Postcards from the Edge

The penal system the U.S. set up in Afghanistan and Iraq is, by its nature, a torture system.

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By Tom Engelhardt

The next day [January 14, 2004], Gen. John Abizaid, commander of all U.S. forces in the region, was on the phone to Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld. ‘General Abizaid informed the leadership within hours of the incident,’ said a senior Pentagon official. Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, the military’s spokesman in Iraq, also called the Pentagon, though with more alarming words. ‘He said, “We’ve got a really bad situation,” recalled one official, who like others requested anonymity. ‘The evidence is damaging and horrific,’ ‘We’ve got a really bad situation…’

“Abizaid talked daily with Rumsfeld about Iraq, and the prison investigation likely came up often, officials said. Top Pentagon leaders, such as Rumsfeld and Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, as well as President Bush were kept aware of the situation, said Gen. Peter Pace, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, on the CBS Early Show yesterday.” (Tom Bowman, the Baltimore Sun, Army tightly guarded pictures of prison abuse)

The torture system

It’s worth starting with the basics, because they are what you’re likely to see the least of in the uproar at hand.

The system of injustice that, since 9/11, we’ve sent offshore and organized globally — from Guantanamo, Cuba to Bagram Air Force Base in Afghanistan — is by its nature also a system of torture. It was designed from the beginning to be a Bermuda Triangle of injustice, existing in an extrajudicial darkness beyond “our” sight or oversight. There, on military bases and in special military-controlled prisons, the “war on terrorism” could be carried to its informational climax in whatever ways and by whatever methods American intelligence officials felt might “break” whatever prisoners we had.

Whether in Guantanamo or at Abu Ghraib in Iraq, this developing mini-gulag was never meant to be a system of imprisonment for crimes — hence the lack of charges, no less trials of any sort, anywhere in the imperium. It was to be an eternal holding operation for the purpose of information extraction (and possibly revenge). The men (and woman) running the Bush administration’s foreign policy in this period didn’t have to specify the actual use of torture, though some of them seem to have done so. We know from the Sunday Washington Post that, in April 2003, after “debates” on the subject, Pentagon officials at “the highest levels” approved twenty “psychologically stressful” methods of interrogation, most or all of which any sane person would classify as torture, including the questioning of naked prisoners, and that these methods were later approved at least for “high-value detainees” in Iraq. In the meantime, there was a good deal of post-9/11 torture chatter in the media about how much of it we could, should, and would use in a war to the death against a fanatic enemy.

Both the President and his Pentagon chief claimed to be “shocked” or “disgusted” by the forms a torture system took — by its look. Yes, they had been informed of what had happened at Abu Ghraib prison, but those, after all, were just words, months of words. The difference was the images on television and in the press. “We saw the pictures,” said the President. “It is the photographs that gives one the vivid realization of what actually took place,” said his secretary of defense. “Words don’t do it. The words that there were abuses, that it was cruel, that it was inhumane, all of which is true, that it was blatant, you read that and it’s one thing. You see the photographs and you get a sense of it, and you cannot help but be outraged.”

That is in itself a kind of confession, if you consider it for a moment. You cannot help but be outraged. All those previous months from mid-January 2004 on, when he and his president assumedly only knew about the “words” (grim enough certainly in General Taguba’s report), when they were, in the pungent phrase of Gen. Peter Pace, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs, “apprised orally,” our secretary of defense and our President could evidently “help but be outraged.” And that tells us a great deal.

They could, it seems, practice “deniability” not only on us but on themselves. Human beings are as capable of this as they are of turning into animals and torturing other human beings. But whatever deceptions they may have practiced on themselves, the simple fact is that the penal system they set up was a torture system. The Bush administration, while speaking loudly of bringing its version of democracy to the Middle East, was also eager, as Adam Hochschild wrote for Tomdispatch many months ago, to bring the developing “age of human rights” to a speedy end in the pursuit of what former CIA director and enthusiastic neocon James Woolsey liked to call “World War IV,” which was imagined, like the Cold War, as a many decades long slog to victory in which only the toughest, those willing to wield brute power and commit the most difficult acts, would survive. After all, it was, post 9/11, a new-style bomb-shelter world and we were planning on acting accordingly and — so our leaders made clear — to hell with international institutions and international norms, whether new (the International Criminal Court) or old (the Geneva Conventions). In this way, they set the tone for a world of torture on the Single-Power Planet of a military giant determined to have its own way and in documents like its National Security Strategy of 2002 said so in no uncertain terms. They determined the camera angles and set up the cameras, so to speak, but when the pictures came back they had no stomach for them. Words, that was another matter entirely.

From the beginning, this administration was never embarrassed by the words, by the news that did leak out from its black hole of injustice. That such a system was being developed was obvious to anyone who cared to look, or bothered to read even our own press closely, or consulted groups like Human Rights Watch which are concerned about such matters. I’ve written about it over these many months at Tomdispatch, for tiny audiences, without a researcher to help me, no less teams of reporters — based upon nothing but a close reading of the press here and abroad and the kind of Google search ability that any journalist at a major paper could better in a few seconds. Despite the odd report on the methods that were quickly put in use in the privacy of military bases and offshore prisons, our cowed and demobilized press has generally preferred since 9/11 not to shine its spotlights — or send its teams of reporters — “into the shadows” to find out what indeed was going on; while its editorial pages preferred to blindly “support our troops in Iraq” and let the small problems like abuse and torture in those shadows go by the boards.

I mention this because, in the wake of the publication of the photos of the horrendous abuses at Abu Ghraib, the editorial pages of our two imperial newspapers are suddenly in full cry. They are shocked, shocked, and ready to do something about it. And we have to be glad for that. On Wednesday, the Washington Post published an editorial acknowledging that what we were facing was, as the headline put it, A System of Abuse:

“Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld yesterday described the abuses of Iraqi prisoners at the Abu Ghraib prison as ‘an exceptional, isolated’ case. At best, that is only partly true. Similar mistreatment of prisoners held by U.S. military or intelligence forces abroad has been reported since the beginning of the war on terrorism. A pattern of arrogant disregard for the protections of the Geneva Conventions or any other legal procedure has been set from the top, by Mr. Rumsfeld and senior U.S. commanders. Well-documented accounts of human rights violations have been ignored or covered up, including some more serious than those reported at Abu Ghraib…”

The day after the same page called for Rumsfeld’s resignation:

“Mr. Rumsfeld’s decisions helped create a lawless regime in which prisoners in both Iraq and Afghanistan have been humiliated, beaten, tortured and murdered — and in which, until recently, no one has been held accountable.”

But it also called for the sort of special handling of terrorists that can only lead to further torture:

“In one important respect, Mr. Rumsfeld was correct: Not only could captured al Qaeda members be legitimately deprived of Geneva Convention guarantees (once the required hearing was held) but such treatment was in many cases necessary to obtain vital intelligence and prevent terrorists from communicating with confederates abroad. But if the United States was to resort to that exceptional practice, Mr. Rumsfeld should have established procedures to ensure that it did so without violating international conventions against torture and that only suspects who truly needed such extraordinary handling were treated that way.”

It sounds so simple, but the “exceptional practice” – such a conveniently opaque phrase; it wouldn’t work if they wrote what they meant in plain English, would it? — quite naturally becomes the ordinary in such settings as Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo.
In the meantime, the New York Times, in recent months regularly a day late and a dollar short compared with the Post, called for Rumsfeld’s departure on Friday and on the same day, offered its editorial version of our offshore penal system (The Military Archipelago):

“The road to Abu Ghraib began, in some ways, in 2002 at Guantánamo Bay. It was there that the Bush administration began building up a worldwide military detention system, deliberately located on bases outside American soil and sheltered from public visibility and judicial review. The administration shunned the scrutiny of independent rights monitors like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. It presumed that suspected agents of terrorism did not deserve normal legal protections, and it presumed that American officials could always tell a terrorist from an innocent bystander.”

The editorial, while strong, promptly added: “So far as we know, the psycho-sexual humiliations that military jailers inflicted on Iraqi detainees last year at Abu Ghraib have no parallels in American-run prisons elsewhere.”

Accounts by released Guantanamo prisoners and those in Afghanistan, in fact, indicate that psycho-sexual humiliations were part and parcel of the system itself. But the more important point is simply to imagine what might have happened if either of these imperial papers had made up their collective minds to shine a spotlight into the imperial darkness once they knew — after all, the Bush administration practically broadcast this to the skies — that we considered the Geneva Conventions beside the point in the “war on terror” and that our leading global principle would simply be the application of brute force of which we had, it was believed, the global preponderance? Now the editorial pages of these (and many other papers) are calling for official accountability and resignations as well as Donald Rumsfeld’s head. Perhaps, however, there should be a little journalistic accountability as well, not to speak of the odd editorial apology and maybe even a resignation or two. (Fat chance, of course.) Despite the recent editorials and the burst of front-page coverage, let me just assure you that, given the performance of our until-recently cowed and demobilized press, there aren’t going to be a lot of media profiles in courage to hand around when it comes to the last two years.

To give but a single example, during the period in the spring of 2003 when our media expressed outrage (as they should have) over the parading of American POWs before Iraqi propaganda cameras, they were showing the first shots of hooded Iraqi prisoners in what looked like burlap sacks. If you go back to our newspapers of that moment, you’ll find such photos presented without comment and they were relatively commonplace on TV. No one discussed “hooding” as a practice until the photos of the hooded prisoners at Abu Ghraib suddenly made it look like a horror. And yet the practice, clearly systematic, had to have been carefully planned out and prepared for. Those bags didn’t just materialize from the palm groves along the roadside. They must have been shipped in with the troops. I’m not an expert on war crimes, but I find it hard to believe that the hooding of prisoners is an agreed upon international practice in time of war.

As far as I can tell, for Iraqis themselves, though the specifics of Abu Ghraib undoubtedly shocked, none of this was, at heart, exactly news. After all, they were the ones who best grasped that the essential principle of the occupation was the use of brute force (in or out of prison); that the Coalition Provisional Authority and its head “administrator” L. Paul Bremer were instituting not a system of laws and rights backed by the vote — democracy — but a system of lawlessness focused on corporate spoils. Bremer’s “democracy,” run out of the isolation of the Green Zone in Baghdad, was Iraqi-less, but filled with corporate “contractors,” including those who made, and evidently continue to make piles of money, by sending hired “interrogators” and “linguists” into our detention centers to join American “human exploitation teams” – a term I heard for the first time last night on ABC News -– and at least one of which, CACI International, is still advertising for interrogators willing to work under “moderate supervision” in the field in “AfghanistanIraqKosovo.” (“Must be able to work and live in a hostile field environment with minimum medical facilities. Must process excellent communications skills and the ability to work in extreme environments for extended periods of time… Willing to travel and must posses the ability to be an effective communicator… Knowledge of Military police operations and Force Protection procedures. Experience conducting interrogations and interview using linguist and local interrupters. Knowledge of the reporting tools used in tactical interrogation operations.”)

The need for “information” in Iraq was so great, reports Julian Borger of the Guardian, that there was a veritable rush to employment. He interviewed Torin Nelson, “one of a team of roughly 30 in Abu Ghraib employed by a Virginia-based firm, CACI International.” Of Nelson’s testimony he writes in part:

“Torin Nelson, who served as a military intelligence officer at Guantánamo Bay before moving to Abu Ghraib as a private contractor last year, blamed the abuses on a failure of command in US military intelligence and an over-reliance on private firms. He alleged that those companies were so anxious to meet the demand for their services that they sent ‘cooks and truck drivers’ to work as interrogators.”

Enough Iraqis have passed through our prison system there — 43,000 by some estimates, including perhaps 8,000 still in detention — that this sort of thing was hardly news (as Jo Wilding recently pointed out in great detail at the Progressive Trail website). Protests by families of the detained have been going on there for months and months. Nor could it have been news that, among the “terrorists” slipping into the country, the CPA was sponsoring hired mercenaries who had formerly worked in death squads or at other heinous activities for the regimes of Apartheid South Africa, Pinochet’s Chile, and Milosevic’s Serbia. The Iraqis, of course, knew firsthand what a simple Google search could have brought you to here in the U.S. (as it did me), or what any American guard in one of our detention centers could certainly have told you. (“‘It is a common thing to abuse prisoners,’ military police sergeant Mike Sindar told Reuters of his time in Abu Ghraib. ‘I saw beatings all the time.'”)

Our Iraqi “prison” system has now been revealed to all as 16-17 detention centers countrywide, whose activities involve systematic beatings, abuse, torture, humiliation, and murder; the holding of tens of thousands of often innocent prisoners without charges, often beyond the reach of their families, sometimes off the books and from elsewhere (“ghost prisoners,” as the intelligence people evidently call them), and in chaotic conditions (even Rumsfeld in his testimony could only offer an approximation of the number of prisoners held in the system). Until recently, however, it has been possible to learn more about the nature of this system from “Riverbend,” a young woman blogger in Baghdad, largely confined to her house due to the insecurity of that city, than from our major papers, each with their teams of reporters, translators, aides, drivers, equipment handlers, and the like.

Having in the past described something of the nightmare of detention in her country under the occupation and meetings with the despairing relatives of the detained, she now writes in part:

“Everyone knew this was happening in Abu Ghraib and other places… seeing the pictures simply made it all more real and tangible somehow. American and British politicians have the audacity to come on television with words like, ‘True the people in Abu Ghraib are criminals, but…’ Everyone here in Iraq knows that there are thousands of innocent people detained. Some were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, while others were detained ‘under suspicion’. In the New Iraq, it’s ‘guilty until proven innocent by some miracle of God.’

“People are so angry. There’s no way to explain the reactions- even pro-occupation Iraqis find themselves silenced by this latest horror. I can’t explain how people feel- or even how I personally feel. Somehow, pictures of dead Iraqis are easier to bear than this grotesque show of American military technique. People would rather be dead than sexually abused and degraded by the animals running Abu Ghraib prison…

“I sometimes get emails asking me to propose solutions or make suggestions. Fine. Today’s lesson: don’t rape, don’t torture, don’t kill and get out while you can- while it still looks like you have a choice… Chaos? Civil war? Bloodshed? We’ll take our chances- just take your Puppets, your tanks, your smart weapons, your dumb politicians, your lies, your empty promises, your rapists, your sadistic torturers and go.”

Having a good time… Wish you were here!

Returning to, as scientists might say, the proximate cause of the present uproar — the latest photos with, we now know, more and worse to come — here’s how a recent Washington Post piece started (New Prison Images Emerge):

“The collection of photographs begins like a travelogue from Iraq. Here are U.S. soldiers posing in front of a mosque. Here is a soldier riding a camel in the desert. And then: a soldier holding a leash tied around a man’s neck in an Iraqi prison. He is naked, grimacing and lying on the floor.

“Mixed in with more than 1,000 digital pictures obtained by The Washington Post are photographs of naked men, apparently prisoners, sprawled on top of one another while soldiers stand around them.”

And so the young and impoverished here in our country were “enabled” — to appropriate a word from the Taguba report — to see the world via the U.S. military thanks to the Bush administration. Camels, the desert, a young woman in uniform holding a leashed Iraqi… one of so many images caught on digital cameras, packed onto compact discs, and sent home via computers to the folks; a modern twist on the 19th century colonial postcard or the thrilling stereopticon scene (which sometimes featured no less chilling visions of the conquered world).

“Having a good time…. Wish you were here!” And thanks to these images of and from the boys and girls next door (“It’s not in her nature to do something like that. There’s not a malicious bone in her body.” “…she sometimes found it difficult to kill animals when they went hunting…”), Americans find themselves plunged into a different world. Okay, actually a number of those boys and girls were next door to American prisons where they were guards and no doubt none too kindly there either, but those who weren’t were undoubtedly trying to escape a burger-flipping or Wal-Mart-clerking fate. And, as it turned out, the U.S. military under George Bush offered so many opportunities to be more than they could be or should have been.

From camels to leashed humans, their photos of the “exotic,” instantly recognizable to 19th or 20th century historians, are the stuff of any brutal colonial occupation. The shots of Chinese severed heads from the good old days of the Boxer Rebellion, when an international expeditionary force took Peking, or those grim photo “albums” Japanese soldiers proudly brought back from their Pacific War “triumphs” in places like Nanking, or similar shots sent home from Vietnam (and published in the late 1960s in what was then called the “underground press”). The bloody and exotic always went so well together as long as you imagined the conquered – and even then, the missions of conquest had fancy, uplifting names like the French “mission civilatrice” — as somehow less human than yourself. These were, of course, acts you would have hidden if they took place in your own world — except under similar circumstances as, for instance, with the celebratory postcards of lynchings that were made well into this century in our own country.

“These pictures are pictures of colonial behavior,” wrote Philip Kennicott in a powerful piece in the Washington Post, “the demeaning of occupied people, the insult to local tradition, the humiliation of the vanquished. They are unexceptional. In different forms, they could be pictures of the Dutch brutalizing the Indonesians; the French brutalizing the Algerians; the Belgians brutalizing the people of the Congo.”

For us, the present imbroglio has been a long time coming; and unpredictable as the specifics with their modern twist (the digital photo loosed onto computer systems) may be, the path to these horrors was a remarkably straight one. We don’t need further investigations to see this — though I thought Rumsfeld’s announcement Friday that he was setting up an “independent review board” to look into the previous investigations of Abu Ghraib had a certain charm. Assumedly it will be followed by an investigation of the investigation of the various earlier investigations, given that this “blue ribbon” panel, as the New York Times termed it in a piece Saturday, is made up so far only of members of the Defense Policy Board, an advisory body to the Pentagon, headed until recently by this administration’s famed neocon “prince of darkness” Richard Perle. It might lead you to ask, “Independent of what exactly?”

Of course, why “investigate” when this has been investigated, and then General Taguba’s scathing report was, against military regulations, classified secret and kept away from the public gaze until those “postcards” began to exfiltrate Iraq. (According to the Federation of American Scientists’ Project on Secrecy, “The executive order that governs national security classification states that “In no case shall information be classified in order to… conceal violations of law.”) You also don’t need to investigate because simple logic takes you directly down the Guantanamo highway to the horrors of Abu Ghraib, which are sure to be simply a way station along the road to “atrocities” (the word Senator Kerry recently apologized for in relation to Vietnam) elsewhere, including in the prison cesspool that Guantanamo is sure to prove to be.

Most of the comments, apologetic or horrified, out of this administration really have to do with “image,” “standing,” loss of “reputation” or of “credibility,” with “wrong impressions” and, of course, “damage control.” Only to Americans, inside our imperial bubble-world, can these sound faintly reasonable or at all like actual apologies of any sort. The other day in his interview with Al Arabiya Television, for instance, the President said:

“In our country, when there’s an allegation of abuse — more than an allegation in this case, actual abuse, we saw the pictures — there will be a full investigation and justice will be delivered. We have a presumption of innocent until you’re guilty in our system, but the system will be transparent, it will be open and people will see the results. This is a serious matter. It’s a matter that reflects badly on my country. Our citizens in America are appalled by what they saw, just like people in the Middle East are appalled. We share the same deep concerns. And we will find the truth, we will fully investigate. The world will see the investigation and justice will be served.”

“The presumption of innocent[ce]” is indeed the American Way, as the President has said, but in this case only for America (and not, of course, for Jose Padilla or Yaser Esam Hamdi, American citizens who have experienced their own private Guantanamos in military brigs and jails right here in the USA). In fact, that was the very point of Bush administration policy post-9/11. Their too-clever-by-half move that produced the present situation was to portion off small American-controlled areas of the globe — generally military bases, our modern imperial “gunboats” — as “not America” and so beyond the legal reach or oversight of anyone from the Supreme Court to the International Red Cross. Guantanamo was, of course, to be the master stroke in this policy and so the pride of our new offshore penal system.

It tells you everything you need to know about that system that, two years later, this administration hasn’t managed to conduct a single trial, even of the stacked sort they thought would put their enemies of choice away forever. (And remember, they made it quite clear that, should they lose any of these tribunals of their choosing, they considered it their right to keep prisoners behind bars anyway as long as the “war on terrorism” was ongoing.) This, too, is now the American Way. And — let me say it once more — what we’re not talking about here is a system that has anything to do with determining “innocence,” which would indeed imply a system of justice; it is intent only on the breaking of wills and the extraction of information, and so by its essential nature a torture system.

Note, by the way, that Major General Geoffrey Miller, head of Guantanamo prison, was recently brought to Iraq to “overhaul” the prison system there. (Our global mini-gulag is now extensive enough that it seems to have its own career ladder.) In the last few days, he has been one of a string of high officials who have “apologized” to Iraqis and now he claims that he’s taking perhaps 10 of the 50-odd techniques for severe interrogation, including hooding, off the table in that country. Dexter Filkins of the New York Times reports:

“But he defended practices like depriving prisoners of sleep and forcing them into ‘stress positions’ as legitimate means of interrogation, noting that they are among 50-odd coercive techniques sometimes used against enemy detainees. [He seems since to have changed his mind on sleep deprivation.]… He said he saw his main purpose in both places as extracting as much intelligence as possible to help the American war effort. ‘We were enormously proud of what we had done in Guantánamo, to be able to be able to set that kind of environment where we were focused on gaining the maximum amount of intelligence,’ General Miller said…He also defended the use of contract interrogators, saying he had employed 30 at Guantánamo.”

We now know as well that General Miller originally visited Abu Ghraib back in the fall of 2003 and seems to have really gotten the ball rolling by offering a little piece of helpful advice from a penal colony all-star. He suggested “that military detention centers in Iraq should serve as an ‘enabler for interrogation’ and that the prison guards should ‘set the conditions for successful exploitation of the internees.'” As Seymour Hersh, whose New Yorker piece really broke the Abu Ghraib story, commented in an appearance on Fox TV’s The O’Reilly Factor, “One of [the other investigations of Abu Ghraib] was done by a major general who was involved in Guantanamo, General Miller. And it’s very classified, but I can tell you that he was recommending exactly doing the kind of things that happened in that prison, basically. He wanted to cut the lines. He wanted to put the military intelligence in control of the prison.” The general, whether he has ever lifted a hand against a prisoner or directly ordered one of those “stress” methods (and it seems he has), is by the very nature of what he has overseen a torturer and, like those above him, deserves prosecution.

Out there in the world, given the system the Bush administration has spent over two years carefully setting in place, it’s “guilty forever.” Out there, whether at Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, Bagram Air Force Base, “Camp Justice” on the Indian Ocean Island of Diego Garcia (an “aircraft carrier” of an island), or in so many detention areas, holding facilities, literal aircraft-carrier prisons, and even the foreign jails of “friendly allies,” where prisoners have been more or less openly sent for torture, there is not only no presumption of innocence, but no chance of proving one’s innocence.

Perhaps the most striking and least commented upon aspect of the recent interviews with Iraqi detainees, who were abused and tortured in various ways and are now on the outside (and so could be interviewed) is this: When asked why they were released, they invariably have no idea. One day, they were simply notified that they would soon be released, or they were just unceremoniously dumped out on the street. As far as I can tell, in no cases were their releases explained to them. This isn’t strange. After all, what explanation could be offered, since the very concept of “innocence” has disappeared, as it must in a thoroughly extrajudicial world. (This sort of thing takes Kafka’s famed novel The Trial, whose scenes were once a touchstone for describing totalitarian worlds, several steps beyond anything he imagined.)

Sooner or later, assumedly, detainees prove to be not innocent, but of no further use or perhaps they are found never to have been any use at all — and so they’re tossed out of prison with no more explanation than when they entered it. Robert Moran of Knight Ridder reported on one bizarre recent prisoner release from Abu Ghraib:

“Scores of prisoners released from the controversial Abu Ghraib prison Tuesday were forced to take a winding, nearly five-hour journey through central Iraq on three hot, rickety buses escorted by U.S. military Humvees before being deposited without explanation in the middle of a gravel quarry near Saddam Hussein’s hometown of Tikrit. It was unclear why the detainees, at least a hundred of them, were dropped off at the remote location 120 miles north of Baghdad… One detainee, who declined to give his name, asked, ‘Is this democracy?'”

No, this had nothing to do with “democracy.” It was the logical culmination of, the final small torture in an extrajudicial system meant only to extract information by whatever means. Now we know why Gillo Pontecorvo’s film about rebellion and torture in French colonial Algeria, The Battle of Algiers, was shown at the Pentagon back in 2003. It’s just too bad that everyone evidently focused on the tortures, meant to break the back of the Algerian resistance, and ignored the film’s ending.

And here’s the irony of it all. Such methods — from the “softening up” humiliations to the harder stuff — were meant to crack first the hard nuts of al-Qaeda and then the bitter-ender Baathists from Saddam’s regime of torture and murder. But the more information these prisons and their “exploitation” units pumped out, the more insecure Iraq (and the world became). The more they applied such horrors to crack our enemies, the closer this administration came to cracking itself. (“One Pentagon consultant said that officials with whom he works on Iraq policy continue to put on a happy face publicly, but privately are grim about the situation in Baghdad. When it comes to discussions of the administration’s Iraq policy, he said, ‘It’s “Dead Man Walking.”‘”) Now the post-9/11 torture system, in the form of those postcards from the edge, seems to be cracking the Bush administration wide open. Under “torture,” it’s they who have folded. If there isn’t a lesson here, remind me what the lesson should be.

Who are we anyway?

Novelist and former British intelligence officer John Le Carré wrote a series of Cold War thrillers, of which the most famous were The Spy Who Came In from the Cold and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. All of them cumulatively offered an essential insight for that era. Although the Russian KGB, British intelligence, and our own CIA had all plunged “into the shadows” to play the deadly game of spy vs. spy, it turned out, in that underground realm, where each side believed itself to be blocking the other’s crucial advances, something strange was happening. Their spies and our spies were coming to feel they had more in common with each other than with either of the societies they were ostensibly defending. Underground, their ways of life began to merge. Le Carré’s was an essential insight and he was the first to bring it back from the intelligence netherworld in novels that are still striking to read.

But here’s the strange thing — as he makes clear in his latest thriller Absolute Friends — when the Soviet Union collapsed, instead of folding its tent, the last standing global superpower simply absorbed much from the other side and soon plunged further into the shadows. And in doing so, our own system — out there in the imperium (and increasingly at home as well) — became more “absolute,” more oppressive, more — in short — Russian.

We see the grim results of that in Abu Ghraib and elsewhere. We see it in the continuous growth of the Pentagon despite the loss of all major military enemies. We see it in the grim, helter-skelter way the Bush administration has been replaying its own primal experiences — the Cold War and Vietnam. In particular, though it’s hardly been noted, we see it in the way this administration is acting out the one policy that, in the era of two superpowers, remained a fantasy.

Given the power of the Russian military, especially once it nuclearized, the American position in the Cold War was generally considered one of “containment.” But particularly in the early years, another policy was discussed with fervor. John Foster Dulles, President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s Secretary or State (and brother of then-CIA Director Allen Dulles) called it “rollback.” We were to rollback the borders of the Soviet empire by subversion and by military power. Never practiced (except in a few heady Korean-War months), it was much dreamt about.

Now, in the post-Soviet era, our government has taken aspects of the worst Cold War dreams of both sides. It wants to dominate the world. (Remember when this is what we swore they wanted to do?) It wants to control an extrajudicial penal system for its enemies, a kind of global Siberia shielded from prying eyes of any sort; and it wants rollback of the now pathetically impoverished remnants of the Soviet Union, Putin’s Russia (still dangerously nuclear armed). So as NATO has, with our enthusiastic support pushed deep into the western borderlands of the old Soviet Union, the U.S. military has driven its own bases deep into the former Yugoslavia, the former Islamic SSRs, those ‘stans of Central Asia, into Afghanistan (where the Soviet Union essentially expired in a brutal lost war that also gave birth to al Qaeda), and prospectively into the former SSR of Georgia which sits on a crucial oil pipeline meant to bring Caspian oil to Europe and beyond.

This then is the world according to Bush, the world from which those photos emerged.

Additional dispatches from Tom Engelhardt can be read throughout the week at, a web log of The Nation Institute.


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