“An invasion of armies can be resisted, but not an idea whose time has come,” wrote Victor Hugo. Isn’t that ultimately the message of Les Misérables? In contrast to the revolutionaries hopelessly slaughtered en masse at the barricades, it’s Jean Valjean’s unimpeachable righteousness alone that ultimately drives his longtime tormentor to suicide. I dreamed a dream…
Rather than just being the domain of French Romantics and office motivational posters, the notion that information alone has transformative power is the cornerstone of establishment left thinking. It stems from liberal enlightenment ideals that configure history as a linear progression—embodied in the apocryphal quote about the moral arc of the universe. It goes one way, and that’s forwards towards progress. This coincides happily with the preponderance of lawyers in the ranks of mainstream human rights and civil liberties groups, for whom information is the sine qua non of preparing briefs and mounting cases.
There’s a more controversial theory that information isn’t inherently good. Even revelatory information—stuff the powerful don’t want you to know—ostensibly in the service of a progressive goal, can be used for right-wing ends if it obscures or moderates a more radical prescription. If information is getting used to co-opt a more radical course of action, then that project is reactionary.
For its part, progressive e-magazine TruthDig doesn’t want people messing with this line of thinking in the case of the Senate Torture report: “When the truth is spoken by politicians…skeptics are right to suspect it’s not merely the truth. It is always tailored to redound to some benefit to the speaker. But there are moments in history when that doesn’t matter.”
We’re being told it’s one such moment now. The Senate Intelligence Committee has released a heavily redacted, heavily abridged “Executive Summary” of its 6,000 page report on CIA torture. Adding to the report’s mystique is the fact that the White House and CIA wanted to suppress the information contained within, with the CIA even hacking the computers of Senate staffers compiling the report. The torture report seems like the most illicit kind of revelatory information, so it’s created an enormous amount of commentary and condemnation.
However, with the exceptions of some specific ghoulish details, most of the information was already known. The most horrific facts—that the CIA raped prisoners, that torture was used to fabricate justifications for the War in Iraq, that human beings were tortured to death, that almost a quarter of torture cases were the result of mistaken identity—had all been reported on within the last decade.
There’s a disconnect between the content of the torture report and the narrative that now surrounds the event itself. When TruthDig called for putting skepticism aside, it was in a piece hailing Senators Dianne Feinstein and John McCain as their progressive heroes of the week. Feinstein’s fingerprints are on many of the US’s worst abuses of this century, and McCain is one of the most bloodthirsty figures in the US government, and by extension the planet. Given that these newly minted progressive heroes are some of the worst imperialists, and the torture report’s aura doesn’t reflect reality, this seems like exactly the right moment for those meddlesome skeptics to be asking questions.
The journalists and public figures who promote the torture report present it as transformative information, but it’s shaping up to be a spectacle that sets the left back yet again. The report has followed many parallels with the last time this happened, the spectacle surrounding Ed Snowden’s leaks to Glenn Greenwald et al. The Snowden drama provided a useful template for how dissent is going to be managed, channeled, and moderated going forward. The way the NSA leaks were handled has provided the elites a scalable model for taking the release of even revelatory information and using it to come out on top and consolidate their power.
Fortunately, last October Pierre Omidyar’s First Look Media had an acrimonious public divorce with once-hire Matt Taibbi. If Taibbi had been someone with less social capital, then the failure of Racket might’ve just been a momentary hiccup for the internet’s hottest journalistic “insurgency.” As it stands, the fact that people want to be in Taibbi’s orbit has opened up a lot of space for analysis of Omidyar’s would-be media empire, where the establishment consensus was once airtight. It’s certainly vindicated what Taibbi said about journalists being akin to an easily spooked herd of deer, who only get around to asking the right questions “eventually. But far after the fact.”
When the leaks began, they painted a complete picture of a monster whose contours had only previously been hinted at. Stories about warrantless wiretapping and the size of “Top Secret America” had won their authors Pulitzers and hinted that the US government was spying on all of us. There were reports of a secret government data-storage facility of gargantuan proportions being built in Utah. Stories had periodically cropped up in unexpected places about the government’s ability to record and store all our communications. However, now the public knew the truth definitively. There was excitement, talk of change, reform, maybe even something more drastic. Soon, the whistleblower went public. More stories came out, about more countries.
However, there were problems from the outset. Tarzie, one of maybe 3 or 4 people asking the right questions from the outset, drew these threads out in August 2013 in his “Fuck the Guardian” series. Some of the serious problems were a zeal for secrecy and redactions, an over-emphasis on one set of actors at the expense of the bigger picture, and a single-minded devotion to “debate” and reform as the ideal solution. There were plenty of other problems, like the smearing of Chelsea Manning and a near-monopoly on information, all of which spoke to having surrendered ground to the very enemies being exposed. The entire event was taking place on the state’s terms, and as Arthur Silber wrote, “when the state floods the zone, any chance for reform is dead.”
However, the state weren’t the only interested parties. There was a big story to be told, after all, and a billionaire patron chose to underwrite the project. The consensus that instantly emerged–and remained firmly in place until Racket’s collapse–was that Pierre Omidyar was a “civic minded billionaire.” What was being exchanged between Omidyar and Greenwald was a paycheck for prestige. As Tarzie pointed out at the beginning, PayPal had conducted an extrajudicial corporate blockade against WikiLeaks that hobbled the organization, and Greenwald lied about Omidyar’s involvement.
When it came out that Omidyar had funded regime change in Ukraine and the election of a fascist PM in India, and would profit handsomely for it, this revelatory information wasn’t enough to tarnish the “civic-minded” gloriole. “Since the rich man in question has demonstrably been involved in funding imperialist activities,” explained Patrick Higgins, the Snowden leak keepers were now “by extension, running interference on imperialism’s behalf.” A typical imperialist oligarch bought a bulletproof reputation as a civic-minded hero, for only $250 million (of which only $50 million has actually been paid so far). To get an idea of what a robust return on investment this is, Bill Gates has to spend billions of dollars a year in order to be seen as a humanitarian while defending capitalism’s brutality and making Malthusian calls for population reduction in Africa and Asia.
Snowden eventually came out of his self-imposed media exile and played a part in the vaunted debate. It’s been reported that whistleblowers tend to be conservative individuals, and this makes sense. Someone who thinks the CIA is an organ of state terrorism is unlikely to get hired there, nor would they seek to restore it to an imagined past if they joined up and eventually found this to be the case. That explained phenomena like Snowden’s insistence that information be mediated by “responsible journalists and government stakeholders,” and a whole slew of reactionary statements he made as the spectacle went on.
As Snowden explained, he was “still working for the NSA” in spirit, seeking to reform temporarily disoriented agencies. For anyone hoping that substantive change would result, this is a death sentence. As Chris Floyd said, “the system itself is not under threat [when] the only goal of any revelations will be ‘reform.’ ‘Reform’ and ‘debate’ can always be managed by those who control the levers of power.”
In the end, the public accrued very limited benefits if any. There were stories that essentially recapitulated the same theme of mass government data collection, told with some different details but committed salesmanship. Long after most of the world has moved on, The Intercept’s reporters still use the same breathless promotional language. In mid-December 2014 Jeremy Scahill was promoting a “Blockbuster” story at The Intercept that’s basically a longer version of a story already reported at Der Spiegel 14 months ago. There wasn’t even reform, either, with one failed bill widely derided as a “sham.” Even First Look supporters concede that the NSA ultimately “retained its powers.” And they might have stronger defenses against future leakers in place now, thanks to Ed Snowden. As reported in a Wired cover story, as Snowden took documents from NSA servers, he did so in a way that “[gave] the government time to prepare for leaks in the future,” in case anyone more radical than him came along.
If anyone benefitted from the event, besides the leak’s owners and the state, it was the tech sector. Snowden updated Thomas Jefferson for the disruptor set when he recommended restraining government surveillance with “the chains of cryptography.” He announced the Reset the Net initiative on June 5th, 2014. By unveiling it a year after the Guardian released its first Snowden-sourced story, the event was marketed as the solution to government surveillance, the logical endpoint of the events that have preceded it. According to Wired, Reset the Net is “a coalition of more than two-dozen tech companies,” i.e. former partners in government spying who would now be the vanguards of privacy. When Trevor Timm, a board member of the Electronic Frontiers Foundation with Greenwald, listed “Four Ways Edward Snowden Changed The World,” two reasons were essentially sales pitches for the tech industry. To hear left celebrities orbiting the Snowden trove tell it, all Silicon Valley had to do was suffer a mild public shaming in order to become zealous guardians of their users’ privacy.
Obviously, some factions of the state and oligarch class* would rather the public know nothing. However, if this isn’t an option, then there are ways to accrue benefits from the information release. The Snowden spectacle has shown how the guilty parties can create positive outcomes for themselves, coming out even better than before. The common threads include:
- A distracting, singular focus on one set of actors at the expense of other guilty parties.
- An erasure of related and often more serious crimes.
- The lionizing of deeply reactionary figures.
- Right-wing, power-serving “solutions.”
- The erasure of leftist ideas from the left.
- A further fetishizing of the transformative power of revelation.
In the Snowden spectacle and the torture report, there are two situations in which information is released to the public. It’s been known, but now there are specific details and official confirmations. This is presented as a revelation, and re-stated in different permutations to retain public interest. From there, the ruling class will create an unexpected victory.
- Distracting Focus on One Set of Actors
In the case of the Snowden leaks, over a year of reporting focused almost exclusively on the NSA. There was almost no reporting done on the private sector, or the 16 other government agencies that comprise the Intelligence Community—from the FBI and DEA to Army intelligence and the National Reconnaissance Office.
In the case of the Senate torture report, the focus has been exclusively on CIA torture authorized and directed by the Bush administration and its lawyers. Dick Cheney has come out of the shadows to issue ghoulish pronouncements about torture’s goodness, acting as a cartoonish, literally heartless proxy for the entire cast of villains.
However, the focus on the Bush administration has erased contemporary Democratic culpability in the torture program. The 2002 briefing of House Democrats Nancy Pelosi and Jay Rockefeller by the CIA was, according to CIA war criminal and noted sociopath José Rodriguez, “short and sweet.” Though Democrats at the at the time adduced torture as a reason to vote for Democrats, it was, like anti-war opposition, cheap posturing to score political points.
A few years later, it was rising Democratic star Barack Obama’s turn to sweep torture under the rug after exploiting it for electoral reasons. In a tremendously revealing statement that received scant attention at the time, then-Senator Obama said that impeachment was off the table because it was reserved for “serious breaches” of the President’s authority. The statement was a clear indication that Obama didn’t—and doesn’t—consider torture to constitute a serious offense, at least when committed by the United States. Though candidate Obama made overtures to investigate torture, his 2008 behavior on FISA showed how hollow these promises were. On the campaign trail, the Senator declared that he would filibuster TeleCom immunity, before voting for it once it was politically expedient. When Obama was elected and made “look forwards, not backwards” his mantra, the Democratic leadership owned torture as much as Bush.
Just like the NSA was the sole focus of the Snowden cache, a casual observer would think that the CIA were the sole perpetrators of torture after 9/11. The singular focus on the CIA has erased the fact that the US military was responsible for many of the most horrific abuses of the War on Terror. Abu Ghraib, for instance, was born out of a policy to “’Gitmoize’ Iraq,” applying the brutal torture policies of America’s Cuban hellhole to the entire nation of Iraq. Military installations were the sites of countless crimes, like Afghanistan’s Bagram Air Base or Iraq’s Camp Nama, whose name was backronymed to mean “Nasty-Ass Military Area.”
The Senate torture report has successfully cordoned off torture as the work of one agency and one set of elites, when the entire political class and national security apparatus is guilty.
- Erasure of Related and More Serious Crimes
The Snowden event brought us dozens of stories that reiterated essentially the same point. Less publicized was Reuters’ August 2013 report on NSA-DEA “parallel construction,” where the NSA was giving warrantlessly surveilled information to the DEA, who then build up a criminal case under the pretense that the information had been lawfully obtained. In this case, abstract reports on government abuse were crowding out concrete reports of government abuse. The narrative around the Senate report has taken this aspect of the Snowden drama to a much higher degree. There is a constellation of American crimes that are being erased, whitewashed, and legitimized by the focus on the CIA torture report.
The Obama administration and the CIA saw the kind of legal and political mess that came from indefinite detention, and concluded that assassination was easier. A 2004 report from the CIA’s inspector general warned that “The agency faces potentially serious long-term political and legal challenges as a result of” the torture regime. “The report was the beginning of the end for the program,” according to journalist Mark Mazzetti. “The ground had shifted, and counterterrorism officials began to rethink the strategy for the secret war. Armed drones, and targeted killings in general, offered a new direction.”
Consequently, the Obama administration has waged a far more vicious assassination campaign than Bush ever did, with thousands killed in drone strikes and even American citizens targeted for extrajudicial murder. Obama’s theory of executive power was best summarized by Attorney General Eric Holder explaining that “due process” didn’t need to involve a trial by jury, but could be achieved by the President deciding to murder you in one of his “Terror Tuesday” meetings.
That’s not to say that torture isn’t still practiced. Torture is still common practice in Guantánamo Bay, where inmates are subjected to excruciating force-feedings. The experience of having a feeding tube slid through the nasal cavity and down into the prisoner’s stomach is usually compared to having a razor blade shoved through the nostril and down the throat.
Obama’s vaunted torture ban has also not banned torture, merely returned it to the grey-area status it enjoyed before the Bush administration codified it. The CIA has long practiced torture, like under the Phoenix program in Vietnam or taught at the notorious School of the Americas. Today, the CIA maintains its “extraordinary rendition” and secret prison programs, with loopholes in place for torture to continue more covertly. Torture is still allowed for the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), and since expanding JSOC’s operational scope has been a cornerstone of Obama’s war-fighting policies, some inductive reasoning indicates that it’s expanded into those dark corners. As the blog Moon of Alabama points out:
The Army Field Manual 2 22.3. Appendix M is still in force and it allows “interrogation techniques” which the UN’s Committee against Torture says (PDF) amount to torture. The White House is also still believing that using torture abroad is not covered by the UN Convention Against Torture and thereby permissible.
This, together with Appendix M, lets me assume that the U.S. is still torturing people abroad. Why else would it keep those legal holes open?
All this is only to discuss how torture is still practiced in prosecuting the War on Terror (or as it’s called now, the Overseas Contingency Operations). It’s an entirely different story about the United States practicing torture in its system of mass incarceration through solitary confinement, which “human beings experience…as torture,” according to Dr. Atul Gawande.
- Reactionary Heroes
The release of the torture report has lead to some strange scenes. Teju Cole, for instance, a longtime critic of American imperialism, thanked Dianne Feinstein “for [her] service” in the pages of the New York Times. Dianne Feinstein has long been a supporter of almost every imperialist venture the US has embarked upon. Her husband’s status as a member of a lucrative government contractor also makes her, quite literally, a war profiteer.
As for John McCain, this release affords him to playact the maverick that the media needs to remind everyone that he is. It’s also erased the fact that in 2008 McCain fought to exempt the CIA from a torture restriction.
Besides Feinstein and McCain, the biggest hero in the release of the torture report has been John Kiriakou, the CIA case officer who first blew the whistle on the CIA’s torture program. As is typical of National Security whistleblowers, Kiriakou is deeply conservative, a “patriotic” spy whose “Letters from Loretto” penitentiary spend a lot of time railing against the FBI. A common theme of his letters are slams against the FBI for their dishonesty, positioning the CIA—who’ve spent over a decade running a global torture and assassination program—as the honest Agency.
At least the Snowden case gave Americans a fresh face, who only exposed his retrograde beliefs gradually. The Senate torture report has boosted “heroes” who are some of the past decade’s most imperialist figures.
- Power-Serving Solutions
Jane Mayer, who’s written more about America’s post-9/11 torture regime than any other journalist, wrote in the New Yorker that “torture is becoming just another partisan issue.” Particularly given the incoming Republican-majority Senate, torture accountability seems like a position that the Democrats can own after having tacitly endorsed it. According to Mayer, Feinstein “proved that Congress can still perform its most basic Madisonian function of providing a check on executive-branch abuse,” while “By contrast, the new report, even before it was released, came under attack from Republicans.” Soon, newly minted transparency and accountability heroine Feinstein will be out, replaced by Republican Richard Burr, “a staunch defense and surveillance hawk,” according to Joshua Eaton at Al Jazeera. “At the same time, one of the intelligence community’s most outspoken voices, Mark Udall, will leave the committee after losing re-election last month.” The departure of the Democrats “threatens to stall attempts to reform the nation’s surveillance laws and avoid transparency about the CIA’s controversial interrogation program,” Eaton says. The narrative, as it’s taken hold, paints a clear distinction between Democrats and Republicans on this issue.
For a Democratic party seeking to reinvigorate its increasingly apathetic base after what Dr. Cornel West calls “a Wall Street and drone presidency,” this is a great branding opportunity. One of Obama’s first decisions in office was to immunize torturers. However, with a Republican Congressional majority imminent, this is a perfect chance for the soon-to-be-helpless Democrats to act like they’d been champions of transparency all along.
For those who remember the now-ancient years of Bush’s second term, the reason proffered to vote for Democratic representatives in 2006 was to stop the Bush agenda. Then, Democrats still couldn’t do anything without a Democrat in the White House. Once Americans gave the Democratic party the veto-proof Democratic supermajority that they needed for some sweet Change, they discovered that relatively little could get done in the face of Republican intransigence. Increasing numbers of Americans see little hope in the two-party system, but the torture report provides a golden opportunity for the Democrats to burnish their image anew.
The report puts torture back in the contested category it once enjoyed. Democrats can once again compel their supporters to go to the polls to vote against torture and in favor of transparency—just like they did in 2006 and 2008, and by recycling the exact same rhetoric. That Hillary Clinton is making a public show of denouncing torture and praising the report’s release is a sign that this is exactly what’s going to happen. Clinton, who supported torture and is “a walking profanity” embodying the worst American corporatism and imperialism, signals that the Democrats are interested in play-act opposition to torture once again, after years of tacit approval.
Beyond just the Democrat/Republican modality, the torture report is functioning as a whitewash for the entire American project. There’s the predictable “rally ‘round the flag” effect—the idea that only America could produce a work of decency and introspection like a report on its own torture program.
Then there’s the hand-wringing over how aberrant torture is—how America lost its way—and accompanying appeals to return to an imagined past. “When I was growing up,” a typical missive goes, “Americans thought of torture as a tactic used by history’s villains.” It’s true, America thought of torture as a uniquely evil tactic, while committing it covertly and teaching it to its proxies. While the author of the above passage was growing up, learning that torture was the sole domain of dictators and terrorists, the US was exporting torture expertise throughout the Southern Cone.
Torture has been with the US since its foundation—what could the treatment of African slaves be called besides that? Overseas torture programs also date back at least to the counterinsurgency to subjugate the Philippines at the birth of the 20th century. So the idea that the CIA torture program was a unique, momentary evil that erupted from the minds of Dick “work the dark side” Cheney and John “the President can crush a baby’s testicles” Yoo serves to conveniently whitewash America’s history as a white supremacist and imperial entity. The release of the torture report is propagating these narratives even as it seems to challenge power.
- An Erasure of Substantive Leftist Beliefs
Adolph Reed has written about how one of the ideological functions of neoliberalism is to erase substance from politics, and leave only empty signifiers. “Being a progressive is now more a matter of how one thinks about oneself than what one stands for or does in the world.” The Snowden drama was remarkable for how much it divorced substantive leftist politics from a position called “leftist.” Leftists went to the mattresses for a journalist’s right to redact, hoard, and genuflect to NatSec concerns. “Marxists, anarchists, libertarians and Occupy activists now call a billionaire by his first name”: Pierre. The Snowden leaks told the left some information about bulk collection in exchange for dragging it rightward.
The torture report is so far succeeding in erasing more of the left. Anthony Romero, the executive director of the ACLU, published a New York Times op-ed calling for Obama to pardon the Bush administration. “If the choice is between a tacit pardon and a formal one, a formal one is better. An explicit pardon would lay down a marker, signaling to those considering torture in the future that they could be prosecuted.” Besides the obvious inversion of reality evinced by Romero’s position, and the childish treatment of “the law” as some supernatural Platonic construct, it’s literally the ACLU advocating pardons for war crimes. Stephen Walt reiterated this position in a Foreign Policy piece that compared Chelsea Manning to Dick Cheney. A few days later, he tweeted this:
Merry Christmas, torturers. #empathy
A few days after Romero’s op-ed, the ACLU published a piece titled “CIA Agents Said ‘No’ to Torture.” The reason people are discussing the torture report is because CIA personnel said “yes” to torture, but the ACLU is here to remind Americans that #NotAllSpies chose to commit this offense to human dignity. These case officers and analysts the ACLU is celebrating held fast to their day jobs assassinating people, subverting foreign democracy, or otherwise manifesting “the ruling class’s determination to retain power and privilege.”
Those who did torture were, shockingly, not even trained torturers. This is according to one narrative that’s cropped up, echoed by progressive outlets like Mother Jones and lawyers for prisoners’ rights group Reprieve. Deferring to the state’s euphemisms for torture, Mother Jones says that “Extreme interrogations…went on for more than three months before CIA officers received any sort of training in the new techniques from anyone.” For some, evidently, the problem is that CIA torturers hadn’t been briefed on proper torture techniques. This probably resulted in total amateur mistakes like threatening to murder their mothers instead of sisters, or blasting Metallica for 8 hours when they should’ve been blaring Marilyn Manson. Maybe liberal outlets were too quick to pounce on the $80 million payments to those two torture psychologists, since there were too few torture-professionals rather than too many.
Whatever the celebrity left believes their positions to be, many of their concerns don’t seem particularly left-wing. Even less than a month into the torture report drama, we’ve seen calls for pardons, celebrations of CIA spies, and a focus on improper torture techniques and insufficiently trained torturers. With heroes like Feinstein and McCain at the center of this, there’s no rightward boundary for how far the left can slide.
- The Fetishizing of Information
In the end, the fetish for information above all else is reified. If only the public learns the truth, if only the lawyers who overwhelmingly staff human rights groups have more direct evidence, something will change. Each revelatory event is also presented as the proverbial Big One, restarting the cycle from scratch. There have been diminishing returns, but the salesmanship is just as enthusiastic.
Shahid Buttar, the executive director of the Bill of Rights Defense Committee, called the torture report “the most important document revealing crimes of the intelligence agencies since the Pentagon Papers.” The Snowden leaks, Wikileaks and Cablegate, the Washington Post’s “Top Secret America”—all these events didn’t accomplish much since this is the event we’ve been waiting for. Buttar harkens back to the Pentagon Papers, which have become the Ur-Leak Event in all these conversations. Daniel Ellsberg himself adds to the mystique of each event by coming out and saying he’s been waiting his whole life for it (free idea for The Onion: “Daniel Ellsberg can’t remember all the people who are the next Daniel Ellsberg”).
The narrative that This Is The Leak Event We’ve Been Waiting For serves to keep the public interested in supporting leftish groups like the ACLU, whose lawyers can now meet standing requirements and prepare the relevant briefs. It also resets the clock, convincing a new group of people that justice is imminent while the ruling class manages increasingly favorable outcomes. The Snowden spectacle worked out so well that the torture report offers more reactionary ideas for even less new information.
The idea that information itself, especially information you’re not supposed to possess, is its own good is an article of faith. There’s additional pressure because pointing out that revelatory information is already publicly available is associated with the political right. When someone points out that the information isn’t “new,” it’s usually a crass attempt at smarmy self-promotion or a diversionary tactic from a party with some stake in derailing the inquiry (Mark Ames once wrote “you can always tell a paid troll by their ‘nothing new here’ nonsense”).
However, the left can’t embrace these events without interrogating them more than is going on now. As it stands, the ruling class is being strengthened by these spectacles, and seeing their power further entrenched. Most insidiously, with each info-drama, the left is being purged of actual leftist substance. The idea that’s reflexively invoked, “at least now we know,” is wrong—there’s more than that going on. As Chris Floyd said:
Yet revelations of these machinations, of government/corporate crime or “excesses,” have made no difference. Nothing changes, because the commanding heights of politics and media are in the hands of people deeply committed to preserving the system that gives them wealth and power.
We live in an age of revelation. There has never been era in which so much clear and glaring evidence of so many horrific crimes and abuses by state and private power has been so widely and freely available. Year after year, the revelations pile up. None of it makes any difference. Instead, power doubles down.
The truth alone might not set us free. Powerful entities are working to see it does nothing, or even make us less free in the end.
Update: additional reading– “Liberals vs. Radicals on the Power of Information“