Spiraling Down: Human Rights, Endless War
The Frances Tarlton “Sissy” Farenthold Inaugural Lecture
in Peace, Social Justice and Human Rights
Eidman Courtroom, University of Texas School of Law
Spiraling Down: Human Rights, Endless War
October 22, 2015
Engle: Good evening.
Female: Good evening, Karen.
Engle: Thank you. We’ll do call and response. Thank you all for braving the weather, or the reputed weather, to come out tonight. I’m Karen Engle, a professor at the law school here and co-director of the Bernard and Audre Rapoport Center for Human Rights and Justice, and it’s my great honor to welcome you this evening to the inaugural Frances Tarlton “Sissy” Farenthold Endowed Lecture in Peace, Social Justice, and Human Rights. We’re going to come up with an acronym for that. And it’ll be delivered by Professor Mark Danner, whom you’ll hear more about shortly.
This event is special for three reasons. First, it’s the inaugural lecture in a very exciting series, both because of whom it honors and because of what it aims to accomplish. Second, we have an insightful author and investigative journalist focusing our attention this evening on some of the most important U.S. foreign policy issues of our day, in a way that demonstrates that peace and human rights are domestic issues. Mark Danner has, for three decades, brought to our attention, or at least to those of us who are willing to read and hear about it, the central role that the U.S. often plays in parts of the world that many think of as far away.
And third, we have Sissy Farenthold here with us to participate in the program. She’ll introduce Mark Danner. Now, these three reasons are very much connected, in ways that I hope will become clear as I take a few minutes to tell you a little bit about the Sissy Farenthold Lecture Series in Peace, Social Justice, and Human Rights before I turn the program over to the stars of the show.
So last spring, as many of you know, this room was filled with people who had worked with, heard from or about, or admired from afar Sissy Farenthold. There were even a number of people—they were pretty young—who hadn’t heard of Sissy, but were eager to engage with the human rights and social justice issues to which she’s dedicated her life since graduating from the University of Texas School of Law in 1949.
We spent a day and a half hearing from Sissy and discussing her pioneering work over the years, a small amount, and only a small amount, of which we’ve been able to list in the program tonight that you have in front of you, and even more on a website that we’ve developed. We looked at that work, as Sissy always does, with an eye toward its contemporary resonance.
Now because the conference was based on Sissy’s collected papers, one of the themes that emerged was about how Sissy had long been, herself, somewhat of an investigative reporter. She’s always believed in and fought for transparency, looking for the uncovered or under covered stories. And that connects us to today’s event, as it was that aspect of Sissy that we at least partly sought to honor when a number of Sissy’s friends from all over the country came together to establish this lecture in her name.
The Rapoport Center and the Rothko Chapel in Houston have partnered to present the lectures in alternating years. And here’s our criteria, and it’s in your program, too. In line with Sissy’s own history of exposing and responding to injustices and inequality, as both a public servant and citizen, the lecture series aims to bring to Austin and Houston internationally renowned scholars, activists and politicians who will inspire their audiences to think and act creatively to respond to some of the greatest challenges of the 21st century. So that’s a bit of a tall order for you, Mark.
Danner: I was just thinking that.
Engle: You’re up for it.
Danner: Thinking if I could get out the door.
Engle: So let me just recognize a few people here who have made this lecture possible. From the Rapoport Center, I want to thank our assistant director, Billy Chandler, whose work has been essential to the establishment and promotion of the endowment, including through the insert in the program, which will make it very easy for you to contribute to the lecture series, if you like, and he’s also arranged for some volunteers to be ready to collect that from anyone who wants to turn it in. But he’s been responsible for all the logistics and much of the thought behind today’s event.
From the Rothko Chapel, where Sissy served as chair of the board for many years, we’re grateful to those who have helped build and sustain collaboration between us and the chapel, and to think outside of the box, really, in setting up this lecture series. And we’re happy to have several of them here today, so I just recognize Gayle DeGeurin, who’s the immediate past chair of the board, David Leslie, who’s the executive director, and Michelle Ashton, who is the program director. So thanks for…you all made it through the storm. Hope you get home.
Those of you who have participated in endowments now might know that it takes at least a year for proceeds to begin to spin off from them. But we just couldn’t imagine waiting until 2016 to begin this lecture series, so we’re extremely grateful to the Creekmore and Adele Fath Foundation for providing significant support for this year’s lecture. And I’d like to recognize Jamie Anderson, chair of the board, who is also here with us this evening. Thanks also to the School of Law and the Department of English for contributions for tonight’s event.
Now our work, and not just tonight, but all of the work that we’ve done around Sissy and her legacy have been made possible by the financial, moral and other support of many of her friends and family members. And I can’t begin to recognize all of the friends here, but I would like to point out some family members, and they all happen to be sitting on the front row. So Emilie Farenthold, Sissy’s daughter, Patricia Dougherty, a cousin, and Genevieve Vaughan, another cousin. And they’ve also been collaborators, all three of them, in many ways in Sissy’s life and work.
So before I invite Sissy to introduce Mark Danner—well, actually, before I do that I want to say, most importantly, we’re indebted to Sissy Farenthold for giving us decades of work to celebrate, and for continuing to lead us in the pursuit of peace, human rights and social justice. Now before I invite her to introduce Mark Danner, I want to tell you that it’s because of Sissy that he’s our speaker tonight. From the moment we announced the lecture series, Sissy began to drop not so subtle hints about how he was her first choice to give the lecture.
Not only did she mention, in conversation and email, all the time, every time she would read something by him, new or old, but she also kept emailing me articles on Guantanamo, and on torture, with notes asking what do you think Mark Danner would say about this? So we decided to approach Mark Danner to see what he would say, not just to you all tonight, but—well, would he say he would come?
And fortunately, he graciously and quickly agreed to give the lecture, in large part, as he put it, because he so admires Sissy and enjoys her company. So the final thanks go to Mark Danner. It’s clear we’re in for a treat this evening. We should have a fair amount of time for Q&A, so that’ll be nice as well. And there’s a little bit of reception food afterward, so hopefully you’ll stay around for a little while. Please join me now in welcoming Sissy Farenthold to introduce Mark Danner. [Applause.]
Farenthold: Thank you very much. It’s really a wonderful evening, as far as I’m concerned. And so many of Mark Danner’s accomplishments are in your program that I’ll leave that to your reading. And I want to start with something that took place a decade ago. It’s been a decade since I’ve seen Mark. But in 2005, this was a year after Abu Ghraib, and information was pouring out of unthinkable things—the torture, the type torture. It was a very sad time.
And so when it came time to look for a speaker, because we were going to honor Sister Ortiz, who had been tortured by the Guatemalan military, I phoned a friend of mine in New York and said who is the most accomplished person on the issue of torture that’s going on today. And he said, without question, it’s Mark Danner. So that’s why we pursued him. And indeed, the talk was memorable.
He told us that things weren’t the same as they were during the Watergate time, when journalists did the investigating and then the development of remedies came from the political, from the Congress. He said that time is over. The Congress isn’t there to do it, or not the Congress we have. So the question is, you have all this information—and we were getting more each day coming out, a lot that hasn’t come out, but still things were coming out.
He said the question is what are you going to do with what you have in the way of information? We’ve passed the point of not having the information. We still don’t have it all, and there are things that are redacted that, of course, need to be exposed. And so he left us with that thought, and it’s the thought that has stayed with me and really precipitates this evening. What are we going to do about what we know?
I’d just like to bring up two things that have come since then of the many, many, many disclosures. But I want to quote something that Mark Danner said, and it applies to what I’m going to speak of. He said, and I quote, “New disclosures have made explicit a system grounded not by any recognized rules of evidence or due process, but by suspicion, paranoia and violence.”
And so with that in mind, I’d just like to mention two things before I turn the podium over to Mark Danner. One is a book published by a man incarcerated at Guantanamo. The book is called The Guantanamo Diary, and in, I think, February of this year Mark Danner wrote a review of it for the New York Times. And even though it’s been redacted, it tells the absolute horror of being incarcerated, and the treatment that occurs for such a person.
The other is the report on the Senate summary, executive summary, and what we’ve learned from that. Now, only in Mark Danner’s work did I read—maybe I haven’t read enough—but only in his work did I read that in order to get the Republicans on this committee or accepting this committee, there had to be restrictions placed on what would be covered in the committee hearings. Nothing on the President’s office, nothing on the Vice President’s office, nothing on the National Security Council. This is what’s happened to the Congress investigating powers. What do you have? I don’t have a metaphor because all I could think of was corpse without a head. That’s not good enough.
But anyway, those are the two issues that I wanted to bring up. And the worst of it, there’s a climate that permeates this country today, and that is moving from the word torture to enhanced interrogation. There is a movement that through torture you get actionable intelligence. And I think this is prompted, in part, by popular culture, and that film that was made, which I can’t even remember the name of it, “Zero Dark Thirty,” I think, that kind of thing. And this is a deplorable situation that we have.
So I’m here to say to Mark Danner that we need your studies, we need your thoughts, because the subject that you brought up ten years ago, what are we going to do with what we have, is still more pertinent than ever. So with this comment of mine, I turn it over to this wonderful speaker we have with us tonight. Thank you. [Applause.]
Danner: Thank you so much, Sissy. It is customary, at times like this, and occasions such as this one, to speak about how honored one is to be here, and I’ve said that numerous times myself on similar occasions. But the fact is that tonight I’m way honored to be here because Sissy Farenthold—and one can forget this because of her enormous charm and attractiveness as a person—is a giant when it comes to social justice, human rights, feminism.
And just looking over her biography once again before coming down here, I’m astonished what can be accomplished in one determined life. And she is, to me, an inspiration, she really is. So when I was contacted by Karen Engle and asked to give this lecture, the question wasn’t yes or no, the question was when. And I couldn’t be happier, couldn’t be pleased, couldn’t be more honored to be inaugurating this lecture series, and it just…it does my heart good. It does my heart good, because she is an astonishing figure.
And I think it’s fair to say that the—I was going to say the Democratic frontrunner would not be the Democratic frontrunner—whatever Sissy might think of her, by the way—were it not for her work. And you can point to many, many areas of our lives today that wouldn’t be the way they are without her work.
And I urge people in the audience who are younger, who don’t know about what she’s done and what she’s accomplished in her biography, her runs for the Texas governorship, her being elected to the Texas House of Representatives, all of the firsts in her life, and many, many other things, to look at that biography and find out about her life, and be inspired about what, indeed, you can accomplish, and what can be accomplished. So thank you. And I just want to… [Applause.]
Okay, so that’s the happy part of my talk. Now we’ve got the rest of it. Sissy referred to the talk I gave a decade ago at the wonderful Rothko Chapel. And I want to thank the organizers here tonight, Karen Engle, Billy Chandler, the people here from the Rothko Chapel, Creekmore and Adel Fath Charitable Foundation, and of course the Bernard and Audre Rapoport Center for Human Rights and Justice, thank you all for getting me here. I’m very grateful.
Sissy mentioned that a decade ago I talked about Watergate. And it’s interesting, looking at her biography again, I was reminded that she was, among other things, nominated for Vice President in 1972, got 404 or 440 votes?
Farenthold: Yeah, second, as always.
Danner: She was second, and she should have been first. If she was first, history might be different. And I remember this. I remember watching that convention. I was, I think, 13. And I remember being obsessed. I mean, that period really was my political awakening, and Watergate was my political coming to consciousness.
I think of it now as the American Oresteia, Oresteia being Aeschylus’s great series of plays about the return of Agamemnon from the Trojan Wars, when he is murdered by Clytemnestra, and it begins a cycle of killing and murder, and killing and murder, until there is the establishment of the courts in Athens, and the end of the system of vendetta, of blood for blood, and the beginning of socially constituted justice. This is Aeschylus’s great celebration of that establishment, of that world shaking transformation.
And it strikes me that Watergate plays a similar role—I mean, it sounds very grand to say it—in our recent public life. It’s a demonstration to me, or at least it was to me as a young teenager, of how the system is supposed to work. You have revelation, to begin it, a revelation of wrongdoing, at that time owed mostly to the Washington Post, Woodward and Bernstein. You have investigation, at that time owed to the Senate Watergate Committee, and also to the courts. And finally, you have expiation. People are punished. People go to jail. A President resigns. There is a return of society, in some way, to an agreed on state of grace, if you want to call it that. It returns.
And I had made the point at that talk a decade ago, which Sissy mentioned, that we’re living in a different time. And I called it, or I’ve written about it, as the time of frozen scandal. That is, we know about the wrongdoing, we know about torture, for example, it’s highly documented. People like me write about it constantly. The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence issues a 6,600 page report on it, publishes 600 pages of their executive summary, we all know about it, but we’re stopped at the level of investigation. There’s no expiation. We live with frozen scandals.
And I want to talk a little bit tonight, my talk is called “Spiraling Down: Human Rights, Endless War.” The image, to me, of a spiral is this circling figure that keeps getting farther and farther away from its beginning point. It never quite consummates itself. And that’s what I would like to talk about tonight, first of all, the notion of human rights in a state of frozen scandal, when it comes to torture, when it comes to indefinite detention, when it comes to assassination or extrajudicial killing, when it comes to warrantless wiretapping, and the connection of this state of frozen scandal to our state of war, our endless war, our forever war, as I’ve called it elsewhere.
And these two things, it strikes me, are the two sides of the same coin. That is, the constant, what I’m going to call the state of exception, state of exception being a broad term for martial law, state of emergency, state of siege. We have been living in a state of exception since 2001, since September 17th in fact, 2001, with the authorization of the use of military force voted by the Congress. And we are still in that state of exception today, even though it has taken on the character of the barely noticed day-to-day. That is, it isn’t in our daily news, pretty much.
And that state of exception, that state of martial law, itself is underpinned by our continuing state of war, which, again, started on September 11th and continues. And you saw the other day that the President announced that 10,000 troops in fact would not be withdrawn from Afghanistan, that they will stay there, that the problem of Afghanistan, the war in Afghanistan, he will indeed hand on to his successor, whoever that is.
The Iraq war, which American troops had left at the end of 2011, there are now 3,000 back in Iraq. And the drone war continues. Every day, virtually every day, people are being killed from American arms, and mostly we don’t know about it. The number of people who have died in drone attacks is estimated to be somewhere between 3,500 and 5,000, a very large number of people. These are killings that are paid for by the American taxpayer, carried out by the American military and the Central Intelligence Agency, and are officially nonexistent, they do not exist. Okay.
Let me talk a little bit about the beginning of the state of exception, the authorization for the use of military force, because the authorization for the use of military force was voted by the Congress authorization September 14, 2001, it was signed by George W. Bush on September 17, 2001, and it read as follows. It authorized the President to use “all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations or persons he determined planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons.”
Now, I’m sure everybody here knows that that authorization for the use of military force is still in effect, although President Obama has said time and again we need to get off our perpetual war footing, we need to end the endless war. In fact, he is the President, at the same time, who keeps that war going 14 years later. And the authorization for the use of military force is actually critical to the entire effort because it transforms indefinite detention, imprisonment without trial, what we would call imprisonment without trial into imprisonment of enemy combatants during wartime.
It transforms extrajudicial killing, targeted assassination, into allowed decapitation strikes during wartime. It transforms torture into enhanced interrogation techniques. In other words, there’s as if there is a black and white here in which the authorization of military force is telling us that there is a war we’re in that will have a decided ending, and that makes everything we’re doing legal, and on the other side of it is a different world in which, in fact, what we’re doing is keeping people imprisoned for an indefinite period of time without any hope of trial.
Sissy quoted or referred to Guantanamo Diary, which is a fascinating book which I would recommend to everyone here. It’s actually a great read. It’s written by a man from Mauritania who was imprisoned in 2002, suffered the process of extraordinary rendition, which in fact is kidnapping, was taken from his home, shipped to Jordan, where he was tortured, then shipped to Afghanistan, where the Americans tortured him, then shipped to Guantanamo. He didn’t know English at that time. He learned English in Guantanamo and he wrote this extraordinary book, which, after years of litigation, was finally published.
Now, this man has been in detention since 2002, so more than 13 years. He can neither be tried nor released. And the fiction governs his case that he is a prisoner being kept to the end of hostilities. But these are hostilities that in fact are going to have no definite ending. It’s clear that we have a war that continually is being redefined.
I read to you just now the authorization of the use of military force. It doesn’t mention Al Qaeda and the Arabian Peninsula, it doesn’t mention the Islamic State. There are many, many organizations that not only does it not mention, but that did not exist when this authorization was voted, against whom the United States is fighting today. And it’s clear that these combatants, these enemies, are going to continue to morph into other forms, other organizations. Others are going to spring up, others are going to recede, and the war will continue.
And Mohamedou Ould Slahi, the author of Guantanamo Diary, is going to continue as a prisoner under the fiction that we are at war, and that he is a prisoner of war, and will only be released when those hostilities are at an end. So there’s a legal fiction governing our current treatment of human rights.
Now, I want to make another point before I get to the endless war itself, and that is the issue of torture, which Sissy talked about so eloquently. If we look at the list of things that I detailed—indefinite detention, targeted killings, warrantless wiretapping and torture—the one thing that you would look at that President Obama seems to have made dramatic progress on is torture. After all, on his second day in office, he prohibited, as he later put it, he prohibited torture.
So far as we know, Americans, at present, are not torturing. Now, is this a victory? It’s a fascinating question to ask. When President Obama received the Nobel Peace Prize, one of his big applause lines at Oslo was “I have prohibited torture.” Everybody stood up and gave him a rousing round of applause. But here’s the problem. The President cannot prohibit torture. Torture is illegal under American law, American statute, and under international treaty. His affirmation that he has the power to prohibit it is itself a kind of affirmation that his predecessor had the power to order it. As, by the way, he professes publicly he did.
So we’re in a strange netherworld, a strange legal netherworld when it comes to torture in particular. The present executive claims to have prohibited it, something that was already illegal, and he chooses not to punish those in the preceding administration who admittedly set up a large system that tortured scores of people, and possibly hundreds of people, and did it under color of law. The Department of Justice was involved, the Department of Defense, and of course the Central Intelligence Agency, among others.
The question is how can we make torture illegal again? I would say President Obama has not succeeded in making torture illegal once again. In fact, by his prohibition, by his stated prohibition, he has reaffirmed the kind of netherworld we live in when it comes to torture.
Another reaffirmation is the efforts by Senators John McCain and Dianne Feinstein to pass an amendment to the military appropriations bill, defense appropriations bill, that in fact will put President Obama’s executive order prohibiting torture into law. Now you say, as we sit in this august courtroom, well, that will take care of it, making the prohibition a legal prohibition. The only problem with this is that, as I said a moment ago, it’s already illegal. Torture is already illegal. It’s already illegal by treaty, it’s already illegal by statute. Laying another law on top of that tells us what, exactly? What exactly does it say?
We also are in a position now, as we watch the presidential campaign, that everyone on the Republican side has in fact declared their intention, in one way or another, to use what is called enhanced interrogation if they’re elected President, as Governor Romney did, by the way, in 2012. In fact, there were actual plans that leaked from Governor Romney’s campaign detailing his plans, the plans of that administration to use enhanced interrogation techniques once he took office.
Okay, so there’s a certain problem there that I think is more piquant, in a way, than even the problems of indefinite detention, targeted killing, and others, which is how do you return to a state of legality? How do you get back? I am not…I myself will not stand here and tell you that George W. Bush should go to jail, or that Dick Cheney should go to jail. But I do think the problem of how to return to justice is a very significant legal, but mostly political one. It has to do with public education.
The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence report was one step in that process, I think. I’d like to have the whole report come out. But when we see its reception, we can see the depth of the current problem, the depth of the current frozen scandal, and how long it will take to thaw. Which is to say the report came out, it was fairly heavily reported on, President Obama’s support for it was lukewarm, at best. He made a public statement in which he said, among other things, that hopefully this won’t happen again—hopefully, comma, this won’t happen again, which was not exactly inspiring.
And you had a coterie of ex-officials from the CIA, ex-directors and others, who came forward and strongly attacked the report, including our former Vice President, who said, with his usual eloquence, that the report was a load of crap. So we have a political elite that is dramatically divided on the issue of torture and we have at least one of our great political parties has a clear position on it, which is they support it.
Let’s talk a little about endless war. I said that the state of exception, the state of martial law, depends on the forever war. And the question is, I mean, let’s think a moment about this war we’re fighting. I’m sure most of you don’t walk around every day thinking we’re at war, we’re at war. The war has acquired the character of the quiet, everyday. We accept it, we don’t think about it, we don’t talk about it. It’s reported on, but not very dramatically.
If you were Osama bin Laden, if he were still alive, and he, on the day after September 11th, could see this particular future we’re in now, I think he would be very happy. Why am I saying that? Because those 14 years ago, on the day after September 11th, the United States faced a multinational terrorist network that was attacking it, that had installations in various parts of the world, franchises that had a couple of thousand members, but basically this multinational terrorist network that had declared war on it.
Fourteen years later, we have two of them. We have two of them. Fourteen years later, many of those franchises like Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, Al Shabaab in Somalia, and the Islamic State itself, are much larger than they were 14 years back. In fact, of course, the Islamic State did not exist 14 years ago.
I discovered the other day an amazing document that I have to quote to you. It’s called “Al Qaeda’s Strategy to the Year 2020.” It was written by one of the founders of Al Qaeda, a close aid to Osama bin Laden, a former colonel in the Egyptian Army named Saif al-Adel. And he wrote this in 1999, so two years before the attacks of 9/11. What is the Al Qaeda strategy to the year 2020?
“1) Provoke the United States and the West into invading a Muslim country by staging a massive attack or string of attacks on U.S. soil that results in massive civilian casualties. 2) Incite local resistance to occupying forces. 3) Expand the conflict to neighboring countries and engage the United States and its allies in a long war of attrition. 4) Convert Al Qaeda into an ideology and set of operating principles that can be loosely franchised in other countries without requiring direct command and control, and vice these franchises incite attacks against the United States and countries allied with the United States until they withdraw from the conflict.”
And it goes on. The remarkable thing is that it describes precisely what happened. Precisely. Al Qaeda, when it attacked on September 11th, was engaging in what is called the strategy of provocation. That is, we’re a small group, how do we grow larger? How do we increase our recruitment? How do we become a movement that can actually win? How do we go from being a small outfit that can just stage terrorist attacks to being a worldwide movement on the vanguard of Islamicism?
How we do that is we tempt the United States to invade the Middle East, we show that the United States is exactly the muscle-bound, repressive superpower that we’ve said it was, we get them fighting in the Middle East. Hopefully we can tempt them into committing certain atrocities, although who could have dreamed of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, televised atrocities, and we build our movement therefrom. And this is what Al Qaeda set out to do on September 11, 2001, and the United States, for various reasons, completely played into its hands, and continues playing into its hands. It’s a remarkable thing.
I want to read one line from George W. Bush, if I can find it, which I can’t get out of my mind. Here we are. This is what he said ten days after September 11th.
“We are not deceived”—he was talking about Al Qaeda—“by their pretenses to piety. We have seen their kind before. They are heirs of all the murderous ideologies of the 20th century. By sacrificing human life to serve their radical visions, by abandoning every value except the will to power, they follow in the path of Fascism, Nazism, and totalitarianism, and they will follow that path all the way to where it ends in history’s unmarked grave of discarded lies.”
It’s pretty heated rhetoric for the President of the United States to use. He’s quoting Nietzsche, Trotsky. It’s impressive. But in fact, Al Qaeda was not like the Soviet Union, and it was not like Nazi Germany. And the way that President Bush, in particular, chose to fight it gave an enormous boost, an almost undreamed of boost, to this movement.
The Islamic State today, which probably has 50,000 fighters under arms, was created by the United States in Iraq in 2003. I was there covering that war. I saw it happen. I remember standing on an overpass outside of Fallujah—this was like a cloverleaf—and looking at a shot up tractor trailer truck. Inside was the corpse of the driver who’d been eviscerated by machine gun fire. The truck was a mess. It was all shot up.
And down below from the overpass—this is just like an overpass, a cloverleaf here—you could see on the ground this kind of slash of brown burned spot and coppery stain of blood, and that was where an improvised explosive device contained in a garbage can was triggered by remote control—they’d simply used garage door remote controls—as an American patrol went by. Killed one soldier as it was driving by, the 82nd Airborne.
What did the guys do? They jumped out of their armored personnel carriers and their Jeeps, took their guns and they hosed, as they called it, the houses nearby. They just started shooting. And it’s probably true that the guy with the remote control was in one of those houses. But who did they kill? They killed a lot of civilians. And members of those civilians who were killed and wounded, members of their families would be, by later that day, joining the insurgents.
In other words, this is again a technique in the strategy of provocation. It’s getting the United States to attack so you build up your recruitment. And this has been the way the entire story of the 14 years since September 11th, this building up, helping them become a larger movement, creating the Islamic State, which is now by far the largest terrorist organization in the world, and helping them.
I want to give you a few statistics. In 2002, the first full year of the war on terror, there were 725 people killed in terrorist attacks around the world. This is figures from the United States State Department. So 725 in 2002. Last year, anybody want to guess? Thirty-two thousand seven hundred and twenty-seven. Seven twenty-five to 32,727. For those of you who, like me, are mathematically challenged, that’s a 4,000 percent increase. Four thousand percent. So how are we doing on our endless war?
President Obama came into office with a vow to end the shooting wars. As I mentioned earlier, he has not succeeded in doing that. We can talk about, perhaps, in the question period, why he has not been able to do that. But he has failed. He set up another system, another kind of war, which goes by the name, within the administration, of the light footprint.
What is the light footprint? Use of JSOC, Joint Special Operations Command forces. They have, during the war on terror, increased from 35,000 to 70,000. They are launching raids, very often assassination raids, around the world, but especially in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Syria, Somalia, Libya.
Secondly, drone warfare. Drone warfare, under Obama, has flourished. It was used relatively reluctantly—reluctantly isn’t quite the right word, but by the Bush Administration it was not used very much, once ever 43 days a drone attack. Under President Obama, once every four days. And as I mentioned, perhaps, we don’t have figures on this, perhaps 4,000 people have died.
How many of those were civilians, how many of those were actually combatants, and how were those combatancies defined? We honestly don’t know that. We have lots of estimates, but in fact our government takes it upon itself, through a secret process, to decide to kill thousands of people under criteria that we do not know, that they are not telling us, and that they, in fact, deny.
Which is to say that the drone program is a part of what I’ve called, in my writing, public secrecy. You ask about it, they say we don’t do that. It’s like torture. No, we don’t do that. Off the record, oh yeah, we do that. Even the President himself will acknowledge it, but it will remain off the record and secret. I think this itself is a fairly grave danger to democracy, this institutionalized system of public secrecy.
By public secrecy I mean the government is doing something, they’re capturing somebody, they’re torturing somebody, they’re flying drones, they’re killing various people. Everybody knows it. Government officials acknowledge it off the record. People go and report on it. But officially, it’s not happening.
I mean, there’s a sense, whenever I think of this public secrecy, I think of habeas corpus, of the basic idea of English, of the Anglo-American tradition—not the basic idea, but one of the basic ideas of Anglo-American legal tradition that you cannot imprison somebody secretly without being made to bring them before a judge. And the United States has in fact, as a matter of policy, undermined that basic principle for the last decade and a half, nearly. And it’s in some ways the most threatening of all the things I’m describing.
So we have an enormous number of drone attacks. They are continuing. There is no sign that they’ll go away. And basically, people are not bothered by them. I mean, the light footprint, in a sense, is a kind of political miracle. After all, no Americans are at risk. The people who are flying the drones are sitting in a trailer north of Las Vegas. So no Americans are going to be killed.
The people who are killed are on the other side of the world, and if you happen to kill, for every one person you kill who may be threatening the United States—by the way, the criterion for killing somebody is that there is a continual imminent threat of attack. The lawyers in the room should pay attention to that terminology—continual imminent threat. Continual imminent threat. Those words would seem to contradict one another. Can there be a continual imminent threat? Now the lawyers in the administration are talking about elongated imminence. I like being able to say that in this room. Elongated imminence.
So we can talk about problems with this policy from a human rights standpoint. I’ve alluded to them rather lavishly here. But I’d like to make the point that this policy has been counterproductive. That in the cause—and this is a generous interpretation—of heading off what might be imminent attacks, it is spreading the ideology of the groups that the United States is supposedly trying to extirpate.
The figures on that are absolutely clear. The number of groups has dramatically increased. I can give you, again, some statistics. According to a Rand study, between 2010 and 2013, the number of Salafi jihadi groups grew by 58%, and the number of jihadis more than doubled.
I mean, I have some—I should add here that I have…I don’t think the people who are doing this are evil people. I don’t think President Obama is an evil person. I think he has adopted a policy in the cause, he thinks, of preventing attacks, a policy that he thinks is politically palatable. But the fact is that in the cause, supposedly, of preventing imminent attacks, the war itself has become a perpetual motion machine. That is, the war’s main production is terrorists. And the statistics are very clear on this. The war’s main product is terrorists.
Its second main product is fear. And this is the final broad point I’ll make, which is that we are imprisoned when it comes to the war on terror and when it comes to the state of exception by the politics of fear. The United States, its media, corporations, its political commentators, its politicians is like a fine-tuned instrument upon which the terrorists play.
When President Obama had been in office ten days, the former Vice President, in an absolutely unprecedented move, made a public statement about his policies. This was after President Obama announced, if you’ll remember this, that he was going to close Guantanamo within a year. Former Vice President Dick Cheney got on television and said,
“When we get people who are more concerned about reading the rights to an Al Qaeda terrorist than they are with protecting the United States against people who are absolutely committed to do anything they can to kill Americans, then I worry. These are evil people, and we’re not going to win this fight by turning the other cheek. If it hadn’t been for what we did with respect to enhanced interrogation techniques, then we would have been attacked again. These policies we put in place were absolutely crucial to getting us through the last seven plus years without a major casualty attack on the U.S.”
A couple weeks later, again on television, he talked about his worry of a
“9/11 type event where the terrorists are armed with something much more dangerous than an airline ticket and a box cutter, a nuclear weapon or a biological agent of some kind. That’s the one that would involve the deaths of perhaps hundreds of thousands of people, and the one you have to spend a hell of a lot of time guarding against. I think there’s a high probability of such an attempt. Whether or not they can pull it off depends on whether we keep in place policies that have allowed us to defeat all further attempts since 9/11 to launch mass casualty attacks against the U.S.”
And he added,
“If you release the hardcore Al Qaeda prisoners, terrorists that are held at Guantanamo, I think they get back into the business of trying to kill more Americans and mount further mass casualty attacks. If you turn them loose and they go kill more Americans, who’s responsible for that?”
Who’s responsible for that? The Vice President is only the most dramatic person who engages, with great fruitfulness, in the technique of what might be called terrorism baiting, a reference, obviously, to red baiting. But our politics have become balanced precariously on this drama of fear, in which one political party knows that if it suffers an attack on American soil under its administration, that that attack might politically destroy it, and especially the Democratic Party is aware of that, and Barack Obama is aware of it, and Hillary Clinton I think is aware of it.
And we are in a situation now in which the politics of fear in fact is coexisting with the terrorist strategy of provocation. Terrorists—I should add one other term here before I finish—like to engage in, or like to create an escalatory spiral. This is what they did in 9/11. It’s what they do in Iraq. It’s what they have been doing in Iraq with their playing on Iraqi, politics, on sectarian politics. I’m going to quote Michael Ignatieff about an escalatory spiral. He’s stalking about terrorist attacks.
“Success depends less on the initial attack than on instigating an escalatory spiral controlled not by the forces of order”—that would be the United States—“but by the terrorists themselves. If terrorists can successful draw democracies into the spiral and control its upward acceleration, they’ll begin to dictate the terms of the encounter.
Success becomes a matter of inflicting losses, enduring harms, and gambling that the enemy has less endurance than they do. Since the state will always be too strong for a cell of individuals to defeat in open battle, it, that is, the state, must defeat itself. If terrorists can provoke the state into atrocity, this will begin to erode the willingness of a democratic public to continue the fight.”
It seems to me that the United States is caught in this kind of escalatory spiral at the moment. The main enabler of it is what I’ve called the politics of fear. That is, you know, I quoted to you a few minutes ago the numbers of terrorist attacks around the world last year. It’s almost 33,000. I’m sorry, that’s not attacks, that’s number of dead.
How many, do you think, of those dead were Americans? Anybody want to guess? Twenty-four. Now, those 24 families, those were horrible, horrible tragedies. But the fact remains that the number who died, Americans who died in terrorist attacks last year was fewer than the number of Americans who died in lightning strikes.
So think of this for a minute, that the United States, dominated by the politics of fear, is running a foreign policy that essentially is sowing creative instability, as the Republicans call it, throughout the Middle East and South Asia, increasing the number of terrorist groups, increasing the number of terrorist attacks, and perpetuating what I’ve called the state of exception, which has, as its hallmark, indefinite detention—which is to say imprisonment without trial, extrajudicial killing, warrantless wiretapping, and, I would argue, torture, although torture, so far as we know, is not being performed at present.
But it has not been punished and has gone from being an anathema to being a policy choice. And all of this to face a threat that is killing, actually, a very small number of Americans. This is a kind of paradox with which I think we must try to cope, one way or another, and perhaps we can talk about that a little bit in the question and answer period.
What can we do? I’m sort of feeling the burden of Sissy’s introduction. You know, only Sissy, I mean, introductions, you’re supposed to kind of praise the person. Only Sissy leaves you with these huge questions lying, you know, and the whole time I’ve been talking I’ve thought I have to get to Sissy’s questions at the end of this talk. What should we do? What can we do?
I think the direction of what we should be doing is clear. One is trying to redefine and specify U.S. interests. I think our attitude toward various zones of imperial interest has become more and more detached from reality. The Middle East is one of those. We still seem to be performing in the Middle East like an imperial power threatened by the Russians, for example.
The Middle East is actually a zone of activity which is not very important to us economically. Yes, they have a great deal of oil, but that oil will be sold no matter who is in power. A year ago, in June, 2014, the Islamic State staged a ceremony called the breaking of the borders. They got these bulldozers and they smashed the border between Iraq and Syria. Their idea is to create a caliphate where the old colonial borders will no longer exist.
And I think in fact the imperial order in the Middle East is crumbling, partly as a result of the Islamic State, but partly as a result of a number of other factors. And the question is, to what degree does this threaten the United States and the American people? And I think it’s time that we ask that question, while keeping an open mind as to the answer. To what degree does this really threaten the United States and the American people, and to what degree are our present government’s actions in the Middle East driven by the politics of fear?
We have to do something. They cut the heads off a couple of American journalists. We have to bomb them. We have to start a war to degrade and destroy the Islamic State. Said war has now, at the time, doubled their recruiting. The best thing that ever happened to them is that the United States started bombing them—relatively ineffectually. But where the effect has been strongest has been multiplying the number of recruits, in particular, foreign fighters who are coming to the Islamic State.
So the first thing is to redefine American interests, particularly in the Middle East. I think Obama perhaps has the intellectual equipment to do that, but the political forces on him have been very great. I don’t mean to be an apologist here. I think it shows what, indeed, a President can do and cannot do when he takes office. And that again is a matter of discussion that perhaps we can expand.
We need to find a true end to torture. I’ve been a supporter in the past of some kind of truth commission. I do not think that the people who engaged in this activity under color of law should necessarily be prosecuted or imprisoned. I’m sympathetic to the arguments of people who say, well, you know what, they had documents from the Justice Department which assured them that it was legal. That’s true. That’s true.
But I think there needs to be an affirmation by the government that this was wrong and this was illegal, and that affirmation could take a number of forms, but it needs to be a political affirmation that will help educate the citizenry and make it impossible for the opposition party at present, the opposition party to the White House, to advocate torture as its public position.
We need, obviously, to close Gitmo. What does that mean? It means accepting that the 40 or 45 prisoners in Gitmo who it has been determined can neither be tried nor released probably have to be released. There is rehabilitation. There are a number of things you can do. One thing you cannot do is keep them in prison for life without trial.
And we have to find our way to an end to the state of exception and return to the status quo ante, which is the definition of the end of state of exception. We have to find our way to that, and that is getting off, as President Obama has said, from a perpetual war footing. It means repealing the authorization for the use of military force and going back to the President’s Article 2 powers of self-defense.
If, indeed, we should be engaged in a war against the Islamic State, then Congress should vote him an authorization for the use of military force that gives him permission to fight that war. Congress has not done this. It’s as much Congress’s fault as the administration’s. But what we can’t do is continue an endless war based on an authorization for the use of military force that was voted and signed 14 years ago and that doesn’t include most of the current enemies that we’re fighting against. That’s wrong. It’s wrong.
Finally, I think we have to close the gap between who we are and who we like to think we are. President Obama likes to say—it’s one of his favorite phrases—it’s not who we are. Torture—it’s not who we are. Indefinite detention, Gitmo—it’s not who we are. Whenever I hear this, I think it’s not who we are, and yet it’s what we did. How is that possible? It’s not who we are and yet it’s what we did.
Some while ago, on “The Daily Show”—I can’t get through this without quoting the “The Daily Show”—Rob Corddry said, you know, to the countries in the Middle East—this was during Abu Ghraib—“Don’t judge us by our actions, judge us by our abstract notions. Judge us by our ideals. Just because we did torture prisoners doesn’t mean we would torture them.” Just because we did torture prisoners doesn’t mean we would torture them.
I think this is brilliant, and it exemplifies a line of thinking that’s prevalent in what is called American exceptionalism. We have to somehow close this gap between who we are and who we like to think we are. That, perhaps, will be a beginning of renewal, a beginning of a thaw to frozen scandal, eliminating the distance between our aspirations and our actions.
I should say that Sissy has stood for doing just that all her life, and I am proud to offer these words, however depressing they might be, in her honor, so thank you very much. [Applause.]
I am very happy to—I realize what I’ve said probably won’t provoke any questions of any kind, but I am very happy to talk about what I’ve just said or anything you’d like to talk about, for that matter. Yes?
Female: As a scholar, what do you make of the use of the WTO courts and [we], through corporate interests into lawmaking at an international level and also in U.S. policy? Has that affected or created more prevalence of the use of enhanced interrogation? Has that changed the way we see U.S. interests at all?
Danner: I may be misunderstanding, but the WTO in its relation to enhanced interrogation?
Female: The WTO has been considered the security enhancing organization—
Danner: I’m sorry, do you want to…?
Female: Hi, thank you.
Danner: Maybe you can repeat it again so everybody can hear.
Female: The question is what do you think of the use of the WTO courts as a security enhancing and sort of an investment between countries? Has that affected the use of torture? And as a scholar, have you uncovered any research to that?
Danner: I’m sorry, I have to plead ignorance on that. I really don’t know anything about the security instruments of the WTO. I’m embarrassed I don’t, but I don’t.
Female: The UN has declared the use of, I guess you’d call it, corporate security as a form of diplomacy, just like NGOs and just like a government organization that works through the UN. They’re now trying court cases, and I just thought maybe there was some research that you might have uncovered about the use of corporate interests somehow, like the 99 year leases after Iraq was invaded that were given to the different—Target and so on and so forth.
Danner: Well, of course a number of the torturers in Iraq belong to private contractors, private military contractors, and this has been known almost since the beginning, a number of corporations. And usually these are ex-security officials, usually ex-military, more often ex-intelligence sector, so this is becoming more and more prevalent that many of the intelligence professionals who were doing what I was describing technically belong to private contractors.
Snowden was, of course. It’s a way for the governmental sector to take its favorite officials and give them much higher salaries, in effect, and it takes them out of the realm of government accountability. It also takes them out of the whistleblower statute which, as you know, plays very much into the Snowden story. But I’m sorry not to be able to offer a more specific answer to your question about security, but I certainly will find out about it.
Female: Thank you. Thank you very much. Enjoyed your talk. Thank you for taking my question.
Female: I wonder if you would address the American media’s role or influence in the kind of post 9/11 new normal on torture, where torture has become, as you said, a policy choice, and where we kind of maybe kept the word torture, but threw out the dictionary, and what used to be torture is now referred to as enhanced interrogation.
Danner: Well, that’s a very good question. You know, I’m a member of the American media, and I wish I could say that my colleagues and the institutions for which I work, on many occasions, had done themselves proud. As you know, the word torture has not been used, until very recently, by the New York Times and other leading papers, who would actually describe, in their pages, waterboarding used by other countries as torture at the same time as waterboarding used by the United States was called enhanced interrogation. It was a remarkable phenomenon. And they are still doing it.
On the other hand, it is impossible to claim that the politics of torture are a result of a lack of coverage in the press. And that is one of the conundrums and one of the painful conundrums of the current situation, that the story of waterboarding, for example, was first in the New York Times in May, 2004, waterboarding. Torture itself was first on the front page of the Washington Post on December 26, 2002. A couple of months later it was on the front page of the New York Times. And it’s been covered extensively ever since. So it isn’t as if this has been covered up.
And I talk about public secrecy. When Abu Zubaydah, who was the first prisoner who was tortured using the suite of techniques that the CIA developed, the 11 techniques, when he was first taken to a black site, there was a tug of war between the FBI and the CIA about who would interrogate him and what techniques would be used. And you had these articles appearing the press, notably in Newsweek, you know, Abu Zubaydah giving up information. Well, no, he’s not giving up that much information. You can point to the blind quotes in the pieces which came from the CIA, which came from the FBI.
And they were actually fighting about the body of this guy through the press, and he was in a black site, and the U.S. officially was claiming it did not have custody of him. Oh, Abu Zubaydah, we don’t know where he is. And then the President, at a fundraiser, said publicly, and it was reported, I think, in the New York Times, Abu Zubaydah, we captured him the other day, he’s where he should be now. This is the President of the United States, and officially we do not have him.
So the press has continued to walk this strange line in which, you know, for the Times to use the word torture—I mean, I worked at the Times. I think I understand how they think about this, which is that, you know, a lot of people say it’s torture, waterboarding, it seems like torture, but the administration lawyers have decided it’s not torture under the statutes. And indeed, they did.
You can be cynical about their decision, and I recommend to everyone here, particularly the fledgling lawyers, to read the book The Torture Memos, which has these memos. If it were in my power, every law school in the country would teach those memos. It’s a fascinating problem. John Yoo was a young law school professor who went in and wrote them in the administration, and people should read them.
But I understand where the New York Times found itself, which is, well, are we going to simply call it torture and assume that we know what’s torture when they claim that they had legal officials, legal officers in the government make a study of this and decide it wasn’t torture? What do we do?
Having said that, I don’t agree with their decision. If I was in an editorial capacity there, I would have called it torture, particularly since they had called it that before in their history. So I think it’s very mixed. The Times has done great, and the Washington Post has done great reporting on drone warfare. They’ve leaked memos, they’ve gotten a lot of good stuff. It’s in the news. It’s being reported. So I have mixed feelings about it.
I’d like to be one of those who just blames the press, because it’s a much easier answer. Because it allows you—I think this is an important point to make—there is a basic liberal belief about disclosure. The liberal belief about disclosure is this: secrecy makes bad things possible. This is the media belief, too. If you expose it, it will be fixed. Why will it be fixed? Because the public will hear about it and it will insist it be fixed.
So the assumption underlying that is a liberal, positive view of what the public… I mean, it’s a positive view about the public itself. And the problem is that that view has not been borne out. I mean, obviously that’s a very simplistic way to put it. We can talk about who reads the paper, you know, there are a lot of discussions you could have.
But I think underlying critiques that come up a lot that say, well, you know, the New York Times ignores this has to do with this basic conviction that if this stuff was really given the play it should be given, the public would rise up and demand it end. And the fact is—and I say this with grave sadness, with sadness—that the public has not shown itself to be outraged by drone warfare, it has not shown itself to be outraged by torture. It’s shown itself to be afraid.
And fear, I often say this, is the most lucrative political emotion. I mean, there is a reason that red baiting was so effective. There’s a reason that torture baiting is effective. Fear is effective. It gets people where they live. And when you see an attack that killed 3,000 in broad daylight, suicide people on airplanes, you know, the shock of 9/11 was profound. Was profound. Nothing like it had ever happened before. And I think there is a resonant aura of fear that continues.
At the same time, I’ve been fascinated the past few days about the discussion that Donald Trump has provoked, in his savage and cruel way, from Jeb Bush about his brother’s responsibility for 9/11 by simply saying something that’s a fact, which is 9/11 happened on his watch. And the Republican Party’s sacred belief that you can’t say this has been ruptured, and I think that’s a very good thing in the American polity, that finally we can say, no, actually, 9/11, you know, George Bush was President, actually.
I mean, it’s a fascinating… I write about this in my forthcoming book, that it’s fascinating the way that the Republican ideology about the war on terror has essentially relegated the 9/11 attacks to Democratic responsibility because the war on terror didn’t begin until after the attack, so it’s the responsibility of Democrats.
So you actually get people like Rudy Giuliani saying there were no attacks, no successful terrorist attacks under George Bush. I mean, he said this with a straight face. And you think, really, there were none? I seem to remember… But he’s not the only one to say this. Anyway, I’m sorry, I’ve gone very far afield from your question. Other questions?
Male: Well, the second day after Obama was elected the first time, he nominated William Lynn, the main lobbyist for Raytheon, as assistant secretary at the Pentagon, and their profits have increased ever since. I think that might be a factor.
Danner: I think the revolving door, as it’s called in Washington, has only spun more quickly and much more lucratively, to mix my metaphors, since September 11th. The defense budget has nearly doubled. The intelligence budget, some people say the total intelligence budget has quintupled. It’s hard to get figures on that, but it’s gone up dramatically.
There was a great series in the Washington Post about the terror industry, the national security industry, that detailed the extent of this, the fantastic amounts of money. I mean, it’s well known that the richest counties in the United States are now around Washington, D.C. I mean, this is a fantastic amount of money in this. So I think it’s very good business. I think there’s no question about it. I think it’s not…this is on the lines of increasing the inertial force, not on beginning it.
But I think that, you know, I didn’t mention in my talk the Cold War, but there is very much, a great similarity, and the Defense Science Board did a report on this, a government agency, or think tank, comparing the war on terror to the Cold War, to the fact that you had these bureaucracies that were set up in the late 1940s and were about the continuation of a wartime footing during peacetime, basically, and that the war on terror essentially got the whole machinery going again after a hiatus of essentially ten years, mostly during the George H.W. Bush and the Clinton administrations. And I think there’s a lot of truth to that.
There’s a lot of money to be made. Snowden is an example of that, of a guy who started off working for the CIA and then he became a private contractor. Why? Because he made a hell of a lot of money, had a great job. And there are tens of thousands of these jobs in the security realm. So I think you make a good point. I think it’s a reason for its perpetuation.
A lot of this money goes into—I mean, we have a system, our democratic system in this country, after Citizen United, in particular—Sissy and I were talking about this before—is just gargantuanly corrupt. It’s just incredible. It’s what used to be called honest graft. It doesn’t have to be below the table.
If you’re Ted Cruz and you have a couple of millionaires who can support you, you’re going to do well. Or billionaires, sorry. Millionaires—what’s millionaires nowadays? But we have a system, our system is enormously corrupt, and it’s right in front of us, and a lot of this money finds its way back into the reelection campaigns of people on the relevant committees. I mean, all of this is…it’s not a scandal. It’s just daily life in Washington.
There’s a wonderful book called This Town by Mark Leibovich that I’d recommend which talks about this. And you can talk about it, as I am, as if, well, this is daily life in Washington, and it is, but it’s got tremendously worse during the period of the war on terror, there’s no question about that. The amounts of money, the spreading sort of agencies of national security and the contractor system has gotten dramatically worse during that period, that’s absolutely true.
Male: Along that line, I think sort of where is the end game. And I was thinking about a conversation 30 years ago with a congressional member who was also a Sunday School teacher of mine, who almost in a moment of confession said, you know, it is a military industrial complex.
He said you poverty lobbyists need to really understand that, that there’s an ecumenicity to this, that no matter what party you go into, you’ll see Grumman, you’ll see Boeing, VFW. These are the plaques on the walls of your elected officials. So I was in Oregon for 18 years. That’s not really a war state. And yet the fight for drone contracts was amazing, under the guise of firefighting. So I kind of appreciate your talk.
You know, semantics are very important. As a journalist and English professor, you know that. But it just sort of, you know, with what you’re talking about tonight, some of the questions, where does this end, this perpetuation? You gave three things. But this whole thing on the money and the military industrial complex, I think Eisenhower even pointed out the track we were on. Where does it end? And then the other part, as citizens, what, you know, you feel kind of helpless, to be frank, other than little minutia points. I don’t know if that’s my confession, but any thoughts on that?
Danner: Well, it’s a very big question. And I can’t tell you where it will end. But I think I can suggest—and I tried to, at the end, some of the way it can begin to end. Because that’s all we can do, is begin to end it. I think the McCain-Feinstein amendment I mentioned, if it actually gets into law, I think that’s the beginning of an end, even though, as I said, there’s something very paradoxical about the fact that you’re passing another law on top of the laws that already exist and saying no, this time we really mean, it, it’s illegal. We really mean it.
I think a truth commission would be the beginning of an end. I think the pushback when it comes to the fighting against the Islamic State is the beginning of an end. I think there is not an appetite in this country for fighting another war in the Middle East.
And I think that, you know, it worries me that Hillary Clinton, one of her campaign talking points is that she was pushing for involvement in Syria, and Obama was the only one, apparently, of his major national security officials who pushed back. And because he’s the President, we didn’t get involved, at least in the way that she wanted to. But I think in pushing back that way, he read the mood of the country.
So I think the problem is that he has designed a system, as I tried to describe, that’s politically palatable because it’s mostly under the radar. On the other hand, life is long, politics change. You can see it happening right now in the Democratic Party. There is not much of a discussion of foreign policy in the Democratic Party.
It is possible, if Bernie Sanders would start to focus a little bit on foreign policy, I think that’s a lucrative area for him to explore politically. It’s kind of the ground that people hoped Rand Paul might plow a little bit. That is, you know, anti foreign involvement. I think if we had more of that represented among our political representatives, because the sentiment certainly exists.
The fact is it’s not represented. And if we started to have more of it, if Sanders, for example, would become an exponent, it probably wouldn’t help him win the nomination. I don’t think he will win the nomination. But it would express, it would be a good thing to have that opinion expressed more forthrightly.
But I wish I could tell you how it would end. I think that one of the interesting things about Obama is it’s clearly in him somewhere, the belief that this has to end, because he has said it, he’s talked about it. He’s given a number of fairly prominent speeches where he’s said we have to get off our permanent war footing. This war, like all wars, must end. Perpetual war must end. I mean, he’s said these things, he’s sprinkled them through his public remarks, even as it’s kept going.
And I felt for him when he announced the Afghanistan, the fact that he wasn’t going to end it. I understood why he made the decision he did, but at a certain point one has to admit that you’re not going to remake Afghanistan, you know, these things are myths. What we’re doing in Afghanistan is a myth. The Taliban is a large part of Afghanistan, and they’re going to be part of the ruling structure there. And we don’t want to admit it. And parting with those myths might be hard for Obama, but it’s a lot harder for the military leadership, I think. So it will be passed on.
But I was going to say that the fact that he’s expressing these things I think is important. And politics is long. Am I right? You know, you can’t make your signpost how does it end. You have to make the signpost how do I begin to end it. Because things happen incrementally.
And I think there’s also the fact that Americans get tired of these things, and they get tired of being lied to. I mean, the Iraq war, you know, Obama is in office because of that. I mean, there’s just no way he ever could conceivably have been elected without the Iraq war and the fact of people’s anger about the Iraq war.
Has he done everything he said? He certainly hasn’t. Has he been, to some degree, coopted by the very forces he ran against? Yes, he has. But has he done some things? Yes. I mean, one way you can start to make a beginning to the end is elect somebody to succeed him that’s not going to go in the other direction.
I hate to—that seems like such a mild answer. And as I say, I have Sissy’s admonition over my head about giving us a real answer, and I wish I could do better on that.
Male: As a visiting U.K. academic and former politician, can I thank both Sissy and Mark for this evening? It’s been a real sense of reality, if you like, in terms of what’s happening in America at the moment, and thank you very much.
My question is really about the situation on Guantanamo Bay. From the media in the U.K. and from my knowledge as a former U.K. member of parliament, member of government, Obama has very much tried to close down Guantanamo Bay, and he’s been blocked by the Congress, who’s been unwilling to move any of the people there into mainland U.S. prisons, and for them to undergo the courts of law in the United States.
And is this the situation? Because you seem to hint that he really wasn’t serious about closing Guantanamo Bay because, as I say, we, from the European point of view, think that Obama has been a very good thing over these last six years, and has moved to end this continual war.
Danner: Thank you for your question. I didn’t mean to hint that he wasn’t serious. I did mean to hint that he wasn’t serious enough. Because at a certain point in the first year, you know, he pledged his second full day in office that he would close it within a year. At a certain point, he got resistance from Congress, one congressman in particular, actually, to this very issue, the issue of moving some of its detainees into American prisons, and some of them, actually releasing them into the American population.
He got pushback from a congressman from Northern Virginia. It had to do with the Uyghurs. There are these Uyghurs, Chinese prisoners, Chinese Muslim prisoners who were in Guantanamo who just had no business being there. I mean, it was ridi—there were a lot of people who had no business being there. It was just, you know, Guantanamo is an incredible mess. Incredible mess.
And he got this pushback. No-no-no, we’re not—this particular Representative Wolf attacked him on the House floor, saying we’re not going to accept these people, mostly because they hadn’t told him ahead of time. He needed to have been persuaded before it leaked publicly. It’s a long story. But at that point he didn’t push back. They had other priorities, which, you know, presidents have a lot of priorities, and this was not the big priority.
But in fact, looking back on it, that was the key moment, I think. It was the key moment. And within a few months the Senate was passing a bill saying no terrorists in our neighborhoods, you’re not bringing anybody to the mainland U.S. Now it is true that he’s been balked by the Congress from the beginning.
On the other hand, McCain is now head of the Senate Armed Services Committee. McCain wants to close it, has publicly, it was part of McCain’s campaign in 2008 to close Guantanamo. So it’s possible—possible, it’s probably doubtful, but it’s possible a deal could happen. I don’t think he’s been aggressive enough.
Right now I think there are 116, I think that’s right, 115 prisoners still there, and I think something on the order of 60 or so have already been cleared for release. And they have been languishing there for years after having been cleared for release. And I think Obama has not been near aggressive enough in pushing—I mean, the Defense Department has statutory responsibility to sign off on their release. It’s rather complicated.
But it has been a continual issue between the White House and the Defense Department. It was one of the things that led to the departure of the former Secretary of Defense. The defense secretaries, and now the current Secretary of Defense, have been reluctant to release them. They’re afraid that essentially they’ll end up back on the battlefield, quote, unquote, and they’ll be embarrassed. I mean, it’s again more complicated that that, it always is. But the President has statutory power to push these things through, and I think, in my opinion, he has to be a lot more aggressive in doing that.
I also think, as I suggested in my remarks, that it’s part of being grown up here that some of these people—you know, this category of they can neither be tried nor released is not a tenable category. You can’t keep people…you either have to try them, even in the military commissions process, which he vowed, of course, to eliminate and then kept. They have to somehow be…there needs to be a judgment. And I think it’s just not tenable to keep them indefinitely.
So I don’t want to be taken to have said he’s not serious. I think he’s very serious. It’s clearly close to his heart. But the question is, on things like this, is he serious enough? I mean, is he willing to sacrifice other things he wants to get on the single-minded, and to many, thankless task of closing Guantanamo?
I mean, when push came to shove in 2009, I think it was, well, do we really want to sacrifice healthcare reform to Guantanamo? What the hell for? Why? And you understand that political way of thinking. But I think it’s still close to his heart. I think he wants to do it. And we really need to do it. It really needs to be done. So anyway, thank you.
Male: Hi, Mr. Danner.
Danner: Hi, Scott.
Male: I’m delighted that you agreed to accept this invitation for this inaugural lecture, and I count myself among your fans. But I want to challenge your thinking on something I’ve heard you say, and that is how do you pass a prohibition against something that’s already illegal, torture. And I agree with that point.
But I think that Senator McCain’s approach to pass this law is the first step to doing it because if all you do is say well, you can’t do it anymore, or you can’t do it, you don’t pass a law, but you just say an affirmation, as I think I heard you say, so we’re not going to do it anymore until we do it again. And it was illegal, so it seems to me you have to reaffirm by establishing a law that will provide accountability. The only way I think that you can stop it is if there is accountability.
And personally, I think there should be accountability for what happened. I respect the approach of a truth commission and conciliation and so forth, but I view it as a salve. And I think it’s too moderate of an approach. Now obviously accountability will necessarily involve controversy and a lot of pain. But unless there is a single-minded determination to prevent it in the future by establishing accountability now for what has gone on, I don’t think there’s any way to really assure ourselves that it won’t happen again.
I agree that the Department of Justice gave everyone license to do these things, and it began with John Yoo. And I think you start the accountability with John Yoo and the people around him, because all he did was distort the law, and really just prostitute it for their own purposes. And so I recognize and I respect your point of view about this, but I’d like to hear your thoughts about my point of view on this.
Danner: Absolutely. Thank you. You’re very eloquent on that, Scott. First of all, I’m all for accountability. For example, the McCain-Feinstein amendment, which I support, which I certainly support—I don’t want to imply that I don’t support it, I do. I was simply trying to say that, in effect, even as it would be a victory, it’s a defeat, too, that you need it.
But one way to have accountability would be to have, within that amendment, a change to the war crimes statute which takes out the provisions that were put in during the military…in the Military Commissions Act which essentially gives everyone involved in torture during the Bush Administration a free ride. It says you can’t prosecute them. That’s in the law now. It’s in the War Crimes Act. That shouldn’t be there. What’s that doing there? So that would be a way to start on the road to accountability.
I think accountability is very important. What I was questioning—and I question it because I honestly don’t know the answer, it’s something that troubles me—is what would be justice when it comes to the interrogator in one of the black sites who was involved in waterboarding a prisoner, the interrogator who was told that the Department of Justice has signed off on this procedure as legal?
You know, that strikes me as a problem, because in fact it went through the proper channels, the OLC, Office of Legal Counsel in the Justice Department studied it. It wasn’t just John Yoo, who’s a colleague of mine on the faculty at Berkeley, recently promoted. It wasn’t just John Yoo who signed off on it, it was his superiors, one of whom put his signature on it, and who is now a federal judge in the 9th Circuit. What would be accountability when it comes to John Yoo?
The Office of Professional Responsibility in the Department of Justice said, in an interim report, that the information about John Yoo should go to the Pennsylvania bar, which is where John Yoo is a lawyer, in Pennsylvania. And I thought, well, that’s a good idea, the bar association. They should look at this. Unfortunately, by the time the final report came out, that was changed. The political level changed it.
I guess what I’m trying to say is I think accountability is important, but so is justice, and trying to make that balance I think is hard. And I think, at the end of the day, it pales in importance with a return to legality, and I think a return to legality does not necessarily involve people who waterboarded under color of law going to prison. That’s what I meant to say.
You know, we get back to David’s question about how does this end. The fact is we have an intelligence establishment now that is immensely powerful. I mean, I’m not being a conspiracy theorist here. It’s right in front of us. There’s nothing secret about it. It’s immensely powerful.
I think President Obama made a decision fairly early on—it might not have been an explicit one, but in effect that his administration could not be successful if he was going to be perceived to have declared war on the CIA. That in effect—and I think the final decision on this, or the final appreciation of this happened after the thwarting of the underwear bomber, Abdulmutallab, on Christmas Day 2009.
I think there was a realization that if that attack had succeeded, his administration would have been destroyed, that he would have been a one term President. This is just my inference. But I think this simple fact, that he knew that his administration was dependent, to some degree, on the intelligence agencies, and that further, ending the shooting wars, as he had vowed to do, and starting a light footprint approach, which he in fact did to replace them, was dependent on the intelligence agencies. Those two realizations led us to what happened.
I think he would probably like accountability, too. But the question is how do you get it? And I think it’s never, at least in visible view to me, going to be politically possible, and possibly it’s never going to be just, to actually try people who did these things and put them in jail.
And I furthermore don’t think that it’s—I have doubts about its justice, as I just said. I have doubts. I wouldn’t be out there protesting against it, but I have doubts about its justice. And I also have doubts about whether that’s crucial, whether that’s what you need to do. I think it would be enough, perhaps, that cases were brought. I don’t know. I’m not sure. But I don’t think they need to go to jail. So that’s really what I was saying. But thank you for your question, which was very eloquent, I thought.
Male: Put the intellectual authors in jail.
Danner: I’m sorry?
Male: The intellectual authors in jail.
Danner: Why not put the intellectual authors in jail? Well, that would be, Richard, be Cheney and a number of other people at the top of the administration, and George W. Bush, of course, as well. I think that would be very hard. I think the U.S. has no history of doing that. And there is a problem with putting former Presidents in jail because of policies that they enacted.
Male: It’s hard to understand. It just reminds me of Abu Ghraib and that [the lower level] people were [tried.]
Danner: Well, I think that’s true. I think it’s very true that Abu Ghraib—it is true that at Abu Ghraib a handful of lower level soldiers went to jail. And there was a very clear line of people who had ordered these things, and people who were responsible. And some careers were ruined at the officer level, but people were not punished as they should have been. I absolutely agree.
And for those of you who want to study the way a government bureaucracy deals with something like that, it’s fascinating. The Defense Department, one way or another, came up with, I think it was, 12 reports. None of them treated the problem from bottom to top. I mean, it was brilliant. If you look at how it was dealt with, again in clear sight. These things are not carried out in secret. It’s not what happens in secret that’s worrying, it’s what happens in front of us. And Abu Ghraib is a great example of that. A great example of that.
I mean, also one could say it was a political crime, that this was an enormous help to the insurgency. I mean, I was in Iraq when this came out, or just before it came out, after it came out, and there were murals of those pictures on the street. And Cheney has made fun of Obama saying this is a recruitment tool. He’s says it’s Obama’s recruitment tool theory of torture. It is a recruitment tool.
You imagine, if your ideology is the U.S. is repressing Muslims, the U.S. is repressing Muslims throughout the world, the U.S., through its apostate puppets like Mubarak at the time, the House of Saud, is repressing Muslims, it’s about Muslim dictatorships that the U.S. behind, what better image could you want than a naked Arab man lying on the ground, his face contorted in pain, with a dog collar on his throat and a leash coming up in the hands of a female American soldier? I mean, it’s a poster. You’re emasculating Arab men, the Americans are coming in and destroying Arab culture. I mean, it’s a poster for the whole ideology, and it functioned as such. Do you want to have one more, or…?
Engle: Why don’t we…I saw quite a few hands up and they’ve been up for a while, so why don’t we listen to the questions and then let you have one quick final—
Danner: Okay, we’ll do it quick, sure.
Engle: So I think there were three hands up, and we’ll just take those three and then…
Male: I have a personal stake in my business to see you tonight. I’ve been following you for over 20 years. Thank you for helping in my catharsis. The question of the gentleman before me was about the end game, when does it end. Forty-eight years ago, in 1967, I was a young Marine in Vietnam, and I was assigned to the Third Military Police Battalion. We were in a place called [Tubai] at a provisional interrogation center that was part of [unintelligible] program, and I witnessed my first waterboarding. At the time it was called water [unintelligible].
And I went from witnessing to participating in it, and from there progressed to participating in behavior—I’ll give you one example. What do you do when you fly out two Hueys to pick up POWs and there’s 11 more than can fit in the birds? Can’t leave them in the field, can’t take them with you, you kill them. If the gunnery sergeant tells a private or a PFC do your job, you do it.
So I’m thinking in the context of accountability. Who’s going to hold me accountable for what I’ve done? And in the context of the end game, the end game for me is when I draw my last breath and I don’t have to deal with that anymore, because I’ve been punishing myself for 48 years.
So in answer to the question from the gentleman in back, when you can get a 19 or a 20-year-old to not do things like I did, and things like happened at Abu Ghraib, it won’t make any difference what John Yoo or George Bush say, it’ll make a difference when that young man can say no, I’m not going to do that. But there was tremendous pressure on me to do what I did.
And I’ve never known what to do about it. My mother died on December 3rd of last year. I went from Austin to Tacoma, but I never got past San Francisco because on the ninth, when the torture report was released, I collapsed. I couldn’t go any farther. I stayed at a resort in Guerneville up on the Russian River in a dark room for three days, so I never made it to my mom’s funeral, never was able to face the militaristic family that I grew up in.
And I would like to thank you for your excellent reporting and your work, and to remind people that this is happening today, and it’s been part of who we’ve been. So I’ve been hearing my heart beating for about an hour now wondering what was going to happen, but thank you for coming here tonight and this wonderful opportunity for me to meet you.
Danner: Thank you. Thank you very much for what you said. Thank you.
Female: I was just curious [unintelligible]. With regard to the [unintelligible] paradox and prohibiting torture, could it be said, and where would one go with this, that Obama really doesn’t need torture anymore since he shifted policy from capture to kill, and this is what the drone campaigns are all about? And so the question of habeas corpus could just be reframed or rephrased, if you will, in a certain way.
But Obama doesn’t really need torture. He’s just taking them out. And so I too would like to think that there’s a way in which we just get more serious about closing Guantanamo. Well, yeah, he doesn’t even need Guantanamo because he’s got Wazirastan or the Federally Administered territories, and so to think about moving from interrogation to assassination and what kinds of implications that has for thinking about the end game.
Female: Professor Danner, thank you so much for being here. I think there’s sort of a consensus in the room that something is wrong, right, like these are weighty, difficult issues, like all of us are like nodding our heads, these are awful things, and you’ve spoken very eloquently about sort of the gap between our ideals and our actual actions, right? And I’m afraid I’m bringing that question back to you that we all keep trying to avoid, which is what we should do. And nobody has, you know, one single answer, right?
But to make that question a bit more specific, you’ve talked about how it’s really fear, right, that’s holding us back from achieving what, as President Obama puts it, who we are, right? Do you have any thoughts on how some of that fear might be dispelled? Because as you’ve said, there are these sensationalist images constantly, right, of people being beheaded, of planes crashing into buildings, and that’s not something you can just erase from people’s minds very simply, right? That would be my question.
Danner: Those are both very good questions. The first, the notion that the problems of interrogation have been obviated by the drone program, that in fact you’re killing people, so you don’t have to interrogate them, I think there’s some truth in that. I think that the whole notion of detention, what we do with these people, if we were going to capture them, when it does come up is a problem. They have captured a number of people. They’ve kept them aboard ships, for example. But in general I think it’s true that it’s, as it were, cleaner to kill them. I don’t think that’s the reason for it, entirely, but I think what you point out is in fact true. If you kill them, you don’t have the problem of interrogation and detention.
But it should be also said that many of the thousands of people that they’re killing in the drone program, they don’t know who they are. They really don’t know who they are. There are a couple of programs. There’s the personality strike program where they’re actually killing somebody whose identity they know. But there’s also the signature strike. Signature strike means according to the signature of their behavior we decide they’re a militant or a terrorist and we kill them. And there are many people being killed this way who they have no idea if they have information or not.
I would recommend to you “The Drone Files.” You probably know this already, but others in the room may not, which is a series of articles and documents that were published within the last week, I think at the end of last week, by The Intercept website. Glenn Greenwald is part of it, Jeremy Scahill. And it is a fascinating look inside the drone program. And one of the things it reveals is that they don’t know, in many occasions, who they’re killing, which I think is profoundly troubling, and really gives the lie to a lot of things that Obama has said publicly about the drone program.
And, you know, you want to take him at his word that these things are done with great care, that nobody takes these things more seriously than he does, that he approves them individually, and then you read documents which suddenly make you think what a fool I was. This is not how the government is doing this. This is not how this program is implemented. And those documents show it. So I recommend, to people who are interested in this, to look at those documents. But I think what you said, there’s a lot of truth to what you said.
The second question was about fear. And I think that there is…you’re completely right. When you stage, you take an American prisoner, a journalist, an aid worker, and put them in a Guantanamo jumpsuit, because that is, even though Americans don’t, I’ve found, don’t really realize this, people in the Middle East know exactly that this is supposed to be Guantanamo. This is why they’re wearing orange. And I’m astonished that most Americans have no idea that that’s what’s happening, but that’s what they’re doing.
You put them in a Guantanamo jumpsuit, you read something about the war that’s being fought against the unbelievers, and then you cut their head off, it causes fear. When you burn somebody alive in a cage, it causes fear. And you see the fear working on the battlefield. When the Islamic State took Mosul, they were probably outnumbered ten to one by the Iraqi soldiers on the ground, and the Iraqis ran. There were only a few hundred Islamic State militants, or soldiers, whatever you’d like to call them. So fear is very, very powerful.
And I wish I had an answer to your very good question, which is how do you counteract the effects of fear. And I hate to come back to an answer like you need leaders who are willing to speak forthrightly and to try to put these things into some kind of perspective. And even as I say this, you know, I think of the kind of play that’s given to these images, and how powerful these images are.
I’m giving a seminar at Bard College at the moment that’s called Through a Future Darkly. It’s about dystopian literature. And we just read Brave New World, reread it. And it’s remarkable. Part of it, as you probably remember, is the Feelies. They go to these things and they have these movies, and they’re incredibly powerful. And reading this, I just thought of the Islamic State, and I thought of their brilliance when it comes to images that cause fear.
And when you…you know, you can’t prevent them being seen, you can’t forbid them. But what happens is within a week of showing these Americans being beheaded, the numbers on intervention among the American public change. And that’s, in fact, what happened last fall, a year ago, a little more than a year ago, those numbers did change.
And as I say, I hate to say, well, you need politicians who are willing to speak frankly and to say that terrorism is a threat, but there are places where it threatens us and places where it doesn’t, and our interests in Syria and Iraq are limited, and here’s what they are, and here’s what they aren’t, and if the people on the ground do not want to fight against this themselves, we can’t make them, and our role in the Middle East is changing.
I think there are a lot of things that the President could say forthrightly. But whether it would combat and conquer the kind of visceral fear that those images cause, I don’t know. But I think it has to be tried. But in a sense, you’re trying to combat this powerful, visceral thing with reasoned discourse, and that’s always a very hard thing to do. On the other hand, I think you have to end by putting your faith in reasoned discourse, and hopefully, at some point, it’ll be heard.
I recall that in 2004, John Kerry said that terrorism is never going to be completely eliminated, it’s got to be lowered to the level of a nuisance. And it was a huge, you know, it was a huge scandal that he had said—terrorism a nuisance? You know, Democrat doesn’t know what he’s talking about. He can’t keep us safe. George W. Bush, he kept us safe.
So I report on elections, and it’s amazing talking to people in these rallies, what they know and what they don’t know. I remember at George Bush rallies I used to again and again meet people who read the New York Times thoroughly every day and who were convinced weapons of mass destruction had been found in Iraq. It was remarkable to me, but in fact belief is much stronger than information. And you have to have leaders who know that, but are still willing to try to militate against it, and eventually their words are going to be heard.
I wish I could say something more convincing. But as I say, life is long, politics is longer, and to me that is the way to go, to try to have intelligent policies and to back them forthrightly, and when the public is fearful, try to calm its fears by placing these matters into some kind of perspective. And I realize that sounds like an audacious plan. [Laughs.] But nonetheless, life is long, politics is longer, yes?
Danner: So it is.
Engle: Well, this is a particularly difficult discussion to cut off, but we can move it maybe out into the lobby. I just want to say we gave you a tall order, Mark, and you exceeded it.
Danner: Well, thank you.
Engle: And I think part of what you did, right, if the goal of the series is to inspire the audiences to think and act creatively to respond to some of the greatest challenges of the 21st century, so I think we’ve been pretty good at asking you to give us answers, but part of the idea is for us to continue to think and work as well.
Danner: I hope so.
Engle: That said, we’ll continue to ask what would Mark Danner say.
Engle: And we very much look forward to your book coming out in the spring to help us in that conversation. So thank you very, very much.
Danner: Thank you. [Applause.]
[End of recording.]