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Chain of Command: The Road from 9/11 to Abu Ghraib, Seymour M. Hersh (2004)

A blazing illumination on so many subjects, but the main one that keeps coming back to me is that all of this Administration’s many missteps seem to derive from a common source: a desperate lust to force narrative coherence upon events which are essentially incoherent. Why try to pin a death sentence on Moussaoui and thus ensure a failed trial, even though he’s obviously a nutjob who couldn’t blow up a balloon, rather than using him as a way to gather intelligence? Why allow torture and illegal extradition of detainees even though it costs the country credibility and results in lousy intelligence, rather than sticking to the moral high ground and using what all the experts say are more effective techniques of persuasion? Why leave the Afghanistan in dangerous disarray in order to marshal forces for a far less necessary and far more complicated invasion of Iraq, rather than doing the doable and necessary job correctly in Afghanistan? The answer to each of these questions is, I think, the same: because that’s what would happen if the situation were to arise in a movie starring Jean-Claude Van Damme. All of the Administration’s decisions seem designed not to move toward long-term strategic goals, but to engineer spectacular appearances of narrative catharsis: the criminal executed, the keepers of secrets forced to talk, the arrogant dictator humbled. It hardly matters that the criminal has never been linked by evidence to the crime, that some of the alleged terrorists at Guantanamo are 80 year olds in the throes of dementia and teenagers in the throes of, well, I suppose terror, or that the dictator in fact had clay feet and no nuclear or biological weapons. It would almost be pathetic if it weren’t so disgusting, this blind hunger for narrativity fueling our country’s foreign policy.

Notice that I’m using “the Administration” rather than “the President.” An interesting thing about Hersh’s book. The President hardly comes up at all. Hersh doesn’t comment on this, but the implication’s pretty clear. The people running the country during the post-9/11 period were the Vice President and the civilian leadership at the Department of Defense. Not the diplomats at State or the intelligence community or the military or the elected legislators, but seven or eight political appointees with a very clear and unified agenda and an utter disregard for reality. It was basically a coup, executed by a handful of wonks with a collective case of magical thinking. A revenge of the nerds.

I found Hersh particularly helpful in explaining the Kafkan legal statuses of detainees in Guantanamo Bay, secret CIA prisons, and third-party prisons. The prisoners who’ve been denied due process and habeas corpus and/or have been detained illegally or been subjected to torture following extraordinary rendition to third party countries and/or are being secretly held by the CIA are in a legal limbo with no possible egress. They can’t be released, because they’ve been declared enemy combatants and, in theory, are dangerous. They can’t be brought to trial before a legitimate court, because the evidence against them either doesn’t exist or has been collected in a manner that would outrage the conscience of any court. And they can’t continue to be detained without charge, because the Supreme Court overturned in 2006 the President’s 2002 determination that enemy combatants are not entitled to habeas corpus. These are impossible people. First they’re put through hell, and now they have no logical/legal means of existence.

In general, Hersh is great at explaining what happened and how, but I’m stuck on some very important “why” questions. Even if you approach the question of interrogation, say, from a completely stone-hearted perspective, it is well understood by trained interrogators that identification and relationship-building is the only way to get good intelligence, and that interrogations under torture, or even severe duress, yield lousy intelligence. This is one of those rare and happy situations where the moral and the expedient coincide, and yet the Cheney/Rumsfeld cabal deliberately chose the path of inhuman treatment and, as a direct result, bad intelligence. Why? The only answer I can think of, other than the thoughts about narrative pleasure above, is revenge. That the President, in declaring the Geneva Conventions inapplicable in the “war on terror,” wasn’t motivated by a pressing need to gather intelligence. If that had been the motive, he would have let loose the trained interrogators of the FBI, not the untrained soldiers with the baseball bats. He was motivated by good-old straight-up eye-for-an-eye revenge. He wanted to say to Al Qaeda, you have brought indiscriminate wanton terror to me, and now I am going to bring the same to you. Not as a means to gathering intelligence about you, but as an end: to terrify you as you’ve terrified me. If that’s true, then we’re in serious trouble, because it means we haven’t learned anything since 9-11, and that we’re not going to.

A crucial book to understanding America’s evolving role in the Middle East.

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