“Our New Politics of Torture”: An Interview with Journalist Mark Danner

200px-CIA.svgBy Elaine Magliaro

On Friday, Charlie Pierce posted an interesting article titled The CIA’s Willingness to Lie about Our Torture Regime: The Architecture of Unbelief on his Politics Blog at Esquire.  Pierce wrote about an interview with journalist Mark Danner that appeared in The New York Review of Books recently. Pierce noted that the interview was “about the now-largely-forgotten report from the Senate about how the United States government’s regime of torture was developed, and about how it was operated…”


Along with Marcy Wheeler, Jane Mayer, Charlie Savage and very few other reporters, Danner was one of the people who thought that this country’s decision to torture people — in contravention of treaties, American law, and over 200 years of military custom — was worthy of extended acts of journalism. In one of the more striking passages in the interview, Danner explains how a complicated infrastructure of mendacity was constructed and how it became equally as vital to the torture program as were the waterboard and the rectal feeding tube. Not only did the CIA arrange this infrastructure in order to lie to the American people about what was done in their name, but also the CIA built this infrastructure to provide an institutional basis for the American government to lie to itself.

Pierce added that Danner’s interview “comes at the exact moment in which events around the world guaranteed the Senate report a swift trip down the memory hole, expedited by an administration that doesn’t want any part of the report’s conclusions, and a congressional ‘oversight’ process that’s gone back to being unworthy of the name, what with everyone accepting the results of the CIA’s exoneration of itself in regards to having spied on the staff of the Senate Intelligence Committee, and Dianne Feinstein’s conclusion that poor, embattled David Petraeus has suffered enough. (And, as it turns out, what may have been the complicity of the White House in the CIA’s campaign against the committee staff.)” Pierce continued by saying that the recent terror attacks in Paris, “and the ensuing ‘terror sweeps’ throughout Europe…has brought things back to the new normal again, especially within our 24-hour news cycle.”

Pierce said that the “infrastructure of unreality” has worked so well since 2001 that he is  “now predisposed not to believe anything attributed to anonymous ‘intelligence sources’ that is fed to their pet reporters.” He added, “If the CIA is willing to arrange that the government lies to itself, if it is willing to hack the Congress, I choose to believe that it will feed the public anything that suits its immediate needs. By creating within a free country a culture of credulous fear, the CIA has managed to create that culture’s functional doppelganger — an architecture of unbelief. Because, in creating the culture of credulous fear, the CIA has lied so often and so well and to so many different audiences, there no longer is any prima facie reason to believe anything that the American intelligence community says, especially not what it says anonymously.”


Excerpt from Our New Politics of Torture: Mark Danner, interviewed by Hugh Eakins

Hugh Eakin: Nearly six years ago, you published the secret report by the International Committee of the Red Cross documenting the CIA’s torture of more than a dozen “high value” detainees. And now we have the Senate’s extensive investigation of the torture program itself. What are some of the most revealing findings of the Senate report?

Mark Danner: There is a lot in the executive summary that we already knew but that is now told in appalling detail that we hadn’t seen before. The relentlessness, day in day out, of these techniques—walling, close-confinement, water-dousing, waterboarding, the newly revealed “rectal rehydration,” and various other disgusting and depraved things— and the totality of their effect when taken together is recounted in numbing, revolting detail. The effect can only be conveyed by a full reading, through page after awful page of this five-hundred-page document, which is after all less than 10 percent of the report itself.

What I think is strictly speaking new is, first, how amateurish the torture program was. It was really amateur hour, beginning with the techniques themselves, which were devised and run by a couple of retired Air Force psychologists who were hired by the CIA and put in charge though they had never conducted an interrogation before. They had no expertise in terrorism or counterterrorism, had never interrogated al-Qaeda members or anyone else for that matter. When it came to actually working with detained terrorists and suspected terrorists they were essentially without any relevant experience. Eventually, the CIA paid them more than $80 million.

The second revelation is the degree to which the CIA claimed great results, and did so mendaciously. Sometimes the attacks they said they had prevented were not serious in the first place. Sometimes the information that actually might have led to averting attacks came not from the enhanced interrogation techniques but from other traditional forms of interrogation or other information entirely. But what the report methodically demonstrates is that the claims about having obtained essential, lifesaving intelligence thanks to these techniques that had been repeated for years and years and years are simply not true. And the case is devastating.

Eakin: This was a central question the Senate investigation was looking at, wasn’t it? The issue of whether actual intelligence was gained from torture. In essence, “Was it worth it?”

Danner: From the beginning the CIA had claimed that these techniques were absolutely essential to saving the lives of tens of thousands, or even hundreds of thousands of people. Those claims have been made by many people and it is another revelation of the report that we see CIA people, notably the lawyers, raising these claims before the program even existed. The lawyers seemed to be thinking, “This is the only way we’re going to get away with this.” There is a quote in the report that people would look more kindly on torture—that is the word used—if it was used to stop imminent attacks. This was the so-called “necessity defense,” which, as the CIA lawyers put it, could be invoked to protect from prosecution “US officials who tortured to obtain information that saved many lives.” This idea was there right from the inception of the program.

Click here to read the full text of Hugh Eakin’s interview with Mark Danner.



Our New Politics of Torture: Mark Danner, interviewed by Hugh Eakin (The New York Review of Books)

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12 Responses to “Our New Politics of Torture”: An Interview with Journalist Mark Danner

  1. buckaroo says:

    I don’t know what we call torture, but during my life time I would think Executive order 9066 is more akin to torture than waterboarding. . But then I am not Martin Niemoeller

  2. bigfatmike says:

    Thanks for the cites. It will take me a while to work through this. But I think every citizen has an obligation to inform themselves of what was done and perhaps more importantly the coverup – the lies that were told.

  3. EO 9066 was without question a deprivation of civil liberties but its unconstitutionality rests in other areas of that document than the 8th Amendment. FDR had citizens of Japanese ancestry interned in camps. He didn’t have them tortured. Both actions are ethically wrong as well as constitutionally wrong, but one pales in comparison to the other in the pantheon of humanist values. For analogy, theft and murder or rape are all heinous crimes, but murder or rape is closer to the ajax of evil than theft. Just so with the deprivation of freedom of movement, speech and property that goes with internment when compared to torturing someone. Both wrong, but one substantively more wrong than the other.

  4. Bob Kauten says:

    We all know exactly what torture is, despite the tortuous paths some of us travel to deny it.

  5. Elaine M. says:

    Mancow Waterboarded, Admits It’s Torture
    “It is way worse than I thought it would be”

    Shock jocks shock.

    And so it went Friday morning when WLS radio host Erich “Mancow” Muller decided to subject himself to the controversial practice of waterboarding live on his show.

    Mancow decided to tackle the divisive issue head on — actually it was head down, while restrained and reclining…

    “The average person can take this for 14 seconds,” Marine Sergeant Clay South answered, adding, “He’s going to wiggle, he’s going to scream, he’s going to wish he never did this.”

    With a Chicago Fire Department paramedic on hand, Mancow was placed on a 7-foot long table, his legs were elevated, and his feet were tied up.

    Turns out the stunt wasn’t so funny. Witnesses said Muller thrashed on the table, and even instantly threw the toy cow he was holding as his emergency tool to signify when he wanted the experiment to stop. He only lasted 6 or 7 seconds.

    “It is way worse than I thought it would be, and that’s no joke,”Mancow said, likening it to a time when he nearly drowned as a child. “It is such an odd feeling to have water poured down your nose with your head back…It was instantaneous…and I don’t want to say this: absolutely torture.”

  6. Elaine M. says:

    A Form of Moral Paralysis
    Torture and the Violence of Organized Forgetting
    December 2014

    With the release of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on torture, it becomes clear that in the aftermath of the loathsome terrorist attack of 9/11, the United States entered into a new and barbarous stage in its history, one in which acts of violence and moral depravity were not only embraced but celebrated. Certainly, this is not to suggest that the United States had not engaged in criminal and lawless acts historically or committed acts of brutality that would rightly be labeled acts of torture. That much about our history is clear and includes not only the support and participation in acts of indiscriminate violence and torture practiced through and with the right-wing Latin American dictatorships in Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, Paraguay, Bolivia and Brazil in the 1970s but also through the wilful murder and torture of civilians in Vietnam, Iraq, and later at Guantánamo, Abu Ghraib, and Afghanistan. The United States is no stranger to torture nor is it a free of complicity in aiding other countries notorious for their abuses of human rights. Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman reminded us by taking us as far back as 1979 that of the “35 countries using torture on an administrative basis in the late 1970s, 26 were clients of the United States.”[1]

    In fact, the United States has a long record of inflicting torture on others, both at home and abroad, although it has never admitted to such acts. Instead, the official response has been to deny this history or do everything to hide such monstrous acts from public view through government censorship, appealing to the state secrecy principle, or deploying a language that buried narratives of extraordinary cruelty in harmless sounding euphemisms. For example, the benign sounding CIA “Phoenix Program” in South Vietnam resulted in the deaths of over 21,000 Vietnamese. As Carl Boggs argues, the acts of U.S. barbarism in Vietnam appeared both unrestrained and never ending, with routinized brutality such as throwing people out of planes labeled as “flying lessons” or “half a helicopter ride,”[2] while tying a field telephone wire around a man’s testicles and ringing it up was a practice called “the Bell Telephone Hour.”[3] Officially sanctioned torture was never discussed as a legitimate concern; but, as indicated by a few well-documented accounts, it seems to be as American as apple pie.[4]

    But torture for the United States is not merely a foreign export, it is also part of a long history of domestic terrorism as was evident in the attempts on the part of the FBI, working under a secret program called COINTELPRO, designed to assassinate those considered domestic and foreign enemies.[5] COINTELPRO was about more than spying, it was a legally sanctioned machinery of violence and assassination.[6] In one of the most notorious cases, the FBI worked with the Chicago Police to set up the conditions for the assassination of Fred Hampton and Mark Clark, two members of the Black Panther Party. Noam Chomsky has called COINTELPRO, which went on from the 50s to the 70s, when it was stopped, “the worst systematic and extended violation of basic civil rights by the federal government,” and “compares with Wilson’s Red Scare.”[7] What characterized these programs of foreign and domestic terrorism was that they were all shrouded in secrecy and allegedly were conducted in the name of democratic rights.

    Torture also has a longstanding presence domestically, particularly as part of the brutalized practices that have shaped American chattel slavery through to its most recent “peculiar institution,” the rapidly expanding prison-industrial complex.[8] The racial disparities in American prisons and criminal justice system register the profound injustice of racial discrimination as well as a sordid expression of racist violence. As the novelist Ishmael Reed contends, this is a prison system “that is rotten to the core … where torture and rape are regular occurrences and where in some states the conditions are worse than at Gitmo. California prison hospitals are so bad that they have been declared unconstitutional and a form of torture.”[9] One of the more recently publicized cases of prison torture involved the arrest of a former Chicago police commander, Jon Burge. He was charged with routinely torturing as many as 200 inmates, mostly African Americans, during police interrogations in the 1970s and 1980s, “in order to force them to falsely confess to crimes they did not commit.”[10] One report claims that many of these men were beaten with telephone books and that “cattle prods were used to administer electric shocks to victims’ genitals. They were suffocated, beaten and burned, and had guns forced into their mouths. They faced mock executions with shotguns. … One tactic used was known as ‘the Vietnam treatment,’ presumably started by Burge, a Vietnam veteran.”[11] The filmmaker Deborah Davis has documented a number of incidents in the 1990s that amount to the unequivocal torture of prisoners and has argued that many of the sadistic practices she witnessed taking place in the American prison system were simply exported to Abu Ghraib.

    After 9/11, the United States slipped into a moral coma as President Bush and Vice President Cheney worked tirelessly to ensure that the United States would not be constrained by international prohibitions against cruel and inhumane treatment, and they furthered that project not only by making torture, as Mark Danner argues, “a marker of political commitment” but also by constructing a vast secret and illegal apparatus of violence in which, under the cover of national security, alleged “terrorists” could be kidnapped, made to disappear into secret CIA “black sites,” become ghost detainees removed from any vestige of legality, or be secretly abducted and sent to other countries to be tortured. As Jane Mayer puts it,

    the lawyers also authorized other previously illegal practices, including the secret capture and indefinite detention of suspects without charges. Simply by designating the suspects “enemy combatants,” the President could suspend the ancient writ of habeas corpus that guarantees a person the right to challenge his imprisonment in front of a fair and independent authority. Once in U.S. custody, the President’s lawyers said, these suspects could be held incommunicado, hidden from their families and international monitors such as the Red Cross, and subjected to unending abuse, so long as it didn’t meet the lawyer’s own definition of torture. And they could be held for the duration of the war against terrorism, a struggle in which victory had never been clearly defined. [12]

  7. Mike Spindell says:

    Those who have tortured since 9/11 have used justifications for their torture that are analogous to Jack Bauer in “24”, who uses torture to save LA from a terrorist about to explode a nuclear weapon. To my mind I can condone Bauer doing it in those emergency situstions, but those situations are common in fiction but practically none existent in real life. Certainly the torture incidents that have come to light show that they occurred in highly speculative circumstance. My conclusion then is that the people committing the torture and those ordering it were getting some sadistic gratification from the torture, which is disgusting.

  8. James Knauer says:

    There won’t be any recovery from torture save for prosecutions. Torture paved the way for anything slightly less noxious than waterboarding to make its way into local police departments, captained by man-children who believe policing should be done from an armoured vehicle. It’s practically begging for some Ultimate Solution to that pesky Us vs Them mentality that infects every aspect of American politics and policy: how to be rid of “them.”

    One such “solution” might look like, say, wealth inequality. Another could be the gobsmackingly wide canyon of thought between a constitutional law professor and letting war criminals go free. Yet another might soon come in the form of ripping away insurance from the very people who need it most (raise hand). Anything to keep Americans off balance, fearful of their neighbors and stuffed with simple carbs.Anything to demolish clear thinking.

    In any other age, it could go on like this indefinitely. But not in an exploding information age. One big tell is those born of information do not conflate cyberwar with actual war. Is identity theft torture? Is malware? Is ransomware, where you have to pay a fee to a hacker for the privilege of getting your files unlocked? Is warrantless data-mining at its vicious worst “torture?” Of an American ideal, perhaps. Of an American person? Rather not. The person is always free to leave the online world.

    What information has the power to do is inflict the worst sort of emotional problem among homo sapiens: being embarrassed. It’s why humans keep secrets. They are not afraid of information being “stolen.” They are afraid of being wrong, or unethical, or even coloring their hair, and someone else knowing it. Too many someones. It’s the source of the ire against any person or organization that reveals “secrets,” such as “how many people were actually tortured under this program? What is the list of black sites, and how are they funded? Who approved that funding, up and down the line? What “deal” was the President offered to halt prosecutions many elected him to begin?”

    Change will be coming to this regime. Moore’s Law will see to it.

  9. buckaroo says:

    I wonder how we evaluate Sherman’s March to the Sea or the Burning of Atlanta. He & Gen Grant believed that the Civil War would end only if the Confederacy’s strategic, economic, and psychological capacities for warfare were decisively broken. Is terror not involved ?

  10. buckaroo,
    Not sure of your point. Or more to the point, the relevance.

    Sherman’s actions could certainly be interpreted as war crimes. Perhaps the authorities at the Hague should exhume his remains and put him on trial?

  11. blouise says:

    In the article Elaine posted, A Form of Moral Paralysis, Torture and the Violence of Organized Forgetting, our quiet history with torture was pointed out with clarity.

    James K’s invoking Moore’s Law was simple truth.

    Bush/Cheney and their cohorts found themselves caught up in Moore’s Law and, unable to hide from the information age, were fully, unlike their predecessors, exposed. Having learned, by personally being there, that the Nixon tape defense, “Everybody Does It”, doesn’t work, Cheney, with a sneer and a smirk, stepped forward knowing full well that all the complicit players in Congress, the Military, the Intelligence Services, the State Department, and the Oval Office, would never expose themselves by prosecuting him.

    It is worth remembering that Obama came to the Oval Office via the Senate. Like it or not, he was part of the cabal.

  12. Oro Lee says:

    The Crux –

    Politics of Torture –

    Religious folks support torture –

    Maybe it was just about revenge –

    I think the lack of rage over CIA torture is an indictment of American exceptionalism in all realms except self-delusion

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