The death of Jamal Khashoggi reveals a universal truth about torture

Torture at Abu Ghraib
Torture at Abu Ghraib

Reports from Turkish sources suggest that dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi was beaten and tortured to death. It’s not clear at what stage in his dismemberment he actually died, but in audio captured by the Turkish authorities, he reportedly can be heard screaming as his fingers are chopped off.

Khashoggi’s killers evidently didn’t ask him questions. After he entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, there was no pretense of interrogation.

His killers were there to exact punishment and revenge.

It’s an unimaginable scene of horror. My fingers shake with rage and sorrow as I type this.

But Khashoggi’s treatment also reveals a universal truth about torture. People don’t torture to get information. There are effective ways to do that, and torture isn’t one.

Fundamentally, torture is about power, revenge, rage and cruelty. It’s about stripping people of their humanity.

And that’s why torture is so abhorrent. That’s what it is (almost) universally condemned as a human rights violation. That’s why it is (almost) always the mark of totalitarian regimes that want to control people.

Professional interrogators use methods that have been proven to work. They do not use tactics reverse-engineered from training to resist the kinds of methods the Chinese Communists used to extract false confessions from captured U.S. servicemen that they could then use for propaganda during the Korean War.

But those and other brutal tactics were precisely what George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld let loose in the wake of the 9/11 terror attacks, to spread through the U.S. military and intelligence services like a virus, to Afghanistan, Iraq, to the CIA black sites in Thailand, Poland, Lithuania and Romania, and to the Guantanamo Bay prison in Cuba.

Air Force Reserve Colonel Steve Kleinman recalled to Jane Mayer, in her book “The Dark Side,” that he was sent to Iraq in the fall of 2003 because he was an experienced and accomplished interrogator – and was horrified to find that military-CIA task forces were abusing prisoners instead.

Kleinman tried unsuccessfully to put an end to it. And as he told Mayer, “I got into serious arguments with many people. They wanted to do these things. They were itching to. It was about revenge, not interrogation. And they thought I was coddling terrorists.'”

The first time the American public actually saw torture taking place it had nothing to do with interrogation at all, only misplaced punishment and revenge. That was when photos from the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq were published in April 2004. And that was hardly the beginning or the end.

Nor was it an accident or the work of “bad apples.” As a mostly forgotten bipartisan Senate Armed Services Committee report concluded in 2008:

The abuse of detainees at Abu Ghraib in late 2003 was not simply the result of a few soldiers acting on their own. Interrogation techniques such as stripping detainees of their clothes, placing them in stress positions, and using military working dogs to intimidate them appeared in Iraq only after they had been approved for use in Afghanistan and at [Guantanamo]. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s December 2, 2002 authorization of aggressive interrogation techniques and subsequent interrogation policies and plans approved by senior military and civilian officials conveyed the message that physical pressures and degradation were appropriate treatment for detainees in U.S. military custody. What followed was an erosion in standards dictating that detainees be treated humanely.

Most people still probably think that torture at the direction of government officials only occurred at the CIA black sites. But that’s because of the success of the Bush Administration’s five-year disinformation campaign to hide the direct line between its policies and what happened at Abu Ghraib, and between Abu Ghraib and elsewhere. Because in those other instances, they couldn’t even pretend that the torture was necessary to extract intelligence.

After the 2014 release of the redacted executive summary of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report into torture at the CIA black sites, it became even clearer that torture was completely ineffective as a method of interrogation and was extraordinary brutal — beyond any conceivable moral justification. And it happened during a period when many of the advocates and actors were feeling impotent in the face of an attack on the homeland, and angry at the Muslims they felt were responsible..

So why do it? The obvious answer is that it was ultimately for the same reasons the Saudis tortured Khashoggi: For revenge.

The president has entirely too many lawyers (and not just this president)

Don McGahn at the Republican National Convention {One America News)
Don McGahn at the Republican National Convention {One America News)

As Don McGahn departs from his job as White House counsel, I’m reminded of an interview I had a few weeks back with Yale Law School Professor Bruce Ackerman, one of the most astute observers of the presidency I know.

I asked him what his number one post-Trump reform would be, and he didn’t hesitate for a second. “Abolish the White House counsel,” he said.

Ackerman, who has been eloquent about the danger to our constitutional system presented by an uncontrollable, bloated executive branch – see his 2013 book, The Decline and Fall of the American Republic – considers the modern White House Counsel’s Office ground zero for the continued expansion of executive power.

“They’re the ones who are the source of one after another ‘creative interpretation’ that build on each other from term to term — always in the same direction,” Ackerman said. They see their job not as neutral legal advisors, but as trying to create the best legal case for the president, he said.

“That’s not the rule of law.”

“One ‘creative opinion’ is the basis for the next,” he said. “This is a one way ratchet.”

As a result, the outlines of what Ackerman calls “executive constitutionalism” are not determined by the Supreme Court, but by a few dozen not particularly experienced, but very smart and extremely loyal lawyers, who are completely replaced with every new president.

Unburdened by institutional memory, fueled by ambition, “they can create very imaginative opinions,” Ackerman said.

But isn’t abolishing the office a bit dramatic? No, says Ackerman.

In fact, the president’s lawyer is supposed to be the attorney general, who oversees a vast staff of long-serving legal experts with institutional memory. The Office of Legal Counsel (so badly abused by Dick Cheney) is housed there, specifically charged with acting as constitutional counsel to the entire executive branch, and primarily the attorney general and the president.

Unlike the attorney general, the White House counsel doesn’t require Senate confirmation, can’t be held accountable by congressional committees, and operates with no transparency.

(I recently found a 2016-era White House Transition Project document on the White House Counsel’s Office, which quoted Carter administration attorney general Benjamin Civiletti stating in 1999 that “the White House Counsel’s Office is an abomination, structurally inefficient, lots of potential for conflict because of its political nature. If the president has a trusted person who can give him confidential advice, keep that person out of government.”)

Ackerman points out that the counsel’s office – like many of the other trappings of the imperial presidency – is a 20th century invention.

“Such a person never existed until Franklin Roosevelt,” Ackerman notes.

Nixon’s counsel, John Dean, was the first to have a staff. According to one accounting, Lloyd Cutler, in 1980, had six lawyers working for him. Fred Fielding, in 1986, had around 10.

I counted 25 members of the legal counsel’s office on the George W. Bush 2008 White House staff list. I counted 36  on the Obama 2015 staff list.

Last March, the White House announced the names of 26 lawyers working for McGahn, for a total of 27.

Ackerman said he saw a big turning point in the use of the White House counsel’s office during the Obama administration – particularly when Obama decided he didn’t need congressional authorization to keep bombing Libya or when he expanded the battle against terrorism to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

As Charlie Savage reported for the New York Times in June, 2011:

President Obama rejected the views of top lawyers at the Pentagon and the Justice Department when he decided that he had the legal authority to continue American military participation in the air war in Libya without Congressional authorization, according to officials familiar with internal administration deliberations….

Mr. Obama decided instead to adopt the legal analysis of several other senior members of his legal team — including the White House counsel, Robert Bauer, and the State Department legal adviser, Harold H. Koh — who argued that the United States military’s activities fell short of “hostilities.” Under that view, Mr. Obama needed no permission from Congress to continue the mission unchanged.

Ackerman started calling for the abolition of the counsel’s office long before Trump. Here he is arguing the position in 2009, in Slate.

Working out of the political hothouse of the West Wing, the person serving as White House counsel will require remarkable backbone to resist pressure to rubber-stamp legally problematic aspects of the president’s policies.

Ackerman wrote then that Gregory Craig, Obama’s first counsel, “may well possess the requisite integrity.” But as I wrote for the Huffington Post in 2010, then-chief of staff Rahm Emanuel quickly pushed Craig out in order to more easily make legal calls on political grounds.

So far, at least, the most outrageous legal assertions about the Trump White House have come from his private, rather than White House lawyers. John Dowd and Jay Sekulow wrote the letter asserting that a president was literally incapable of obstructing justice, not Don McGahn.

McGahn, in fact, has had a complicated relationship with Trump. On the one hand, he’s been an unflinchingly loyal fighter for stacking the bench with far-right judges and justices – it was he who talked Trump out of letting the FBI conduct a reasonably broad inquiry into the sexual assault allegations against Bret Kavanaugh, instead ordering a sham investigation that gave Republican senators cover to confirm him.

At the same time, McGahn has been caught bragging about his role in restraining the explosive boss he called “King Kong” in private, has been a key witness in Robert Mueller’s investigation into Trump campaign collusion with the Russians — and found out about his upcoming resignation via a Trump tweet

So the key question hanging over McGahn has less to do with creative legal arguments, and everything to do with whether he kept Trump from criminally obstructing justice — or aided and abetted him.

Trump emits a blast on the racist dog whistle to stoke division before midterms

Donald Trump is sending his vice president out to stoke as much division in America as possible before Election Day, by advocating the cruelest of measures: letting poor men, women and children go hungry.

The story Politico Playbook says is “driving the day” is that Mike Pence will lead “a public push for Congress to pass a farm bill with work requirements for food stamps.”

Food stamps (technically the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP) help 43 million low-income Americans afford a nutritionally adequate diet.

As Alexia Fernández Campbell recently wrote for Vox, “Very few Americans enrolled in these programs don’t work because they don’t want to (an estimated 1.1 percent of Medicaid users and 0.3 percent of SNAP recipients). Instead, they don’t work because they are elderly, disabled, caring for relatives, or recently lost their job.”

Nevertheless, Trump wants to make a massive push in the next few weeks for what the Huffington Post’s Arthur Delaney, who has been tracking attacks on the poor for nearly a decade (bless his heart), correctly labels “a moralistic time limit on benefits that cuts people off even if no suitable work is available.”

Why? Because Trump is sick of being buffeted by story lines that, for a change, are not of his own making. And while he’s been out and about stoking his base at tent-revival style rallies, his most winning tactic has always been to divide Americans against each other: “us” against “them”; working tax payers against alleged “takers”; white against brown.

This move is clearly intended to bolster the mythical stereotype (really, more of a conspiracy theory) that Washington is taking money away from working-class white Americans and giving it to someone brown who doesn’t deserve it.

The House version of the farm bill, which contains the SNAP work requirement “would eliminate or reduce food assistance for more than 1 million low-income households with more than 2 million people,” writes Robert Greenstein, president of the progressive Center on Budget and Policy Priorities:

Among those likely to lose food assistance are a considerable number of working people — including parents and older workers — who have low-wage jobs such as home health aides or cashiers and often face fluctuating hours and bouts of temporary unemployment that could put their SNAP benefits at risk.  In addition, substantial numbers of people with serious physical or mental health conditions, as well as many caregivers, may struggle either to meet the monthly work-hours requirement or to provide sufficient documentation to prove they qualify for an exemption — and, consequently, may be at risk of losing nutrition assistance.

And many of the households that lose benefits would do so primarily because they simply couldn’t master the paperwork.

In June, the Senate overwhelmingly passed a bipartisan farm bill that mostly maintains the status quo, while the House passed its bill — with a two-vote margin, and with no support from Democrats – with the work requirements Trump seeks.

Food stamps benefit one out of eight Americans. They are the most effective way of keeping Americans from going hungry. And Trump is playing the worst kind of  politics with their food.

Some background on SNAP:


U.S. allies should keep the global leadership ‘throne’ warm for Trump’s successor, authors say

How can the rules-based international order survive the Trump presidency, despite his constant attempts to upend it?

Two foreign policy blue-bloods propose that the U.S.’s traditional allies collectively step in as the defenders and promoters of democracy, freedom, free trade and human rights across the globe — until Trump is gone.

Ivo H. Daalder, who served as Barack Obama’s ambassador to NATO, and James M. Lindsay, a senior vice president of the Council on Foreign Relations, are out with a new book: The Empty Throne: America’s Abdication of Global Leadership. They outline their plan for an interregnum in a companion piece entitled The Committee to Save the World Order published by Foreign Affairs.

The authors express despair over Trump’s assault on the agreements and protocols developed to “prevent the dog-eat-dog geopolitical competition that triggered World War II.” But they waste no time hoping for Trump to come around.

Instead, they propose that the “Committee to Save the World Order” take the U.S.’s traditional seat (throne) for the interim and keep it warm while the regular occupant is off carousing with dictators and launching trade wars. The group, which the authors nickname the “G-9”, would consist of France, Germany, Italy, the United Kingdom, and the EU in Europe; Australia, Japan, and South Korea in Asia; and Canada in North America.

This “G-9” should have two imperatives: maintain the rules-based order in the hope that Trump’s successor will reclaim Washington’s global leadership role and lay the groundwork to make it politically possible for that to happen. This holding action will require every member of the G-9 to take on greater global responsibilities. They all are capable of doing so; they need only summon the will.

As confirmed globalists, Daalder and Lindsay unsurprisingly put way more emphasis on free trade and military build-ups – without acknowledging any downsides — than they do on democracy and human rights. They cheer on multilateral trade agreements that simply carve out the U.S. for now. And they encourage military collaboration accompanied by sizable increases in defense budgets.

Obama left Trump a note on Inauguration Day, in which he wrote: “It’s up to us, through action and example, to sustain the international order that’s expanded steadily since the end of the Cold War, and upon which our own wealth and safety depend.”

But Daalder and Lindsay conclude that Trump “is not looking to reinvigorate the rules-based order by leading friends and allies in a common cause. They are the foes he wants to beat.”

And the authors declare that allies’ attempt to “placate Trump” have failed, so they should move on. “[E]fforts to compromise haven’t worked, and they aren’t likely to for one simple reason: what U.S. allies want to save, Trump wants to upend.”

In a realization that may apply across the board, Daalder and Lindsay acknowledge that Trump may have changed the political dynamics of foreign policy forever. They particularly worry that Trump has successfully branded the U.S.’s traditional allies as “ungrateful”. As a result, “his successor may pay a political price for trying to reclaim a global leadership role for the United States” – or may not even try.

Nevertheless, their hope remains that everything will go back to normal once Trump is gone. Others might hope for bolder reforms in the wake of Trump that could actually make things better than normal: that the negative effects of border-neutral capital flows on workers could be tempered or mitigated; that massive military budgets could be redirected toward more productive uses; or that the U.S. could take a more strongly moral but more humble — and less throney — approach as global leader.

The question here, as elsewhere, comes down to whether simply waiting Trump out is enough — or whether a powerful and aggressive popular movement to reverse Trumpism and improve the status quo ante is necessary to prevent elements of Trumpism from becoming the new normal.

Trump’s printed-out list of accomplishments is like his binky

Trump showing the list at a political rally in Las Vegas in September.
Trump showing the list at a political rally in Las Vegas in September.

When he’s feeling particularly defensive in an interview, Donald Trump calls out for “the list.”

When the Associated Press asked Trump on Tuesday what he would do if House Democrats, in a majority, sought his tax returns, he replied curtly: “They have to do whatever they do, and I’ll do whatever I do.”

But then something in his brain did something, and he launched into his familiar (sometimes laughter inducing) patter about having had “the most successful two years in the history of this country as a president.”

I’m guessing AP reporters Catherine Lucy, Zeke Miller and Jonathan Lemire looked skeptical, or impatient, or maybe couldn’t entirely stifle a chuckle, because Trump suddenly called out for “the list.”

Trump: And, would get me the list? Would you get me the list, please?

AP: Do you think you have the legal team necessary?

Trump: I have the most successful. Nobody has done what I’ve done, and nobody has come close in the first two years of office. And that’s despite the fighting, the Democrats’ obstruction.

Unidentified: I have extra copies …

Trump: Here, these are just some. I just put them down rough. But take a look at that. You all set?

AP: Yeah, yeah.

Trump: I mean, you go point after point, each point is a major event, but you just take a look. Confirmed more circuit court judges than any other new administration. Soon it will be than any administration in history. Who is the one, who’s the one president that percentage-wise has done better than me? There’s only one. George Washington — 100 percent.


Trump: Nobody has gotten that yet.


The list. Source:
The list. Source:

“The list,” whose authorship we can possibly now trace back to Trump himself, was distributed by the White House press office in early September as a rebuttal to excerpts from Bob Woodward’s book, “Fear.” It came alongside statements from White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders to the effect that Trump “has broken through the bureaucratic process to deliver unprecedented successes for the American people,” and from Chief of Staff John Kelly, who insisted that “The idea I ever called the President an idiot is not true.”

But now, “the list” has become a sort of psychic totem for Trump, a security blanket, a pacifier. He calls for it when he’s flustered.

New York Magazine’s Olivia Nuzzi had a brush with “the list” during her bizarre private press conference with Trump on October 9.

Nuzzi, a gutsy 25-year-old phenom in the press corps, had attracted Trump’s attention, and he was troubled that she was working on a story about dysfunction in the White House and his possible imminent firing of Kelly (who did NOT call Trump an idiot) as his chief of staff.

“You’re gonna have to write what you have to write, but the truth is, we have a really smooth-running White House and nothing and nobody has done more in their first two years as president,” Trump insisted. “We’re not even up to the second year.”

Then, as Nuzzi explained in her article, he beckoned for “the list”:

The president craned his neck slightly upward, in the direction of the door. “Could you give me the list, please?” he asked, raising his voice so a secretary could hear. “I’ve gotta give you the list. Nobody has come close to doing what we’ve done in less than two years as president. Whether it’s regulations or tax cuts or so many other things.” The secretary walked into the room, holding two sheets of computer paper. “Give that to Olivia,” Trump said. “These are just some of the things that were done since taking office,” he told me.

Nuzzi described it thusly:

The pages were stamped with 58 bullet points, typed in a large font. At the top, underlined, bold, and all-caps, it read, “TRUMP ADMINISTRATION ACCOMPLISHMENTS.” On the first page, the points related mostly to jobs numbers or executive orders or promises from the tax-reform bill. On the second page, there were more puzzling accomplishments like, “Republicans want STRONG BORDERS and NO CRIME. Democrats want OPEN BORDERS which equals MASSIVE CRIME.”

“So,” Trump went on, “it would be great to have an accurately written story, because we do have — when you walk in here, I think you see, if you read something, it’s totally different than the fact.”

“The list” is Trump’s way of deflecting reality. It has become the central text of the alternative-fact universe that he shares with Fox News and members of his base,.

Here he is almost begging Nuzzi to accept “the list” as the truth.

“So what I’m saying— and this is not even updated. We have achieved a lot in the last month and a half, two months, since that’s been done. But we’ve done a really great job and it’s so reported by those that are, by those that want it to be accurately reported. And I think, at least, I should be able — because I know you’re gonna go in and write something — at least I should be able to tell you, out of respect, that the relationships are very good and I think you could say, Sarah, that the relationships in the White House have been very good, especially over the last six months, seven months. It’s been very, very smooth. It’s been a very smooth-running White House.” Sanders agreed.

To be fair, “the list” doesn’t only make an appearance when Trump is suddenly on the defensive.

He pulled it out at a rally in Las Vegas on September 20, read it out loud and riffed on it for 11 solid minutes. “Look at this,” Trump said, having pulled the list out of his  breast pocket. “So I said just write down some of the things. Each one, each one, point, point, point, four-and-a-half pages.”


UPDATE (8:30 a.m. October 18, 2018)

Olivia Nuzzi tells me she tweeted a picture of her list:

And she notes that the list made an appearance during an interview with the Daily Caller’s Saagar Enjeti and Vince Coglianese on September 4. This one contains yet another origin story:

Trump: “I did have something done for you guys cause I figured you may…”

White House Communications Director Bill Shine: “Sir, right on top of the little….”

Trump: “Oh, good, thank you. I just had this made up. This doesn’t even, no president in history has done what I’ve done in two years. The other side is going crazy, they are lunatics. And here’s a list of things that I’ve done that you guys can have. I just had it made up for you because you guys have always been fair. “



Saudi horrors should trigger Congress to assert its constitutional role again

Video image of Jamal Khashoggi entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul two weeks ago.
Video image of Jamal Khashoggi entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul two weeks ago.

The extent and severity of the U.S. response to the apparent murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi at the hands of a Saudi death squad could trigger a major conflict between Congress and the White House — possibly even leading the legislative branch to reassert its constitutional role for the first time since Trump’s rise to power

That Saudi Arabia could become the flashpoint for a congressional rebellion would have seemed highly unlikely a few years ago. The Kingdom has long financed a vast, costly and highly effective influence-peddling network in Washington, which was kicked up a notch in 2015. And Members of Congress have been trained to see cutting off military sales to any country as a political third rail after massive defense-industry spending on lobbyists and the distribution of defense facilities into as many congressional districts as possible.

But the apparently brutal, calculated murder of a U.S. resident who was a dissident Saudi journalist – after entering a Saudi consulate in Turkey to obtain papers in order to marry his fiancée – has turned even stalwart congressional Saudi hawks into horrified critics.

It also comes after a number of bold -– though widely ignored — congressional votes that came surprisingly close to demanding that Trump end support for the Saudi-led coalition bombing of Yemen, which has generated seemingly unending images of civilian victims and has created arguably the greatest humanitarian crisis in the world.

Trump shows no signs of being shaken loose from his tight embrace with the Saudis, which has included reveling in the “royal treatment” during his visit to Riyadh last May and a lovefest with Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman during the heir apparent’s PR charm offensive in the United States six months ago.

Although Trump was willing to mock the Saudis for cheap laughs at political rallies earlier this month, he and his son-in law Jared Kushner have long seen the Saudis as their greatest friends in the region, along with Israel.

Trump has effectively ruled out cutting arms sales, and continues to describe his relationship with the royal family as “excellent”. And in comments to the press yesterday, Trump expressed contentment that King Salman had “firmly denied any knowledge” of the murder, then put forth a ludicrous, evidence-free conspiracy theory intended to deflect the blame from the royal family, saying perhaps “rogue killers” were involved. “Who knows?”

Nevertheless, Trump said in a “60 Minutes” interview broadcast on Sunday that “We’re going to get to the bottom of it and there will be severe punishment.” So if and when the Saudi leadership is definitively identified as responsible, Congress can use that pledge as a blunt instrument to beat on Trump – if it chooses to.

Still, the easiest and best way to show some Congressional spine would be to keep moving forward on the earlier attempts to end U.S. support for the unconscionable Saudi-led bombing campaign that is killing civilians in Yemen.

Even more than insisting on punishment for the Khashoggi murder, demanding an end to that support would effectively seize back Congress’s core, constitutional powers from the president — in this case, the power to declare war. Congress has ceded vast amounts of its constitutionally-mandated authority to the executive branch, particularly since the 9/11 terror attacks. And despite Trump’s obvious instability, it hasn’t reasserted itself in any way.

Most importantly, ending U.S. support to the coalition could also save the lives of countless civilian victims who would otherwise continue to be blown up by U.S. bombs in a largely ignored war

The House, in November of last year, overwhelmingly passed (336 to 30) a resolution stating that Congress had not authorized U.S. military assistance in Yemen. It was admittedly a far cry from the original resolution demanding and end to the assistance, but the margin was significant. And this past February, after Senators Mike Lee (Republican), Bernie Sanders (independent) and Chris Murphy (Democrat) demanded a vote on ending military support, they came up only six votes short. Five Republicans supported the bill, with 10 Democrats opposed.

“I think one of the strong things that we can do is not only stop military sales, not only put sanctions on Saudi Arabia, but most importantly, get out of this terrible, terrible war in Yemen led by the Saudis,” Sanders said on Sunday.

And now you have unexpected voices like South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham’s talking about how he intends to “sanction the hell out of Saudi Arabia.” Similarly, Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio called for end to “business as usual” on Sunday. “No matter how important they might be to our Iranian strategy, our ability to be a voice for human rights … is undermined and compromised if we are not willing to confront something as atrocious as what’s allegedly happened here,” he said.

A powerful bipartisan group of senators already took unprecedented action to force Trump’s hand last week. In a letter, 22 members of the Senate including the leaders of the Foreign Relations Committee triggered a provision of the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act of 2016, asserting a “gross violation of internationally recognized human rights against an individual exercising freedom of expression.” That means Trump must respond within 120 days with a classified or unclassified report that determines who was responsible, and says what he intends to do about it.

The congressional clock is ticking faster than that — but action is hardly guaranteed. There’s a reason the modern Congress’s approval rating is so low: It rarely fails to disappoint.