A boyish, inquisitive face with an innocent look
peered out from the Washington Post's lead story yesterday on torture.
It was well groomed, pink-shirted John Kiriakou, a CIA interrogator who could
just as easily pass for the local youth minister.
The report by the Post's Joby Warrick and Dan Eggen, which describes
Kiriakou's experience in interrogating suspected terrorists, raises in an unusually
direct way an abiding question: Should the United States of America be using
forms of torture dating back to the Spanish Inquisition?
Nowhere is the mood of that infamous period better portrayed than in the famous
Grand Inquisitor chapter of Dostoevsky's Brothers
Karamazov. Dostoevsky was unusually gifted at plumbing the human heart.
While it has been 127 years since he wrote Brothers Karamazov, he nonetheless
captures the trap into which so many Americans have fallen in forfeiting freedom
through fear. His portrayal of Inquisition reality brings us to the brink of
the moral precipice on which our country teeters today. It is as though he knew
what would be in store for us as fear was artificially stoked after the attacks
In the story, Dostoevsky's Grand Inquisitor (the Cardinal of Seville) ridicules
Christ for imposing on humans the heavy burden of freedom of conscience, and
explains how it is far better, for all concerned, to dull that conscience and
to rule by deceit, violence, and fear:
"Didst thou forget that man prefers peace, and even death, to freedom
of choice in the knowledge of good and evil?...We teach them that it's not the
free judgment of their hearts, but mystery which they must follow blindly, even
against their conscience.... In the end they will lay their freedom at our feet
[and] become obedient...We shall tell them that we are Thy servants and rule
them in Thy name.... we shall be forced to lie.... We shall tell them that every
sin will be expiated if it is done with our permission."
Kiriakou was one of the first interrogators to interview suspected terrorist
Abu Zubayda in a Pakistani military hospital, where Zubayda was recovering from
wounds suffered during his capture in early 2002. When he refused to provide
information about al-Qaeda's infrastructure, he was flown to a secret CIA prison
where, according to Kiriakou, the interrogation team strapped Abu Zubayda to
a board, wrapped his nose and mouth in cellophane, and forced water into his
throat. In just 35 seconds, viola! Abu Zubayda starting talking. That is called
The 15 & 16 Century Spanish inquisitors were not squeamish, and had little
need for circumlocutions or euphemisms like "alternative set of procedures"
that are part of President George W. Bush's lexicon. The Spanish called this
procedure, quite plainly, "tortura del agua." Lacking cellophane,
they inserted a cloth into the victim's mouth, forcing the victim to ingest
water spilled from a jar starting the drowning process. Four centuries later,
the Gestapo put out several technically improved releases of this operating
system of torture, so to speak.
Quick; someone please tell newly confirmed Attorney General Michael Mukasey,
who told reporters yesterday he still cannot decide whether waterboarding is
Abu Zubayda: Poster Child
The information from John Kiriakou confirms what
has long been a no-brainer but not definitively established before; namely,
that President George W. Bush's "alternative set of procedures" for
interrogation by C.I.A. includes waterboarding. Zubayda was given pride of place
in George W. Bush's remarkable speech of Sept. 6, 2006, in which he bragged
about the effectiveness of such procedures and appealed successfully for passage
of the Military Commissions Act. That law allows a president to define what
set of interrogation procedures can be used by the C.I.A. This is Bush on Sept.
"We believe that Zubayda was a senior terrorist leader and a trusted
associate of Osama bin Laden...[and that] he had run a terrorist camp in Afghanistan
where some of the 9/11 hijackers trained...We knew that Zubayda had more information
that could save innocent lives, but he stopped talking...And so the CIA used
an alternative set of procedures...The Department of Justice reviewed the authorized
methods extensively and determined them to be lawful.... But I can say the procedures
were tough, and they were safe, and lawful, and necessary.
"Zubayda was questioned using these procedures, and soon he began to
provide information on key al-Qaeda operatives, including information that helped
us find and capture more of those responsible for the attacks on September the
11th. For example, Zubayda identified one of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed's accomplices
in the 9/11 attacks – a terrorist named Ramzi bin al Shibh. The information
Zubayda provided helped lead to the capture of bin al Shibh. And together these
two terrorists provided information that helped in the planning and execution
of the operation that captured Khalid Sheikh Mohammed."
Bush claimed that his interrogation program had saved lives, and Kiriakou says
the use of waterboarding "probably saved lives." We cannot know for
sure if this is true. Off-the-record interviews with intelligence officials
strongly suggest that there is much prevarication and exaggeration in the president's
claims about lives saved and operations disrupted, and that his assertions merit
no more credulity than other claims – for example, that Iran's nuclear weapons
program poses a threat to the U.S., even though it has been stopped for four
Other U.S. intelligence officials take issue with the C.I.A.'s version of the
questioning of Zubayda. Some say that initially he was cooperating with F.B.I.
interrogators using a nonconfrontational approach, when C.I.A. assumed control
and opted for more aggressive tactics. After that experience, the F.B.I. reportedly
warned its agents to avoid interrogation sessions at which harsh methods were
As for credibility, never has a U.S. president's word been so cheapened as
it is today. In late July 2007, we Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity
joined with Justin Frank, MD, psychiatrist, professor at George Washington University
Hospital, and author of Bush
on the Couch, to search for insight on how President Bush thinks. See
of a Cornered Bush," from which we excerpt the following:
"His pathology is a patchwork of false beliefs and incomplete information
woven into what he asserts is the whole truth...He lies – not just to us, but
to himself as well...What makes lying so easy for Bush is his contempt – for
language, for law, and for anybody who dares question him.... So his words mean
nothing. That is very important for people to understand."
This Is Oversight?
The past few weeks have witnessed an unseemly
square dance in Congress, highlighting conflicting claims about what those who
are supposed to be overseeing the intelligence community knew and when they
knew it – about torture, about Iran, about many things. It is nothing short
of an insult to the Founders that members of the House and Senate can find nothing
more useful to do than wring their hands over their largely self-inflicted powerlessness.
Lawmakers have been so thoroughly intimidated by the White House that I get
physically ill watching the likes of Nancy Pelosi, Jane Harman, Bob Graham,
and Jay Rockefeller moan about how secretive and nasty the Bush administration
has been. Harman complained recently that when she was ranking Democrat on the
House Intelligence Committee some of the material (on interrogations) was so
highly classified that she had to take a "second oath" to protect
What about the solemn oath they all take to support and defend the Constitution
of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic? Should not that
oath transcend and govern others that an administration might require for access
to secret materials?
Senator Dick Durbin of the Senate Intelligence Committee has complained that
he was aware that classified information did not justify the conclusion in 2002
that Iraq had unconventional weapons, but he could not say anything because
it was classified! Durbin explained:
"...We're duty-bound once we enter that room to respect classified
information. Everything you hear is supposed to stay in the room...I certainly
had enough to know that the statements that were made about mushroom clouds
were not the conclusions of someone in the administration who was really being
honest about the full debate. But you really know, walking in the room, what
the rules of the game will be."
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, has admitted knowing for several years about the
Bush administration's eavesdropping on Americans without a court warrant. She
was briefed on it when she was ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee
when Bush and Cheney took office. One key unanswered question is this: Was she
told that within days of their taking office – that is, seven months before
9/11, the National Security Agency's electronic vacuum cleaner had already
begun to suck up information on Americans – the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance
Act, not to mention the Constitution, be damned?
In a Washington Post op-ed of Jan. 15, 2006, Pelosi proudly advertised
her uniquely long tenure on the Intelligence Committee and acknowledged that
she was one of the privileged handful of lawmakers who were briefed. "This is
how I came to be informed of President Bush's authorization for the NSA to conduct
certain types of surveillance." She then proceeded to demonstrate the bowing
and scraping characteristic of her subservient attitude toward the Executive
"But when the administration notifies Congress in this manner, it is not
seeking approval. There is a clear expectation that the information will be
shared by no one, including other members of the intelligence committees. As
a result, only a few members of Congress were aware of the president's surveillance
program, and they were constrained from discussing it more widely."
And so too, may we assume, with respect to torture? This is oversight?
Neutered Watchdogs: Rockefeller and Reyes
What can we expect from the current Senate and
House oversight chairmen regarding the recently disclosed, deliberate destruction
of two tapes of harsh interrogations of Abu Zubayda and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri?
(Al-Nashiri is thought to have played a role in the attack on the USS Cole.)
On the Senate side, expect nothing of Mr. Milquetoast Jay Rockefeller, chairman
of the Senate Intelligence Committee, who, it is said, is so afraid of his own
shadow that he only ventures outdoors at night or in bad weather.
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Silvestre Reyes has a different kind
of problem, and should recuse himself. He has been fawning all over José
Rodriguez, the former CIA Deputy Director of Operations who ordered the tapes
On August 16, 2007 Congressman Reyes told a conference in El Paso he considered
Rodriguez "an American hero," proudly adding that, "with a few
liberties that Hollywood takes, the exploits of José Rodriguez are documented
in the FOX TV series '24.'" I am told that almost every episode of "24"
includes at least one scene glorifying torture, usually with lead man Jack Bauer
playing a main role. Reyes made it clear he is a big fan of Bauer and "24."
Were that not enough, after Rodriguez' role in destroying the interrogation
tapes became public, Reyes immediately cautioned against allowing investigations
to find just one "scapegoat" (no secret to whom he was referring).
And so, unless Reyes does recuse himself, look for a "complete and thorough"
investigation of the kind favored by the Nixon White House. (Just when you may
have thought it could not get any worse!)
Torture as Technique: Stark Differences in View
On Sept. 6, 2006, the very day Bush bragged about
his "alternative set of procedures for interrogation" and appealed
for legislation allowing the C.I.A. to continue using them, the head of Army
intelligence, Lt. Gen. John Kimmons, took a very different tack. Conducting
a Pentagon briefing shortly before the president gave his own speech, Kimmons
underscored the fact that the revised Army manual for interrogation is in sync
with the Geneva treaties. Then, conceding past "transgressions and mistakes,"
Kimmons updated something I learned 45 years ago as a second lieutenant in Army
"No good intelligence is going to come from abusive practices. I think
history tells us that. I think the empirical evidence of the last five years,
hard years, tells us that."
Grabbing the headlines the following day, was Bush's admission that the CIA
has taken "high-value" captives to prisons abroad for interrogation
using "tough" techniques prohibited by the revised Army field manual
– and by Geneva, for that matter. Gen. Kimmons displayed uncommon courage in
facing into that wind.
How About – Stop Torture Because It's Wrong?
Have you noticed the shameful silence of our institutional
churches, synagogues, and mosques? True, on occasion a professor of moral theology
will speak out. Professor William Schweiker of the Chicago Divinity School,
for example, has heaped
scorn on the scenario of the lone knower of the facts whose torture is thought
to be able to save millions of lives. He notes that such is "the stuff
of bad spy movies and bad exam questions in ethics courses." Schweiker
warns Christians, in particular:
"Not to fall prey to fear and questionable reasoning and thus continue
to support an unjust and vile practice that demeans the nation's highest political
and moral ideals, even as it desecrates one of the most important practices
and symbols (Baptism) of the Christian faith."
And, to its credit, the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, a coalition
of 130 religious organizations from left to right on the political spectrum,
yesterday issued a strong call for the appointment of a special counsel to investigate
the C.I.A.'s destruction of the videotapes of harsh interrogation techniques.
NRCAT's founder, Princeton Theological Seminary professor George Hunsinger told
the press that "to acknowledge that waterboarding is torture is like conceding
that the sun rises in the east," adding:
"All the dissembling in high places that makes these shocking abuses possible
must be brought to an end. But they will undoubtedly continue unless those responsible
for them are held accountable. Clearly a joint probe by the Justice Department
and the CIA – agencies that are both seriously compromised – is not enough.
A special counsel is an essential first step."
But where are the official voices of the institutional churches, synagogues,
and mosques in this country? In effect, they are ordaining Jack Bauer with their
This Happened Before
With very few exceptions, the institutional churches
in Nazi Germany kept a shameful silence, denying believers the moral authority
and leadership so needed to stand up to Gestapo torturers. Indeed, many of the
bishops – like military leaders, and jurists – swore a personal oath to Hitler.
For his part, the Nazi leader moved quite quickly to ensure that there was a
pastor – whether Evangelical or Catholic – in every parish in Germany. He saw
this as a source of support and stability for his regime. And, sadly, it was.
While the Nazis were systematically torturing and even murdering defenseless
victims, they kept repeating assurances that not a single hair of anyone's head
would be harmed. (Shades of the familiar refrain "we do not torture.")
And the propaganda machine under Joseph Goebbels made a fine art of what President
Bush calls the need to "catapult the propaganda."
Sebastian Haffner, a young German lawyer in Berlin during the thirties kept
a journal that his children subsequently published in book form as Defying
Hitler. His fascinating account of Germany in the thirties provides
many thoughtful insights into prevailing attitudes and the lack of moral leadership.
Haffner's journal depicted the kind of ambiance in which the approach of the
Grand Inquisitor would, and did, flourish – "in the end they will lay
their freedom at our feet [and] become obedient:"
"The weather in March 1933 was glorious. Was it not wonderful to...merge
with festive crowds and listen to speeches about freedom and homeland? (It was
certainly better than having one's belly pumped up with a water hose in some
hidden secret police cellar.)"
Breeding and Breakdown
Haffner closes his chapter on 1933 with observations
that, in my view, apply much too aptly to America today:
"The sequence of events is, as you see, not so unnatural. It is wholly
within the normal range of psychology, and it helps to explain the almost inexplicable.
The only thing that is missing is what in animals is called ‘breeding.' This
is a solid inner kernel that cannot be shaken by external pressures and forces,
something noble and steely, a reserve of pride, principle, and dignity to be
drawn on in the hour of trial. It is missing in Germans. As a nation we are
soft, unreliable, and without backbone. That was shown in March 1933. At the
moment of truth, when other nations rise spontaneously to the occasion, the
Germans collectively and limply collapsed. They yielded and capitulated, and
suffered a nervous breakdown."
C.I.A.'s John Kiriakou says he is now convinced that waterboarding is torture
and he is against it. He adds, "Americans are better than that."
But Are We Better Than That?
Sadly, that remains to be seen. With virtually
all religious institutions, politicians, and educators all squandering what
moral authority they have left, the Jack Bauer culture threatens to win out
in the end. We cannot let that happen.
The upcoming duel on the missing interrogation tapes will again bring the issue
of torture front and center. And, strangely, waterboarding and other Jack Bauer
tradecraft tools still enjoy a strong constituency.
Here's where we come in; for we are the ones we've been waiting for. As one
of my intelligence alumni colleagues noted recently, this is about our country
losing its soul. Let's rise to the occasion and stop unconscionable policies
like torture. True patriotism goes well beyond a flag-on-the-lapel. As Dr. Martin
Luther King, Jr. noted, "Sometimes you have to put your body into it."
Besides, we need to keep the water hose from pumping up our bellies and those
of our loved ones. I only wish that were as remote a possibility as it was before
President Bush and his associates came up with their "alternative set of