Calipari and rendition

The Bush administration, I think it’s fair to say, never tells the truth when

it would be better served by a lie. We saw this when it came to WMDs, of course,

but we’ve also seen it time and time again in the context of fiscal policy –

especially with regard to how much various spending bills are estimated to cost.

So when the New York Times led its flagship Sunday edition with the Bush administration

giving the official take on the fraught subject of rendition, I would have liked

to have seen a certain amount of pushback from the newspaper of record. Instead,

the Times simply caved.

A bit of recent history: in February, the New Yorker ran a magnificent

article by Jane Mayer on the subject of rendition – essentially, the

way in which the USA sends suspected terrorist sympathisers off to nasty regimes

like that of Syria, to get tortured. The title of the piece was "Outsourcing

Torture", and the meticulously-reported story told us not only that what

we had always suspected was true, but that it was actually having a seriously

detrimental effect on the war on terror.

Fast forward to this Sunday, and the Times leading with their impeccable source,

the well-known "senior United States official". Here’s the background,

from the Times story:

The official declined to be named but agreed to discuss the program to rebut

the assertions that the United States used the program to secretly send people

to other countries for the purpose of torture.

The New Yorker article is never mentioned, although its are clearly the "assertions"

which the official was trying to rebut. Immediately, we see two major problems.

Firstly, we have a situation where we’re being asked who we believe: the excellent

(and, no doubt, fact-checked to within an inch of its life) New Yorker story,

or a Bush Administration official who simply asserts abstract "facts"

without providing any specific detail. Already, I’m tending to believe the New

Yorker. But then it turns out that the administration official is insisting

on anonymity: in other words, he (or she) faces zero repercussions whatsoever

if it turns out that everything he was saying was an outright lie.

How and why did the Times decide to make this person the lead story, rather

than insisting that if the Administration wants to put the record straight,

it should do so on the record? Here’s the central assertion, literally incredible

on its face:

The official refused to say how many prisoners had been transferred as part

of the program. But former government officials say that since the Sept. 11

attacks, the C.I.A. has flown 100 to 150 suspected terrorists from one foreign

country to another, including to Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Pakistan.

Each of those countries has been identified by the State Department as habitually

using torture in its prisons. But the official said that guidelines enforced

within the C.I.A. require that no transfer take place before the receiving

country provides assurances that the prisoner will be treated humanely, and

that United States personnel are assigned to monitor compliance.

"We get assurances, we check on those assurances, and we double-check

on these assurances to make sure that people are being handled properly in

respect to human rights," the official said.

Uh-huh. The US is sending detainees to Syria, and then is so chummy

with the Syrians that it can check and double-check that the detainees are not

being tortured. "The Syrians might torture their prisoners," seems

to be the Administration line here, "and they might be a sworn enemy of

the United States, but we’re sure they’d tell us if they were torturing the

prisoners they got from us."

And, if it’s not to torture the prisoners, why is the US sending them into

these unspeakably gruesome penal systems? Don’t you know, it’s just a question

of cashflow:

The transfers were portrayed as an alternative to what American officials

have said is the costly, manpower-intensive process of housing them in the

United States or in American-run facilities in other countries.

Right. Let’s say it costs $100,000 to house a prisoner in Guantanamo.

If the US has subjected 150 individuals to rendition instead, that’s $15 million

"saved". Surely there’s no conceivable way that the CIA-run rendition

program, complete with a Gulfstream private jet, could cost less than $15 million.

Yet the Times lets the anonymous Bush administration official get away with

this insanely implausible assertion, as though anybody believes that the administration

is so concerned by matters fiscal that it will risk sending individuals into

the arms of torturers just to save a couple of million dollars.

One of the central points of the New Yorker article is that the whole rendition

program is counterproductive: information gleaned from tortured individuals

is neither reliable nor admissible in a court of law. So even if a terrorist

confesses under torture that Person X is a mastermind who is planning to blow

up the world, that information can’t be used in the X’s trial, and he might

well end up getting set free – as has already happened in Germany. Hell,

the US won’t even provide its detainees to its own legislature: the Congressional

9/11 Commission tried to talk to them, or at the very least put questions to

them, but wasn’t allowed to by the CIA.

So, on a larger scale, goes it with Administration lies. If the Bushies are

seen to be lying all over the front page of the New York Times, then it becomes

much harder to believe them when it comes to questions such as that of the killing

of Nicola Calipari, the international operations chief of Italy’s military intelligence

service.

Calipari was killed, of course, but two Italians in the car survived, and both

of them strenuously dispute the version of events given by the Americans who

killed him. For once I’m inclined to believe the conspiracy theorists: the Americans

hate it when hostages in Iraq are ransomed, and opened fire on the Italian journalist

quite deliberately. (Eason Jordan, do you feel vindicated now?) No one in Italy

seems to believe the American version of events, and it’s very hard to believe

that sophisticated Italian intelligence officers would behave in the way that

the Americans say the driver of the car behaved. On the other hand, given that

the Americans had only one chance to intercept Giuliana Sgrena between her rescue

and her arrival in Italy, it’s easily conceivable that they took that chance

to try to scupper the deal by force.

If I could think of a single instance where the Bush administration told the

truth despite the fact that they would have been better served with a lie, then

I might be more inclined to believe them this time. But given the cavalier attitude

which they have repeatedly demonstrated both to the truth and to the press,

and given the laughable assertions they made as recently as Sunday on the front

page of the New York Times, I simply have no basis to believe what they say

any more. And I doubt many people in Europe feel any differently.

The USA has simply lost its international credibility, and so long as George

W Bush remains in the White House, I can’t think of any easy way it can get

it back.

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3 Responses to Calipari and rendition

  1. Taos Turner says:

    Felix, long lost colleague, how are you,? I hope all is well in NY. I just got done reading your comments on the Bush administration in Calipari and rendition. May I share some reflections with you?

    You say it “is fair to say” that the Bush administration “never tells the truth when it would be better served by a lie.” You continue: “We saw this when it came to WMDs, of course, but we’ve also seen it time and again in the context of fiscal policy – especially with regard to how much various spending bills are estimated to cost.”

    Did we really see this with WMDs? If so, when exactly? I believe an alternative explanation to lying is equally possible if not more probable. Here is what may have happened, at least as I see it:

    1) Bush and his functionaries said repeatedly that Hussein had WMDs.

    Hussein did not.

    2) Bush officials said certain spending bills would cost less than X.

    They did not.

    For now, I’d like to address the issue of WMDs and leave the spending bills for another time. What are we to conclude from the gap between these assertions and their lack of correspondence to reality? If you are a fan of the correspondence theory of truth, you might say that Bush’s statements were untrue because they did not/do not correspond to the facts. I will grant you this much. But this doesn’t necessitate, logically, that Bush lied. He might have, but how would we know this? If we tried to make a formal argument for the proposition that Bush lied, it might look like this:

    a) Bush said Hussein had WMDs

    b) Hussein did not have WMDs

    —————————-

    c) Therefore, Bush lied

    But this is not a sound argument. While premises a) and b) may be true, they do not lead, inexorably, to the conclusion that c) must be true. Why? Because c) doesn’t necessarily follow from a) and b). Let’s try to define our terms. Lying, of the sort you address in your blog, involves intentional deception. Have you seen evidence showing that Bush knew, before going to war in Iraq, that Hussein actually possessed no WMDs? If you have, and can share this with me, I will gladly convert to your position. However, I have not seen evidence that indicates Bush knowingly – that is, intentionally – deceived the world when he insisted that Iraq had WMDs. Without such evidence, we cannot know with any degree of certainty that Bush lied. At most, we can speculate that he did; assume that he did. If we attack BushÌs veracity from ground that is built on nothing more than assumption or speculation, we engage in a dangerous gambit, one that can cause the floor to sink beneath our own feet.

    Let me explain.

    Iraq is known to have possessed WMDs in the early 1990s and before. Moreover, during this period Hussein repeatedly lied about Iraq’s possession of these weapons. Because of this, many people assumed that Hussein continued to possess – and lie about his possession of – WMDs. This was a flawed assumption; a flawed conclusion that didn’t follow necessarily from its premises. The deductive reasoning behind that argument might look like this:

    a) Hussein once had WMDs

    b) Hussein repeatedly lied about having WMDs when he was known to have them

    ————————-

    c) Therefore, Hussein continues to have and lie about his possession of WMDs

    This clearly is not a sound argument. C) doesn’t necessarily follow from a) and b) As a result, those who supported Bush’s contentions about Hussein on these grounds stood on very thin ice indeed. While Hussein did once possess WMDs and did lie about that fact, this doesn’t imply, logically, that he continued to possess WMDs in 2003.

    Let’s get back to your argument (as I see it) and how it might look if you add intentional deception into the mix:

    a) Bush said Hussein had WMDs during the run-up to the invasion of Iraq

    b) Bush knew statement a) to be false

    c) A lie consists of intentional deception; that is, saying X when one knows X to be false

    d) Statement a) was false: Hussein did not have WMDs

    —————————-

    e) Therefore, Bush lied

    Now, the argument appears to be sound, but only if we accept premise b) as valid. How do you know that b) is true? There are alternative ways of looking at Bush’s statements about WMDs. First, he could have misread the intelligence presented to him Or perhaps advisors, like former CIA Director George Tenet, could have misinterpreted the intelligence they had on Iraq. They could have concluded (incorrectly) from such reports that Hussein continued to possess WMDs. This would imply grave incompetence, which itself is a major problem, but not intentional deceit. If this were true, it would mean Bush may have acted on good faith when he spoke about Hussein and his alleged possession of WMDs. Bush may have genuinely believed (even if wrongly) that Iraq had the weapons. If Bush’s reasoning was faulty (or his intelligence reports bad or poorly interpreted), it is logically possible that he did not intentionally mislead the world when he spoke about Hussein and WMDs. It is possible that Bush did not know statement a) to be false. He may very well have believed it to be true. If he believed a) to be true, then his statements on WMDs would have been false but unintentionally so. And if he didn’t intentionally deceive us on Iraq and WMDs, is it really “fair to say” that he lied to us? I think not, not if we lack the evidence to show Bush intentionally deceived us. So the question becomes: Where is your evidence? Are you speculating or assuming something about Bush? Or do you have evidence that he (and Tony Blair for that matter) intentionally lied to us? It is dangerous, I fear, to presuppose mendacity when a plausible alternative explanation exists. What do you think?

    I certainly have no claim to omniscience in this matter. (And I must admit that grave incompetence may be even scarier than mendacity in this case.) You may very well know more than I, and you may have seen things (evidence) that led you to reach your conclusion. If you have already addressed this issue in previous postings, please forgive me, as I have not been keeping up. If not, perhaps you could share your thoughts and help to set me straight.

    Bush’s policies have led to death and destruction in Iraq. They have also led, at least for now, to a profound decline in positive attitudes (and a rise in negative ones) toward the U.S. and American foreign policy, as you noted. Bush should be held accountable in every way for his judgment, his actions and his veracity. We may have reason to question these things, but do we have enough evidence to assert boldly, in a public medium, that Bush lied to us? I would say no, at least not based on the evidence I have seen.

    As to U.S. credibility, I fear you may be right. However, there is a glimmer of hope at the end of that long, murky Middle Eastern tunnel. If things go well in the region (if conditions improve in Iraq, Lebanon and/or Egypt, to name three areas where events recently have sparked optimism), Bush and, consequently, U.S. foreign policy, could gain ground among the naysayers, detractors and other legitimately disillusioned folk. Let us keep hope alive.

    As to the matter of Calipari, I think there is good reason to doubt the conspiracy theorists this time. But I’ll have to leave this aside for now, as I’ve already taken up too much of your time. Here is a link to a Newsweek article that provides a reasonable alternative to the conspiracy buffs.

    http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/7139834/site/newsweek/

    Well, that’s a mouthful of words from someone who hasn’t even spoken to you in a long time. I hope and trust that all is well and that life is being kind. Take care and best wishes, Taos.

  2. Felix says:

    Hey Taos.

    Would you be happier if instead of “lie” I used “cavalier disregard for the truth”? My point is that the Bushies seem quite happy to say whatever is most politically expedient, regardless of whether or not it is true. In any case, on the question of WMDs, they didn’t know that they were there, but they said that they did know. That’s a lie. Even if “Saddam has WMDs” was not a lie, “I know Saddam has WMDs” was a lie.

    It’s quite possible that the killing of Calipari was cock-up and not conspiracy. But my point is that the Bushies probably don’t know and don’t care either way: they’ll simply say it was a cock-up, since they’d say that anyway, whether it was true or false. Therefore, there’s no need for them to find out whether it is true of false. In that sense, what they’re doing is even worse than lying: maybe it’s closer to what Harry Frankfurt calls bullshit.

    More broadly, my point is that whether or not Bush is lying using your definition of the word, we would still be foolish to believe much of what he says: his decision to be ignorant on many subjects might absolve him from the “lying” charge, but it doesn’t make his proclamations any truer. Either way, we should have less trust in the word of this administration than we should have had in the word of previous ones.

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