"I have friends from overseas. After the release of the torture memos, what do I tell them?"
"I have young children. With torture on the news night after night, what do I tell them?"
These are reasonable questions, and they've been asked in diaries and comments over the past 10 days here at DKos. And they're a good place to conclude Morning Feature's four-day series on torture through the lens of American Exceptionalism. The questions bring us back full circle to an inescapable conclusion: we Americans aren't exceptional enough that we should trust our government to act honorably in secret.
More below the fold....
American Exceptionalism - "What do I tell them?"
This week Morning Feature has looked at torture through the prism of American Exceptionalism. Wednesday we explored how this supposed "city on a hill" was "founded on original sin," genocide against one race and the enslavement of another, both involving torture. Thursday we looked at the culture of torture in the Philadelphia police department during the tenure of Mayor Frank Rizzo, and how the investigations there offer a better blueprint than the Nürnberg trials. Yesterday we examined our history of torture by what I call the National Security Branch of the federal government, including CIA-funded psychiatric experiments in Canada, and our shameful involvement in Guatemala and El Salvador.
As the revelations of torture and its use to gin up support for the Iraq War continue to emerge, and the revelations will likely continue for months if not years to come, it's natural for Americans to ask questions like: "What do I tell my overseas friends?" "What do I tell my children?"
It's natural for Americans because we've been raised to believe our nation is special, endowed with a unique moral authority such that we can lecture others on human rights. It's right there on the base of the Statute of Liberty, in words written by Emma Lazarus:
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
"Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"
French sculptor Frédéric Bartholdi originally intended Liberty Enlightens the World as an international monument to the principles of republicanism. Lady Liberty has two sisters in Paris sculpted by Bartholdi himself, the first of which is the model from which the Ellis Island version was engineered. As Paul Auster wrote in 2005, Emma Lazarus' poem changed Lady Liberty's meaning from an international symbol to one of American Exceptionalism.
Lady Liberty is indeed a special symbol, though her title may invert an important truth. Rather than Liberty Enlightens the World, perhaps she should be called Enlightenment Liberates the World. For as we've seen this week, without the enlightenment symbolized by her torch, liberty and democratic government quickly evaporate.
Enlightenment liberates our streets.
While practicing criminal defense law in the 1990s, I saw a noticeable decline in police abuses of power. In a workshop on criminal forensics, Dr. Henry Lee argued it was because science was providing better tools to investigate crimes, so police had less need to rely on confessions. To some extent that's true, but I suggest the larger reason was the widespread availability of video cameras.
The Rodney King beating was captured on video almost by accident, but within weeks enterprising citizen journalists were bringing out cameras anytime they saw the police making an arrest. The response by many law enforcement agencies was to mount cameras on police cruisers and in interview rooms. Those cameras serve several purposes. They document evidence at a roadside stop or custodial interrogation, so the prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges, and jurors don't have to rely solely on the officers' and defendants' memories and testimony. They provide academies with footage of actual encounters, some well and some poorly handled, to improve training. The footage of well handled encounters has fueled a boon of police-friendly documentaries, from car chases to detailed accounts of homicide investigations. The cameras also protect officers from false charges of abuse.
And they protect citizens. One officer wrote that video cameras will save his profession:
If cops know that everything they do is being videotaped, then I have to believe they will check themselves in times of emotion like the Baltimore incident.
Now trust me that everything in police work has to do with money, and money first. So getting this equipment will not be easy. Bean counters would rather fire me than help me keep my job. Sad, indeed (and fiscally unwise as well...it is cheaper to buy a video camera than replace a cop!)
Anyhow, I hope incidents like this one show the politicos that we need cameras NOW.
I saw how the widespread use of dashboard and interview room cameras changed police behavior in my area, and he's right. Because abuses of power always thrive in secrecy.
The National Security Branch: a culture of secrecy.
Yesterday I suggested there has grown a fourth branch of government, what I call the National Security Branch, consisting mainly of the Department of Defense, the National Security Agency, the Central Intelligence Agency, and some other government and some non-government actors.
I waffle on whether to include the FBI in the National Security Branch. They participate in national security investigations, but most FBI agents work on ordinary criminal cases. The modern Bureau has a very different mindset from the era of J. Edgar Hoover and COINTELPRO. Given case law like Brady v. Maryland, FBI agents' participation in criminal cases means every materially relevant action must be documented and disclosed to the defendant. I suggest that routine requirement of documentation and disclosure is why FBI Special Agent Ali Soufan refused to participate in the torture of Abu Zubaydah, and why his superiors backed him in that decision. If you're accustomed to everything you do becoming part of the public record, you're less likely to abuse power.
The culture of secrecy in the National Security Branch is hardly a new observation. Daniel Ellsberg wrote about it in his 2002 memoir Secrets, a book that should be required reading in civics courses. He eloquently described how secrets seduce those entrusted with them:
I shared the universal ethos of the executive branch, at least of my part of it: that for the Congress, the press, and the public to know what the president was doing for them, with our help, was at best unnecessary and irrelevant. At worst, it was an encouragement to uninformed (uncleared), short-sighted, and parochial individuals and institutions to intervene in matters that were too complicated for them to understand, and to muck them up. This sounds paternalistic to the point of being antidemocratic, and so it was. (And is: I doubt this has ever changed.) But we're talking foreign policy here, and national security matters, in which we didn't see that people without clearances had any really useful role to play in the nuclear cold war era. It was in the national interest, as we saw it, simply to tell them whatever would best serve to free the president from their interference.[...]
Once I was inside the government, my awareness of how easily and pervasively Congress, the public, and journalists were fooled and misled contributed to a lack of respect for them and their potential contribution to better policy. That in turn made it easier to accept, to participate in, to keep quiet about practices of secrecy and deception that fooled them further and kept them ignorant of the real issues that were occupying and dividing inside policy makers. Their resulting ignorance made it all the more obvious that they must leave these problems to us.
Ellsberg was and is a very intelligent man, yet the rationale he bought into early in his career is startlingly absurd: we insiders keep secrets and lie; the Congress, the press, and the American people don't realize we're lying; thus they are too ignorant to have valid opinions on policy; thus we should keep secrets and lie.
To his credit, Ellsberg came to recognize that absurdity, and for that reason in 1971 he leaked the so-called Pentagon Papers. Ellsberg met Henry Kissinger years later, and Kissinger rebuked him for the "damage" the leaks had done. When Ellsberg offered a defense, Kissinger merely shook his head and said, "You don't know. You don't have the clearances." Kissinger had long since been seduced by the culture of secrecy.
Enlightenment liberates the world.
The abuses of power by the National Security Branch, from assassinations to coups d'etat to torture, rely on that culture of secrecy. To curb those abuses, we must curb the secrecy that enables them. Obviously there are some secrets a government must keep, at least for some time. The oft-quoted World War II slogan "Loose lips sink ships" has merit in terms of troop movements in time of war. Most of us were rightly outraged by the exposure of CIA covert operative Valerie Plame, because even if Ms. Plame was safely back in the U.S., her outing also threatened sources with whom she had worked during her overseas operations.
But secrets have a short shelf life. The Intelligence Identities Protection Act recognizes that, and is limited to intelligence officers who have served overseas within the past five years. (The five-year limit does not apply to non-citizen assets and informants.) Most secrets lose their operational value within a few years, and often only a few months, weeks, or even days. Yet the National Security Branch routinely keeps secrets for decades, as Ellsberg noted.
Apart from the engineering details of nuclear, biological, or chemical weapons and a handful of other similar exceptions, keeping secrets for decades serves only one purpose: to keep the American people in the dark as to what the National Security Branch are doing. Our "enemies" usually know long before we do, and indeed our media routinely trot out an expert to deny charges that are later revealed to be true. Revealed to us, that is. Those at the pointy end of that spear - those whose lives were being destroyed - already knew.
Presently the rules for classification and declassification of documents are written by executive order. While I trust that President Obama will revisit the rules written by the Bush administration, the larger issue is that I don't trust the presidency to be the guardian of those rules at all. Congress should pass legislation mandating periodic downgrading of classification, leading to full declassification and full disclosure after 10 years, unless an agency can prove a national security or citizen privacy basis to keep the information classified. The burden of proof should rest with the agency seeking continued classification.
Note: I say citizen privacy because often the government gathers evidence on persons of interest in the course of a legitimate investigation, and the evidence shows they had no role in the events under investigation. Their lives have already been overturned once, and I see no public interest served by doing so again in releasing the details of what turned out to be a blind lead.
Similarly, Congress should pass legislation mandating full documentation of meetings involving the President, Vice President, or any Cabinet-level member of the administration - in the White House or in any other setting - and those documents should be released 10 years after the end of that president's last term of office. Again, there should be exceptions if the White House or other agency can prove a national security or citizen privacy basis to withhold the information, and again the burden of proof should rest with the persons seeking to withhold the information.
I believe this mandatory disclosure would have the same effect as have police dashboard and interview room cameras: when you know your actions will be made public, you are far less likely to abuse power. Ten years is ample time to keep almost any secret.
After that, let enlightenment liberate the world.
What you can do:
Some have expressed a concern that this series, and some other diaries on the issue of torture, have not offered positive steps that you can take to help end the abuse of power. Some diaries have already provided links by which you can contact the President and your elected leaders in the House and Senate. I support doing so. In addition, however, I'd ask you to consider donating to those who work in the front line against abuses of power in the United States and around the world:
The American Civil Liberties Union does tireless work in protecting our Bill of Rights from abuses at all levels of government.
The International Committee of the Red Cross is an impartial, neutral and independent organization whose exclusively humanitarian mission is to protect the lives and dignity of victims of war and internal violence and to provide them with assistance.
Amnesty International has long been a world leader in investigating and documenting human rights abuses, and a tireless advocate for those who suffer those abuses.
Legal Aid Societies in almost every state and city provide legal assistance for those in need.
Every act of kindness is an act against oppression. Do something. If we can do that, we won't have to wonder what to tell our friends overseas, or our children. We can tell them that we were true to our most revered ideals, and that we took action to help form "a more perfect Union."
A Closing Note: This has been a difficult series to write, and I'm sure for many it's been a difficult series to read. I want to thank all of you who have read, and especially all who commented, for your support and for your having made this a civil and constructive dialogue. It is my privilege to share these dialogues with you, and this week especially your support and encouragement have meant more than I can say with mere words. Thank you.