Dispatches from the Creation Wars

The Bureaucracy of Torture

The New York Times has an article about the newly released IG report on torture that really emphasizes the bureaucratic aspects of the Bush torture regime. Contrary to what the right — and the Obama DOJ, apparently — would have us believe, the worst abuses were not the result of a few rogue agents. Rather they were the result of a cold, bloodless, well regulated system of abuse. Long excerpt below the fold:

Two 17-watt fluorescent-tube bulbs — no more, no less — illuminated each cell, 24 hours a day. White noise played constantly but was never to exceed 79 decibels. A prisoner could be doused with 41-degree water but for only 20 minutes at a stretch.

The Central Intelligence Agency’s secret interrogation program operated under strict rules, and the rules were dictated from Washington with the painstaking, eye-glazing detail beloved by any bureaucracy.

The first news reports this week about hundreds of pages of newly released documents on the C.I.A. program focused on aberrations in the field: threats of execution by handgun or assault by power drill; a prisoner lifted off the ground by his arms, which were tied behind his back; another detainee repeatedly knocked out with pressure applied to the carotid artery.

But the strong impression that emerges from the documents, many with long passages blacked out for secrecy, is by no means one of gung-ho operatives running wild. It is a portrait of overwhelming control exercised from C.I.A. headquarters and the Department of Justice — control Bush administration officials say was intended to ensure that the program was safe and legal.

Managers, doctors and lawyers not only set the program’s parameters but dictated every facet of a detainee’s daily routine, monitoring interrogations on an hour-by-hour basis. From their Washington offices, they obsessed over the smallest details: the number of calories a prisoner consumed daily (1,500); the number of hours he could be kept in a box (eight hours for the large box, two hours for the small one); the proper time when his enforced nudity should be ended and his clothes returned.

The detainee “finds himself in the complete control of Americans; the procedures he is subjected to are precise, quiet and almost clinical, ” noted one document…

A 2004 background paper the C.I.A. sent to the Justice Department gives the fullest account to date of the oversight of every step that followed the capture of a man suspected of being a top member of Al Qaeda — an HVD, in agency parlance, for high-value detainee.

Brought to the “black site” in diapers, the paper says, the prisoner’s head and face were shaved, he was stripped and photographed and sleep deprivation and a diet limited to Ensure Plus, a dietary drink, began.

“The interrogators’ objective,” the background paper says, “is to transition the HVD to a point where he is participating in a predictable, reliable and sustainable manner.” The policy was to use the “least coercive measure” to achieve the goal. The harsh treatment began with the “attention slap,” and for three prisoners of the nearly 100 who passed through the program, the endpoint was waterboarding.

What is most frustrating is how casually we have heard Nazi analogies thrown around as an argument against giving people health insurance, yet here we have actions and attitudes that truly do evoke images of the Third Reich in all its regimented glory — its efficient use of ritualistic abuse, justified by reference to internal and external threats, the skids of human morality greased by dehumanization of the object of that abuse.

No, that doesn’t make Bush or Cheney the second coming of Adolf Hitler. But at least these actions provide a plausible analog when comparing direct behaviors and the mental tricks used to justify them and advocate them.