500 Days: Secrets and Lies in the Terror Wars, by Kurt Eichenwald

500 Days. Secrets and Lies in the Terror Wars

Kurt Eichenwald is a reporter who has written for publications including the New York Times and Vanity Fair. This is his account of the Bush Administration’s response to the terrorist attacks of 9/11.

I developed concerns about 500 Days: Secrets and Lies in the Terror Wars as early as the Introduction, where the author writes:

Readers looking in these pages for my view of these events will no doubt be disappointed. I have little faith in opinion, even my own….The Bush Administration and its allies did not want to impose a police state and its critics did not want to coddle terrorists. Few on either side acted with disregard to the concerns of the other; instead each wrestled with finding the proper balance, as they saw it.

So let’s think about this. According to this author, the assertion that the Bush Administration and other Americans at the top act in good faith and try to do what they genuinely believe is best for the country is not an opinion; it’s just unquestionable reality. It’s only denying that that would infect your writing with opinion. Our leaders don’t have evil ends and they aren’t villains. They are sometimes depicted that way by their opponents, but those are opinions and thus have no place in an objective, unbiased, reasonable book like this.

Balderdash. Imagine presenting a presupposition like that about the good faith and good intentions of al Qaeda or the Nazis, and worse yet insisting it’s so self-evident as to not even be an opinion.

So that’s the first thing to be wary of in this book: It’s very much of the “Americans may make mistakes, but they’re always well-intentioned, and anyone who says otherwise is biased” school of consensus, mainstream journalism. (The only unusual thing is that he’s so explicit in acknowledging this.)

It’s also worth noting that this is written very much in the style of Bob Woodward insider history, which means it’s the kind of book where people were willing to give the author information he would otherwise not have access to in exchange for being portrayed in a positive light as having acted from good motives and such. As you read, it’s best to keep that in mind and mentally translate the material accordingly.

Thus, for example, if you come across a passage like:

Joe Schmo was one of the officials responsible for overseeing the treatment of detainees. When he heard credible reports of detainee abuse, he was greatly troubled. He immediately did everything he could to stop such treatment, and he promptly brought the matter to the attention of his superiors,

you should convert that in your mind to something like:

Joe Schmo was one of the officials responsible for overseeing the treatment of detainees. Much later after detainee abuse was exposed to the press and the public, he claimed that he had been troubled about it all along, though since we can’t get inside his head we can’t know how sincere that claim was. He also claimed that he acted immediately to stop the abuse and that he informed his superiors. There is some corroborating evidence for this, but if we are to believe this it will be based partly on how much we’re willing to take his word as to his own motivations and behavior.

The thing is, even given the bias built in to the structure of the book—the assumption of the good faith of American policymakers, and the telling of the story from the perspective of those willing to cooperate with the author—there is still a great deal of useful and important information in this book from which you can draw your own conclusions, indeed including conclusions incompatible with the “these are all good guys struggling to do their best” shtick.

I’ll touch on just a few of the interesting contents of the book here, with my thoughts.

The claim of certain White House “legal experts” that torture isn’t torture if it’s intent is something other than to cause suffering (e.g., to get information) is absolutely ludicrous.

It’s arguable whether the intended consequences of torture could justify torture, but that’s a different claim. The argument here isn’t that intent can make torture justified or unjustified, but that it can make it non-torture. Which is equivalent to saying that if you take someone’s life as a means to something else (e.g., impressing Jodie Foster, collecting on a life insurance policy, etc.) then you haven’t killed them.

How often, by the way, does torture have no purpose? How often is it an end in itself, an exercise in pure sadism? If we really went along with the White House’s attempted redefinition, torture would virtually disappear. There might be an occasional case of torture by a serial killer or someone like that, but political cases like torture by Nazis, Stalinists, South American dictatorships, etc. would all become non-torture because they all had some motive behind them, like acquiring information or intimidating political opponents.

What’s interesting is that the argument is based more on dishonesty than stupidity. It’s not that they didn’t realize that their premises more realistically support a conclusion that torture can be justified than their nonsensical conclusion that torture can be non-torture, but that arguing for the former wouldn’t help them. The laws and treaties and such that they were trying to evade forbid torture, not unjustified torture. Thus they had to maintain not that what they were doing was justified torture, but that it was not torture.

This kind of tortured (so to speak) semantics reminds me of an HBO movie on the Wannsee Conference (the 1942 meeting of Nazi higher ups in suburban Berlin about the implementation of the Final Solution to kill the Jews of Europe) called Conspiracy. It has been a decade or more since I saw it, so most of the details have faded from my memory, but I remember one or more attendees being quite insistent on the point that they had to find some way that the Final Solution could be made consistent with the law. It had nothing to do with disagreeing with the policy; it was a concern that as a civilized nation they had to do things by the book, that they couldn’t allow state policy to degenerate into a barbaric “might makes right” philosophy. There had to be a way to spin things to make genocide legal; they couldn’t just do it because they wanted to.

Moving on to other points, evidently the British determined that it would be illegal for them to join the Iraq War without another United Nations resolution explicitly justifying launching such a war, and Prime Minister Tony Blair was on board with that. But then under pressure he flip flopped and decided it was legal after all. What a weasel he is.

The author describes how European leaders like Blair and French President Jacques Chirac regarded George W. Bush as hopelessly inept. They basically treated him like a child who was incapable of understanding complex issues and who acted impulsively based on emotion. There’s a surreal, humorous anecdote about Bush the fundamentalist Christian passionately relating current events to Biblical prophecies about Gog and Magog to a befuddled Chirac who is unfamiliar with such terms and has to consult with his advisors later to understand what Bush was trying to tell him.

American torturers were typically low level military personnel with no training. They weren’t sophisticated interrogators, but basically kids turned loose with minimal instruction on people they’d been taught to hate. Some of them are depicted in the book as quite gleeful about what they did. It’s striking how many torturers and their supporters that the author encounters cite the TV show 24 as evidence that torture works, as if they’re unaware that it’s fiction, or perhaps don’t think that its being so is relevant.

Eichenwald doesn’t take an absolutist anti-torture stand, nor contend that torture is inherently wrong regardless of the consequences. The people in the book who he seems to most agree with are those who take a more pragmatic approach to the issue, opposing torture precisely because it doesn’t work. He points out that when interrogators used the classic good cop/bad cop routine of putting one person in the role of pretending to be the prisoner’s buddy, they consistently got a lot more cooperation and learned a lot more reliable information than when they used torture.

Some defenders of the torture policy claim that compared to numerous other regimes that could be cited as examples, Americans used torture on a very small number of people, and the torture was typically less severe. A few thoughts on this:

I acknowledge that it’s true as far as it goes, that is if we don’t introduce the complicating factor that I think you can make a good case that a lot of conventional punishment—like long term imprisonment and especially extended incarceration in solitary confinement—should count as torture. But, yes, if we’re talking about the electric shock to the testicles kind of thing that most people picture when they think of torture, there’s no way the post-9/11 Americans can match the quantity and severity of torture committed by the Nazis, the Soviets, Saddam, the Shah, and many, many other monstrous regimes throughout history.

But that’s not much of a defense. One, you can’t establish that some bad thing is OK because someone else did more of it than you did. That would be like saying, “But your honor, I only killed two people. There are serial killers who killed twenty or more. And I just shot my victims. They killed theirs in particularly sadistic ways to maximize suffering. How can you convict me of murder?”

And, two, when Americans wanted more torture they just shipped their captives to one of those “worse” regimes that has fewer restrictions on whom and how they torture, like Egypt or Syria. It’s not that they refrained from using the more severe forms of torture; they just outsourced the job.

Included in the book are harrowing accounts of multiple people who were guilty of little more than being Arab in the United States or Canada, who got caught up in this and were tortured. There was some small evidence of a connection with terrorism—people they had made phone calls to, countries they had traveled to, political opinions they had expressed, what have you—but certainly nothing close to enough for them to have been convicted by an “innocent until proven guilty” standard.

Overall, keeping in mind the caveats I mentioned earlier, 500 Days: Secrets and Lies in the Terror Wars is a valuable day-to-day account of how a country loses its mind and lets bad leaders exploit its weaknesses and gullibility in a crisis.

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