Home/Rod Dreher/‘Such Language Is Not Helpful’

‘Such Language Is Not Helpful’

America is a nation that is willing to torture people, and that has tortured them. So says the Senate Intelligence Committee report released today. This is the part of The New York Times’s account of the report that sticks in my mind:

Many of the most extreme interrogation methods — including waterboarding — were authorized by Justice Department lawyers during the Bush administration. But the report also found evidence that a number of detainees had been subjected to other, unapproved methods while in C.I.A. custody.

The torture of prisoners at times was so extreme that some C.I.A. personnel tried to put a halt to the techniques, but were told by senior agency officials to continue the interrogation sessions.

The Senate report quotes a series of August 2002 cables from a C.I.A. facility in Thailand, where the agency’s first prisoner was held. Within days of the Justice Department’s approval to begin waterboarding the prisoner, Abu Zubaydah, the sessions became so extreme that some C.I.A. officers were “to the point of tears and choking up,” and several said they would elect to be transferred out of the facility if the brutal interrogations continued.

During one waterboarding session, Abu Zubaydah became “completely unresponsive with bubbles rising through his open, full mouth.” The interrogations lasted for weeks, and some C.I.A. officers began sending messages to the agency’s headquarters in Virginia questioning the utility — and the legality — of what they were doing. But such questions were rejected.

“Strongly urge that any speculative language as to the legality of given activities or, more precisely, judgment calls as to their legality vis-à-vis operational guidelines for this activity agreed upon and vetted at the most senior levels of the agency, be refrained from in written traffic (email or cable traffic),” wrote Jose A. Rodriguez Jr., then the head of the C.I.A.’s Counterterrorism Center.

“Such language is not helpful.”

Such language is not helpful. Well, no, I suppose it isn’t, if you want to hide the evil you do from overseers, and from yourself. Think of it! The torture was so horrible that even the torturers wept — but their masters at Langley ordered them to carry on.

From Bloomberg News:

Rahim was usually shackled in a standing position, wearing a diaper and a pair of shorts, the report said. His diet was almost entirely limited to water and liquid Ensure meals.

Other detainees were subjected to “rough takedowns” where they were dragged naked down long corridors while being slapped and punched by CIA officers.

At one detention site known as Cobalt, detainees were held naked in tubs as interrogators poured cold water on them, according to the report.

“Others were hosed down repeatedly while they were shackled naked, in the standing sleep-deprivation position,” the report said.

Majid Khan, who the CIA thought had knowledge of a plan to attack gas stations, was one of at least five detainees subjected to rectal feeding. He was fed a pureed mix of hummus, pasta with sauce, nuts and raisins.

He tried to chew into his arm at the elbow, attempted to cut his wrist on two occasions and tried to cut a vein in his foot, according to the report.


A team from the U.S. Bureau of Prisons inspected one of the secret detention facilities, saying they had “never been in a facility where individuals are so sensory deprived,” according to a December 2002 e-mail in the report’s summary that redacted the identity of the sender and receiver. “There is nothing like this in theFederal Bureau of Prisons.”

The CIA contracted with two psychologists to develop, operate, and assess its interrogation operations, although they had no experience as interrogators nor specialized knowledge of al-Qaeda. The CIA paid their company $81 million between 2006 and 2009, and has paid out more than $1 million under a 2007 multiyear indemnification agreement protecting the company and its employees from legal liability.

You will recall that the CIA tried to infiltrate Senate computers to find out what Intelligence Committee investigators knew about them. That is, the spy agency attempted to undermine the legitimate activity of the people’s representatives.

According to a separate Bloomberg report, the White House decided not to tell Secretary of State Colin Powell about the torture out of fear that he would “blow his stack.” And the CIA lied to the Congress, to the White House, to everybody:

According to the report, the CIA provided “extensive amounts of inaccurate and incomplete information” about its operations and their effectiveness during several briefings and statements to Congress, the public and in response to questions from the White House.

The report also revealed that President George W. Bush was briefed by “no CIA officer, up to and including CIA Directors George Tenet and Porter Goss … before April 2006,” two and a half years after Powell and Rumsfeld.

So why didn’t Powell and Rumsfeld tell the president? To preserve plausible deniability? I find it impossible to believe that Bush did not authorize, even if implicitly, their silence.

USA Today quotes directly from the report. It reads like a horror film. Excerpts:

“According to CIA records, Abu Ja’far al-Iraqi was subjected to nudity, dietary manipulation, insult slaps, abdominal slaps … stress positions and water dousing with 44 degree Fahrenheit water for 18 minutes. He was shackled in the standing position for 54 hours as part of sleep deprivation and experienced swelling in his lower legs requiring blood thinner and spiral ace bandages. He was moved to a sitting position, and his sleep deprivation was extended to 78 hours. After the swelling subsided, he was provided with more blood thinner and was returned to the standing position.

“The sleep deprivation was extended to 102 hours. After four hours of sleep, Abu Ja’far al-Iraqi was subjected to an additional 52 hours of sleep deprivation, after which CIA headquarters informed interrogators that eight hours was the minimum rest period between sleep deprivation sessions exceeding 48 hours.”

The Republicans are fighting back against the release of the torture report, calling it a partisan attack on the Bush Administration. The Weekly Standardlinks to the long statement of a former CIA interrogator writing under the pseudonym “Jason Beale,” who tears into the Senate report, and says the Democratic leadership was well aware of what the CIA was doing, and didn’t disapprove until aspects of it became public.

Max Boot, at Commentary:

Whatever the case, of one thing I am positive: that the release of the Senate report will only aid our enemies who will have more fodder for their propaganda mills. It is hard to see how it will serve the interests of the United States, because even if you believe the interrogations in question were war crimes, the reality remains that they were long discontinued. Feinstein’s report merely rakes up history and for no good purpose beyond predictable congressional grandstanding.

So, the language in the report that tells the truth about what our spies actually did to people is what aids the enemy, not the actual deeds themselves. Got it.

Releasing this report serves the interests of the United States because it shows our government’s capacity for committing barbaric evil, and for lying to cover it up, and for rationalizing it — a rationalization that continues today, as we see from most of the GOP and conservative response.

This is a matter of deep conscience. What kind of country are we? Is this what America is? Is this what we defend? The worst kind of barbarism? In particular I want to say to my fellow Christian conservatives: think hard about this report, and the idolatrous attitude that so many of us have toward America. We are America’s good servants, but God’s first. When our country has done evil, we must not hesitate to condemn it, and work to reform it. What we must not do is fall victim to an instrumentalist mentality that calls evil acts good because they achieved, or are believed to have achieved, desired results.

I would also point out to liberal and Democratic readers that President Obama, despite his statement today praising the report, hid 9,400 documents from Senate investigators. That man’s hands are not clean either.

This is my first reaction to the news. I may amend my views after reading more in the days to come. I am grateful to the Senate Democrats for this investigation and report. If it had been up to the Republicans, everything would have been thrown down the memory hole, and they would have called themselves patriots for having done so. As Marco Rubio and others are doing today.

I want to associate myself with Nick Gillespie’s remarks at the Reason blog, especially these:

Whether the report sparks violence in the Middle East and beyond—I’m betting that our actual foreign policy over even just the past few years is the likelier culprit—it is a terrible but necessary examination of what the United States has allowed to happen under the name of making the world safe from terrorism.

Most accounts have the Senate Republicans dissenting from the report’s conclusions. By all means, bring on the debate over what actually was going on in an agency that has never been particularly respectful of either the Constitution or respect for any limitations placed upon it. We may well learn things that shed new light on some of the report’s darkest passages.

But until that happens, it seems as if the Senate report is one more reason to deeply, deeply question the government when it tells you that it is being straight even with itself and asks that your surrender any aspect of your freedom or skepticism in the name of safety.


Read the whole Senate torture report here. 

I want to add one more thing. My dear friend Frederica Mathewes-Green was the spiritual daughter of the late Father Gheorghe Calciu, a Romanian Orthodox priest who was gruesomely tortured in Pitesti, the most notorious of the communist prisons, for his faith. In this recollection of him after his death a few years back, Frederica writes about what Fr. Gheorghe said about torture. Excerpt:

 There was yet one more stage of “brainwashing,” the worst of all. The mentally and physically broken prisoner would ultimately be forced to torture someone else. This was what completed the destruction of their personalities. Fr George said, “Under terror and torture one can say, ‘yes, yes, yes.’ But now, to have to act? It was very difficult. It was during this part that the majority of us tried to kill ourselves.” Fr. George says he tried to throw himself off a three-storey staircase, and was saved only when another prisoner grabbed him and pulled him back.

The Romanian poet Razvan Codrescu wrote,

“All the life of this man after the tragic Pitesti episode was one of confession and sacrifice. In his soul and in his flesh he measured the distance between hell and heaven. Perhaps no survivors of Pitesti achieved a moral victory as brilliant and as enduring as his. Because the case of Gheorghe Calciu exists, it can be said that the Pitesti experiment was a failure.”

I think of the Americans who tortured those prisoners. I don’t know who is in greater danger of Hell: those who committed the evil deeds that landed them in the lap of the American torturers, or the American torturers. And you know, people, we are citizens of a democracy, and therefore all complicit in this.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. A veteran of three decades of magazine and newspaper journalism, he has also written three New York Times bestsellers—Live Not By Lies, The Benedict Option, and The Little Way of Ruthie Lemingas well as Crunchy Cons and How Dante Can Save Your Life. Dreher lives in Baton Rouge, La.

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