Responsibility for the last seven years

How can someone who urged in 2003 that torture occur in the "dark rooms" today insist that they never supported torture?

By Glenn Greenwald

Published April 11, 2008 12:04PM (EDT)

(updated below)

I want to note one last point regarding the exchange over the past few days with Megan McArdle and Dan Drezner, as it highlights what I think is significant about those issues. As I indicated yesterday (see UPDATE II), both of them have been running around complaining that I've defamed them by falsely and outrageously suggesting they are pro-torture, even though my point had nothing with their views on torture and had everything to do with the responsibility of those who supported the Bush administration and its perceived entitlement to wage aggressive wars.

Here, for instance, is what McArdle wrote in the comment section of another blog this week while accusing me of lying about her torture views:

What Greenwald said about me and Dan was deeply, deeply offensive, and also, not true . . . Greenwald basically says that we're supporting some establishment conspiracy because it will help us continue and conceal our enthusiastic support for war crimes. Given that I've said that the war was a bad idea and repeatedly taken the position that we shouldn't even talk about whether torture works because it takes too much focus off the fact that we shouldn't [censored] do it, this is vile, ignorant, malicious twaddle . . . . Y'all don't engage with people who call you objectively pro-terrorist, and with good reason. Why on earth would we listen to Greenwald's venomous froth?

Compare her claim that she has "repeatedly taken the position that we shouldn't even talk about whether torture works" to what she wrote on March 17, 2003 -- a mere four days after John Yoo issued his own now-infamous, pro-torture Memo and just six days before we invaded Iraq (with her support) (h/t L.W.M.):

Torture: Yea or Nay?

Mark Kleiman has emailed asking me what I think about torture, and I suppose I should weigh in, although I doubt my contribution will be very useful. . .

To some extent, I believe in the hidden law. Which is to say, the choice that some citizens make, under some circumstances, to break the law as it is written. . . . I view torture in somewhat the same way. To see what I mean, I want you to imagine that there's a terrorist group that is threatening, not some faceless person somewhere, but your kid. . . .Now, are you going to give him back to the Feds to be sent to Gitmo in the hopes that a couple years down the road, he might tell you something -- if they haven't already gassed your child, that is? Or are you going to whip out the toolbox and get to work? . . .

And I think that our operatives are probably so tempted when they face down the evil men who seek out soft civilian targets to sow terror. I cannot entirely fault them for it. I'm not sure they should always be punished. But neither do I want to see the apparatus of the legal system turned to codifying, regulating, and normalizing torture, as Alan Dershowitz has suggested with his terror warrants. If terrorists must be tortured -- and I am unwilling to state that there is no circumstance ever under which I could condone it -- then it should happen in dark rooms, at risk to the lives and careers of the men who carry it out, so that the hidden law will only trump the written law when times are truly desperate enough to call for such desperate measures.

How can someone who -- back in 2003 -- wrote in support of "hidden law," "dark rooms," "whipping out the toolbox," and immunizing torturers from punishment, possibly claim this week that they're someone who has "repeatedly taken the position that we shouldn't even talk about whether torture works because it takes too much focus off the fact that we shouldn't [censored] do it," even calling someone all sorts of names for suggesting they bear responsibility for the torture regime? Is it necessarily the case that she was lying, hoping that nobody would remember what she actually wrote about torture?

I don't think so, and this is where I think the important point is highlighted. There's nothing unique about Megan McArdle or Dan Drezner in anything that we've discussed this week. As is always the case when I have exchanges of these sorts, I have nothing specific against them personally. They chose to write in response to the criticisms I voiced about the media's reporting choices, and I didn't reply to them because I think they're unique, but precisely because they're not. The point isn't Megan McArdle or Dan Drezner but, rather, what these exchanges illustrate.

We didn't just suddenly learn that our Government was torturing people and repudiating our core claimed values when the Memoranda authorizing torture recently emerged. All of this has been known and openly discussed for many, many years -- ever since the creation of Guantanamo, the emergence of photographs of kneeling, bowed, bound orange-jump-suited prisoners and others showing a naked, bound and blindfolded John Walker Lindh, complaints from the IRC and other groups that they were denied access to detainees, Dana Priest's report of a network of secret "black sites" throughout Eastern Europe, reports that we were abducting people and "rendering" them to Syria and other places to be tortured, and gradually leaked stories of brutalized and even dead detainees in U.S. custody.

There are people now who want to pretend to be so shocked and outraged by it, to act as though it was just the unauthorized and isolated work of some "low-level functionaries" which they didn't realize was happening and never would have endorsed. Those are just self-protective rationalizations, as McArdle's vehement protests this week -- contrasted with what she actually wrote back then -- demonstrate.

All of this happened because our highest government officials sanctioned it. And we're not just learning that for the first time now. We've known it for years. And yet the political and media elite didn't object, didn't really mind, and much of them thought the way that McArdle did -- i.e., yes, that should probably happen, just do it in the dark so that we don't have to know about it. As Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen wrote in arguing that we should never have learned about the White House's obstruction of the Plame case:

This is not an entirely trivial matter since government officials should not lie to grand juries, but neither should they be called to account for practicing the dark art of politics. As with sex or real estate, it is often best to keep the lights off. As with sex or real estate, it is often best to keep the lights off.

Of course the people who supported the Bush administration, endorsed its doctrine of aggressive war, and looked the other way (at best) while they did their dirty work in "dark rooms" using "hidden law" don't want to take responsibility for all that followed. Of course they'll want to forget -- block out -- the things they said and did that enabled it all. And of course they'll be furious with those who point out the responsibility they bear, will cast all sorts of insults and accusations at whomever suggests that responsibility doesn't just lie with Lynndie England and John Yoo but also with the highest Bush officials and those who supported them and the radical agenda they pursued.

And this isn't just a matter of reconciling accounts from the distant past. The theories embraced by the administration that vested omnipotence in the President are still in place. The wall of secrecy they erected has barely been breached. We're still occupying Iraq and waging wars and holding tens of thousands of people with no charges. The current GOP nominee wants to stay indefinitely and threatens more wars with other countries. The way in which our actions around the world have degraded our national character and eroded our basic constitutional framework continue more or less unabated.

There are many reasons why things like Barack Obama's bowling and John Edwards' hair receive far more attention than our country's torture regime and commission of war crimes and seizure of lawbreaking powers. The former is more entertaining, requires far less effort and fewer resources to report, etc. etc. All of those things are true. But as McArdle's two quotes above potently illustrate, a very significant factor is that people -- especially our political and opinion-making elite -- don't want to be reminded of or confronted with what they enabled. Our media and political establishment were well aware of the generalities if not the details of what was being done by our Government -- in the "dark rooms," using "hidden law." Is it really that hard to see why they'd rather talk about bowling and hair instead?

UPDATE: Elizabeth Edwards spoke this week at Harvard's School of Government and said this (at 5:30):

The press decides what's valuable and what's not valuable for us to know . . . . John Yoo wrote a Memo authorizing torture, saying that torture was all right for the U.S. to engage in. From Salon's Glenn Greenwald: news articles in the last 30 days -- being backed up until April 5, when he wrote his article: John Yoo and torture -- 102 articles. Obama and bowling -- more than 1,000. Clinton and Lewinsky -- this is in 2008 -- more than 1,000. And Obama and Wright -- more than they could count -- they stopped counting at 3,000. We're really not paying attention to what we need to.

The whole speech is superb, highlighting the fictitious narrative the media imposes, the petty matters on which they obsess, and the obviously weighty issues they systematically ignore. I think the only point worth making about what she said is that she's a terrible social scientist and doesn't know how the media works.

Glenn Greenwald

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