Tuesday, April 15, 2014

The Importance of Polks and Pulitzers

Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras, two of the journalists whose reporting just won their organizations Pulitzers based on the Snowden revelations, have been reluctant to return to America because of various official calls for their arrest; the refusal of the Justice Department to provide any assurances that it would not arrest them; and the detention of Greenwald’s spouse David Miranda at Heathrow last August (nor are Greenwald and Poitras alone in being at risk of being arrested by their own governments for acts of journalism).  But on Friday, they decided to come home to accept the prestigious George Polk Award they had won for National Security Reporting (and to dedicate the award to their source, Edward Snowden).

I was visiting my native New Jersey for a family event the day of the Polk ceremony, and managed to get a press pass so I could attend (thank you, Polk and Pulitzer winner and Rain fan Bart Gellman!).  Greenwald and Poitras arrived together at JFK while the awards assembly was already in progress.  There was a phalanx of reporters and photographers waiting for them in the lobby of Roosevelt Hotel, where the awards were being presented, and outside customs at JFK.  The presenters changed the order of award presentation to accommodate their schedule, saving the National Security Reporting awards for last.  The whole thing was thrilling and hugely satisfying to see.

More importantly, it was exceptionally widely watched.  And this is what I want to talk about here.

Of course I’m just speculating, but I imagine Greenwald and Poitras decided that if they timed their return to coincide with their acceptance of their award, they could make it maximally difficult for the government to do anything excessively vindictive and heavy-handed.  It’s not just the sound bite the government would bee up against — “Two Polk Award Winners Arrested En Route to Receiving Journalism Award.”  It was the massive attention focused on their return.  All those photographers, at JFK and at the Roosevelt.  All those intrepid fellow award-winning journalists, and dozens more covering the event in the gallery and at the press conference afterward.  If the government had tried to move against Greenwald and Poitras just then, it would have faced a remarkable amount of real-time scrutiny.  Or, to put it another way, there was never going to be a worse time for the government to act than during the half-day window of exceptional focus and watchfulness the Polk ceremony created.

Why does this matter?  Because it suggests that whatever you might think of the substantive value of this or that award (and it’s true that with Tom Friedman using three Pulitzers to mangle his metaphors and Obama launching drone attacks from atop a Nobel Peace Prize, one might reasonably conclude that such awards can be handed out somewhat haphazardly), there’s no doubt the awards still garner great attention, attention that can act as a check on unconstitutional governmental vindictiveness.

For this reason, I was hugely disappointed that Time Magazine made the safe pick of Pope Francis for its Person of the Year, relegating Edward Snowden to #2.  Pope Francis isn’t at risk of arrest, disappearance, torture, and murder.  Snowden most certainly is.

For this reason, too, I’m pleased that Snowden has been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize.  When I tweeted about this back in January, I was surprised at how many people, citing Nobel Laureate Obama among others, responded along the lines of “The Nobel Prize doesn’t mean anything.”  Look, maybe you yourself are not impressed by prizes like the Nobel, but if you care about Edward Snowden (along with journalists and other whistleblowers) and appreciate the sacrifices he’s made for freedom and democracy all over the world, wouldn’t you want to make it more difficult for the government to arrest or mistreat him or worse?  And if you do want to make such things more difficult, don’t you see that “US Government Arrests Nobel Peace Prize Winner Snowden” would at least to some extent serve that objective?

I think there are two general reasons people reflexively display their cynicism in the face of awards.  One is what NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen calls “The Church of the Savvy,” which consumers of establishment media pick up by osmosis and then begin to ape.  The other is an odd form of narcissism, because after all, if an award doesn’t matter to me, then it shouldn’t matter at all.

All of which is weird, when you stop to think about it.  Maybe you don’t care about the Academy Awards, but that doesn’t mean winning one doesn’t enhance an actor’s star power, increase her earning potential, and broaden the scope of roles she’ll be offered.  Similarly, whatever else you might think of journalism awards, they can make it harder for the government to interfere with journalists exercising their First Amendment rights, or to throw whistleblowers in prison for espionage.

So those Polks and Pulitzers matter, and we should be glad when they're awarded to people who deserve them.  And here’s hoping the Nobel committee does the right thing in October, and gives Snowden some more of the recognition he deserves and some more of the the protection he needs.

P.S.  Thomas Friedman is so ridiculous and pernicious that I couldn't possibly link to all the wonderful articles hilariously deconstructing and parodying his unique brand of destructive navel gazing.  But here are a few.

No Kidding: The Most Incoherent Tom Friedman Column Ever
Flat N All That: Matt Taibbi Eviscerates Thomas Friedman’s “Hot, Flat, and Crowded”
Come Up With the Ultimate Thomas Friedman Porn Title
Surprise Winner in Thomas Friedman Porn-Title Contest
The Definitive Collection of Thomas Friedman Takedowns

Most especially, see the Friedman chapter in Barrett Brown's marvelous book Keep Rootin' for Putin -- and contribute to Barrett's defense fund, too.

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

When it Comes to Torture and Assassinations, Life Imitates Art

If you've read my 2009 novel Inside Out, you know that at the heart of the story were the "Caspers," imprisoned war-on-terror suspects the government decided were too problematic to be dealt with even within president Obama's new-fangled three-tier system of justice, and who were therefore emulsified, instead.

Today, we have Jason Leopold's latest report in Al Jazeera, which includes the following:

According to the Senate report, Al Jazeera’s sources said, a majority of the more than 100 detainees held in CIA custody were detained in secret prisons in Afghanistan and Morocco, where they were subject to torture methods not sanctioned by the Justice Department. Those methods are recalled by the report in vivid narratives lifted from daily logs of the detention and interrogation of about 34 high-value prisoners. The report allegedly notes that about 85 detainees deemed low-value passed through the black sites and were later dumped at Guantánamo or handed off to foreign intelligence services. More than 10 of those handed over to foreign intelligence agencies “to face terrorism charges” are now “unaccounted for” and presumed dead, the U.S. officials said.

It reminds me of the Orwellian-named "International Terrorist Threat Matrix" hit list I imagined in my 2004 novel Winner Take All.  That turned out to be not terribly fictional, as well, anticipating as it did the "Disposition Matrix," "Terror Tuesdays," and the due-process-free assassination of US citizens.

So what was posited as fiction in 2004 and 2009 is proven as fact just a few years later.  What might have been dismissed as conspiracy a little while ago is now no more than the news of the day.

All of which perhaps suggests that thriller writers are slightly ahead of the establishment media—and that the government is slightly ahead even of thriller writers.  Not a happy thought—especially when you consider the oligarchical coup at the heart of my novel The Detachment.

Look at what we know the government is doing, imagine what it's probably doing, and you'll have the workings for a good thriller.  And if you want that thriller to be as realistic as possible, then whatever you imagine, imagine it's even worse.  The government will rarely disappoint you.

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

The Torture Report America Won't Be Allowed to See

Last week a reporter with DW, an English-language German publication, contacted me with some questions for an article she was writing about the Senate’s CIA torture report.  Here’s the full text of what we discussed.

DW:  On Thursday we're expecting a decision by the Senate committee on whether to release the CIA report to the executive for declassification. What would be the procedure then, are we likely to see the whole report and when?

BE:  Judging from how long the government has taken to declassify studies like the 9/11 report, I would guess many months at least.  And if it does finally happen, the public will only be permitted to see a tiny fraction of the 6300-page report.  This kind of secrecy is typical in America today, where the government knows more and more about the citizenry and the citizenry is permitted to know less and less about the government.  And the topics we’re permitted to know the least about all involve government criminality and corruption, along with anything that might embarrass the powers-that-be.  It’s hard to imagine the founders would recognize this state of affairs as “democracy.”

DW:  Is Obama even that keen on dealing with this issue? When he took office, he said he wasn't interested in prosecuting anyone from the previous administration regarding torture

BE:  No, it’s clear Obama wants the issue to go away.  As he infamously (and ridiculously) put it several years ago, he wants the country “to look forward, not backward.”  What could that possibly mean, in the context of crimes?  Crimes by definition have already happened.  Investigating and prosecuting them (and deterring future ones) *requires* looking backward, there’s no other way to do it.  The only thing I’ve heard along these lines that can match it for sheer idiocy and deceitfulness is former vice president Cheney’s comment, delivered as part of a eulogy for former president Ford, that "there can be no healing without pardon.”  What?  Human nature is such that there’s unlikely to be healing without *justice*, so unless Cheney thinks “pardon” and “justice” are the same thing, his thoughts on this topic are incoherent, politically-driven nonsense.

As for Obama:  the United States is party to the UN Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, signed by president Reagan, ratified by the Senate, and by virtue of Article VI of the Constitution, the Supreme Law of the Land.  The UNCAT not only prohibits torture; it also requires member states to investigate credible allegations of torture and to prosecute accordingly.  Both former president Bush and former vice president Cheney have confessed in writing and on video to ordering waterboarding.  Attorney General Eric Holder acknowledged during his confirmation hearings that waterboarding is torture.  In failing to direct the Justice Department (an increasingly Orwellian name in modern America, akin to the Ministry of Truth), president Obama is violating his constitutional obligation to “take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed.”  Which, if you think about it, is pretty much the core thing the chief executive is supposed to be doing.  At least according to that pre-9/11 document called the Constitution.

But there’s a kind of professional courtesy America’s oligarchs extend to each other, and it clearly includes refraining from prosecuting past presidents and vice presidents for grave crimes.  So yes, it would be an understatement to say that Obama is not keen on dealing with America’s descent into torture.

DW:  The Washington Post reported yesterday that there are discrepancies between low-level and senior staff in the CIA -- that some tips or intel that were allegedly obtained by "enhanced techniques" were, in fact, not gathered in that way at all. What's going on there, lack of communication, deliberate miscommunication?

BE:  From what’s rumored to be in the Senate report, it seems likely that torture had little or nothing to do with how the US hunted down bin Laden or with any other actionable intelligence.  But the architects of America’s torture regime are still intent on maintaining a “but torture works” narrative, and preventing a proper narrative of “but torture is illegal.”  If the public realizes torture didn’t even “work,” it might become receptive to the notion that torture is illegal, that America is nominally a nation under the rule of law, and that therefore anyone who ordered torture ought to be prosecuted.  So substantial portions of the government will continue to push the “torture worked” narrative, if not to keep themselves out of prison (no danger of that, as Obama has made clear), then to at least salvage their reputations.

Watch in particular for the Cheneyesque linguistic dodge, something along the lines of, “We derived actionable intelligence from detainees who underwent enhanced interrogation.”  Note the absence of any causal link.  You won’t hear “torture produced this intel” — because it didn’t.  But that’s what they want you to think, even if a prisoner gave actionable intelligence *before* he was tortured.  After all, such a prisoner technically fits the “prisoners who were tortured gave up valuable intel” narrative.  Technically true, but in fact deliberately misleading.

DW:  You told us last October that you think Feinstein does not truly care about the NSA spying on people and that she has been a great supporter of the NSA. She seems to be a lot more critical of the CIA? True? If so, why?

BE:  I just wrote about this in an op-ed for The Guardian.  In brief:  because the CIA and the Senate are engaged in a turf war.  Feinstein feels the CIA has overstepped in ignoring her prerogatives as head of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence; the report, threats to declassify some portions of it, and her public posturing are all ripostes.  I don’t expect the dispute to get any uglier, and in fact expect Director of Central Intelligence Brennan to back down.  At which point, all the involved parties can get back to business as usual.

DW:  Can you see parallels between the NSA revelations and this report on the CIA's torture methods?

BE:  They’re both instances of what happens when bureaucracies are given vast powers with no oversight.  Some secrecy is necessary to protect democracy.  Too much secrecy is a cancer on democracy.  The CIA and NSA are both premier examples of what happens when secrecy metastasizes.  

DW:  Oversight: what is needed? Are you still doubtful that accountability can be achieved?

BE:  I don’t think proper accountability of an intelligence apparatus as vast, sprawling, and virtually unknowable as America’s is really possible.  If it were, the Church and Pike Committee reforms of 1975 would have worked.  Instead, even the safeguards that emerged from that era, such as the FISA “court," have been perverted and suborned.  The only real solution I can see is to radically scale back America’s entire infrastructure of secrecy, which would obviously include its intelligence agencies.  I don’t think this is likely, because Americans have been conditioned to be so afraid of The Scary Brown-Skinned Terrorists that we’re now prepared to entertain almost any internal threat to liberty as long as we’re promised that living under conditions that would have made the Stasi mad with jealousy is the only way to Keep Us Safe.

For some reason, Americans are incredibly resilient — or call it blasé — in the face of 500,000 annual deaths from tobacco, 34,000 annual deaths from car accidents, and 32,000 annual deaths from firearms.  But even the remotest chance — and statistically, it is the remotest chance — of death from a terror attack turns us into petrified children, unable to think, incapable of reason, desperate for Daddy to do whatever it takes to protect us.  Welcome to the 21st century in the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave. 

Friday, April 04, 2014

The Real Purpose of the CIA Torture Report

Overall, I guess you could say it's good that the Senate intelligence committee has voted to declassify portions of its report on the CIA's torture program.  Certainly the public has the right, as well as the need, to know more about government criminality.  But there are a lot of problems that are going to be obscured by the good cheer and the acrimony accompanying the vote.

First, note that only portions of the report will be declassified, and that the White House and the CIA will be heavily involved in the decision about what those portions will be.  Explain this to a child -- "the subject of a damning report gets to decide how much of the report will be revealed" -- and the child would laugh at the obvious absurdity.  In America, of course, such nonsense is simply the oligarchical norm.

Second, the report was never intended to, nor will it, lead to prosecutions for those involved in torture.  Listen to the rhetoric of Diane Feinstein and other committee members:

This nation admits its errors, as painful as they may be. (This one had me chuckling in its own right).
Torture is wrong, and we must make sure that the misconduct and the grave errors made in the CIA’s detention and interrogation program never happen again.
We need to get this behind us.

Not a lot of talk there about America being a party to the UN Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, signed by president Reagan, ratified by the Senate, and by virtue of Article VI of the Constitution, the Supreme Law of the Land.  The UNCAT not only prohibits torture; it also requires member states to investigate credible allegations of torture and to prosecute accordingly.  Both former president Bush and former vice president Cheney have confessed in writing and on video to ordering waterboarding.  Attorney General Eric Holder acknowledged during his confirmation hearings that waterboarding is torture.  President Obama has acknowledged the same.  In insisting that “we need to look forward as opposed to looking backwards,” and in failing to direct the Justice Department (an increasingly Orwellian name in modern America, akin to the Ministry of Truth), Obama is therefore violating his constitutional obligation to “take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed.”  Which, if you think about it, is pretty much the core thing the chief executive is supposed to be doing.  At least according to that pre-9/11 document called the Constitution.

Third, the primary, saddest, most pernicious effect of the release of some portions of the report is that the release will solidify America’s prevailing narrative on torture, which is that the appropriate question to ask about torture is, “did it work.”  CIA critics will point to evidence that torture didn’t work; CIA defenders will counter with evidence that it did.  The public will be left with a powerful metamessage that what really matters is the question of whether torture is effective.

In fact, if America is indeed a nation under the rule of law (I know, it’s practically a laugh-line at this point), what matters isn’t whether you believe something “works,” but whether that thing is illegal.

Imagine you're a cop. You come across a dead body with a bullet hole in the forehead, and there's a guy standing over the corpse holding a smoking gun. You want to arrest the guy with the gun, and your partner says, "Hang on a minute there, pard. Can you honestly say that killing is never, ever justified?" This is exactly what torture apologists are doing in the face of actual laws and actual facts demonstrating that those laws were violated.

So yes, it’s nice that declassifying a bit of the report will offer the public a little more knowledge about torture.  But at the same time, I expect the release will further cement some horribly insidious misapprehensions.  We’ll get some knowledge, but no new wisdom.  I’m not sure it’s a worthwhile trade.