Now don't do it again . . .

Obama's release of the infamous 'torture memos' begs more questions than it answers, writes James Turley

Upon entering office in January, US president Barack Obama judged it a priority to cement the goodwill offered him by his broad liberal support base.

To rapturous applause from allcomers, he announced the closure of the torture camp in Guantanamo Bay, which, of course, is a US-occupied corner of Cuba.

The camp was, and remains, a potent symbol of - according to taste - America having ‘lost its way’, the disregard for the ‘international community’ displayed by the Bush administration, or the brutality of contemporary imperialism. The spectacle of hooded figures, spirited away from conflict zones into a prison declared entirely off the legal map, for a long time living in exposed cages, was like a Pinter play come to life. Nobody much was sad to see it go - not even the CIA which, in truth, has plenty of other such black holes into which prisoners can be ‘disappeared’.

Obama has not entirely abandoned the issue - a leaked memo, and then Hillary Clinton, revealed that the term ‘war on terror’ was no longer formally in use by the US government. And now, more significantly, Obama has ruled in favour of the publication of four contentious justice department memos to the CIA, providing legal justification for ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’, most infamously waterboarding.

The latter is the practice of immobilising a prisoner face-up on an inclined board and pouring water into their breathing cavities. It immediately triggers the gag reflex and produces a sharp psychological sense of imminent death, as small amounts (if the victim is lucky) of water reach the lungs.

The released memos are not completely unexpurgated, as many had hoped - in fact, bizarrely, different copies appear to have different levels of censorship.1 We can get a flavour of the deleted material, therefore, by noting that only some copies make reference to the individual prisoners, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Abu Zubaida, waterboarded on 183 and 83 occasions respectively.2 Mohammed’s total - the world record for surviving water torture, one notes - was, chillingly, accomplished in under a month.

The release of the memos has triggered panic both among Bush administration alumni and CIA officials. Michael Hayden, ex-CIA director, argues that waterboarding is not torture, as, he claims, it “does not cause lasting physical damage”. Dick Cheney, meanwhile, has promised to publish material that proves the practice yielded results in interrogations and was therefore worthwhile pursuing.

It is barely worth refuting the frankly ridiculous factual claims of Hayden. Waterboarding is as unambiguously a practice of torture as any imaginable infliction of suffering, and has a long and rich pedigree, going back through the Khmer Rouge and various colonial applications to, in its earliest incarnation, the Spanish Inquisition. It certainly does cause long-term physical harm, if not uniformly, and - as is the way with forcing water into people’s lungs - can be fatal. The psychological harm, needless to say, is immense.

As to Cheney’s claims that it ‘worked’, one has to question the efficacy of an interrogation method that has to be used 183 times before it (allegedly) yields results - information extracted under torture is notoriously unreliable, as the victim tends to say anything he imagines the torturers wish to hear, irrespective of its veracity. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed has since confessed publicly to almost every bombing worldwide between 1993 and 2001, in scenes reminiscent of the Moscow trials. In any case, that is simply not the point from any standpoint opposed to torture. Cheney may as well claim that the genocide of the American westward expansion at least ‘worked’. in that it successfully made room for European colonists.

The real interest of the CIA directors and Bush colleagues is quite obviously not the solemn moral defence of waterboarding (or any of the other innumerable torture methods outlined in the memos). Instead, it is their own hides. After all, one might naively assume that, since torture is illegal in the US and since it is now fairly obvious that the state machine has conspired to conduct it anyway, heads will now roll - even if only the heads of unimportant patsies.

Once more, the naive believer in the capitalist state’s bullshit is deceived. Obama moved quickly to ‘reassure’ CIA agents and others that there will be no prosecutions. As is his method, this promise of immunity came wrapped in a meaningless banality - this time that “We should look forwards, not backwards.” However, this position was partially reversed - albeit cryptically. The Guardian reports that Bush aides (not CIA operatives) may be up for prosecution after all.3 This is, clearly enough, in response to attacks from the likes of Cheney.

The original ‘no prosecutions’ position was met with confusion and disappointment by those who hoped that Obama would truly deal with the global brutality bequeathed him by his predecessors, most recently and vigorously George Bush. Such voices are unlikely to be entirely silenced by the slenderest of prospects that Bush aides may now be exempt from the torture amnesty. Obama’s election in November was greeted with delirious enthusiasm from wide sections of the American population exhausted by unwinnable wars, unstoppable financial collapse and incompetent rulers.

The Republican far right, so brutally effective in getting voters behind Bush, was almost unable to spread its hysterical and plainly untrue denunciations through the mainstream media this time around. Even Rupert Murdoch’s dreaded Fox News was marginally more positive towards Obama than to his rival, John McCain, during the election season4.

The paradigmatic George Bush humour website was bushorchimp.com, which compared the erstwhile president’s facial expressions to those of chimpanzees - the best offering for his successor so far is badpaintingsofbarackobama.com, where Obamania is immortalised in innumerable canvasses of adulatory kitsch.

As Obama’s time in office has continued, however, the messianic sheen has worn off - he has faced difficulties on the domestic front, particularly on issues of economic strategy. The world is united in anxiety over exactly what character his reign will take, but massively divided in terms of what outcome it is hoping for.

Obama marshalled such enthusiastic support from the ruling class by selling himself as a man with answers to the severe problems with which the US has found itself. He did not sell himself on the basis of what those answers actually were. It is just as well. Answers which appeal to the bourgeoisie are not the same answers that will appeal to the working masses - or even the oft-cited but rarely seen ‘Joe Sixpack’, the largely imaginary demographic of ‘ordinary’, hard-working, all-American good ol’ boys.

If the class question is frightening enough, the president has also the fates to contend with - economic crises have a logic of their own, partially autonomous from the actions of politicians, and the extent to which any worked-out plans will be effective is contingent on the chaotic development of events.

It is another sense of the word ‘chaos’ which applies to military affairs. His plan to scale up involvement in Afghanistan, for instance, has already hit difficulties with the quickening descent of Pakistan into turmoil. It is simply politically unfeasible for America to pursue the kind of military operations necessary to produce a lasting and stable victory.

Obama, then, is engaged in a highly precarious balancing act, and we must read the paradoxical, yet paradoxically unsurprising, business over the torture memos in this context. Releasing the memos costs him nothing. The world already knows that the US has engaged in torture, not just under Bush, but - through innumerable black ops and counter-insurgency operations, and institutions such as the School of the Americas - consistently throughout its history. It knows that waterboarding has come back into favour, as well as stress positions and various extreme psychological pressure techniques. The testimony of innumerable victims of the ghost prison network has seen to that.

It costs him nothing - that is, provided it is clear that he is not serious - that he perfectly well intends to continue vigorously prosecuting the war formerly known as the ‘war on terror’ as far as the ‘national interest’ will allow, that he respects and is prepared to defend the due licence of the CIA to do whatever it takes to defend American interests. His minor flip-flop on the prosecutions issue, far from representing a late intervention of a political conscience, only confirms the cynicism of the whole affair - only when the Republicans go on the attack is he forced to alter his position.

The terror of the CIA careerists at even these tokenistic actions is telling. It speaks to the simple fact that bourgeois legality simply cannot apply to bourgeois society in toto without that society collapsing - that ‘freedom’ for Americans depends, to paraphrase George Orwell, on the willingness of rough men to commit atrocities. This is not as popular a bargain as is commonly surmised by liberal elitists.

Communists, to put it mildly, are not sated by these four measly memos. A basic demand in our tradition is ‘open the books’ - and though it usually refers to company books as a principle of workers’ control, it applies a fortiori to the state. Secrecy serves the holders of secrets, and is basically anti-democratic.

Public prosecutions of those directly and indirectly responsible for the now-public outrages would be desirable inasmuch as they would serve further to penetrate the fog of official secrecy surrounding the actions of the secret services - but above and beyond that, we demand the abolition of the secret services as such, an affront to democracy and effectively an outlet for all political oppression that cannot be conducted openly.


1. Reported in an audio recording on The Guardian website: www.guardian.co.uk/world/audio/2009/apr/21/macaskill-obama
2. The Guardian April 20.
3. The Guardian April 22
4. According to research from the Pew think-tank: journalism.org/node/13436