The United States of Torture

Justin Raimondo is in the middle of a major storm, without power, so he will have no Friday column. His column will return Monday, rain or shine. His most recent column is below.

Dianne Feinstein was the canary in the coalmine. If even the senior Senator from California, as stalwart an ally of the CIA and the National Security State as one is likely to find, was upset enough to make such a fuss about the Senate torture report then it had to be pretty awful. The release of the 600-page report summary confirmed our worst suspicions.

After a very Feinstein-ish introduction, filled with self-exculpatory finger-wagging and written in first-person high-drama mode, we learn:

1) It didn’t work. Out of at least 119 detainees held at secret CIA dungeons 39 were tortured: 7 of these produced no intelligence. None produced any intelligence that couldn’t have been gotten by legal means. Alan Dershowitz is going to be very disappointed to learn that, as the report puts it, “At no time did the CIA’s coercive interrogation techniques lead to the collection of imminent threat intelligence, such as the hypothetical ‘ticking time bomb’ information that many believe was the justification for the use of these techniques.” 

2) They tortured innocents. Much of the public support for the torture program comes from the false impression that all of these people were "bad guys" who were out to hurt Americans, but the Senate report reveals that’s just not the case. Twenty-six out of 119 prisoners were held "wrongfully." As the report puts it: "Detainees often remained in custody for months after the CIA determined that they did not meet the [legal] standard. CIA records provide insufficient information to justify the detention of many other detainees."

3) Interrogations were "brutal and far worse" than the CIA maintained. One interrogator played "Russian roulette" with a detainee – holding a gun with one bullet in the chamber to the prisoner’s head and periodically pulling the trigger. Sexual torture was employed, with special attention to the rectal area (it’s apparently a CIA thing). Threats to sexually torture and/or murder relatives were employed to get information out of detainees. Although there were probably torture techniques that were used without the knowledge of the Senate committee, among the ones they caught were: sleep deprivation (as long as a week), the "attention grasp", walling, (slamming detainees face first against a wall), "facial hold," facial slap, cramped confinement, wall standing (prisoner "stands about four or five feet from the wall, with his feet spread approximately to shoulder width. Arms are stretched out in front of him, with fingers resting on the wall. The fingers support all the body weight, and he is not allowed to move”) various other stress positions, waterboarding, use of diapers, use of insects, and mock burial.

4) The worst of the worst were key to the torture program. Although much is being said about the "incompetence" of the CIA in assigning highly problematic personnel to their deepest darkest covert operation, this assumes it wasn’t intentional – an unwarranted assumption in my view. After all, who would be better qualified to implement Dick Cheney’s sadistic fantasies than "a number of personnel whose backgrounds include notable derogatory information calling into question their eligibility for employment, their access to classified information, and their participation in CIA interrogation activities"? In short, it was a free-for-all at Torture Headquarters, with "untrained CIA officers at the facility" going all Marquis de Sade with their "frequent, unauthorized, and unsupervised interrogations of detainees using harsh physical interrogation techniques that were not—and never became—part of the CIA’s formal ‘enhanced’ interrogation program."

Here the lesson is basic libertarianism, 101: government attracts the worst of the worst. Yes, there were some at the CIA who disputed the legality and morality of what was being done, and the report makes this clear, but in any statist society these people in government are a distinct – and usually powerless – minority. The sadistic punks and sociopathic perverts who inflicted torture on helpless prisoners merely reflected the mindset of their superiors, who ordered the torture and tried to distance themselves from their own handiwork as much as possible. In short, the torturers represented "the dysfunction, disorganization, incompetence, greed and deception" of the American political class in the latter days of the empire: these words were used by New York Times reporter Scott Shane to describe the Senate report’s depiction of the CIA program, but they fit our rulers to a tee (and not just the Bush gang).

As the Senate committee report states:

"In nearly all cases, the derogatory information was known to the CIA prior to the assignment of the CIA officers to the Detention and Interrogation Program. This group of officers included individuals who, among other issues, had engaged in inappropriate detainee interrogations, had workplace anger management issues, and had reportedly admitted to sexual assault." 

Imagine the staff meetings!:

First Spook: "Hey, I can’t find a dildo big enough – do you think we have some bigger ones somewhere in stock?"

Second Spook: "I’ll send Smith to go see – I think he gets a charge outta that kinda thing." [Snicker] "So are you getting the hang of it now?"

First Spook: "Oh yeah. That Raphael Patai book has been waaay helpful. The Arab Mind sure is a dirty mind. Turns out these guys are all faggots, they just won’t admit it. Speaking of which, could you send over a couple of rapists with those dildos?"

5) The CIA lied to everyone about everything. The report says the CIA engaged in "numerous factual inaccuracies" when dealing with the public, Congress, and even the White House. They lied about the effectiveness of torture: the report examines 20 instances in which the CIA claimed to have gotten valuable intelligence from "high value" detainees that "saved lives." The Senate committee found that in exactly none of these instances was this the case: indeed, many of these alleged "plots" were never operational – or else completely imaginary to begin with. The secrecy surrounding the torture chambers was so thick that they didn’t even tell the White House – never mind US ambassadors in relevant countries – where the overseas "black sites" were located. They lied about what they were doing, to whom they were doing it, and indeed about every single aspect of this program, including to the FBI and the CIA’s own Inspector General.

6) The CIA carried out a "coordinated" leakage of "classified information to the media." Their purpose was to cover up their lies and "spin" the effectiveness of the torture program – just like they’re doing at this very moment to tamp down the outrage that accompanied the release of the report summary. I guess we’ll just have to wait until the entire Senate report is released – i.e. never – to get all the names of the guilty parties in the media, but it seems to me – based on their history as essentially stenographers for the government – that all of the "mainstream" media is guilty until proven innocent.

Our spooks used the President to mouth their talking points, inserting their lies into a 2006 speech by Bush that claimed the CIA’s torture tactics had "saved lives" and facilitated the capture of important terrorist leaders – a contention directly contradicted by the CIA’s own records. Speaking of President Bush: the claim is that he was out of the loop until the autumn of 2006, but one wonders how that’s possible. And the Senate report doesn’t say who else in the White House was (or wasn’t) briefed early on, although I’ve yet to comb through all 600 pages of the report to absolutely confirm that.

Evidences of institutional insanity exposed in the Senate report range from physical atrocities to the purely intellectual variety. An example of the latter: utilitarians will be less than thrilled to learn that the CIA’s legal eagles invented a "novel" application of the "necessity defense" in order to justify the torture program, calculating that the harm to the few would be ameliorated by benefits to the many whose lives would be "saved."

Looking for a model, the CIA’s aspiring professional sadists looked to methods utilized by countries that never recognized the Geneva conventions, such as North Korea: a training program designed to prepare US military personnel for enduring prison conditions in these countries was simply turned on its head.

The sickness gets sicker as we wade into the tall weeds: there’s the story of "Grayson Swigert" and "Hammond Dunbar," pseudonyms for the psychologists put in charge of the torture orgy. Neither had any experience interrogating anyone. They didn’t know Al Qaeda from Al Jolson. However, these two did have experience with the program, mentioned above, that trained US soldiers to withstand torture: it was they who designed the specific torture techniques that would be used against detainees. They also "carried out inherently governmental functions," according to the Senate report, "such as acting as liaison between the CIA and foreign intelligence services, assessing the effectiveness of the interrogation program, and participating in the interrogation of detainees held in foreign government custody." Yet they weren’t just fulfilling a governmental function but also an entrepreneurial one on their own behalf: this duo established a private company to which the CIA contracted out its torture chambers. The contract was quite profitable, according to the Senate committee:

"In 2006, the value of the CIA’s base contract with the company formed by the psychologists with all options exercised was in excess of $180 million; the contractors received $81 million prior to the contract’s termination in 2009. In 2007, the CIA provided a multi-year indemnification agreement to protect the company and its employees from legal liability arising out of the program. The CIA has since paid out more than $1 million pursuant to the agreement."

Yes, we bail out torturers as well as bankers, big insurance companies, and the auto industry.

It’s a measure of just how ridiculously unaware of their own absurdity people like Dianne Feinstein and her fellow Senators are that the names of these two torture profiteers – James E. Mitchell and Bruce Jessen – were revealed years ago and are well known, and yet the Senate report insists on referring to them by two silly-sounding pseudonyms.

That’s because our lawmakers live on another planet from the rest of us. Or, rather, they inhabit another dimension, otherwise known as Bizarro World – where up is down, black is white, crimes aren’t punished but those who expose crimes are relentlessly pursued, and the leader of the "Free World" condemns in others practices it routinely engages in.

The idea that "this isn’t who we are," as President Obama has said, and that we have to expose this so that it "never happens again," as Sen. Feinstein put it, is pure nonsense. This is indeed who we are: it is what we became once we acquired a global empire. Waterboarding is nothing new for Americans: we did it to the Philippine rebels when we decided to "liberate" them from the Spaniards. We did worse in Vietnam. What’s more, our proxy armies – the Nicaraguan contras, the Afghan mujahideen during the 1980s, the Syrian rebels today – have engaged in torture worldwide. And don’t forget the many authoritarian regimes we’ve propped up with aid, arms, and diplomatic support, while they torture their own people.

You can’t hold the whole world in subjection without a little torture: and given the arrogance and blatant immorality of our political class, you can bet it will be more than just a little.

Want to abolish torture by US government agents? Then abolish the American empire. There’s no shortcut, no way to ensure that "national security" won’t trump elementary ethics in the future – not unless we permanently ditch our imperial ambitions and restore our old republic. Until then we’ll remain the United States of Torture.

An added note: With all that’s been happening lately I’ve been so busy that I’ve neglected to thank our readers and supporters for making our Winter fundraising drive such a roaring success. So please allow me to rectify that oversight, however tardily and inadequately.

Without your support we just wouldn’t be here: it’s as simple as that. And yet you’ve come through once again, just as you’ve been doing for the past 18 years or so, and that for me is just so gratifying – such a validation of what we’re doing here at – that I can hardly express my gratitude. An odd confession for a writer to make, but that should give you some idea of the sheer scale of my gratitude. Thank you one and all – we are working every day (yes, including Sundays!) to live up to the vote of confidence you’ve just given us.


You can check out my Twitter feed by going here. But please note that my tweets are sometimes deliberately provocative, often made in jest, and largely consist of me thinking out loud.

I’ve written a couple of books, which you might want to peruse. Here is the link for buying the second edition of my 1993 book, Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement, with an Introduction by Prof. George W. Carey, a Foreword by Patrick J. Buchanan, and critical essays by Scott Richert and David Gordon (ISI Books, 2008).

You can buy An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard (Prometheus Books, 2000), my biography of the great libertarian thinker, here.

Author: Justin Raimondo

Justin Raimondo passed away on June 27, 2019. He was the co-founder and editorial director of, and was a senior fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute. He was a contributing editor at The American Conservative, and wrote a monthly column for Chronicles. He was the author of Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement [Center for Libertarian Studies, 1993; Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2000], and An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard [Prometheus Books, 2000].