Thursday, April 30, 2009

the "torture debate"

The phrase “torture debate” is one I never thought I would use in the context of US domestic politics. It is fair to say that until a few years ago, it would have never occurred to any significant element of the US population to openly support torture by our own government. Our unequivocal opposition to torture is even enshrined in our founding document, the US Constitution, which (in the Eight Amendment) prohibits the infliction of “cruel and unusual punishment.” Yet, incredibly, we now have the leaders and rank-and-file of one of our two major political parties almost unanimously arguing – not in the shadows or in defensive, apologetic terms, but publicly and stridently – in support of torture.

As recently as 2003, at the time of the capture of Saddam Hussein, George W. Bush

“For the vast majority of Iraqi citizens who wish to live as free men and women, this event brings further assurance that the torture chambers and the secret police are gone forever.”

Invoking torture was the harshest possible condemnation of Saddam’s regime – the implication being that any leader who engages in state-sanctioned torture forfeits his legitimacy. Who knew that at the very time Bush was speaking those words, his own administration was engaged in torture (and operating secret prisons). (Psychologists have a word for this:

When Bush was in power, the right abandoned almost all limitations on the executive in favor or an almost unfettered authoritarianism. It now appears they have also abandoned all moral bearings. The party that proclaims itself to be “pro-life” and in favor of “small government” has chosen to define itself by asserting the right of the executive to torture – in secret, of course, with no oversights by courts, Congress or the public. (I saw one piece in recent days that actually referred to the Bush administration’s torture practices as a “moral imperative,” presumably on the basis of some sort of narrow utilitarian calculus. Cheney is proclaiming that torture works! Talk about “moral relativism.”)

One right-winger who has included me on his email distribution list was out among the
teabaggers on April 15th, declaring Obama’s proposal to increase taxes by 3% on the top 5% richest taxpayers to be tantamount to “fascism.” And only a few days later, he was directing his free-floating, middle-aged, white male, right-wing anger toward Obama’s discontinuation and (partial) exposure of Bush’s torture policies. Who says irony is dead?

There was no “torture debate” during World War II, which resulted in almost a half a million US deaths. As President Obama noted in his
press conference yesterday:

I was struck by an article that I was reading the other day talking about the fact that the British during World War II, when London was being bombed to smithereens, had 200 or so detainees. And Churchill said, "We don't torture," when the entire British -- all of the British people were being subjected to unimaginable risk and threat.

And then the reason was that Churchill understood, you start taking short-cuts, over time, that corrodes what's -- what's best in a people. It corrodes the character of a country.

Nor was there a “torture debate” during the Cold War when an evil foe had thousands of nuclear warheads trained on us, haunting us with the specter of sudden nuclear holocaust. But 19 guys with box cutters cause us to abandon everything we stand for? Those bearded fanatics managed to accomplish something neither the Nazis nor the Soviet Union was ever able to do – cause us to voluntarily abandon what it means to be American. How did we manage to survive as a country for over 200 years without state torture?

Just to be clear: Torture is illegal. Period. No exceptions. It is illegal under US law and under treaties that the US has signed and ratified. That is a legal stance shared by all civilized countries. We are a nation of laws and no one in government – not even Dick Cheney – is free to disregard those laws. So the “debate” should end there. If Republicans REALLY want to torture, they should go about it legally, and get Congress to pass and the president to sign a new law or laws that repeal current prohibitions on torture.

During the period in question Republicans controlled both Congress and the executive. If they wanted to legalize torture they could have attempted to make it legal. (Of course, such an attempt to legalize torture would almost certainly be unconstitutional under the Eight Amendment. A Constitutional amendment would have been required.) Instead, the Bush administration insisted at the time that we DON’T torture.

Bush told the American people on multiple occasions (and long after his administration had begun to engage in torture):

"No American will be allowed to torture another human being anywhere in the world...."

"This country doesn’t torture, we’re not going to torture."

So Bush & co. not only broke the law, they lied to the American people about it. The justifications for torture only came about after it became undeniable that we had engaged in it and that it was official policy, approved at the highest levels of our government (not just the rogue behavior of “a few bad apples”).

There is no “commander in chief” exception to US laws, as the Bush administration and its supporters among the authoritarian right have argued. The Founders put the executive branch in Article II of the Constitution. Article I is the legislative branch. That is because we are a country of laws and those laws – passed by Congress and signed by the president – dictate what the executive branch can and cannot do. The Founders made it clear in the Constitution. Article II says that the president “shall take care that the laws be faithfully executed.”

Yes, the president is commander in chief of the armed forces. Which means only that he is at the top of the military chain of command. But Congress is given the power to make the rules for our armed forces. Article I in enumerating the powers of Congress lists, “To make rules for the government and regulation of the land and naval forces”. Nothing in the Constitution even remotely suggests that the commander in chief authority somehow gives the president the right to disregard any law he wants as long as he does it as the head of the military (that would, after all, make us essentially a military dictatorship). Just the opposite – the Constitution explicitly gives Congress the power to regulate the military. (It’s ironic that “conservatives” who are always insisting on a “strict construction” of the words of the Constitution are willing to take the commander in chief authority and expand it to override everything else in the Constitution, giving the president unfettered power.)

It is worth noting, by the way, that most of the torture – or at least the worst of it – appears to have taken place under the auspices of the CIA – a civilian branch of government – not the military. So it is pretty hard to argue that the president’s power as commander in chief of the military gives him the power to order civilian branches of government to break the law. But that is the argument that Republicans are making these days.

[click to enlarge]

[See the Tom Tomorrow cartoon archive

We’ve had a lot of information about our torture practices come out in recent weeks – it’s hard to keep track of it all. There was the leaked
Report of the Red Cross (which is the entity charged with monitoring compliance with the Geneva Conventions) on US detention practices, which concluded, “The allegations of ill treatment of the detainees indicate that, in many cases, the ill treatment to which they were subjected while held in the C.I.A. program, either singly or in combination, constituted torture”. And the infamous Torture Memos from the Bush “Justice” Department. And the unclassified version of the Senate Armed Services Committee Report on the Treatment of Detainees in US Custody released last week.

I’m not going to even begin to attempt to summarize all we have learned in recent weeks. But I will offer some observations.

To really appreciate our loss of moral bearings, just look at the language that’s being used – euphemisms like “enhanced interrogation techniques.” And “stress positions.” Sounds like you’re trying to figure out if you can get out of work on time to pick up the kids before day care closes. But what it ACTUALLY means is being bound in excruciatingly painful positions for unbearably long periods of time. In other words, it means TORTURE.

Or “sleep deprivation.” Sounds like a night of too much scotch and cocaine (e.g., Dubya when he was “young and irresponsible” – meaning, before he entered politics). But what it ACTUALLY means is being forced to stay awake for as long as eleven days. That’s right – ELEVEN DAYS. It’s right there – explicitly – in the
2002 torture memo signed by Assistant Attorney General Jay Bybee (who was rewarded with a lifetime appointment to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals – one notch below the Supreme Court).

What do you have to DO to a person to keep him awake for ELEVEN DAYS? Nothing completely destroys a person’s psyche more thoroughly than sleep deprivation. That is WHY it is used as a means of torture. Because it is one of the most extreme and destructive methods of torture. Sadists over the centuries have learned its effectiveness.

And according to the torture memos while you are at it, you can destroy the individual’s sense of dignity and autonomy by imprisoning him NAKED. Just to make it clear he has NO POWER, maybe douse him with freezing water. Because, ultimately, torture is all about POWER.

According to the Bush “Justice” Department you can combine all these torture techniques. And you almost HAVE to. About the only way to keep a guy awake for ELEVEN DAYS is “stress positions.” Want an example? Look at the last panel in the cartoon above. That is taken from the Red Cross Report.

Philip Zelikow was executive director of the 9-11 Commission and a top aide to former Secretary of State Rice. He writes in Foreign Policy that the “focus on water-boarding misses the main point of the program”:

…[w]hich is that it was a program. Unlike the image of using intense physical coercion as a quick, desperate expedient, the program developed "interrogation plans" to disorient, abuse, dehumanize, and torment individuals over time.

The plan employed the combined, cumulative use of many techniques of medically-monitored physical coercion. Before getting to water-boarding, the captive had already been stripped naked, shackled to ceiling chains keeping him standing so he cannot fall asleep for extended periods, hosed periodically with cold water, slapped around, jammed into boxes, etc. etc. Sleep deprivation is most important.

Let’s drop the euphemisms. This is what our right-wing authoritarians
are defending:

Read the descriptions military personnel provided of prisoners' reactions to "enhanced interrogation": "Detainee began to cry. Detainee bit the IV tube completely in two. Started moaning.... Yelled for Allah. Urinated on himself.... Trembled uncontrollably."
In the Los Angeles Times today, a co-counsel for one detainee, Abu Zubaydah,
describes his treatment in US custody. (At the time, and even now, Zubaydah is described as a top al Qaeda leader. Subsequent reporting in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and by Ron Suskind in his book, "The One Percent Doctrine," describe Zubaydah as a minor logistics man, a travel agent, or a personnel clerk.)

He was the first prisoner in the "war on terror" to experience the full gamut of ancient techniques adapted by the communists in Korea and, 50 years later, approved by the Justice Department in Washington. He was the first prisoner to have his interrogations captured on videotape -- a practice the CIA ended in late 2002. Two years later, the agency destroyed 90 videotapes of Abu Zubaydah's interrogations, which resulted in a criminal investigation of government officials connected with the program.

Many questions about his interrogation remain unanswered, but two legs of the three-legged stool are firmly in place.

First, they beat him. As authorized by the Justice Department and confirmed by the Red Cross, they wrapped a collar around his neck and smashed him over and over against a wall. They forced his body into a tiny, pitch-dark box and left him for hours. They stripped him naked and suspended him from hooks in the ceiling. They kept him awake for days.

And they strapped him to an inverted board and poured water over his covered nose and mouth to "produce the sensation of suffocation and incipient panic." Eighty-three times. I leave it to others to debate whether we should call this torture. I am content with the self-evident truth that it was wrong.

And as for water-boarding (which has been considered torture since Torquemada and the Spanish Inquisition), the specific methods we used were adopted intact from the methods used by North Korea during the Korean war and by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. Those methods were not devised to elicit accurate information. They were designed to elicit false confessions … and basically just maximize sadistic pleasure without actually killing the victim. They were then used in SERE (survival, evasion, resistance, escape) training for US servicemen to let them know the kind of thing our enemies might subject them to. Those SERE methods were then adopted by the CIA for … torture. They were not devised from experience or theory as methods designed to prove effective in eliciting reliable information. These techniques went from North Korean/Khmer Rouge > US military resistance training > adoption intact as US interrogation methods. We have become our enemy.

Speaking of Zelikow, he is something of an expert on the law as it relates to torture and made an attempt to point out to members of the Bush administration that the legal logic of the torture memos was deeply flawed and shouldn’t be relied upon:

At the time, in 2005, I circulated an opposing view of the legal reasoning. My bureaucratic position, as counselor to the secretary of state, didn't entitle me to offer a legal opinion. But I felt obliged to put an alternative view in front of my colleagues at other agencies, warning them that other lawyers (and judges) might find the OLC views unsustainable. My colleagues were entitled to ignore my views. They did more than that: The White House attempted to collect and destroy all copies of my memo.
[Rachel Maddow has a long interview with Zelikow:
Part 1/Part 2.]

It is pretty clear that with torture, as with just about everything else, Bush, Cheney and those around them made aggressive efforts to ensure that no information that challenged their ideology and their actions ever saw the light of day.

As I said, torture is all about POWER. If you can torture someone under your power, you can do ANYTHING. Yes, including murder.

In June of last year, the former Chief of Staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell, Lawrence Wilkerson,
testified before the House Judiciary Committee that over 100 detainees have died in US custody with up to 27 of them having been ruled to be homicides.

Then there are the “disappeareds.” According to Human Rights Watch, 35 suspects known to have been held in secret prisons as far back as 2001 are still unaccounted for. The name of one of those missing prisoners, Hassan Ghul, was apparently accidentally included unredacted in one of the torture memos:

According to the memo, Ghul was one of 28 CIA detainees at the time who had been subjected to the agency’s "enhanced interrogation techniques." Specifically, the memo says he was subjected to "facial hold," "facial slap," "stress positions," "sleep deprivation," a technique called "walling," in which a detainee’s shoulders are repeatedly smashed against a wall, and the "attention grasp [8]," in which the detainee is placed in a choke-hold and slapped.
Until this 2005 memo was released last week, the last time Ghul was heard from was 2004.

Thanks largely to Dick Cheney, who claimed last week that our torture was a “
success,” the “torture debate” has now turned to the question of whether torture “works”.

Eugene Robinson in the Washington Post
frames the issue correctly:

Yes, people break under torture and tell what they know, along with what they don't know and what they think their torturers want to hear. But there is no way to be certain that the valuable information wouldn't have been extracted through traditional -- and legal -- methods of interrogation.

Even if experts have differing views about torture's effectiveness, there is one point on which they cannot disagree: It violates U.S. and international law.

This is similar to President Obama’s response in his
press conference yesterday:

[T]he public reports and the public justifications for these techniques, which is that we got information from these individuals that were subjected to these techniques, doesn't answer the core question.

Which is, could we have gotten that same information without resorting to these
techniques? And it doesn't answer the broader question, are we safer as a consequence of having used these techniques?

There appears to be a break between the FBI and the CIA when it comes to the question of whether torture “works” – understandably, since the FBI refused to participate in torture while the CIA did. From the
New York Times:

In an interview with Vanity Fair last year, the F.B.I. director since 2001, Robert S.
Mueller III, was asked whether any attacks had been disrupted because of
intelligence obtained through the coercive methods. “I don’t believe that has been the case,” Mr. Mueller said. (A spokesman for Mr. Mueller, John Miller, said on Tuesday, “The quote is accurate.”)
One FBI interrogator, Ali Soufan, in a New York Times op-ed, writes about the successful efforts of the FBI and CIA in gaining “actionable intelligence” from Abu Zubaydah in the spring of 2002 using conventional interrogation methods (i.e., not torture). He disputes the claim that subsequent torture of Zubaydah produced anything of value:

Defenders of these [torture] techniques have claimed that they got Abu Zubaydah to give up information leading to the capture of Ramzi bin al-Shibh, a top aide to Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, and [Jose] Padilla. This is false. The information that led to Mr. Shibh’s capture came primarily from a different terrorist operative who was interviewed using traditional methods. As for Mr. Padilla, the dates just don’t add up: the harsh techniques were approved in the memo of August 2002, Mr. Padilla had been arrested that May.

One of the worst consequences of the use of these harsh techniques was that it reintroduced the so-called Chinese wall between the C.I.A. and F.B.I., similar to the communications obstacles that prevented us from working together to stop the 9/11 attacks. Because the bureau would not employ these problematic techniques, our agents who knew the most about the terrorists could have no part in the investigation. An F.B.I. colleague of mine who knew more about Khalid Shaikh Mohammed than anyone in the government was not allowed to speak to him.
Most of the specific claims of success using torture have similarly been refuted. It is worth taking the time to review this excellent
timeline of some key events relevant to the “torture debate”. In addition to refuting claims of effectiveness for torture, the timeline also refutes some of the “ticking time bomb” justifications for torture – that in the immediate aftermath of 9-11 we didn’t know if another strike was imminent.

For example, the torture memos revealed that two prisoners, Zubaydah and Khalid Sheik Mohammed, were waterboarded a total of 266 times. In the case of Zubaydah, that happened in August 2002 – almost a year after 9-11. In the case of KSM, it happened in March 2003 – a year and a half after 9-11. This was not the “ticking time bomb” scenario always posited by torture advocates and fans of “24”. In the case of Zubaydah, as Soufan notes, we learned a lot of useful intelligence from him – in March through June of 2002 when the FBI interrogated him with conventional (i.e., non-torture) methods. The torture started thereafter.

Karl Rove and FOX News, among others, have claimed that torture prevented a “West Coast 9-11.” They claim that CIA waterboarding of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed gave authorities information used to foil a plot to hijack an airplane with a shoe bomb and fly it into the tallest building in Los Angeles. But as
Timothy Noah in Slate and Daily Kos TV have documented, the Rove timetable just doesn't add up. While KSM was arrested in March 2003, the Los Angeles plot was stopped in February 2002 -- more than a year earlier. Rove's tale is a blatant falsehood.

The New York Times had
an article this week on how an ABC News interview in 2007 with a former CIA official skewed the “debate” over waterboarding:

In late 2007, there was the first crack of daylight into the government’s use of waterboarding during interrogations of Al Qaeda detainees. On Dec. 10, John Kiriakou, a former C.I.A. officer who had participated in the capture of the suspected terrorist Abu Zubaydah in Pakistan in 2002, appeared on ABC News to say that while he considered waterboarding a form of torture, the technique worked and yielded results very quickly.

Mr. Zubaydah started to cooperate after being waterboarded for “probably 30, 35 seconds,” Mr. Kiriakou told the ABC reporter Brian Ross. “From that day on he answered every question.”

His claims — unverified at the time, but repeated by dozens of broadcasts, blogs and newspapers — have been sharply contradicted by a newly declassified Justice Department memo that said waterboarding had been used on Mr. Zubaydah “at least 83 times.”

Some critics say that the now-discredited information shared by Mr. Kiriakou and other sources heightened the public perception of waterboarding as an effective interrogation technique. “I think it was sanitized by the way it was described” in press accounts, said John Sifton, a former lawyer for Human Rights Watch, an advocacy group.

During the heated debate in 2007 over the use of waterboarding and other
techniques, Mr. Kiriakou’s comments quickly ricocheted around the media. But
lost in much of the coverage was the fact that Mr. Kiriakou had no firsthand
knowledge of the waterboarding: He was not actually in the secret prison in
Thailand where Mr. Zubaydah had been interrogated but in the C.I.A. headquarters
in Northern Virginia. He learned about it only by reading accounts from the field. …

“It works, is the bottom line,” Rush Limbaugh
exclaimed on his radio show the next day. “Thirty to 35 seconds, and it works.”
The Los Angeles Times had an article earlier this week on how the CIA avoided efforts to evaluate whether torture was actually effective in gaining actionable intelligence:

The CIA used an arsenal of severe interrogation techniques on imprisoned Al Qaeda suspects for nearly seven years without seeking a rigorous assessment of whether the methods were effective or necessary, according to current and former U.S. officials familiar with the matter.The failure to conduct a comprehensive examination occurred despite calls to do so as early as 2003. That year, the agency's inspector general circulated drafts of a report that raised deep concerns about waterboarding and other methods, and recommended a study by outside experts on whether they worked. …

But neither the inspector general's report nor the other audits examined the effectiveness of interrogation techniques in detail or sought to scrutinize the assertions of CIA counter-terrorism officials that so-called enhanced methods were essential to the program's results. One report by a former government official -- not an interrogation expert -- was about 10 pages long and amounted to a glowing review of interrogation efforts."Nobody with expertise or experience in interrogation ever took a rigorous, systematic review of the various techniques -- enhanced or
otherwise -- to see what resulted in the best information," said a senior U.S.
intelligence official involved in overseeing the interrogation program.
As long as there is no definitive evaluation of the effectiveness of torture, you can claim anything, right?

Matthew Alexander was a highly-successful former interrogator who led the team that obtained the intelligence resulting in the capture of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq (described in the book, “How to Break a Terrorist: The U.S. Interrogators Who Used Brains, Not Brutality, to Take Down the Deadliest Man in Iraq “).
Writing in the Washington Post last November, Alexander also refuted the idea that torture is effective and describes part of the downside:

I learned in Iraq that the No. 1 reason foreign fighters flocked there to fight were the abuses carried out at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo. Our policy of torture was directly and swiftly recruiting fighters for al-Qaeda in Iraq. The large majority of suicide bombings in Iraq are still carried out by these foreigners. They are also involved in most of the attacks on U.S. and coalition forces in Iraq. It's no exaggeration to say that at least half of our losses and casualties in that country have come at the hands of foreigners who joined the fray because of our program of detainee abuse. The number of U.S. soldiers who have died because of our torture policy will never be definitively known, but it is fair to say that it is close to the number of lives lost on Sept. 11, 2001. How anyone can say that torture keeps Americans safe is beyond me -- unless you don't count American soldiers as Americans. …

We're told that our only options are to persist in carrying out torture or to face another terrorist attack. But there truly is a better way to carry out interrogations --
and a way to get out of this false choice between torture and terror.

What is particularly shameful is that it is become increasingly clear (for example, from the Senate Armed Services Committee report released last week) that much of the worst torture done in our name was undertaken because the Bush/Cheney administration was trying to come up with an Iraq-al Qaeda link to justify the Iraq war, not to protect us from some imminent threat. From a
McClatchy article last week:

The Bush administration applied relentless pressure on interrogators to use harsh methods on detainees in part to find evidence of cooperation between al Qaida and the late Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein's regime, according to a former senior U.S. intelligence official and a former Army psychiatrist.

Such information would've provided a foundation for one of former President George W. Bush's main arguments for invading Iraq in 2003. In fact, no evidence has ever been found of operational ties between Osama bin Laden's terrorist network and Saddam's regime.

The use of abusive interrogation — widely considered torture — as part of Bush's quest for a rationale to invade Iraq came to light as the Senate issued a major report
tracing the origin of the abuses and President Barack Obama opened the door to
prosecuting former U.S. officials for approving them. …

A former senior U.S. intelligence official familiar with the interrogation issue said that Cheney and former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld demanded that the interrogators find evidence of al Qaida-Iraq collaboration. …

"Cheney's and Rumsfeld's people were told repeatedly, by CIA . . . and by others, that there wasn't any reliable intelligence that pointed to operational ties between bin Laden and Saddam, and that no such ties were likely because the two were fundamentally enemies, not allies."

Senior administration officials, however, "blew that off and kept insisting that we'd overlooked something, that the interrogators weren't pushing hard enough, that there had to be something more we could do to get that information," he said.

A former U.S. Army psychiatrist, Maj. Charles Burney, told Army investigators in 2006 that interrogators at the Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, detention facility were under "pressure" to produce evidence of ties between al Qaida and Iraq.

"While we were there a large part of the time we were focused on trying to establish a link between al Qaida and Iraq and we were not successful in establishing a link between al Qaida and Iraq," Burney told staff of the Army Inspector General. "The more frustrated people got in not being able to establish that link . . . there was more and more pressure to resort to measures that might produce more immediate results."

The Bush administration’s determination to make the world conform to their ideology and rationalizations is truly astounding.

It has become increasingly apparent that most of the “detainees” seized in the “war on terror” were completely innocent. The vast majority were handed over by warlords in Afghanistan and Pakistan in return for generous bounties. Some were bad guys, but some were just people the bounty recipient didn’t like – or, indeed, were handed over by a genuine bad guy to cover his own tracks. Since we didn’t capture the guys ourselves, and don’t speak the language or understand the culture, we were really pretty clueless as to the ultimate innocence or guilt of these people. As is typical with bureaucrats everywhere, our government officials didn’t want to admit their mistakes – especially if it would make them appear weak or, God forbid, someone who was released subsequently actually did something bad. The ultimate CYA – lock them up in a lawless black hole and try to forget about them.

As Colin Powell’s former Chief of Staff, Wilkerson,
There are several dimensions to the debate over the U.S. prison facilities at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba that the media have largely missed and, thus, of which the American people are almost completely unaware. For that matter, few within the government who were not directly involved are aware either.

The first of these is the utter incompetence of the battlefield vetting in Afghanistan during the early stages of the U.S. operations there. Simply stated, no meaningful attempt at discrimination was made in-country by competent officials, civilian or military, as to who we were transporting to Cuba for detention and interrogation.

This was a factor of having too few troops in the combat zone, of the troops and civilians who were there having too few people trained and skilled in such vetting, and of the incredible pressure coming down from Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and others to "just get he bastards to the interrogators".

It did not help that poor U.S. policies such as bounty-hunting, a weak understanding of cultural tendencies, and an utter disregard for the fundamentals of jurisprudence prevailed as well (no blame in the latter realm should accrue to combat soldiers as this it not their bailiwick anyway).

The second dimension that is largely unreported is that several in the U.S. leadership became aware of this lack of proper vetting very early on and, thus, of the reality that many of the detainees were innocent of any substantial wrongdoing, had little intelligence value, and should be immediately released.

But to have admitted this reality would have been a black mark on their leadership from virtually day one of the so-called Global War on Terror and these leaders already had black marks enough: the dead in a field in Pennsylvania, in the ashes of the Pentagon, and in the ruins of the World Trade Towers. They were not about to admit to their further errors at Guantanamo Bay. Better to claim that everyone there was a hardcore terrorist, was of enduring intelligence value, and would return to jihad if released. I am very sorry to say that I believe there were uniformed military who aided and abetted these falsehoods, even at the highest levels of our armed forces. …

[Another unreported dimension of the debate] is the ad hoc intelligence
philosophy that was developed to justify keeping many of these people, called the mosaic philosophy. Simply stated, this philosophy held that it did not matter if a detainee were innocent. Indeed, because he lived in Afghanistan and was captured on or near the battle area, he must know something of importance (this general philosophy, in an even cruder form, prevailed in Iraq as well, helping to produce the nightmare at Abu Ghraib). All that was necessary was to extract everything possible from him and others like him, assemble it all in a computer program, and then look for cross-connections and serendipitous incidentals--in short, to have sufficient information about a village, a region, or a group of individuals, that dots could be connected and terrorists or their plots could be identified.

Thus, as many people as possible had to be kept in detention for as long as possible to allow this philosophy of intelligence gathering to work. The detainees' innocence was inconsequential. After all, they were ignorant peasants for the most part and mostly Muslim to boot. …

So innocents were knowingly kept in detention to avoid having to admit mistakes and because they might have some information about something that, when combined with a lot of other stuff, might prove useful.

And these are the people Rumsfeld called, “
the worst of the worst”.

Karl Rove recently said on FOX News (as shown in this great
Daily Show clip): “All these techniques have now been ruined.”

This is my favorite argument against letting the American people know that their government has been torturing people. Rove nails it. Now our enemies will know we might torture them so they can train themselves to resist – as a result, the “techniques have now been ruined”. How, exactly, does one “train” to resist ELEVEN DAYS of sleep deprivation brought about through excruciatingly painful “stress positions”? And waterboarding has been a well-known favorite of sadists through the centuries and apparently that hasn’t diminished it continuing popularity. But put that aside. What I like is the premise of Rove’s objection – that we want our government to continue torturing people. Rove, and others like him, have actually stated the best reason FOR a full, public investigation of these torture practices – TO MAKE SURE THIS STUFF NEVER HAPPENS AGAIN.

Personally, I think trying to prosecute people for this stuff would be counterproductive. As soon as a special prosecutor was named and a grand jury empanelled, all further releases of information would probably come to a halt because “it is the subject of a criminal investigation.” And I think it would be very hard to secure a conviction given the legal cover provided by the torture memos. It would be Hellish partisan warfare. Better to create an independent Truth Commission that has the power to grant immunity in return for testimony, as was done in South Africa. With immunity, no one can invoke his or her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. And if they lie or hide evidence (as Cheney’s office did in the Valerie Plame affair), they can be prosecuted for perjury or obstruction of justice (as Scooter Libby was). So EVERYTHING comes out. Let’s put Cheney to the test. If he claims that “torture works,” let’s find out. Get all the facts on the table. At least we can ensure that a truthful historical record is created and that the perpetrators live with their public infamy. And it might help ensure that this type of thing never happens again – at least not in this country.

(I do feel strongly, however, that Jay Bybee, now a Ninth Circuit Appeals Court judge, should be impeached. A war criminal should not hold a lifetime appointment to the second highest court in the land.)

I find it incredible that people who don’t trust the government to deliver the mail would be willing to give the government the power to torture people. In secret, of course. It must be kept secret. Because letting “the enemy” know our methods would “ruin” them.

Do we really want to give any government that power? Including our government?

Trust us. Trust BIG GOVERNMENT. We wouldn’t abuse our secret powers. Just trust us.

The fact that one of our two major political parties is almost unanimously supporting torture is staggering. History will not view this positively

Good thing these people are out of power.

Monday, April 27, 2009

bodhisattva in metro

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

bank illusions

You may have noticed that the big banks have been reporting upbeat “earnings” figures in recent days. Just yesterday, Bank of America reported a staggering $4.2 billion in first quarter "earnings." But it’s share price declined by an also staggering 24% What’s up? Surely investors saw the impressive "earnings" numbers. Of course they did. Which is why Bank of America’s share price went down. Those “earnings” are just more of the financial gimmickry that got us into this financial crisis. Bank of America’s deposit base (excluding acquisitions) actually declined and defaults on every kind of loan increased sharply. Its credit card division lost $1.8 billion; it’s mortgage division lost $500 million. But it resorted to every trick in the book to manufacture “earnings.”

Can anyone explain to me why Ken Lewis is still chairman and CEO of Bank of America?

As Andrew Ross Sorkin writes in today’s New York Times (“
Bank Profits Appear Out of Thin Air”):

This is starting to feel like amateur hour for aspiring magicians.

Another day, another attempt by a Wall Street bank to pull a bunny out of the hat, showing off an earnings report that it hopes will elicit oohs and aahs from the market. Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan Chase, Citigroup and, on Monday, Bank of America all tried to wow their audiences with what appeared to be — presto! — better-than-expected numbers.

But in each case, investors spotted the attempts at sleight of hand, and didn’t buy it for a second.

Goldman Sachs even made an entire month disappear. In the course of changing its fiscal year, Goldman left behind an “orphaned” December 2008 which just happened to include $1.5 billion in losses. (As the Church Lady would say, “How convenient.”)

Bank of America, Citigroup and JPMorgan Chase all booked gains from the decline in the value of their bonds. (Funny how that works – the banks’ debtors think their odds of defaulting have increased and that results in an increase in paper profits for the banks.)

This is all part of a campaign on the part of the big banks to convince the world that they really are solvent and that they can survive without government funds (while they hope that a recovering economy eventually bails them out).

Some bank CEOs have been whining lately about having been “forced” by Bush’s Treasury secretary – former Goldman Sachs CEO Paulson – to take TARP funds (i.e., equity infusions) from the Federal government last fall as the global financial system was melting down. They didn’t express their concerns back then when their survival was at stake. Rather, it was subsequent threats to their seven and eight figure bonuses (and government success in stabilizing the financial system) that prompted this new distain for government help.

(To some Republicans in Congress, and assorted teabagging wingnuts around the country, it has somehow become Obama who “forced” the banks to take bailout funds and any actual or proposed restraints on banks that have received tens of billions of dollars of taxpayer aid is evidence of his “socialism” or even “fascism”.)

Of course, if the bank CEOs were more concerned about their shareholders than about restrictions on their compensation, they would presumably want to maintain strong balance sheets for the (still real) possibility of worse times ahead. But they have never shown any particular concern for the long-term interests of their shareholders.

Lately, Goldman has been leading a PR campaign intended to allow them to get out from under TARP restrictions. Recall, Goldman received extraordinary permission to convert from a relatively-unregulated investment bank to a heavily-regulated bank holding company precisely so that they could avail themselves of the federal bailout. (It’s a nice trick – enjoy the benefits of being an investment bank when times are flush and there is huge money to be made, and then convert to being a commercial bank holding company when the whole system melts down. Sort of like being allowed to buy a fire insurance policy after your house is in flames.) They have even raised $5 billion as evidence that they no longer need the federal funds. But that would actually seem to be evidence that they needed the federal funds. As former Bush Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill
pointed out, “If banks now claim they want to return the money because they don’t need it, why do they have to raise new capital to replace the money from we the people in order to repay the government?”

Goldman received “only” $10 billion in TARP funds. But they also received $13 billion in payments from the AIG bailout, which they are not proposing to pay back. (Goldman claims that they were fully hedged against their losses as an AIG counterparty and that, therefore, they didn’t need AIG bailout funds. Which, of course, raises the question as to why they received those funds – which the public was led to believe were required to avoid the “systemic risk” of losses to counterparties. If Goldman was fully hedged against losses from AIG, then presumably there was no systemic risk to justify those payments. It also raises the question whether Goldman hedged in a manner that resulted in them being paid twice for the same exposure to AIG. No one is saying – certainly not Goldman. Alan Abelson in Barron’s
raises the possibility that those AIG funds may account for part of Goldman’s recent “earnings.” There has been absolutely no transparency on these issues, so we really don’t know. But that is the subject for a separate post.)

The Goldman bailout doesn’t stop just with the TARP funds and the AIG counterparty payments. As the New York Times noted in a good piece last week, the ability of Goldman and other banks to access the credit markets is a result of their ability to tap into the AAA credit rating of the federal government. Goldman alone has issued over $28 billion in FDIC-backed bonds. Needless to say, they aren’t proposing to pay off those bonds and let the taxpayers off the hook for their guarantee.

From the New York Times piece:

Eager to escape the long arm of government, Goldman Sachs is preparing to return $10 billion in taxpayer funds as fast as the ink can dry on the check. But the bank, and a number of others, is quietly holding on to other forms of public support that come with virtually no strings attached.

Banks have been benefiting from an indirect subsidy adopted by the federal government at the height of the financial crisis last fall that allows them to issue their debt cheaply with the backing of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation.

That debt — more than $300 billion for the banking industry so far — helped otherwise cash-strained banks to keep their businesses running even when it was virtually impossible for other companies to raise funds. The program will continue to bolster scores of banks through at least the middle of 2012.

The value of the assistance, economists say, is incalculable, because it helped keep participating banks alive despite the panic sown in financial markets after Lehman Brothers collapsed.

“I don’t know how you measure that subsidy,” said Mark Zandi, the chief economist
Moody’s “That’s why they say it’s invaluable. It’s an infinite subsidy. It’s their franchise value.”

The program has allowed Goldman to issue $28 billion in debt over the last six months. The debt totals more than $40 billion each for Bank of America and JPMorgan Chase, and $23 billion for Morgan Stanley.

The F.D.I.C. program does not come with the compensation and other regulatory conditions attached by Congress to the $700 billion bailout, but it charges the banks a small fee. Rather than relying on a direct infusion of taxpayer money, the agency is helping the banks raise debt from private investors by endowing them with the equivalent of an AAA rating. If any of the banks relying on the guarantees ran into trouble, the F.D.I.C. would make good on those bonds. …

Goldman was the first bank to take advantage of the debt program when it was introduced in November, when the financial crisis made it nearly impossible for companies to raise cash. Morgan Stanley and
Citigroup were quick to follow. More than 119 debt deals have been issued with the F.D.I.C.’s backing, according to Dealogic. Larger banks are using the program more than smaller ones, because they have capital markets businesses that depend on financing in the public markets.

Bank executives are quick to acknowledge that the program was critical to their survival.

“We would have had a real problem in the capital markets,” said David A. Viniar, the chief financial officer of Goldman. “The market shut down.”

I am picking on Goldman here because they have taken the lead in elevating these issues and seemed the most determined to get out from under the TARP restrictions. (And because it was their own former CEO, Paulson, who gave them the money in the first place. And it was another Goldman guy, Neel Kashkari who has been administering the TARP program.) But the same points apply to other banks. The irresponsibility of these banks has cost taxpayers and the Fed trillions of dollars in equity infusions, loans and guarantees.
According to Bloomberg all these forms of assistance now total almost $13 TRILLION – almost equal to annual US GDP.

The truly amazing thing is that the banks haven’t been able to generate REAL earnings despite a $13 trillion bailout. From the Sorkin piece:

What’s particularly puzzling is why the banks don’t just try to make some money the old-fashioned way. After all, earning it, if you could call it that, has never been easier with a business model sponsored by the federal government. That’s the one in which Uncle Sam and we taxpayers are offering the banks dirt-cheap money, which they can turn around and lend at much higher rates.

“If the federal government let me borrow money at zero percent interest, and then lend it out at 4 to 12 percent interest, even I could make a profit,” said Professor Finkelstein of the Tuck School. “And if a college professor can make money in banking in 2009, what should we expect from the highly paid C.E.O.’s that populate corner offices?”

(Remind me again why Ken Lewis is still running Bank of America?)

We can’t let these banks off the hook as soon as the immediate crisis shows signs of stabilizing somewhat. The federal government continues to be lax on the banks. Metaphorically speaking, the federal government should keep its foot on their throats until we have put in place a new regulatory regime that ensures the crisis isn’t repeated a few years down the road. We can’t return to a world where the financial sector sucks up 40% of all the earnings in the economy through essentially infinite leverage while creating little of actual value for the economy. This is just casino capitalism where the gains are privitized and the losses are socialized (leaving us with the worst of both systems).