the scandal. But as Kean and Hamilton’s Op-Ed article indicates, it’s also possible the scandal could reach high up into the Bush White House. A December 23 article in the Sunday Times (London) reported that Rodriguez may seek immunity from prosecution in exchange for testifying before the House Intelligence Committee. The article quotes a former CIA officer, Larry Johnson, saying, “He [Jose Rodriguez] didn’t wake up one day and decide, ‘I’m going to destroy these tapes.’ He checked with a lot of people and eventually he is going to get his say… It looks increasingly as though the decision was made by the White House.”

Bush is claiming that his “first recollection of whether the tapes existed and whether they were destroyed” was when he was told by current CIA head Michael Hayden just before the NY Times story appeared in December.

Former CIA agent John Kiriakou, who appeared on network TV shows in December to talk about the videotaped “interrogation” of Zubaydah that he took part in, also pointed the finger at top levels of the Bush regime. When NBC’s Matt Lauer asked Kiriakou whether the White House was involved in the decision to use torture, Kiriakou answered, “Absolutely.” He went on to say, “This isn’t something done willy nilly. It’s not something that an agency officer just wakes up in the morning and decides he’s going to carry out an enhanced technique [waterboarding] on a prisoner. This was a policy made at the White House, with concurrence from the National Security Council and Justice Department.”

In our earlier coverage, we had described Kiriakou as part of a “spin” machine that went into operation after the scandal broke to justify torture. But that was perhaps underestimating the depth and sharpness of the contradictions at the top that are behind the CIA tape scandal. Whatever was behind Kiriakou’s decision to step out of the shadows to talk publicly, the government quickly moved to try to shut him up and possibly prosecute him. Shortly after his TV appearances, Mukasey’s Justice Department announced that it had opened a criminal investigation into whether Kiriakou had disclosed “classified information.” Kiriakou’s lawyer Mark Zaid told the Washington Post that if the government pursues the investigation, “they will open a Pandora’s box that will put the spotlight on whether the interrogations were lawful, and the extent to which they have been fully revealed by federal officials.” According to Mother Jones magazine, Zaid also said, “Here it was that the Bush administration ordered and approved the techniques but yet it would not come to the public defense of the Agency, not even to Members of Congress, several of whom obviously had been ‘read into’ details of the CIA’s interrogation program. The hypocrisy is breathtaking, and John felt it necessary, appropriate, and lawful to say something.”

Rifts at the Top…and the Need for Mass Resistance from Below

It is not clear where all this is headed. But it seems at this point that the CIA torture tape scandal is continuing to bubble, and more dirt may surface. These leaks and scandals coming out now reflect divisions at the top of the power structure over the ripping up of some long-standing principles that were considered “accepted norms” in this society and the establishment of a fascistic “new normalcy,” concentrated in a certain way with the legitimization of torture. With various legal memos, presidential orders, and laws like the Military Commissions Act, the government has all but abandoned even the pretense that “America doesn’t torture.” The possibility that ripping up these norms could unravel society and affect the interests of the capitalist-imperialist system as a whole in unpredictable ways is fueling differences and disputes among the rulers at the top. And some of this is coming out through this current scandal.

But even if this scandal continues and intensifies, and possibly results in the fall of some top figures in the government, this by itself will not lead to the stopping of the whole fascist trajectory that this country is on. The terms of the current scandal are over “who destroyed the CIA tapes”—not over the need to stop torture immediately because it is wrong. There are no big exposés over the fact that the use of torture has become routine in the whole “war on terror”—at Guantánamo, at the U.S. prisons in Iraq and Afghanistan, at secret CIA prisons around the world, and through “renditions” where “suspects” are kidnapped by the U.S. and imprisoned in other countries where they are tortured under U.S. direction. There are threats to prosecute over “obstructing” the work of government bodies—but no demands to hold all those responsible, especially those at the top levels of government, for ordering, carrying out, justifying, and covering up the horrendous crime of torture itself.

If torture, secret prisons, renditions—and many other crimes and horrors being carried out by the Bush regime and the U.S. rulers—are going to be brought to a halt, it will take mass political resistance from below. 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. From that perspective, the torture tape scandal is of great importance. The radically reactionary remaking of “legitimating norms” that is behind the disputes among the rulers is also fueling widespread anger (along with fear and political paralysis) among the people broadly. There is a critical (and finite) moment with the torture tape scandal, where the public eye is focused on this question—and in this situation, determined, independent political action can potentially break through the dam of fear and paralysis and unleash a torrent of upheaval and resistance throughout society.

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