a citizen’s journal by Thomas Nephew

The “Zero Dark Thirty” interbranch torture propaganda war

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 24th December 2012

…followed by the highest-grossing propaganda effort in history?

The makers of “Zero Dark Thirty” may have just learned that there is such a thing as bad publicity.  Peter Bergen (CNN) reports:

On Wednesday, three senior U.S. senators sent Michael Lynton, the CEO of Sony Pictures, a letter about “Zero Dark Thirty,” the much-discussed new movie about the hunt for Osama bin Laden, which described the film as “grossly inaccurate and misleading.”

The letter, co-signed by Senators Diane Feinstein (D-CA), Carl Levin (D-MI), and John McCain (R-AZ), states:

…We understand that the film is fiction, but it opens with the words “based on first-hand accounts of actual events” and there has been significant media coverage of the CIA’s cooperation with the screenwriters. As you know, the film graphically depicts CIA officers repeatedly torturing detainees and then credits these detainees with providing critical lead information on the courier that led to the Usama Bin Laden. Regardless of what message the filmmakers intended to convey, the movie clearly implies that the CIA’s coercive interrogation techniques were effective in eliciting important information related to a courier for Usama Bin Laden. We have reviewed CIA records and know that this is incorrect.

Zero Dark Thirty is factually inaccurate, and we believe that you have an obligation to state that the role of torture in the hunt for Usama Bin Laden is not based on the facts, but rather part of the film’s fictional narrative….

LA Times reporters Zeitchik and Keegan cut to the chase as far as Hollywood is concerned:

…a bipartisan thumbs-down from Washington may dim the once-bright Oscar chances for Kathryn Bigelow‘s fact-based thriller about the hunt for Osama bin Laden“You believe when watching this movie that waterboarding and torture leads to information that leads then to the elimination of Osama bin Laden. That’s not the case,” McCain said on CNN’s “The Situation Room,” adding that torture had yielded false information from detainees. The former prisoner of war explained that he was speaking out because “movies, particularly by very highly credentialed producers, directors and cast, [do] have an effect on public opinion — not only in the United States but around the world.”

Zeitchik and Keegan continue, apparently not ironically,

The slam — and on a subject as provocative as torture — is part of a public relations nightmare in an industry where perception often trumps reality.

…by which they seem to mean criticisms from the news cycle trumping box office receipts and cinematographic artistry.  If so, karma may be a bitch in this case, given that “perception trumping reality” is what the movie makers (arguably) did to position their movie as an Oscar-bait, kinda-sorta-documentary “based on first-hand accounts of actual events,” mainly-sorta-blockbuster in the first place.

Yet there’s something that doesn’t sit well about the senators’ position here either.  I don’t agree with the Washington Post’s  David Ignatius, who clutches at his pearls and calls  the senators’ letter “intemperate” and suggests the senators’ position “sounds like censorship.”  As to the former: good grief, who cares?  But as to the latter: first, “sounds like” ain’t “is.”  Second, it doesn’t even sound like it: the senators suggest setting the record straight — no more — about the movie’s lack of veracity, as they rightly (I suspect*) see it, on the subject of the paltry role that CIA depravity ultimately played in locating Bin Laden.

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Zero Dark de Triomphe

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 14th December 2012

Roy Edroso takes on Glenn Greenwald’s recent piece on the upcoming “Zero Dark Thirty” movie, and rightly identifies several passages undermining Greenwald’s claim as “disingenuous” that his piece is all about critical reactions, and not about the movie itself.  Personally I feel like “so what?”   I think Greenwald’s basic point remains valid: many critics essentially said both “whoa, whutta movie! must see!” and “but ya know, it glorifies torture.” And that is indeed another data point for cultural Nate Silvers to add to their estimate of where our national handbasket is headed.

But yeah,  maybe Greenwald jumped the gun a bit by foolishly taking many reviewers at their word instead of waiting to see the movie for himself.  So did I, maybe: I set up a “Boycott Zero Dark Thirty” Facebook page before learning that Spencer Ackerman — a reporter for Wired who has seemed like a straight shooter over the years — argues the movie says that torture wasn’t the “silver bullet” but “the ignorant alternative”  to the kind of detective work that actually did find Bin Laden.

But this is the part of Roy’s piece I want to discuss:

“This is still more proof — as if more were needed — that you shouldn’t bring your political obsessions to the temple of art. It is both more personally edifying and more pleasing to the Muses to approach a work of art as a work of art, however obnoxious it may be to you on other grounds, than to approach it as a political phenomenon.”

Honestly, Roy, I’m sorry: baloney. I don’t have to see Zero Dark Thirty to know — OK, very, very strongly suspect — that it’s “art” the way the Roman Colosseum is art, or the Arc de Triomphe is art, or “Triumph of the Will” is art.

That is to say, OK, sure, it’s a kind of art — but it’s a kind serving to glorify the victories and rulers of the day and validate their people’s faith in them, and it’s fully intended to do so. Such art, unlike, say, “Little Miss Sunshine,” is therefore a political phenomenon too, and is completely fair game for political discussion. For that matter, so is a hell of a lot of the rest of the uplifting artstuff hanging on museum walls or flickering on screens for that matter: it’s what those who are good at saying well-compensated uplifting stuff say or have the power to say.

What is it Bigelow and Boal have the well-compensated power to say? E.g., how do Bigelow and Boal know what they think they know, how does it get that authentic, documentarian feel cinematic art consumers today crave?   Not just “the illusion of real time” in exciting night time raids but the ‘ripped from the headlines’ faithful[ness] to the material’?  Oh, right: they got it spoon fed to them — back when the prospective opening date was apparently advertised as October 12, not December 14.  Do the math.

Greenwald (and I for that matter) may have swung early and missed as far as ZD30 goes, but I’m betting there’s plenty there to hit. One way or the other, we’re on the cusp of our “pass the popcorn” phase of our national dialogue, such as it is, on torture.  Not every story at the intersection of art and politics is “Piss Christ” revisited, or about whether government should pay for controversial art or monitor its content.  Bigelow and ZD30 chose the kitchen, they can’t complain about the heat.  As long as the word “disingenuous” is floating around, it also seems a little disingenuous to claim the most highly anticipated political snuff movie ever is in the  “temple of art,” so leave it aloooooone.

On the other hand, though, I’m not sure about boycotting the thing any more.  It’s probably best to go ahead and see it if you’ve got to scratch that itch, or just to judge what, if anything, is wrong with it exactly.  I guess I do hope many, many Americans don’t enjoy it.

Screening the rushes for Zero Dark Thirty (and making sure there was a group photo).

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“Hard, hard decisions”

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 30th August 2012

As ever, the Republican National Convention is a target-rich environment for fact-checking.   This time, it’s Paul Ryan’s speech in particular that has come in for a great deal of well deserved — and unusual* — criticism in the media for Ryan’s outright lies and hypocrisy.

Condoleeza Rice addresses RNC (ABC News); speech as prepared (Washington Post);
speech as delivered (transcript by FOX News)

Condoleeza Rice, by contrast, received accolade after accolade for a speech variously characterized as “professorial,” “statesmanlike, stirring and secure“, even “the sort that gets collected in books, and studied by speechwriters.

And so Rice appears to have avoided any serious scrutiny for her speech, which — though largely free of Ryan-esque whoppers — contained plenty of half-truths, contradictions, and sleights of hand of its own.

Some of these are perhaps relatively minor (to Americans, if not to the people involved).**   But one assertion in particular stood out for me.  Rice began, “America has met and overcome difficult circumstances before.  Whenever you find yourself doubting us – just think of all the times that we have made the impossible seem inevitable in retrospect.” Then, after invoking the Revolution, the Civil War, and the demise of the Soviet Union, Rice got to her own blow for freedom and the American Way:

“…the willingness to take hard, hard decisions in the aftermath of 9/11 that secured us and prevented the follow-on attacks that seemed preordained at the time.”

It’s clear enough what she’s talking about.  And so we endure, once again, a Secretary of State defending torture despite U.S. agreement with the Geneva Conventions. It’s entirely possible for even undergraduate students — in fact, even 4th graders — to take Condoleeza Rice down on this issue when given a chance.  But the American news media generally don’t have the will or the attention span necessary to do so.  (I’m reminded of the old Groucho Marx routine with a nincompoop general exclaiming, “Why, a four year old child could understand this! …Run out and find me a four year old child.”)

So maybe TIME’s Michael Scherer was right, maybe Condi Rice’s speech will get featured in a history book some day — as the speech marking the final, all but unnoticed triumph of the Bush/Cheney administration torturers over their adversaries.

(image via

* Even FOX News got in on the bashing: Sally Kohn characterized Ryan’s speech as “deceiving”: “On the other hand, to anyone paying the slightest bit of attention to facts, Ryan’s speech was an apparent attempt to set the world record for the greatest number of blatant lies and misrepresentations slipped into a single political speech. On this measure, while it was Romney who ran the Olympics, Ryan earned the gold.”
** For example, while the average news reader may agree that Russia and China are preventing an international response to the civil war in Syria, it’s also true that U.S and Turkish intransigence about Assad stepping down before talks begin has been a position designed to get “no” for an answer. Some of Rice’s comments were the kind of familiar, somewhat eye-rolling pablum about America’s central, allegedly indispensable, always benign and freedom-loving role that we’re likely to hear again from, say, Hillary Clinton at the Democratic convention in Charlotte; others were more on the order of “but, but you just said,” e.g., talking about her life under Jim Crow after talk of a “second founding” overcoming the scourge of segregation.

UPDATE, 8/30: Peter Beinart (Daily Beast) and Fred Kaplan (Slate) also critique Rice’s speech, though not for the “hard decisions” language. Beinart points out the lack of any discussion of Iraq. Kaplan says Rice is off base about ‘failure to lead’ because of things like Obama’s favorable ratings overseas and the Libya intervention, which Kaplan believes was done rightly.

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Rogue nation ’tis of thee, land of impunity

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 12th November 2010

In new memoir, Bush makes clear he approved use of waterboarding (R. Jeffrey Smith, WaPo, 11/3):

In his book, titled “Decision Points,” Bush recounts being asked by the CIA whether it could proceed with waterboarding Mohammed, who Bush said was suspected of knowing about still-pending terrorist plots against the United States. Bush writes that his reply was “Damn right” and states that he would make the same decision again to save lives, according to a someone close to Bush who has read the book.

After headlining this story “But you know, what the hell” on Facebook, I got into an online discussion with a friend about it a couple of days later; his take was not quite a shrug, but something like it — more or less “nothing new here.”  To be clear: he didn’t approve of the torture at all, he just didn’t see what was newsworthy about the story.  And indeed, the Post story continued:

Bush previously had acknowledged endorsing what he described as the CIA’s “enhanced” interrogation techniques – a term meant to encompass irregular, coercive methods – after Justice Department officials and other top aides assured him they were legal. “I was a big supporter of waterboarding,” Vice President Richard B. Cheney acknowledged in a television interview in February.

My friend argued that for either Bush or Obama, “Expecting public self-critical analysis from these folks is like expecting Hulk Hogan to admit that pro wrestling is rigged.” I replied:

You mistake my point, which I expressed too obliquely. My point is “simply” that we appear to have Bush’s confession that he broke laws and international obligations against torture. His blustery confidence that he was right to do so is irrelevant; the point is that he confessed to doing so. Were this a country with a functioning legal system, this would prompt prosecutors to begin legal action.

My brevity was intended to convey: this is how to commit a crime and get away with it. First, commit the crime. Then, hide it as long as possible. Then, deny it was a crime. Then, deny what you did fit the definition of the crime. (“We do not torture,” he said repeatedly.)  Always, blur responsibility so that it was perhaps ‘bad apples’ who freelanced the crime. Then persuade your successor to take part in the coverup. Then write a book about it.  […]

Bush’s contrition isn’t the issue to me, I couldn’t care less about that. Our betrayal of ourselves is.

My friend made the reasonable point that if the public can’t be bothered with Bush’s lies to get us into a war, the chances of its getting bothered about torture are even less.  Maybe so.  Yet while there is perhaps some question about a head of state of a sovereign nation tilting that nation to war, there are actual, specific statutes and treaty obligations against torture, and specific means to see that failing to meet those obligations is punished.  Somehow, torture seems so specific and wrong to me that it seems harder to evade responsibility. Though this war was not, war might sometimes be justified; torture can never be. At any rate, in his Nation article George W. Bush: Torturer-in-Chief, Georgetown law professor David Cole points out:

…Bush and Cheney are not immune. In fact, the United States is legally obligated by the Convention Against Torture, a treaty we helped draft, and have signed and ratified, to investigate any credible allegations of torture by a person within US jurisdiction. And if the United States does not take action, other nations are authorized to do so, under the principle of “universal jurisdiction,” which treats torture as so heinous that its perpetrators can be investigated and prosecuted by any country if their own country fails to take corrective action. […]

…the principle of universal jurisdiction, combined with our government’s failure to take any steps toward accountability, means that Bush and Cheney can be investigated and prosecuted anywhere in the world. They may feel confident that President Obama will not have the temerity to hold them accountable, but it’s not clear they should be confident about the rest of the world. Two investigations of US complicity in torture are already pending in Spain, where Pinochet was initially investigated. And Poland has recently opened a criminal investigation of torture at a CIA “black site” there. Bush and Cheney may want to limit their vacations to the homeland for the foreseeable future.

To join my friend in realism — whether as a means of triaging doomed expectations or not, whether disillusioned or not — I don’t suppose that much will come of this, either. I don’t really expect Spain or Poland to indict Bush or Cheney, though I’d frankly cheer if they did; I imagine they’ll back down if confronted, though I’d support them not doing so.

It seems like all those of us appalled by all of this can say is ‘shame.’ But maybe that isn’t just a matter of scolding or blushing; maybe shame means more than mere emotional discomfort. For starters, we obviously undo the reciprocal expectation that American soldiers can expect not to be mistreated by their captors.  But there are other results, less tangible, but maybe more influential.

Even if there aren’t formal consequences for systematic, high level US approval of torture (and failure to punish that), there will be informal, but powerful ones.  Public opinion around the world — among even our closer allies — is not going to be very teary-eyed about the accelerating loss of US prestige/dominance in the world.  That loss mainly has to do with economic decline — but we’ll have simultaneously, and I’m afraid rightly, lost respect and friendship as well. We’ll just be the crazy, nasty Uncle Sam in the attic, a near-rogue nation if not a full-fledged one.

That image will be all too well founded, and that will matter. As we get used to torture by the US, we will need to get used to its consequences as well.

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Elect to End Torture 2010: congressional scorecards

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 29th October 2010

The National Religious Campaign Against Torture (NRCAT) Action Fund has produced detailed Congressional vote scorecards of House and Senate incumbents’ “actions on major pieces of torture-related legislation in the 109th, 110th, and 111th Congresses,” from 2005 to 2010:

You can tell people how their vote will make a difference by writing a letter to the editor of your local newspaper that either thanks your incumbent Representative or Senator for his or her good votes to end torture – or takes him or her to task for failing to vote against torture. Get involved today – we’ve got suggestions and sample letters available.

I’ve reformatted the data to an online spreadsheet, visible to the right.  NRCAT compiled House votes on the Detainee Treatment Act (DTA), the Military Commissions Act (MCA), and bills about habeas corpus, Army Field Manual “golden rule” in interrogation, videotaping interrogations, and closing Guantanamo, as well as the House attempt to override Bush’s veto of the “golden rule” bill.

For the Senate, NRCAT also reviewed DTA, MCA, habeas corpus, and Guantanamo closure votes, as well as the Mukasey confirmation vote and a vote on establishing a commission to examine detainee treatment abuses.  Scores were computed as the sum of equally weighted positive votes to end torture and negative votes to tolerate it, divided by the greatest possible score for the Congressperson or Senator, expressed as a percentage.

Goal Thermometer
Support these progressives:
Feingold, Sestak, Grayson,
Kilroy, Murphy, Clark, Lentz,
Trivedi, Pingree, Grijalva,

Naturally, I was interested in how “newsrack actblue” candidates or their opponents voted — and I’m very pleased to report that every single incumbent we’re supporting got a NRCAT score of 100. Moreover, two challengers — Tarryl Clark and Manan Trivedi — face Republican incumbents with extremely poor scores: Michele Bachmann (10) and Jim Gerlach (14) respectively.

NRCAT has also published questionnaire responses for selected Senate and House races. One of the Senate races was Wisconsin’s — and while Russ Feingold agreed with the NRCAT position on every count, Ron Johnson stayed true to form by… refusing to answer the questionnaire.

While it’s true that candidates have probably completed buying the air time they can purchase before the election, a Feingold staffer has emailed me that his campaign can still use funds to mount the best possible “get out the vote” (GOTV) drive they can. So if you haven’t donated, there’s still time, and now it’s even clearer that we’re supporting some outstanding candidates.

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Civil Liberties

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 25th September 2010

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I’ve got two words for you

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 6th May 2010

1. “Predator drones“:

As digby writes, “All presidents should probably make it a rule not to yuk it up over WMD and air attacks. It’s unnecessary.”

2. “Tase him!

(also via digby)

After all, the kid ran on to a baseball field, which jeopardized… something or other. Anyway, TASE HIM!

EDIT, 5/6: WMD link added.
UPDATE, 5/10: Credit where credit is due — the Washington Post editorial page weighs in against what happened in Philadelphia (“Police and Tasers“): “…[T]he Philadelphia police commissioner, Charles Ramsey, who reviewed video of the incident, said his officer had acted within department guidelines. That’s the problem. While Tasers have been useful in protecting officers from dangerous and out-of-control suspects, in too many police agencies the policy on using them is so loosely defined that officers can fire the weapons more or less when they feel like it.”

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David Frum and a Tale of Two Spotlights, Maybe Three

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 29th March 2010

Last Sunday, conservative and former Bush speechwriter David Frum had the temerity to criticize Republican strategy in the wake of the health care and insurance reforms passed on Sunday.

Last Tuesday, the Wall Street Journal lashed out at him, claiming he “now makes his living as the media’s go-to basher of fellow Republicans, which is a stock Beltway role.”

Last Wednesday, David Frum was forced out of his position at the American Enterprise Institute.  Like others, I had a good time with the news, suggesting a paragraph on the AEI “About Us” page be rewritten as

“The Institute’s community of scholars is committed to expanding liberty, increasing individual opportunity, and strengthening free enterprise. AEI pursues these unchanging ideals through independent thinking, open debate, reasoned argument, and by firing anyone who disagrees with us.”

Scott Horton, in What Frum’s Firing Tells Us About Politics Today, writes that event

…tells us a good deal about AEI and the current dynamics within the Republican camp. In today’s AEI, policy experts aren’t there to do analysis and give advice—they’re there to serve as made-to-order propagandists. Differing views are not wanted.

And that’s true.  But what’s also interesting is how little Frum’s views differed from a Republican Party’s of not so terribly long ago, and how embarrassing they could and should have been for Sunday’s victors, not its vanquished.  For the centerpiece of what Frum wrote was this (emphasis added):

“This time, when we went for all the marbles, we ended with none.  Could a deal have been reached? Who knows? But we do know that the gap between this plan and traditional Republican ideas is not very big.

And it’s true — even Nancy Pelosi and liberal columnist E. J. Dionne tout the Republican antecedents of the current legislation, identifying its ancestors in Heritage Foundation proposals of the early 1990s, the 1996 Dole campaign, and of course (however much he now hates to admit it) Mitt Romney’s Massachusetts health care bill of 2006.  And they celebrate that.

Imagine two spotlights illuminating a stage, one with blue light, one with red; there’s some overlap, and a small bluish dog squats there, producing small bluish dog output.  To its right, a tethered Doberman gnaws on a couple of bloody bones, with older ones gnawed clean and abandoned stage left.  When the Doberman’s occasional snarls frighten the little blue dog, it invariably wags its tale and briefly assumes a submissive posture.

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Do-it-yourself torture accountability

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 19th March 2010

On Tuesday evening I listened to a panel sponsored by the Bill of Rights Defense Committee (BORDC) titled “Understanding U.S. Torture and Executive Accountability,” and hosted by the Institute for Policy Studies.

The panelists

Shahid Buttar, BORDC; Jesselyn Radack, former
Department of Justice ethics attorney; Matthew
Alexander, former U.S Army interrogator.
Originally uploaded by Thomas Nephew

I knew the panelists — Shahid Buttar, Matthew Alexander, and Jesselyn Radack — would be interesting, having read about them or read their own writing as I’ve followed these issues.  But what also interested me was one short sentence at the end of the e-mail:“The speakers will present concrete action opportunities to promote torture accountability, with a discussion to follow.”

Here is what they said.

“File bar complaints” – Jesselyn Radack
Jesselyn Radack, a former Department of Justice ethics attorney, blew the whistle on Department of Justice efforts to conceal her objections and counsel concerning the improper use of evidence gained in interrogations of “American Taliban” John Walker Lindh — and has paid for it with a long legal battle and placement on the no-fly list.*

Scott Horton’s recent Harper’s Magazine interview with her,  Justice’s Vendetta Against a Whistleblower: Six Questions for Jesselyn Radack, is a useful starting point for catching up with the story. As Radack points out there, her experience couldn’t be a starker contrast with that of Yoo and Bybee’s clean getaway from accountability for real wrongdoing:“I am now the only Justice Department attorney that OPR referred for bar disciplinary action stemming from advice I gave in a terrorism case–and my advice was to permit an American terrorism suspect to have counsel.”

Noting that “you don’t have to be a lawyer to file a bar complaint,” Ms. Radack hoped that would happen to John Yoo, Jay Bybee, and other lawyers implicated in authorizing torture. She clarified a question I had by saying you don’t have to live in the state where, say, John Yoo is admitted to the bar (Pennsylvania, as it happens), to lodge a complaint with that state bar association.

“Practice tolerance” – Matthew Alexander
Matthew Alexander, a former Army interrogator, has written a number of articles and editorials over the past few years rebutting claims that torture is necessary or effective.  One of the latest ones I’m aware of is a devastating review in Slate of former Bush staffer and current torture apologist Marc Thiessen’s ironically titled book “Courting Disaster.”  One of the first was a 2008 op-ed for the Washington Post, “I’m Still Tortured by What I Saw in Iraq.”**
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A new national anthem

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 10th March 2010

Oh, say can you see by the dawn’s early light
at Camp No near the base where they’re helplessly screaming?
Whose broad stripes and bright stars now mock all human right,
O’er the TV we watched were so emptily streaming
And the talk shows that scare, the thugs who don’t care
gave proof of our fright and our morals so bare
Oh, say does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O’er a land no longer free and the home of the knave?

From Waterboarding For Dummies (Mark Benjamin,, 3/9/2010):

Self-proclaimed waterboarding fan Dick Cheney called it a no-brainer in a 2006 radio interview: Terror suspects should get a “a dunk in the water.” But recently released internal documents reveal the controversial “enhanced interrogation” practice was far more brutal on detainees than Cheney’s description sounds, and was administered with meticulous cruelty.

Interrogators pumped detainees full of so much water that the CIA turned to a special saline solution to minimize the risk of death, the documents show. The agency used a gurney “specially designed” to tilt backwards at a perfect angle to maximize the water entering the prisoner’s nose and mouth, intensifying the sense of choking – and to be lifted upright quickly in the event that a prisoner stopped breathing.

The documents also lay out, in chilling detail, exactly what should occur in each two-hour waterboarding “session.” Interrogators were instructed to start pouring water right after a detainee exhaled, to ensure he inhaled water, not air, in his next breath. They could use their hands to “dam the runoff” and prevent water from spilling out of a detainee’s mouth. They were allowed six separate 40-second “applications” of liquid in each two-hour session – and could dump water over a detainee’s nose and mouth for a total of 12 minutes a day. Finally, to keep detainees alive even if they inhaled their own vomit during a session – a not-uncommon side effect of waterboarding – the prisoners were kept on a liquid diet. The agency recommended Ensure Plus. […]

The CIA’s waterboarding regimen was so excruciating, the memos show, that agency officials found themselves grappling with an unexpected development: detainees simply gave up and tried to let themselves drown.

NOTE, 03/15, at my father’s suggestion: I do intend to disturb and discomfort readers with this post, but I do not intend to impugn that vast majority of soldiers, veterans, and others who’ve served this country with honor. Nevertheless, it is as a human being, a citizen, and in fact a patriot that I believe t
he practice and acceptance of torture — past or present — raises unavoidable questions about what our country now stands for, and therefore what its symbols now stand for. It does not detract from honorable service at all — rather the opposite — to say that this country was better than what some of its leaders have made of it, and that I hope it will be again someday.

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