Michael Hayden: don’t be ashamed of torture

We were innocently listening to the radio when an interview with retired Air Force General Michael Hayden came on. He ran the NSA for a decade (1999-2009) and was director of the CIA. He’s just written a memoir, which unfortunately over the past 15 years has come to mean a high-level military director reveals all the ways he violated our Constitution. Whether he expresses regret or not is always the question; Hayden answered that question in the negative very quickly. The transcript we’re relying on can be found here.



In explaining the monitoring of all Americans’ phone calls by the NSA, Hayden was unapologetic:

SIEGEL: …in order for this program to work over the years – and we’re talking about a threat that we foresee existing for many years…

HAYDEN: …Right.

SIEGEL: You’re going to store my data through many different CIA directors, NSA directors, FBI directors, members of Congress, presidents, all the while telephonic history – at least the metadata history – is going to be accessible to the government.

HAYDEN: It’s going to be preserved. And access was a very important part of this program. And it was accessible by about two dozen people at NSA whose access to the database had keystroke monitoring on it. Now, look, any power in the government can be abused. But what you’ve just described is an equally powerful argument against arming policemen. That can be abused too, Robert.

SIEGEL: That can be abused.

HAYDEN: We actually need to give government some power to protect us…

—How the argument that the federal government monitoring all phone calls at all times and keeping that data seemingly forever is comparable to refusing to let the police carry weapons is beyond us… except that it’s actually a dead-on comparison: our police are fatally over-armed, carrying military-grade weapons they don’t need that they come to abuse, and our government is violating the Constitution by stripping us of our privacy, a power which can only end in one of two results: either the monitoring is so light and uninformative that it’s never consulted and therefore ignored; or it is gradually and inevitably used to monitor more and more citizens for its’ own sake (i.e., abused).


…SIEGEL: Toward the end of your tenure at the Center Intelligence Agency, the question of interrogations became extremely controversial. You advised your successor – President Obama’s nominee, Leon Panetta – what to say about waterboarding. I want you to tell us what your guidance was.

HAYDEN: Yeah. I simply said do not use the word torture and CIA in the same sentence ever again. You can object to some of the enhanced interrogation techniques. You can, in your heart of hearts, believe they meet some legal definition of torture. But Leon, you’re taking over a workforce that did these things in good faith, that did these things with the assurance of the attorney general that they indeed were not torture. Do not accuse them of felonies.

SIEGEL: As a matter of institutional politics or as a matter of truth?

HAYDEN: Well, certainly as a matter of truth. Look, I get it. Honest men differ. A lot of good people describe these things as torture. The definitive legal judgment under which the agency was operating – and, you know, sooner or later, Robert, somebody’s got to call balls and strikes, and that’s the way it is.

—“Interrogations” is the new euphemism for torture. So is “enhanced interrogation”. What is interrogation enhanced by? Torture. We don’t think one has to consult one’s “heart of hearts” to know that water boarding and electro-shocking and force-feeding is torture: if you wouldn’t want it to happen to you if you were in military custody, it’s torture. The idea that you can do something bad “in good faith” is already tenuous: it’s technically possible, but only if you don’t know that what you’re doing is bad. No one tortures in good faith because everyone knows it’s bad. Hayden’s argument is, frankly, exactly what Nazi soldiers said after the war: I didn’t know it was bad, I was told it was good.

And we would add that Hayden sort of protests too much: you don’t threaten people and try to stop them from calling something torture if you really don’t believe it was torture, or if you really believe there’s nothing wrong with torture. You do that when you know it was torture, and that torture is wrong, and you want to hush it up.

The last statement is beyond belief. “Honest men differ”? And the last sentence is telling: he starts to say the definitive legal judgment is that it was not torture, then right-turns into saying well, the judgment the NSA was working from (a cobbled-together judgment created to justify NSA’s actions as opposed to an official legal judgment), then just drops it and says “we just decided it was necessary.” Anyone who resorts to baseball analogies to justify torture is beyond callous; they’re not in their right mind.

We’ll break the next section down bit by awful bit:

SIEGEL: But if we read accounts of ISIS waterboarding hostages somewhere in Syria or Iraq, I don’t think we’d hesitate but to say they’re torturing these people.

HAYDEN: Well, did ISIS have someone present who was legally and morally responsible for the well-being of the hostage? Did ISIS have someone there with monitoring devices on the body of the hostage? Does ISIS have a rule that anyone in the room can call knock it off if they believe the interrogation..

—Hayden conjures up a 1984 image of an American sitting quietly in the corner while someone is tortured making sure that the person being tortured is happy. And telling the torturers to stop if the torture impacts the prisoner’s well-being.

SIEGEL: …Now the person that’s being waterboarded can’t call knock it off.


SIEGEL: You’re saying somebody who’s part of the team.

HAYDEN: Right, who’s part of the team.

—If you’re “part of the team”, are you likely to tell your fellow-torturers to stop? If, as Hayden claims, the torturing was done in good faith because Americans felt it was the right thing to do, when would anyone step up and say to stop?

SIEGEL: I will – I checked reference books. Merriam Webster’s Dictionary cuts you a break. They say it’s a form of interrogation, waterboarding. The Encyclopaedia Britannica calls it a method of torture. The Oxford English Dictionary calls it a form of torture. I mean, must one take a very legalistic and narrow view of torture rather than say look, you guys – what you did, you believed to be legal. You were acting in the flush of 9/11 with the expectation of further attacks, but this was wrong. What you did was wrong.

HAYDEN: Oh, that’s a totally honorable position. I get that. What I don’t get is someone who says by the way, it didn’t work anyway.

—Hayden uses the word “honorable” in a despicable way here to mean “bleeding hearts who don’t want to live in the real world”. That’s why he then takes an otherwise baffling left-turn to say it’s crazy to claim that torture doesn’t get results.

SIEGEL: You would say it worked?

HAYDEN: I would say we got information from the people against whom we used enhanced interrogation techniques. We moved them from a zone that was pretty much represented by defiance to a zone where they were at least more compliant, more willing to talk about the things we believed we needed to know to keep the country safe.

—Of course they got information; people who are being tortured will say anything to stop the torture. It’s terrible and telling that Hayden refers to that information as “things we believed we needed to know”—the torturers decided to believe what they heard. Of course they did; you have to find a way to sleep at night.

The interview moved on, but we were left a wreck in the wake of this passage. Americans do not torture. We led the world in banning torture of prisoners of war. We believe in justice for all. If you can find an American who believes an American military service member should be water-boarded if captured by an enemy, then we might change our minds, but that won’t happen.

It reminds us of something Abraham Lincoln said in a debate with Stephen Douglas where Douglas had gone on for a half-hour justifying slavery as not so bad. Lincoln basically said, Douglas seems to think slavery is good but if you asked him to be a slave himself he would say no.

We don’t want to be tortured, so we shouldn’t torture—even if it produced good information (which is does not). We can’t let people like Michael Hayden convince us otherwise.


Confusion on the campaign trail in South Carolina

We were listening to NPR yesterday morning and heard yet another story about the upcoming primary in South Carolina, this one focused on the drive to win the votes of military personnel, who make up about 25% of eligible voters in that state. It very quickly changed from just another story to one that brought up several boggling contradictions. For this post, we’re working from the transcript of the story.

Just outside the small town of Walterboro in South Carolina’s low country yesterday, the stage for a big outdoor rally featured giant American flags and camouflage bunting.

—Camouflage bunting? This is very hard to picture. The whole point of bunting is that it is another way to display the colors of the U.S. flag, which is desirable because it shows loyalty to and support for the United States. Using camouflage bunting creates a queasy equivalence of the nation with the armed forces, and we wondered who made it. A quick look online did not uncover U.S. flag-type bunting, though camouflage-pink baby bunting is available… it made us wonder if one of the campaigns created it especially for South Carolina campaigning, which again creates a queasy one-to-one identification of the U.S. with its military (and nothing but its military).

…in the hours before that speech by Donald Trump began, a long line formed on the wooded property, including many voters with military ties, among them 58-year-old Jim Shinta, a veteran of both the Army and the Air Force.

JIM SHINTA: I never registered to vote before until this election.

—If you are eligible to vote and never vote, you are not doing your duty as an American. Participating in our representative democracy is crucial. When people do not vote, the system becomes rigged in favor of those who know they can push through un-American policies and laws simply because no one will turn up to vote against them. Serving in the armed forces can be a way to serve your country, but voting—keeping our democracy alive and in good working order—is far more important. There’s no America to defend if there’s no participatory democracy.

GONYEA: He says Trump is the reason. Shinta likes Trump’s promise to restore U.S. respect around the world.

What do you want to see Trump do in that regard?

SHINTA: Defeat ISIS number one, close the borders – that’s number two.

—We have commented recently on this mindset (at Nation of Refugees and Immigrants have always been scary looking, but that’s never stopped us before); here the desire to defeat ISIS is oddly connected with closing the U.S.-Mexican border, and the message is that all outsiders are evil threats and the U.S. must destroy the worst of them and keep out the rest of them, and live in a splendid isolation of perfection. The day the U.S. closes its borders is the day we should dismantle the Statue of Liberty. But we get the feeling Shinta does not mean all borders—he probably doesn’t mind non-Latin or non-Syrian immigrants coming in. It’s a partial border closing, a racially based border selection, that again sits ill with the concept of liberty and justice for all.

…Nearby is 49-year-old Shawn Sauerbrei, who was in the Marines for 23 years. He has no doubts about Trump, saying it’s great to have a candidate who’s truly committed to helping veterans. He also says people should take some of Trump’s over-the-top rhetoric with a grain of salt.

SHAWN SAUERBREI: You know, if he uses the language, it’s Donald. He makes people cheer. He makes people think that OK, he’s going to do something.

—The conflation here is dangerous: Trump says he’s going to do some crazy things that you can ignore because they’re meaningless… yet these are the things that make people happy—they’re the things people want him to do. So which is it: we can ignore it because no one really means it, or it’s exactly what people want? This question is immediately answered:

GONYEA: But on some of Trump’s very tough talk, Sauerbrei says it’s warranted, like when Trump says he’ll bring back waterboarding and worse.

SAUERBREI: I think we’ve got to do what we’ve got to do for terrorism. If he wants to bring it back – hey, if it works it works. If it doesn’t, I’m sure he’ll try something else.

—This is a prime example of deciding something is okay and then ignoring all evidence it is not. Torturing prisoners has been proved over and over to be worthless, because people will say anything to stop the torture. So it doesn’t work. Sauerbrei himself goes back and forth: at first torture is “what we’ve got to do”, and then “if it works it works”, and finally “if it doesn’t, we’ll try something else”. Deep down he knows torture is pointless and even counter-productive, but like the people he discounts in his previous statement, the talk of torture makes him cheer because it means Trump will do something.

Even if torture did get good, solid results, a nation devoted to justice can never, ever use it. The U.S. led the global campaign against torturing prisoners of war in the 20th century. We can’t let it now lead a global campaign promoting torture. It’s not compatible with our founding principles, and we would think someone who took an oath to protect his nation would be more interested in protecting it from tearing its integrity to shreds.

…Meanwhile, at a Jeb Bush event in North Charleston, 48-year-old Derek Robbins says the military has been neglected under President Obama. Robbins’ son currently serves in the Air Force.

DEREK ROBBINS: We have one in the service. And so we see how important that is. And to see the military, you know, to be downgraded – it’s very important to rebuild that strength.

—The idea that the military is being pushed into a dark corner and allowed to rot is just another example of deciding something is true and sticking to it no matter how many proofs to the contrary you see around you every day. Let us offer just two graphics:



Since September 11th, military spending has skyrocketed, and actually had a strong surge upward during President Obama’s first term (after a slowdown during Bush’s second term). Even the decline in Obama’s second term leaves spending levels far higher than they’ve been for nearly 40 years. So the military  has not been neglected…

…unless you mean spending on people, not equipment. What these veterans in South Carolina are really talking about is support for people in active service and for veterans, especially those with health problems related to their service. The U.S. treats its veterans shamefully for the most part, providing little to no health care, counseling, insurance, or just plain money and time and people and care for the men and women who serve in its ranks. Veterans dying on a wait list for VA hospitals make the news, then fade away. The high suicide and murder rate among veterans is well-known, yet the government does almost nothing about it.

When this is the problem, people should say so plainly instead of making broad statements about the military being downgraded and needing to rebuild its strength. No military is stronger technology and materiel-wise than ours. But our military is weak and tottering when it comes to the mental and physical health, the income, and the security of its members. If Trump torturing POWs and bombing the sh** out of China will fix those things, then we’re all for it. But it won’t.

And so we leave South Carolina with a sense of foreboding. Simply being in the military is not patriotic. You have to support, and vote to support, the founding principles of this nation if you want to protect and defend it. Let’s hope the vote turns out well for the democracy and justice the U.S. is meant to stand for.

We never used to claim America was a Christian nation

It’s short but sweet: in 1797 the Senate ratified the Treaty of Peace and Friendship with the Barbary States (today’s Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco, and what was called Tripolitania). These were autonomous provinces of the Ottoman Empire in North Africa that made a living harassing shipping in the Mediterranean. Barbary pirates were a scourge to Ottoman, European, and U.S. shipping, and the U.S. attempted to use diplomacy to protect its shipping (though the U.S. would eventually fight two wars with the Barbary States in 1801 and 1815 to put a stop to pirate attacks).

Article 11 of the treaty reads thus:

As the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion,-as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion or tranquility of Musselmen,-and as the said States never have entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mehomitan nation, it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries

Let’s break that down: 1) the U.S. is not founded on Christian principles; 2) the U.S. would not sign a treaty with any state that had “entered into any war or act of hostility” against a Muslim nation; 3) religious difference can never be used as an excuse for war between the U.S. and the Barbary States.

We offer this not to the ongoing debate about accepting Muslim refugees from the wars in the Middle East, nor to say there is no difference between Islam as practiced in 1797 in North Africa and Islam as practiced today in nations the U.S. is in conflict with. We offer it as rebuttal, from the Senate itself, of the poisonous idea that the U.S. was founded to be a Christian nation with a religious mission. Read any founding text and you will fail to find that belief proffered in any way. The mission of the U.S. is to promote representative democracy, liberty and justice for all, and that’s it.