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The dark comedy of the Senate torture report

I didn’t want to read it – until I was asked to write a preface for the French translation. I was startled by what I found

21 February 2015

9:00 AM

21 February 2015

9:00 AM

Like many journalists, I’m a bit of a know-it-all — when information is touted as ‘new’, especially in government reports, it sometimes brings out in me the opposite of sincere curiosity so essential to my trade. Thus when my French publisher asked me to write a preface to Senator Dianne Feinstein’s report on the CIA’s torture programme, and come to Paris to promote a translated edition, I was reluctant. Hadn’t I already read everything about this? As much as I detest the CIA and love Paris, a book tour to discuss waterboarding and forced rectal feeding struck me as less than appealing.

Nevertheless, civic duty spurred me and a lawyer colleague to write the preface. So I read the report — all 500 or so pages of it — first in English and then in French. To my great surprise I learned that the Senate Intelligence Committee Report on Torture moves right along, with an authorial voice, lots of irony and plenty of gruesome detail that wasn’t in the newspapers. The principal writer, a former FBI analyst named Daniel Jones, renders the story of the CIA’s gratuitous brutality with a rhythmic repetition that approaches literature. Again and again, we’re told, detainees were grabbed by the CIA or its proxies, transported to secret prisons, subjected to ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’, and eventually dropped because they didn’t reveal anything useful, or they invented stories, or, as in the case of the suspected Afghan militant Gul Rahman, died. Then, after ploughing through many pages of CIA boasting about success in foiling terrorist plots, we find out that the agency’s ‘representations were almost entirely inaccurate’ and that torture foiled not a single plot. The former FBI man has fun hanging his CIA rivals with their own words, such as when then CIA director Porter Goss briefs senators about how ‘professionally operated’ CIA detention techniques are compared with the Abu Ghraib variety: ‘We are not talking military, and I’m not talking about anything that a contractor might have done… in a prison somewhere or beat somebody or hit somebody with a stick or something.’ No, we’re talking about chaining a prisoner to the ceiling, making him wear a nappy, and letting him soil himself. After slamming him into a wall.


Once I began to appreciate the funny parts, I was good to go. However, a month before my torture tour was to begin, Muslim terrorists murdered 11 people at Charlie Hebdo and four at a kosher supermarket, and France was thrust into something resembling the debate after 9/11. The day I arrived in Paris, a certain Frédéric Péchenard, of Nicolas Sarkozy’s party, complained in Le Figaro that French security services can’t place bugs and wiretaps or track phones without a warrant. He wasn’t asking for the right to waterboard, mind you, but the US Patriot Act, passed in the chaotic wake of the attacks on the World Trade Centre and Pentagon, was also intended to give the police broader powers to stop terrorism. The CIA and the Bush White House evidently took the Patriot Act to mean carte blanche for ignoring the constitution and the Geneva conventions, so I had a good talking point. Péchenard remained my invisible adversary over three days of non-stop media appearances.

Most of my French interviewers had little sympathy for Péchenard’s demand for a Patriot Act à la française. On France Inter, my radio host Nicolas Demorand played a conversation with a prominent juge d’instruction who said that moral principle alone should rule out the use of torture — effectiveness shouldn’t even enter into the debate. As a civil libertarian, I think it’s a lovely sentiment, but as a dual American and French citizen, I felt obliged to insist on this point: torture doesn’t work. Without that clearly understood, I fear that we civil libertarians lose the argument with Dick Cheney. Unfortunately, a lot of people believe what they see in movies like Zero Dark Thirty.

The police can’t keep watch on every potential terrorist all the time, as the Charlie Hebdo killings demonstrated. So I wasn’t displeased to be greeted by a rifle-toting French soldier at the entrance to every studio and newspaper I visited. In fact, I thanked each of them coming and going, especially when visiting friends at the satirical weekly Le Canard enchaîné and the left-wing Le Monde diplomatique. The venerable Canard is a brash publication closer in spirit to Charlie Hebdo than, say, the Financial Times, but it’s easy to overlook in its obscure, unadvertised old building on the Rue St Honoré. Upstairs, the sangfroid displayed by the staff was notable, especially since their star comic-strip contributor and caricaturist, Cabu, was among those killed. Even more impressive was the excellent investigative story in their new issue about the Imsi-catcher, a device that allows French cops and spies to intercept texts, conversations, and emails sent from mobile phones. As the Canard writer explains, ‘No need to go through an operator: no trace of the intercept and no controls’ — in short, Frédéric Péchenard’s (as well as Marine Le Pen’s and Dick Cheney’s) dream come true. Top-of-the-line Imsi-catchers cost ‘several hundred thousand euros’, but who’s counting when you get to listen not only to a suspect but also to everyone using a phone nearby, including journalists?

Paris is supposed to be the city of light, and the French commitment to personal liberty (at least if you believe the spirit exhibited at the mass ‘Je suis Charlie’ demonstration) unflagging. My interlocutor from the pro-Sarkozy, centre-right Figaro was the very lively Charles Jaigu, the journalist who did the sympathetic interview with Péchenard that I cited everywhere on my tour. In his column called ‘Tête à Tête’, Jaigu, while highlighting his political differences with me, wrote that France had not yet ‘tipped into psychosis’ of the American sort that would lead to torture. No question of carte blanche for the police. With the Front National on the rise, I hope he’s right.

John R. MacArthur is publisher of Harper’s magazine.


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