Archive for the 'Off Topic' Category


Off Topic – The First Anniversary of Hope and Change

Occasionally there is an article I want to reproduce in its entirety rather than merely linking to it.  This is one such article (originally appeared on Campaign for Liberty).

The First Anniversary of Hope and Change
By Anthony Gregory
Published 01/20/10

“Democracy came into the Western World to the tune of sweet, soft music,” wrote H.L. Menken as the opening to his Notes on Democracy. With the ascent of Barack Obama, the music was triumphant and loud, captivating the entire center-left media establishment, the nation’s youth, the official counterculture, the legions of professional victimologists, the mainstream antiwar movement, the civil bureaucracy, the legal profession, the unions, most traditional Democrats and the young and old members of American academia. For the lion’s share of Obama’s loyal supporters, his ascent to the throne marked something nearly as significant as the entrance of democracy itself onto the Western scene. It signaled a turning point to one day be listed on a short list of American victories for the modern world — a watershed to appear on timelines featuring the Emancipation Proclamation, women’s suffrage and the Civil Rights movement. Meanwhile, although in Mencken’s account “there was, at the start, no harsh bawling from below” when democracy made its appearance, Obama was met early on by loud protest from much of the grassroots right, much of which had backed Bush until the twilight of his own reign of power and who agreed with Obama’s supporters that the man represented a great shift in American governance, only disagreeing on whether this dramatic transformation was one to be celebrated rather than feared.

A year has passed since the maligned and lame-duck Bush presidency gave way to the hope and change of the Obama administration. For the first couple months last year, criticism of Obama was regarded as premature. We had to give him the benefit of the doubt for the obligatory although arbitrary 100 days. When that period passed, Obama was shielded from criticism on the grounds that his predecessor had made such a disastrous mess of domestic and foreign policy that the new president would need yet more time before he could be fairly evaluated. That isolation from criticism did give way eventually, and few today have the temerity to insist that we delay our scrutiny until the president is reelected in 2012.

A fundamental element in a meaningful critique of Obama’s first year must take account of whether his policies have succeeded on his own terms. Has he represented the hope and change that he promised, that became the rallying cry of tens of millions and swept the internet in youtube videos showcasing artists and celebrities at once pleading and predicting that America would usher in the political reform of a lifetime?

We must remember why the Republicans were so roundly defeated in November 2008. McCain was seen as a continuation of the Bush legacy, about which many conservatives by that time had become visibly embarrassed. Throughout the seemingly interminable campaign season, all the way up until Autumn, John McCain ran on a platform of staying the course in foreign policy and being more reform-minded than Bush in the domestic arena, while somehow being at the same time more fiscally conservative so as to offer a meaningful alternative to the Democrats.

The alleged expertise and experience brought by Republicans to the realm of national security had suffered due to widespread public fatigue about Iraq, dozens of scandals concerning Republican executive power that made headlines for about four solid years, and a growing sense that Bush and by corollary McCain demonstrated a crass hubris concerning the projection of American power that was hurting the country’s image and not keeping us the least bit safer. Of course, Ron Paul’s presence on the GOP primary stage, through the presentation of a truly diametrically opposed alternative, revealed the limits of the Republicans’ monotone attachment to the foreign policy status quo.

Running on the supposed success of the Iraq “surge” was doing better than it should have. With McCain’s pick of Sarah Palin as his running mate, he seemed for a week to have a real chance at victory. The choice had secured the Republican grassroots and much of middle America, while cutting into the Democrats’ dominance among independent-minded women. But then amidst growing concerns about the financial and mortgage markets, McCain, who had admitted that he did not know much about economics and yet had the boldness to challenge Ron Paul to read Adam Smith, spoke the words that sealed his political fate: “The fundamentals of the economy are still strong.” By September the consensus turned decisively against this foolish remark.

In the wake of financial collapse, with both McCain and Obama stepping over themselves to rush to Washington and approve the Bush-Paulson bailouts, the premier political question was one that hit voters’ wallets hard, and Obama swept into the White House. A change in foreign policy and economic policy became more attractive to enough swing votes to give Obama an unambiguous electoral victory, even if nobody could show just what Obama knew about the recession that had just culminated into a huge crash and how he was supposed to fix it.

For those of us whose main political passion is liberty, we could at least be glad that the Fed-corporatist economic disaster and the imperial foreign disaster were identified as problems, albeit ones with numerous proposed solutions, ours not taken as seriously as Mr. Obama’s. Now, with a year behind us, let us consider what has truly changed, and how much of that change is in any sense a good thing.

First, we look at the first area of policy that helped bring Democrats to power in 2006 and 2008: War and national security.

Foreign Policy

Obama said America would finally, quickly and safely withdraw from Iraq, and even pay for domestic needs with the savings. But it became clear by his February speech at Camp Lejeune that his approach would be more or less what we would have expected from a third Bush term — following the approximate benchmarks of the Status of Forces Agreement that Bush himself had acceded to in late 2008. Meanwhile, Obama gave no mention of the Vatican-sized embassy, its force protection, military contractors, troops charged with training the Iraqi military or what “non-combat” troops was really supposed to mean. All of this means the U.S. could indeed remain there longer than Bush had promised, and could lead to another escalation in that theater of war. Over a hundred thousand U.S. troops remain in Iraq. One hundred forty five have died there since Obama took office.

In Afghanistan, the situation has been far worse than we could have probably expected under another year of Bush. This is all because, tragically, Obama has kept his promise: He announced in November the deployment of about 30,000 additional troops, bringing the total number up to about three times what it was when he took office. 2009 became the worst year for the Afghan people since 2001 — more depredations of children’s rights and the most civilian deaths since the invasion, including in air strikes that are ripe with scandal and can only contribute to the terrorist threat. As commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, Obama picked General Stanley McChrystal, who became the target of controversy in the Bush years for the draconian handling of detention centers, the blocking of Red Cross from these prison camps, and for his involvement in covering up the truth about Pat Tillman‘s death. Needless to say, when McChrystal publicly contradicted the president’s assessment of what was needed for victory, he was not fired for insubordination. Obama and the Democrats always criticized Bush and the Republicans for “neglecting” Afghanistan. The Democrats’ due diligence has successfully made Afghanistan a far deadlier place than Iraq in the last year. About 300 have died there since Obama took office.

This is all, supposedly, to take down about 100 members of al-Qaeda who live in Afghanistan and to stop a somewhat larger number in Pakistan from destabilizing that country. To stop the enemy in Pakistan, Obama has dramatically escalated drone strikes, launching them more than 40 times, killing far more civilians than militants and displacing as many as two million Pakistanis from the Swat valley in one of the largest refugee crises since Rwanda. Obama assures us we need not actually invade and occupy Pakistan, since it is a U.S. ally, but this policy of “stability” supposedly justifies the entire U.S. project in both nations.

The military excursions — which the Democrats used to condemn as “unilateralism” when Bush did it — mount from nation to nation. In his November speech at West Point announcing the escalation in Afghanistan, Obama promised more intervention in Somalia and Yemen. He had already bombed and even with a small force invaded Somalia, and provided about eighty tons of weaponry to Somalia’s “government,” much of which ends up in the hands of the insurgents. His administration had threatened to invade Eritria in April. In the next month, at least dozens of civilians were killed in Yemen by Obama’s cruise missiles, which was soon after cited by the Christmas Day underwear bomber as the inspiration for his attempted act of blowback.

Although his diplomatic tone toward Iran marks an improvement over Bush’s belligerence, it is also less coherent, coming from an administration that claims Iran was “caught” with a nuclear facility that Iran itself had announced, well within its rights, to the International Atomic Energy Agency and that was not nuclearized at the time of this supposed revelation. Obama has approved tough sanctions on Iran, a classical act of war by other means, which will only hurt the Iranian people and strengthen the mullahs. While the claims that Iran is intervening in the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan against our forces strain credibility, in October, a terrorist associated with Jundallah — an al-Qaeda-affiliated enemy of the Iranian government that the United States most likely backs covertlycarried out a suicide attack that killed 31 people.

Obama has also backed stricter sanctions against North Korea, a billion-plus dollars in foreign aid to Mexico so it can crack down on drugs, and $108 billion in loan guarantees to the International Monetary Fund.

This last bit of spending, incidentally, was included in a war supplemental bill passed in June. Aside from the $108 billion for the IMF was an off-budget $106 billion for Afghanistan and Iraq war spending, $660 million in aid for Gaza, $555 million for Israel, $310 million for Egypt, $300 million for Jordan, $420 million for Mexico and $889 million for UN peacekeeping missions. This supplemental bill was requested by the man who said last February:

This budget looks ahead ten years and accounts for spending that was left out under the old rules — and for the first time, that includes the full cost of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. For seven years, we have been a nation at war. No longer will we hide its price.

The president who won the Nobel Peace Prize has pushed through the largest “defense” budgets since World War II, and just requested a total of $708 billion Department of Defense budget for next year.

In some important ways, Obama’s general promise to change foreign policy was always in tension with his specific campaign vows. To the extent it has changed, it has almost all changed for the worse — more intervention, more war, more foreign aid, more bombings. But the trajectory is approximately identical to the way it was under Bush. What else would we expect from the president who put McChrystal in charge of Afghanistan, appointed John Brennan, another Bush adviser closely associated with Bush’s “enhanced interrogation” policy, to the post of Deputy National Security Adviser for Homeland Security, and kept Robert Gates as the Defense Secretary upon taking office on a campaign of hope and change?

Civil Liberties and the Rule of Law

Perhaps in the related areas of civil liberties, the rule of law, and such matters, we could expect to have seen more change than with war proper. Well, if we did, we should be rather disappointed by now. In his first week, Obama issued several orders, closing black sites, setting today as the deadline by which Guantánamo will have been closed, and symbolically reining in some excesses of the Bush years. The fifty-one weeks since then have been nothing but an entrenchment, ratification and expansion of Bush’s policies.

The first sign that this might be the case happened shortly after Obama sealed his nomination as the Democratic presidential candidate, when he reversed himself on a campaign promise and voted to legalize Bush’s warrantless wiretapping program. As president in April, he demonstrated his commitment to this program as his administration fought a lawsuit to inquire into the program, citing not just the “state secrets” doctrine abused by Bush, but going further and invoking “sovereign immunity.”

The surveillance state has continued apace. The Transportation Security Administration has been pushing for full-body scans since 2002 and now has an excuse with the government’s failure to stop the underwear bomber. Last year we saw a leaked copy of the Department of Homeland Security’s now-infamous report on “rightwing extremism” — alerting law enforcement to keep an eye out for Americans with unpopular political views, a policy that was also embraced by Bush (and many presidents before). Particularly frightening is the proposal of Cass Sunstein, head of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, that the government “cognitively infiltrate” online groups to spread disinformation and discredit “conspiracy theories.” If the goal is to quash paranoia, they are not doing a good enough job. But one could be forgiven for believing the real goal is to chill dissent. And speaking of Obama administration officials proposing most disconcerting policies, we must not forget that Rahm Emanuel has suggested that Americans on the No-Fly List lose their Second-Amendment rights.

The most worrisome developments under Obama concerning the rule of law revolve around detention policy. Repeatedly, Obama criticized the Bush administration for its “legal black hole” at Guantánamo, and argued that indefinite detention without the benefit of habeas corpus was an affront to time-honored American values. In an early indication of where this administration would take this policy, it stood by the Bush-era designation of “enemy combatants” and fought a ruling by a Bush-appointed federal judge that habeas corpus should extend, in limited capacity, to the Bagram prison camp in Afghanistan.

In May, Obama stood in front of the National Archives — in front of the Bill of Rights itself — and engaged in the most impressive example of doublespeak in our time. He spoke well about the principles of the rule of law and how important they are to our country, even as he unveiled a plan to try some detainees in court, try others in front of military commissions and keep some of them imprisoned indefinitely — a policy of “prolonged detention” that, in a sense, went beyond the Bush policy of executive detention in that it was now asserted to be a part of our legal fabric, not just an ad-hoc executive prerogative. This was akin to Bush’s saying he had to destroy the free market to save it, except it was much slicker and actually fooled many people.

When the Democratic Congress refused to finance the closing of Guantánamo, Obama stood by its decision. Now it appears that he intends to bring many of them to a detention facility in Indiana, thus bringing the lawlessness of Guantánamo into our shores. This is an unspeakably unsettling precedent.

Although Obama has been attacked for trying the alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, there was a decent chance this would have happened anyway, and many other terrorists have been given civil trial — Timothy McVeigh, Richard Reid, and even “20th hijacker” Zacarias Moussaoui. An irony, once pointed out by Obama, is that the more evidence the government has against a suspect, the more likely they are to get civil procedure, as opposed to a military commission or indefinite detention. But the concern that Mohammed will find a technicality and be released, and the liberals’ triumphant posturing that the rule of law is finally being obeyed, must run against the inconvenient fact that Obama’s Justice Department says, even if he is acquitted, he will simply be remanded to indefinite detention anyway!

Two other Bush policies savaged by Obama and his civil libertarian supporters were torture and extraordinary renditioning, whereby detainees would be outsourced to foreign regimes for interrogation unbecoming of our own republican system. As for torture, although the policy is officially that the U.S. does not torture — which was also technically the Bush policy — abuses at Guantánamo have only gotten worse. Further, Obama flip-flopped on his promise to release the photographs of torture at the hands of U.S. officials, going so far as to push for an amendment to the Freedom of Information Act with the sole purpose of preventing images of torture since 9/11 from going public.

As for renditioning, it will continue in a modified form, with Hillary Clinton’s State Department in charge of “oversight.” The use of black sites and secret prisons appears to have ended (although it was probably receding long before Obama took office), but the new president’s first case of renditioning raises all new concerns. Raymond Azar alleges credibly that he was tortured in all the ways we’d expect from the Bush years — deprived of sleep, stuck in stress positions for many hours, subjected to extreme temperatures and taunted that he’d never again see his family if he didn’t speak. But there’s a twist: Azar was not a terrorist, or accused of one, or even alleged to be the least bit dangerous. His supposed crime was knowing about a petty amount of corruption committed by a U.S.-connected military contractor and not coming forward. He is essentially, if anything, a white-collar criminal, and in the hundreds of billions wasted in defense spending over the years, it is bizarre he would be targeted over a meager amount, and downright terrifying that such extralegal processes and abuses were used in the case of a man alleged to be a Muslim version of Martha Stewart.

Obamanomics and Domestic Affairs

Moderate Americans tend to trust Democrats in domestic affairs and Republicans on national security issues. The financial collapse of 2008 played into the hands of Democrats who wanted to use the crisis as an excuse to expand government power and implement the policies they had long wanted — just as 9/11 was the type of foreign-policy crisis that formed the perfect storm for Republican interventionism.

Indeed, in the domestic arena there has been the most actual change, at least superficially. Most of the debates in the last year have concerned domestic policy. The flavor of central planning we could always expect under Obama is a mixture of center-left Keynesianism, corporate socialism with an egalitarian veneer, and the machine-politics pragmatism of Chicago from whence his career was launched.

But libertarians, limited-government conservatives and anti-corporatist liberals should actually agree on one thing: Obama’s economic policy has been a disaster and a betrayal in practically every way.

We could tell there would mostly be continuity when Obama picked Timothy Geithner, who had been intimate in the Bush-Paulson Wall Street bailouts, as his Treasury Secretary. From then to Obama’s nomination of Bernanke to serve another term as Fed Chairman, there has been little for anyone wanting actual “change” to celebrate.

First, a note on Obama’s style of governance. A product of a tech-savvy and youthful political movement, Obama repeatedly promised transparency, transparency, transparency. He said the deliberations with drug and insurance companies would be on C-SPAN. He said all non-emergency legislation would be online for five days for the public to read before it was voted on. He has broken these promises.

The first bill Obama ever signed, the Lilly Ledbetter “Equal Pay for Equal Work” law, was not put online as promised. Neither was the stimulus bill. And neither have all the health care talks been on C-Span, as he repeatedly promised. It is also difficult to find an excuse for why Obama’s website that showed where all the stimulus money was supposed to be creating jobs listed 440 Congressional districts that don’t even exist. This is the kind of mistake that is either the product of such brazen hubris, or such incompetence, that it makes even the most cynical opponent of government corruption scratch his head and laugh.

Now, in the case of the stimulus bill, Obama did claim it was an emergency. The cost of inaction was too great to delay action. “[A]t this particular moment, only government can provide the short term boost necessary to lift us from a recession this deep and severe.” He also said, “For every day we wait or point our fingers or drag our feet, more Americans will lose their jobs.  More families will lose their savings.”

And how did that work out? As USA Today reported just recently:

Even before Barack Obama took the oath of office, his economic advisers projected that without hundreds of billions of dollars in government spending, the U.S. economy could lose another 3 million to 4 million jobs on top of the 3.1 million lost in 2008.

It turns out they were optimistic. Even with the $787 billion stimulus package that Obama signed in February, more than 4 million jobs have been lost in 2009, the worst year for job losses since World War II. The jobless rate that advisers projected would peak at 8% has topped 10%.

Early on, Obama gave us the auto bailouts that Bush probably would have had he continued serving in office, circumventing bankruptcy law, hurting creditors and essentially nationalizing the car industry. Now the Treasury tells us such “loans” are “highly unlikely to be recovered.” Related to this of course was the Keynesian and Rooseveltian “Cash for Clunkers” program, an insane subsidy project whereby cars that could have been sold to people who actually could use them were destroyed wholesale in exchange for a voucher to buy a new car. Many of these new cars were foreign imports, even though the program was supposed to boost America’s auto industry. But all in all, what the program did was encourage Americans to either buy a car a little earlier or later than they would have anyway. The only tangible result is American taxpayers were ripped off and perfectly good cars were destroyed.

As far as old-fashioned spending goes, Obama is king. Last Spring, Obama unveiled an unfathomable $3.6 trillion budget with a $1.2 trillion deficit. The deficit is now nearly as large as the entire budget was when Bill Clinton took office in 1992. In real dollars, you have to go back to the height of the Vietnam War, and the U.S. was still not spending as much as the U.S. is borrowing today. Talk about scary.

In terms of the general flavor of Obama’s domestic policy, it is generally the same welfare-state corporatism we have become all too familiar with. Those progressives who think the president is standing up to corporate interests should read Matt Taibbi to learn all about how Obama has only taken the Wall Street-Washington revolving door and widened it.

There is a new emphasis on regulation and welfarism that we did not get from Bush, but the shift has mainly been rhetorical. The corporatist nature of America’s mixed economy can be seen in Obamacare — where the insurance companies will have a captive market, thanks to the “individual mandate” that candidate Obama claimed he opposed — as well as in Cap and Trade, which will create a commodity market in the right to pollute (and that’s assuming you take the administration at its word that carbon dioxide is a pollutant).

Speaking of health care, the interventionist scope of Obama’s bill is deeply unsettling. By forcing people to buy insurance, the government will soon embark on a virtually unprecedented and unconstitutional intrusion into our personal lives. Meanwhile, keeping with the corporatism of the previous president, Obama’s FDA has successfully opposed the reimportation of cheap drugs, which Obama once supported, and his Department of Agriculture represents a continuation of the corporate-welfare subsidies and cartelization in farming we’ve seen over the years.

Overall, there has been a sharp acceleration of intervention at home. There is no doubt. Obama’s health-care plan represents a tax increase, which he claimed he would not impose on the middle class. This administration has banned flavored cigarettes, invaded the corporate boardroom, expanded the budget, buffed up the EPA and regulatory agencies, pushed for an “network neutrality” policy that would hand the internet over to the FCC, and on and on.

Bush’s Ninth Year?

While many left-liberal partisans continue to cheer on Obama and attempt to hush all dissent, some on the left have become critical of Obama’s continuation of Bush’s policies. Those who recognize Obama’s first year as essentially an extension of the Bush administration still often fall short of recognizing the fundamental issue here: This was practically meant to be. The two parties hand power off to one another, but the essential political realities remain in place. Caroll Quigley, the brilliant historian of the establishment, wrote in Tragedy and Hope:

The argument that the two parties should represent opposed ideals and policies, one, perhaps, of the Right and the other of the Left, is a foolish idea acceptable only to the doctrinaire and academic thinkers. Instead, the two parties should be almost identical, so that the American people can ‘throw the rascals out’ at any election without leading to any profound or extreme shifts in policy…. Either party in office becomes in time corrupt, tired, unenterprising, and vigorless. Then it should be possible to replace it, every four years if necessary, by the other party, which will be none of these things but will still pursue, with new vigor, approximately the same basic policies.

And whatever the particular ideological makeup of the Democratic Party supposedly is — an active federal government, the advancement of human rights worldwide, national prerogative being supreme over the authority of the several states, central economic planning, a charitable, rather than strict, reading of the Constitution — there was never any reason that this philosophical matrix when combined with the awesome and invariably corrupting power of Washington DC would yield anything other than an approximate continuation and validation of the Bush years, with some essentially cosmetic changes here and there.

The answer to the Obama problem is the same as it was to the Bush problem, the Clinton problem, and the problem with every president who overstepped his bounds, waged unconstitutional wars, denied due process to suspects, violated the Fourth Amendment and spent so much as to make his predecessor look like a piker — philosophical revolution. Until the American people are swayed by the arguments for sound money, free markets, constrained government, the rule of law and peace in international affairs, they will continue to elect presidents whose distinctions are greatly overshadowed by their similarities with the men they replace. The hope for real change will be dashed, just as it was when Bush embarked on a presidency of unconstitutional terror policies, stimulus, bailouts, and huge expansions of Medicare and other domestic programs. Just as it is now for so many Obama supporters, who have seen their agent of hope and change continue on the path laid out by his predecessor, except with some window dressing and more rhetorical emphasis on social programs and economic regulation.

If the latter superficial considerations are enough to fool those who thought they were rejecting the Bush-McCain platform by pulling the lever for the Democrat in 2008, they just might find themselves reelecting Bush to a fourth term in 2012. If the conservative opponents of Obama do not find a more consistent dedication to liberty and government sharply restrained at both home and abroad, they just might take the White House in 2012, only to find they themselves had just reelected Obama in all ways that matter — a person with a different name but with most of the disastrous flaws in governing that they find so readily in today’s occupant of the Oval Office.
Copyright © 2010 Campaign for Liberty. Permission to reprint in full or in part is gladly granted, provided full credit is given.


Off Topic: Glenn Greenwald on the Obama Betrayal

Glenn Greenwald has been one of the most vocal and salient voices on the Obama Administration’s backtracking on, and even the expansion of, the civil liberties abuses by the Bush Administration.  According to his Salon blog: “I was previously a constitutional law and civil rights litigator in New York. I am the author of two New York Times Bestselling books: “How Would a Patriot Act?” (May, 2006), a critique of the Bush administration’s use of executive power, and “A Tragic Legacy” (June, 2007), which examines the Bush legacy. My most recent book, “Great American Hypocrites”, examines the manipulative electoral tactics used by the GOP and propagated by the establishment press, and was released in April, 2008, by Random House/Crown.”

One would note this hardly makes him either a far left or far right ideologue.  He has, as detailed at the very bottom of this post, opposed many Conservative areas including gay rights (Greenwald is gay), drug laws, and the financial bailouts, particularly from bonus and profit perspectives.  He has also praised Obama in a number of otherwise controversial areas, such as the Sonia Sotomayor nomination.

The Obama Abuses (some articles are followed by money quotes from the post):

Civil Liberties:

  • Obama fails his first test on civil liberties and accountability — resoundingly and disgracefully (2/9/09)
  • Obama and habeas corpus — then and now (4/11/09)
  • Obama’s kinder, gentler military commissions: “It now appears definitive that the Obama administration will attempt to preserve a “modified” version of George Bush’s military commissions, rather than try suspected terrorists in our long-standing civilian court system or a court-martial proceeding under the Uniform Code of Military Justice…It is plainly not the case that these “modifications” address the core criticisms directed to what Bush did, nor is it the case that Obama’s campaign position on this issue can be reconciled with what he is now doing.” (5/15/09)
  • · The NYT sums up Obama’s civil liberties record in one paragraph: Quoting the New York Times: “President Obama’s decisions this week to retain important elements of the Bush-era system for trying terrorism suspects and to block the release of pictures showing abuse of American-held prisoners abroad are the most graphic examples yet of how he has backtracked, in substantial if often nuanced ways, from the approach to national security that he preached as a candidate, and even from his first days in the Oval Office.” (5/16/09)
  • Obama’s embrace of Bush terrorism policies is celebrated as “Centrism”: “Obama makes a melodramatic showing of ordering Guantanamo closed but then re-creates its systematic denial of detainee rights in Bagram, and “[l]ast month Secretary of Defense Gates hinted that up to 100 suspected terrorists would be detained without trial.”  Obama announces that all interrogations must comply with the Army Field Manual but then has his CIA Director announce that he will seek greater interrogation authority whenever it is needed and convenes a task force to determine which enhanced interrogation methods beyond the Field Manual should be authorized.  He railed against Bush’s Guantanamo military commissions but then preserved them with changes that are plainly cosmetic.  Obama has been at least as aggressive as Bush was in asserting radical secrecy doctrines in order to prevent courts from ruling on illegal torture and spying programs and to block victims from having a day in court.  He has continued and even “ramped up” so-called “targeted killings” in Pakistan and Afghanistan which, as Goldsmith puts it, “have predictably caused more collateral damage to innocent civilians.”  He has maintained not only Bush’s rendition policy but also the standard used to determine to which countries a suspect can be rendered, and has kept Bush’s domestic surveillance policies in place and unchanged.  Most of all, he has emphatically endorsed the Bush/Cheney paradigm that we are engaged in a “war” against Terrorists — with all of the accompanying presidential “war powers” — rather than the law enforcement challenge that John Kerry, among others, advocated.” (5/19/09)
  • Obama’s civil liberties speech (5/21/09)
  • Obama, the Right and defendants’ rights: “This was yet another case where the Obama DOJ sided with the Bush administration and advocated the position that the conservative justices adopted.  The Obama DOJ aggressively argued before the Court that convicted criminals have no constitutional right to access evidence for DNA analysis.  Indeed, its decision to embrace this extreme Bush position caused much controversy and anger back in February.” (6/20/09)
  • · Establishment view of Obama’s civil liberties record: From a Washington Post Editorial: “President Obama has said that the state secrets doctrine should be reformed, and he has promised to be more measured. Yet when confronted with actual cases the Obama Justice Department has adopted the same legal arguments as the Bush administration.” (6/29/09)
  • The Obama justice system: “Spencer Ackerman yesterday attended a Senate hearing at which the DOD’s General Counsel, Jeh Johnson, testified.  As Ackerman highlighted, Johnson actually said that even for those detainees to whom the Obama administration deigns to give a real trial in a real court, the President has the power to continue to imprison them indefinitely even if they are acquitted at their trial. About this assertion of “presidential post-acquittal detention power” — an Orwellian term (and a Kafka-esque concept) that should send shivers down the spine of anyone who cares at all about the most basic liberties — Ackerman wrote, with some understatement, that it “moved the Obama administration into new territory from a civil liberties perspective.”  Law professor Jonathan Turley was more blunt:  “The Obama Administration continues its retention and expansion of abusive Bush policies — now clearly Obama policies on indefinite detention.”” (7/8/09)

State Secrets

  • The 180-degree reversal of Obama’s State Secrets position: “What was abusive and dangerous about the Bush administration’s version of the States Secret privilege — just as the Obama/Biden campaign pointed out — was that it was used not (as originally intended) to argue that specific pieces of evidence or documents were secret and therefore shouldn’t be allowed in a court case, but instead, to compel dismissal of entire lawsuits in advance based on the claim that any judicial adjudication of even the most illegal secret government programs would harm national security.  That is the theory that caused the bulk of the controversy when used by the Bush DOJ — because it shields entire government programs from any judicial scrutiny — and it is that exact version of the privilege that the Obama DOJ yesterday expressly advocated (and, by implication, sought to preserve for all Presidents, including Obama).”   (2/10/09)
  • Marc Ambinder grants anonymity to “officials” to defend the Obama DOJ: This posts quotes from the New York Times editorial: “The Obama administration failed — miserably — the first test of its commitment to ditching the extravagant legal claims used by the Bush administration to try to impose blanket secrecy on anti-terrorism policies and avoid accountability for serial abuses of the law.” (2/11/09)
  • Charlie Savage on Obama’s embrace of Bush/Cheney “terrorism policies”: “These are not complaints that Obama has failed to act quickly enough to reverse Bush/Cheney policies.  Indeed, there are many areas where Obama has explicitly said he needs time before deciding what he wants to do — closing Guantanamo, proceeding with detainee trials; deciding if he wants to claim Bush’s power to indefinitely detain “enemy combatants” on U.S. soil;  responding to some FOIA requests, etc.  Very few civil libertarians — and certainly not me — have objected to his needing more time before he finalizes his exact policies.  That’s perfectly reasonable.   Some of these issues are truly complex, involve many moving parts, and require that many factions which he needs (e.g., inside the CIA) be placated.  Taking some time is reasonable.  The complaint is not that Obama has failed to move quickly enough to repudiate Bush/Cheney abuses.  Virtually nobody is arguing that.  Rather, the criticisms are grounded in the opposite premise:  these cases which have provoked objections are all cases where Obama has already taken affirmative actions to preserve and defend Bush/Cheney policies.” (2/18/09)
  • New and worse secrecy and immunity claims from the Obama DOJ: “the Obama DOJ filed the government’s first response to EFF’s lawsuit (.pdf), the first of its kind to seek damages against government officials under FISA, the Wiretap Act and other statutes, arising out of Bush’s NSA program.  But the Obama DOJ demanded dismissal of the entire lawsuit based on (1) its Bush-mimicking claim that the “state secrets” privilege bars any lawsuits against the Bush administration for illegal spying, and (2) a brand new “sovereign immunity” claim of breathtaking scope — never before advanced even by the Bush administration — that the Patriot Act bars any lawsuits of any kind for illegal government surveillance unless there is “willful disclosure” of the illegally intercepted communications.” (4/6/09)
  • Keith Olbermann’s scathing criticism of Obama’s secrecy/immunity claims (4/8/09)
  • Major defeat for Bush/Obama position on secrecy (4/28/09)
  • Obama’s support for the new Graham-Lieberman secrecy law: “Obviously anticipating that the Government is likely to lose in court again (.pdf) — Obama wants Congress to change FOIA by retroactively narrowing its disclosure requirements, prevent a legal ruling by the courts, and vest himself with brand new secrecy powers under the law which, just as a factual matter, not even George Bush sought for himself.” (6/1/09)
  • The Obama officials blocking accountability for Bush crimes (6/15/09)
  • Obama and transparency: judge for yourself (6/17/09)

Illegal Spying:


Preventive Detention:

Viewpoints Opposing Conservatives:

In Praise of Obama:


Off Topic: America’s Political Paralysis Over Torture

Occasionally there is an article I want to reproduce in its entirety rather than merely linking to it.  This is one such article (originally appeared on

America’s Political Paralysis Over Torture

By Alfred W. McCoy

Alfred W. McCoy is the J.R.W. Smail Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is the author of A Question of Torture: CIA Interrogation, From the Cold War to the War on Terror (Metropolitan Books), which is also available in Italian and German translations. Later this year, Policing America’s Empire: The United States, the Philippines, and the Rise of the Surveillance State, a forthcoming book of his, will explore the influence of overseas counterinsurgency operations on the spread of internal security measures here at home. To catch a TomDispatch audio interview in which McCoy discusses the CIA’s “Manhattan Project of the mind,” click here.

If, like me, you’ve been following America’s torture policies not just for the last few years, but for decades, you can’t help but experience that eerie feeling of déjà vu these days. With the departure of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney from Washington and the arrival of Barack Obama, it may just be back to the future when it comes to torture policy, a turn away from a dark, do-it-yourself ethos and a return to the outsourcing of torture that went on, with the support of both Democrats and Republicans, in the Cold War years.

Like Chile after the regime of General Augusto Pinochet or the Philippines after the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos, Washington after Bush is now trapped in the painful politics of impunity. Unlike anything our allies have experienced, however, for Washington, and so for the rest of us, this may prove a political crisis without end or exit.

Despite dozens of official inquiries in the five years since the Abu Ghraib photos first exposed our abuse of Iraqi detainees, the torture scandal continues to spread like a virus, infecting all who touch it, including now Obama himself. By embracing a specific methodology of torture, covertly developed by the CIA over decades using countless millions of taxpayer dollars and graphically revealed in those Iraqi prison photos, we have condemned ourselves to retreat from whatever promises might be made to end this sort of abuse and are instead already returning to a bipartisan consensus that made torture America’s secret weapon throughout the Cold War.

Despite the 24 version of events, the Bush administration did not simply authorize traditional, bare-knuckle torture. What it did do was develop to new heights the world’s most advanced form of psychological torture, while quickly recognizing the legal dangers in doing so. Even in the desperate days right after 9/11, the White House and Justice Department lawyers who presided over the Bush administration’s new torture program were remarkably punctilious about cloaking their decisions in legalisms designed to preempt later prosecution.

To most Americans, whether they supported the Bush administration torture policy or opposed it, all of this seemed shocking and very new. Not so, unfortunately. Concealed from Congress and the public, the CIA had spent the previous half-century developing and propagating a sophisticated form of psychological torture meant to defy investigation, prosecution, or prohibition – and so far it has proved remarkably successful on all these counts. Even now, since many of the leading psychologists who worked to advance the CIA’s torture skills have remained silent, we understand surprisingly little about the psychopathology of the program of mental torture that the Bush administration applied so globally.

Physical torture is a relatively straightforward matter of sadism that leaves behind broken bodies, useless information, and clear evidence for prosecution. Psychological torture, on the other hand, is a mind maze that can destroy its victims, even while entrapping its perpetrators in an illusory, almost erotic, sense of empowerment. When applied skillfully, it leaves few scars for investigators who might restrain this seductive impulse. However, despite all the myths of these last years, psychological torture, like its physical counterpart, has proven an ineffective, even counterproductive, method for extracting useful information from prisoners.

Where it has had a powerful effect is on those ordering and delivering it. With their egos inflated beyond imagining by a sense of being masters of life and death, pain and pleasure, its perpetrators, when in office, became forceful proponents of abuse, striding across the political landscape like Nietzschean supermen. After their fall from power, they have continued to maneuver with extraordinary determination to escape the legal consequences of their actions.

Before we head deeper into the hidden history of the CIA’s psychological torture program, however, we need to rid ourselves of the idea that this sort of torture is somehow “torture lite” or merely, as the Bush administration renamed it, “enhanced interrogation.” Although seemingly less brutal than physical methods, psychological torture actually inflicts a crippling trauma on its victims. “Ill treatment during captivity, such as psychological manipulations and forced stress positions,” Dr. Metin Basoglu has reported in the Archives of General Psychiatry after interviewing 279 Bosnian victims of such methods, “does not seem to be substantially different from physical torture in terms of the severity of mental suffering.”

A Secret History of Psychological Torture

The roots of our present paralysis over what to do about detainee abuse lie in the hidden history of the CIA’s program of psychological torture. Early in the Cold War, panicked that the Soviets had somehow cracked the code of human consciousness, the Agency mounted a “Special Interrogation Program” whose working hypothesis was: “Medical science, particularly psychiatry and psychotherapy, has developed various techniques by means of which some external control can be imposed on the mind/or will of an individual, such as drugs, hypnosis, electric shock and neurosurgery.”

All of these methods were tested by the CIA in the 1950s and 1960s. None proved successful for breaking potential enemies or obtaining reliable information. Beyond these ultimately unsuccessful methods, however, the Agency also explored a behavioral approach to cracking that “code.” In 1951, in collaboration with British and Canadian defense scientists, the Agency encouraged academic research into “methods concerned in psychological coercion.” Within months, the Agency had defined the aims of its top-secret program, code-named Project Artichoke, as the “development of any method by which we can get information from a person against his will and without his knowledge.”

This secret research produced two discoveries central to the CIA’s more recent psychological paradigm. In classified experiments, famed Canadian psychologist Donald Hebb found that he could induce a state akin to drug-induced hallucinations and psychosis in just 48 hours – without drugs, hypnosis, or electric shock. Instead, for two days student volunteers at McGill University simply sat in a comfortable cubicle deprived of sensory stimulation by goggles, gloves, and earmuffs. “It scared the hell out of us,” Hebb said later, “to see how completely dependent the mind is on a close connection with the ordinary sensory environment, and how disorganizing to be cut off from that support.”

During the 1950s, two neurologists at Cornell Medical Center, under CIA contract, found that the most devastating torture technique of the Soviet secret police, the KGB, was simply to force a victim to stand for days while the legs swelled, the skin erupted in suppurating lesions, and hallucinations began – a procedure which we now politely refer to as “stress positions.”

Four years into this project, there was a sudden upsurge of interest in using mind control techniques defensively after American prisoners in North Korea suffered what was then called “brainwashing.” In August 1955, President Eisenhower ordered that any soldier at risk of capture should be given “specific training and instruction designed to… withstand all enemy efforts against him.”

Consequently, the Air Force developed a program it dubbed SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape) to train pilots in resisting psychological torture. In other words, two intertwined strands of research into torture methods were being explored and developed: aggressive methods for breaking enemy agents and defensive methods for training Americans to resist enemy inquisitors.

In 1963, the CIA distilled its decade of research into the curiously named KUBARK Counter-intelligence Interrogation manual, which stated definitively that sensory deprivation was effective because it made “the regressed subject view the interrogator as a father-figure… strengthening… the subject’s tendencies toward compliance.” Refined through years of practice on actual human beings, the CIA’s psychological paradigm now relies on a mix of sensory overload and deprivation via seemingly banal procedures: the extreme application of heat and cold, light and dark, noise and silence, feast and famine – all meant to attack six essential sensory pathways into the human mind.

After codifying its new interrogation methods in the KUBARK manual, the Agency spent the next 30 years promoting these torture techniques within the U.S. intelligence community and among anti-communist allies. In its clandestine journey across continents and decades, the CIA’s psychological torture paradigm would prove elusive, adaptable, devastatingly destructive, and powerfully seductive. So darkly seductive is torture’s appeal that these seemingly scientific methods, even when intended for a few Soviet spies or al-Qaeda terrorists, soon spread uncontrollably in two directions – toward the torture of the many and into a paroxysm of brutality towards specific individuals. During the Vietnam War, when the CIA applied these techniques in their search for information on top Vietcong cadre, the interrogation effort soon degenerated into the crude physical brutality of the Phoenix Program, producing 46,000 extrajudicial executions and little actionable intelligence.

In 1994, with the Cold War over, Washington ratified the U.N. Convention Against Torture, seemingly resolving the tension between its anti-torture principles and its torture practices. Yet when President Clinton sent this Convention to Congress, he included four little-noticed diplomatic “reservations” drafted six years before by the Reagan administration and focused on just one word in those 26 printed pages: “mental.”

These reservations narrowed (just for the United States) the definition of “mental” torture to include just four acts: the infliction of physical pain, the use of drugs, death threats, or threats to harm another. Excluded were methods such as sensory deprivation and self-inflicted pain, the very techniques the CIA had propagated for the past 40 years. This definition was reproduced verbatim in Section 2340 of the U.S. Federal Code and later in the War Crimes Act of 1996. Through this legal legerdemain, Washington managed to agree, via the U.N. Convention, to ban physical abuse even while exempting the CIA from the U.N.’s prohibition on psychological torture.

This little noticed exemption was left buried in those documents like a landmine and would detonate with phenomenal force just 10 years later at Abu Ghraib prison.

War on Terror, War of Torture

Right after his public address to a shaken nation on September 11, 2001, President Bush gave his staff secret orders to pursue torture policies, adding emphatically, “I don’t care what the international lawyers say, we are going to kick some ass.” In a dramatic break with past policy, the White House would even allow the CIA to operate its own global network of prisons, as well as charter air fleet to transport seized suspects and “render” them for endless detention in a supranational gulag of secret “black sites” from Thailand to Poland.

The Bush administration also officially allowed the CIA ten “enhanced” interrogation methods designed by agency psychologists, including “waterboarding.” This use of cold water to block breathing triggers the “mammalian diving reflex,” hardwired into every human brain, thus inducing an uncontrollable terror of impending death.

As Jane Mayer reported in the New Yorker, psychologists working for both the Pentagon and the CIA “reverse engineered” the military’s SERE training, which included a brief exposure to waterboarding, and flipped these defensive methods for use offensively on al-Qaeda captives. “They sought to render the detainees vulnerable – to break down all of their senses,” one official told Mayer. “It takes a psychologist trained in this to understand these rupturing experiences.” Inside Agency headquarters, there was, moreover, a “high level of anxiety” about the possibility of future prosecutions for methods officials knew to be internationally defined as torture. The presence of Ph.D. psychologists was considered one “way for CIA officials to skirt measures such as the Convention Against Torture.”

From recently released Justice Department memos, we now know that the CIA refined its psychological paradigm significantly under Bush. As described in the classified 2004 Background Paper on the CIA’s Combined Use of Interrogation Techniques, each detainee was transported to an Agency black site while “deprived of sight and sound through the use of blindfolds, earmuffs, and hoods.” Once inside the prison, he was reduced to “a baseline, dependent state” through conditioning by “nudity, sleep deprivation (with shackling…), and dietary manipulation.”

For “more physical and psychological stress,” CIA interrogators used coercive measures such as “an insult slap or abdominal slap” and then “walling,” slamming the detainee’s head against a cell wall. If these failed to produce the results sought, interrogators escalated to waterboarding, as was done to Abu Zubaydah “at least 83 times during August 2002” and Khalid Sheikh Mohammad 183 times in March 2003 – so many times, in fact, that the repetitiousness of the act can only be considered convincing testimony to the seductive sadism of CIA-style torture.

In a parallel effort launched by Bush-appointed civilians in the Pentagon, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld gave General Geoffrey Miller command of the new American military prison at Guantanamo in late 2002 with ample authority to transform it into an ad hoc psychology lab. Behavioral Science Consultation Teams of military psychologists probed detainees for individual phobias like fear of the dark. Interrogators stiffened the psychological assault by exploiting what they saw as Arab cultural sensitivities when it came to sex and dogs. Via a three-phase attack on the senses, on culture, and on the individual psyche, interrogators at Guantanamo perfected the CIA’s psychological paradigm.

After General Miller visited Iraq in September 2003, the U.S. commander there, General Ricardo Sanchez, ordered Guantanamo-style abuse at Abu Ghraib prison. My own review of the 1,600 still-classified photos taken by American guards at Abu Ghraib – which journalists covering this story seem to share like Napster downloads – reveals not random, idiosyncratic acts by “bad apples,” but the repeated, constant use of just three psychological techniques: hooding for sensory deprivation, shackling for self-inflicted pain, and (to exploit Arab cultural sensitivities) both nudity and dogs. It is no accident that Private Lynndie England was famously photographed leading an Iraqi detainee leashed like a dog.

These techniques, according to the New York Times, then escalated virally at five Special Operations field interrogation centers where detainees were subjected to extreme sensory deprivation, beating, burning, electric shock, and waterboarding. Among the thousand soldiers in these units, 34 were later convicted of abuse and many more escaped prosecution only because records were officially “lost.”

“Behind the Green Door” at the White House

Further up the chain of command, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, as she recently told the Senate, “convened a series of meetings of NSC [National Security Council] principals in 2002 and 2003 to discuss various issues… relating to detainees.” This group, including Vice President Cheney, Attorney General John Ashcroft, Secretary of State Colin Powell, and CIA director George Tenet, met dozens of times inside the White House Situation Room.

After watching CIA operatives mime what Rice called “certain physical and psychological interrogation techniques,” these leaders, their imaginations stimulated by graphic visions of human suffering, repeatedly authorized extreme psychological techniques stiffened by hitting, walling, and waterboarding. According to an April 2008 ABC News report, Attorney General Ashcroft once interrupted this collective fantasy by asking aloud, “Why are we talking about this in the White House? History will not judge this kindly.”

In mid-2004, even after the Abu Ghraib photos were released, these principals met to approve the use of CIA torture techniques on still more detainees. Despite mounting concerns about the damage torture was doing to America’s standing, shared by Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice commanded Agency officials with the cool demeanor of a dominatrix. “This is your baby,” she reportedly said. “Go do it.”

Cleansing Torture

Even as they exercise extraordinary power over others, perpetrators of torture around the world are assiduous in trying to cover their tracks. They construct recondite legal justifications, destroy records of actual torture, and paper the files with spurious claims of success. Hence, the CIA destroyed 92 interrogation videotapes, while Vice President Cheney now berates Obama incessantly (five times in his latest Fox News interview) to declassify “two reports” which he claims will show the informational gains that torture offered – possibly because his staff salted the files at the NSC or the CIA with documents prepared for this very purpose.

Not only were Justice Department lawyers aggressive in their advocacy of torture in the Bush years, they were meticulous from the start, in laying the legal groundwork for later impunity. In three torture memos from May 2005 that the Obama administration recently released, Bush’s Deputy Assistant Attorney General Stephen Bradbury repeatedly cited those original U.S. diplomatic “reservations” to the U.N. Convention Against Torture, replicated in Section 2340 of the Federal code, to argue that waterboarding was perfectly legal since the “technique is not physically painful.” Anyway, he added, careful lawyering at Justice and the CIA had punched loopholes in both the U.N. Convention and U.S. law so wide that these Agency techniques were “unlikely to be subject to judicial inquiry.”

Just to be safe, when Vice President Cheney presided over the drafting of the Military Commissions Act of 2006, he included clauses, buried in 38 pages of dense print, defining “serious physical pain” as the “significant loss or impairment of the function of a bodily member, organ, or mental faculty.” This was a striking paraphrase of the outrageous definition of physical torture as pain “equivalent in intensity to… organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death” in John Yoo’s infamous August 2002 “torture memo,” already repudiated by the Justice Department.

Above all, the Military Commissions Act protected the CIA’s use of psychological torture by repeating verbatim the exculpatory language found in those Clinton-era, Reagan-created reservations to the U.N. Convention and still embedded in Section 2340 of the Federal code. To make doubly sure, the act also made these definitions retroactive to November 1997, giving CIA interrogators immunity from any misdeeds under the Expanded War Crimes Act of 1997 which punishes serious violations with life imprisonment or death.

No matter how twisted the process, impunity – whether in England, Indonesia, or America – usually passes through three stages:

  1. Blame the supposed “bad apples.”
  2. Invoke the security argument. (“It protected us.”)
  3. Appeal to national unity. (“We need to move forward together.”)

For a year after the Abu Ghraib exposé, Rumsfeld’s Pentagon blamed various low-ranking bad apples by claiming the abuse was “perpetrated by a small number of U.S. military.” In his statement on May 13th, while refusing to release more torture photos, President Obama echoed Rumsfeld, claiming the abuse in these latest images, too, “was carried out in the past by a small number of individuals.”

In recent weeks, Republicans have taken us deep into the second stage with Cheney’s statements that the CIA’s methods “prevented the violent deaths of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of people.”

Then, on April 16th, President Obama brought us to the final stage when he released the four Bush-era memos detailing CIA torture, insisting: “Nothing will be gained by spending our time and energy laying blame for the past.” During a visit to CIA headquarters four days later, Obama promised that there would be no prosecutions of Agency employees. “We’ve made some mistakes,” he admitted, but urged Americans simply to “acknowledge them and then move forward.” The president’s statements were in such blatant defiance of international law that the U.N.’s chief official on torture, Manfred Nowak, reminded him that Washington was actually obliged to investigate possible violations of the Convention Against Torture.

This process of impunity is leading Washington back to a global torture policy that, during the Cold War, was bipartisan in nature: publicly advocating human rights while covertly outsourcing torture to allied governments and their intelligence agencies. In retrospect, it may become ever more apparent that the real aberration of the Bush years lay not in torture policies per se, but in the President’s order that the CIA should operate its own torture prisons. The advantage of the bipartisan torture consensus of the Cold War era was, of course, that it did a remarkably good job most of the time of insulating Washington from the taint of torture, which was sometimes remarkably widely practiced.

There are already some clear signs of a policy shift in this direction in the Obama era. Since mid-2008, U.S. intelligence has captured a half-dozen al-Qaeda suspects and, instead of shipping them to Guantanamo or to CIA secret prisons, has had them interrogated by allied Middle Eastern intelligence agencies. Showing that this policy is again bipartisan, Obama’s new CIA director Leon Panetta announced that the Agency would continue to engage in the rendition of terror suspects to allies like Libya, Pakistan, or Saudi Arabia where we can, as he put it, “rely on diplomatic assurances of good treatment.” Showing the quality of such treatment, Time magazine reported on May 24th that Ibn al-Sheikh al-Libi, who famously confessed under torture that Saddam Hussein had provided al-Qaeda with chemical weapons and later admitted his lie to Senate investigators, had committed “suicide” in a Libyan cell.

The Price of Impunity

This time around, however, a long-distance torture policy may not provide the same insulation as in the past for Washington. Any retreat into torture by remote-control is, in fact, only likely to produce the next scandal that will do yet more damage to America’s international standing.

Over a 40-year period, Americans have found themselves mired in this same moral quagmire on six separate occasions: following exposés of CIA-sponsored torture in South Vietnam (1970), Brazil (1974), Iran (1978), Honduras (1988), and then throughout Latin America (1997). After each exposé, the public’s shock soon faded, allowing the Agency to resume its dirty work in the shadows.

Unless some formal inquiry is convened to look into a sordid history that reached its depths in the Bush era, and so begins to break this cycle of deceit, exposé, and paralysis followed by more of the same, we’re likely, a few years hence, to find ourselves right back where we are now. We’ll be confronted with the next American torture scandal from some future iconic dungeon, part of a dismal, ever lengthening procession that has led from the tiger cages of South Vietnam through the Shah of Iran’s prison cells in Tehran to Abu Ghraib and the prison at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan.

The next time, however, the world will not have forgotten those photos from Abu Ghraib. The next time, the damage to this country will be nothing short of devastating.