This interview with Glenn Greenwald is from the program Democracy Now!
Attorney General Eric Holder has opened an inquiry into CIA torture. On Monday, Holder appointed veteran federal prosecutor John Durham to look into whether CIA interrogators and contractors should be charged for the torture and abuse of foreign prisoners. Holder says he ordered the probe in response to a Justice Department recommendation to reopen nearly a dozen prisoner abuse cases that the Bush administration had closed. Holder says he was further influenced by the 2004 CIA report on the prisoners’ torture and abuse, which he released on Monday. We speak with political and legal blogger for Salon.com, Glenn Greenwald constitutional law attorney and political and legal blogger for Salon.com. He is the author of three books. His latest is “Great American Hypocrites: Toppling the Big Myths of Republican Politics.”
ANJALI KAMAT: We turn now to the issue of torture. On Monday, Attorney General Eric Holder appointed veteran federal prosecutor John Durham to look into whether CIA interrogators and contractors should be charged for the torture and abuse of foreign prisoners. Durham is already heading a separate probe into whether CIA officials broke the law in destroying videotapes documenting prisoner interrogations. The White House has opposed calls for a torture investigation but says the decision has been Holder’s to make.
Former Vice President Dick Cheney criticized the move. Cheney said in a statement that opening an inquiry into CIA interrogation practices was, quote, “a reminder, if any were needed,” of why some Americans question the Obama administration’s ability to protect the nation.
Holder says he ordered the probe in response to a Justice Department recommendation to reopen nearly a dozen prisoner abuse cases that the Bush administration had closed. Holder says he was further influenced by the 2004 CIA report on the prisoners’ torture and abuse, which he released on Monday.
The report provides accounts of interrogators threatening to kill and sexually assault a prisoner’s family, staging mock executions, intimidating prisoners with a handgun and a power drill, and blowing smoke on prisoners’ faces to make them vomit. One prisoner was grabbed by his carotid artery until he began to faint.
In an apparent response to the report’s release, the CIA declassified two memos on apparent intelligence gained from the prisoner interrogations. Cheney had previously claimed the memos would help vindicate the CIA interrogation methods by showing they yielded important intelligence. But the memos don’t describe any specific methods, nor do they assess their results.
AMY GOODMAN: The Obama administration, meanwhile, has confirmed plans to establish a new team of interrogators to question foreign suspects outside the CIA. The High-Value Detainee Interrogation Group, or HIG, will be operated out of the FBI and overseen by the National Security Council.
For more, we’re joined by Glenn Greenwald, constitutional law attorney and political and legal blogger for Salon.com, the author of three books. His latest is Great American Hypocrites: Toppling the Big Myths of Republican Politics. He’s joining us now by Democracy Now! video stream.
Glenn, welcome to Democracy Now!
GLENN GREENWALD: Good to be here, Amy.
AMY GOODMAN: Your response to these latest really profound developments in the last few days?
GLENN GREENWALD: They are profound. For one thing, I think Eric Holder’s announcement that there will be at least some investigation at least takes away the idea that all of this conduct, this torture regime, ought to be immunized from the rule of law and the mere fact that it was done in the name of terrorism means that somehow breaking the law is permissible in a republic that is supposed to live in accordance with the rule of law. So I think that’s a positive step.
I think the problem with the announcement, though, and it’s a significant problem, is that he has indicated that anybody who complied with the OLC torture memos, the memos that essentially gave permission to the CIA to engage in what was obviously torture, and who did so in good faith will receive immunity from investigations and prosecutions. And what that, I think, is intended to do, and what it almost certainly will accomplish, is to mean that the high-level political officials who actually implemented the torture regime—the Bush officials in the White House, the high-level CIA officials—will never be held to account.
And at most what will happen is some low-level sadist in the CIA who went beyond the torture permission slips given by the Justice Department might be held accountable, in the same way that in Abu Ghraib low-level grunts were held accountable for what was clearly the policy of high-level policymakers. And I think that’s quite problematic.
ANJALI KAMAT: Glenn Greenwald, talk about the inspector general’s torture report. Your piece in Salon.com is called “What Every American Should Be Made to Learn About the IG Torture Report.” What should every American be made to learn about this report, and why?
GLENN GREENWALD: Well, I think the reality of the torture regime is so vastly different from what the media typically depicts. I think if you ask most Americans what the torture regime and what the torture controversy was about, they would say, understandably, that it essentially involved waterboarding, pouring some water down the noses of three al-Qaeda members who were involved in the 9/11 attacks. That’s what they understand it to be, because that’s what the discussions about are almost always about. The reality, though, is quite different.
This is yet another report that details that the abuses that took place were pervasive and systematic, far more than three people, involving hundreds of people, perhaps thousands, that they involved people who even the CIA report said there was no incredible intelligence to believe that they were involved in terrorism of any kind, meaning that they were completely innocent of any wrongdoing. These were the people to whom we subjected these abuses.
And I think, beyond that, the kinds of techniques, the kinds of tactics that were used, as you indicated in your opening, are incredibly brutal and barbaric, exactly the kinds of methods that we’ve long condemned and called for war crimes prosecutions when engaged in by other countries.
And most of all, it involves numerous detainees who weren’t just abused and brutalized, but who were murdered, who were killed in detention as a result of these, quote/unquote, “interrogation tactics.” The IG report talks about one detainee being beaten to death with a flashlight. And, of course, there are many others, including some that are discussed in the IG report, though those passages were redacted.
And so, my point really is that if Americans want to endorse the idea that torture is permissible as a means of combating terrorism and that that’s something that the United States is now going to do and that the people who did it, even though it’s clearly a felony and a war crime, should be immunized from prosecution, at the very least they should be made to understand what it is that they’re defending. They’re not merely defending the use of waterboarding; they’re defending the most brutal and horrific tactics that result in severe injury to helpless captives and even death. And if, at the end of the day, America wants to defend and justify that, then at least they will do it with full knowledge and will be making a clearer statement about what the country has become.
AMY GOODMAN: Glenn, can you talk about the media coverage of all of this?
GLENN GREENWALD: Well, I think that, you know, one of the things that is most noticeable about what ends up happening with media coverage is that it’s immediately framed as being a question of whether this is something we should do to protect ourselves. The chyron on CNN all day and the title of the debate on CNN the entire day after this report was issued was “How far is too far to protect ourselves?” So we’ve now almost implicitly accepted the Cheneyite premise that the only way that we can stay safe, the only way we can extract information about terrorist plots, is by drowning it out of people or beating it out of people. And so, the discussion becomes simply whether or not Americans are willing to have their government leaders engage in torture in order to stay alive.
And it’s a completely distorted way of presenting it for so many reasons, beginning with the fact that all professional interrogators say that by far the most effective means of extracting information is establishing a rapport and using professional interrogation techniques, not coercing and beating it out of people. But what it does, even more than that, is it excludes from the consideration all the costs, the moral costs to society, the reputational damage, the standing—the loss of standing and credibility in the world, by becoming a nation that now tortures systematically, and more than that, becoming a country where we essentially vest our leaders with the power to break the law. We have laws in place, longstanding laws, that say it’s a felony to engage in torture. And torture is defined to include even things like threatening imminent death.
And so, if we start ignoring those questions, as the media almost entirely does, essentially what we’re becoming is a country that is both authoritarian, a country of torturers, and ones where our leaders have permission to break the law. And I defy anyone to look at network news discussions or cable news discussions and find any real discussion of those most consequential issues.
ANJALI KAMAT: Glenn Greenwald, talk about how these documents came to be released. This was not by an act of Congress or as a result of pressure from the mainstream media.
GLENN GREENWALD: I think that’s a really important point. You know, we have these institutions that are intended to exercise oversight, both in general over the executive branch and especially over the intelligence community. I mean, if there’s one thing the United States has learned, it’s that if the intelligence community is permitted to [no audio]—
AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Glenn Greenwald actually in Brazil by Democracy Now! video stream, so we’re going to try to get him out. Glenn is a constitutional law attorney and a political and legal blogger for Salon.com, has written a number of books—his latest, Great American Hypocrites .
Glenn, continue with what you were saying. Just a little blip in the video stream there.
GLENN GREENWALD: Can you hear me?
AMY GOODMAN: We can hear you now.
GLENN GREENWALD: OK. So I was saying that, you know, the history of the United States is, you know, extremely clear that if the intelligence community operates without oversight, extreme abuses are inevitable. And, of course, that was the lesson in the mid-1970s, when the intelligence community was investigated and decades of abuses were uncovered. And that was when the oversight regime was created.
And so, we were supposed to have a heavy oversight regime exerted by Congress to ensure that they couldn’t operate in secrecy. The media, of course, is supposed to play the role of the fourth estate, the adversarial check on what the intelligence community is doing. And yet, if you [no audio]—
AMY GOODMAN: Just bear with us. What he’s saying is very important, and so we’re just going to keep on trying to maintain this connection in Brazil. Again, our guest, the Salon.com blogger, constitutional law attorney Glenn Greenwald. Let’s see if he’s back with us. Glenn?
We’re going to try to call him on the telephone, often the best way to communicate with someone.