Tied to the mast
…but orange now and black

Defining what “moving forward” on torture should mean: A ‘how to’ guide to getting Congress to create a truth commission

Pasted below is an assignment I just submitted for an elective I’m taking at the public policy school.  It’s a bit silly–asking about whether or not to include book citations, I was told that I could if I wanted to, but not to let doing so affect the expression of “my ideas.” That said, I’m emotionally involved enough in the torture debate that I couldn’t not do some footnoting.  Not sure what will happen to the text of those notes, but I hope it shows up.  If not, I’ll maybe retranscribe them below.



This paper will address what is perhaps the principal barrier to advancing to congressional action the debate on the use of torture under the Bush administration. The barrier is that the current anti-torture message is too abstract, and dominated by academics, bloggers, MSNBC commentators; messengers that appear to be too volatile and marginal for the needed political players to be publicly on board. Making matters worse, a number of prominent names in both parties have already been publicly implicated, and recognizing what remains unknown, it would seem naive to assume that they are the only ones who were involved. These “known unknowns” are the bulwarks on the dam that must be broken.

To introduce a new metaphor, the chessboard is arranged, in general terms, as follows: The mainstream media—which comes closest to occupying what’s left of the credible centre—has been tentative. Speculatively, this might be due to a fear of losing further credibility for having failed in their fourth estate duties; a common speculation in the blogosphere.

Occupying the country’s highest pulpit and widely recognized as by far the most publically legitimated player on the left, President Obama has been effectively sidelined because of the nature of the issue. Because it bears so overwhelmingly on the executive branch he currently leads, it would be very difficult for him to maintain the necessary stance of objectivity to pursue this issue properly. In addition, I doubt that he’s being disingenuous when he expresses that from his perspective, in light of the continued presence of US troops in Iraq and Afghanistan and the crisis state of the economy, torture investigations would be a distraction.

And with the political elements of the American right-wing so weakened, elements untied to ambitions to political office—former administration officials and media pundits on talk-radio and Fox News—have been able to seize the right-wing bandstand and drive the opposing message from a far less guarded position.1

The following three sections will be structured on the premise that to find an impactful message it is imperative to know: (a) the relevant background; which should inform (b) the message’s goals; and (c) who the message needs to convince (and when it needs to convince them).

Background2: “Elections tend to be won by candidates who think historically.”3

No less than in a presidential campaign, a clear idea of the historical record is the most valuable weapon in our arsenal, especially since our object is to establish the truth for the public record. As early as 2003 there emerged several hints that the use of what was labeled “enhanced interrogation techniques” on suspected enemy combatants in the custody of US security services—particularly the CIA and the military—had crossed the line delineating torture from acceptable practice in international security situations. Were this found to be true, it would be in direct contravention to both US legal precedent, and to international conventional law ratified by the US; most notably the Convention Against Torture, ratified in 1991.4 Over the past several months the illegality and programmatic use of these techniques—in CIA “black sites”5 and offshore military prisons including Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, Abu Ghraib in Iraq, and Bagram in Afghanistan—has become abundantly clear.6 With the release of a number of OLC legal memos7 it has also become clear that, not only did top executive officials know about the use of torture as an interrogation practice, but submitted it to legal review by the OLC, and upon having it approved, explicitly ordered it to be used. Further, it has become evident that high-ranking members of Congress from both parties serving on the congressional intelligence committees were briefed on the torture techniques as early as 2002, and signed off without protest.8

What this all means is that torture has been used by the executive branch effectively without consequence beyond recriminations from progressive media and the academy, rendering it de facto legal on current precedent. Even if one does not accept that under the circumstance of an immediately post 9/11 world the use of torture was an abuse of executive authority, it is hard to see how one could deny, without addressing the use of torture explicitly and honestly, that the danger of future extreme abuse of executive authority stands radically increased. 9 This is especially alarming in light of the widespread lack of recognition of wrong action on this issue, not only by much of the mainstream press and a large portion of the American public, but most notably by the official party of opposition—a party which could reassume executive office as early as 2013.

Goals: For Congress to:

1. Create and support an independent commission (preferably headed by a non-Bush-appointed member of the judiciary) to establish for the record the circumstances of America’s use of torture, especially:
1. What was the full extent of the practices used and what is their legal status;
2. Where did the decision to implement the practices come from;
3. Who knew about the practices; &
4. What, if any, potential precedents were set that could be exploited by the executive branch in the future; &
2. Accomplish Goal#1 without first foreclosing a priori on the ability of relevant parties to take what legal action becomes appropriate on the basis of the findings in the commission’s report.

For Congress to create a commission like that suggested in Goal#1, a bill, outlining the commission in detail, must pass through the legislative process. It must:

1. Be sponsored and introduced by a member of either the House or the Senate;
2. Be approved by (a) the House or Senate judiciary committee (on the basis of the recommendations of the relevant subcommittees), (b/c) the Senate10/the House; &
3. Avoid a presidential veto.

Particularly important to Goal#1 is controlling the language bearing on the appointment process. The efficacy and legitimacy of the commission will depend a great deal on who is on it, and on who leads it.

To achieve Goal#2, the language of the bill must be carefully drawn by the sponsor(s), maintained through committee mark-up, and protected from hostile amendments on the floor of both chambers. Public statements from the White House and congressional leaders are also important and need to be monitored and appropriately responded to.

Who do we target? In answering this question it is important to keep two general facts in mind:

1. This is a federal issue of generalized interest, with no direct link to local concerns.
2. From the perspective of congressional politicians, this issue is highly volatile, and could have serious consequences for a number of very powerful (and thus politically dangerous) people.

Fact#1 is important because elected officials, as a general rule, are most concerned about their appearance to the people who elect them. And since members of Congress are elected to federal office either at the state or district level, the scope of the issue does not necessarily correspond to the scope of their primary interest. So long as the issue is abstract to their electors, members of Congress will not feel pressure from below. Fact#2 is important because they will feel a decidedly non-abstract pressure from above.

What this means is that, to counteract the pressure from above, the movement against torture needs to be a national and grassroots. This means that (a) it needs to lose its abstractness, and (b) it needs to be recognized as a national, grassroots movement by the mainstream media. Especially important, it needs to be recognized as a national grassroots movement within the states and districts of those members of Congress who are most important to advancing the issue:

o The best congressperson to be introducing the bill (someone who balances influence with the ability to resist the inevitable charge of being a Jacobin in the public square);
o The most influential members of the relevant judiciary committees;
o The Democratic leadership; &
o Anti-torture Republicans (“honorable soldiers” like John McCain and his allies, and the Ron Paul libertarian wing of the party).

Who is the best messenger? Particularly tentative, and important as national outlets carrying a stamp of legitimacy, have been the New York Times, the non-blogging bulk of the Washington Post, the broadcast networks, and CNN.11 These outlets have been under siege for their lackadaisical coverage of this issue in a loosely organized, but remarkably coherent campaign of shame by the liberal and libertarian sectors of the blogosphere, Jon Stewart/Stephen Colbert, Shep Smith (of Fox), MSNBC, and interestingly (and to great effect), former Minnesota governor Jesse “the body” Ventura.12 They have drawn from powerful arguments and a strong dose of condemnatory wit. The lethargy has been largely a result of decisions by editorial boards and programming directors. The campaign of shame has made some progress, and would benefit from letter writing campaigns to the various outlets’ ombudsmen, and to their advertisers.13 Powerful allies in this campaign might be nationally recognized moral leaders (e.g. Pastor Rick Warren, family members of the late MLK and Billy Graham, high ranking Catholic clergy, and, this might sound weird, but former president Bill Clinton14).

In targeting particularly important congresspeople, effective messengers will vary according to the lay of the state or district. In general, local religious leaders and editorial boards are useful to have on-side. The local Legions might be willing to ally themselves and act as messengers, many members having risked or endured torture in Vietnam, Korea, and WWII. Research should be done on the congressperson’s winning coalition, and key groups from within it should be targeted.

The best messenger overall is the outraged regular citizen, especially from the perspective of the mainstream media and, through them, politicians and the public at large. The power of the archetype of “the everyday Joe” was on clear display in the rocketing to fame of Sam “Joe the Plumber” Wurzelbacher. Attracting such messengers requires a message tailored directly to them, which they can carry with them and spread; one that makes the significance of the issue real and personal This needs to be done carefully so as not to come off as over-dramatic. I would suggest a minute-long cinematic ad designed to go straight to YouTube and capitalize on free distribution through the blogs, the on-line social networking sites, and media interest. This means that it should be a touch over the top, but mostly well done. If we can make a credible pitch that this is a serious campaign, I think we could probably convince some Hollywood talent take on the creation of this ad pro-bono. To put it crassly, it’s a sexy issue.

In terms of its content, I would suggest connecting torture the abolition of Habeas Corpus, telling a story that begins with an idyll and ends in a Kafkaesque nightmare. A normal looking innocent American is stolen out of his house for a crime that was never explained to him. He winds up at a black site being tortured using techniques detailed in the memos (maybe as the text of the memos flashes on screen). Maybe hint that it was on the basis of some out of context phone conversation recorded over domestic wire-tapping. It should resolve itself with images of people going about their lives apathetically, and end with something like: “America is better than this.”


One Response to “Defining what “moving forward” on torture should mean: A ‘how to’ guide to getting Congress to create a truth commission”

  1. […] I mentioned way back in my second post, I’m taking as an elective an airy course on “campaigns” at the public policy […]

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