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Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Anti-Torture Activists Chase Brennan from CIA Post

Posted by Valtin at 3:13 PM |

The Washington Post reports in an article today that the "criticism of a number of groups" regarding John Brennan's positions on torture and rendition led him to withdraw his name from nomination to CIA director in an Obama administration.
Brennan's withdrawal came three days after a group of about 200 psychiatrists and academics wrote to Obama opposing his appointment, saying Brennan was tainted by his association with some of the CIA's most controversial policies of the Bush era. They include the use of waterboarding and other harsh interrogation methods against captured al-Qaeda leaders in secret CIA prisons.

"Mr. Brennan served as a high official in George Tenet's CIA and supported Tenet's policies, including 'enhanced interrogations' as well as 'renditions' to torturing countries," the coalition stated in the letter. The group said Brennan's appointment would "dishearten and alienate those who opposed torture under the Bush administration."
I congratulate the psychologists and other health and academic professionals who helped demonstrate that there is anger and opposition to torture policies among much of the professional class and intelligentsia in this country. But this is a nuanced victory in a skirmish with a dangerous enemy, and I am admittedly someone who differs on tactics with those who helped orchestrate Brennan's defeat. (Let's not forget that a number of others on the left, and even conservatives like Andrew Sullivan opposed the Brennan would-be nomination.)

The CIA should be abolished. It cannot be reformed. It's bureaucracy was forged in a world of covert wars and abusive interrogation research. Asking for someone who is "anti-torture" to head the CIA would at most drive the worst elements of torture underground. It might end, for awhile, the "enhanced interrogation techniques" (so-called "touchless torture") that is the CIA's expertise. But it does nothing to address the evils of covert secret action that derails foreign governments, nor is there any outcry against the use of targeted assassinations undertaken by the CIA over the years.

An example of how good feelings over a victory can lead to a false sense of comfort, consider the decision today by the Obama administration to put forth Bush's Secretary of Defense Robert Gates for another go at the post.
President-elect Barack Obama has decided to retain the Bush administration's Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, in his current position, at least for a year....

Such a move, if confirmed, could also incite the Democratic left, which had based much of its support on Obama's slowly melting pledge to withdraw American combat troops within 16 months and start immediately.

Gates has been a loyal steward of the successful surge, which Obama long appeared reluctant to admit during the political season....

On paper at least Gates and Obama also disagree over the need for a European missile defense system now, with Obama saying he wants the technology to be more proven before any installation talk.
Perhaps someone will remember that last August, Gates was implicated by the New York Times as a prime participant in the Pentagon's own policy of secret detention in Iraq of foreign fighters, and rendition of prisoners to foreign countries, such as Saudi Arabia, where monitoring of interrogations and possible abuse is impossible. As the Times reported (emphases added):
Many of these militants are initially held, without notification to the Red Cross, sometimes for weeks at a time, in secret at a camp in Iraq and another in Afghanistan run by American Special Operations forces, the military officials said.

They said that foreign intelligence officers had been allowed access to these camps to question militants there, as a prelude to the transfers....

American military officials said the transfers required assurances that the prisoners would be well taken care of, but they would not specify those assurances, and human rights advocates questioned whether compliance could be monitored.

While the militants are in American custody, Pentagon rules allow them to be held at the Special Operations sites in Balad, Iraq, and Bagram, Afghanistan, for up to two weeks, with extensions permitted with the approval of Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates or his representative, military officials said.
As Aaron Glantz noted in 2006, after the hearings approving Gates as Secretary of Defense:
No Senator asked Robert Gates about a plan he wrote for President Reagan for an invasion of Lybia to "redraw the map of Northern Africa." No one asked him about his record of falsifying intelligence during the Cold War and his involvement in the Iran-Contra scandal.

No Senator asked Robert Gates about his claim, in written testimony given before his public hearing, that he believes in the doctrine of preemptive strikes on other countries, the policy position that got us in the mess in Iraq.

No Senator asked Robert Gates about his claim, in written testimony given before his public hearing, that he believes Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction or the capability to produce weapons of mass destruction and that he still – even in hindsight – thought the invasion was a good thing.
Perhaps I am wrong. I'm quite ready to admit it. But you cannot stop the hydra-headed monster that is the military-industrial-intelligence establishment by playing musical chairs. Does it matter to the 200 opponents of Brennan that Gates was a primary participant in the military's own version of rendition, up to the present day (the Times story is actually dated last August)? Or that he has conducted secret detentions, prosecuted Bush's "War on Terror", as a supporter of the torture-loving Contras in Nicaragua under Reagan's term of office, or any number of negatives concerning this stalwart defender of the ruling elite?

Abstractly, I imagine the answer to the last question is yes. But concretely, campaigns such as the one that appears to have helped nix Brennan put illusions in the overall reformability of institutions that have a proven negative track record of human rights abuses and anti-democratic actions for over fifty years. In this day and age, one has to be practically a flame-breathing radical to note the CIA cannot be trusted, no matter who runs it.

I respect those who might argue against me that we have to pick and choose our battles, that we raise public consciousness through campaigns against public figures, and perhaps even do some good in the process. I cannot deny such arguments. While respecting such arguments, I also strongly believe that the dangers of sowing illusions about change are real, and that they disarm activists in the face of the struggle that really lies ahead.

Perhaps the disagreements elaborated herein are redolent of the old arguments of reform vs. revolution, or between stagist views of progress and change and those who see history as punctuated by qualitative leaps over old ways of thinking and doing. I think it's my fate to play the "ultra-left" role in this instance, and, in this instance, I'm not sorry to do it.

In any case, I am glad to see Brennan have to slink off (back to his job as CEO of the private intelligence company, Analysis Corporation). I salute those, like Stephen Soldz, who organized the letter-writing campaign, who have the guts to take on the powers that be. I hope they take my criticism with the good faith with which it's offered.

Also posted at Invictus

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