By Patricia Lee Sharpe
(1) “We tortured folks.” President Barack Obama.
(2) “I have full confidence in John Brennan.” President Barack Obama.
Let’s get something straight, Mr. President. We didn’t torture anybody, although John Brennan was somewhere in the chain of command when torture was the order of the day. For that reason, he should never have been elevated to head the Central Intelligence Agency. Many of us objected to that appointment. You pushed it forward anyway, Mr. President, thus putting yourself in surprising company, or so we thought, briefly, recalling your very different pre-election personna. We now know that you are really one of them.
You, Mr. President, seem to have joined Dick Cheney’s take-off-the-gloves “dark side,” but we didn’t torture anybody. We believed that we were living in a country whose Constitution provides no exception to the prohibition against ”cruel and unusual” punishment (not even in the wake of a vicious terrorist attack) and where lying to Congress under oath is a crime and a very serious one, because society cannot function without trust. By appointing and continuing to express confidence to a man who lies to Senators, raids their computers and does his energetic best to suppress a full and accurate report on the torture years, you not only betray us, Mr. President, you undermine our system of law. You invite the chaos and/or authoritarianism that disfigures too many countries today. Where there is effectively no law, when government institutions are a laugh, the Kalashnikov rules.
No Collective Guilt
Get this absolutely straight, Mr. President, we did not torture anyone. The collective guilt brush doesn’t apply here, so kindly put it aside. We weren’t consulted. We weren’t informed. When we began to get hints of really bad stuff happening, evidence was destroyed. We the people were fed lie after lie about that, too, meaning denials of the existence as well as the destruction of evidence.
Americans voted for hope in the person of Barack Obama. Not all of us were enraptured by that vacuous promise, but even we expected that you, Mr. President, once elected, would clean up the swamps and dungeons of the Bush years. We expected that a president who had been a constitutional law professor, no less, would not only repudiate the Bush administration’s addiction to cruel and unusual punishment but also—and this was critical, in order to prevent repetition—would prosecute all those who’d had a hand in it. Yes. All of them. From the delicately-distanced decision-makers in the executive offices right on down to the more obviously dirty-handed guys in the ultra secret “black hole” torture chambers, whether C.I.A. operatives themselves or contractors employed for the purposes of “plausible deniability.”
The Dark Side Rules
But you didn’t, Mr. Obama. You pretended to take the high road, persuading a gullible public that we should just write off the mistakes of the past and concentrate on doing better in the future. You weren’t even willing to prosecute the C.I.A. operatives who destroyed the torture tapes or their equally culpable immediate supervisors, a very serious crime you were happy to overlook. Had we correctly foreseen the astonishing future, the very near future, we wouldn’t have been surprised. What you had in mind, it seems, was the creation of a bigger, better rogue state, an even more perfect police state: you brought the N.S.A. into the picture. Soon our own government was spying on all of us all the time. No warrants needed. Too inconvenient.
We didn’t agree to this either. We were not consulted. Even the Congressional intelligence committees (who for the most part are too cooperative when it comes to dealing with what you and your ilk define as national security issues) were not fully and honestly informed. And clearly you did not want us—the people—to be aware that we were increasingly under 24/7 surveillance so far as all our electronic communications are concerned. (And, please none of that meta-data double talk. We’ve long since seen through it.) And what a riot it was when you expressed more anger over the Edward Snowden affair than you ever expressed about people being tortured clandestinely, the very secrecy an admission that the decision-makers knew that what they were doing was inhuman as well as unconstitutional.
Frankly, Mr. President, a lot of us think that Dick Cheney is more of a threat to the integrity and security of the U.S. than Edward Snowden, who had the strange idea that we the people should know what’s going on. No matter how horrible Vladimir Putin is in every other way, he’s done American democracy a favor by giving refuge to Mr. Snowden and you, Mr. President, have given Putin a rare chance to look good. Meanwhile, as a Constitutional lawyer, you knew there’d be hell to pay if we discovered that you and your coterie were spying on us all the time. Hence the wall of classification and your alarm when it was breached. Hence, our gratitude to Edward Snowden. Is it really a betrayal of one’s oath to reveal violations of the Constitution? We’re not as dumb as you think, Mr. Arrogantly Aloof President.
The Method behind the Madness
Back to torture, Mr. President. You pleaded with us to look ahead, but you yourself didn’t make a break with the past. Instead of appointing a clean, trustworthy figure to serve as Head Spy, you tapped an operative thoroughly associated with the bleak black recent past. Choosing John Brennan for C.I.A. director, you knowingly put the fox in charge of the chicken coop, a guarantee that cover up would be the name of the game. Ever since, the fox has done his best to out-fox the dogged Senatorial investigation into the C.I.A.’s black hole adventures, his and your hope being, no doubt, that strategic excisions would allow ambiguity (and thus the status quo) to reign. But—thank the great god of democracy!—Brennan’s boys have been exposed, and there are many calls for Brennan himself to resign, unless you wisely decide to dismiss him.
“Which will never happen,” insiders say. “Why?” I ask. “Because,” they say, “Obama likes John Brennan.”
But why should you be so partial? I continued to wonder. And then I saw it. You, Mr. President, wish to wage war, gloves off, but the Army does not work that way. It has traditions. It has notions of honor. Yes, the Army has generals who will tell you what they think if you are crossing a line involving the rules of war, including those involved in the Vienna Conventions. In short, oddly enough, although the Army is a killing machine, it is also a civilized institution.
But the C.I.A. is an amoral can-do organization. So: who better than a tried-and-true C.I.A. man to run the nifty new drone program? No unwanted American casualties (which can be politically inconvenient) and very handy for targeted assassinations. Even for troublesome American citizens. Tag ‘em. Zap ‘em. And so on. If you want scruples, use the Army. But if you want freedom, go with the spy guys. Which you did, Mr President, so you needed an insider for the top job. Not a squeamish reformer. A gloves-off guy. He’d find a way to do whatever you wanted, crimes against humanity be damned.
Which seems to explain, Mr. President, why you so vehemently insist that you have “full confidence” in John Brennan. I suspect that you have been too prudent to record any of your conversations with him. Too bad. They might help us to understand why you stand by a man who lies to Congress, although you found it necessary to punish General McCrystal for insubordination, a crime which seems to have consisted mostly of grumping while drinking with colleagues in the presence of a reporter. At the time, Mr. President, I supported you. I believe strongly in the importance of civilian control of the military. However, what John Brennan has done is far more serious, and yet you find no fault in him. Ergo: he must be doing your bidding. This does not reflect well on you.
Brennan Has to Go
We’ve already dispensed with the 9/11 defense. Constitutionally it doesn’t wash. This leaves the clueless defense. So-and-so didn’t know, poor guy. But that argument didn’t protect General Edward Shinseki, rtd., who was an amiable Secretary in charge of Veterans Affairs while veterans were dying of bureaucratic neglect. Similarly, the clueless defense isn’t good enough to protect John Brennan. Instigated by him or not, what has happened on his watch is criminal, Mr. President. Whether you like him or not, John Brennan has to go.
PS: The use of ”folks” in the context of torture is grotesque.