EXCLUSIVE: "Corrupt, toxic and sociopathic": Glenn Greenwald unloads on torture, CIA and Washington's rotten soul

Glenn Greenwald tells Salon how the torture report exposes true evil — and a nation drowning in hypocrisy

Published December 11, 2014 11:25PM (EST)

Glenn Greenwald                (AP/Silvia Izquierdo)
Glenn Greenwald (AP/Silvia Izquierdo)

It took years until the executive summary of the Senate Intelligence Committee's torture report — which shows not only that the CIA's torture regime was larger and more vicious than understood, but that the agency repeatedly lied about it to the White House and Congress — was finally released to the public. But it only took hours before President Obama was once again urging the nation to look forward, not back. "Rather than another reason to refight old arguments," read a White House statement, "I hope that today’s report can help us leave these techniques where they belong — in the past." When members of the media asked whether that meant the White House considered torture to be ineffective, as the report claims, an anonymous official said Obama would not "engage" in the ongoing "debate." On the issues of rape, waterboarding and induced hypothermia, apparently, reasonable minds can differ.

Glenn Greenwald, the Intercept's Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and longtime critic of the war on terror, disagrees. "There's no debate," he told Salon. "Everything that we did," he continued, "in terms of how we treated detainees, has [long] been viewed as morally vile and inexcusable and criminal." Greenwald has little doubt, however, that Washington will turn torture into yet another partisan squabble. It's the go-to move, he says, when America's political and media elite decide they'd rather look the other way. "That's just the ritual Washington engages in," Greenwald said.

Speaking with Salon from his home in Brazil (or at least we assumed as much, given the barking in the background) Greenwald discussed what surprised him about the summary, what we still don't know, why expressions of shock and horror from Congress are disingenuous, how President Obama is culpable, too, and why America's leaders are "sociopathic." Our conversation is below and has been edited for clarity and length.

One thing I want to establish as much as we can is who was involved in the lead-up to this release, and what role they played. So why did it take so long for this to be released?

Well, first of all, there was a major war between the Senate [Intelligence] Committee and the CIA over access to the information [the committee] wanted. That took years.

Secondly, there was a huge conflict between the committee and the White House, which, on its own, tried to stifle and suppress all kinds of vital material. In fact, there were 9,000 documents that the CIA and the White House — together, as part of the executive branch — refused to give to the committee.

So much of it was just grappling over access to information (which is ironic, since this committee is supposed to exercise oversight of the CIA ...)

Also, the material was complicated. There were raw reports from all over the world, and it can take a long time to sort through that and put together a comprehensive report. So, I don't think it's surprising that it took this long.

And did anything in the summary surprise you? Or was it more or less what you expected after covering this for so many years?

Honestly, there wasn't really anything that surprised me in terms of the disclosures.

There's obviously new details about some of the more brutal interrogations; there are details and lots of corroborating pieces of evidence about the extent to which the CIA just outright lied, publicly, and to Congress. Part of what surprised me was how overt and unflinching the report was about essentially accusing people like [former CIA head] Gen. Hayden of being pathological liars.

But the broad strokes of the program and what the CIA did have long been known — for years — and I think what was more important about Tuesday was the ritual of official Washington finally admitting it.

Yeah, what's striking to me about the lying is just how clearly it shows that the CIA in many ways is operating outside the system of democratic accountability. It'd be wrong to say it's like the CIA runs the country, since there's a bunch of stuff they don't really care about besides intelligence and so forth, but it certainly looks like they don't really answer to anyone.

The CIA cares about a lot more than just intelligence. They care a lot about private contracts (because so many of their colleagues work at those very lucrative private contracting jobs where a lot of them hope to go when they leave the CIA); they care about militarism and the assertion of force in the world (they run the drone program); they do all kinds of military activities beyond just the gather of intelligence. But you're obviously right that the CIA exists beyond democratic accountability — and has for decades.

If I had to identify one key point from Tuesday, the thing that bothered me most about the narrative: Yes, the CIA goes off on its own and does things that political officials don't know about; and yes, they mislead and lie to the committees that oversee them; and they do all these horrible things, the details of which are sometimes unknown to the political branches — but that's how Washington wants it.

They've always wanted it that way. That's what the CIA does. The CIA does the dirty work of the political branches of Washington and when they get caught, publicly, the ritual is that official Washington pretends that it was just these rogue CIA officers doing this without anyone's knowledge or approval. It's exactly what happened in the Iran-Contra scandal, which was ordered at the highest levels of the White House by President Reagan ... but when they got caught, they said: Oh, it was Oliver North and these rogue CIA officers who were doing this without our knowledge!

That's just the ritual Washington engages in; the CIA is kind of like their wild pit bull that they purposely let off leash. They don't want to see the mauling but they know that it's happening, and pretend they don't know. And when it gets reported, they pretend that they're horrified.

Along those lines, I saw a lot of people on Tuesday respond with a kind of amazement at how little President Bush knew about the program, according to the report. But that's not really so weird when you remember that Cheney and Rumsfeld were his top advisers, and that the main lesson they learned from their time in the Nixon administration and from Watergate was to insulate the president from this kind of dirty work as much as possible —

Right, Watergate and Iran-Contra. Remember: Dick Cheney wrote the dissenting minority report of the House investigation of Iran-Contra, in which he basically laid out his vision for this unilateral presidency.

But I think it goes way beyond that. I actually went back and read a lot of the stuff I wrote about torture in 2006, eight years ago, especially surrounding the Military Commissions Act that passed in October of that year by a large, bipartisan majority in Congress — the primary purpose of which was to endorse what was happening at Guantánamo with military commissions and to protect torturers from liability for violating the Geneva Conventions — and it was incredibly clear then that there was a systematic and savage regime of torture that had been implemented.

The American media largely acquiesced to it, and leading members of both parties more or less just kind of went along with it. And that's what's so bothersome about the reaction on Tuesday: Everybody's noses got rubbed in [the torture program] by this report, so people couldn't pretend it wasn't there any longer, they were forced to admit it, but a lot of the outrage and shock is very artificial. It's really just a self-serving reaction designed to erase their own culpability.

The more you look at just how many people and institutions were involved (either actively or by looking the other way) — the doctors, the psychiatrists, the media, members of Congress — the more it starts to sound like a society-wide failure. It reminds me of what Arendt wrote about Germany (and Europe in general) in the interwar and World War II periods, how she described it as a kind of civilizational collapse. Tell me if you think I'm going too far.

I think there are several similar dynamics. For one thing, after World War II, when the full history got told, lots of people who had every way to know what was happening under their noses pretended they didn't because the recognition of their complicity was just too painful. So they denied it and pretended they didn't know and claimed that, had they known, they would have reacted a lot more strongly. That reminds me a lot of Tuesday's reaction on the part of political and media circles in the United States.

And I also agree with your observation that the way in which values get jettisoned and standards get violated is incremental. It's the frog in the boiling pot analogy; it just incrementally and slowly but inexorably keeps moving away from this point where you think you're at [vis-à-vis norms and values], but because it's incremental you feel like you're always close enough to the prior point that you don't actually feel like it's a radical departure. And that has been the story of the United States not just under the Bush administration but for the last 13 years, where everything that happens that seems shocking becomes the justification for the next step.

So what do we still not know, now that this summary is released?

It's hard to know because we only have seen 600 pages of a 6,000-page report. Presumably there are a lot more details; and, really, what's harrowing are the details. It's reading the specific treatment to which helpless detainees in American custody were subjected that is so disturbing. And so there are a lot of facts like that that are still suppressed, there are facts about who was complicit — and at some point that full report has to be disclosed.

To your point about the horrible details, as well as how people don't want to look directly at these crimes because their own complicity is so painful: The detail I found the most disturbing in the whole report was about Abu Zubaydah and how he was literally trained to get himself in position for more waterboarding. To me, that is the most horrifying thing in here, that is truly staring-into-the-abyss-level evil; and if I'm writing the news, that's one of the first things I bring up to establish the character of this program. But most American media has focused more on the incidents of sexual assault or beatings — which are obviously still heinous, but are less of an affront to Americans' sense of themselves as inherently noble.

The reason that story is so horrifying is because it's the process of dehumanization. It's literally removing what is human about us. There was a detailed account of what happened in what they called "the Salt Pit" — the prison in Afghanistan, where they literally froze people to death — and [the report] talked about how visitors to that prison observed it was actually more like a dog kennel than it was a prison where human beings were kept. Whenever anyone would walk by, [the prisoners] would literally quiver, they would jump up out of fear, because they had been so conditioned to expect extreme levels of punishment.

Psychological torture is, [it's believed] pretty much by consensus, worse than physical torture if it's done at an extreme level. John McCain said that for him, by far, the worst part of captivity in North Vietnam was the isolation and the psychological torment — not the physical torture to which he was subjected quite extensively. There are studies about how people go insane if they're kept in solitary confinement in American prisons in a way that doesn't happen if the soles of your feet are beaten or you're forced into stress-positions. And so much of this [program] was about dehumanization. It had nothing to do with interrogation; it was about exploitation and control. It was about the assertion of power.

And that's what makes it so evil. Detainees are, by definition, helpless; they're captive. So to completely brutalize them and remove their humanity is really worse than anything you could do to someone physically, including killing them. It's basically like being dead while alive.

A lot of people don't know this but one of the most effective torture techniques the Soviets used in the Stalinist era — especially during the Great Purge — wasn't some kind of horrific physical abuse or mutilation. It was sleep deprivation.

Oh, yeah, I've written about this before. Andrew Sullivan, to his credit, found this Gestapo manual about these interrogation tactics, and the parallels — you don't even have to search for them, they're just right there for anyone to see. They're obvious and self-evident. And they're not ancillary similarities; they're central. The way they talk about the techniques and the objectives.

And this is what makes the fact that there's even something called "the torture debate" so ridiculous. This debate, quote-unquote, has been settled not for decades but centuries. Everything that we did as part of the war on terror, in terms of how we treated detainees, has [long] been viewed as morally vile and inexcusable and criminal, pretty much across cultural and social lines. (And the United States has prosecuted people as war criminals for doing things we did.)

So it's not even a debate. There's no debate. [The program's] defilement [of the United States] is self-evident and indisputable.

When I hear people argue against the anti-torture position, like Nicolle Wallace did Tuesday on "Morning Joe," I often want to say, "Look, your fight's not really with me right now, it's with the Enlightenment."

Exactly. Although, I have to say, one of the benefits of Tuesday, despite all my frustrations with the process, is that it has prevented anybody from denying that America tortured — and not just in the three cases of waterboarding. It actually has been a disinfectant of that central lie. I mean, for a long time, that was the debate; it wasn't "Is torture good?" it was "These things aren't torture!" Dick Cheney described [waterboarding] as dunking people's head into water.

What was really annoying for those of us who were actually [covering] this is that the waterboarding was almost the least of it. It was the easiest case to call torture because there was a whole body of law calling waterboarding torture; but [the larger issue] was the entire regiment of techniques that they were using that clearly constituted torture — not on dozens or even hundreds but thousands of people, and not just at Guantánamo but around the world. It was a systematic regime of torture, and I think yesterday's report has prevented that from being denied any longer.

And that's why people like Nicolle Wallace and others are now resorting either to "Yes, we tortured, and we should have!" (which I think is a healthy thing to force them to say) or "Yes, we tortured, and we shouldn't have, but we're still the greatest thing ever to exist."

I'd like to get your response to a couple of things Gen. Hayden said in the Politico interview that came out the day after the summary's release. He didn't say anything particularly new, but what is very clear is that he's leaning heavily on the Department of Justice's decision in 2012 not to prosecute the CIA agents involved in the deaths of two detainees. Does he have a point in saying, well, if this was so bad then how come the DOJ gave it a pass?

I don't blame him for making that argument; and it was totally predictable that that argument would be made. That's what made what President Obama did [by not prosecuting torturers] so disgraceful and why he does bear a very significant part of the culpability and why this will be a huge, dark mar on his legacy. It's so predictable that if you prevent not just criminal prosecutions but even civil liability or international investigation for America's torturers — which is exactly what he did; he not only blocked criminal investigations but used the state secrets privilege to prevent civil liability, and then bullied and coerced other countries in Europe not to investigate — the message that'll be sent is that [torture] is not actually a crime, that it was a policy dispute.

And, yes, he is on the other side of the Republicans in this policy dispute, and he thinks we shouldn't torture — because it doesn't work, because it's inefficient, because it's contrary to our values — and Republicans can believe it should. But this was never a policy dispute; these are war crimes, among the most atrocious war crimes. And when the Justice Department decides that nobody should pay any price, legally, for what was done, the message President Obama sent was: At worst, this is just a policy error. So of course people like Dick Cheney and Michael Hayden are going to say, well, if we're really such brutal war criminals, why aren't we being prosecuted?

I tried to get at this in a recent piece but one of the consequences of having torture now be a policy dispute is that all this talk of the report chronicling a dark chapter in our history and so forth is misleading, because it's not like the torture era has actually ended. It's just on pause, at best.

The United States is still torturing people — and continued to torture people well into the Obama administration. It didn't do it by following legal memos from the Justice Department about these specific techniques, but the abuse of prisoners is well-documented at Bagram, in Iraq and even at Guantanamo. For years after president Obama's inauguration, according to reporting from Jeremy Scahill, there were torture chambers in Somalia.

And the United States didn't just torture on its own. We sent — we "rendered" — people to these tyrants that we claim to hate the most now, like Mubarak in Egypt and Assad in Syria and Gadhafi in Libya, in order to be tortured as well. And this has gone on for decades; obviously the CIA has supported all kinds of torturing squads around the world. So torture is a tool that the U.S. government has used pretty openly and continuously for decades — but especially since the war on terror. And nobody [in Washington] was surprised about learning that on Tuesday, although they pretended to be.

The other thing Hayden said that I'd be interested to hear you respond to was a comment that came near the end of the interview, which I guess was kind of darkly funny in a not-funny way. He basically says, If Congress said I lied to them, that's not true, because I was just communicating what subordinates had told me, so it's really their fault. It's like a twisted, reverse Nuremberg defense — instead of just following orders from above, the claim is that you're just passing along information from below.

You're right entirely in what you just said, but I actually think that that's what people like Sen. Dianne Feinstein are doing as well — or, for that matter, people in the U.S. media. They're saying, look, we didn't raise alarms about what the CIA was doing and about the torture they were engaging in because they were telling us that it was working, or that it wasn't as brutal as it actually turned out to be. We were just misled. It's exactly what people like Hillary Clinton do to justify their very vocal and public support of the Iraq War ...

At some point, this blame-shifting has to stop. It should become apparent just how deeply corrupt, toxic and sociopathic the Washington political and media class is. I mean, it would be one thing if this was some isolated aberration, but this is a reflection of what the United States government in so many different ways around the world for a long time — but certainly since the war on terror, when it was intensified. And all of this faux indignation and shock and anger over discovering it is really unconvincing and disingenuous.

The reality is that people were comfortable with this and now all the truth has come out and they're embarrassed about what they've done. That's what this is about.

Last question: What do you think about this idea being floated around that Obama should issue a blanket pardon of torturers before he leaves office? The idea is that a pardon would represent an acknowledgment that laws were broken, which would in turn reestablish the norm of torture as an illegal act?

I hate that idea. I mean, I stand second to nobody in my admiration for the ACLU, but I thought the Op-Ed in the New York Times by Anthony Romero advocating that was really unconvincing, to put it generously.

For one thing, the world and certainly the overwhelming majority of the American public views a pardon as an expression of [the belief that] someone is deserving of leniency and protection from punishment — not as an admission of guilt. The lawyers at the ACLU might understand that a pardon is actually a formal declaration of guilt, but the rest of the world wouldn't see it that way.

Secondly, all these people who'd get pardoned would have to do is just rhetorically reject the pardon and mock it and say they don't need the pardon because they did nothing criminal. So the whole message would be destroyed anyway, and the only message that would come from it is that the people who tortured are being protected by President Obama from criminal liability (which happens to be the case anyway).

And thirdly, President Obama would never do it. He's made it completely clear that he won't risk an iota of his political capital in order to enforce U.S. legal obligations and treaty obligations to make clear that torture is a crime. The last time he talked about torture he talked about it like it was just the most casual thing in the world; he said, "We tortured some folks." And then he told us not to be sanctimonious about it because these [torturers] were great patriots who were doing it with good hearts.

So it's an unrealistic proposal and an incredibly unconvincing one. It's very, very misguided.

By Elias Isquith

Elias Isquith is a former Salon staff writer.

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