Journey to the Dark Side: The Bush Legacy
"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!"
- Emma Lazarus, 1883
If you don't mind thinking about the Bush legacy a year early, there are worse places to begin than with the case of Erla Ósk Arnardóttir Lilliendahl. Admittedly, she isn't an ideal "tempest-tost" candidate for Emma Lazarus' famous lines engraved on a bronze plaque inside the Statue of Liberty. After all, she flew to
This time - with the President's Global War on Terror in full swing - she was pulled aside at passport control at JFK Airport, questioned about those extra three weeks 12 years ago, and soon found herself, as she put it, "handcuffed and chained, denied the chance to sleep... without food and drink and... confined to a place without anyone knowing my whereabouts, imprisoned." It was "the greatest humiliation to which I have ever been subjected."
By her account, she was photographed, fingerprinted, asked rude questions - "by men anxious to demonstrate their power. Small kings with megalomania" - confined to a tiny room for hours, then chained, marched through the airport, and driven to a jail in
On returning to her country, she wrote a blog about her unnerving experience and the Icelandic Foreign Minister Ingibjörg Sólrún Gísladóttir met with U.S. Ambassador Carol van Voorst to demand an apology. Just as when egregious American acts in
Erla Ósk will undoubtedly think twice before taking another fun-filled holiday in the
Take, for instance, 20-year veteran of the National Guard Zakariya Muhammad Reed (born Edward Eugene Reed, Jr.), who, for the last 11 years, has worked as a firefighter in
The first time, he was detained in a small room with two armed guards, while his wife and children were left in a larger common room. While he was grilled, she was denied permission to return to their car even to get a change of diapers for their youngest child. When finally released, Reed found his car had been "trashed." ("My son's portable DVD player was broken, and I have a decorative Koran on the dashboard that was thrown on the floor.") During another episode of detention, an interrogator evidently attempted to intimidate him by putting his pistol on the table at which they were seated. ("He takes the clip out of his weapon, looks at the ammunition, puts the clip back in, and puts it back in his holster.") His first four border-crossing detentions were well covered by Matthew Rothschild in a post at the Progressive Magazine's website. During his latest one, he was questioned about Rothschild's coverage of his case.
The essence of his experience is perhaps caught best in a comment by Customs and Border Protection agent made in his presence: "We should treat them like we do in the desert. We should put a bag over their heads and zip tie their hands together."
Or take Nabil Al Yousuf, not exactly a top-ten candidate for the "huddled masses" category; nor an obvious terror suspect (unless, of course, you believe yourself at war with Islam or the Arab world). According to the Washington Post's Ellen Knickmeyer, Yousuf, who is "a senior aide to the ruler of the Persian Gulf state of
Despite his own fond memories of attending universities in
"A generation of Arab men who once attended college in the
This is what "homeland security" means in the
News from Nowhere
So far, of course, we've only been talking about the lucky ones. After all, Erla Ósk, Zakariya Muhammad Reed, and Nabil Al Yousuf all made it home relatively quickly. In the final weeks of 2007, a little flood of press reports tracked more extreme versions of the global lockdown the Bush administration launched in late 2001, cases in which, after the snarl, the door clanged shut and home became the barest of hopes.
Take, for example, a December 1st Washington Post piece in which reporter Craig Whitlock revealed one more small part of the CIA's global network of secret imprisonment. We already knew, among other things, that the CIA had set up and run its own secret prisons in Eastern Europe and probably in Thailand; that it had a network of secret sites in Afghanistan like "the Salt Pit" near Kabul; that it may have used the "British" island of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean, as well as American ships, naval and possibly commercial, to hold prisoners beyond the purview of any authority or even the visits of the International Red Cross; that it ran an air fleet of leased executive jets (including some from Jeppesen Dataplan, a subsidiary of Boeing, which made it back into the news in December because of a lawsuit launched by the ACLU); that these were used to transport terror suspects it snatched up off city streets or battlefields anywhere on the planet to its own "black sites" or which it "rendered" in "extraordinary" manner to the jails and torture chambers of Syria, Egypt, Uzbekistan, and other lands whose agents had no qualms about torturing and abusing prisoners.
Whitlock, however, added a new piece to the CIA's incarceration puzzle: an "imposing building" on the outskirts of
"Jamil Qasim Saeed Mohammed, a Yemeni microbiology student, was captured in a U.S.-Pakistani operation in
Also in December, because of that lawsuit against Jeppesen, we got our first insider's account of the CIA "black sites" (and, thanks to Salon.com, even architectural plans for a few of the interrogation rooms and prison cells at those sites, all of which seem to have cameras in them). It was here that "high-value targets" were incarcerated, isolated, and subjected to various "enhanced interrogation techniques."
Mohamed Farag Ahmad Bashmilah, a Yemeni, was picked up by the Jordanians in
Here is just part of a description he offered Amy Goodman of Democracy Now! of being prepared for transport by CIA air taxi into black-site hell:
"And then they put... like little plugs inside the ears, plastic. And then they put gauze on that, on the ears. And then they taped that with very strong adhesive tape. And then they put a hood over my head. And then, on top of that, they put a headphone. This is as far as the top of my body was. And then they handcuffed me with a chain, and also they chained my ankles. Then they put a belt above the pants, and then they tied the hands and the ankles to that belt. This was after being slapped and kicked until I almost fainted."
In his cell in a secret prison in
"After 19 months of imprisonment and torment at the hands of the CIA, the agency released him [in
No charges, no lawyers, no judge. This is increasingly the norm of - and a legacy of - George Bush's world. In this way, the snarl at the borders melds with the screams of terror in cells worldwide.
Embedded Reports from the Dark Side
A new Pentagon term came into use in the Bush era. With the invasion of
Media coverage of such subjects reflects this. The cases above, all reported in December, barely scratch the surface of this universe. Just a glance at other December stories - some barely attended to, or dealt with by minor outlets or in humdrum ways, but many well covered in major papers and still causing little consternation - indicates just how normalized all this has become.
A legacy can often be framed in words. So here's a little rundown of just some areas in which, when it came to torture, kidnapping, and offshore imprisonment, 2007 ended in a deluge, not a trickle:
Destroyed Tapes: One issue connected to torture - sorry, "enhanced interrogation techniques" - did get major coverage last month, the revelation on the front page of the December 6th New York Times of the destruction, in 2005, of hundreds of hours of CIA videotapes of the first two major interrogations, including waterboardings, of al-Qaeda operatives - in this case, Abu Zubaydah and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri. In the weeks that followed, responsibility for the decision to destroy those tapes has been creeping ever higher, with four key lawyers connected to the White House and the Vice President's office brought into the mix in mid-December, and reports that the chief of the CIA's National Clandestine Service, Jose A. Rodriguez, who ordered their destruction, may soon testify before Congress under immunity and implicate as yet unnamed higher-ups.
As with all such cover-up stories, this one can only get worse. It has already been reported in the Wall Street Journal that the faces of more senior CIA officials, not just low-level interrogators, may have been caught on those tapes from the administration's secret torture chambers. We are sure to learn that these were hardly the only interrogations taped by the Agency. As yet, by the way, almost all attention has gone to the destruction of the tapes, little to why they were made in the first place. As December ended, however, Scott Shane of the New York Times wrote a piece, "Tapes by CIA Lived and Died to Save Image," with this telling line from the CIA's then number three official, A. B. Krongard: "You want interrogators in training to watch the tapes." Think about that a moment. The Justice Department, which, along with the CIA's Inspector General, launched an investigation of the tape destruction under pressure, also attempted to shut down congressional investigations of the same - unsuccessfully.
Kidnapping Is the Law: According to the British Sunday Times, "A senior lawyer for the American government has told the Court of Appeal in
"This is not
Innocence at Guantánamo: New military and court documents were released in December, thanks to a suit by lawyers representing Murat Kurnaz, that further illuminated the case of the 19-year-old German citizen who "chose a bad time to travel." Kurnaz was captured by the U.S. Army in
Evidence from Waterboarding: According to Josh White of the Washington Post, Brig. Gen. Thomas W. Hartmann, "[t]he top legal adviser for the military trials of Guantánamo Bay detainees told Congress... that he cannot rule out the use of evidence derived from the CIA's aggressive interrogation techniques, including waterboarding." He even refused to say that waterboarding would be illegal if used by the interrogators of another country on
Torture Veto: In December, President Bush threatened to "veto a House [of Representatives] bill that would explicitly ban a variety of abhorrent practices. The bill would require
Torturers speak out: In December, two figures connected with
Justice Moves Fast: The Justice Department, which dragged its feet on those destroyed CIA videotapes (and then tried to submarine a congressional investigation of the same), nonetheless reacted strongly to the horrors of torture in another context. Its officials moved swiftly to investigate whether former agent John Kiriakou, in giving that interview about waterboarding to ABC News, had "illegally disclosed classified information in describing the capture and waterboarding of an al-Qaeda terrorism suspect." Consider that a message about priorities from the powers that be.
Iraqis in American Jails: Latest estimates are that up to 30,000 Iraqis are now held in American prisons in
Think of these eight stories as themselves only the tip of December's melting iceberg of news on such topics. You could no less easily write about lawyer Andrew Williams, a JAG officer with the Naval Reserves, who resigned his commission in response to the unwillingness of Gen. Hartmann "to call the hypothetical waterboarding of an American pilot by the Iranian military torture." In a letter to The Peninsula Gateway of
"Thank you, General Hartmann, for finally admitting the
"General Hartmann, following orders was not an excuse for anyone put on trial in
Or you could mention the news that the "Australian Taliban," David Hicks, the sole person actually convicted on terrorism charges at Guantánamo, was released after serving a nine-month sentence in Australia (and five years of non-sentence time in Cuba); or the first reports on the Internet of speculation in Washington that George Bush himself might have viewed parts of those CIA interrogation tapes, or the Washington Post report that, in 2002, four key Congressional figures, including Nancy Pelosi, had been given "a virtual tour of the CIA's overseas detention sites and the harsh techniques interrogators had devised to try to make their prisoners talk," including waterboarding, without objections being raised. Or... but the list is almost unending.
The Bush Legacy
As a people, we Americans have not faintly come to grips with how centrally the Bush administration has planted certain practices in our midst - at the very heart of governmental practice, of the news, of everyday life. Many of these practices were not in themselves creations of this administration. For instance, the practice of kidnapping abroad - "rendition" - began at least in the
Torture of various sorts was widely used in CIA interrogation centers in
And yet, don't for a second think that nothing has changed. Part of the Bush legacy lies in a new ethos in this country. In my childhood in the 1950s, for example, we knew just who the torturers were. We saw them in the movies. They were the sadistic Japanese in their prison camps, the Gestapo in their prisons, and the Soviet Secret police, the KGB, in their gulags (even if that name hadn't yet entered our world). As the President now says at every opportunity, and as we then knew, Americans did not torture.
Today, and it's a measure of our changing American world, a child turning on the TV serial "24" or heading for the nearest hot, new action flick at the local multiplex knows that Americans do torture and that torture, once the cultural province of our most evil enemies, is now a practice that is 100% all-American and perfectly justifiable (normally by the ticking-bomb scenario). And few even blink. In lockdown
American presidents of the
George W. Bush didn't invent the world he inhabits. He, his top officials, and all their lawyers who wrote those bizarre "torture memos" that will be hallmarks of his era chose from existing strains of thought, from urges and tendencies already in American culture. But their record on this has, nonetheless, been remarkable. In just about every case, they chose to bring out the worst in us; in just about every case, they took us on as direct a journey as possible to the dark side.
It's not necessary to romanticize the American past in any way to consider the legacy of these last years grim indeed. Let no one tell you that the institution of a global network of secret prisons and borrowed torture chambers, along with those "enhanced interrogation techniques," was primarily done for information or even security. The urge to resort to such tactics is invariably more primal than that.
Words matter more than one would think. In the Bush era, certain words have simply been sidelined. Sovereignty, for instance. If, in principle, you can kidnap anyone, anywhere, and transport that person into a ghost existence anywhere else, then national sovereignty essentially no longer has significance. This is one meaning of "globalization" in the twenty-first century. On Planet Bush, only one nation remains "sovereign," and that's the
If you want to test this proposition, just take any case mentioned above, from Erla Ósk's landing in
Or consider another word that once had great resonance in American culture, not to speak of its legal system: innocence. Americans prided themselves on their "innocence" - even when mocked as "innocents abroad" - and took pride as well in a system based on the phrase, "innocent until proven guilty."
Despite their repeated, thoroughly worn denials about torture, the top officials of this administration remade themselves, in the wake of the attacks of 9/11, as a Torture, Inc. And their actions since then have gone a long way toward turning us, by association and tacit acquiescence, into a nation of torturers, willing to accept, in case after case, that a "war" against "terror" supposed to last for generations justifies just about any act imaginable, including the continued mistreatment and incarceration of people who remain somehow guilty even, in certain cases, after being proven innocent.
This is the American welcome wagon of the twenty-first century. If you really want to catch the spirit of the Bush legacy one year early, try to imagine the poem an Emma Lazarus of this moment might write, something appropriate for a gigantic statue in New York harbor of a guard from Mohamed Bashmilah's living nightmare - dressed all in black, a black mask covering his head and neck, tinted yellow plastic over the eyes, a man, hands sheathed in rubber gloves, holding up not a torch but a video camera and dragging chains.