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Jane Mayer's Torture Scoop

I wanted to flag a great interview with Jane Mayer I heard this morning on Democracy Now radio. I know, attention spans are short these days--but for those who want the Cliffs Notes for The Dark Side, Mayer's by all accounts extraordinary new portrait of the United States' torture program, give it a listen. The gist:

… One prisoner–Abu Zubaydah–told the Red Cross he had been waterboarded at least ten times in a single week and was confined in a small box that resembled a coffin.

…Mayer also reveals that the Bush administration ignored warnings from the CIA six years ago that up to a third of the prisoners at Guantanamo Bay may have been imprisoned by mistake.

…Mayer writes “As part of the war on terror, for the first time in its history the United States has sanctioned government officials to physically and psychologically torment American-held captives, making torture the official law of the land in all but name.” 

Mayer put two and two and two and two together over the course of some crackerjack reporting for the New Yorker, which she says began with a realization that the hoods and stress positions of Abu Ghraib were being replicated in Guantanamo, evidence that there was a clear curriculum in place for detainee treatment, sanctioned by the executive branch and deployed by our military with impunity.

Personally, I find this all abhorrent. But more interesting is the notion that--through some fluke of geography and history, the United States has never really had a corpus of war prisoners before. Detaining Japanese Americans during WWII was an outlying situation (probably as it should be). So in the years after 9/11, during which we rounded up some hundreds of enemy combatants, the US government apparently found itself ass-out as to how to extract information from the villainous hordes.

We just weren't ready. So the CIA essentially "reverse engineered" our own torture operation from the scraps of a special program designed to teach American Joes how to resist coercive interrogation under capture. Because, you know, there are bad guys out there.

But if the execution was crude, radical and inhumane, the program did rely on ostensibly scientific analysis. Mayer discusses this at length in the interview, with emphasis on psychology and the role of various professional organizations in the march to torture. To me this suggests that despite our many bad calls on that front (misapprehending citizens, enforcing detainment after some of the prisoners were deemed harmless, getting caught on tape) a responsible American government must plan for and execute a strategy of intelligence gathering with greater nuance than the "waterboarding-sucks"/"double Guantanamo" debate currently offers. I think a diverse panoply of medical, military and psychological professionals could be enlisted to address these security aims with more transparency than this administration. It wouldn't be the 24-gy that, say, David Addington would like, but it's a reform to which I suspect both presidential candidates would be open.

A sad postscript, on recriminations for executive branch mismanagement of our "war on terror": Congressional attempts to enforce subpoenas have run into brazen, systematic disobedience. The odious Richard Cheney has just been served up a hall pass on the unrelated Valerie Plame affair by his friend and protector, the president of the United States. Legal scholars of the real and armchair variety are welcome to sound off on both of these shameful "developments."

--Dayo Olopade