Thursday, December 11, 2014

What You Should Know about CIA Torture

Can you handle the truth?

Then here it is, in simple language:
The CIA engaged in pointless sadistic practices against people many of whom had nothing to reveal anyway, and they lied to Congress, the White House, and the press to keep on torturing people.


7 Key Points From the C.I.A. Torture Report (in the flat language of the New York Times)

  1. The C.I.A.’s interrogation techniques were more brutal and employed more extensively than the agency portrayed. 
  2. The C.I.A. interrogation program was mismanaged and was not subject to adequate oversight.
  3. The C.I.A. misled members of Congress and the White House about the effectiveness and extent of its brutal interrogation techniques.
  4. Interrogators in the field who tried to stop the brutal techniques were repeatedly overruled by senior C.I.A. officials.
  5. The C.I.A. repeatedly under-reported the number of people it detained and subjected to harsh interrogation techniques under the program.
  6. At least 26 detainees were wrongfully held and did not meet the government’s standard for detention. 
  7. The C.I.A. leaked classified information to journalists, exaggerating the success of interrogation methods in an effort to gain public support.

The Talmud and the Internet, by Jonathan Rosen: a review


Growing up in Pittsburgh and attending the pretentiously titled School of Advanced Jewish Studies, I took a bite of Talmud. Not even a mouthful: just enough to taste. And it has nourished my curiosity forever.  Read this book if you want to whet your curiosity too.

Like me, author Jonathan Rosen finds the form of the Talmud even more intriguing the intricacies of its content. It's the original hypertext.

The Mishnah is at the center of each page, a set of oral traditions about how to read and practice what we find in the Torah that were finally written down between 180 and 220 CE by Rabbi Yehudah haNasi to keep them from being forgotten. The Gemara comes below, giving four centuries more of debate about what how those traditions make sense and what they really mean. More commentaries are arranged at the bottom and along the sides: the medieval scholar Rashi and his disciples especially. That's not even getting into the entirely separate books that comment on the Talmud, from Maimonides' Mishneh Torah to the latest one hot off the press.

As Rosen points out, these commentators hold lively discussions, even when one of them is rebutting another who's been dead for centuries. They don't confine themselves to any genre. Legal discussion rubs shoulders with etymology, moralism with fable. They remind him (and me) of nothing so much as weird and unpredictable discussions on the Internet--especially the more unbridled Internet of 2001, when this book was published.

Rosen is both incisive and evocative when he makes the case that Talmudic discussion is the lifeboat of the Jewish people. When the destruction of the Temple by the Roman empire cast Jewish life adrift, it was in these discussions that we made our home.

Rosen is elegiac when he looks at 21st-century Jewish life, changed forever by both the Holocaust in which some of his grandparents died and the acceptance of the Jews into secular society, and of secular society into Jewish identity. Can we find ways to transmute our existence in new circumstances as the creators of the Talmud once did? Or will the culture that he and I hold dear fade into memory? Or both?

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

State of War, by James Risen: a review

Things you'll learn, or be reminded of and still shocked by, if you read State of War by James Risen:

  1. CIA Director George Tenet got and kept his job by sucking up to power.
  2. The CIA specifically avoided asking President George W. Bush for authorization to use torture, providing him with what the spy trade calls "plausible deniability."
  3. The NSA started large-scale spying on Americans almost immediately after 9/11/2001, "The Bush administration...swept aside nearly thirty years of rules and regulations" to make this happen.
  4. George W. sent clear signals that he wanted a pretext to go to war with Iraq. People who helped him get one were rewarded. People who warned that the intelligence was being skewed were punished. There was nothing like an objective assessment of the facts before we went to war.
  5. The U.S. had every reason to know there was no active nuclear program in Iraq.
  6. To claim there was a bioweapons program in Iraq, the U.S. relied on sources that the Europeans clearly told us were wrong. 
  7. No one had a plan for what to do in Iraq after the war except for installing a president from the outside, a man (Ahmed Chalabi) that no one inside Iraq trusted. When that proved unworkable, they had to make it up as they went along--all the while pretending they were winning.
  8. By going to war in Iraq, the Bush administration took its eye of Afghanistan, which became the biggest exporter of opium in the world...sending a lot of the poppy right here to the U.S.
  9. The U.S. turned a blind eye to the ways that Saudi Arabia played both sides in the "war on terror."
  10. The U.S. may have helped Iran advance its program for obtaining nuclear weapons. 
Risen focuses on the first term of George W. Bush, but he's scrupulous about pointing out when a problem actually began in the Clinton administration. He puts too much emphasis on individuals (Bush vs. Saddam Hussein, Tenet vs. Rumsfeld) and not enough on mistaken assumptions of U.S. foreign policy.

Still, this is a powerful book. I wish I, and everyone else, had read it when it came out!

Sunday, November 23, 2014

The Woman Who Could Have Stopped the War in Iraq

The Iraq War could have been prevented if the CIA had listened to... Dr. Sawsan Alhaddad, a Cleveland anesthesiologist.

The CIA recruited Alhaddad to ask her brother Saad Tawfiq, an Iraqi electrical engineer, to reveal secrets about the Iraqi nuclear program. She asked.  He answered: there was no Iraqi nuclear program. It had been dead since 1991.

Alhaddad told the CIA what her brother had said.  They concluded he was lying. The Unites States government, from President Bush on down, was committed to going to war with Iraq--and they needed a nuclear weapons program as an excuse.

James Risen revealed this story in his 2006 book State of War.  Until I read the book, I had never heard of it. Had you?

Don't you think in a democracy we ought to have known that the U.S. went to war because our government couldn't handle the truth?

Saturday, November 22, 2014

I Read James Risen. Ed Snowden Told Me To.

In Laura Poitras' excellent documentary CitizenFour, NSA leaker Edward Snowden mentions how much he admires investigative journalist James Risen.

Neither Snowden nor Risen is any kind of leftist.  Risen is the national security reporter for the New York Times, for God's sake!  He was one of two reporters for The Times who in 2005 broke the news that Mr. Bush’s government had conducted warrantless wiretapping of American citizens. Bush hated that, but Risen kept right on reporting.



Now, Risen faces a possible prison term because he refuses to name the sources inside the CIA who helped him reveal a failed plot to give flawed and misleading nuclear blueprints to Iran.  If you want to know the full story, read chapter nine of Risen's 2006 book State of War--a book the U.S. government tried to suppress.

I'll be reviewing the book this coming week.